I sense a great disturbance in the script ...
... as if thousands of critics suddenly cried out in agony, and then went silent.
I've got to say that shortly after the lights went down, I was sitting there amazed at what I saw on the screen -- there was great casting, wonderfully understated performances from the actors, and such skillful use of CGI animation that I forgot to think of the animated characters as being anything other than in the flesh. I knew that the rest of the film was going to be a major treat. Unfortunately, that great part was the trailer for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Episode III wasn't nearly as howlingly bad as the other two films in this trilogy, but that doesn't say much. It was a sorta fun way to spend a couple of hours, though. Mostly, the fun for me was in thinking about what I would have done differently, and I thought I'd share what I was thinking about with you.
Pardon the spoiler, but get this: In Episode III, ANAKIN SKYWALKER BECOMES DARTH VADER!
I'm kidding, of course. We all knew that much, by virtue of having seen the trilogy centered around Luke Skywalker. So that revelation wouldn't have kept us in any kind of suspense through Episodes I - III. To make those prequel movies work, they would have needed not to rely on "oh my gosh, which characters will surivive?"; they would have needed to work as a tragedy.
That means that we would need to believe that the person who has the tragic fall from greatness was actually great. We would need to admire this hero, and see that there was something really wonderful lost when the hero makes that tragic mistake.
That's what the first two movies should have done. I'll describe how I would have done that and what would be different about my version of Episode III after the jump -- both because this is kind of a long post and because at the end of it there will be a spoiler or two.
I would have made Episode I the story of how Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker first formed this seemingly unbreakable bond. They should have been closer in age, I think, and I wouldn't have bothered at all with Anakin's childhood.
I would have started Episode I as a film about Obi-Wan Kenobi. I might have done a kind of Prince Hal thing with him (for all you Shakespeare fans), and let part of the audience's enjoyment of Episodes I and II be in seeing a MUCH more impulsive Obi-Wan -- like a bit of a cross between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (though obviously without Solo's skepticism about the Force) -- and letting some of the suspense for the audience come from wondering how this character becomes the restrained and focused person we see portrayed by Alec Guinness.
I also would have followed -- at least in the first two films -- the pattern set by Luke Skywalker's trilogy. Episode I would have been rather like Star Wars in mood -- a rollicking adventure with lots of humor as well as action. We would meet Obi-Wan as a young Jedi who somewhat exasperates his mentors, and the plot (like that of Star Wars) would be about him going on a mission and in the process rescuing someone (Anakin, who I would have made about twelve or thirteen years old) in what at first seems like a distraction from the mission, but turns out to have important and lasting consequences. By meeting Anakin as a spirited young teen rather than a bratty boy, we could have been pleasantly surprised as he gradually discovers some of his abilities in the course of his rescue, and their relationship could have been developed with lots of funny repartee (which you can't really have with a child, unless you create one of those incredibly annoying child characters who talks like a cynical young adult -- something I wouldn't recommend). In my alternative Episode I, Obi-Wan completes his mission against incredible odds, with some unexpected help from Anakin, who in the process starts thinking of himself as someone with real potential and more responsibility than he'd thought.
Episode II's mood would be darker, like that toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back. It would revolve around Anakin's and Obi-Wan's service in the Clone Wars (and I wouldn't bother explaining ad nauseum how those wars started). Episode II would be a war movie. At first, it would look like a World War II movie, as Obi-Wan and Anakin serve together as fast friends and an increasingly unbeatable team, leading their totally human team against an army that everyone immediately recognizes as monstrous. The good guys understand themselves to be fighting for truth, justice, puppies and Christmas, if you know what I mean, and their mission is something like liberating an oppressed group of farmers from the vicious regime/criminal syndicate/whatever that has been oppressing them.
The mission takes its toll, though. Gradually, Obi-Wan and Anakin start noticing that the people they're fighting against are people. They might be on the wrong side, but many of them joined it because they thought it was right, or because it was the only way they could make a living, or because they wanted to get out of a dead-end town. And the "good guys'" squad takes losses too. A young recruit from their squad dies, and both Obi-Wan and Anakin take it very hard. The experience makes Obi-Wan renounce his youthful impulsiveness and readiness to judge things in black-and-white categories, and inspires him to work for peace through nonviolent means whenever possible. Anakin is so grieved and angered, though, that he wants to end the war as soon as possible, and by whatever means seem necessary. They complete their mission, and in the process they meet a young woman who's going to become Anakin's wife, though there's some lighthearted rivalry between Anakin and Obi-Wan about her at first (can you say "triangulation of desire"?).
But at the end, it's clear that the war is far from over, and there are hints that the war is not at all about the things they were led to believe. The movie ends with our heroes receiving medals from the leader of the Galactic Senate, who makes a speech about how wonderfully they served the values of the Republic, and how worthwhile the sacrifice of the fallen was ... but there's something unsettling about it, and while audio of the speech continues, we see some black-clad folks sneaking around in some suspicious-looking activity that makes us think that the senator and (maybe -- it's hard to tell) the war itself are covering up something horrible, and that in some way Kenobi and Skywalker are being targeted by this senator, who isn't what he seems.
Over the course of Episode II, we've come to really love seeing this great Kenobi-Skywalker team in action (a little like Han and Leia in Empire), and we understand that both of them want peace more than anything else and for all the right reasons. We've also seen hints of serious differences developing, as Anakin gradually goes further and further -- a little deception, a little veering from seemingly antiquated codes about how Jedi should fight, an assasination of a bad guy -- toward behaving as though good ends justify any means. But at this point, there's a lot of humor in how that's presented -- something like when Indiana Jones shoots the sword-twirling guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So when Episode III starts, we're still in suspense about what Senator Palpatine, who's going to become the Emperor, is up to. We like both Obi-Wan and Anakin, and we can sympathize with both of them. We couldn't help but want to cheer when they foiled the bad guys in Episode II, even if Anakin did go a little far in the process. Obi-Wan's newfound restraint does make him seem like the stick-in-the-mud Anakin has been teasingly saying he's become. At the same time, it's becoming clear how easily someone as passionate about causes as Anakin is could be manipulated by, say, a very clever politician.
And then Episode III goes much as it does, but with some changes (here come the spoilers):
First off, I'd work a lot more with Anakin's visions of Padme's death. They'd have to be more accurate, for starters. Padme didn't die screaming and moaning and with Obi-Wan telling her to hold on, as Anakin dreamed in Lucas' script. I'd make those visions like the weird sisters' predictions in Macbeth -- accurate, but from an unexpected angle that makes them hard to interpret. Anakin would share the visions with Obi-Wan and others. Obi-Wan would agree to work with Anakin to save Padme, but others would be more suspicious, suggesting that sometimes the Dark Side can be used to plant dreams, much like the Jedi do their mind tricks.
Second, I'd make Anakin's fall MUCH more about his wanting peace at any price than about wanting to save his wife. Anakin's desire for Padme as Lucas wrote it looks like a superficial adolescent obsession; sighing endlessly about how great this love is doesn't make us believe it's great. If we can all think of what Anakin wants as being noble, we'll feel much more involved as we watch his fall. The irony of desire for peace being the cause of his feud with Obi-Wan as well as the motivation for his brutality would be a nice touch too if it were better developed than it is in Lucas' script (as Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek notes).
Finally, and most importantly, I'd make much, much more of that Dark Side power to cheat death. Anakin would learn it so he could save Padme, Obi-Wan, and folks like that young recruit who died in my alternative Episode II. He'd discover toward the end of the movie, though, that it has some seriously nasty side effects. Perhaps he uses that power to save Obi-Wan, and that's what causes Padme's death (hence explaining the particular resentment Anakin has for Obi-Wan after being so close with him before). And then the real kicker would come at the very end of the film. As the seriously maimed and burned Anakin drags himself screaming away from the lava stream and the Emperor shows up, Anakin is clearly dying. And then he closes his eyes, and a look of something approaching peace crosses his face. And then the Emperor uses that power to cheat death, bringing Anakin to life even as he begs to be allowed to die. At the end, Darth Vader is in such pain and despair at least as much because he knows he's going to live as long as the Emperor's around to want his services as he is because of he's lost Padme (and Obi-Wan, really -- that's what that whole triangulation of desire thing is about, after all!).
In my humble opinion, these changes to all three movies would not only have made me care much more about what happens in Episode III (You might have noticed that I've gotten rid of the need for most of the expressionless CGI characters, like the very boring General Grievous, who's nowhere near as interesting or scary as good old General Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star from that first Star Wars movie in the seventies. Didja notice that the only robots we cared about were the R2-D2 and C3P0, the ones created before all of these fancy special effects existed?), but also would have made Episodes I and II at least faintly interesting, rather than the complete waste of time and money that they were.
Oddly enough, at no point in the last ten years has George Lucas called to ask me for advice or an edit of his scripts. That's probably a good thing, though. Had I been lured into screenwriting, I might never have taken up this lucrative and glorious career I've got in parish ministry and preaching!