Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones

No, I didn't stumble into the wrong theatre. I know that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith premiers today. Of course if you are among the loyal fans you've already seen the third episode twice. It has been playing somewhere since midnight. I drove by the Malco 12 last night and waved at our representatives from the Jedi Order who have been waiting in line since days ago. I have been watching the previous films in preparation for the next episode, and since I will not be among the first to see this movie I thought it appropriate to go back and reflect on the Star Wars story thus far.

The entire Star Wars story focuses on Anakin Skywalker. I remember hearing George Lucas say that the series could be titled "The Rise and Fall of Anakin Skywalker." Those of us who were initiated into Star Wars around 1977 only knew Anakin as Darth Vader (Oops! Spoiler Warning - Anakin becomes Darth Vader - as if you didn't know!) In the final episode we learn that there's a man behind the mask, even if he is a rather mangled man. Anakin's final act is redemptive as he takes down the evil emperor and saves his son, Luke.

Despite all this, Darth Vader is never a very sympathetic character in the earlier trilogy (Episodes IV - VI). He has no facial expressions and he sounds like James Earl Jones speaking into a empty Folger's can. He is just the bad guy; and as far as villains go he is one of the best. With the first three episodes however, we are introduced to the man behind the mask. We meet him as a little boy in Episode I and even though it is probably the least of the six films, we are confronted with the fact that the murderous dictator in his black Nazi-helmeted mask was once a child with dreams.

I found it difficult to believe that this clever young child was the seed that would sprout into the Dark Sith Lord. I can only guess that Lucas' intent was to show that Anakin starts off as good. I was expecting more explanation of the circumstance that tainted this child. The elements were there and I think it would have been quite moving if the film had keyed in more heavily on the fact that Anakin and his mother are slaves. They are among the oppressed and they suffer a cruel injustice that the grand Republic and its super-powerful Jedi seem to ignore. Anakin's contempt of slavery is displayed briefly in dialogue between he and Padme in Watto's shop. Unfortunately, Jar-Jar Binks gets in the way with an unnecessary gag. Later, in a scene on the royal space cruiser, Anakin again speaks to Padme and expresses his desire to get away from his home planet. If these scenes had been played stronger to communicate more of the injustice that Anakin and his mother, Shmi, had experienced perhaps we could have witnessed a more vivid portrayal of how violence begets violence, oppression leads to revenge, and indifference toward injustice creates consequences for all of us.

The other struggle that leads Anakin to the Dark Side is his desire for control. This is more masterfully portrayed in Episode II. Anakin, now older and edgier, returns to his home planet to save his mother. She has been kidnapped and tortured by raiders. He finds her in the raider camp and spends only a brief moment talking to her before she dies. The failure to save his mother sends Anakin over the edge and he kills every raider in the camp, including the women and children. I applaud Lucas for not showing the massacre but instead focusing on the internal struggle in Anakin. This is revealed in a conversation between Anakin and Padme in the Lars family workshop. Anakin reflects on his childhood and on how he loves to fix things. Life is much simpler when one is fixing things. He expresses his rage over his failure to save his mother. He fumes at Padme because he is not all-powerful. (Padme: "You are not all-powerful." Anakin: "Well, I should be!") Anakin is full of hubris and a desire for ultimate control when he utters his fateful boast: "One day, I will become the greatest Jedi EVER. I will even learn how to stop people from dying." Both the actors play their parts well: a young man tortured by anger, self-condemnation, and limitations; a young woman frightened by the dangerous intensity of his rage.

This glimpse into the man behind the Vader mask is a very human, very real moment. Forget for a moment that it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In truth this struggle plays out in the ghettos of our cities. It plays out in office buildings, in highway traffic, in the bedrooms of suburbia, on school playgrounds, and even churches. How many well-intentioned leaders have destroyed men, women, and children simply because they wanted to "fix things." How often are any of us consumed by anger that grows from our frustration because we cannot control our circumstances?

Every time I watch this scene I am reminded of the Genesis 4 story of Cain and Abel. Sin crouches at the door waiting for us to open it just enough that it can gain entry into our lives. It does not announce its arrival with a disclaimer that it is capable of maiming us physically and spiritually and that it will destroy our relationships with others. Rather, it calls promising to give us the ability to "fix things" quickly and that it will establish control. This scene masterfully captures the cycle of anger and frustration and the desire to control that has been the downfall of many good people.

I anticipate that this theme will be continued in Episode III. It will certainly be the theme that catches my attention. So, what do you think?

5 comments:

Michael S. Cole, M.D. said...

Chris,

My daughter, Angelique, called us last night about 10 p.m. saying she was sitting in the theater in Dallas waiting for the Star Wars movie to start at midnight. Amazing that I raised such a child!

To be fair, the original Star Wars film is the only movie that I paid to see 7 times (and that doesn't count the new version that came out many years later, nor all the times I've watched the VHS and later DVD recordings).

Anyway, Angelique sent a very brief message at 3:04 this morning that simply reads, "Go see Star Wars ASAP." I interpret that to mean that she enjoyed the movie immensely and is convinced that I will, too.

For my birthday last month, Angelique sent me the book to Episode III. I read about 3/4 of it and put it aside till I see the movie for the ending.

I can't imagine how they can accurately portray in the movie the circumstances that led Anakin to the "dark side." The book so adequately illustrates how people are confused by what is good and what is evil, because even those who are the good guys are not always "good" in everything they do. Though I need to see the movie (and probably finish reading the book) before I get too certain about Anakin's "conversion," but it is quite clear from what I've read so far that the Dark Side offers him something that he "needs," but can't get from the Jedi powers. He is most strongly motivated by his love for Padme. It's quite a paradox.

From reading this book, I suddenly was confronted with the Dark Side not necessarily being "evil." That is such a contrast to what I've concluded from the other 5 movies (and I think I've read all the books to go with them). The movie may make it appear differently, but the dark side of the Force is not a true parallel with what we understand to be the domain of Satan. Or if it is, most of us are seriously handicapped in our recognition of Satan's power.

Perhaps we Christians have been mistaught that Satan is only about wickedness and destruction. If Satan is truly as favorable (under certain circumstances) as Anakin Skywalker finds the Dark Side, then we are more prone to temptation than most of us committed Christians believe is possible.

Regardless of how Episode III ends, we know the true ending from Episode VI that Darth Vader renounces the Dark Side. Regardless of the perceived "benefits" of following the enemy of God, we can be confident that choosing the good over the bad is always the wisest course to follow. This is proven over and over again by any who will observe the consequences of ongoing choices we all make in this life. Unfortunately, wise choices are made by wise people, who got that way, usually, after experience with making unwise choices.

~~Michael

Chris Benjamin said...

Michael:

Love your comments. This is what the Magic Lantern Show is about. It is truly a b'logue (web dialogue) in my opinion. I would love for Angelique to add a comment and tell us why she sent the message she did! (Go see ASAP!)

What you say about Satan being more than just wickedness and destruction reminds me of Mel Gibson's decision to portray Satan as a strangely attractive woman in Passion of the Christ. Evil is seductive, but it is always a mockery of the good or perfect that God intended.

One of the best works on sin, evil, and temptation I would recommend is Cornelius Plantinga, Not The Way It is Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin. He suggests that evil is not an independent substance in the universe but more like a parasite or corruption of the good. In other words, the only way evil can exist is for the good to be distorted or warped.

Esther Gunn said...

Chris,

How well you hit on the very place that Anakin is coming from without even trying. Satan finds a way to make us decide there is a better option by doing things his way. In the movie (sorry if I spoil this for anybody) Anakin tries to do the right thing and at the very last moment decides that if what is right happens the things he loves in life will end and he can't allow that to happen. This interference with the good and correct thing is another time when the very essence of human nature shines brightly in this series of movies.

I agree with Angelique. I saw it tonight with many other of the LFCs and it was much better done than Episodes I & II and is a definite must see for all Star Wars fans.

Randy said...

Okay, I have a few questions - if the Jedi are so in tune with mind control/reading -- why didn't they know that "evil" was in their midst? Secondly, wasn't there a line in one of the old Star Wars - Episode IV I think - that Luke and Leah were talking - and Leah
always remembered their mother as being sad all the time? How could she know that as a baby??? Help me out here, is that line in there or am I smoking nick nick? Seems like a glaring error that Lucas would not make.
With all that aside, I thought it was a great movie. Will Lucas now publish the remaining trilogy - Episodes VII, VIII and IX? Or has he already? I'm a fan of Star Wars, but fuzzy on the fine details - as you can see.

Chris Benjamin said...

Randy:

In Episode 2 Yoda goes on about how the "Dark Side clouded their view of the future has." He and Mace Windu even discuss whether they should reveal this to the senate. They do not and this is the beginning of the "everybody is keeping secrets/mistrust" scheme that seems to run through Episode 2 and 3.

As for Leia's comment. I think that was in Episode VI.

My question for you is, "What is nick nick?" Is that some weed what grows down around Toad Suck?