First, allow me to include a little disclaimer before anyone decides to interpret this entry as yet another bashing of George Lucas and his prequels on an increasingly bitter internet: I’m actually a HUGE fan of Star Wars, and this is no way an attempt to purposely find fault in a beloved franchise. I’m hoping that aspiring authors can use these observations of mine as a resource for their writing. Even the legends can make mistakes, and it’s our job to learn and improve our own craft from those experiences.
For those of you who are familiar with the final film in the prequel trilogy (spoilers ahead for those who aren’t), Revenge of the Sith ends with a few significant scenes that are meant to set the stage for the Original Trilogy, most notably Anakin Skywalker’s horrific transformation into Darth Vader. Naturally, one might expect this moment to be the highlight of the entire film, but does Episode III actually deliver on those expectations?
In my opinion, Revenge of the Sith is the strongest of the prequels, but it is not without its flaws. The last 5-10 minutes of the film is where expectations begin to fall short, despite a very entertaining, visually impressive narrative all throughout the film. You may actually find this surprising, but the disappointment actually has very little to do with Vader comically shouting, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”, in James Earl Jones’ well-known voice over of the iconic character. What keeps many from being able to emotionally connect with Vader’s plight – and sometimes laugh at him instead – is actually the death sequence attached to this ending.
Padmé Amidala, heavily pregnant with famous fraternal twins Luke and Leia Skywalker, dies on an operating table with seemingly no medical explanation after Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. This, I believe, is where the viewer’s suspension of disbelief starts to gradually wane. As a writer, it’s easy to take your audience’s suspension of disbelief for granted, because it can be so convenient, especially in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, to simply wave off flaws in your storytelling with, “Well, it’s fantasy, they know it’s all BS.” However, it’s important, even vital, in these genres to actually nurture the audiences SoD, not burden it with responsibilities.
First, writers should note the weakness in Lucas’ Worldbuilding. Star Wars may be known for straddling that fine line between Science Fiction and Fantasy, but that doesn’t mean you can abandon one for the other when it’s convenient for you. Death scenes can be pretty tricky to handle as it is, and even more so in the case of an important supporting character like Padmé . If the audience is already forced to accept that she can die of a broken heart they shouldn’t also be forced to accept that medical science has no place in a world that has high-speed intergalactic travel, battle droids, and space stations that literally can blow up planets.
So how can this ending be improved?
What George Lucas has here is a big franchise with deeply established rules and heavily expanded Worldbuilding spanning entire decades. That can be hard to juggle for any writer, so it’s important to keep the rules of your world on hand at all times when writing for these kinds of fantastic and highly fictionalized universes. How can we keep the emotions of George’s scene in tact while still respecting the rules of the Star Wars sandbox? Fortunately, we won’t need to do any exhaustive Star Wars homework; we’ll just need to use what has already been established in this film. Allow the audience to connect previous knowledge from other points in the film with the new knowledge they’re meant to receive next.
MEDICAL DROID: Medically, she is completely healthy. For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.
OBI-WAN: She’s dying?
MEDICAL DROID: We don’t know why. She has lost the will to live. We need to operate quickly if we are to save the babies.
This comes off as lazy and rushed. We’re not actually seeing Padme at this point; we’re trusting the droid to be a reliable narrator while she is dying off-screen. Yet, the droid insists that she is medically fine, when not five minutes before Anakin had been trying to choke the life out of her.
Here’s an example of how this scene can go using the audience’s knowledge of the event:
MEDICAL DROID: She experienced significant shock from the physical trauma she sustained on Mustafar. This seems to have manifested on a psychological level as well. Without the will to live we risk losing the babies. She cannot be expected to endure labor in this condition. We must operate immediately if we mean to save them.
It’s not a perfect explanation, but the audience can more feasibly understand Padme’s position. The love of her life hurt her immensely. Being in an already delicate condition as a pregnant woman, the audience can easily sympathize with her. Adding a simple medical explanation about physical and psychological trauma lends credibility to this idea.
Which brings us to the next problem with the original scene; even with the exposition about her condition better suited to the world of Star Wars, Lucas’ concept of Padme losing the will to live isn’t believable due to this part of the scene:
PADME: Obi-Wan… there… is good in him… I know there is… still….
This doesn’t make any sense, because if she’s lost the will to live, then how is it she still has any hope what so ever for the future? Hope is an emotion that conveys the exact opposite of a person losing the will to live. What we have now is a necessity to change what Padme was feeling in this moment, to an emotion more appropriately attuned to this idea of life and death and loss.
The opposite of hope is despair. Despair would have been far more appropriate for Padme because it would have given further credibility to this idea that she died of a broken heart, a pill that is already hard enough to swallow. This would have also lent more weight to what was being shown at the same time – Anakin, now having been transformed into Vader, also giving into despair and anguish when he is informed by his new master that he killed his own wife in anger and rage. Despair is being shown on both sides of the spectrum, and it would be fortunate indeed if the audience managed not to eye-roll at “NOOOOOOOO!!!” as a result of these improvements.
“But, Emerald,” you might ask, “won’t that make the story a little too dark for its intended audience?” Possibly, but isn’t that the whole point of Revenge of the Sith? Hope is an emotion that can only be effectively portrayed once you’ve convinced your audience that almost all is lost. The bad guys have won. Darkness covers the land of Star Wars until someone has the guts and the strength to get up from the corner of the ring and finally fight back. Hope is the overall theme that ties this film to the next installment, and there’s no scene that perfectly encapsulates this more than when Obi-Wan hands baby Luke to his uncle and aunt on Tatooine, where they look out into the double-sunset, a tribute and homage to a similar scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
So, with a lot of nitpicking and a little bit of tweaking, we’ve learned some valuable lessons: Don’t sell your Worldbuilding short if you’ve already spent a long time establishing it, and don’t allow your exposition to contradict your character’s actions. These can make or break such vital scenes as character deaths or endings, and in Lucas’ case, it broke both of them.