Sunday, June 12, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (4)

You have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.
"The Empire Strikes Back"

1: Preamble

"Revenge of the Sith" is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good movie.

I think that it is a very good something; but it lacks all the normal things which go to make up a film–-character development, storyline, suspense, a script. I liked Episodes I and II a lot more than many fans did, but Episode III has tested even my patience with George Lucas. Tested, but not yet completely exhausted.

It has a very good opening and an absolutely stonking ending. They are, however, the opening and ending of two different movies. In between them comes a long, dull and largely incoherent middle. It is this middle that we remember. We don't come out of the cinema saying "Cool space battle!" or "Great mythic resonances!" We say "Oh. What a dull middle."

Lucas remains a virtuoso in the language of cinema. The pictures are beautifully composed and fantastically inventive. I don't just mean the special effects set-pieces--which are, it goes without saying, stunning. But it's the quieter moments that really impress me. The shadows cast by Anakin and Palpatine. Anakin's face half-covered by a hood. Anakin and Padme in the empty hall, full of pillars. How many seen-it-all-before fanboys predicted that Lucas would show Darth Vader putting the mask on from Vader's own point of view?

Lucas has said that he wishes he could have made silent movies(1). A lot of "Revenge of the Sith" falls into place when you know this. The first encounter between Padme and Anakin on Coruscant is made up of a series of tableaux, with any emotion being conveyed by the characters' posture and expression (as well as by the background music) rather than by what they say. The screenplay contains some rather ambitious directions:

Padme: Something wonderful has happened
They look at one another for a long moment
Padme: I'm....Annie, I'm pregnant.
Anakin is stunned. He thinks through all the ramifications of this. He take her in his arms.
Anakin: That's....That's wonderful.

"He thinks through all the ramifications of this"; "they look at one another for a long moment" and the two "...." amount to "they strike a pose" and "there is long pause" and "John Williams introduces a new background motif."(2) It would take a better actor than Hayden Christensen (and I can think of a few) to convey by expression that he is thinking through all the ramifications of something. Where the dialogue in "Attack of the Clones" was jaw-droppingly awful, that in "Revenge of the Sith" is merely banal. (3) But it is also frequently gratuitous. You could imagine the whole scene being mimed, with perhaps a couple of silent-movie style captions.

The sheer quantity of imagery in the movie ends up overwhelming you. George has allowed himself one last burst of Promethean creativity with which to breath life into his universe. He isn't showing you that universe, or telling you about it, or even telling you a story about it. He's just heaving great gobbits of landscape and back-story onto celluloid. He wants Alderaan and Kashyyyk to be real and the only place that they can be real is on a movie-screen. Even a ten second vignette is enough to bring them to life.

If "Revenge of the Sith" has a moral, it might be; "Don't try too hard to give life to the dead: you may end up killing the one you love."

2: Beginning

The opening of "Revenge of the Sith" is by far the most exciting thing in the prequel trilogy, and as good a spectacle as anything in the whole saga. There's a genuine sense of motion as the as the Jedi Starfighters zip along the Stardestroyer. It was cool to see the characters in the cockpits of star-fighters, like in the good old days.

There are too many characters and vehicles zooming around. There are the Jedi fighters, and things called Vulture Droids, which may or may not be the same as buzz-droids. The choreography of the battle is confused, and none of the pilots apart from Obi-Wan and Anakin are individualized.(4) But this doesn't matter too much because of the overwhelming "wow" factor. I love the way that we start with a massed battle in space, follow through into a running chase on board a starship and end up crashing to earth and physically dumping the heroes in the middle of the political storyline.

Several scenes seemed to quote the old movies. This looks good, but as ever, makes no real sense. The room where Palpatine is imprisoned just happens to recall the Throne Room that he had/will have on the Death Star in "Return of the Jedi". This means that Anakin's fight with Count Dooku recalls/foreshadows the final fight between Luke and Darth Vader. The Jedi ship speeds through the big landing bay doors of the starship just as they close, which reminds of of how Han will jump through the closing doors on the Death Star. (Incidentally: If you are designing a video game, it makes sense to put the shield generator right near the bay doors, to make it easy for intruders to shoot it off. I doubt that anyone would design a ship that way in real life.)

I am afraid that lightsabers are becoming wearisome. They are cool as dueling weapons, but tedious when used to clumsily and randomly dispatch mobs of robots in an uncivilized and inelegant fashion. Han Solo going "Peew! Peew!" at Stormtroopers feels cooler than Obi-Wan going snicker-snak at trade federation droids.

Poor Christopher Lee must be getting quite bored with being hired for big movies solely so he can be killed off in the first ten minutes. I suppose he must be grateful that his part wasn't cut altogether.

Anakin looks absurd in his proto-Darth-Vader costume. For future reference, Yoda: when a Padwan starts going around in a black cloak he's probably got an unhealthy interest in the Dark Side of the Force. Or at any rate Goth music.

As always, Lucas drops us in the middle of the action and lets us pick up the details as we go along. Usually, this works OK: we never find out what kind of mercy mission Carrie Fisher wasn't on, and it doesn't matter because it doesn't matter. But this time I felt confused. I would have welcomed a very brief re-cap about who the separatists were, what they were separate from, why, and what Christopher Lee has to do with it. An introduction for General Grievous would have helped, too. (Yes, I know he appeared in a cartoon series, but that's no excuse.)

Like a lot of good but second-rate action movies, I found it very exciting that the action was happening, without in any way being excited by the action.

3: Middle

Once we get back to Coruscant everyone starts talking.

Padme and Anakin say "I love you" and "I hope you don't die" and "I'm pregnant."

Anakin and Palpatine say "Please turn evil" and "No, I'll never turn evil" and "Oh, all right then, if you insist."

Obi-Wan says "I wish you hadn't turned evil".

This takes an hour and a half. The main sound effect is the audience starting to fidget and shuffle.

Some people say "There is no point in watching these films, because we already know the ending."(5) This does not necessarily follow. A great number of movies "tell you the ending" before the action starts. It can be a very effective device: you start by showing how things turned out, and then flash back to explain how we got there. Old plays often "give the ending away" in their actual titles: "Ye most piteous tragedy of Anakin Skywalker together with ye sad death of Padme, as has been shown diverse times in ye Coventry Multiplex."

A story teller can use the fact that the audience "knows the ending" in one of two ways. Either he can generate a sense of dramatic irony: we see that certain events are significant, because we know things that the character's don't. Or he can use it to intrigue the audience, to create a sort of "whodunnit" in which thy say "I know where we are going to end up, but I can't possibly imagine how we can get to there from here." If Lucas had used the first method, Obi-Wan might have said "Let's send Anakin to fight the Sith Lord – he's the one person we can be sure would never turn to the Dark Side." If he'd used the second, then perhaps the question of Anakin's turning would not even be mentioned; maybe we would see him reject the Emperor outright, and spend the last quarter of the movie thinking "When is he going to turn? What is going to make him turn?"

But Lucas doesn't use our fore-knowledge for any dramatic purpose whatsoever. There's no tension about whether or not Anakin will turn; no attempt to surprise us with the circumstances. We simply get to watch George moving his collection of action figures through their pre-ordained dance. Perhaps he really thinks that the film's main audience will be younglings who have never seen "The Empire Strikes Back."

There can't be any tension about the question "Will Anakin turn to the Dark Side?", because we already know the answer; so the whole interest in the film depends on the question "Why will Anakin turn to the Dark Side?" But this this question is answered within five minutes of our anti-hero's arrival on Coruscant. Anakin has a premonition that Padme will die in childbirth. Once we know this, it is very obvious how the rest of the film will develop: Anakin will try to use The Force to save her; Palpatine will tell him only the Dark Side is strong enough, blah, blah, etcetera. (6) Because this is so obvious, the long-drawn out scene in the theater-box, in which Palpatine gradually reveals to Anakin that the Sith once knew how to raise the dead, becomes redundant and pointless. We know what he is going to say; we know how Anakin is going to react; and thank god that George was restrained from mentioning on screen that the title of the "Mon Calamari ballet" that they are watching was "Squid Lake."

The one moment of real drama comes when Anakin finds Mace Windu and Palpatine engaged in lightsaber battle. Windu is on the point of killing Palpatine, in obvious contravention of the Jedi code. Anakin has to decide whether or not to intervene. This resembles, and is probably supposed to foreshadow the moment in "Return of the Jedi" when Anakin/Vader has to decide whether to stand by and watch the Emperor kill his son. But even here, it is pretty clear where we are going. I wasn't so much thinking "What's he going to do?" as "Oh for goodness' sake get on with it you dithering floppy haired luvvie."

The moment at which Anakin seals his Faustian pact was also pretty dramatic: Anakin kneeling before the Emperor; Vader's breathing playing in the background; the bars of the Imperial March emerging clearly in the sound-track (7) for the first time; Palpatine's face disfigured so it now looks like the Emperor we are familiar with. Impressive. Most impressive. One could wish that Hayden Christensen had been able to think of a better way of signifying "I am evil now" than by rolling his eyes. I also wish that when Palpatine said "Hence forth you will known as Darth...Vader" I hadn't thought of the fraternity initiation in "Animal House."

As an explanation for the origin of Darth Vader, I find this all very unsatisfying.

Darth Vader's evil is massively diminished. He isn't a good angel who fell through pride, but a noble victim of tragic circumstance. He has done a very bad thing for a very good reason. In "Attack of the Clones", Anakin appeared to be heading for the Dark Side because he was angry with his mother's killers and wanted vengeance against them; and because he simply wanted to be the greatest Jedi ever. Most of us probably agree with the Jedi that vengeance, arrogance and anger are Bad Things. But it turns out that the real reason he turned was because he wanted to save the life of a loved one, which most of us would regard as noble.

In the first 5 films, I understood "anger" to mean "uncontrolled violent rage", not "righteous indignation". I think that Anakin was allowed to be "angry" because his people were slaves, but not to have a tantrum over it. Episode II shows that his anger towards the Sand People doesn't get anyone anywhere. "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." ("To be in a passion, some good may do; but no good if a passion is in you.")

But Lucas now seems to believe that all feelings and emotions are equally dangerous, and that love, just as much as anger and hate, is a path to the Dark Side. I had no particular problem with the idea that Jedi Knights were forbidden to marry. I assumed that it was something like celibate monastic orders who say "Marriage is a very good thing, but for us, remaining celibate in order to follow a higher calling is an even better thing." But it now seems that the Jedi think that love is Bad in itself. Yoda goes so far as to warn Anakin that he shouldn't mourn the dead. Again if he were just saying that you shouldn't be too sad because the beloved dead are still with us, I wouldn't have a problem with this. But he seems to be saying that mourning is a symptom of emotional attachment, and attachment is in itself an evil:

"Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." (8)

I don't agree with any of this. In "Star Wars", The Force was a dramatic device which admitted "spirituality" into the "Star Wars" universe without endorsing (or for that matter, offending) any particular religion. If The Force had any doctrinal content, it was "let go of your conscious self and act on instinct". Now, it has turned pretty explicitly into Buddhism Lite.

I am not entirely sure what is supposed to have transpired between Darths Sidious and Vader. Is Palpatine saying whatever he thinks is necessary to make Anakin embrace the dark? Or, when he talks about the Dark Side, the limitations of the Jedi, and the power of the Sith, is he telling him the truth as he sees it? Does Lucas have in mind an ideology for the Sith, a viewpoint which makes them wrong and the Jedi right? (9) Or are they just baddies because they are baddies?

Palpatine tells Anakin that the Jedi and the Sith are similar in many ways; that the Jedi care about power just as much as the Sith do; and that the idea that the Jedi are selfless may not be born out by experience. He seems to have a point. Anakin violates the Jedi code to kill Dooku; Mace Windu is on the point of doing so to kill Palpatine. What's the difference? Obi-Wan, of all people, tells Anakin to break the Jedi's rules and spy on Palpatine. One can't help feeling that if he'd been equally flexible about the "no marriage" rule a lot of bother could have been avoided. "Actually, the Jedi Code is more guidelines than rules."

If you asked ten people what the point of "Star Wars" was, nine and half of them would say "a battle between good and evil." But this is another idea which Lucas wants to blow out of the water. The Light Side is corrupt. Both Yoda and Obi-Wan are implicated in that corruption. The Sith may have a point. The black-cloaked operatic villain who strangles his admirals to encourage the others is victim of tragic circumstance. Society is to blame. The bad Sith talk about good and evil as "points of view"; but we know that for Obi-Wan, the difference between telling the truth and lying is also a matter of viewpoint.

Either this is all too subtle for me, or else it is completely incoherent. During their interminable light-saber duel, Obi-Wan shares with Anakin a great moment of insight. "Councilor Palpatine is evil," he explains. Anakin responds with a career-low for banal dialogue: "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil." "Then you are lost" ripostes his mentor. But hang on. Five minutes previously, Anakin had told Obi-Wan "If you are not with me, you are my enemy" and Kenobi had replied "Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes." I realize that this is a space opera rather than a text on moral philosophy, but you can't have it both ways. You can't condemn someone for being a moral relativist in one scene, and then blame them for being a moral realist in the next.

4: More Middle

The story of Anakin's fall has some narrative interest, though it lacks pace and suspense. But the action sequences which it is intercut with are incoherent and rather pointless.

Lucas needs to get Obi-Wan and Yoda off Coruscant so that the Emperor can have a sporting chance at corrupting Ani. Obi-Wan can't be the one to come and arrest Palpatine, because we would never believe that Annie would chose the life of the Lord of the Sith over the life of his old friend – and anyway, if Ewan McGregor had got killed off at this point, Alec Guinness would be retrospectively out of a job. So off he goes on a pointless side-quest to kill General Grievous.

This section had some nice actiony bits, although when Grievous draws four lightsabers at once, I fear he revealed his origins as a cartoon character. The fight seems to happen on a fairly interesting planet (everyone is living on the sides of a gigantic crater) but we don't stay there long enough for it to become a place in the way that Tatooine, Bespin or the Death Star did. Obi-Wan has no-one to talk to apart from R2D2 and some aliens we haven't heard of. At times, he is reduced to talking to himself: this cannot be made the basis for snappy banter.

Obi-Wan kills Grievous. This is important, because it causes the surviving separatist leaders to decamp to a volcanic planet called – and if there's any sniggering, they'll be trouble – Mustafha. This is important, because the Emperor sends Anakin there to assassinate his erstwhile allies. This is important because Fate, in the form of as 30 year old back-story, requires that Anakin fights Obi-Wan in the vicinity of a volcano. The plotting really is that perfunctory.

The forfeit which Yoda pulls out of the Jedi hat is to go to Kashyyyk and help the Wookies defeat the trade federation robots. This is important, for, er, for some reason which completely escapes me. This sequence was a great missed opportunity. Yoda and Chewbacca (yes, he's in it) are as far removed from each other as two goodies can be and if Lucas had been interested in telling a story, rather than giving us a whistle stop tour of his note-book, great fun could have been had with their relationship "Pull their arms out of their sockets you must not. Patient you must be, and calm. Think with your stomach you must not." In fact, we get some pretty shots of wookies charging against some droids, and some pretty shots of Yoda in a wookie field HQ, and some pretty scenery, and a very prolonged scene in which Yoda says goodbye to Chewbacca even though they have hardly exchanged three words---and that's it.

But Lucas obviously didn't think that making us dance between three different plots is exciting enough. Shortly after Anakin's fall, Palpatine orders his spies in various parts of the galaxy to assassinate the nearest Jedi Knight. This triggers a bloated montage sequence in which we get brief glimpses of battles on various different worlds – a world of fungi, a dusty world, a world with a big a city built on a circular bridge. It all looks ravishing, but it is very, very unsatisfying film making. You could just hear the audience thinking "Where are we now? Is this a planet I'm meant to have heard of? Help!"

It is possible that if I had read the "Extruded Universe" novels, then some of these planets would have been instantly recognisable. But I haven't.

5: End

Lucas has said that he thinks of the "Star Wars" saga as a symphony with recurring themes. This is certainly true of the final minutes of "Revenge of the Sith." Scenes are set up in opposition to each other; images reflect other images; scenes become laiden with symbolic significance. It has some genuine mythic atmosphere and it looks gorgeous. And of course, it makes no sense whatsoever.

The actual duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin was sort of all right. A large amount of swash had to ceremoniously buckled before we could get to the dramatic moment that was really the object of the exercise. I liked the scene where they are climbing up a cliff edge, slashing one another as they climb. I thought the moment where the pillar of rock collapses, so they are briefly balancing on rock that's floating in a sea of magma was perhaps over done. I found myself forcibly reminded that this was all a computer compositing trick, and they weren't really there. It's kind of cute that poor George now thinks that if your movie's climax is a sword fight between two people, the way you make it exciting is by pouring in several trillion dollars worth of special effects. Lucas has had the nerve to claim that this is the greatest swordfight ever filmed. Sorry, George: that prize still goes to two actors in front of a fairly obviously painted background, delivering witty dialogue and performing real fencing moves that they'd been practicing for months. (Oh, and by the way -- I'm not left-handed either.)

I actually preferred the duel between Yoda and Palpatine, which Lucas contrives to have occur in the Senate itself, the literal heart of the Old Republic. Palpatine starts physically tearing the building apart and hurling it at Yoda; a nice bit of symbolism, if not over subtle.

But it's when Anakin is defeated and theme shifts to "life from death" that the movie really comes together. Lucas's habit of cutting between different plot threads really pays off, as the scenes add significance to each other. Each image is perfectly conceived. Anakin, with his hair and limbs burned off, claws his way out of the lava flow, which is is a powerful, brutal image of birth. While this is happening, Obi-Wan, goes and carries Padme back to her ship. The tender image of Obi-Wan rescuing Padme contrasts with the callous way in which he left his friend Vader for dead. As Obi-Wan saves Padme, Palpatine is also saving Vader. In a quite astonishing image, Vader is taken back to Corsuscant in a medical capsule that looks like a coffin – the scene in which it floats across the landing bay is clearly meant to be a funeral, so that Vader's birth is actually a kind of death. Everything comes together in three brief scenes: we see Anakin being fitted with new arms and legs in a medical center; and immediately cut to the operating theater where Padme is giving birth. We hear Padme say the words "Luke" and "Leia", and then immediately cut back to Coruscant and see Anakin putting on the familiar black mask. Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are born at the same moment.

One wonders whether someone chickened out towards the end of the movie. When she expresses disquiet that he has gone over to the Dark Fide, Anakin uses his patented remote control choking power to strangle Padme. But she is still alive when Obi-Wan takes her back onto the ship. The robot-doctors says that there is nothing actually wrong with her, but that she is dying anyway. This is never explained. (Lucas apparently explored the idea that her body was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of midichlorians which she was carrying.) But when he asks where Padme is, the Emperor tells Anakin that he killed her, and he screams "No" in the way that characters in movies always do at stressful moments.

It would have been much more interesting if Vader had un-ambiguously killed her. "Darth Vader goes over to the Dark Side in order to save his wife's life, but, because he has gone over to the Dark Side, he kills her." That would have been a story worth telling.

Lucas still cannot handle time. (10) He wants the film to have a climax in which Yoda fights the Emperor and Obi-Wan fights Darth Vader. He wants these scenes to be juxtaposed against each other. But he also wants the "birth" of Darth Vader to be juxtaposed with the birth of Padme's twins: the champions of the the light and dark sides come into the world simultaneously. So having defeated Yoda the Emperor has one of those premonition thingys, senses that Lord Vader is in danger, and flies to the planet Mustafah where Obi-Wan left him for dead. He takes him back to Coruscant and rebuilds him: the rebuilding scenes being juxtaposed with Padme's labour. For any of this to work, we have to believe that ships can fly between Coruscant and Mustafah almost instantaneously – that interstellar flight takes only minutes. (This is assuming that there were no pre-flight checks and that the Emperor knew where he had left his ignition keys.)

The film ends, brilliantly, with four silent vignettes. First, Padme's funeral on Naboo, with a new, un-named queen walking behind her coffin; horribly contrasting with the celebration scene at the end of "Phantom Menace". (I don't think that there were any gungans.) The camera pans down her open casket, showing that her hand is still holding the pendant that Annie gave her. The camera seems to linger on her abdomen; the womb of heroes. We go from this scene of death to Vader and the Emperor—and also Grand Moff Tarkin, but you wouldn't know this without looking at the end credits—surveying their new Death Star, and from there to two vignettes about new life. Leia is delivered to her adoptive parents on Alderaan (the planet which the Death Star will destroy) and Obi Wan takes Luke to his "Uncle" and Aunt on Tatooine.

So the film ends, where it began at the Skywalker homestead. The combination of music and imagery was terribly suggestive. Beru and Owen are watching the suns set, just as Luke did in "Star Wars"; the familiar Luke Skywalker motif is playing in the background. Beru takes the baby from Ben, and then pointedly turns her back on him and takes him to Owen, who doesn't look round. The saga has come full circle. (Perhaps the impact has been slightly spoiled by the fact that we have already been back to the farm in "Attack of the Clones", but I forgive it.) The moment is perfect. As Owen, Beru and baby Luke watch the twin suns set, we want to see the next episode, in which the twin children rise up and end the long night that their father has initiated.

Except we can't, because it doesn't exist, and never can. "A New Hope" will not be a sequel which continues these mythical themes but a B movie about a farm boy who rescues a princess. The Sith, the Jedi council, Qui-Gon's secret knowledge, and the whole idea about bringing balance to the Force will simply never be mentioned again. Surely, surely, surely, when the redeemed Anakin finally dies, someone should say to him: "You didn't kill Padme – it was the concentration of the midichlorians in the twins". But they won't, because they can't, because when Anakin died, no-one had heard of midichlorians, or Princess Amidala, and no-one knew that Darth Vader was going to kill her.

The original "Star Wars" trilogy pointed backwards to a series of prequels that had not yet been made: now, the prequels point forward to different, unmade versions of episodes IV, V and VI which can now only ever exist in our minds.

6: Triumph of the Whills

So. Anakin has become Darth Vader; Palpatine has become Darth Sidious has become Emperor; Luke and Leia have been born. Republic has yielded to Empire; Yoda has stated his intention to go into exile. Leia has been adopted by a cardboard cutout. Obi-Wan announces his intention to return to Tatooine and watch over baby Luke. Seven and half hours of prequel later, the final piece moves into its pre-ordained starting position.

But Yoda has a surprise up his computer generated sleeve.

"Master Kenobi; wait a moment. In your solitude on Tatooine, training I have for you. An old friend has learned the path to immortality. Your old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. How to commune with him, I will teach you..."

If you want to know why "Revenge of the Sith" fails as a move, then look no further than this scene.

It interrupts the flow of the narrative. It is undramatic. It's like the penultimate chapter of a bad crime thriller; where someone says "One thing puzzles me..." and the detective embarks on three pages of exposition. It has nothing to do with the story of "Revenge of the Sith", and is only tangentially relevant to the "Star Wars Saga" which Lucas actually filmed, as opposed to the one he might now wish he had filmed. "Revenge of the Sith", it seems, is not a story, but a set of linear notes.

It provides an explanation where no explanation is needed. In "Star Wars" Luke Skywalker hears the voice of the dead Obi-Wan Kenobi; in the sequels, he manifests as a ghost (11) Everyone who saw the first movie understood instantly what had happened. Old Ben, an exemplary Holy Man, continued to watch over his disciple after he died. The dead Jedi was now a single strange of the energy field which binds the galaxy together. What more explanation is needed?

The idea that dead Jedi can somehow talk to the living through The Force is simple and evocative. The idea that three specific Jedi can turn up as ghosts at the Ewok's feast is slightly weaker, but it still works. The idea that one Jedi in particular, through the use of secret disciplines, learned to cling onto consciousness when all previous ones had merged into vague pantheistic oblivion seems tawdry: almost as if Kenobi cheated. This explanation diminishes the original concept.

It is banal. Lucas probably has some Joseph Campbell notion at the back of his head: someone needs to go on another one of those bloody Hero's Journeys and bring back the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything from beyond the grave, so it might as well be Qui-Gon. But big mythic journeys require big mythic language. "Incidentally, did I mention that I've discovered the secret of eternal life?" is not really adequate.

It is pedantic. It's going back and worrying about the meaning of a small scene in "Star Wars" which Lucas actually put there because it seemed cool at the time. When Ben dies, his body disappears, and this seems to surprise Darth Vader. Yoda's body also disappears when he dies. Vanishing corpses were in fashion that season: remember the Mystics in "Dark Crystal"? However, Darth Vader, Qui-Gon and all the Jedi who get slaughtered in "Attack of the Clones" do not vanish. That Ben's death is unusual can be inferred by the fact that he says to Vader "If you cut me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." So here is the answer: Yoda and Obi-Wan vanish because they have learned a secret discipline which allows them to retain their consciousness after death. That was worth waiting thirty years for, wasn't it?

It explains nothing, because the square peg of an explanation is being jammed into the round hole of an established story. If post-mortem survival is a secret known only to Qui-Gon, Yoda and Ben, then why does Anakin appear as a "ghost" at the end of "Return of the Jedi"? (Come to that, why doesn't Qui-Gon?) If Anakin is present as a ghost, why didn't his body vanish too? On Luke's second visit to Dagobah, Yoda says "Soon must I rest; forever sleep". When Luke replies "No, granddad, you'll outlive us all" or words to that effect Yoda replies "Strong am I in the Force. But not that strong." Why does he talk as if he is going to die, is resigned to dying, and accepts death as "the way of the Force", if he has spent two decades mugging up on the secret of immortality?

None of this seems to have any bearing on "Revenge of the Sith": it is part of different story that Lucas has in his head, but which he doesn't have time to tell. According to some deutero-canonical texts, "The Sith" were an evil cult, defeated by the Jedi 1,000 years ago. Their secret teaching has survived a millennium by being passed down from Master to Apprentice. This is why there are only ever two Sith. A deleted scene in "Revenge of the Sith" has the ghost of Qui-Gon inform Yoda that he learned the secret of immortality from "The Shaman of the Whills". "Journal of the Whills" was the original sub-title of "Star Wars", before Lucas plumped for the more straightforward "from the adventures of Luke Skywalker." (12) So just as Darth Vader has offered himself up to be Palpatine's apprentice and learn about the Sith; Yoda has become Qui-Gon's apprentice in order to learn about "the Whills". That is: although there has been a Jedi hegemony for thousands of years, based on a single understanding of the Force, there are at least two buried, literally "occult" teachings, that understand it in a different way. After thousands of years, the Lord of the Sith succeeds in taking over the galaxy – but what he doesn't know is that the surviving Jedi have discovered there own secret teaching, which will enable them to become more powerful than he can possibly imagine. In the deleted section, Yoda says that Qui-Gon's teaching might enable Obi-Wan to retain his physical form when One with the Force. Are we supposed to infer that Obi-Wan and Yoda are already dead when Luke encounters them? That they are shades that have taken on physical forms in order to guard their last hope, and that the reason they disappear when they die is that they were never really there to begin with.? "How two long-forgotten secret traditions fought for control of a moribund mystical order, and of the galaxy itself" has the potential for being a very interesting story. But six lines at the end of a prequel do not turn the "Star Wars" edifice into that story.

7: The Face With a Thousand Heroes

Padme's last words are "There is good in him."

Obi-Wan, who I suppose we should now call "Ben", doesn't believe her, and nor, presumably, does Yoda. But years ago, Padme's son Luke will say the the same words: "There is good in him". And they are both right. The irony of the film is that as we watch Palpatine corrupting Anakin and creating Darth Vader, we know that he is creating the force that will ultimately destroy him.

Darth Vader has only ever really cared about two people: his mother, and Padme. Both of these loves conspire to turn him to the Dark Side; but finally, his love for his Son will bring him back into the light. In doing so, they will break the endless chain of Master and Apprentice, end the Sith, bring down the Empire and bring balance to The Force (whatever that means). Isn't it surprising, then, that when Anakin comes back from the Dark he doesn't mention Padme?

I have argued elsewhere that if you take a step back from the "Star Wars" movies and consider their imagery in mythical terms, the characters from the two trilogies tend to merge: Anakin and Luke are in some sense the same person, both aspects of the Everyman-Hero figure; and Princess Leia and Padme are both aspects of the Hero's Lover. (Padme is also literally the Hero's Mother, and therefore in some sense an aspect of Shmi.)

It seems that, in the last moments of "Return of the Jedi" Anakin will gain this mythic perspective and will sees his mother, his lover and his daughter as a single person. "There is good in him," says the hero's lover as she dies. So the hero's last words are a message to another lover of another hero.

"You were right about me. Tell your sister you were right."


(1) Silent movies are surely the purest form of cinema, the one that owes least to drama or the novel, where moving pictures alone carry the story. When sound synchronisation was invented, there were those who said that "the movies" had been fatally tainted. Is anyone going to say that they didn't have a point?

(2) Characters also pause in fixed poses before delivering their lines in some of Kurasawa's films, which are said to be influenced by Japanese Noh plays.

(3) Episode II: "Now that I'm with you again, I'm in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you makes my stomach turn over, my mouth go dry. I feel dizzy. I can't breath. I am haunted by the memory of this kiss you should never have given me." Episode III: "This is a happy moment. The happiest moment of my life."

(4) This is what the original films got so right and the prequels got so wrong. "Star Wars" had two types of space ship, iconic good guy X-Wings, and iconic bad guy TIE fighters. "Empire Strikes Back" added basically one new vehicle: "The Imperial Walker". The new films have billions of different space ships and you can't recognise any of them. I can't, at this moment, call to mind what Obi-Wans Jedi star fighter looks like. (Although I rather like the fact that it has a sort of hoop-shaped hyperspace thingy which it docks and undocks with.) Towards the end of the film, Padme set out in that pointy gold starship from "Phantom Menace". I thought "If George had done this properly, that ship would feel like a home-from-home in the way the Millennium Falcon does. Maybe I would even be able to remember its name."

(5) These area the same kinds of people who say that there is no point in reading an adventure story written in the first person, because you know that the hero must escape to tale the tale. If the book is written in the third person, then it is theoretically possible that the hero dies on page 54, and pages 55-200 are blank.

(6) If you live the capital city of a massively high-tech Empire that spans the galaxy, and if you are best mates with its President, the natural thing to do when one of your loved ones is dangerously ill is to learn black magic. As opposed to, say getting her checked out in some fabulously advanced and expensive hospital. This is the kind of medical science which can glue new arms and legs on as a routine procedure, but has somehow neglected gynecology.

(7) I think John Williams music makes it clear that we are intended to listen to the saga chronologically, from Episode I – VI. He is composing his symphony backwards, introducing themes in Episodes I, II and III which will emerge more dramatically in the final movements. The Imperial March is buried in Anakin's theme in "Phantom Menace"; emerges recognisably when Anakin becomes Vader in "Revenge of the Sith"; is given a full orchestral realisation for Vader's entrance in "Empire Strikes Back", and fades away on a single string at the end of "Return of the Jedi".

(8) In a deleted portion of the script, the ghost of Qui-Gon appears to say that letting go of emotional attachments is the path to Eternal Life: "You will learn to let go of everything. No attachment, no thought of self. No physical self."

(9) Many years ago, Yoda will have told Luke that a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. But in the prequels, Jedi use the Force to attack with all the time. The only real difference seems to be that the Light side use telekinetic force to push their enemies around, where the Dark side zap them with electrical energy.

(10) He never had been able to. Luke Skywalker's adventures in Episode IV proceed more or less in real time; the journey from Tatooine to Alderaan appearing to take about 5 minutes. At the time of his death, Luke has known Ben Kenobi for somewhere between 45 minutes and, say, 12 hours – depending on how long it takes to get from Anchorhead to Mos Eisley in a land speeder. Yet he acts as if he's known him for years.

(11) The "reason" that he is a voice in film 1 and a ghost in films 2 and 3 is pretty obviously that Lucas wasn't going to hire Alec Guinness for a cameo, but only use him in voice-over.

(12) This sub-title occurs on the cover of Alan Dean Foster's apocryphal "Splinter of the Minds Eye", and, astonishingly, on the title page of Brian Daley's "Han Solo at Stars End" (a novel in which Luke Skywalker neither appears nor is mentioned.)

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Anonymous said...

I think that Annie also destroyed the universe because he hadn't got a promotion at the office. At least I think that was part of the termoil Christenson was so incapable of delivering.
I have to confess though that I didn't notice him not getting the promotion, just Padme consoling him about it during one of his long pauses. Some idiot dragged me to see this film at midnight after inducing me to drink beer, so I might have slept through that it.

For what it's worth, the first section is pretty incoherant. Was there any attempt to explain why there was a war on?

I rather liked the 'and all over the galaxy, the Jedi suddenly find the Stormtroopers turning on them' bit.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of medical science which can glue new arms and legs on as a routine procedure, but has somehow neglected gynecology.

::Sighs:: But 'twas ever thus. We appreciate you noticing, though.

Anonymous said...

So when are you gonna do an exegesis of Knights of the Old Republic? Lots of people say both games were more interesting than the last three films. There's lots of things to comment on. How does it fit in with the rest of the Star Wars mythos? Was the plot twist good? Was the British accent of that scold you rescue on the first planet convincing? Which is better, two lightsabers or a double-bladed one ?

Anonymous said...

Still not seen the film, but do I gather that the one major character from the three older movies who doesn't get so much as a juvenile cameo in the new stuff is Han Solo?

If so, I think that about says it all about where Lucas got lost up his own anatomy and lost track of what made the first lot somewhat fun. Or perhaps it's just his revenge for "You can type this shit..."

Anonymous said...

(I don't think that there were any gungans.)

Both Jar Jar Binks and Boss Nass were in the funeral procession; you just didn't recognize them because they weren't capering or making squelching noises.

Anonymous said...

You can't condemn someone for being a moral relativist in one scene, and then blame them for being a moral realist in the next.

The truly egregious thing about these scenes (apart from the fact that "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!" is possibly the worst like of dialogue in any film ever) is that I'm fairly sure Lucas has admitted that all the "You're with me or against me!" "Only the Sith deal in absolutes" thing was fairly explicit "political commentary" about the War on Terror - supposed to echo "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"

I'm fast approaching the conclusion that, more than his foreign policy, homeland security policy, or policies on abstinence only sex education, the thing I *really* resent about George W Bush is that he's managed to convince every idiot with a typewriter and left wing sensibilities that they can do "satire".

If you want to know why "Revenge of the Sith" fails as a move, then look no further than this scene.

Absolutely. So much of the film was just Lucas "explaining" where thing in the original trilogy "come from". The disfigurement of Palpatine annoyed me for similar reasons, it felt like Lucas was trying to "reveal" why the Emperor was so hideous.

On the subject of Mace Windu versus Palpatine - it kind of irritated me that Windu lost it so much, once again it looked kind of like Plot Driven Stupidity. Windu randomly comes over all "For you shall know that I am the LORD when I lay down my vengeance upon you!" because otherwise there's no reason for Annie to turn against him.

On the other hand there was some stuff I thought worked well. I liked the slaughter of the Jedi - I don't care that I didn't recognise the planets, because I recognised the Jedi Masters from the council scenes, so it was reasonably clear what was going on.

A slightly fanwankish piece of ongoing mythic resonance that actually *does* "continue" into Return of the Jedi (and one I only picked up on the day after I saw the movie is this:

Anakin Skywalker turns evil because he cannot accept that Padme is going to die. (And because he's a petulant brat and the Jedi won't make him a master, and because of his anger issues and for a bunch of other reasons that unfortunately make him seem inconsistent rather than complex). He can't come to terms with the idea that death is a natural part of life and turns to the Dark Side as a way to overcome that.

And of course his last exchange with Luke Skywalker is (roughly, from memory):

"Take off my visor"
"I can't! You'll die!"
"Nothing can prevent that now... I want to look at you, with my own eyes."

Actually, thinking about it even more, I can kind of see why it was a good idea from this perspective to have Padme actually die in childbirth rather than to be explicitly killed by Annie. Anakin needs to accept Luke as "his son" rather than "the thing that killed his Padme," he has to look on him with his own eyes.

Anonymous said...

The camera seems to linger on her abdomen; the womb of heroes.

I had assumed the lingering shot was meant to emphasize the fact that Padme's abdomen is still swollen. In other words, as far as anyone - Palpatine and Vader included - is concerned, her unborn child(ren) died with her.

It does make you imagine a sort of Six Feet Under in a galaxy far, far away, with Obi-Wan explaining to the confused mortician what he has to do...

Lirazel is right, by the way, about gynecology being a neglected science in the real world as well. But really, how seriously are we supposed to take an imaginary world in which one can travel faster than light but not know how many fetuses a woman is carrying?


Anonymous said...

"Squid Lake"? Really?

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Squid Lake"? Really?

It's in the screenplay published as "The Art of Revenge of the Sith", which is okay, because only some totally deranged fanboy would buy it.

The script books also reveal that Amidala's aging advisor in "Phantom Menace" is called "Councilor Bibble", although it doesn't say if he ever wears a frog on his lapel. The tall thin Jedi Master is called "Yazrael Poof."

But then, Tolkien once nearly had an elf called Tinfang Warble, so I suppose even Homer nods.

Anonymous said...

And, on another note entirely, I was unimpressed by how quickly every Jedi that wasn't Yoda or Obi-Wan died to Clone Troopers. Especially after having fought a few billion droids for the last n years.

This actually didn't bother me. Maybe it's a reaction against the roleplayer mentality I'm so used to, but I'm extremely sympathetic to the idea that just because person A would beat person B in some or even most circumstances, that does not mean that person B can never beat person A.

The Jedi, as you observe, are Samurai or Knights-Errant. They're noble, honourable warriors, and if there is one thing that they are going to be vulnerable to, it's treachery.

Anonymous said...

The "Jedi getting gunned down" scene[s] reminded me of a "Nemesis the Warlock" cartoon from "AD 2000" -- a war going on simultaneously on a profusion of alien planets, one with giant flowers, etc. I actually found it quite moving. Maybe because almost all other deaths in SW are either (a) heroes dying nobly (with enough time to be cradled in the arms of, and give noble last words to, their son/padawan), or (b) not really "deaths" at all, but Jedi ascending to sainthood, or (c) rather comic, with faceless helmeted drones (droids, Stormtroopers, Jango Fett) getting dispatched in amusing or exciting ways.

Anonymous said...

The Jedi, as you observe, are Samurai or Knights-Errant. They're noble, honourable warriors, and if there is one thing that they are going to be vulnerable to, it's treachery.

Something else which is fine for idealists on mountain-tops, but not much use among professional cops.

Anonymous said...

Something else which is fine for idealists on mountain-tops, but not much use among professional cops.

Except that the Jedi *aren't* professional cops. They're a holy order of warrior mystics.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Guardians of peace and justice" sounds a lot like "police" to me. And Annie and Obie behave like cops in "Attack of the Clowns." ("Gangway, Jedi business" etc etc.)

Anonymous said...

At the risk of making some sort of unintentional point on that Grand Myth structure of the substitute father/teacher figure, Luke has some familiarity with Ben during his youth on Tatooine - which could either be blamed on Lucas's lost material for some cut scenes on Tatooine, or Brian Daley's work with Lucas for the NPR radio plays, which apparently qualifies as your aptly-named Extruded Universe - it seemed reminiscent of a Gandalf/Frodo sort of relationship. Ben was a hermit who did interesting, if crazy hermit-like things, possibly involving myserious and crazy magic, saved his ass once or twice when he was a, er, youngling, and had a brush or two with Uncle Owen being annoyed at his general crazyness, rather than Li'l Luke's pint-sized misadventures.

It still doesn't explain the whole massive wealth of remarkably vague Jedi knowledge and carmeraderie Ben bestowed on him in the confined of a cramped spaceship, but it did seem to provide just a small morsel more of why we, the hapless viewer, should feel a twinge at Luke's reaching for the first person to teach him he could reach for more, and not finding him there. The rescue from the Tusken Raiders was really another one of the same "Damn kids, get off my lawn - aww, don't cry, I'll take you home, do you want a choccy biccie before you go?" incidents in the life of a Tatooine farming kid.

(Had he not been there at all, ironically, Luke could have, unintentionally, joined the Empire - the 'Academy' he whines of to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru was apparently the Imperial Academy, used as a front to draft n00bs into the fight against the Rebellion. One way of explaining where they got all the fumbling, incompetent Admiral Expendables...)

Anonymous said...

"Guardians of peace and justice" sounds a lot like "police" to me.

[Insert "cynical" comment about the police here]

Possibly, but to my mind it sounds a lot more like the Knights of the Round Table; an organisation not famed for their hard bitten cynicism.

And Annie and Obie behave like cops in "Attack of the Clowns." ("Gangway, Jedi business" etc etc.)

True, but that strikes me as more a flaw in the portrayal of the Jedi than anything else.

Anonymous said...

"Guardians of peace and justice" sounds a lot like "police" to me.

Quite. Of course, part of the incoherent romantic conservatism of something like the Star Wars saga is the idea that peace and justice can be effectively guarded by a holy order of warrior mystics sitting on mountain-tops, when in any sort of believable reality, they have to behave at least a little like cops.

(Sure, they might be cooler, more efficient, more morally perfect idealists than 99.5% of real cops, exact figures depending on your personal opinion of real cops - but they still have to investigate crimes, deal with perps, and so on. Which requires a strong practical sense and a degree of pragmatic cynicism about human nature.)

In vaguely coherent myths, you may get the Knights of the Round Table, who may be established to strive towards the ideal of a holy order of warrior mystics, but who in practice live in the real world, struggle with moral paradoxes, and are generally interestingly flawed - or you may get the actual holy order of warrior monks, who mostly live on mountain-tops and avoid entanglements with the world, because they know full well that if one goes off to America to find one's parents, or if one takes up Green Destiny to avenge the slayer of one's teacher, one will end up entangled with the moral complexities and shades-of-grey of the world, and quite possibly badly compromised. The only way your warrior monks can manage both perfection and effectiveness is if you assume some kind of simplified, objectively measurable morality (see, Lensmen and Doc Savage). Which looks a bit clunky these days (possibly because the people who tried to put such ideas in practice in the recent past were usually working for Pol Pot or Heinrich Himmler). And it doesn't sound like Lucas has squared that circle.

Anonymous said...

Quite. Of course, part of the incoherent romantic conservatism of something like the Star Wars saga is the idea that peace and justice can be effectively guarded by a holy order of warrior mystics sitting on mountain-tops, when in any sort of believable reality, they have to behave at least a little like cops.

Not really.

If by "believable reality" you mean "realistic simulation of a functioning intergalactic Republic in which the Jedi function as a literal police force" then you are quite correct. If by "believable reality" you mean "myth cycle" then you aren't really.

The argument I essentially object to is that it is somehow "unrealistic" or "inconsistent" for the sudden betrayal of the Clone Warriors to have caught out the Jedi, because "they were supposed to be professional cops". Which they weren't. They were supposed to be the "guardians of peace and justice."

The Knights of the Round Table, although flawed, did not act remotely like policemen.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for double-posting...

The only way your warrior monks can manage both perfection and effectiveness is if you assume some kind of simplified, objectively measurable morality (see, Lensmen and Doc Savage).

Simplified, objectively measurable morality like, say "there is a Light Side, which is Good and a Dark Side, which is Evil."

Which looks a bit clunky these days (possibly because the people who tried to put such ideas in practice in the recent past were usually working for Pol Pot or Heinrich Himmler). And it doesn't sound like Lucas has squared that circle.

Are you genuinely saying that the concepts of Good and Evil, even as thematic constructs in a work of fantasy, are somehow obsolte? I genuinely don't think that's the case. If it was then the Lord of the Rings movies would have bombed. For that matter, if there wasn't still some merit to the idea of "Good and Evil", then your own references to "the likes of Pol Pot and Heinrich Himmler" would be meaningless. If we reject any simplified notions of objectively measurable morality, then Pol Pot and Himmler are just people whose opinions I happen not to share.

I do think you're right that Lucas fails to square the circle between "Good vs Evil" and "Moral Relativism," but I think that the problem is of his own making. The Jedi of the original trilogy - Samurai Paladins who followed a never-particularly-defined philosophy of generic goodness - I could believe in as Guardians of Peace and Justice. The Jedi of the prequels 0 a bunch of Buddhist FBI agents - clearly make no sense. This isn't because the ideas of Good and Evil are somehow bankrupt in the modern world, it's because Lucas lost track of what he was doing.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm talking myself into a corner of precise definitions here, and it's my own fault for being unclear... But the point I was trying to make is about good and evil as instantly verifiable absolutes - things which can practically be measured with a scientific instrument.

Sure, the Jedi evidently believe in Good and Evil (as do I, yes, but as adjectives rather than nouns). But I don't get the sense that a Jedi would generally look someone in the eye, read his mind, diagnose him as evil, and kill him on the spot. They're a bit too wishy-washy liberal for that; they believe in reform, and at least wait until the bad person does something seriously bad before slicing his arm off.

A lensman, on the other hand, can determine that somebody is Evil with such precision and certainty that capital punishment automatically follows. (And none of yer namby-pamby gradations of guilt!)

And I suspect that one of the things that made people twitch so much about the midichlorians was the idea that Jedi spiritual perfection was somehow something that could be measured by a blood test. Once you've got that - well, can you execute somebody because his zero midichlorian count indicates that he's incapable of spiritual development, and hence is a born criminal?

Anyway - as you say, the Jedi as we all vaguely envisaged them (not so much samurai or paladins as Taoist sword-saints, I suspect) probably wouldn't have been very systematic about their protection of good. But when they saw some great and unambiguous evil rising, well, they'd go out and stomp it in a virtuous fashion - then go back to their wanderings and meditations. (They'd be very prone to "crusades" in that respect.) It's not a great way to run a galaxy, but it's kind of stylish. (By the way, the last episode of Dr Who had a nice scene about why this isn't a perfect way to bring goodness to the cosmos.) When you set them up as the Mystic FBI, though, you're stuck with a body that has to deal with petty evils and ambiguities, and which ought to have a clue about things like betrayal.

Anonymous said...

Right, with you. I think we're on the same page here:

When you set them up as the Mystic FBI, though, you're stuck with a body that has to deal with petty evils and ambiguities, and which ought to have a clue about things like betrayal.

True, but to my mind the problem arises because prequels!lucas set the Jedi up as kinda like the FBI, rather than because original!lucas set them up as guardians of order.

Essentially I see nothing wrong with a Legendary Fantasy like Star Wars or Superman following a paradigm where complex social ills can be solved by beating up named villains. It's unrealistic, but it's also time honoured and genuinely powerful.

Within the Legendary Fantasy paradigm, the Jedi really can control the crime rate by beating up Sith. The Sith represent Evil, so by standing against them, the Jedi stand against all the evils in the world. If you want to get all energy-science about it, you can come up with some handwavy rationale about how everything is tied together through the Force, but basically it's just a genre convention.

Anonymous said...

Dan wrote: The disfigurement of Palpatine annoyed me for similar reasons, it felt like Lucas was trying to "reveal" why the Emperor was so hideous.

Reading that comment, I flashed on a discussion we've been having on another blog about Davros.

Andrew will know about Davros, and so I expect will many of his readers, but for the rest of you, I will explain that Davros was a plot device used in 'Doctor Who' to simplify and compress a generations-long backstory into a much shorter event that the audience could watch happen before their very eyes. Many people have enjoyed watching the result, but many people (some of them the same people) feel that the change was not ultimately an improvement.

Palpatine's transformation is like that: maybe there's something to be said for it happening before our very eyes, but I think the original idea that it was a gradual process of degradation made for a better story even if we never got to and could never get to see it.

Anonymous said...

I think the original idea that it was a gradual process of degradation made for a better story even if we never got to and could never get to see it.

And that, in essence, is why backplot makes bad cinema.

The backstory for a situation can evolve over years (or indeed even centuries); trying to condense it into a movie (or even a movie trilogy) will always cheapen it.

It's almost as if Peter Jackson had decided to follow on from Lord of the Rings by doing the Silmarillion.