It's difficult to describe the feelings the original Star Wars trilogy stirred in me as a child (though I suspect many of my generation are familiar with those feelings). When I watch them again, even today, I still get that feeling. I think at least part of it was that I didn't fully understand the story as a child. It was a visceral story, so on a raw emotional level, I got it, even if I wasn't able to articulate an intellectual response. As I've grown older, repeated watchings have only increased my appreciation.
Warning! Spoilers Ahead...
One thing I've felt has always been particularly effective was how the films treated the Force. The Force consists of two opposing sides, a Dark Side and a Light Side. Neither side is made up of specific "abilities" of the Force - it is the way in which these abilities are used that is important. Acting on positive emotions like love, compassion, and courage is the path of the Light Side, while fear, attachment, and hatred are the way of the Dark Side. Practitioners of the Light Side suppress their negative emotions while nurturing their positive emotions to help others. Devotees to the Dark Side use their negative emotions to fuel their selfish power and are thus able to increase their outward strength and abilities. As a result, the Dark Side of the Force is extremely seductive. Each time one calls on the power of the Dark Side, they become more attached to it. It becomes an addiction which feeds upon itself.
This process of turning to the Dark Side was handled exceptionally well in the original trilogy. The entire Star Wars story centers around two people: Darth Vader, who has turned to the Dark Side, never to look back, and Luke Skywalker, who has only begun his journey, his fate uncertain. Knowing Luke's sensitive state, Vader attempts to seduce Luke to the Dark Side, and for a time, he is successful. Despite Obi Wan and Yoda's teachings, Luke failed at the cave on Dagobah and when he sees that his friends are in danger, he rushes off to confront Vader, where he fails again. Luke was acting on his attachment to his friends, and his hatred for Vader. In the end, Luke was able to see the error in his ways and he eventually succeeded because of the love and trust he gave his father, redeeming him and saving them both from the Emperor.
So the original trilogy told the tale of a young Jedi who was tempted by the Dark Side, but persevered because of his devotion to the Light Side. The prequels tell the story of Anakin Skywalker, a young Jedi who was tempted and ultimately seduced by the Dark Side. Judging from the response to Episode III, it seems that the way Anakin's turn is portrayed is the most frequently cited problem with the film. And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.
First, when Lucas introduced the concept of Midichlorians, he completely demystified the Force. Part of the reason the Dark side was so scary in the original films was that one wrong turn could inexorably lead you down the path to the Dark side. It was a vaguely mysterious process, and not knowing exactly how the Force worked only served to make it more effective. Second, the first two prequels were pretty much a waste. One of my initial thoughts upon seeing Episode III was that it made the first two prequels better. But it really shouldn't be that way. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones should have made Revenge of the Sith better, not the other way around.
To me, all the pieces were there, they just weren't integrated all that well. In Episode I, we see hints of Anakin's fear and anger, and in Episode II, we see some of that bloom into what I consider to be the beginning of Anakin's descent to the Dark side. When his mother dies and he slaughters that camp of sand people, he began on the path to the Dark side. At that point, he hadn't gone very far (just as Luke's failures in Empire didn't turn him completely), but it was a start. Yet very little is made of this in the films. In the opening of Episode III, Anakin strikes down a defenseless Count Dooku at the behest of Palpatine. I would have thought that was another big step in the wrong direction, but nothing much is made of it in the movie either. Instead, the film relies upon vague (but reasonably well done) political intrigue and the impending death of Padme as the only real motivators to turn to the Dark side. Furthermore, they're both shown as occurring in parallel. One didn't really build off the other, as you would expect in a turning to the Dark side process. Both are good reasons, to be sure, but when the time came and Anakin made his decision, it came off as muddled, especially given the near immediate reversal in direction that the scene implies. The fact that I described it as a "decision" should set off alarms here - turning to the Dark side isn't a decision, it's a process. A mystical, seductive process that doesn't just happen the way it did in the film.
There's a lot more too Anakin's turn to the Dark side, and one could argue that all sorts of things shown in the prequels contributed, but Lucas doesn't tie any of it together in an especially convincing way. I've always thought of turning to the Dark side as being a long process, starting with small, seemingly innocuous events, but eventually snowballing into an unstoppable downward spiral.
All of that said, I still enjoyed Revenge of the Sith, perhaps a bit more than it really deserves. In the end, it's a Star Wars film, and as such, it pulls from a rather large reservoir of movie-going goodwill. The test of time will most likely relegate the prequels to a supporting role in the Star Wars pantheon. The original trilogy still stands as a brilliant piece of work, and while it's a shame the prequels didn't quite live up to that standard, it's hard to believe that anything really could...
Note: I'll be travelling this weekend, so no new entry on Sunday.