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?