Showing posts sorted by relevance for query revenge of the sith. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query revenge of the sith. Sort by date Show all posts

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (3)

But Andrew, remember: you are very, very old. "Revenge of the Sith" is not intended for you. It's basically a kids action movie. If you had seen "Revenge of the Sith" when you were 12, or even 12A, you would have loved it.

You would have rushed home and bought the book, the comic, all the guide books. In fact, you would have gone to see the film already having read the comic. You would have known the script by heart and known when a good bit was coming. You would have narrated the plot to your baby sister until she wanted to throw her teddy bear in your face.

Kids in your class with whom you had previously had nothing in common would have turned out to be your friends when you discovered that they also had creased-up copies of the "Revenge of the Sith" paper-back novelisation in their Addidas hold-alls.

You would have got special dispensation from your form teacher to read the new issue of "Revenge of the Sith Weekly" on Wednesday mornings during class-reading time (*), after showing him that it contained quite a lot of text and big, grown up words in the speech bubbles.

Using cardboard boxes and felt-tip pens, you would make a sequence of progressively weak attempts to conctruct replicas of a Obi-Wan Kenobi's Jedi Starfighter in your bedroom.

You would join the "Revenge of the Sith" fanclub and try to start local chapters among your school friends.

You would become so familiar with the characters through the comics and toys that when you went back to the cinema for the third, fifth, tenth, twelfth viewing, it would almost come as a shock to see these comic-book, four-inch high action figures appearing in "real life"on the screen.

You would have favourite bits of dialogue. You would recite faviourite bits of dialgoue and act them out with your friends.

You would walk past your Junior School, look through the window of your first classroom, and it would cross your mind that when you were sitting there crosslegged drinking milk with a straw some impossibly long time ago, seven years or maybe eight, "Revenge of the Sith" had not been made – maybe not even thought of. Thinking about "a time before 'Revenge of the Sith' "would make you think about other strange notions: time and mortality.

You would start to notice that they were no-longer talking about "Revenge of the Sith" on Blue Peter and in the Daily Mirror; that the toys were harder and harder to find in the shops, and that it was harder and harder to find a cinema where the film was showing.

You would start to wait for the sequels.

You would notice that your friends had become less interested in running a local chapter of the "Revenge of the Sith" fan club, and that it had in any case never been very obvious what such an organisation might actually do.

People would start to snigger at your "Revenge of the Sith" pencil case.

"Revenge of the Sith" would gradually cease to be the film that "everyone" is talking about. People would start to identify you as "that "Revenge of the Sith" nerd."

"Revenge of the Sith" would no longer be the first comic you read on a Wednesday. But the older issues would still retain their magic, and certain specific images would retain their aura. (The colours; the typscripts; the design would be as important – more important – than what you remember of the actual movie.)

You would start to wonder if you would ever see "Revenge of the Sith" again, because, like Disney cartoons, it would never be shown on TV.

One Christmas, you would watch "Revenge of the Sith" on TV.

Eventually, you would not be twelve any more, and "Revenge of the Sith II" would come out, and everybody would be talking about it again, but, even though you would see it a dozen times and even though you would agree that it was even better than the original, you would feel on the outisde, because, somehow, "Revenge of the Sith" is special, special to you, and this sequel which everyone is talking about is, well, only a movie.


Or, on the other hand, maybe not.

(*) Literacy hour? (Typing the words make me want to vomit.)

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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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Monday, May 30, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (2)

"It says here that this is Star Wars part III. That's funny. I would have thought that there had been more of them than that."

Overheard in cinema.

Major geek movies create an aura of religious fervor. "Star Wars" (*) is holy writ. Hating "Phantom Menace" is an object of faith. "Star Wars" is the greatest film ever made: "Empire Strikes Back" was a travesty. Or else "Star Wars" was a pointless B movie whose only merit was as a set up for "Episode V".

Who do you love more, Mummy or Daddy? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

Of course "Star Wars" is not 'just another movie', or just another series of movies. "Revenge of the Sith" considered on its merits, is a spectacular, galaxy spanning space operetta, with battles, high powered galactic politics, mysticism and tragedy. Parsifal considered as a pulp serial written by Doc Smith. What's not to like? Thousands of starships zoom across the screen; spectacular planet-scapes created almost in passing, billion dollar special effects as give-away lines. Did you ever stand in W.H Smiths drooling at the rows of "sci-fi" paper backs with lurid covers and lamenting that you would never, ever be able to read them all? George made this film for you, and for you alone. But would I have actually bothered with the movie if I wasn't already committed to these characters – or, if you want to be cynical, to the Star Wars "brand"?

I ask myself the same question at 7PM each Saturday.


We've known Darth Vader for a long, long time. He is no longer just a movie character: he's a hieroglyph for "evil" (Or, if you prefer, for "Jungian Shadow" or "Freudian Father Figure"). Some comedians – John Cleese, Eric Morcambe, Tommy Cooper – could get a laugh just by walking onto the stage. There was nothing especially funny about their physical shape; but somehow, their presence reminded you of every episode of "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers". Darth Vader – his mask, the sound of his breathing, the Imperial March - triggers off a similar kind of Pavlovian response in a way that a big entrance by Just Some Villain never ever could. If "Revenge of the Sith" ends up delivering an emotional punch – and with qualifications, I think that it does – it's a punch that the film hasn't earned. It's paper money, backed up by a gold standard that hadn't been minted since "Empire Strikes Back."


I have a smart answer to the question "What do you think of the 'Star Wars' prequels." It is this: "I like ALL of the "Star Wars" movies, apart from "Empire Strikes Back", and the ones came afterwards."

It's a joke, of course. But it is true that when I saw "Empire Strikes Back" at the age of 15, my first reaction was disappointment. Whatever else this all-over-the-place without an ending movie where the good guys lose might have been; it wasn't the sequel to "Star Wars" for which I'd waited three years. In retrospect, "The Empire Strikes Back" was exactly the film which a 15 year old "Star Wars" fan needed to see. The very fact that we'd seen the first film when we were 12 and waited three years for the sequel guaranteed that what Lucas served up, however good, would be a disappointment. And that's what the film's all about: disillusionment, disapoinment, the demytholigisation of Luke Skywalker's world. Darth Vader tortures Han Solo and threatens to freeze Luke Skywalker; and then, in five words, destroys his world. Dad was evil. Your mentor was a liar. Deal with it, kid.

Did Lucas "intend" this? Not at any conscious level. He is an accidental film maker. Before The Force got fully appropriated into Buddhism, it's ethic was "let go of your conscious self and act on instinct" I don't know if that's a good code for living, or whether it would really help you blow up battle stations, but it works well enough as a guide to creating works of art. (**) Put down the first thing which comes into your head, and it will probably be interesting. Write what your conscious mind tells you you ought to write, which is probably what you think Mummy will approve of, and it will almost certainly be trite. Forget what your teachers said -- sketch or scribble or jam. George did what he felt was right, of course, and ended up with the film we needed to see at the time we saw it. It was in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally, it became a classic.

That's why I found it so hard to hate "Phantom Menace": I'd already gone through my disillusionment with the saga, and decided that I could love "Empire Strikes Back" for being what it is, even if it wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be. "Phantom Menace" may not be a good prequel to "Star Wars", but it's a more than adequate sequel to "Return of the Jedi."

A more serious answer to the question "What do you think of the "Star Wars" prequels?" would go as follows. George Lucas is producing what sci-fi writers used to call "a fix-up", a novel which has been assembled out of previously published short stories. He's like Niggle, taking his first, brilliant, rendering of a single leaf and physically pasting it into a vast, uncompletable painting of a tree, and then a forest. Lucas has taken the film which I loved and made it a single chapter in a science-mythical saga. The process of pasting the fairy tale into the epic drains the original of almost everything I loved about it. The innocent farm boy who rescued the princess turns out to be a second generation Messiah who has a role to play in the culmination of a conspiracy which goes back 1,000 years. I like the "Star Wars Saga" less than I like "Star Wars"; but I still think "the Saga" is a good and interesting thing.


So,. "Revenge of the Sith". Secular critics hate it, almost on principle. The review in the Indy said that the film would only appeal to people who collected the figurines. (Since that has included about 70% of the male population under the age of 40 that's not a terribly damning criticism.) Geekdom is already splitting along denominational lines: I've heard "better than 'Episode IV' " and "worse than 'Phantom Menace'', two statements which are pretty absurd. A lot of us are discussing the meanings of lines, points of connection with the previous movies, possible sequels, and the extent to which it causes some "Extended Universe" novels to be relegated from the canon to the apocrypha.

To "review" this movie therefore seems almost redundant. We'd all decided in advance what we were going to think about "Revenge of the Sith" and two and a half hours in a cinema are hardly going to change our mind.


Maybe "Revenge of the Sith" will turn out to have been the film that "Star Wars" fans who are pushing 40 need to see. As the fellow said, it's too early to say..

(*) "Star Wars" is the title of a film which George Lucas made in 1977. "A New Hope" is an after-the-event sub-title, appropriate only for considering the movie in the context of the large work.

(**) That is to say, for producing sketches and first drafts. If you learn to trust your feelings, write down what comes into your head and then polish it, improve it, and listen to criticisms, you may end up with "Sgt. Pepper". If you run away with the idea that you can publish your first drafts, then you are only ever going to produce the White album.

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Sunday, May 08, 2022

I Grow Tired Of Writing This Article, So It Will Be The Last Time... (2)

So. In Episode Eleven of Season Six of ther Clone Wars ("Voices"), Yoda receives a mysterious spectral message from Liam Neeson, who has spent the previous seventy episodes being dead. (Liam Neeson has form for this. He played Aslan in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and had a walk on as God in the still astonishing Rev.) It seems that, as a general rule, when a Jedi dies he goes to join an impersonal, Buddhist after-life in which he is one with the Force. Qui-Gon, on the other hand, has continued to exist as an actual personality.

There is some narrative to-ing and fro-ing: the Jedi Council all lay hands on Yoda like charismatics at a healing service, and then suspend him in an isolation tank. With Artoo Deetoo at his side, Yoda absconds from the Jedi hospital and flies to -- you'll like this -- Dagobah. There he encounters the late Qui-Gon Jinn, who manifests as a cloud of Tinker-Bell-like Pixie Dust. Yoda undergoes a Test under the same tree where Luke faced/will face the vision of Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back. Yoda's vision is a flashback/flash forward to the destruction of the Jedi and the Senate which happened/will happen in Revenge of the Sith. Having passed the test, Qui-Gon sends Yoda on his way to a planet at the exact center of the galaxy "where life first arose". One hates to intrude on fandom's collective grief, but this is also the planet where the Midichlorians originated. It looks and feels like a very trippy computer game, or possibly a Rodney Matthews album cover. Yoda spends most of the next episode ("Destiny") jumping from one floating pink mushroom to another. He encounters a group of floaty masked Force ghosts, who direct him to the next part of the selection process, which involves confronting and mastering his Dark Side.

It turns out that Yoda's Dark Side is pretty indistinguishable from Andy Serkis playing Gollum; but since Yoda confronted and mastered it some time ago, he isn't detained for very long. So in the final episode ("Sacrifice") he is sent off to the planet Moribund, where the Sith originally originated. In the Secondary Canon they came from Korriban and in Rise of Skywalker they came from Exegol, but here they come from Moriband. Yoda meets a giant Balrog which claims to be the ghost of Darth Bane. He was the Lord who first had the idea of allowing the Sith to die out except for a single master who could pass the dark teaching on to a single apprentice. ("Always two there are.") Yoda then has a complex vision in which he fights Darth Sideous, and again avoids falling to the Dark Side. So the Floaty Force Ghosts agree to share the secret of eternal life with him. They also tell him that there is another Skywalker. This is, of course, what Yoda told/will tell Luke in Return of the Jedi. I don't know what Yoda understands by it at this point: he doesn't yet know that Anakin and Amidala are married, so he certainly doesn't know that she is pregnant. 

So: what are we to do with this kind of thing?

It isn't, compared with the best episodes of ther Clone Wars, all that much fun. Not many buckles are swashed and few cracks are wised. The story exists purely in order to paper over some admittedly substantial cracks in the Prequel Trilogy.

In the final seconds of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas pulled out of thin air the idea that Qui-Gon has taught Yoda how to survive being dead; and that Yoda is going to pass the secret on to Obi-Wan. This was itself a fairly contrived attempt to ret-con a small gap in the plot of the Original Trilogy. Obi Wan says that if Darth Vader strikes him, Obi-Wan, down then he, Obi-Wan, will become more powerful than he, Darth Vader, can possibly imagine. Vader is surprised when Alec Guiness's body vanishes. This is emphasised in the comic, the novel, and the LP versions, and was presumably a stage direction in the ur-screen-play. Ben's words to Vader are never followed up. When Yoda dies, his body also evaporates; and we see his Ghost, along with the ghosts of Ben and Luke's Father together in the final seconds of Return of the Jedi. I think Lucas, at that stage, rather intended us to forget the broad hint that Ben's death was unusual and treat dying, vanishing and Force ghostliness as a normal part of the Jedi career path. Yoda's remark at the end of Revenge of the Sith confirms that Ben was indeed a special case, and that dead Jedi don't habitually hang around outside their protege's space ships encouraging them to switch off their targeting computer's. But it's a pretty huge plot point to be resolved in a single line. The cartoon episodes are a valiant attempt to give the ending of the film, and therefore the entire saga, a little more coherence. 

Is this kind of plot-hole filling a worthwhile exercise? Some people might think that if you go to the trouble of setting your cartoon in the big blank space between Episode II and Episode III then you owe it to your viewers to fill the space up with Stuff; and that resolutions to dangling plot threads are very much the kind of stuff you ought to fill it with. Other people might say that if George Lucas decided to leave a big blank space in the middle of his composite artwork then David Feloni ought to refrain from scrawling graffiti on it.

This kind of thing arguably compounds the problems inherent in prequels. We know that Vader / Anakin was a good Jedi who was consumed by the Dark Side of the Force: we didn't particularly need three films showing us that fall in slow motion. We knew that Ben continued to talk to Luke Skywalker after he died: we didn't particularly need a new scene which tells us "That's because he had acquired a secret Talking-To-People-After-You-Die power." But knowing that, we didn't particularly need an hour and half of cartoons saying "Finding out the secret, finding out the secret, here is Yoda, finding out the secret."

What these episodes do, fairly successfully, is add significance to the problematic scenes. I suppose one could say that they apologise for them, or in the jargon, redeem them. Yoda's revelation about finding the secret of immortality comes out of the blue in Revenge of the Sith. It is narratively too easy. Eternal life is the kind of thing that sons of God lay down their lives for; not a knack one learns in the same spirit as a new Yoga position. The cartoons show us that Yoda had to go on a full-on Vision Quest to learn the secret. He refuses the quest, meets a mentor, descends into the underworld, faces a number of tests and temptations and rises again with the Boon that will Save the World. So the secret of the Whills was not a random plot device but -- from a certain point of view -- the pivotal point on which the whole saga turns. 

"Qui Gon Jin has revealed to Yoda that he must manifest his consciousness after death if he is to preserve the Jedi order" yells the melodramatic narrator. The Floaty Force Ghosts say that Yoda needs the secret because "he is to teach one who will save the universe from a great imbalance". Anakin's destiny is to kill the Emperor; Luke's destiny is to bring Anakin back to the light so he can kill the Emperor; Yoda's destiny is to train Luke so he can bring Anakin back to the light; Ben's destiny is to send Luke to Yoda to be trained... No-one can fulfil their respective destinies if Yoda doesn't learn how to do immortalling.

I like the parallelism between Dead Qui Gon sending Yoda and Artoo to Dagobah; and Dead Obi-Wan sending Luke and Artoo there in Empire Strikes Back. Luke thinks there is something familiar about the place, but it turns out that Artoo has been there before.

We have noted before that Star Wars is presented as a fairy tale; and fairy tale needs a story-teller. There is a long-cherished fan theory that the person telling the story is, in fact, Artoo Deetoo and that he is not always a reliable narrator. Artoo is portrayed as being the barer of the secret plans (with a Secret Mission, no less); and the one who travels alongside Luke to destroy the Death Star, and alongside Anakin in all of his big missions; a close confident of Amidala; an endless source of increasingly unlikely gimmicks and gadgets as the saga progresses. So, naturally, Artoo would spin the story so that he was Yoda's companion on his most important voyage. I don't "believe" this theory, any more than I "believe" that Jar-Jar Binks is a secret Sith Lord. But I am quite sure that Dave Feloni is aware of the theory - just as the Beatles became aware of the Paul-is-Dead hoax - and that he deliberately plants clues for the fans to find. 

We get a certain amount of new, er, Lore. Qui-Gon says that there are two different Forces: the Living Force, which resides in each living thing in the universe and the Cosmic Force, which is the sum total of the Living Force of everyone who has ever lived. The Midichlorians mediate between the Living and Cosmic sides of the coin. Lucas's early, inelegant scripts for what was still called Ther Star Wars talked confusingly about the Bogan Force and the Force of Others and various other sub-Forces. Qui-Gon, who didn't learn enough mystical stuff to manifest as a Force Ghost is represented by little shiny sparkly things -- which I think are supposed to represent the particles of the Living Force which were left behind when his body died, but have remained separate from the Cosmic Force. Jedism doesn't seem to be in a strict sense pantheistic: the Force is not mystical or supernatural, but a component of the physical universe. There have to be Midichlorians, otherwise we might start to think that the Force was literally God or the Soul. 

So, then. A great secret Yoda has learned, and passed it onto Obi-Wan he has. When Revenge of the Sith first came out, I said that this felt like the pencilled-in sketch for a different film. Two competing heresies, passed down from master to apprentice, submerged in the monolithic but moribund Knights of the Holy Space Grail. When the time is fulfilled both the Whills and Sith will reveal themselves and one or the other will take over the Order and therefore the Universe. A far from uninteresting idea for a space fantasy epic; but not the space fantasy epic that Lucas in the end made. It does not magically come into being just because Yoda says "An old friend has found the path to immortality". And it doesn't become any solider because we've seen Yoda playing at Joseph Campbell three weeks running.

It seems to me that there are two ways you can do this stuff. You can look at the existing lore, cartoons and computer games and all, and use them as a plot-creation engine. You can, in effect, ask "Granted Ashoka and granted Luke Skywalker and granted Admiral Thrawn, what would happen if....." The cross-over sequences in the Mandalorian and the Book of Boba Fett may have offended the continuity-averse, but they seemed to me to be stories which are worth telling "What if Vader had an apprentice before his fall; what if she were still living; what if Luke met her?" is a valid and interesting question; and it would still be a valid and interesting question even if Ashoka were not, minute for minute, the longest-standing character in the Star Wars saga.

But the Yoda material is not building new stories from the components of existing ones. It's creating new stories in order to patch holes in old stories, and so far as I can see the hole is not patched. (On no possible view could Darth Vader have known Qui-Gon's secret teaching, so how could he possibly retain his consciousness and attend the Ewok bonfire party with Ben and Yoda?)

And we know the answer. Lucas wanted us to see Yoda and Obi-Wan at the end of Return of the Jedi because it was a nice scene to end the movie on. He wanted to show Luke's Father, back when Luke's father looked like Sebastian Shaw because he wanted to make the point that Luke's quest had succeeded and his father had been redeemed. And then he went back and retrospectively added Hayden Christensen to the cameo, because, well, why wouldn't he? Qui-Gon wasn't there because Lucas hadn't dreamt him up yet. It's more like 

So: anyway. There is my model of good Canon versus bad Canon.

Using existing material to create new stories: Good.

Making new stories to patch holes in old stories: Bad.

Ther Clone Wars is mostly good canon. Go watch it.

Monday, May 02, 2022

I Grow Tired Of Writing This Article, So It Will Be The Last Time (1)

I want to talk about the last four episodes of Season 6 of ther Clone Wars.

Ther Clone Wars is a Star Wars cartoon series. It originally ran from 2008 to 2014. A final Seventh Season came out in 2020; which led directly into a new cartoon called The Bad Batch .

Season 1 - 6 took place in between Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Season 7 ran more or less alongside Episode III. The Bad Batch takes up the story where Revenge of the Sith leaves off, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Republic.

It must always be referred to as Ther Clone Wars to distinguish it from an earlier, 2003 series of animated shorts which was just called Clone Wars.

Nearly everyone agrees that Star Wars Episodes I, II and III ("the prequels") were not very good. The level of not-very-goodness is disputed. Some people think they were a bit of a disappointment and not nearly as much fun as the original trilogy. Some people think that George Lucas raped their childhoods. But everyone with even a passing interest in Star Wars accepts that they are, and I am awfully sorry to use this word, canon.

You may very well think that Phantom Menace spoiled A New Hope and that Jar-Jar Binks was not particularly funny: but if I tell you that in ther Clone Wars the Jedi Council on Coruscant gives Anakin a Padawan named Ashoka, you know what a padawan is, and where Corsucant is, and what I mean by the Jedi Council.

It may be that when Princess Leia says that years ago Obi-Wan served her father in the Clone Wars, you still imagine an army of Jedi Knights fighting against an army of Clones. It may be that you imagine Jedi as Knights in Shining Armour rather than Samurai. It may be that you think that that version of the Clone Wars would have been more fun. But I don't think that anyone who is still interested in Star Wars remotely doubts that Lucas's backstory, clunkily expounded though it might have been, is what really happened.

I grant that this may be a No-True-Scotsman fallacy: everyone who likes Star Wars 'believes in' the prequels, because everyone who doesn't believe in the prequels long ago stopped liking Star Wars. 

Ther Clone Wars went a very long way to reconciling those two contradictory feelings. We might even say that it redeemed the Prequels. Maybe the kid-friendly animated format allowed Lucas to loosen up and offer us what is essentially "Revenge of the Sith, only fun." Or maybe he just sub-contracted his world to creators who were less jaded about it. At any rate, ther Clone Wars gives us a series of heroic, swashbuckling war stories in which Obi-Wan, Anakin and Ashoka fight endless thrilling battles against Christopher Lee and General Greivous, with light-sabre duels and space dogfights and literal cliffhangers, but with a mounting sense that Anakin's destiny is a bit on the Dark Side. 

The cinematic prequels were not movies so much as exercises in back-story management. The cartoon series is much more in the realm of Lucas's original vision -- Flash Gordon with Politics.

A young Republican officer starts talking about the need for authoritarian rule; Obi-Wan says that this is not the Jedi Way, but Anakin thinks he may have a point. The officer's name, is, of course, Tarkin. The Third On The Left in the Jedi Council ("Plo Koon") goes off on missions and quests. A Young Boy falls in first with a group of clones and then with a group of Bounty Hunters: he turns out to be the son of Jango Fett. (This is why Bobba tells Cadd Bane, the gunfighter/bounty hunter in the live action Book of Bobba Fett "I am not a little boy any more".) Darth Maul recovers from his death and briefly becomes dictator of the planet Mandalor. Obi-Wan has a dalliance with a Mandalorian duchess, who meets a tragic end. It may be she first gave him the nick-name Ben.

Some people like this kind of thing; sone people find it a bit annoying. It is not that surprising that a Star Wars cartoon contains references and quotes from the Star Wars movies; but we may not have been expecting Star Wars live-action shows to quote from and refer to the cartoons. I suppose animation is regarded by many people as a junior art-form. For a long time cartoon spin-offs of movies were disposable fare for Saturday morning kids slots. Who now remembers Bill and Teds Excellent Adventures and the Real Ghostbusters? Gene Roddenbury took the animated Star Trek rather seriously, but that didn't stop the BBC putting it in the Scooby Doo slot.

I saw someone complain on Twitter recently that in order to understand the significance of the Dark Sabre in the Mandalorian you first had to watch several hundred hours of cartoons. (In fairness, they may have meant that some Star Wars fans talk as if that was the case.) This is not literally true; you could watch the whole of Clone Wars and Rebels in sixty or seventy hours. And you certainly don't need to go back to the cartoon to follow the live action show. Everything you need is explained right there on screen: the Dark Sabre is a kind of Mandalorian Excalibur. The person with the sword has the right to rule the planet.

Does knowing that there are several other stories about the Dark Sabre that you have not watched necessarily make this one less fun? 

Does having watched several other stories about the Dark Sabre necessarily make this one more fun? 

Is the Lord of the Rings a better book once you have read the Silmarillion and know who Turin and Turgon and Even Beren Himself were? Is it exactly the same book whether you know who they are or not? Or does the reference to off-stage-lore completely ruin the book for you and make you chuck it aside in disgust?

Will I get the jokes in Guards, Guards if I haven't read all forty one Discworld novels? Is there any point in going to see Dune if I haven't read Frank Herbert's son's nineteen prequels? 

Is this, in fact, exactly the same essay I wrote about Doctor Who last week?

What Kind of a Star Wars fan are you?

1: "I didn't realise that this TV show contains references to other TV shows, cartoons and movies."

I have a colleague who remarked that they have been greatly enjoying the Mandalorian despite never having seen a Star War before. She doesn't see it as part of a saga: she's just enjoying it as cowboys in space. 

I see R2 Units and X-Wings and Jawas. She sees, presumably, Robots and Aliens and Space Ships.

2: "I know that this TV show contains references to other TV shows, cartoons and movies, but I don't think that it matters."

I watched Frasier without ever having seen an instalment of Cheers. From time to time a character from the old series turned up in Seattle. It meant there was the odd in-joke I didn't get. I didn't feel the need to go away and watch the previous series (although I understand it's very good) but neither did I say Kelsey Gramer hates me I have to go away and watch two hundred hours of comedy set in a bar before I understand why Dr Crane has a son by previous marriage.

3: "I know that this TV show contains references to other TV shows, cartoons and movies and I think that is all part of the fun: I positively enjoy collecting all the story elements and spotting the connections."

Ooo, Sir, me, me, me, me, me!

4: "I know that this TV show contains references to other TV shows, cartoons and movies and this ruins it for me."

Some people are completists. Some people feel that they can only watch this series if they watch all the other series as well. But they don't want to watch all the other series. So they are cross with this series for mentioning the old shows, and cross with the old shows for existing. And possibly cross with the new show for existing as well. 

People who take this view often pretend that when people talk about ther Clone Wars they are actually talking about the 1980s Droids and Ewoks TV shows. 

It may be a sort of a narrative Fear of Missing Out: if I can't have it ALL, then I want NONE OF IT. It may be a kind of moral principle, that all stories should be self-contained and if a story is not self-contained it is breaking the rules. Some people were cross with ther Batman because it didn't show the origin of Bruce and Commissioner Gordon's friendship, but kind of assumed you already knew.

We should, not of course forget that there is also

5: Somewhere in between.

This category includes nearly everyone reading this, and indeed, nearly everyone in the world. 

There is no doubt that Star Wars has become quite complicated. Before The Force Awakens, Lucasfilms was rather pragmatic about the Universe. All stories were canon, but some were more canon than others. (There was primary canon and secondary canon and tertiary canon, with the movies at the top and the holiday special at the bottom and most of the novels somewhere in between.) Since the reboot, there are only two kinds of story: "happened", and "didn't happen" with everything that did happen fitting into a fairly coherent timeline. 

This creates a rather sprawling narrative architecture: if you took a step back and tried to take it all in with a single glance, your brain would quite probably turn into to processed peas. Perhaps that is the real difference between the Type 4 Star Wars fan (who hates lore and canon) and the Type 3 Star Wars fan (who revels in them.) One prefers a perfectly formed work of art that you can see and appreciate the shape of; the other prefers a huge baroque maze that you will get lost in. Oedipus Rex versus The Faery Queene; The Go-Between versus Ulysses; G Minor Tocata and Fugue over The Ring Cycle. 

It is no secret which side of the fence I come down on.

Perfectly sensible adults who read proper books and watch proper movies have claimed to be confused by the fact that Episodes I, II and III came out after Episodes IV, V and VI. Oh these whacky space fiction fans who don't even count like we do! I wonder how they would cope with the fact that the cartoon, which fills in the big blank space between the fifth and sixth (by which I mean the second and third) movies started twelve months after the second (by which I mean the first) trilogy was complete.

We are not talking about crossovers. There have always been crossovers. Scooby Doo met Batman: amusing people have pointed out that Batman met Alien and Alien met Predator and Predator met Terminator so Terminator and Scooby Doo share a setting. That's neither very interesting nor very funny. Batman gatecrashed Superman's radio show before World War II; and Stan Lee treated the Fantastic Four as part of Spider-Man's supporting cast before Philip Larkin had discovered sexual intercourse. But we are still talking about separate narrative units which happen to allude to each other. No-one was ever really suggesting that the Fantastic Four and Milly the Model made sense as a single narrative. Someone has tried the experiment of reading every Marvel Comic in order and pretending it was one big story. But that was never how they were meant to be read.

Alastair Grey's novel Lanark is divided into four parts: the first part describes the protagonist in a kind of allegorical purgatory; the second and third parts show his realistic life in 1960s Glasgow; the final part resumes his posthumous odyssey. As a kind of jape, the index lists the books as Part 4, part 1, part 2 and part 3, in that order: but he notes in his epilogue (which comes in the middle) that lots of books are intended to be read in one order but eventually though of in a different order. Godfather Part II, which embeds a prequel inside a sequel, springs obviously to mind. There is also a quite good little movie called Citizen Kane.

This is why there is no sensible answer to the question about the correct order in which to read the Narnia books. You should read the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe first, but eventually think of the Magicians Nephew first. The question "What order should I read or watch them in?" only really applies to the very first reading; and there is really no such thing as a first reading. We all know who Luke Skywalker's dad is and what Aslan is an allegory of and who Rosebud was before we start. 

Many years ago I proposed that Star Wars should be thought of, not as a straight narrative line but as a spiral. My idea was that the Prequels to some extent changed the meaning of the Original Trilogy; and that both "meanings" could exist in your head at the same time. When Obi-Wan tells Luke that Vader killed his father, he is both telling the truth and lying; when Luke kisses Leia, it's both a flirtatious snog between two teenagers and a slightly creepy moment between two siblings. 

I expressed that thought as a swirly flow chart in which Star-Wars-Once-You-Have-Seen-Empire-Strikes-Back is a different movie from Star-Wars-Before-You-Have-Seen-Empire-Strikes-Back; and The-Trilogy-Before-You-Have-Seen-The-Prequels is a different set of films from The-Trilogy-After-You-Have-Seen-The-Prequels. 

The addition of more material -- a third trilogy and two stand alone films; four cartoon series; two live action series and more on the way -- turns my elegant spiral into a knotty web. A big ball of wibbly wobbly lore. Mapping out how the cartoons relate to the TV shows would be quite beyond my capacity; and don't even mention the comics...

It is possible to imagine someone watching the entire Star Wars canon, never having seen any of the movies before, in strict chronological order. It is also possible to imagine visiting them in a padded cell once they were finished. First Phantom Menace, then Attack of the Clones, then the first six Seasons of Clone Wars, then Revenge of the Sith, then the Bad Bunch, then Rebels, and then (if you are quick), the original trilogy itself. (If you are not quick, you'll have to squeeze in Obi-Wan after Rebels but before Rogue One.) I suppose a true chronological reading would require you to watch Season Seven of the Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith simultaneously, via some sort of split-screen effect. Maybe some film school dude could edit them together as a project: I believe there is a linear edit of Citizen Kane in existence, and there was a TV series re-editing the Godfather in historical sequence. I'd rather like to see it again. Don't get me started chronological Bibles.

If you were watching The Whole of Star Wars In Order for the first time, you would come to -- say -- Episode One of The Bad Batch and notice that some attention is given to a young Jedi Padawan who escapes when the Clone Troopers execute Order 66. (His mentor is the lady of Asian appearance who sits on the Jedi council in Phantom Menace.) "I wonder who that character is" you would say "I bet he is going to turn out to be important later on". And you'd be right: he grows up to be Kanan, who teaches Ezra about the Force in Rebels. But this is arguably not how you are meant to view the scene. It is certainly not how most people first experienced it. Bad Batch came out in 2021 and Rebels ended in 2018. So arguably, the "correct" response is "Oh wow -- Kanan when he was a little boy!"

But perhaps "intention" and "chronological readings" break down in this kind of narrative web. Perhaps all that matters is that there are little cross-temporal links between the different formats. Perhaps the fact nearly everyone gets some connections and hardly anyone get all of them is the core fact about the aesthetic. The object of the exercise is not to catechise us about every previous appearance of the Dark Sabre, or to try and remember when Rex transitioned from being a background grunt to being a major character, and if he is going to appear in Obi-Wan. Perhaps the object is that we don't -- can't possibly -- get every reference. Perhaps that is what creates the compelling illusion that what we are watching is not just a story, but also an historical text. 

I: Phantom Menace

II: Attack of the Clones

Clone Wars Seasons 1-5

III: Revenge of the Sith

Clone Wars Season 7

The Bad Batch


?? Obi-Wan


Rogue One

IV: Star Wars

V: The Empire Strikes Back

VI: Return of the Jedi

The Mandalorian

The Book of Boba Fett

VII: The Force Awakens

Resistance Season 1

VIII: The Last Jedi

Resistance Season 2

IX: The Rise of Skywalker