People keep pushing the 70-minute Phantom Menace video review at me. After all, Damon Lindelof thinks it’s great. And if you have seventy minutes and really don’t mind a creepy persona explaining to you why George Lucas messed up so badly, be my guest. For the record, though, my concern with the Star Wars prequels is not that they’re bad movies, they’re immoral stories. And it will take you less than seventy minutes to read why. And it will probably be less creepy.
People my age or older met Darth Vader as a callous murderer and an agent of genocide. He killed his mentor. He tortured Princess Leia and Han Solo. He was the embodiment of man’s corruption by machinery, a soulless monster willing to degrade his own son by recruiting him to the Dark Side. That’s who Vader was through The Empire Strikes Back.
Things started to go wrong with Return of the Jedi, in which Vader goes to Jedi heaven. Why? Because he balked at participating in his son’s murder. Wait, what? That’s enough to redeem an adult lifetime of complete evil? Jedi St. Peter: “Right, well, on the one hand he tortured his daughter. But on the other hand, he declined to murder his son. Eh, let him in.” Where’s the bar? Would he have got into Jedi heaven for refusing to drown kittens?
Obviously this whole tendency to let Vader off the hook is greatly worsened in the prequels, where we meet Vader as a
kitten cute little kid. Look, maybe little Hitler was completely adorable, but you’re not going to make an Indiana Jones prequel about cute lil Hitler. (You’re not, are you George?)
Yet Lucas does the moral equivalent here. So maybe, as creepy reviewer guy says, it’s a bad movie (I’ve tried to block it out of my memory). But it’s a wicked movie, too: it’s actively trying to enlist your sympathies on behalf of evil.
Now, suppose you’re a bit younger; suppose you’ve seen the movies in narrative order. One could argue that Lucas has structured the saga as the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, who starts out a cute kid and becomes Darth Vader. And I suppose, to be charitable, this is what he meant to do.
But he’s doing tragedy wrong. Macbeth would not work better if Shakespeare had written an opening scene where 8 year-old Macbeth gets beaten by his father. We appreciate Macbeth’s nobility and greatness because it’s attested and we see it enacted. And this is why we wince at his collusion in his own demise: he is a great man whose ambition is corrupting him. And—this is important—even though he’s great, he doesn’t get off the hook. We don’t see him redeemed, because that’s not how tragedy works: rather, his destruction is our redemption.
Here Lucas’s failure is partly a matter of culture and craft as much as intention. Hollywood specifically and America generally demand our sympathy for wronged children, so seeing Darth Vader as a wronged child excuses his career of criminality. It’s possible, too, that we might feel more about the young man Anakin as we do about Macbeth if Hayden Christensen could act better or Lucas had given him better material.
But culture and craft aside, I think there’s still a problem of intention. Lucas started out as a rebel against the authoritarian Bad Father. That’s what his movies were about, back before they were about the awesomeness of CGI.1 (For Chrissake: “Darth Vader”? Dark Father, right?)
Except at some point Lucas seems to have decided that Bad Daddy wasn’t really bad, just misunderstood. (That this realization seems to have come when Lucas himself became a rich, powerful authority figure is surely coincidental.) So he had to redeem Darth Vader, whatever the narrative cost.
Lucas had one success with redeeming the Bad Father, in the third Indiana Jones movie. But here, the father character exhibits a certain disappointing remoteness and sternness—unfortunate, and perhaps paternal failings, but crimes well short of genocide. What’s more, the scene between the junior and senior Jones over how they never had a decent father-son relation is really nicely acted and written:
Professor Henry Jones: Actually, I was a wonderful father.
Indiana Jones: When?
Professor Henry Jones: Did I ever tell you to eat up? Go to bed? Wash your ears? Do your homework? No. I respected your privacy and I taught you self-reliance.
Indiana Jones: What you taught me was that I was less important to you than people who had been dead for five hundred years in another country. And I learned it so well that we’ve hardly spoken for twenty years.
Professor Henry Jones: You left just when you were becoming interesting.
I hope, for Lucas’s sake, he had something to do with that scene.
I’m sure that the father-son themes of Lucas’s earlier movies appealed to me when I was young. (I liked Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, too.) And I would like my son to like those movies; I would like him to feel that even though I spend my days with people who have been long dead, I can still find him interesting.
But I don’t want him to think that anything I do is explicable by something that happened to me in my childhood, or that my willingness to protect him would excuse all manner of crimes. So I’m not prepared to let him watch Lucas’s more recent movies, even if the special effects are fantastic.
1How odd that someone who made movies about the evils of machine civilization should have become the champion of machine-made movies.