The other night, as I struggled to fall asleep as usual, I realized something. There is a distinct and profound flaw in the Star Wars Prequel series, specifically Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. Right now, you may be saying to yourself, “No shit.” And I have no doubt this conclusion has been arrived at by others in the decade plus since these films’ arrival, bit I’ve yet to read it, so I present it to you for judgement.
I now realize the single biggest problem with the Prequel series, and it’s not the wooden acting, or the poorly scripted political drama, or even Jar Jar. Those are all aspects which add to each individual film’s status as a bad movie; this however devalues the series as a whole, and displays a distinct failing of the central goals of the series.
My premise is thus: Darth Vader never appears on screen until he’s already in the costume.
The premise of the prequel series is inherently to portray the birth of Darth Vader, the immeasurably iconic antagonist of the original series. The birth of Luke and Leia, the origins of the Empire and Rebellion, the winding together of the original cast’s backstories all, in the end, are side-stories to the Anakin’s inevitable fall from grace. People went to those theaters to see the villain that inspired a generation be formed out of the mold of a righteous man. That goal was apparently achieved in the final scenes of Revenge of the Sith, in which we see the mangled and burned Anakin Skywalker pieced back together by the Emperor’s machines, made “more machine than man,” and sealed inside the familiar black armor.
That this shift is so abrupt is the ultimate failing of the film, and, by extension, the series.
Character development in fiction often occurs in fits and starts. Characters suddenly make realizations about themselves or their actions, and decide to make changes. However, it is important to storytelling that these shifts happen before or during the climax of the tale, so that the character is capable of acting on those shifts in a way that we can see. By the time Anakin truly is Darth Vader, there’s no time left for him do do much at all except scream about his dead wife. What should have been done, and what I think the writers were trying to do, is to depict Anakin’s transition into Vader while he was still whole, before the film’s climactic battle on Mustafar.
At no point in the course of the film, or the series as a whole, do we see Anakin take on the mannerisms, or the manner of speech, of the iconic Darth Vader. I’m not saying I expected them to abruptly dub Hayden Christiansen with James Earl Jones, (though that would be hilarious) but so much of Vader’s iconic character was, due to the limitations of the mask, built into both his body language, and not simply his voice but the way he spoke. Anakin never has that stoic fury that Vader has, he never has the dark humor that Vader has. At no point out of the mask does he act like Vader.
And this isn’t just a critique of Hayden Christiansen’s acting skills, the writers are distinctly at fault here. As an experiment, think of any line in that climactic scene on Mustafar. At this point he has the title of Darth Vader, he’s accepted his role in the Empire, he should be just one widowering away from the villain we know. He should, more or less, be Vader in all but appearance. Now take any line he says in that scene, and picture classic Vader saying it. I want you to picture James Earl Jones’ iconic, hollow voice…hysterically screaming “I HATE YOU!” It just doesn’t sound right, does it? There’s just something fundamentally wrong about that imaginary soundbite. Darth Vader would never, on his worst day, scream “I hate you!” Darth Vader would say something infinitely subtle and menacing with exactly enough force to make it work because God Damn James Earl Jones can act. Even in the very last moments before he literally becomes Darth Vader, Anakin just isn’t written like Darth Vader.
So that’s what we get. Rather than seeing Darth Vader slowly forged out of a better man, we see Anakin Skywalker (never a particularly good man) forged into a more screamy hysterical Anakin Skywalker, who then gets shoved in a Darth Vader Suit.