If George Lucas is to be believed, all six Star Wars movies comprise a single story: “The Tragedy of Darth Vader.” Indeed, the addition of three prequel movies substantially devoted to Vader does shift the series’s center of gravity away from Luke. Apparently, those Luke-Vader duels in Empire and Jedi were not primarily about Luke as we had naively assumed, but about Vader. But what does this do to the story? In the prequels, we see Anakin turn to the dark side. By the time of the original trilogy, he has been evil for twenty years, and in the original trilogy we see him continue to be evil for several more years. Then, at the last possible moment, as the Emperor is torturing Luke, Vader abruptly switches sides again and saves Luke. So after being evil throughout four movies (Sith, New Hope, Empire, and 98% of Jedi) his sudden heel-face turn is supposed to redeem him sufficiently that he can go to Jedi heaven and appear alongside Yoda and Obi-wan in the closing moments of the movie. It’s as if, in April 1945, Hitler had not committed suicide but instead, as the Russians were breaking into his bunker, put his hands up and said, “I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry. I got carried away and took it too far. But I’ve learned my lesson. It won’t happen again,” and the Russians had replied, “Well, all right, you’re a pretty good guy after all.” Note too that Vader is intervening to save his son. It’s an open question whether Vader would have intervened had he and Luke not been related. That would make it like the only reason Hitler apologized was because of a threat to Eva Braun. When someone has self-interested reasons to make a change for the better, it diminishes the nobility of the act. That doesn’t seem to have occurred to Lucas.
In the original trilogy, however, these things are not problems so much because Vader is a supporting character. His redemption is only a minor part of Luke’s story. Its purpose is to show that Luke was right in believing in the capacity of a villain to change; its importance is the effect it has on Luke. Given this, it is accorded the proper amount of time relative to its place in the story. Now Lucas would tell us that Luke is the supporting character in Vader’s story, that Luke’s coming of age is important only insofar as it provides an opportunity for Vader to reject the dark side. That raises the question, why is Darth Vader granted so little screen time in his own movies? If the series is a unitary whole, why is a character absolutely central to the prequels suddenly relegated to supporting character status in the originals? And Vader’s secondary role in the original trilogy is not restricted to his much reduced screen time either; it extends to his character. In the original trilogy, Vader’s character is static. He does not change from the beginning of New Hope until the last five minutes of Jedi. Whereas Luke changes a great deal. In the original trilogy, this is not a problem; in fact, it is exactly as it should be. Not every character need have an “arc.” Some are just there to help or challenge the protagonist.
Vader’s arc in the original movies was a trajectory with just two points: a long line of evil with a short hook at the end when he turned good. Whereas Luke’s has a lot of points of change: we see him as a whiny kid on Tatooine, then he successively witnesses the deaths of his aunt and uncle, blows up the Death Star, takes on a leadership role on Hoth, trains with Yoda, loses to Vader in the Cloud City duel, rescues Han, and finally defeats Vader at the end of Jedi. His coming of age is the culmination of a long process. On the other hand, Vader’s moment of redemption, while appropriate to its role in the original trilogy, is not sturdy enough to bear the weight the prequels place upon it.
Devoting the bulk of three whole movies to Luke’s maturation, while Vader remains static, and then claiming the series is really about Vader, is nonsensical. To lift Vader’s redemption at the end of Jedi from a minor plot point to literally the climax of the entire series tilts everything out of balance.
The original trilogy has a traditional three-act structure, but no structure prevails over the prequel trilogy, much less over the series as a whole. Lucas is evidently aware that the middle act in a three-act structure is supposed to be where the heroes’ fortunes are at their lowest ebb, but nothing like that happens in Clones. The addition of the prequels distorts character and plot arcs through the series, especially when you consider the twenty year gap between the two trilogies when all of the characters apparently did absolutely nothing. The original trilogy was never designed to have this colossal appendage grafted onto it, and it shows. It creates a situation where characters that were important in the prequels inexplicably disappear for long periods (Palpatine, e.g., barely appears in New Hope or Empire). Other characters are implausibly present at important events they have nothing to do with, or have bizarre connections to other characters (most notably, Darth Vader having built C-3PO). It also creates opportunities for alternate character interpretations. Someone on the Internet wrote an essay called “A New Sith; or, Revenge of the Hope,” in which he argues that the true heroes of the original trilogy were not Luke, Leia, and Han, but Chewbacca and R2-D2. (http://km-515.livejournal.com/746.html) And it’s actually plausible enough to consider. But its plausibility only highlights the contradictions that the prequels have introduced into the series. For instance, in Sith Chewbacca is a leader in the defense of his planet, but in New Hope he’s the co-pilot in a none-too-successful smuggling operation. That Chewie was only inserted into Sith as a blatant act of pandering for fans too dense to notice the contradictions and implausibility it generated does not of course excuse it. If the added facts and stories provided in the prequels make plausible an argument that Chewie is the real mastermind of the Rebellion, it’s only further proof, if more were needed, that the prequels ought never been made.
In Hollywood script-talk, a reversal is simply anything that’s a surprise. You thought So-and-so was a good guy, but he was really a spy or whatever. In recent decades, reversals have undergone an arms race. Movies like The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and others have increased audience sophistication about reversals, making it harder for writers to create genuine surprises. Even that sort of This Changes Everything ending has become in this decade almost formulaic, to the point where a person can guess the twist based just on the trailer, without even having seen the movie, as someone of my acquaintance recently did for The Tourist.
The Star Wars prequels, however, are so incredibly linear and straightforward in this respect that it boggles the mind. Not only do they lack today’s advanced reversals, they lack even the simple reversals of, say, early James Bond movies. The lack of reversals is somewhat inherent in the plots Lucas chose to create, and the manner in which, I think, they were written.
Does Palpatine encounter even a single true defeat throughout the prequels, or even a minor setback? Not really. It might appear, because Palpatine seemed to be in close communication with the Trade Federation, that he was disappointed when they lost the battle at the end of Phantom Menace, but really he’s not. The “plot” of Phantom Menace, such as it is, is that Palpatine is creating a crisis to advance himself politically. Therefore it doesn’t matter to him whether the Trade Federation or the Gungans prevail in their battle, or if Anakin blows up the droid control ship, or whether Qui-gon and Obi-Wan kill Darth Maul or vice versa; either way, it still generates enough conflict that Palpatine can replace Valorum as chancellor. It’s the same in the other two prequels, which all have basically the same plot; it’s the fact that they’re fighting, not who wins those fights, that is important to Palpatine. Of course, it really sucks the tension out of your movie when it doesn’t matter which side wins the battles, but that’s what happens when your villain controls absolutely everything.
To have a reversal usually involves the writer having planned ahead. Often some character must have been lying, or the audience must be misled on some point. This never happens in the prequels. With one minor exception, there are no secrets kept from the audience. There is little evidence of “planning ahead” at all. Instead, they seem to have been written exclusively via the method of “What should this guy say next?” For instance (and here I owe acknowledgements to the scholarship of Mr. Plinkett), early in Phantom Menace, when the Trade Federation guys ask what to do about the Jedi that the Senate have sent as negotiators, Palpatine says, “Kill them immediately,” even though that is the exact opposite of what would help his plans, because why is the Senate going to vote no-confidence in Chancellor Valorum over his poor handling of the Naboo crisis if it doesn’t even know that there is a crisis? Instead, simply because it’s an evil thing to say (and so we can have an action scene), Palpatine orders them killed. When Palpatine, Qui-gon, Obi-wan, and Amidala are all together on Coruscant later in the movie, Palpatine doesn’t seem to recall that he ordered the two Jedi murdered a few days earlier. Talk about awkward. Maybe Palpatine doesn’t know, because he did order the Trade Federation guys to kill the Senate negotiators without knowing their identities. I guess when you order the deaths of people without even knowing who they are, things like that can happen. But if there was no point in killing Qui-gon and Obi-wan on Coruscant, what was the point of trying to kill them on Naboo a few days earlier? Maybe he was trying to keep the Senate from discovering the situation on Naboo, but when Padme arrives to tell them all about it, they don’t believe her, and the two Jedi don’t even bother to show up to testify. When Queen Amidala accuses the Trade Federation of malfeasance and they deny it, and Chancellor Valorum asks if she will defer her accusations until a commission can be sent to Naboo to ascertain the truth, everyone has apparently forgotten that the Senate already sent such a commission to Naboo in the form of the two Jedi. This feels like classic “first draftism,” except Lucas never went back and made sure all the pieces hung together. Or take the scene in Clones when R2-D2 flies. Suddenly, because of their inability to construct a set that would allow R2 to get from one place to another by rolling, it’s revealed that he can fly, an ability he never showed before and will demonstrate only on one further occasion. Lucas repeatedly paints himself into corners, then discovers magical new powers which just happen to be precisely suited to escaping from that situation.
There is one reversal in the prequels, when it is revealed that the one whom we’d thought the Naboo queen was actually a decoy. But this is completely lame and has very little effect. Its main effect is that it helps sway the Gungan leader to commit his support to the little battle. (It also allows Padme to meet Anakin, but she could have easily accompanied Qui-gon into town without pretending to be a handmaiden—it wouldn’t increase the danger, as no one on Tatooine is likely to recognize her with or without her elaborate royal get-ups.) The basic unimportance of this reversal is illustrated in the reactions of the Jedi. When the subterfuge is revealed, Qui-gon and Obi-wan look at each other with expressions that say, “Huh, how ’bout that?” It has been debated whether their expressions are intended to convey mild surprise, implying the Jedi were unaware of the trick, or smugness, implying that they were aware of it, but either way they don’t react much, because there is nothing much deserving of a reaction. Both queens look and act exactly the same, so what does it matter which one is the real queen? I’m reminded of a line in the Principia Discordia, where it says, “Mr. Matsumoto, famous Japanese, can swallow his own nose,” and then, a dozen pages later: “Retraction: it is not Mr. Matsumoto who can swallow his own nose; it is actually his brother, Mr. Matsumoto.”
The lack of reversals is, in addition to a product of a lack of planning, a product of plots in which not much is at stake. Since Palpatine controls both sides in the war, Senate and separatists, whichever side wins, he will become Emperor. When your villain controls both sides in the war, there is no reason to care about the outcomes of the battles, and since depictions of those battles occupy most of the running time of the movies, well. . . Really, these aren’t even plots in the traditional sense of events in a cause-and-effect sequence, because there is little cause or effect. In Phantom Menace, Palpatine has the Trade Federation invade Naboo, saying he will “make the invasion legal” by forcing Queen Amidala to sign a treaty, and when she escapes, he sends Darth Maul to capture? kill? her, but when she evades him and reaches Coruscant anyway, it results in the no-confidence vote that deposes Valorum and puts Palpatine into power anyway, which was exactly what he wanted to happen, even though everything he did was seemingly designed to prevent it. But what if the Queen had signed the treaty right away, or if Darth Maul had succeeded in whatever he was trying to do when he encountered them on Tatooine? No doubt those things too would somehow have resulted in Palpatine becoming chancellor. Even thought all his plans backfire, Palpatine still triumphs.
None of the protagonists even grapple directly with the villain until the last third of Sith, that is, eight ninths of the way through the trilogy. Thus you have two whole movies and most of a third where nothing the protagonists do really affects anything. Large portions of Clones and Sith involve Obi-wan and Anakin trying to kill Count Dooku, and a long sequence in Sith involves Obi-wan trying to kill General Grievous*, but in neither case do their successes damage Palpatine’s plans. Narrative interest comes when two sides are evenly matched, when the challenge faced by the heroes is daunting but just barely conquerable. Practically any good action movie involves both heroes and villains experiencing both successes and failures, but there’s no back-and-forth struggle in the prequels. Everything unfolds with total inevitability. There’s no opportunity to create reversals because whatever happens, it somehow benefits Palpatine. It appears he foresaw absolutely everything in the universe right up until the point where Vader threw him down a huge chasm that was inexplicably located in his throne room. This is not the way to create engaging stories.
This is a minor point, but in New Hope, Obi-wan says, “A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights.” This is not at all what we see in Sith. Anakin is not directly responsible for the death of even a single actual Jedi in the prequels. He does kill a bunch of children Jedi-in-training, but can that be what Obi-wan meant? It certainly doesn’t involve any “hunting down”; the kids are just there, right where you’d expect them to be. Anakin helps Palpatine kill “the oh-so-memorable character” of Mace Windu, but it is Palpatine who actually kills him and the three Jedi who accompanied him. In the end the destruction of the Jedi corps is accomplished almost entirely by the clone troopers.
* I’ve tried to deal with these things seriously, but these names are unbearably stupid.