Monday, February 01, 2016

The most incredible article about the Star Wars trilogy you'll ever read


"The story, when you actually put it into words, is only so-much nonsense to hang a great visual experience onto." 
Mark Hamill, talking in 1978

Star Wars is a 1977 rite-of-passage movie. It concerns the adventures of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), usually described as a farm boy but actually depicted as a sulky James Dean teenager who likes nothing more than wasting time with his friends and fooling around with vehicles called T16s (or skyhoppers). Luke’s journey from boy to man is represented by a pair of interlocked quests: to identify and rescue the beautiful woman (Carrie Fisher) who’s cry-for-help he has stumbled upon; and to be initiated into a legendary order of warrior monks by retired hero Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Despite talk of princesses and Emperors the action takes place neither in a fairy tale kingdom, nor feudal Japan, but in a vaguely imagined but compelling visualized space-opera future. An oppressive Empire rules the entire galaxy; mile-long space-ships are swallowed up by battle-stations as large as planets; and a hop between stars is treated like a stagecoach ride between two outposts. Luke forms an alliance with the charmingly amoral Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who is described as a pirate but heavily coded as a cowboy. 

The action runs the gamut of screen-genres: Arabian Nights, Wild West, Perils of Pauline, and the Dambusters are all referenced. The uniforms look vaguely manga, and one of the anonymous fascists at a baddies’ council of war actually claims to be searching for a hidden fortress. The heritage the film explicitly lays claim to is the Germanic-English fairy tale tradition (the rather arch opening caption tells us it’s happening "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…") and Flash Gordon (an anachronistic scrolling text telling us "the story so far".) But by far the most memorable figure in the movie is Darth Vader (David Prowse / James Earl Jones) whose role is at this stage undefined but who seems to act as stand-in for the unseen Emperor. He sports a black helmet, black armour, and a fantastically impractical black cloak. The film’s centerpiece is a ritualized duel (with laser weapons rather than swords) between him and Luke’s mentor: so the overarching genre is probably Arthuriana. 

Just as each space-ship is dwarfed by the size of the next, so the moral volume of the action is turned up throughout the movie. Our whining rebel-without-a-cause becomes a rebel against the evil Empire, and ends up putting his T-16 flying skills to good use on a suicide mission to save the revolutionaries from being wiped out by Vader. The moment Luke destroys the Empire’s Ultimate Weapon is also the moment he becomes a Jedi Knight and therefore the moment he becomes a man. It’s also, incidentally, the moment that the cynical Han Solo develops a moral conscience: a masterpiece of economical plotting. 

The films ends with all the heroes getting a medal and living happily ever after. People queued round the block to see it in 1977 and some of them experienced it 6 times in a single week.

Star Wars was followed some three years later by a wholly unnecessary sequel, branded, not as Star Wars II (this was the era of Jaws II and Rocky III) but as "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back". This  not only turned Star Wars in to "Star Wars Episode IV" but implied the existence of three other films which no-one had ever seen. Until 1999, this seemed like a very good joke.

The second film featured all the main characters from Star Wars — even Ben Kenobi gets a cameo, despite being dead. It gives us our first glimpse of the Evil Emperor, introduces us to giant four legged tanks known imaginatively as "walkers" and a floating city straight out of Flash Gordon and the Hawk Men. But the tone of Empire Strikes Back had nothing whatsoever in common with the tone of Star Wars. The fairy-tale structure — indeed, any structure whatsoever — is abandoned. Instead, we are asked to follow two separate, highly episodic plot threads. In one, Luke Skywalker receives cod-philosophical instruction from a swamp dwelling Muppet who we are supposed to believe mentored Alec Guinness; in the other, Han Solo and the Princess are chased by Darth Vader through fields of asteroids, swallowed by a giant space worm and end up taking refuge with one of Han’s barely trustworthy associates. 

Producer George Lucas obviously had more money to throw at this movie, and much of it remains visually breath-taking even thirty five years later. But nothing in it has any of the charm of, say, the dwarfish second-hand robot-dealers or the alien-filled outpost from the original movie. 

The film’s impact depends on the revelation that Darth Vader has been Luke’s father all along. Nothing in the Empire Strikes Back foreshadows this; and it actively contradicts everything we were told in Star Wars. The revelation is so stunning and so emotionally charged that the film doesn’t so much end, as merely stop after this point. Since the climactic battle, which the good guys lose, is place at the beginning of the movie, some people have speculated that Lucas wanted to recreate the feelings of a schoolboy sneaking into the cinema and catching the second half of one movie and the first half of a different one. It is inexplicably regarded as the high point of the sextology, although in 1980 it was universally regarded as a baffling disappointment. 

Sometime during the filming of Star Wars, George Lucas encountered the mythological snake-oil salesman Joseph Campbell, and became convinced that Star Wars was a version of the "journey of the hero" and Skywalker an avatar of the Hero With a Thousand Faces. Since Campbell’s universal key to all mythologies amounts to the assertion that mythical heroes tend to go on a journey, encounter obstacles, and in the end achieve something it is quite hard to see how it could have failed to do so. By 1983 Lucas had swallowed Campbell’s bullshit hook, line and sinker and spent the third Star Wars movie retrofitting the first two to fit in with some of his ideas. 

Return of the Jedi feels like the culmination of a trilogy. Themes, musical and visual, are revisited. Jabba the Hutt and the Emperor, who were only talked about in the first two films, finally come on to the stage. We do the climax of the first film (many little ships against one huge battle station) all over again, twice as big and about half as fun. We re-do the land battle from Empire Strikes back, only smaller, and with teddy bears.

After some preliminary loose-end tying in which the charming Tunisian sequences from Star Wars are re-imagined as a computer game and feminist princess Leia gets to dress like the cover girl of a Gor novel, Luke-the-farm-boy commits fully to the role of Jungian Archetype. He surrenders to Darth Vader; who takes him before the Evil Emperor who tries to turn him to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader, who has spent the last three movies torturing princesses, blowing up planets and strangling underlings draws the line at watching his son being zapped by evil lighting bolts, and decides, literally at the last moment, to turn good and destroy the Emperor. 

So the film ends with the teddy bears — furry alien primitives with bones through the noses and a marked tendency to put white people into cooking pots — celebrating a Great Victory. The Emperor is dead, Vader is redeemed, the Empire is defeated, and they all lived happily ever after.

And there, for 16 years, the matter rested.

 "Oh, dear."
"Why 'oh dear'?"
"You are in love."
"Is that bad?"
"For a monk, it does present certain practical problems."
Name of the Rose

If Star Wars is the story of how Everyboy became Everyman then Star Wars "episode IV" is a stand-alone movie with an entirely satisfying beginning, middle and end. Luke doesn’t need wilderness training from a Muppet to become a Jedi Knight: he became one the second he trusted to the Force and destroyed the Death Star.

If, on the other hand, Star Wars is the story of how a group of peasants with bows and arrows defeated a huge technocracy by virtue of their innate goodness and spirituality (apocalypse when?) then Return of the Jedi barely counts as an ending at all. Sure, they’ve blown up the Death Star again and sure, they’ve killed Darth Vader’s boss, but isn’t this meant to be an Empire which extends across the whole galaxy? How much difference is the assassination of one politician and the destruction of one weapon likely to make? Several comic-book and paperback "continuations" show our heroes waking up the morning after the party and resuming the battle against the remains of the Empire, which rather spoils the Ewok victory dance.

Return of the Jedi can only be thought of as a conclusion if you turn the trilogy on its head and make the villain the hero — if Star Wars is not "the adventures of Luke Skywalker" but "the redemption of Darth Vader". And between 1999 and 2005 this is what George Lucas set out to do, ploddingly re-working the back story to this affect through a trilogy of monumentally misjudged "prequels".

The Phantom Menace (Episode I) is a kind of protoevangeleum, showing us Darth Vader when he was a starry eyed child named Anakin (Jake Lloyd). Much mumbo-jumbo is spoken over him: he is "the chosen one", "conceived by the midi-chlorians" who will "bring balance to the force". Young Darth himself wanders about the set, blundering into spaceships, winning chariot races, saying "yippee" and generally being as un-messianic as it is possible to imagine. We are left with no hint as to why this likable moppet became cinemas most iconic super-villain. The film works best if you try to ignore the Darth Vader angle and just see it as the adventures of a spunky little slave-kid. 

Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (Episodes II and III) depict Vader (Hayden Christensen) between the ages of 19 and 23 and offer various reasons why he became evil: anger against the savages who killed his mother; hubris because he thinks he’s a better Jedi than his master; fascist theories about authoritarian rule; belief that the Dark Side could resurrect the dead; fury and grief when he causes the death of his lover Amidala. The religion of the Jedi Knights — in Star Wars, merely a non-threatening, non-specific polytheism — becomes explicitly Buddhist: emotion, and attachment in general, are now paths to the Dark Side. The Jedi are revealed to be celibate and Anakin’s love for Amidala is the ultimate cause of his fall. The child Anakin’s "sin" was that he loved his mother; the teenaged Anakin’s offense is that he lusted after Natalie Portman, as which of us can honestly say we haven’t. [*]

In the background, we see the machinations by which someone called Palpatine gets himself elected President of the Galaxy, votes himself an invincible army of clones, and declares himself Emperor. This, it transpires, is part of a longer and much more evil game: Palpatine is in reality Darth Sideous, the last in a long chain of evil Jedi Knights called the Sith. Palpatine becoming Emperor puts the embodiment of ontological evil in charge of the Universe. Vader is, of course, Palpatine’s anointed successor.

The three prequels are not, in fact, anywhere near as bad as people sometimes say. If you treat them as six hours of space opera, replete with gladiatorial arenas, chariot races, capital ship battles, dog-fights and martial arts confrontations, with an undercurrent of galaxy-wide diplomacy, Faustian pacts and machinations at the center of government,  they are a lot of fun. They are probably much closer to what George Lucas intended Star Wars to be than Star Wars itself was. But there is an underlying silliness of which comedy Jamaican fall-guy Jar-Jar Binks is only the most egregious example. Jake Lloyd nor Hayden Christensen are poor substitutes for Mark Hamill, and instead of Harrison Ford’s witty, cynical side-kick we have an endless stream of portentous Jedi preachers. The films somehow manage at the same time to be too silly and not nearly enough fun.  

But they served their purpose. They redefined what Star Wars is all about. The evil of the Empire flowed from, and only from, Emperor Palpatine. Darth Vader was Palpatine’s apprentice; Luke would have been Vader’s. With Palpatine and Vader dead, the infection has been cured. The funeral pyre in the woods really was the end of the story.

And there, once again, the matter rested.

[*] When Ben told Luke "I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father" Luke did not reply "Don’t be silly, the Jedi didn’t marry."

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Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"in a vaguely imagined but compelling visualized space-opera future."

Unlike some space opera, like Aniara or Agent Spatio-Temporel Valérian, there is in fact no reference to the present existence on Earth being in any way in the past.

That is, that I know of. I only saw 1977 (at age 9) and Revenge of the Sith (at 37).

One might decide to take "long ago" seriously.

One can imagine Earth's humanity as being implanted FROM the space world of Star Wars. For instance. Not that I find this believable, but just because there is a genre where most stories are set in future does not mean each story is so.

Precisely as a genre usually set in other words wholly or partly does not imply that LotR and Conan the Barbarian are so.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Agreed. Should have said "futuristic".

I don't think the "long time ago" means "in the far distant past of our universe" though. I think it means "this isn't what actually happened: it's a story -- the tales the people tell about what happened."

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I think it means both - it's a story as opposed to fact, but internally to story also "in the distant past of our universe".