It was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie. To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels. What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius. Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy. Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface. Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.
Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth. There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah. When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss. Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field. Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda. However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force. What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.
I really like the reversal of structure on this film. It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire. Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions. It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline. Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys. Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.
The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol. It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film. This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s. Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do. Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight. It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do. It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars. Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie. Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant. Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures. The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions. Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger. He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions. It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind. He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.
The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars. We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base. It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before. This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic. They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film. They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here. The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible. The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here. The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history. It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery. And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.
The Empire is presented perfectly here. The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence. To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film. We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes. Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film. He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor. He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants. There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success. Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat. This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise. The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might. Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film. It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other. Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.
I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments. We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes. Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend. It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film. It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.
Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement. I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like. However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life. Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it. There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of. This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force. Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga. We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination. He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke. Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi. Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant. That is the magic of cinema.
The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency. The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much. There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence. This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch. He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out. And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work. Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes. Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely. George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own. So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.
This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights. Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys. Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core. I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons. Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.
Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache. Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start. They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection. This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words. It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship. It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface. It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.
The returning cast shows a lot of growth. Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker. He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears. You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader. He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand. Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience. Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully. The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.
We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well. He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude. The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO. However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness. Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando. It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.
I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian. Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler. He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking. With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make. Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse. He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate. Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation. He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully. Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.
And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett. The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character. A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight. Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say. That creates intrigue. It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence. Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude. A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work. Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.” That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene. Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence. He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself. Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster. He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count. It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor. It makes you wonder more about who he is.
I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga. With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score. The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film. Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score. “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites. However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings. I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.
The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design. It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles. The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic. However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin. Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow. This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment. This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage. Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment. Never does it feel like a fabricated set. That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.
Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment. I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it. The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale. It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980. It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit. However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively. I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings. It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.
While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination. I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire. John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it. What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness. It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.
The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through. Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon. However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film. The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.” That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel. While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it. That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader. For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is. He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side. However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord. Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training. Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off. The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief. Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect. It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe. It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.
The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion. I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period. The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich. All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy. That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully. The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats. The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses. As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story. Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.
So, it all came down to this. Both previous prequels were met with mixed reactions, at best, but the advocates for the negative seemed to shout much louder than the positive side. As I have covered in my own reviews here, there were some improvements from the first to second film, but many glaring problems existed with lapses in logic and intelligence, to be brief. Coming to Revenge of the Sith, it is difficult to be entirely objective as I have fond memories surrounding the release of this film. I thought that might impact my review a good amount, but after some refreshers and a deep analysis of the film, I’m going at it just as hard as the last two. Again, it’s not a stubborn stance of hate against something new or different, it’s an objective point of view of seeing what is good and what is wrong about the film. One thing that irritates me with sequels is when the filmmakers don’t have enough objectivity to actually fix the obvious problems from one film to another. So, you know I have a few axes to grind down even further, and there is some summation needed for the overall prequel trilogy. So, get real comfortable because this is gonna be a lot longer than I expected it to be.
After waging the Clone Wars for three years now, the evil Separatist cybernetic commander General Grievous has boldly kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the capital of the Republic. Quickly sent into action on a rescue mission are Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as a space battle is waged above Coruscant. However, despite their ultimate success in this mission and the death of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), more foreboding threats lurk ahead for the Jedi and the Republic. Anakin reunites with his secretly wed wife Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) who reveals she is pregnant. This sparks repeated visions for Anakin of her death during child birth, and he becomes consumed with finding a way to avert this event. As Obi-Wan is sent on a mission to track down and dispose of General Grievous on the planet Utapau, Chancellor Palpatine further manipulates Skywalker towards a dark path which is meant to see the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Sith Lord’s Galactic Empire.
Let’s just get the bad out of the way first. The film’s pivotal faltering crux is that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is exceptionally weak. It stems from the foundation of a romantic relationship that made no sense to exist in the previous film, and never felt truly believable to begin with. It came off more like teenagers in some glorified storybook romance with both having some delusion of what love really was instead of a naturally and organically developed relationship. Anakin never matures, or really changes as a character at all. I can take dark, troubled, and brooding, but the reasons behind it are just very one dimensional. Yes, anyone who had a vision of their loved one that Anakin does here would have a flood of emotional reactions, but what Anakin does because of it and why he believes it will save Padmé comes off as naïve. All of Anakin’s suspicions are unfounded. He is disillusioned by his own built-in paranoia and distrust because he isn’t the all-powerful Jedi he was prophesized to become. A prophecy that no one ever explains where it came from, or who created it. A prophecy that causes a lot of damage to the conceptualization of the prequels. Yes, Palpatine constantly puts ideas in his head, but remember what Ben Kenobi said in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.” Nowhere in this film does it seem as if Anakin is “seduced” into turning evil. He’s a desperate man searching for a long shot desperate solution, and as always, is selfish enough to not care if hundreds or thousands of Jedi have to die for what he wants. It doesn’t feel like he’s truly tempted or lured there by way of its power tapping into his darkest impulses. While the opera scene surely tries to support that idea, Anakin clearly states that the only reason he’s joining the Sith is to save Padmé’s life. That is all that matters to him. If the Jedi could do the same as Palpatine claims he can do, he’d stick with the Jedi. There is no seduction involved.
My personal belief is that Anakin should have been a mature, honorable, and confident man who is swayed and consumed by power. A man who seeks the means to restore order in the galaxy, which aligns with Vader’s statements to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. I would expect that his motives are broader, encompassing a larger landscape instead of being manipulated into believing everything he does. I surely have no qualms about the Emperor being manipulative as that’s always been part of who he is, but Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is more a result of Palpatine molding him there through lies and deception instead of Anakin making these choices of his own free will. Darth Vader was a confident, intimidating individual with a sense of self-control. I would’ve expected to see those qualities reflected in a young Anakin Skywalker. A man mature beyond his years, and amazingly proficient in the ways of the Force. Someone to be admired, not tolerated. His fall is meant to be tragic, but instead, it only comes off as selfish. It’s difficult to care about a character when he is not likeable in the least, and that is a failing which extends to nearly every aspect of these prequel films.
Thankfully, Anakin’s growing paranoia and suspicions leave us with very few scenes of him and Padmé gushing over one another, but we do get one scene too many. Personally, said scene is cringe inducing. The dialogue is horrendous, and the acting from Portman and Christensen do nothing to make it more bearable. Outside of said scene, Natalie Portman comes off a little more mature than her performance in the previous movie. This is likely due to her not being forced into a poorly conceived romantic storyline. However, I do wish the “Seeds of Rebellion” scenes were kept in the film because they actually give Amidala an active storyline to personally involve herself with. In the film as it is, she essentially sits around her apartment waiting for people to inform her of the latest plot developments and get emotional over them. Again, Natalie Portman is one of the most talented and diverse actresses around today, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from her performances in these films. There is some improvement from the flat, hollow Queen Amidala back in The Phantom Menace, but even with strong emotions injected into her character, it still lacks depth. The relationship between Anakin and Padmé only ever feels fabricated. It’s presented to us with a minimum of effort put into making it feel earned. What makes it worse is that Natalie and Hayden have no chemistry whatsoever. A really good actor can take something not so good and turn it into something worthwhile, but everyone has their limits. You can’t do it all on your own, and George Lucas seems to have a tough time conveying his ideas to actors. That is all I can chalk this up to because, outside of these Star Wars prequels, I have yet to see anything less than great performances from Natalie Portman. She really can do it all, and she always does it exceptionally well. So, while it sounds redundant, it seems necessary to say that I have to attribute the sub-standard acting qualities in these films to Lucas’ inability to communicate the depth and detail of his characters to his actors. Of course, the poorly written dialogue doesn’t help matters, either.
With Samuel L. Jackson, I can understand the marketing appeal of casting him in these films, but he wasn’t made for a role like Mace Windu. The wise, seasoned Jedi Master role would be better filled by a Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whittaker, or even a Laurence Fishburne type. Jackson does have plenty of talent, but he seems to shine in more passionate roles. Characters that aren’t conservative with their emotions, but that’s exactly who Mace Windu is. Windu could have been the elder Ben Kenobi allegory for the prequel trilogy, if written with more perceptive wisdom and cast with a more appropriate actor. Alas, he comes off just as one dimensional and clueless as all the other Jedi. Many of his line deliveries are as flat and hollow as they get, especially when confronting Palpatine. Samuel L. Jackson can be a marvelous actor. Probably my favorite performance of his is in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film I love very much, and his Ordell Robbie is a performance filled with a lot of charisma, wit, and dramatic weight. That’s the sort of role Jackson shines in, and shows what kind of talent he has to offer. Mace Windu never offered that for Jackson because, unfortunately, it was never a role designed for him.
Fortunately, Ewan McGregor seems to pull through fine. This is probably because he has full context of where Kenobi has been and where he will go to draw on. He knows where to take his performance to sync the character up with Alec Guinness’ portrayal in the original films. His heart wrenching performance at the start and conclusion of the final duel is everything it should have been. It’s only too bad that the rest of the prequel films never earned those deep moments of character and emotion. McGregor makes this younger, yet still wise Kenobi charming, compassionate, and overall a pleasure to spend time with. He truly had a dimensional handle on the character, and filled it with personality and emotion to spare. Ewan really gave it his all, and it shows through in every second he’s on screen. The character might not have been written too greatly in these three films, but Ewan was able to rise above that more than anyone else.
Moving onto fresher ground, some of the lightsaber duels here are rather mixed. The good ones are the opening duel with Dooku and the climactic Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle. My main gripe is the sequence where the Jedi go to arrest Chancellor Palpatine. Lightweight choreography between Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid along with some bad editing to terrible close-up shots of cringable facial expressions make it tough to sit through. Neither actor is convincing as a master swordsman. Even before that, the editing of Palpatine slaying the other Jedi Masters is clumsy, shoddy. It makes the movie feel like cheap B-movie schlock that couldn’t hire a competent choreographer or editor to make the sequence look decent. Then, there’s the horrible line deliveries of bland dialogue at the latter end of the scene which makes the entire thing worse. At times, it seems like Jackson, McDiarmid, and Christensen aren’t even trying as if the script drained the talent right out of them. And this is the scene which directly leads to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. I couldn’t ask for a worse build up to the saga’s most pivotal moment. It encapsulates everything that is primarily wrong with the prequels – bad writing, bad acting, uninspired editing, and poor plotting. Again, Anakin doesn’t strike out and join the Sith because of a sense of injustice at hand, it’s because Palpatine can maybe save the woman he loves. He even shows regret and remorse over what he just did to Mace Windu, but still goes along with joining forces with Palpatine because of what he claims he might be able to do to save his wife. Again, a desperate guy looking for a long shot solution.
Since I jut touched upon it, I do need to address the technical aspects of these three films, in retrospect. What really strikes me is how dull the cinematography is. There’s hardly ever any camera movement to punctuate emotional or dramatic moments, and scenes are blocked and plotted out with no originality. While the action sequences are dynamically quite well handled, the dialogue scenes are very point-and-shoot, by-the-numbers work. Very little effort is put into making them visually interesting aside from the CGI blue screened backgrounds. I think not working on practical sets or locations greatly affected how these films were shot. There are no environments to envelope the film in, to really move the camera around in to take advantage of what’s actually there. Shooting in a tangible environment inspires a filmmaker to interact with it, and play with camera angles and movement. Instead, everything is shot against a flat blue screen which inspires nothing for both the filmmakers and actors. And as I said before, the editing is also very uninspired. With the original Star Wars, George Lucas went for a less conventional method of editing the film by having the cuts drive the rhythm of the scene instead of it being dictating by the actors. It created energy, pace, and urgency in the way scenes unfolded and how the story was told. With the prequels, Ben Burtt approaches everything very conventionally, very clinically. It’s just like the cinematography. There’s nothing original about it, nothing creative in how anything is presented. It’s all just there.
Another lackluster lightsaber duel is the overly long battle between Kenobi and General Grievous. There’s some dramatic license taken at the beginning as Obi-Wan just stands there waiting for Grievous to throw off his cape, talk trash, and unfurl four lightsabers before even getting into a fighting stance. Then, the scene goes on and on from a duel to a ridiculous chase to a more straight up fight. There is something to be commended for a short, straight to the point action sequence. Long and elaborate can work when it leads to a point, but the end result is the same here no matter the length. The Yoda / Emperor duel is entirely pointless, and just sucks up time that could’ve been used to better story-driven effect. It’s more of that ridiculous action hero posturing from Yoda which is entirely out of character. Removing this fight sequence from the film would have no effect on the story or characters, and that is the very definition of a frivolous action sequence.
While the Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle is well choreographed, and I enjoy the action quite a lot, the dialogue exchanges within it also terribly lack passion and depth. One would think it would be the most impassionate confrontation in the entire saga, but it just lacks that visceral emotional intensity. The entire sequence could have benefited from being a shorter fight with more substantive interactions like the original trilogy duels. The biggest difference with lightsaber duels in the prequel trilogy versus the original trilogy is the over reliance on high speed fight choreography instead of character-based conflicts. You can only maintain interest in a high speed fight for so long before it has to boil down to substantive moments with the characters. This is an impressive sequence, but Anakin and Obi-Wan are so evenly matched that there’s barely any back-and-forth peril. While Anakin might be more powerful, Obi-Wan has the experience and discipline to compensate, and that’s what ultimately allows for him to defeat Anakin. The sequence has plenty of merit with the magnificent digital effects, the changing location of the battle, and the slow descent into a hellish environment. John Williams’ music reaches a major apex here with “Battle of the Heroes,” one of my favorite prequel trilogy cues. Ewan and Hayden showcase immense physical ability and discipline making this an action highlight of the entire saga. Despite any flaws, this confrontation has added so much more depth to the Ben Kenobi / Darth Vader duel in A New Hope for me. It does feel like “the circle is now complete.” The context now given offers up a more epic atmosphere to it like two old Samurai from an era long past battling for the last time. Both men have been through this personal history that no one else in the film is really aware of, and so, that adds to the personal strength of it all.
The opening space battle sequence has always impressed me. I know there are those out there that have their gripes with the entire rescue mission section of the film, and I can understand their issues with it. There’s some extraneous humor that really isn’t needed with R2-D2, and a few bits and pieces in the space battle that could have been trimmed up or cutout for a tighter sequence. Plus, it is extremely difficult to discern what ships are fighting on what side of the battle. There’s no visual context to apply to it, and the scene is very jam packed with all kinds of crossfire and visual depth. That’s how a space battle should be, but it really just becomes random background to the main action with Skywalker and Kenobi. I can entirely advocate for all of that criticism, but with the sentimentality I have for the film, it does not bother me. I enjoy nearly every moment of it because it does feel very Star Wars to me, and I think it’s a welcomed change to start one of these films out with an action sequence like the original film. For a few of the films in the saga, a slow start works nicely by establishing an appropriate dramatic tone, but others like The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi just seem to drag along before anything exciting or interesting occurs. For Revenge of the Sith, it definitely needed an energetic, dark, and dangerous tone set from the start, and I truly love that aspect of the movie. Of course, the tone does become rather inconsistent with the humorous bits intercut with the darker or more perilous moments here, and tone has gotten more inconsistent with each subsequent prequel film.
Also, one has to beg the question of what the purpose was of abducting Chancellor Palpatine. If this was a plot devised by Palpatine and Dooku, I can’t see how that particularly benefits Palpatine’s overall master plan. Him being abducted removes him from his seat of power in the Republic to manipulate events towards his agenda, and gives the leverage of power to the Separatists in the war. It’s kind of a long way to go to assume that it was an elaborate scheme meant to result in Anakin killing Dooku. No guarantees that it would be Anakin being part of the rescue since he and Obi-Wan only just returned from assignments in the outer rim of the galaxy, and no definite guarantee that Obi-Wan would get knocked out for Anakin to potentially give in to killing Dooku. If it was Grievous’ plan, that makes more sense since he doesn’t seem to know that Sidious is Palpatine, but then again, Grievous is depicted as being fully subservient to Darth Sidious and Dooku. So, it’s highly unlikely he’d launch an offensive without their approval especially since Dooku is on board the ship. Of course, as usual, these prequels hardly adhere to any sort of storytelling logic. Characters do what they do because that’s what the script needs them to do. This really harkens back to the nonsensical story of The Phantom Menace where the surface plot does not align with the behind the scenes machinations of Palpatine. If Palpatine is not manipulating events to his benefit, all of this makes good sense, but George Lucas seems to not think beneath the surface of what he’s writing. He approaches the story from the wrong perspective, and thus, it results in these different elements at play not aligning with one another.
George Lucas leaves a lot to be desired in this film because of many hanging plot threads, character motivations that are not explained, the lack of character development, and the stupidity of certain characters. For instance, while I am a very knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and even own the Star Wars Encyclopedia, the average movie-goer never has a single thing explained to them about who the Sith are and why they are seeking revenge. Everything about them is taken for granted as if you just happen to know this, or worse yet, don’t need to know this. Because I am a knowledgeable fan of this franchise, I generally know that the Sith were driven to near extinction by the Jedi a thousand years ago. Also, they have had only had a single master and a single apprentice since then because the Dark Lords of the Sith were too power hungry and deceitful to co-exist as a large organization. They would all backstab one another for their own personal agendas to be furthered, and that contributed to their extinction as well. However, none of this is ever mentioned or hinted at, let alone explained in these films. In the original trilogy, the term “Dark Lord of the Sith” is never mentioned either. So, even the term is brand new to those who’ve followed nothing but the films. It is a gross oversight that the history of the Sith is never explored or implied in these films to give context to their motivations, and those motivations are the real crux of the entire prequel trilogy storyline. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council mentions that the Sith had been extinct for a millennia, but go into no detail as to why or how. It’s a revenge movie that never says what the person is getting revenge for. Quite frankly, that’s utterly ridiculous.
And of course, several characters go grossly undeveloped. Count Dooku used to be a Jedi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s mentor, but no one ever gives any background on why he left the Jedi Order. Just implying that he might’ve had contrasting opinions isn’t enough. What kind of man was he really before he became a deceitful Sith Lord? What we see of him is generally an act put on to fool everyone into following him to secretly benefit the agendas of the Sith. Possibly the only honest scene we see of him is when he has Obi-Wan imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and he is truly a fascinating character in that scene. However, we are never given any further true insight into the man. He’s just another pawn of Palpatine, and with such a talented actor in Christopher Lee, it was a deeply wasted opportunity to not flesh out his character more.
Also, Padmé Amidala might seem to have character development, but in reality, she’s a hollow vessel made to be whatever the plot needs her to be at any moment. In Attack of the Clones, she consoles Anakin after his Tusken Raider mass murder confession, saying “to be angry is to be human,” and then, later marries him despite this cold blooded act of violence. In Revenge of the Sith, she learns he killed Jedi Younglings, is shocked and dismayed at hearing this because she can’t believe that he’d do something like that, and then, says she can’t follow Anakin to the dark places he is going. These are entirely contradictory behaviors and reactions that cannot be reconciled in my mind. Padmé should be one of the most level headed, clear minded, and intelligent people in these films, but instead, she is written with so many incompatible and contradictory character traits that she should have canceled out her own existence. Also, her dying of a broken heart or having “lost the will to live” comes off as terrible in this because of this. Not to mention, she can’t find the will to live so she can raise and love her newborn twins? Seriously, Lucas could’ve had her dying of a crushed windpipe or hemorrhaging or any number of medical complications from Anakin’s Force choke, but he chose “she’s lost the will to live.” That puts an ugly nail into a so-called romance that was contrived and ridiculous to begin with.
Back to Anakin himself, it is hard to actually say he has “fallen to the Dark Side” when he’s still the whiny, selfish, impulsive, bratty person he always was. He’s no different a character when he was a Padawan to when he becomes a Sith Lord. All his turn to the Dark Side really does is free him up to not have to apologize for being the arrogant jerk he’s always been. And of course, he contradicts himself as well. His entire reason for joining the Sith is to find a way to save Padmé from dying in child birth, but once his megalomaniacal streak kicks in on Mustafar, he goes right ahead and tries to kill her himself while jumping to another unfounded conclusion. There’s just no motivational consistency with these characters. In many films, I’ve seen someone striking someone they love, but then, they quickly snap out of it when they realize the horrible thing they just did. They come back to their senses. Here, Anakin just keeps being an disillusioned arrogant jackass. Again, this is not the Darth Vader we know from the original trilogy who is confident, intimidating, and in control. Anakin is the direct opposite of that.
Fortunately, I can give a lot of praise to the Order 66 sequence. From the newly dubbed Darth Vader assaulting the Jedi Temple to the Clone Troopers turning on their Jedi Generals, the sequence is rich with sorrow, dread, and ominous imagery. The moment of Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa witnessing a young Padawan being gunning down on the landing platform is tragic and unsettling. Right from the start of Anakin marching the troops into the temple to the final shot of smoke billowing out of it the next morning, the whole sequence is really well done. It’s only a shame that, one, some bad child actor has to have a line of dialogue in it, and two, we don’t get to know any of these Jedi that are murdered. There was an opportunity in these films to do something with a few of these characters so that an audience could come to care about them to some extent. While the sequence itself earns my general praise, these are just interchangeable background characters being killed off who never had any emotional resonance on the story or audience. It’s ultimately less about those who are killed, and more about those either doing the killing or who have to deal with the repercussions of these events. That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but it’s just a missed opportunity to have the sequence hit the audience harder on an emotional level.
A rather pointless character comes in the form of General Grievous. He makes no independent decisions like a General would. He demonstrates no tactical proficiency or command authority. He just mindlessly carries out the orders of Dooku or Sidious, and is really just around as a plot convenience. He’s also a comedic “mustache twirling” type of villain giddily laughing when he cowardly sneaks off to escape, or likes to strut around boasting his unearned ego. It probably would have been better to have Dooku hang around for a while, and give more weight and purpose to his death instead of burning run time on this CGI waste of a villain.
The Jedi themselves consistently display an almost willful ignorance to what’s going on around them. Maybe Lucas was trying to present them as having become overly confident in their perception of the absolute clarity and power of the Force, but so much blatantly unfolds right in their face that one would have to be willfully ignorant to not take action. Every major negative event that impacts the Republic strategically comes to greatly and solely benefit Chancellor Palpatine, and none of the Jedi seem to find it all that suspicious until the war is over and Anakin actually tells them that Palpatine is a Sith Lord. And of course, by this point Palpatine has almost indomitable control over the entire galaxy. It’s even worse that it takes them well over a decade to perceive that there is a plot to destroy them at work. I understand Palpatine is using his Sith powers to cloud peoples’ minds, but I doubt he’s so powerful that he can cloud the minds of every single Jedi throughout the galaxy every hour of every day. Even then, they hardly need to use the Force to perceive this threat as the obvious evidence right there in front of them. It never seems like anyone followed up on the investigation into Darth Maul’s origins after his death, or discover any allies he had that could further threaten the Jedi. Even Obi-Wan’s investigation into the Clone Army is never resolved. The Jedi never truly discover the hard facts on how or why Jedi Master Syphadias ordered the army, if it actually was him, how Jango Fett got tied up into it, who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or anything else that weaves into and out of that mystery. The Jedi remain willfully blind to these unanswered mysteries which are clearly ominous signs of a conspiracy that could threaten them and the Republic. Fett himself says he was hired by a man named Tyranus, who is later revealed to the audience to be Count Dooku. It’s likely to speculate that Dooku impersonated Syphadias after he was killed, and ordered the Clone Army himself in conjunction with hiring Jango Fett. So, if the Jedi actually followed the investigation to full conclusion, they would’ve uncovered an elaborate conspiracy against them. Instead, the plot requires them to be stupid so that these obvious hanging plot threads can come back to bite them in their collective posteriors.
Going both ways on the issue of character is Palpatine. He is given a good amount of depth and a hint of back story to give him some dimension. Ian McDiarmid has generally done a good job in the role, but there can be too many instances of disingenuous emotion that just make the character’s façade horribly transparent. It’s only by way of everyone else being dumb as a post that no one ever notices how obvious Palpatine is every time he opens his mouth. Also, when he unveils himself as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid starts hamming it up like crazy. I don’t view that as a good thing. How he portrayed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi is vastly different in tone than how he is in the prequels. In Jedi, he was a deeply serious and intimidating villain who was creepy and ominous. McDiarmid’s chilling portrayal penetrated deep into an audience’s consciousness, and deeply into the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker. He had a grim, imposing aura to him that was more dreadful than Darth Vader which elevated the psychological threat in the situation. He was over confident but subtle, and that’s what is missing here – subtlety. McDiarmid’s performance in this movie is far too obvious and overt. While he has solid low key, compelling scenes, such as his telling of the story of Darth Plagueis, he simply allows Palpatine’s ego to increasingly overflow throughout the movie. Instead of transitioning into that fearsome character we experienced in Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling, over the top madman. McDiarmid’s performance in The Phantom Menace was actually far superior and more consistent with his original portrayal. It was a more serious, dramatic approach to the character with subtlety and intelligence. Unfortunately, it only went downhill after that. Also, it’s never explained why Palpatine becomes deformed from the Force lightning. Nothing of the sort happened when the Emperor unleashed it on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. With these prequels, George Lucas seemed more interested in having things cosmetically align with the original trilogy instead of conceptually. He really can’t have it both ways.
When you go ahead with a prequel you can’t change your mind on the established back story and representation of the characters. You can only flesh out what’s already there, and bring clarity to the more vague areas of these histories. George Lucas just failed at that. Everything about an honorable, noble, and admirable Anakin Skywalker that Ben Kenobi spoke about in those original three films is entirely eradicated in favor of this selfish, egotistical, and violent person that never seems like a hero. The Jedi never seem like an order of wise protectors of peace and justice. They come off like short-sighted, dumb as dirt, full of themselves fools who never follow through on any course of action they set out on. Yoda continually acknowledges a swirl of negative and even violent vibes coming from Anakin, but he continually ignores the severity of what Anakin’s going through. Considering that the Jedi had a bad feeling about Anakin from the start, one would think they would keep a close watch on him to make sure he doesn’t go off the rails. Also, after Mace Windu learns that Palpatine is a Sith Lord, he originally goes to arrest him, but then, he insists to Anakin that Palpatine must be killed on the spot. Beyond just the conceptual inconsistencies in these films, the writing itself can’t keep a character’s motivations and intentions consistent throughout a single scene. It really is atrocious on so many levels. Again, the problem is that there is no one to challenge George Lucas’ creative direction. Whatever he wants, he gets even if it doesn’t make any blasted sense.
Some people say that the anticipation and hype built up for these films could never be lived up to. I say that’s a pithy excuse for churning out substandard movies. Plenty of films have been able to live up to immense hype time after time. You can’t tell me that The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have massive hype around it leading up to its release, and that clearly exceeded all expectations. It comes down to talented, competent filmmakers putting care and intelligence into what they do to produce a high grade feature film. Over time, it seems that some filmmakers lose their focus or ambition to be as good as they once were, or in some cases, certain filmmakers lose sight of the fact that film is a collaborative process and they reject anyone’s attempt to offer an alternate point of view to potentially improve the film. I am a filmmaker myself, and my stance has always been, “I know I have not thought of every great idea in the world.” I encourage my cast and crew members to always help in the creative process so that we can make the best film possible. However, George Lucas seems intent on his word being the only one that counts, and that is the first step towards creative failure.
As I’ve alluded to, I have a lot of fond memories from the theatrical experiences I had with this movie. I saw it twice on opening night with a glorious digital projection screening the following week. I went to see this in the theatre, at least, four times in 2005, and even did a DVD marathon of the entire saga when Revenge of the Sith came to home video. I highly enjoyed this movie, and I still find good qualities in it that I continue to enjoy. However, while all of these fond memories project some sentimentality onto the film for myself, they do not excuse the critical analysis it deserves.
The original Star Wars trilogy captured the imagination and wonder of people all over the world, and for me, it still inspires and entertains me greatly. Unfortunately, these prequel films have not done the same for me. They lack the vibrant, memorable, and iconic characters that came to define Star Wars, and are plagued with amateurish screenwriting wrought with underdeveloped concepts. Lucas was trying to tell a story he didn’t have the skill to competently write. There were too many elements at play that he could not put into a cohesive whole, nor was he able to flesh these ideas out so they had some depth and relatability. I have no problems with telling a more complex Star Wars story with political aspects, but it has to make sense. All three of these films are excellent examples of terrible screenwriting, or in the least, a screenwriter’s ambition outreaching his skill.
There was no ambition behind these movies, or creative drive to make them original or innovative. More effort was put into advancing the technology of digital effects than crafting a solid, sensical, and lively screenplay. Everything just reflects a lack of passion from most everyone involved – the wooden acting, the dull dialogue, the clinical non-action sequence cinematography, the by-the-numbers editing, and the clunky plotting. There are a few positives to credit the films for such as mostly great lightsaber fight choreography, some good action sequences, John Williams’ incredible music, and a few bright spots with the casting such as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee, and even Jimmy Smits, for what little he was given to work with. However, these few highlights are grossly overshadowed by all the poorly executed elements of these movies. I hope that I never commit myself to reviewing films requiring this deep of an analytical deconstruction, again. However, I had to complete what I started so that I could move onto the praise heavy reviews of the original trilogy in their original theatrical versions. Those will come in time, but for now, it’s time to rest my mind. Thanks for bearing with these excessively long, in depth reviews of these disappointing movies.