...and try, try, try as I might I can’t get the Anakin/Darth Vader theme out of my head. Ta da da-da, da da-da, da da-da (sorry, that’s almost as bad as my real-world humming).
Most of us agree that the last two Star Wars films (which is to say the first two, speaking chronologically) were shoddy and disappointing. But my own sentimental view is that anyone who threw in their lot with George Lucas’s grand vision at any point - even if only in childhood’s folly - has an obligation of sorts to see the series through to its end. (And no, I’m not one of those Star Wars freaks, though I’ll admit I very briefly considered naming this blog Jabba’s Hutt instead of Jabberwock. My fealty to the series extends to being fond of the first film [A New Hope, 1977], moderately enjoying Return of the Jedi...and regarding The Empire Strikes Back one of the greatest films ever made, right up there on my all-time top 20, sharing space with the Kurosawas and Hitchcocks.)
Now we have Revenge of the Sith, which will end the trilogy of prequels. Most SW freaks already refer to it as The One Where the Metamorphosis Takes Place: Anakin Skywalker will find himself transformed into that gigantic (metallic) insect, Darth Vader. And for most of us who’ve been following the story, therein lies the attraction (and the almost-certain disappointment) of this film.
As a youngster, just beginning to discover the tragic heroes of classical literature (Karna, Hector and so on) it was impossible not to see the romantic side of the Anakin/Vader story: great Jedi Knight is prophesised as being the Chosen One, destined to bring balance to the Force. But things go wrong, there is a fall, he becomes - shudder - Darth Vader (and this is a point that can’t be emphasized enough: however silly the insect-man in his glossy metal suit might seem to scoffers today, nearly all of us who watched the original trilogy as children were genuinely scared and awed by Vader at some point or the other). Years later, he is redeemed by his son, and the original prophecy does indeed come to pass.
I can’t deny that right into my late teens I was eagerly awaiting what Lucas would do with the back-story. And inevitably, like most others, I was disappointed. The chief problem is this: it’s undeniable that the Anakin Skywalker story has resonances of Shakespearean tragedy if written and treated in a certain way. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will” and all the rest of it. The problem is, the spirit of the Star Wars films doesn’t lend itself to such treatment. The original series defined itself as a space opera, with lots of wipes and dissolves, general cheesiness and deliberately hammy acting (Okay, so Mark Hamill was a mediocre actor anyway, but both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were better performers than one would think looking at those films). That’s the definition of the Star Wars ethos that persists to this day.
By comparison, Attack of the Clones, which dealt with the conflicts in the adolescent Anakin, was an uneven movie because it was over-conscious of its protagonist and what would eventually happen to him. I was in a tiny minority of viewers who thought Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin was very interesting - combining petulance and deep emotion in equal measure, along with all the confusions of adolescence, the burden of growing up too fast - but I’m still not sure that it was a performance which belonged in a Star Wars film. Eventually the character was left in limbo. It felt a bit like a serious, informed actor trying to portray a multi-dimensional character like Karna or Ashwatthama in a garish, superficially written, cardboard cutout version of the Mahabharata on TV. The format just couldn’t sustain the weight.
This is one reason why I’m such a fan of The Empire Strikes Back. That was one film which somehow found the perfect balance between a mass-appeal format and a stately, brooding story. I always think of it as the filmic equivalent of the best graphic novels - dark, mysterious, ponderous, but also entertaining and awe-inspiring. And I’d like to think Revenge of the Sith will be like that as well - that like Anakin, Lucas’s vision will be redeemed at last gasp - but I doubt it will.
P.S. Could be wrong. James Berardinelli’s review of Revenge of the Sith has just been published on his site, and while I’m sceptical about Berardinelli’s unalloyed enthusiasm for the series (he loved Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones), he makes some pretty hefty statements about the new film, e.g: “It has an emotional kick that no Star Wars film other than The Empire Strikes Back has achieved.” So let’s see.