From my LiveJournal entries in 2005:
A long time ago, 28 years to be exact, a seven-year-old girl who loved sci-fi t.v. and movies cut out of school to see the huge sensation that was A New Hope play at the Valley Circle theater in San Diego, CA. After waiting hours in line, back when there were no multiplexes and ANH was playing on only 32 screens in the entire country, this seven-year-old girl experienced an epiphany and embarked upon a journey of sorts that lasted many, many years.
This was a journey that led her to return to a different theater, the Dadeland Twin in Miami, FL, three years later to see The Empire Strikes Back. Then she came back to Dadeland Twin in 1983 for Return of the Jedi, this time a teenager.
Sixteen years later, she found herself, an alleged adult, returning to new adventures in her beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away, this time at the Fairfax Square multiplex in Tysons Corner, VA. Three years hence, she cut out of work, for a few hours at least, to revel in the next chapter at Washington, D.C.’s Uptown Theater.
Now the journey has come to an end, and weirdly enough, the 35-year-old woman who had once been that seven-year-old girl has returned to the same city where it began. The Valley Circle is gone, but in its stead, there’s a 20-screen multiplex not too far from where it once stood. And that is where I first experienced ROTS.
This is not going to be a typical review where I assess what I liked and what I didn’t or about the acting or so forth. There are thousands of those types of reviews on the internet and in print. Suffice to say I loved the movie and it gets better and even more interesting with each viewing, but I’m not going to say that it “redeemed” or “saved” the saga. I loved TPM and AOTC unapologetically and still do. As excellent as ROTS is, it would not have meant as much if we hadn’t seen TPM or AOTC. By now we’ve come to care about Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padmé, etc. and frankly, Anakin’s fall is damn painful to watch even if we had known it was inevitable. You may or may not cry at the tragic parts but they stick in your gut nonetheless. It’s a truly powerful film and very atypical of summertime entertainment.
Certainly the effects are the most ambitious to date and Lucas has crafted a dream universe that is visually spectacular. The action scenes are the most dynamic of the saga. The first 20 minutes of the film are full of derring-do and sharp banter.
Yet its tragedy is what makes it so haunting. You are watching your friends fail, their flaws exposed. The characters of the first set of SW movies had their flaws and shortcomings but the difference is they overcome those flaws and shortcomings. The prequel heroes are overwhelmed by them. Palpatine uses those flaws in both the characters and in the Republic’s political structure to cleverly manipulate events in his favor.
The film is a morality tale, filled with ethical questions, the primary one being how far would you go to save a loved one? While the cognosceti might disdain the so-called black-and-white way it deals with good and evil, it’s admirable that it does not shrink from universal truths of what’s right or wrong. It is an utter rejection of moral relativism (relativism is what sells the Dark Side to Anakin in the first place, but that will be discussed later) yet it tempers its morality with mercy. Through careful narrative and Hayden’s splendid performance, the audience realizes that despite the atrocities at the Jedi Temple and turning against those he loves, Anakin is nonetheless filled with remorse. Deep down he must hate himself for what he does. It doesn’t absolve his crimes. But there’s a conscience present in him that never was present in Darth Maul or Sidious or Count Dooku. It evokes pity for his character, at least it did from me.
Anakin is of course a very proud young man, a strong sense of pride that must have been cultivated in a child (“I’m a person and my name is Anakin!”) who otherwise had little dignity. His pride can’t handle being put on the Council without being treated as an equal. He cannot tolerate the thought of losing Padmé because he thinks his powers ought to be able to protect her. He had a particular hatred for Dooku for the way Dooku maimed him in their last encounter.
The Jedi Council was flawed in the way it handled Anakin from the beginning. There was suspicion and fear of him from the start. Is it any wonder Anakin felt no loyalty whatsoever to Mace Windu? Just moments beforehand Windu tells Anakin that if he’s right about Palpatine, he’s earned Windu’s trust again. Then the Jedi Council forces him into spying on his “mentor.” Palpatine cleverly exacerbates the tension between Anakin and the Council by playing into Anakin’s ambitions and placing him on the Council, creating resentment on the part of the other Jedi so that they won’t grant him the title of “Master.” Obi-Wan is the only Jedi who genuinely loves Anakin but with him it was often too little, too late until he finally turns his back on Anakin. Yoda tried to be helpful but his advice fell flat on a young man who never found any comfort in what was really incomplete Jedi theology.
Padmé’s greatest strength and weakness was believing in Anakin’s goodness. Ultimately, she was right about him but she also chose to ignore her suspicions (when she dismisses Obi-Wan’s allegations that Anakin killed children in the Temple, she sort of forgot about Anakin’s confession in AOTC). I don’t blame her, really. She is in many ways as dangerously attached to him as he is to her and for that, she pays with her life.
Yet love is also a powerful force for good in the story. The essay “The Force Is With Us” by James Lawler in the new book The Philosophy of Star Wars reminds us of what the saga is truly about: “[W]e finally come to appreciate why Luke recognizes the good in his father. It’s because Anakin doesn’t fear where love takes him, both when his love of Padmé takes him into the darkness and when his love of Luke brings him back again. We understand that his destiny, subtly and beautifully orchestrated by the will of the Force and the magic of George Lucas’s art, has all along been to love.”
One of the most tragic aspects of ROTS is the disintegration of the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan. The two have more than overcome the adolescent vs. parent power struggle bickering in AOTC…they are now comrades, best friends, brothers. According to one of these interviews I’ve read somewhere, Hayden and Ewan had to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to get an idea for what Lucas was looking for in their ROTS relationship. It also helps that in real life, these guys like each other a lot (see their little smooch at the London premiere, heh heh). You can see that even though Anakin does address Obi-Wan as “master” a couple of times, it’s an honorific, not out of subservience. The two are equals in battle, watching each other’s backs, and true to Anakin’s character, he saves Obi-Wan twice in the film’s opening action sequence. As the novelization says, Anakin’s specialty is saving people. Throughout the sequence they trade the sort of easy banter not seen in a SW film since ROTJ.
Their confrontation with Count Dooku is a 180 from their first encounter in AOTC; they take Dooku on as a team. After Dooku is killed and Palpidious is freed, Anakin refuses to leave an unconscious Obi-Wan behind, even when Palpatine orders him to do so. “His fate will be the same as ours,” Anakin insists, which is perhaps one of the few times he ever challenges Palpatine. You can read on Palpie’s face that he knows he has his work cut out for him trying to drive a wedge between Anakin and Obi-Wan now.
Both men have matured and grown since AOTC. You can see some of Anakin has rubbed off on Obi-Wan. The once uptight Jedi has more daring, dash, and a devil-may-care attitude such as when he leaps right into the middle of General Grievous’s band of minions on Utapau and announces, “Hello there!” He’s not afraid to smile and express his snarky sense of humor more. The book says simply, “Obi-Wan learned to relax.” Conversely, Anakin may still have his issues with the Council but he still respects Obi-Wan and apologizes for his outbursts.
Their farewells before leaving Utapau is poignant because it’s the last time they address each other as friends. Anakin acknowledges his gratitude for Obi-Wan’s training, Obi-Wan praises Anakin for his wisdom and tells him he’s a great knight. But neither knew the conversation came too late and with too little said.
What undercuts their friendship are secrets and conflicting loyalties. By the time they’re saying goodbye, Anakin is already fearing for Padmé’s death. He’s already intrigued by what Palpatine has been telling him. He’s still upset with the Council for the way they treated him and he’s still torn by the skulduggery of having to report on the guy who seems to be his only other true friend. Anakin’s ultimate loyalty lies with people, individuals. Obi-Wan’s ultimate loyalty, despite his feelings for Anakin, is to the Jedi.
It is out of those feelings for Anakin that Yoda initially tries to keep Obi-Wan from watching the holo footage of Anakin’s rampage through the Temple. Yoda knew it would affect him emotionally and keep him from what must be his mission, to kill Anakin. Indeed, Obi-Wan objects to killing Anakin, arguing that they are brothers. But Yoda is convinced Anakin is irredeemable and Obi-Wan is not powerful enough to fight Sidious. So Yoda pitches the idea that Anakin is “gone” and Vader is in his stead. Obi-Wan doesn’t really believe this until he confronts Anakin on Mustafar.
Nevertheless, Obi-Wan is still a man who puts duty first. It is out of this sense of duty that he uses Padmé to find Anakin, putting her in even greater danger. It is his timing that causes Anakin to explode in rage and take that rage out on Padmé. Anakin on his part never seemed to understand people weren’t “turning against him” out of hatred or anything personal, it was because of his actions.
When Obi-Wan and Anakin duel, again Obi-Wan says too little, too late, finally explaining to Anakin the value of democracy and the evil of the Sith. But Anakin has been blinded to the Sith’s evil and never truly saw the value of democracy in the first place.
At the end of their relationship, until their confrontation decades later in ANH, Obi-Wan finally expresses his love for Anakin. One must wonder why this wasn’t said 10 years beforehand, before Palpatine could get his hooks into Anakin. If Anakin had known all along he had been loved, perhaps things might have been different. Anakin shockingly responds with a bitter, angry “I hate you!” As Anakin is immolated, Obi-Wan walks away and one can see this as the moment he shuts his heart out to Anakin for the rest of his life. He buys Yoda’s pitch that Anakin was gone and all there is left is Vader. Even Padmé’s last words fall on deaf ears.
It is only in the end, once Anakin is redeemed, that the two finally meet again as comrades, not enemies, in what had to be the most awkward encounter since St. Paul meeting St. Stephen in heaven. But that’s another story ;).