Monday, September 5, 2016

Let the Force be Your Guide

I recently started showing Kalman Star Wars. We can now add that to Wriggles, "Hobbes," and Superman to the list of things he likes enough to ask for by name. Out of curiosity, I ended up watching the original trailer for New Hope.

It is amusing as an example of a trailer cut by someone, who did not understand the movie or its true significance. A perfectly understandable mistake considering that George Lucas never understood Star Wars. Most obviously, at this point the iconic "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" has yet to make its entrance, leaving us with the embarrassingly awkward "somewhere in space this may all be happening." In retrospect, implying that there is a romantic relationship between Luke and Leia is downright creepy. At a more profound level, though, the trailer misses the key feature of Star Wars, the Force. Contrast this with the prominent role played by the Force in Force Awakens trailers.

In a similar vein, if I were to create a trailer for New Hope, I would open with Obi-Wan Kenobi's monologue about the Jedi upholding order in the galaxy before the dark days of the Empire.
Instead of the Force, the original Star Wars trailer gives us this Flash Gordon type adventure. Granted, this is what Lucas originally intended, but if Star Wars was all you see in the trailer, Star Wars would have been just one more campy space film from the 1970s to be treated with the same embarrassment as bell-bottoms. There are many cultural pieces from my childhood that I have no desire to share with Kalman; why Star Wars?

What makes Star Wars more than space ships and lazar guns is the drama of the Force. By this, I mean the struggle between the light and dark sides as played out on the galactic scale in the battle between Republic and Empire and on the human scale of the Force user tempted by darkness. As with J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit, Lucas initially introduced the Force as a device to move the plot forward without understanding its true importance. By the time of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien recognized that it was the ring that was all that stood between his story and a generic fantasy about a quest to defeat an evil dark lord and his army of orcs. As fans of the series know, Lord of the Rings is not about saving Middle Earth from Sauron. The real villain is the ring, which corrupts all who are near it. Frodo's quest is a personal journey to save his own soul from the ring. He fails to destroy the ring, but, providentially, saves himself along with all Middle Earth through his pity for Gollum. Instead of seeing Gollum as a monster, Frodo recognizes the fallen hobbit and realizes that, if not for grace, he would be equally liable to fall.

When evaluating Lucas, it is important to keep in mind how little he had to do with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Those responsible for these films realized that Star Wars needed to be about something more than plucky Luke defeating the vast armies of the Empire with the magic of the Force. The big game changer for Star Wars is in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke's father. Instead of simply being a scary villain, Vader all of a sudden becomes a failed Luke. Now the threat of Luke falling to the dark side becomes frighteningly plausible. As we move to the climax of Return of the Jedi with Luke facing Vader and the Emperor on the Death Star, Luke's task is no longer to defeat the empire, but to save himself from the dark side by not fighting his father. Luke also attempts to save his Vader by recognizing the human underneath the suit of armor. Luke's faith in Vader allows Vader to believe that there is good in himself and that he has a choice. In the end, it is not Luke's strength in the Force that prevails; it is Vader's human love for his son that saves the galaxy.

Writers of the Expanded Universe have appreciated the narrative possibilities of this tragic temptation and fall to the dark side along with the hope for redemption. Take a look at the graphic novel of Exar Kun, who is essentially forced to the dark side. Play Knights of the Old Republic, the greatest narrative video game ever, and discover the truth about Darth Ravan. The Darth Bane trilogy features an oddly moral, if murderous, Sith Lord. He does not seek power for himself. Rather, he selflessly works to advance the Force by training a student, who will one day possess the power to kill him and take the title of Sith Master. For Bane, being murdered by his student is not some kink in his system that he failed to perceive, but an essential point.

One way to see the failure of the prequels is how Lucas, having reasserted his control over Star Wars, failed to properly use the Force. We fans, who counted down the days until Phantom Menace in 1999 "knew" that we were going to watch the downfall of Anakin Skywalker culminating in the mother of all lightsaber duels between Vader and Kenobi. It is still shocking to see the extent to which Lucas ran away from that story, leaving it almost as an afterthought to the last half of Revenge of the Sith. By the end of Attack of the Clones, Anakin should have known Palpatine's true identity and have given himself, at least in principle, over to his Sith teachings even as he is yet to do anything irredeemably terrible.

The Force Awakens, for all of its flaws, understood the Force. Kylo Ren is a uniquely empathetic villain and not simply another bad guy in a mask. He is fallen, but he is still tempted by the light. In order to give himself completely over to the dark side, he murders his father, Han Solo. Someone who must go to such extremes to escape good must have a lot of good within him. Much of the success of the future films will depend on this continued struggle. Rey will have to defeat him, not in a lightsaber duel, but in recognizing his humanity. If Rey fails to see this and chooses to believe that brute force can win, she will fall to the dark side. Ironically, it is this struggle with the dark side that might allow her to empathize with Kylo, saving herself and the galaxy.


Zach Waterman said...

Hey BZ, its Zach! Awesome post! I agree with pretty much everything you said here. That original trailer was pretty hilarious in retrospect, which is compounded when you realize the effects in the trailer seemed unfinished (note the lightsabers with no color outline, and blasters that don't shoot anything...) But that trailer is just the tip of the iceberg. A while ago I read an original draft of New Hope (I can't remember where, it was somewhere online) and it was pretty terrible. It was VERY prequals esqe, with tons of bad dialogue and boring political talk. I'm also pretty sure the films original cut is available somewhere. I haven't seen it, but it was pretty awful from what I understand. Considering all these things, its pretty much a miracle the film turned out so good, and became the success it did.

I do have one thing I need to say though, and it has to do with Vaders redemption. Let me give you an example. One day, an angry, bitter, and vengeful person becomes a serial killer. He ends the lives of countless people, and ruins the lives of countless more. Then, at the very end of his life, his final victim is another serial killer, and BAM, all is forgiven! Can you see why Vaders redemption seems kind of weird to me, and yeah sure, he killed the emporer to protect Luke, but that doesn't change anything he did or bring back anyone he's killed. Remember his secret apprentice? The young man whose life he ruined completely singlehandedly? Remember when he stormed the Jedi temple, killing anyone who got in his way, children included, for no good reason? Yeah, and all that is forgiven by helping one person, through what is essencialy just one final act of violence. I'm kind of nervous we'll get a similar case with kylo ren. Who knows what else he has done and is going to do? My irritation with this situation is actually what inspired the creation of one of the characters in my fan series. They're a character who we'll be spending quite a lot of time with... But you'll just have to wait and see how that goes down :-)

Izgad said...

In defense of Vader's "repentance," I would point to two things. First, it was not clear that Vader had much free-will? Was he possessed by the Dark Side? Remember that I formed many of my conceptions of Star Wars before the prequals. One of my criticism's of the prequels is that it has Anakin choosing to go to the Dark Side and for lousy reasons. How much better it would have been if Anakin turned on the Jedi, because he believed that the Jedi would allow the Separatists to triumph and doom millions of children like himself to slavery? Second, assuming that Vader really was responsible for all his mass murdering, we can distinguish between a forgiveness that wipes the slate clean and a forgiveness that leaves the sin, but still allows us a degree of empathy. Back in the 90s there was a woman on death row, who found God and really turned her life around. Did her subsequent good deeds undo the fact that she was a murderer? No. Did she deserve to die? Yes. That being said, maybe we can feel bad for her and acknowledge that perhaps Texas should have shown her mercy. In the case of Vader, we are never forced to consider the consequences of Vader repenting beyond the implication that he got into "Jedi heaven." What would have been if Vader had lived to fly down with look to Endor? Hi everybody. I am sorry I was such an evil Dark Sith Lord to you all. Perhaps Vader could go to jail and Luke and Leia could visit him with the grandkids. Perhaps Vader asks Luke to take off his helmet precisely because he recognized that he deserved the death penalty. Alternatively, Vader could have still been enslaved to the Dark Side so he wanted to die in the light while he still could.