I vividly remember sitting around in the kitchen late at night after having seen The Phantom Menace, friends and me trying to convince each other that what we'd seen was a great piece of filmmaking and the equivalent to the prior generation's revelatory experience seeing the 1977 original for the first time. But we couldn't make ourselves believe it. By the end of the evening we were referring to the elder Liam Neeson Jedi as "Egg Foo Yong" and recalling with derision the two-headed pod-race announcer jovially going "Uh-oh, now there's some Tusken Raiders on the course!" like it was all some staged half-time show and totally not a carefully placed hazard engineered to reappear in the inevitable video game.
How disappointed we were that those gorgeous waterfall-laden sets and computer-generated Coruscant scenes we'd seen in the trailers turned out to mask something so pedestrian, so derivative, so Cargo Culty. Really? An awards ceremony at the end? Amidala smiling at Anakin exactly the way Leia smiled at R2-D2 in Episode IV's version of the same scene? Was this really the same man giving us both movies? How on earth could we look at our own senses of cinematic pride again after seeing that amazing ominous trailer scene of menacing long-legged walker creatures emerging out of the dark mist turning out to be... Gungans?
Spike TV showed all three prequels back-to-back last night, and beyond all the obvious silly and stupid and ridiculous bits (Anakin's awful kiss scene being the most prominent—not because of his horrible dialogue comparing Amidala's skin to sand, but because John Williams played along with the gag by cutting off the music as soon as she turned away, quite hilariously), the one thing that stood out to me was how amazingly badly Anakin's character arc was botched.
I mean, ostensibly the entire point of these three gargantuan movies was to show how this cute little kid turned into Darth Vader, right? That's what the very first Episode I movie poster insinuated. That's what we were all itching to see. Ever since 1977 we'd had this image of a stoic, firm-jawed, respected Jedi leader slowly getting corrupted by power until he put on a dark helmet and turned into the towering and formidable creature who dominated the screen for three movies in his own right. Anakin Skywalker, a great military hero, the toast of the Republic, accumulating power and respect and becoming a central element in the mysterious alluded-to political upheavals that created the Empire: a Third Reich analog if there ever was one.
Because looking at the Empire and the Darth Vader of the original three movies, we see the embodiment of Naziism—but crucially, not so much as a Hitler-esque personification of unhinged rage, but as a cold and implacable mechanized bureaucratic force, the kind of thing that produces paperwork ordering mass deaths. The Empire Lucas originally gave us was akin to HAL, declaring on the basis of mathematic inevitabilities and inarguable calculations that certain elements of society were simply not necessary and should be eliminated for the greater good. There was no hate in Darth Vader. You just can't picture him expressing it, can you? I hate the rebellion, your Highness. No way. There was just single-minded perseverance, the terrifyingly efficient pursuit of an awful goal. That's what made Darth Vader and the Empire he represented so scary: how impersonal they were. You knew you were on a list somewhere, and you knew it was just a matter of time until they got you—but not because anyone had a personal vendetta, only because it meant some operative could check off a box somewhere and hand it to a superior. That right there is evil, the way we understand it today. (And yeah yeah, terrorism angle blah blah.)
Darth Vader as the personification of this system was all the more threatening because he was himself so impersonal. Even at the level where we saw his direct interactions with the people he pursued, they were never more than numbers to him, except in cases like Luke, who as far as he was concerned was just a tool to be mastered for the benefit of the Emperor. Vader betrayed no sense that he cared about Luke's relationship to him as a son—other than as a psychological bargaining chip—up to the very end. And that's what made him such a monster: you knew he was human enough to know what he was doing, yet he chose to put all that aside in pursuit of his duty. It's almost an Uncanny Valley of the mind, where it's all the creepier that he's capable of making such choices all along, but chooses not to do what we would consider "right" and "human", and with such seeming ease. That's why The Darth Side blog was such a riveting piece of writing: it brought out the underlying humanity in a way that didn't betray Vader's outward actions in the movies, and illustrated that mental struggle in a way that actually seemed plausible, and all the more terrible for how logical he made it seem.
But somehow, somewhere along the way Lucas seems to have forgotten completely about what made his greatest character creation so compelling. In making the prequels, he forgot about the bureaucratic Naziism analog of the Empire, and focused instead—misguidedly—on making Anakin into Hitler.
Just as he showed no understanding of how a democratic Republic transforms into an autocracy (come on, a guy doesn't stand up in the middle of Parliament and declare that the country is now known as an Empire, while wistful onlookers lament about how democracy dies "with thunderous applause"), he seems to have the idea that what creates a juggernaut of an unfeeling government bureaucracy is emotion. He decided to turn Anakin not into a mechanized tool of the Empire, but into a raving, hate-filled Führer. And he didn't even do that convincingly: come on, sand people? In a galaxy full of thousands of bizarre alien races of varying levels of intelligence and civilization, that's who he wants to exterminate? That's who he rails against in his big transformative rant? If the purpose of that transformation is to strip Anakin of his humanity, it was a dismal failure—if anything it's the first time he seems human in the whole trilogy.
And if it's a turning point, it's not toward where he needs to go as a character. Is the post-massacre Anakin the kind of guy who could order the destruction of planets? Lucas tries to make him into one through the scenes of exterminating the Jedi trainees and the separatist leaders he's sent to assassinate, but through it all he's still just this wild-haired kid who cares primarily about himself and his wife, not about the Empire or the Emperor. It's a game attempt at making him into what he needs to be. But one gets the feeling that Lucas had written himself into a corner with Anakin being the kind of bland, whinier-than-Luke teenager with no concept of politics and an obsession with his own emotional needs that he's been made out to be this whole time. For Anakin to become Darth Vader, he needed to lose all emotion, not become so wrapped up in it that he implodes. That's why the supposedly climactic "NOOOOOOOO!" scene is so laughable and ludicrous: the emotionless black-clad form of Darth Vader that we'd waited so long to see, raising his arms, Milking the Giant Cow, and bursting into tears of despair. It's not an intentionally interesting dichotomy, it's just insane.
A plausible character arc would have been for Anakin to become a highly decorated, respected war hero, gathering to himself influence as the Emperor's most trusted lieutenant, but slowly walling himself off to his wife and the emotional elements of his existence, as so often occurs in completely pedestrian parts of everyday life when some guy puts his career before his marriage. When the Empire shift happens, Anakin could make a totally plausible transition to being a calculating planetary-scale assassin if it's founded on a feeling of his being abandoned by the people he'd thought were important to him; shifting his only allegiance to the Emperor and abdicating all thought and responsibility to the orders he's given is so easy to picture that it's bewildering why Lucas couldn't take it in that direction. Indeed it seems that he tried taking that tack, what with his accusing Padme and Obi-Wan directly of "betraying" him. But he'd founded it on this basis of too much emotional involvement rather than too little; the result, when he finally puts on that helmet, isn't an attitude of "Well then, I don't care anymore", but "Awwww, no! WAAAAAHHH! I go kill things now!" —which makes far less sense.
I simply can't imagine the Anakin of the prequels under the helmet and armor of the Vader of the originals. It's a completely different character. The differences in stature and voice and bearing might have been worked around (Hayden Christiansen never even attempted to talk like James Earl Jones, which might have been a gimmick, but movies with far less to prove have often managed to accomplish similar feats). But you can't explain away the complete, irreconcilable wrongness of the character of Anakin for the potential role of Vader. The goal of the three sprawling prequels was, again, supposedly to show how Anakin had made that transformation and become the Vader we all knew and feared. But at the end of Episode III, after nine hours of movie and untold numbers of lightsaber duels and space battles and stupid C-3PO one-liners and horrible acting on the part of the kid and Portman and even Yoda's lines not matching up with how he used to talk, all we're left with is a five-minute scene of hurried "oh crap!" writing where Lucas attempts to stick a helmet on his whiny scruffy-haired teenager and dub James Earl Jones' voice onto it and hope it sort of sounds like the same character for the space of maybe two lines and a DO NOT WANT. And that's not character development. That's a character playing dress-up. That's a failure.
Hell, this person has a better grasp on what makes Vader Vader: