A Meaningful Murder in Star Wars Episode III

You’d be forgiven for thinking the original trilogy was a bit too coincidental, given that the whole Galaxy is ruled over by this one bad guy, and the only people who can bring down his Empire are his unwitting children. But Lucas wanted to keep things as a family affair, and it’s notable that rather than roll our eyes at the absurd improbability that Luke Skywalker would happen to find almost the only eligible human female in the galaxy just to discover she is, in fact, his sister (which actually makes some sense given the first condition), we instead accept all these coincidences as a matter of destiny. Part of the interest in Lucas’ original trilogy was precisely this appeal to myth and fantasy. His intent was, in his own words, a space opera, a science-fantasy in which destiny was the primary theme.

It seems though that Lucas ran out of things to say about this theme by the time he got around to finally making his new trilogy.

Consider Lucas’ off-the-cuff remark  about the script of Episode III:

“There it is! A first draft! Official first draft. Course it’s a lot of cheating. A lot of ‘they fight’.”

Wonderfully self-deprecating humour, to be sure, but I wonder if the Lucas from 1977 would be so disparaging about his work[1]. Arguably then that what new series lacks is a sense of purpose. Purpose both to exist, and purpose within the structure of the narrative.

Moreover, why bother to tell this story if it’s just to show people fighting? I am, of course, being hopelessly reductive and careless with the literary project Lucas began, but my argument nonetheless points to the suggestion that Lucas made these films more as a matter of course than as a matter of necessity.

So nevermind the overabundance of special effects. Nevermind the incomplete and inconsequential characterization of everybody in these films. Forget Hayden Christiansen and Jake Lloyd completely (I wish I could—and just an interesting zen mind game here, imagine how cool these films might have been had Anakin never been featured, only alluded to…or maybe they would have been worse, all this is beside the point). Forget all that. I would argue that the fundamental issue with these films is a sense of purpose. As they currently stand, they are essentially an extended re-enactment of Obi-wan’s monologues throughout the original trilogy. If Lucas had nothing new to say, why not leave it at that? What significant insights about the Skywalker legacy do we learn from this prequel trilogy that we didn’t already know just by watching episodes 4 through 6? Is there enough content here to justify seven and a half hours of film? It’s not enough to simply explore new corners of this galaxy, because there are other mediums for that. The Clone Wars animated series is a prime example. Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMORPG that offers just that promise. Star Wars did not need another demo reel. How much more interesting would these films had been then for fans (and really, only the most extreme sadist would argue they weren’t meant for the fans) had Lucas crafted a compelling story that would challenge our assumptions of the original trilogy. This new trilogy lacks a sense of purpose. If you want to make a film just for the sake of making a film that’s fine, but don’t be surprised when people call you out on it, and expect a little something more.[2]

Whether you agree that this new trilogy needs a sense of purpose is, of course, your own opinion, and I won’t waste my time trying to sway it (but clearly you’re insane and should go far, far away). What I will instead argue is a way in which purpose could have been given to the series. I’ve already done that to a large extent with Episode 2, and I would arguably say Episode 1, for all its glaring flaws, nonetheless accomplishes this condition. So, that said, I want to focus on Episode 3.

Before I begin, I must stress that if you think these films are perfect, or at least above reproach, or if you mistake any criticism of these films as an attack on your manhood, don’t watch. For those who wish to engage with these works logically, let’s begin.

In my previous videos I already suggested a few alterations to the prequel trilogy, not to the narrative structure (if you’ll notice, the story could still follow roughly the same pattern), but instead to the overall plot of the prequel trilogy, and, by consequence, to the overall six film saga (which is soon to welcome a whole new trilogy). As I turn to Episode III specifically, I want to offer one further alteration which would, I suspect, inject some much needed purpose for telling these stories. Or maybe it would simply ruin them. Give it a listen, consider what I’m arguing, and give your counter-arguments or support in the comment section below.

Padme is the nexus in this film around which all the events turn. It is Anakin’s uncontrollable love for Padme that leads him to destruction, just as it is the fruits of her womb, if you’ll forgive the awkward biblical allusion, that will lead to his eventual salvation (though of course Anakin had a part to play in those fruits). Odd then that she is treated as little more than a periphery figure in the film. She is an excuse for Anakin to fall, rather than the reason. The figure of Padme then is a pawn in Lucas’ plot, now let’s see how he could have done more with this interesting status. Let’s do more to connect the loss into the narrative. I don’t mean to argue that Lucas should have done this, or that he needed to do this, but I do want to consider this potential as a literary exercise.

Lucas was on to something powerful and interesting when he chose to make Anakin the cause of his own downfall. In his fear of losing Padme, and in trying to prevent her death he ironically ends up causing it. Powerful stuff. The problem, however, is one of chronology: Lucas wants Anakin to be the reason Padme dies, but, for obvious reasons, Padme can’t die until she’s given birth. So the problem is that Lucas wants Anakin to be the sole agent of her demise, without having him aware that she gave birth. [3]

So what’s the solution? There is of course no absolute or definitive way of answering this question. I mean, Lucas could have had Anakin yank the babies out of Padme or something equally ridiculous—but this frankly stupid idea quickly and visibly demonstrates that just because you can do anything with a story doesn’t mean you should. So, that in mind, let’s look at Lucas’ solution::

“She’s lost the will to live.”

This rather groan-inducing line represents Lucas’ dull attempt to suture his intent with the dictates of the narrative. Maybe it’s just me, but this is not a particularly satisfying end to what was once a firebrand valkyrie of the burgeoning republic. I mean, this gal kicked ass, and now she just gives up?

So what other options are there open to us? I suppose it depends on how badly you need Anakin to be directly culpable. Do you need him holding the knife, so to speak? Or is it bad enough if for all intents and purposes he’s led her to her doom? Because, if that’s the case, there is at least one other potentially interesting solution.

Remember how in my last video I suggested giving more weight to the role of the Emperor? Well, what if we did that again? What if Anakin was the one who loaded the gun, so to speak, and what if the Emperor was the one who pulled the trigger?

Now already I can hear you reacting: “How the hell does one do this?”

Luckily we already have the perfect delivery mechanism in place. One of Lucas’ more adept and sublime moments in his new trilogy is this solemn and allusive opera scene, in which the occult machinations of the force are subtly hinted at. We already get the suggestion from Palpatine that Darth Plagueis learned how to manipulate the midichlorians to create life, but what if Palpatine had also mentioned that Plagueis had learned how to cause death. And so this scene becomes not only the moment when Palpatine suggests he is in fact Anakin’s creator but also the ultimate cause of his wife’s death.

Because now, Padme’s death is made almost unbearably sinister. Where before, when faced with the prospect of raising twins, Padme “loses the will to live”, now the doctor says instead that there’s an unknown force draining her life away. How interesting would it have been for Lucas to suggest that Padme could have lived, but that the Emperor wouldn’t allow it? Note that this still allows the irony and pathos of Anakin causing Padme’s death by trying to prevent it, in effect, he gives Palpatine the perfect idea of how to control him, but now the whole affair is tinged with an ominous aura, and the supreme depths of the Emperor’s treachery, which has little by little crept its way into the frivolity of the past episodes, is now incontrovertibly upon us. Perhaps it’s almost too awful to learn that the Emperor is so evil that he’ll kill a new mother just because she’s a pawn in his master plan.

But it’s really to this plan that Lucas’ script, as it stands, does little justice. Galactic conquest is a hefty topic. Hard to define, harder still to depict on film. What does a galactic republic mean for our cast of characters when confined to the structure of a single episode? What of its shaky transition into empire? The progress of empires is the journey of generations, of cultures and of nations, not individuals. They are inextricably bound up in these processes of history. For any familiar with the deleted material of Episode III, you know full well that Lucas struggled with this very issue, and, unsatisfied with its connection to the narrative strand of the film, left it on the cutting room floor. Very quickly we see the allure for screenwriters of depicting a major figure in these processes, men like Napoleon, or Hitler. It’s no small wonder that Lucas took his cue from the exploits of the German dictator, adorning his film with legions of marching storm troopers and stern imperial officers. The beauty and sublime quality of Lucas’ original vision was in taking what should be suitably broad and abstract subjects as imperial domination, religious persecution and the processes of history and binding them up within the fate of a single family, the Skywalkers. Why not make the Emperor a richer part of that fate? As Lucas writes things, Anakin is left with so many failings that there’s little doubt they would have been eventually exploited by someone. He’s a poor dope that got screwed over by a man who saw an opportunity. Yet how much more tragic would it have been if this man had in fact created the opportunity for himself.[4]

Othello is tragic because our hero trusted the wrong man (and not the right woman). His emotions may have been his undoing, but it was only because they were set in action by the only man who could undo him. His defeat could only have been accomplished by his closest friend, Iago: the one who knew him too well, and knew too well how to exact his hatred. In the case of Anakin, however, he’s not undone so much as he is an accident waiting to happen. The Emperor isn’t motivated to use Anakin specifically more than any other figure (indeed if Darth Maul or Dooku hadn’t been defeated, either, I suspect, would have sufficed). This feature renders Anakin entirely arbitrary in the Emperor’s design: it could have been any other poor bastard that the Emperor roped in to do the deed of getting him unlimited power (indeed, as I just explained, it very nearly was). Likewise, the Emperor is entirely arbitrary in Anakin’s undoing. With all Anakin’s failings we witness in the second film–incidents which are entirely unrelated to the Emperor–there is little doubt that Anakin was already on the road to ruin, and anyone capable of giving him a little push would have sufficed. (And though I admit its in poor taste to pimp one’s own wares, and not to shamelessly flog a dead horse, but much of this rupture could, I imagine, have been resolved with the Anakin Clone method I mentioned in my previous video.) So why not then commit to the idea of fate and destiny which Lucas had already established earlier in the series with episodes 4 through 6?  Why not, with a brutal turn into cold, calculated murder, have the Emperor become intractably bound up with the fate and legacy of the Skywalkers in a way hitherto unimagined in the franchise?

At the very least, it seems a more satisfying explanation to the complicated web of fate, destiny and history than this: “she’s lost the will to live.”

Nov 20, 2013 UPDATE:
I had a gracious commentator point out that this suggestion would introduce a rather large loophole into the franchise, namely, that Palpatine apparently has the power to murder anyone at any time. A genuine concern that bears a genuine response:

I must confess, I didn’t really see it as too big of a problem. Who’s to say he wasn’t doing that throughout Episodes 4-6? We as an audience wouldn’t know either way. If I was the writer (don’t worry, I won’t let the power get to my head) I would have put in a narrative proviso, an moment to suggest that the Sith lord has to meditate on the death for a while. If I wanted to be especially asinine, I would stress that the killer would also need to know the unique midichlorian signature of the victim (which I probably would’ve stressed with a single line in Episode 1 that everyone has one). Perhaps I’d even go one step further and show that it takes a lot out of Palpatine to do this, suggesting that it drains the attacker. Both Yoda and Obi-wan hint (in episode 3 and 4, respectively) that the death of others can cause great distress to a jedi. In fact, in episode 3, Yoda almost looks as if he’s about to have a heart attack (assuming he’s got one–or several?), so I would probably leave it to the audience to assume that based on those other bits of evidence. Finally, and hopefully my smoking gun/I rest my case after this, your honour: during the hunt for the Millennium Falcon in Episode 5 we see Vader force choke a captain in another ship–implying that Vader’s force powers extend being mere line of sight or physical proximity to the target. (More ominously, does that mean Vader could theoretically force choke anybody, anywhere?)


[1] In a 1974 interview with Stephen Farber he remarked: “I always see images flash into my head, and I just have to make those scenes […] By God I want to see it. That image is in my head, and I won’t rest until I see it on the screen” (Kline, 44).

[2] Nor can criticism be dismissed by the ad hominem attack which generally runs the lines of “these films weren’t made for you, they’re made for people who want to see more Star Wars stories”. Simply attacking the messenger doesn’t make the problem go away. And as it happens, I would actually like to see more Star Wars. I was excited for the prequel trilogy, and I was thoroughly disappointed it merely provided a paint-by-numbers recap of the Anakin Skywalker story. My disappointment however, does not impact the inalterable fact that it’s a paint-by-numbers recap. Even if I wasn’t disappointed, it’s still a recap. My personal feelings do not alter objective claims about these films, just as the personal feelings of anyone else doesn’t either.

[3] Although, on a side note, we run into all sorts of problems when we start to wonder when exactly Vader realized that Luke Skywalker was his son (I mean, why did he know that about Luke but not about Leia? Was there a baby registry or something and Senator Organa forgot to file the paperwork?). Lucas tried to fix this problem with the change in dialogue for Episode 5, where the Emperor admits that Luke is his son, which elicits a total non-reaction from Darth Vader.

[4] Already I hear the objection: “But he was the chosen one!” That may well be, but what exactly does that matter? If he is the chosen one then you’d think there would be some indication in the script to mark him out from everyone else. In what way is he the elect? He has force powers, but then so do other Jedi. He’s a damn good pilot, but then, so are others (in fact, Luke is arguably just as good, but notice how Lucas doesn’t bother to have Yoda or Obi-wan go around spouting off nonsense about a chosen one). So let’s not treat a vaguely referenced prophecy as an axiom for Palpatine’s interest in Anakin. Or else, make that the focus. Palpatine would have needed lines that stress Anakin’s unique position as the chosen one, perhaps even going so far as to share a philosophical word or two about what being the chosen one means. But then that’s a bit better suited for a book.

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15 thoughts on “A Meaningful Murder in Star Wars Episode III

  1. “NOOOOOOoooOOooOOoooooOOOoo!” Sorry, I can see Episode 3 mentioned without invoking the scream. Another great video, but I’ll have to watch this again to get my head around this a little better before I comment.

  2. Pingback: VOTD: How Changing Two Scenes Could Have Helped the ‘Star Wars’ Prequels | Filmdot

  3. Pingback: How The Star Wars Prequels Could Have Been Good | Giant Freakin Robot

  4. Even when I was younger (and had no ideas of what constituted a good film), I too groaned and could recognize the poor excuse of, “she lost the will to live..” that Lucas so lazily used.

  5. I watched this twice last night, and I’ve been thinking about it today. And, as much as I’m sure it will sound like a cop out, I have little more to offer as a response to this video than, “Yes.” (Despite my initial “NooOOoOOoOOoooOO!”)

    I keep going to offer more comments, but they’d amount to little more than, “Yes, you were right about . . .” and “Yes, you also make a good point about . . .”

    But I guess the ideas that jump out at me the most was how Lucas seemed to lost sight of the huge impact a small group of individuals can have when their story is used representatively for grander, more sweeping historical themes. It’s what made the first three so great. Lucas seems more attached to the ideas of this film than its characters and never seems able to commit to having these characters fully represents these ideas. The movie feels distant. There’s no heart. It’s more of an academic essay than a space opera.

    Ed Pincus, a documentary filmmaker who had a huge influence on me, passed away just a couple of days ago. Perhaps the most central idea to his films was that “The personal is political.” Four simple words I wish the newer Star Wars films would have paid better devotion to.

    • That is a great statement from Mr. Pincus, thank you for sharing it. I completely agree. I actually wonder if Lucas was swayed from his original vision based on the backlash from fans over the political content of the first movie. Say what you want about it, the senate scene was a brilliant moment where the first hints of Palpatine’s master plan were hinted, and it was incredible to glimpse what would otherwise seem like a good action (deposing a corrupt leader–Valorum) be used to do a better action (install a brutal dictator in his place). And it was precisely because of Padme’s actions, manipulating by Palpatine. Brilliant stuff, and channels the political through the personal. Amidala wants to save her people, and she unwitting trades one oppressor for one more powerful and more terrifying. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that the political scenes in Star Wars Episode 1 are the best parts about that movie.

  6. No episodes 1-3 are the perfect movies any of these changes would ruin these films it would get rid of the romance, the emotion and make itas boring if not worse then the first trilogy, I stand by 1-3 to the very end.

  7. Great thoughts!

    I feel that “she lost the will to live” part, which comes late in the trilogy, is probably just a symptom of the bigger underlying issue. I’m not sure I could articulate what that is without further thought but it might be as you say, an unhealthy reliance on “destiny” at the expense of characterization (the major strength of the original trilogy).

    • I’d be interested to see what comes of that exploration. Be sure to send me a link if you undertake the task. I warn you though, a lot of prequelites don’t take kindly to heterodoxy, so be prepared for a torrent of specious arguments and attacks for anything you post. Or just avoid YouTube. Actually, just do that last bit.

      • Oh me neither when I first started these videos. I foolishly assumed everyone merely tolerated the prequels. But there are people who honestly contend not only are they better, but that the original series is bad. It’s times like that I have to turn my computer off, I’m done with the internet for the day.

  8. Great video and a part of a great series, sir.
    I have some of my own thoughts on the tying together of many disparate elements (with some necessarily improved character writing) if you would like to hear/discuss them.

    As far as feedback goes, you make your points brilliantly and eloquently, and address narrative flaws and positives together and a cohesive whole out of the lot of it. This video/article, like your other two star wars pieces is exemplary.

    I am most curious to what your take on the new Episode VII will be – almost as curious as I am for the film itself!

    • This is by far the most positive comment I’ve ever received. Thank you for saying so. I hadn’t planned on doing more Star Wars, but I might be tempted to return to that oft-dredged well. If you’d like to chat, send me a PM on twitter or something.

  9. I very much enjoy your videos about the Prequels, binarybastard. I re-watch each of your videos on YouTube again every few months and long for what could have been. I agree with so many of your points, and would have loved to see your ideas in the films. As you said, the pieces were all there; such a missed opportunity!

    Today I was reading a recently posted article on starwars.com entitled, “FROM CONCEPT TO SCREEN: BRINGING DARTH VADER TO LIFE.”

    http://www.starwars.com/news/from-concept-to-screen-bringing-darth-vader-to-life

    In the article, I was surprised to read this:

    The rough draft, dated January 31 2003, would fill out the details of Anakin’s fall. What’s noteworthy is the original idea of including unused footage of Peter Cushing (Tarkin) in a scene where Palpatine seduces Anakin to the dark side, saying that he manipulated the midi-chlorians into bringing forth the birth of Anakin. The dialogue would especially mirror the scene from The Empire Strikes Back:
    Palpatine: “You could almost think of me as your father.”
    Anakin: “That’s impossible!”

    I immediately thought of your videos and wanted to find a way to write to you! In retrospect of reading this today, it makes a lot of sense. Why else would Lucas have a plot point of Anakin being of virgin birth except to include the idea that Palpatine created Anakin himself through the Force. From what I’ve read, Lucas doesn’t seem like much of a Jesus guy, so the idea of this simply being a biblical reference never sat well with me. It just felt like something was missing. After reading this creating Darth Vader article, it now appears that Lucas had the same idea as you did all along! There really was a great reason for that Episode I scene about Anakin not having a father. His father/maker was intended to be Palpatine. Now the new question is, why did this get scrapped? At the writing of The Phantom Menace, it seems like the intention to include this plot point was going strong, yet sometime before ROTS made it to final draft, the idea was scrapped and we’re left with no result from a good setup.

    Okay, you get the idea. I’m writing on and on now. I’m sure you’ll find this interesting. I know I did. It looks like the pieces were all there and there actually was intent to use them. Maybe it was just too much info for one film. Or maybe… well, I have no idea why Lucas scrapped the idea, but I wish he hadn’t, because when I watch your videos using this idea, it’s a lot of fun to imagine the Star Wars that could have been!

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