So I finally saw Episode III. It’s okay. Better than the first two, in most ways, but then almost anything would be. Considering the low bar set by the other prequels, one might even say it’s good enough. The dialogue is slightly less painful than Episode II, and the story is filled with events that actually matter. The opening sequence (saving the Chancellor from Dooku) features cross-cutting to generate “suspense,” along with obstacles, conflict, and complications to create “drama,” which suggests a genuine effort to, you know, tell a story well. The final scenes, which complete the bridge to Episode IV, leave viewers with a warm, familiar feeling. (Though as my friend Dave points out, if you were watching these movies in order for the first time, you would wonder why the hell the movie wasn’t over yet and what the hell was going on. Ordinarily, splitting up the babies and starting the Death Star and all that would probably happen between movies, except that this one was supposed to have that sense of closure.)
Ultimately, the movie fails. It fails because Anakin turns to the Dark Side for the wrong reasons and his transformation is unconvincing. We understand, intellectually, that Anakin turns because he wants to save Padme. It’s impossible not to get that, since it’s clearly spelled out for us. But Anakin’s scene of transition is muddled. On an impulse, he helps Palpatine kill Mace Windu, then shows brief regret—what have I done?—then the regret is gone and he immediately pledges his allegiance to the Chancellor. Why? He was still conflicted enough to tell the Jedi that Palpatine was a Sith Lord. What happened since then to convince him to totally switch allegiances? Because after betraying Windu, he knows he’s blown it with the Jedi anyway?
The next thing you know, Anakin’s killing children. I don’t know about you guys, but as much as I’d want to save my wife, if someone told me, kill a bunch of children and we’ll see about saving your wife, I’d probably have to take my chances with the wife dying in childbirth. Maybe focus on finding a good doctor or something. To run out and start slaughtering younglings is an awfully quick switch. And at this point, he’s supposedly only doing the Chancellor’s bidding because he wants the secret. There’s no evidence that he’s been totally convinced of the Chancellor’s “Jedi are evil” worldview, at least not until later when somehow he is totally convinced, but we never saw why or how. And to kill a bunch of children, you’ve got be totally convinced that what you’re doing is right and justified.
Granted, Anakin has killed children before: Sand people children in Episode II, when he was in a blind rage after losing his mother. Overwhelmed with anger and loss and lashing out at those he blames. For all of Episode II’s weaknesses, Anakin’s killing spree is more believably motivated. Perhaps if, in Episode III, Padme died sooner, in circumstances where for some reason, Anakin were led to believe the Jedi were to blame, then Anakin could turn on the Jedi, and filled with rage and vengeance and hate, and most importantly, complete confidence and belief in his new point of view, he could kill Jedi “younglings” and we would believe it. But as it is, that switch is way too fast.
As Matt and other reviewers have pointed out, Anakin is not seduced by the Dark Side. He’s not seduced by power. Lucas manages to plant Anakin’s lust for power, then ignores it when it counts. He never uses it. Instead, Anakin is tricked by a Sith Lord whose trickery is honestly not all that crafty. It’s a cop-out. Perhaps Lucas worried that to do this believably might cause us to lose sympathy for Anakin, but the way it’s done breaks the movie. It’s a huge glaring flaw right in the middle that you have to force yourself to ignore.
There are other problems, too. Like why doesn’t Obi-Wan put Anakin, for whom he still cares, out of his misery instead of watching him suffer, limbless and burning alive? Or the fact that as great as the computerized backdrops and effects look, they’re still suffocatingly artificial and devoid of visceral excitement. But who cares? The biggest problem is that Anakin’s motive for going bad is wrong. It’s not believable. Maybe it could have worked if Anakin were otherwise fully convinced that the Dark Side was the path for him, but he’s not. While Episode III is far more watchable than Episode II, this miscalculation of the central turning point of the entire series means that Episode III essentially breaks the whole Star Wars story. By destroying all six movies at once, Episode III might just be the worst Star Wars movie of all.
And I say that as someone who doesn’t care that much about Star Wars.