Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Better Vader: How the Prequels Could've Been Saved

Darth Vader is one of the most iconic villains in film history. Yet the story of how he became that villain is a mess.

I've been thinking about this post for years. It probably started about four minutes after I walked out of my first viewing of The Phantom Menace, but I've been thinking about it more with Rogue One coming next month. The problem with the prequels is simply the clumsy way the central story is told: how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. He's introduced as a slave boy, who becomes a powerful warrior, who turns to utter evil. The device they chose to get Vader to turn is his forbidden love for Amidala. He fears she will die and submits to the dark side in a fruitless effort to save her.

That's not awful in theory, but it's terribly unconvincing in its execution, and the three movies just collapse because of it. What's really needed is a story that makes his dark-side conversion believable, and also sets up his later redemption when he saves Luke and kills the Emperor. The prequels do not achieve this double-purpose at all. You need to show how Vader became a servant of the Emperor. Vader becomes a vassal of the Emperor, not a partner, and in that subtle reordering we will sow the seeds for Vader's eventual redemption.

The elements are there. What's needed is a tight story that brings them together.

What I've come up with is a story that builds from Episode I to III amid a corrupt, decadent Jedi order and a crumbling Republic. It turns on a new Jedi order established by Qui-Gon and including Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Amidala. The order is dedicated to restoring the old glory, and to fight a group that is killing Jedi, a group led by Darth Maul, whose role will be greatly increased. The final confrontation between Maul and Anakin is the event that turns the latter to the dark side. And that's not even the crescendo. The dramatic peak is an epic battle between Qui-gon, Obi-Wan, Amidala, Yoda, and Vader and the Emperor.

(For the record, I haven't kept up with anything that isn't in the movies, not the cartoons or comics or books or anything, so if there are elements that are similar to whatever's happening in those, it's incidental.)

There are some things that need to go: the whole "chosen one" cliche, which is just brutal. It completely removes Anakin from being somebody with which an audience can connect. Midichlorians, and Jar Jar Binks for that matter are gone, too. I'm neutral on Anakin's background as a slave, though I think it was horribly handled in the movies. There are things that have to stay, too, like the Clone Wars, and Darth Maul. In fact, the decision to kill off Maul in the first movie is one of key mistakes of the entire series.

Why? Well, you know you're going to make three movies. There should be a clear antagonist playing against Anakin, a story that ratchets up across the six-plus hours. Maul is that villain, and there will be a fuller sense of gloom when Anakin becomes the next Darth. Also, just look at the guy. Maul was a great looking villain. I respect Christopher Lee, but it was a terribly written role, a completely empty, meaningless antagonist, and the swapping of one for the other just destroys any sense of building a story. It completely cuts the narrative in half. It was a really, really bad choice.

So, we're keeping Maul. Anakin's chase of Maul will be the central friction that moves the story along through three movies, and will become the emotional summit of the third, for when he kills Maul, he can do so only by embracing the dark side of his nature. When he does that, he becomes Maul.

We open with Obi-Wan and Qui-gon investigating not a trade war, but a murder: the murder of a Jedi. There's been a spate of them recently. This is something that had not happened in hundreds of years. Nobody attacked Jedi. Now, three of them are dead. Qui-gon privately admits to Obi-Wan that he thinks it's their own fault. The Jedi have grown decadent, complacent. The Jedi's power is going out of the universe. He wants to form his own order, one dedicated to the old ways. (I played around with a Star Wars name generator, and came up with this name for the order: Eredeat Crest.)

In the course of the first movie, he establishes his order, and starts attracting recruits, around the peg of catching this Jedi-killer. In this new order will be Obi-Wan, and a young, powerful Jedi named Anakin, So, Anakin is no longer this absurd "chosen one," he is merely part of a fighting group that is trying to end the Jedi killings, and restore the old faith. Another Jedi who joins the group is...Amidala. Yes, rather than have her being a queen in one movie, and a senator in the next, she is a Jedi. She will fight alongside Anakin, she will save Anakin, she will fall in love with Anakin, and he with her.

Throughout this, there would be plenty of illustrations of the Jedi's growing decadence. Maybe a side-story where they go to a world where Jedi run the planet not so graciously, and our new order has to fight them, something like that. Even easy things would help, too. Like when Obi-Wan and Anakin go into a bar, looking for an assassin, and find drunk rowdy Jedi in there.

I realize, of course, that all of this is far, far different in tone that what George Lucas produced, and that he'd probably never have gone for what I'm proposing. That's fine. This isn't about that. This is just about how I would've made these movies.

The backdrop can be the gathering Clone War. Palpatine is Palpatine, the Emperor in disguise. I think that I actually would cut back on Yoda's role, maybe have him being a stubborn old man who doesn't see the gathering storm. Also, Sam Jackson's Mace Windu is just horribly written. The actor and the character don't fit at all. I'd tailor Windu more to Jackson's considerable talents.

And why kill Qui-gon in the first movie? Why bring in Liam Neeson, and then waste him? No, I'd keep Qui-gon, too. I think the first movie would be about them learning about the Jedi murders, everything of course leading them to Darth Maul. I'd keep the light-saber fight between the three of them, I'd just leave it as a complete stalemate.

The second movie is about the gathering Clone War, and the emergence in the open of Darth Maul. Anakin and Amidala fight bravely alongside each other, and there is clear but unmentioned affection of the one for the other. More and more Jedi are being killed, by Maul and possibly others. Our new order loses members, too. The stakes are being raised.

In the third movie, the Clone War is exploding across the galaxy, and still more and more Jedi are being killed. Yoda realizes, too late, what is happening with the Jedi. Akanin and Amidala give in to their lust, and make love. This later horrifies them both, and they agree to never do it again. Amidala leaves the order, and of course, later finds out she is pregnant. Akanin, finally, comes face to face with Maul - and kills him. To do so, he is pushed to the very brink of death, and there makes a decision. Rather than accept his fate, he turns to his rage, and in his rage he kills Maul - and he likes the feeling. This is when the Emperor reveals himself to Anakin. Of course, at first Anakin is horrified, and tries to fight him. But the Emperor is cunning. "I will give you more power than you can possibly imagine," he says to Anakin, something like that. Anakin is seduced.

Now, right here is where I'd have the epic fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin that results in Anakin being horribly disfigured and forced into the suit. I know that a long, long time ago, probably before Empire was even made, Lucas said Vader's wounds were the result of an epic fight on a lava planet between him and Obi-Wan, and I guess he felt compelled to stick with that for some reason. But it just doesn't work. The fight is absurdly long and comical. I'd have something much tighter.

Obi-Wan doesn't know that Anakin/Vader has turned, and is looking for him just to help him. But, controlled by the Emperor, Anakin turns on Obi-Wan. It could be on the ground, face to face, or maybe it's a space battle between ships. Obi-Wan is the better fighter. He sees what's happening, and determines to kill Anakin. He almost does, before Imperial forces come to his rescue, something like that.

Vader is put into the suit that will be his prison for the rest of his life. Now, the single worst scene in the entire Star Wars franchise is this scene, when Vader gets put into the suit. Go watch it. It should be climatic, instead it is just awful. What this scene needs is to show the forces (no pun intended) between Vader and the Emperor at work.  "What have I become" Vader asks himself, horrified at everything, the last vestige of his old self crying out, only to have the Emperor break him, like a horse. "I did not save you so you could whelp and cry like a child. You are here to serve, Lord Vader, and serve you will." Something like that. They fight, the Emperor whips him down. What's also good about this is that for the entire final act of the movie, we'll get to see Vader in the suit. I always thought it came way too late in "Revenge."

Qui-gon's order learns of all this through Obi-Wan, and that Anakin - now Darth Vader - is coming for them. Amidala confesses to Obi-Wan about her children. The decision is made to take her someplace safe, and hide the news of her pregnancy. So, we'll have to do some time-jumping here. The next time we see Amidala, she has already given birth, and the twins have been split up and sent away (not exactly sure how Luke ends up on Tatooine, and still named Skywalker, but I don't really see any way to write around that). The Emperor is out in the open, as is Darth Vader.

The Republic is in tatters. The Jedi are all but defeated. There is going to be a massive final reckoning, involving Qui-gon, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Vader, Amidala, and the Emperor. Qui-gon dies. Amidala actually now fights Vader, and might have defeated him, but she is trying to convert him back to their side. Then the Emperor comes in. There is a brief bit of talking - and then the Emperor flashes those crazy lightning bolt death rays at her. She lies on the floor, begging Vader to help her. He does not. She dies.

See what I did there? It will be almost exactly the same circumstances at the climax of Return of the Jedi. Vader is once again watching the Emperor kill somebody he cares about. The first time, he did nothing. The next time, he turns on the Emperor. See how much better that works? It makes total sense. Anakin is tricked into being a dark lord, he is broken into serving the Emperor, somebody he loved is killed by the Emperor. The servant rebels against the master. How much more satisfying that? You could actually watch all the movies again, and there would be a narrative cohesion that isn't there now.

At the very end, Yoda and Obi-Wan, last of the Jedi, go into hiding. Obi-Wan goes to Tatooine, sees infant Luke there, pledges to look over him, swears there will be a day of reckoning, something like that. Leia is raised among the royal court of a subjugated planet. Only her mother and father know her true lineage, and know that some day she will be a part of the resistance. They already start making preparations for that day.

It ends as it must, with Vader and the Emperor in control of the entire universe, a dark day of reckoning. It'd be cool if we see Vader looking at the Emperor, and we can't of course see his face, but the Emperor can. He can sense exactly what Vader is thinking. "Be careful how you look at me, Lord Vader," he says, something threatening like that (I stole that line from an episode of The Walking Dead, but whatever, this is just a blog post).

Well, that's about it. I think it's a better story than the one that was given to us. Of course it doesn't really matter. The movies are made, done and in the past. If nothing else, though, it's interesting to see how there are such rich elements in the Star Wars movies, which is what makes them so compelling even if they are bad (and most of them, when you think about it, are bad). That's what makes it such a compelling fictional universe, and such a valuable property, and why there are so many stories that have been told beyond the main franchise movies. It's why each movie always carries with it, pardon the pun, a new hope.

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