I know. I can’t believe it either. Needless to say, Payne is wrong. It is true that Episodes IV-VI were not as perfect as we like to remember, but it remains a classic due to its simple story of good and evil and sin and redemption and its fun, relatable, if not perfectly acted, characters. There is also nostalgia: part of my attachment to the original trilogy comes from memories of my cousins and I watching VHS tapes of it at my grandparents’ house, then reliving our favorite moments in the back yard—a childlike enjoyment the prequel trilogy could never recreate. The original actors could also get through takes without visibly concealing laughter and eye-rolling. While Episode III is the best of the prequel films, that is like being the tastiest leaf of kale.
Payne claims Episode III “contains the most affecting and heart-rending events” of the series. And while it is the emotional crescendo of the prequel trilogy, any power Episode III has is negated by the contemptible cinematicatrocities that preceded it, particularly their disgraceful handling of Anakin Skywalker.
In Episode I Anakin is a child, and an annoying, pointless piece of baggage. He could be omitted with only minor changes to the plot. In Episode II, he is a cocky, self-obsessed teenager who spends the entire film complaining. It does not help that the relationship between Anakin and love interest Padme is the most cringe-inducingforced romance in cinema, that George Lucas’s dialogue is horrific, or that he cast the egregious Hayden Christensen instead of, I don’t know, anyone else.
Skywalker is described in the original trilogy as a good man who lost his way, but the prequels give us no reason to believe the first part, save a few instances of characters literally staring at the camera and saying “he’s great, I swear”. It is only a short time into Episode III when he starts having visions of Padme’s death (somehow, in a universe where people cross the galaxy in seconds and lopped-off arms get the Monty Python treatment, dying in childbirth for no identifiable medical reason is a thing) and begins succumbing to the Emperor. By the two-thirds mark, he has betrayed Sam Jackson and is slaughtering Jedi.
Lucas gave us no opportunity to like Anakin, yet we are expected to be heartbroken. When Padme confronts her husband about his actions, she certainly is. “You’re breaking my heart!” she says. She is losing Anakin, she is reaching out to him, he is refusing to listen, and I don’t care. At all. I just wonder how this smart, ostensibly mature woman fell for such an irredeemable lummox. After defeating Anakin in a long, admittedly awesome lightsaber duel over a river of lava, leaving him limbless and scarred, Obi-Wan shouts “You were my brother Anakin! I loved you!” and guess what, I care even less about that, because for most of the trilogy he was (understandably) openly mistrustful and annoyed with his “brother.” The scene is well done, but the pervasive scorn in its context chokes out the slightest feeling. Lucas is a thief of emotion. When Anakin is put into the iconic Vader suit, I don’t think, “This is the symbolic representation of Skywalker’s twisted state”. I think, “Finally, now he’s James Earl Jones instead of the lugubrious Canadian rage-whiner who’s been clogging up my screen.”
Episode III is the best effort of the prequel series, but it fails to live up to the originals. If you can say otherwise, you must not have seen it, or at least not the two films that came before it. In that case, for your own good, don’t.