The Clone Wars have been raging for three years and it’s insanely difficult to figure out just why they’re raging and what the point of it all really is. Aside from establishing the world we were introduced to back in 1977 and to get Anakin into the Vader suit.

This is one of those movies where I didn’t really want to see it when it was released in 2005. The first two films in the trilogy, The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) had pretty much destroyed all of my interest in the franchise. They had even made me retroactively enjoy the original trilogy a little less somehow. I know that’s not fair, but that’s how it happened.

What had been one of the formative films in my life had now been relegated to a childhood pleasure that was difficult to really enjoy anymore. Even Empire’s luster had faded, despite still being the best film of them all. The entire franchise had become a “turn off your brain and just enjoy the silliness of it all” experience (in kind of the same way J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek was really just empty spectacle and nostalgia porn), so what was one more leap into the shallow end of the Space Fantasy Pool?

This was a film everybody with even the slightest interest in Star Wars was going to go see (and did, apparently, as it was the highest grossing film in the U.S. that year and the second-highest grossing worldwide), and maybe… just maybe it wouldn’t be a completely joyless mish-mash of racist stereotypes, horrible dialogue, wall-to-wall computer generated sets and effects, and questionable ethical and moral choices by our main characters.

And maybe we’d finally get to see Darth Vader in action.

This was his story, after all. This entire painful debacle had only one real purpose: to sell toys. Er, um, I mean, to tell Vader’s origin story.

That’s what I meant.

Anyway, three years had passed since the end of Attack of the Clones, which ended with a literal attack of the clones, and now Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) has a giant droid army and apparently a fleet of spaceships with which to wage war somewhere out there in the depths of space. As usual, we begin in media res, thrown into the midst of a massive space battle where you can’t tell what’s going on or who’s who. The simplicity and grace of space dogfights has been replaced with screen-filling noise. It’s almost impressive at first glance, as we zoom in and out, swooping through ships on fire and surrounded by explosions in one long tracking shot that would be simply amazing if it all weren’t done by computers with literally no real sets, ships, or even cameras (aside from the ones filming the three or four human actors in their tiny cockpit sets).

Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) are on a mission to rescue the kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and capture or kill General Grievous, a bad guy who wasn’t in the last film and appears to be a giant bug with robot armor, a collection of light sabers from murdered Jedi, and a hacking cough that is never explained. Although, if you watched the first season of the TV series Clone Wars in 2004, when Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack) was given the opportunity to play with the characters and expand on events between films, you would have been introduced to Grievous, but if you didn’t have Cartoon Network or weren’t an obsessive fan, Grievous was just a weird new character sprung on us and told that he was important.

This entire opening, while bombastic and exciting, is part and parcel what we’re going to get for this final film. Lots of flashy CG, nonsensical plotting, characters who are intensely stupid, and horrible dialogue. This is where we discover that, yes, neither Count Dooku nor General Grievous know that Palpatine is their secret boss, Darth Sidious, which means that this whole kidnapping plot, designed by Sidious, is staged entirely for the purpose of getting Anakin into position to murder Dooku.

If it hadn’t been made patently clear from the prior two films, this entire scenario drives it home. George Lucas had completely lost the ability, or maybe just the will, to craft a story and write a screenplay. Every character decision is either blatantly obvious in its intention to forward the plot, or blatantly stupid in its blindness to said plot movement. I mean, when Palpatine tells Anakin to murder Dooku, it’s clearly out of character and the fact that Anakin doesn’t question it more than he does means that either he’s doing it because of, you know, plot, or his character is a simpleton.

And it’s not just Anakin’s character. All of the Jedi are blind to the obvious machinations of Palpatine because they have to be for the plot to work at all. And the plot doesn’t even really work to begin with because there’s no real reason for any of it to happen (except to sell a wide range of toys, puzzles, games, and merchandise). It’s all just flash and nonsense, meant to keep the plot plates spinning for 140 minutes.

One. Hundred. Forty. Minutes.

While this isn’t even close to the longest film in history, it feels like it. There’s literally no reason for this film to go past the two-hour mark. If that. But, it’s George Lucas’ vision and nobody can say no to George. He gets to do what he wants with his toys, even at the expense of the franchise.

Did I mention that Obi-Wan rides a giant lizard and Chewbacca shows up at one point? Like I said, these are George’s toys.

Ultimately, the story of Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side boils down to the fact that he is kind of simple and Palpatine tricks him into doing evil things. You see, Anakin has been having visions of his secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman) dying in childbirth. We have to have her get pregnant because, duh, Luke and Leia. This means, Portman doesn’t really do much of anything except sit on couches and have boring, poorly written dialogue scenes shot in a basic two-camera, over-the-shoulder back-and-forth. You know, like you’d see on a generic TV show.

I hope she got a big fat check, at least.

So, since Anakin is worried about Padme dying, Palpatine regales him with the legend of a Sith Lord who could manipulate midichlorians to the extent that he could reverse death… or create life! I assume this is a reference to Anakin’s own magical virgin birth and a hint that Palpatine might actually be Anakin’s “father” of sorts?

Did I never mention that Anakin was a magical virgin birth?

Oh yeah. He’s space Jesus.

But kind of evil.

I don’t know what else to tell you about that.

Anyway, long story short (too late!), Palpatine tricks Anakin into thinking that the Jedi are plotting to overthrow the Republic, so he turns on them, helping Palpatine, who has CONFESSED THAT HE IS A SITH LORD, murder the Jedi who come to arrest him, including Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). In the process of using his magic lightning on Windu, Palpatine, for some reason, turns into a hideous monster??? Is that his true face? Is he deformed by his own lightning? It doesn’t really make sense. But Anakin trusts that this blatantly evil, lying, monster man with a rasping, straight-up evil voice, is the good guy in all of this, and that the noble, law-keeping, thousand-year institution that is the Jedi are in the wrong.

Anakin is just an idiot.

Which means that Darth Vader is really an idiot.

I don’t think that’s what Lucas was intending us to get out of this story.

So, Palpatine initiates Order 66, something that remains unexplained in the film, and all of the clone soldiers, even the good guy Commander Cody, turn on the Jedi, gunning them down in a variety of scenes and settings across the galaxy. Yes, the Jedi Knights who excel at blocking laser fire with the light sabers, taking on whole armies of droids and monsters for a thousand years, are murdered by clone stormtroopers like chumps.

All while never suspecting a thing. Never sensing a disturbance in the Force, never anticipating any sort of betrayal, despite the fact that they know a Sith Lord is behind the separatist war.

The whole thing is just too stupid to take seriously. It happens because it had to happen for the plot to push Anakin into the Vader suit.

But before we get there, we get to watch – well, it happens off screen, at least – Anakin murder a roomful of children.

Sorry.

Younglings.

Because, as Mr. Plinkett notes in the fantastic Red Letter Media takedown of this film, you don’t want to say he “murdered children” in a film for children.

Anakin murders a bunch of children because now he’s just evil? I guess? It’s a pretty hard heel turn and I don’t think the script supports it. He’s just an idiot following orders at this point, and there’s no moral or ethical point to it all, other than to make sure we all know that Anakin is now evil.

He’s now Darth Vader.

But wait! What about the suit?

Well, he ends up laser sword fighting Obi-Wan on a lava planet, because who knows why, and after the longest, cringiest sword fight in the franchise – seriously, it is just ridiculous as the two of them leap and bounce their way around a CG lava flow in a sequence that calls to mind the mine car chase in Temple of Doom – Obi-Wan cuts off Anakin’s legs and his one good arm, and watches as the lava lights him on fire.

It’s brutal and grim. The perfect ending for a children’s film, if you ask me, and it earned the film a PG-13 for the first time in Star Wars history. I’m surprised we didn’t get a Mutilated and Burnt Anakin action figure (but I guess we could all make our own if we really wanted one).

Meanwhile, Padme gives birth to twins and then for NO REASON WHATSOEVER, loses the will to live and dies. She’s not in medical danger. That is made clear. She has two babies and then just dies of a broken heart or some shit like those babies don’t mean a goddamn thing.

Because if she lives, then we can’t have Luke and Leia raised a galaxy apart, not knowing that they’re siblings and having awkward semi-romantic kisses now and then when they do meet up.

Then we get the payoff we’ve all been waiting for. Palpatine has rescued Anakin and medical droids rebuild him, replacing his limbs with robot ones and hooking him up to the iconic breathing apparatus and sliding on the helmet we all know and love. Then, in James Earl Jones’ voice, he asks about Padme and Palpatine tricks him again, telling him that in his rage, Anakin had killed Padme.

Then he wails “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” at the sky, as one does.

And if you’re not laughing at this point, then I really don’t understand how your mind works, because this shit is hilarious. Not the tragic ending Lucas was aiming for, but straight-up Mel Brooks level gut-bustingly funny.

If you’re still reading after all of this, you may have noticed that I’ve focused more on the story failings in this one than my emotional reactions. Well, that’s because I have no emotional connection to this film at all. It wasn’t the massive disappointment that The Phantom Menace was. It didn’t trigger the questions about the morality of the Star Wars universe like Attack of the Clones did.

This one is just an emotional void. I suppose, objectively, it’s the best film in the prequel series. But that’s kind of like saying that your bloody, chunky diarrhea is now just diarrhea.

The real problem with this film and each of the previous prequal entries is the absolute lack of storytelling imagination. With Lucasfilm, George had the ability to put literally ANYTHING he could imagine on screen. With the legendary Clone Wars as a backdrop, the only real plot points that we HAD to have, was Anakin being a noble Jedi Knight that is SEDUCED to the Dark Side, the secret birth of the twins, the fall of the Jedi (or at least the beginnings of their fall), and positioning Palpatine as the eventual Emperor.

And he had three films to do it.

Three films and unlimited resources.

Just imagine what could have been.

And get this. HE DIDN’T HAVE TO DO A PREQUEL. It wasn’t necessary. Nobody was asking for it. The Expanded Universe was canon. For the uninitiated, the Expanded Universe were the Star Wars novels, beginning with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire in 1991, that were published under the watchful eye of Lucasfilm’s licensing. Approximately EIGHTY books were released between 1991 and the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace.

I have it on good authority that not all of them were good.

But there were some classics in there, particularly the Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, which kicked off the Expanded Universe proper. Rumor has it, it’s much better than the prequel trilogy on all fronts. But that wouldn’t have been George’s vision alone, so there was no way that was they way they were going. I mean, he could have easily focused on the next generation of Jedi, expanding on what the novels had set out.

Maybe he felt he had no choice but to do a prequel. His own business interests had established the authority of the Expanded Universe as canonical in the dark times after Return of the Jedi, when there was nothing but Ewok and droid adventures to cash in on in live-action and animation. But you can’t make toys out of novels. At least, not easily.

So having painted himself into a corner with the Expanded Universe, and desperate for that sweet, sweet toy income (after negotiating a great deal after the initial deal with Kenner fell through), The Clone Wars probably felt like the only real option. He had to keep it relatable. Had to have characters we knew and loved that he could bring back in younger forms. So, taking all that into consideration, the origin story of Darth Vader seems like the obvious choice.

But it had to be all George. He couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t hand it off to other writers and directors like he did the first time. He’s getting old and this is about legacy, dammit. He’s still a vital filmmaker, dammit. Despite not having directed a SINGLE FILM since Star Wars, and not having written a script since co-writing Empire and Return.

Seriously. We could have had a film and a half of Anakin being seduced and becoming Darth Vader, and then another film and a half of the fall of the Jedi as Vader hunted down his former allies, until only Obi-Wan and Yoda were left and forced into hiding. How cool could that have been? We didn’t need to see him as a precocious child or a brooding teen. We definitely didn’t need a virgin birth.

Luckily, after the release of Revenge, other hands got involved.

I don’t have time here to go into detail, but the animated series Clone Wars launched in 2008 and focused its attention on those three years between Attack and Revenge. Over six seasons, it touched on every issue I’ve raised in these articles, expanding on the moral and ethical issues in the Star Wars universe, particularly in relation to the clones. It expands on Anakin’s emotional growth and builds the relationship between he and Obi-Wan in ways that George could never have even imagined.

They even bring back Darth Maul and capitalize on his potential, establishing him as a nemesis for Obi-Wan that even carries over to the second canonical Star Wars animated series, Rebels (which tells stories leading up to A New Hope).

And so ends the Skywalker Saga!

Or does it?


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