I think I attended a screening of the first Star Wars movie (now titled A New Hope) at Gosford cinema when I was about ten. Since then, I’ve somehow felt obliged to collect the complete set of Star Wars movies, regardless of quality. In making the Star Wars series, I understand that George Lucas wanted to reinvigorate the tradition of epic, serial cinema (not least for commercial purposes).
When I saw Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith the other night at my local cinema in Alice Springs, there were strollers in the aisles, Aboriginal youths in padded flannelette shirts, blow-waved, shiny-skinned Yankee families from Pine Gap, all accompanied by a steady chorus of munching throughout the film. I couldn’t help thinking that this was exactly the kind of old-time, jaffa-rolling, mass appeal, intergenerational audience participation that Lucas wanted to create through his epic cinema project.
The first thing to say about this film is that it yearns to be tragic on an epic, no doubt intergalactic scale, and perhaps even a fable for our own times and galaxy. There are, as in the rest of the SW series, vague ruminations about democracy and tyrants, though SW3 is fairly thin on these themes, perhaps not surprisingly in light of the current weltpolitik, where the lines between liberation, democracy-by-force and dictatorships can get a bit smudgy at times. But the real focus of the film is on the psychology of evil, the choices and process through which the good person becomes corrupted or “turns to the dark side”.
The young, freshly qualified Jedi knight, Anakin Skywalker, is offered a Faustian deal by a Sith Lord from the “dark side”. Anakin has had premonitions of his wife’s near death in childbirth as a by-product of the supernatural properties conferred on him by the Force. The Sith Lord senses Anakin’s fears and manipulates them by telling him of the holy grail of immortality discovered by some dark side agents.
So Anakin throws his lot in with these practitioners, and with a heavy-handed ladle-full of irony - no doubt intended to reflect modern tragedy’s roots in Sophocles - alienates his wife in the process, precipitating her prophesied death in childbirth and his transformation into the Darth Vader of SW 4-6. He consequently follows in the un-knightly tradition of Lancelot in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, his fatal flaw being that he puts personal and romantic interests before the greater good.
But there’s nothing like a dark, dark unhappy prince is there? In SW3, George Lucas hopes to create a full-scale revenge tragedy of the magnitude of Macbeth. But he disappoints the audience with a rather two-dimensional performance of darkness by Hayden Christensen which involves a lot of glowering (yellow eyes when Anakin becomes truly evil) but not much else.
Mr Christensen is also rather upstaged by off-sider Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s a shame a more substantial actor couldn’t have been chosen to play the embryonic Darth. The film is also let down by rather wooden scripting and poorly realised development of its thematic material. Anakin agrees to convert to the dark side on the basis of what's essentially hearsay and with a speed that certainly strained my credulity
As I watched the tragedy of Revenge of the Sith unfold, I wondered if a further tragic parallel was present. Was Anakin Skywalker a cipher for the modern male? His marriage to Senator Padme is initially happy or at least promises to be, until Anakin finds himself drawn more heavily into the world of work (i.e. gadding about the universe on various swashbuckling adventures in the fight between good and evil).
People start noticing that he’s “stressed”; so much so, I thought, that at any moment someone was going to suggest a course of Prozac or evidence-based CBT. Finally the tentacles of corruption from his involvement in the dark side (corporate greed?) start intruding into his haven from a heartless universe. There are domestic tensions culminating in emotional abuse and violence (Anakin does that psychic choking thing on Padme which becomes Darth Vader’s trademark party trick in SW 4-6). Friends and family tell him he’s changed - his wife moves out, taking the (unborn) kids with her.
His transformation is ultimately both emasculating and dehumanising. The devastation of internal evil becomes etched on his physiognomy. In a remonstrative conflict with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin’s limbs are amputated, perhaps suggestive of castration. Anakin’s ultimate make-over into the cyborg Darth - part human, part android (necessitating the ignominious wearing of a black plastic rain hat for life) reflects the dehumanisation that results from his conversion to the dark side. It’s all food for thought: is the life of a Jedi Knight perhaps not family-friendly?
Continuing in this attempted tragic vein, Padme’s birthing scene suggests a particularly strange collision of the technologisation (or robotification) of medical science and the 19th century death bed aesthetic. Padme dies in childbirth although there’s nothing medically wrong with her, she’s simply lost the will to live. She goes into a decline, à la Smike and other Dickensian characters whose names I’ve forgotten. On the other hand, in a birth facilitated by robots, Padme’s twins come out more easily than a loaf from my Breville breadmaker. Personally, I wouldn’t have thought you could have it both ways (the 19th and 21st centuries combined).
The film’s underdevelopment of its thematic material may relate to something from which I don’t think any of SW 1-3 have escaped: from being overshadowed by the original trilogy of SW 4-6, without being allowed to stand as films in their own right. There’s often a sense that the SW1-3 films are merely signposting rather than realising the narrative, and there’s a rather unbalanced feel to the mix of characters.
In SW4-6, the insipid, goody goody Luke was offset by the irreligious, buccaneering Han Solo. Princess Leia modelled bagels, but she was nevertheless a feisty package - no doubt intended to ward off criticism by 70s feminists. And in SW 3, the camp humour provided by the droids C3PO and R2D2 is kept to a minimum.
Which all made me wonder: if SW 1-3 are merely background material to SW 4-6, did they really need to be filmed?