suburbaknght (suburbaknght) wrote,

Thoughts on Star Wars

Over a winter holiday I had the chance to read one of the most engaging books of literary criticism I've come across in some years, Star Wars on Trial. The book is edited by David Brin and features numerous essays about the inherent merits of the Star Wars franchise. In summary, it fires eight charges at Star Wars, then presents an essay in prosecution and defense of each charge. They are:

Charge #1: The Politics of Star Wars Are Anti-Democratic and Elitist.
Charge #2: While Claiming Mythic Significance, Star Wars Portrays No Admirable Religious or Ethical Beliefs.
Charge #3: Star Wars Novels Are Poor Subsitutes for Real Science Fiction and Are Driving Real SF off the Shelves.
Charge #4: Science Fiction Filmmaking Has Been Reduced by Star Wars to Poorly Written Special Effects Extravaganzas.
Charge #5: Star Wars Has Dumbed Down the Perception of Science Fiction in the Popular Imagination.
Charge #6: Star Wars Pretends to Be Science Fiction, but Is Really Fantasy.
Charge #7: Women in Star Wars Are Portrayed as Fundamentally Weak.
Charge #8: The Plot Holes and Logical Gaps in Star Wars Make It Ill-Suited for an Intelligent Viewer.

It's a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Star Wars, bothered by Star Wars, or with an interest in how literary criticism can and should be applied to popular culture. I'm not going to get into the different charges at this point, but I enjoyed the book because it got me to look at the franchise in a fresh light, to reconsider the value of the prequels, and question the significance of the franchise and the messages we take away from it. One of the more interesting essays in the book questioned the morality of the Jedi based on the films and proposed that a very different story of the Jedi is told wen we look at the films alone, and in particular when we examine them in chronological order. I was intrigued enough that over a recent holiday with wyndstormhntrss we sat down and watched the six films, nearly back to back. The results were fascinating.

Why Bother

Before I get into analyzing Star Wars and the lessons taken from the films I need to address one of the chief points of applying techniques of literary criticism to pop culture, which is to ask what is the point. After all, George Lucas has maintained consistently over the years that the Star Wars movies are kids movies, so why make such a big deal out of it?

There are two responses to this. The first argument is to refute the notion that the Star Wars films are children's movies at all. I'm rather ambivalent toward this argument but will briefly acknowledge it for the sake of completeness. This argument points out that Star Wars is filled with adult themes, to say nothing of adult situations. Death is rampant and dismemberment even more common, violence is glorified as it is in any action film, and the burning of Anakin Skywalker at the end of Revenge of the Sith is nearly a snuff film. Moreover, the films engage critical concepts of power, wisdom, restraint, loyalty, and the prequels in particular engage the very modern questions of trading freedom for security. Athena Andreadis points out quite well in her fantastic essay, "We Must Love One Another or Die," that, "I'd ignored ... twinges while watching the original Star Wars trilogy because those films were lighthearted, lightweight romps. I cannot ignore it in Episode 3, which unfolds with Wagnerian solemnity and aspires to the mantle of Greek tragedy." The question of Star Wars's intended age level is open for debate but I consider it a moot point for reasons that will soon follow.

The second reason I engage with Star Wars despite it being "just a kids movie," is that I see don't see why that necessitates its dismissal. There is no "just" about it; if Star Wars is a kids movie so be it. If anything, it becomes all the more important to engage with the text if this is a story we tell our children. Throughout human history we have told stories to teach and enlighten our entire societies, but especially the children of those societies. Before we learn philosophy we learn what it means to be good or evil by hearing what heroes or villains do. Lucas may or may not have created a movie for children but he tried to create a movie for children, and that means he is subject to even more speculation about the merits of his works and the merits of exposing our society to those works. With the collapse of religion as a cohesive force in modern society our collective stories are no longer based on biblical tales. Rather, shared culture becomes rooted in pop culture. The Wizard of Oz sets many of our new myths, but so do Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Matrix universe. If this is our new mythos than it is imperative we engage with these stories to understand their messages. I do not propose banning Star Wars if we find its message lacking - I never propose banning literature, though parents may choose to try and keep their children from that literature. I know that no daughter of mine will ever be allowed to listen to Taylor Swift - but we should be able to talk about Star Wars with our children.

What Are We Talking About

My only other prerequisite is a specification that I will be limiting my arguments to the six films - Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi - and not to the Expanded Universe. Star Wars is a franchise, its true, and by the time the prequels came out Lucas had clearly established the EU and drew from it heavily. I am well aware that by ignoring the EU I am missing out on much of the context of the films, but this is the experience of most viewers of the films, at least initially. Some franchises rely on a broader contextual experience; The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions come to mind, along with their associated animated shorts and video games, but their lack of penetration demonstrates the extent to which the public as a whole expects a complete narrative. As such, my critique of the films relies on the films as a complete and separate entity which by necessity must stand on its own.

I have substantively more to say about the role of the EU but it has little place in this essay. Feel free to leave a comment about it and I will respond, but do so in a separate comment from a response to this essay as a whole.

I will be assuming that the reader is at least passingly familiar with all six Star Wars films.

The Phantom Menace

The series begins with an opening crawl about a trade dispute and states that two Jedi Knights have been sent to resolve the dispute. No other information is provided about the Jedi at this time. We see the Jedi, Obi Wan and Qui Gon Jinn, enter the negotiation room looking incredibly menacing cloaked in shadow and, well, cloaks, hidden from sight. There is a slight disturbance and their immediate reaction is to draw their weapons. Though the two Jedi sheath their light sabers right away, we already see a propensity toward both secrets and violence. When they realize their transport has been destroyed they don't even discuss the crew members who were killed; pay attention as this will become important later.

After sneaking down to the planet the Jedi encounter Jar Jar Binks (a.k.a. The Great Unpleasantness). They completely ignore him until the moment they realize he might be able to be useful to them. At this point they instantly change tactics and use a combination of lies (roughly, "If you don't help us the Trade Federation will come for your people!" There is no evidence of this whatsoever as the Trade Federation are only interested in the Naboo and no one knows about the Gungans) and intimidation (roughly, "And they'll kill you too") to get him to place his own life at risk and take them to the Gungans' secret home. There, they use mind control on the leader of a free people to convince him to offer aid in such a way as would almost certainly cause the Trade Federation to consider a military response.

All this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. What do we learn about the Jedi? That they are secretive and violent, true, but moreover that they use people. Their only concern for their transport's crew was that the crew wouldn't be able to take them home. They dismiss Jar Jar until he accidentally demonstrates that he might be of some use, at which point they resort to dirty, underhanded tactics to force him to aid them. Then they use mind control on Boss Nass because it suits their end.

These are the good guys?

After rescuing Padme things do not get better. Again, Qui Gon tries to use mind control to force a pretty down-on-his-luck businessman to trade valuable parts for worthless currency. He uses Anakin to win the parts and his freedom, but only so that he can take the boy back to the Jedi, and in the process uses the Force to cheat at a legitimate bet. On Corruscant he reveals that he did this because he thinks Anakin is the Chosen One; in other words, he wants the Jedi to use Anakin to bring balance to the Force.

Now the question of bringing balance to the Force has been raised numerous times. Some fans say the Force was out of balance because there were so many Jedi and no Sith. Lucas himself has weighed in on the debate and stated that the Jedi themselves are balance and the Sith by their very nature are out of balance. It is not a matter of balancing good and evil, but that good itself is balance and evil is imbalance. For the sake of argument let's agree with that. I still say the Jedi are out of balance because they're not being very good Jedi. They're secretive, manipulative bastards, prone to violence, who use people for their own ends.

As Matthew Stover points out in his fantastic novelization of Revenge of the Sith, the prophecy only said that the Chosen One would bring balance to the Force, not that he would be a Jedi. It was the Jedi's arrogance and presumption to use Anakin, to force him into this role, that made him a target for Darth Sidious's manipulations. Had Anakin been allowed to develop on his own, to grow up with a mother's love, knowing the hardships of slavery and developing compassion as he endured it, perhaps he would have fulfilled his destiny on his own. As it was, because of the Jedi's manipulations he did fulfill his destiny and bring balance to the force by killing Palpatine, but not before exterminating the Jedi.

This is who the Jedi are in Epsiode One. They are not villainous, but they are villains. Their goals are noble, but their methods are horrendous. Kantian Ethics tell us that people must be viewed as ends in and of themselves, and not simply means to another end. Kant would say that it doesn't matter how noble the Jedi's purpose is, they do not have the right to use Anakin to achieve that end unless Anakin decides to achieve that end. They can try to persuade him, they can aid him, but it must be his choice, and no, raising him in Jedi isolation so he can be indoctrinated with Jedi values that are apparently so fragile the Jedi must fear how they will stand up to questioning by one raised outside the Jedi, does not count.

It is worth noting that the Jedi considered Anakin too old to begin the training at age eight. Perhaps they feared contamination by him having known anyone outside the Jedi Order, or what the effects of that education might have on him. Perhaps they knew that their own values would not look so appealing to anyone who knew another way. Once again, Matt Stover delves into these questions in his incredible Revenge of the Sith novelization.

The movie builds to its climax. We see Obi Wan briefly taste the dark side as he watches his master fall in battle with Darth Maul, and how even that small slip leaves him vulnerable. We see Obi Wan take Anakin as an apprentice to honor Qui Gon's wishes, a curious case of a Jedi continuing to manipulate fate even beyond death. Finally, we see Palpatine become Supreme Chancellor and the discussion of whether it was the Sith master or apprentice who was killed. As the audience we realize Palpatine is the Sith master (or we knew this because we'd already seen the original trilogy, or we look back later once we gain this knowledge) and we realize the Sith have manipulated all of this - the Trade Federation blockade, the invasion of Naboo, all the deaths associated therein including Qui Gon's and all the Gungans' - in order to seize this post. The Sith, about whom we have been told nothing except that they want revenge against the Jedi, are just as manipulative as the Jedi, except they are so much better at it

In fact, for being manipulative, scheming, violent Force-wielders, the two groups are remarkably similar. For all Qui Gon's talk of wisdom and peace, the Jedi may talk the talk but they don't walk the walk any better than the Sith; they're just less competent.

Attack of the Clones

Most of Episode II is a disjointed political intrigue mixed with a visually-pleasing but ultimately pointless action film. Nonetheless, there are a few points worthy of discussion.

The first is the discovery of the clones on Kamino. When the Jedi find out that a clone army has been grown for them they decide to use it. These are human beings who have been more into captivity, raised as slaves, had their growth accelerated so that they're still mentally children, and then forced into danger for a society they will never be allowed to be apart of. The Jedi's response is to use their child soldier slaves.

These are the good guys?

I'm going to go off on a tangent here and bring a bit of EU into the discussion to address a point my friend I---- made. To quote him, "throughout the books (not counting that moron Karen Traviss), the Jedi are shown as the only ones who see the clones as people and not disposable robots." He goes on at length:
The selfish, fanatical and borderline evil behavior of which Traviss accused the Jedi occurred only in books she wrote. She deliberately wrote established characters in ways that contradicted their prior appearances, up to and including Luke Skywalker, in order to “prove” her point. In her novelisation of The Clone Wars she wrote at least one scene in such a manner that it didn’t even resemble the scene in the movie on which it was based.

Not only is she willing to directly contradict established canon to make the Star Wars universe into what she thinks it is, she has openly stated that she has never read, and will never read any Star Wars novels. At all. She skims plot synopses if it’s necessary for something she’s writing. She doesn’t even pretend to care about established continuity, and throws a psychotic hissy fit if you call her out on it. Anyone who questioned her on the Star Wars forums were banned. She mused in a blog about tearing out the throats of those who criticised her. She considered that fans of Star Wars who like the Jedi were no better than Nazis.

Fortunately, Lucasarts called her out on some of her latest continuity-twisting. Apparently Traviss finds the notion of colouring inside the lines distasteful, because she has declared that she will no longer be writing Star Wars novels. Imperial Commando 2 was to be her last, until she decided to quit without writing it, which she announced on her blog before informing LucasArts. Karen Traviss is classy.

Traviss's novels were based on two sources: the films and her contacts with the Lucas continuity liaison at Del Rey. I was first exposed to Traviss while reading her essay in Star Wars on Trial in which she explains the writing and research process she used. Her views of how the Jedi thought about the clones, and vice versa, was approved by the continuity editor because it hadn't been established and it made sense. The claim the Jedi were the only ones to treat the clones decently only came after the books had been published and fans objected to the portrayal of the Jedi as callous manipulators who viewed the clone troops as disposable assets.

Traviss's interpretation perfectly matches the films. There are very few scenes which show the Jedi interacting with the clones, and those scenes are invariably during military engagements when it is hardly the time to be touching and feeling and sharing with one another. However considering that everyone one of the Jedi was a child soldier slave do we really think they would have any trouble using others as child soldier slaves? Remember, the Jedi are taken to the order as infants with no memory of their families and spend decades training in combat and learning to obey orders. There is a dark parallel between the Jedi and the clone troops of the Republic. Does Traviss's reading contradict that of other EU authors? I'm not aware of any particular contradiction but it wouldn't surprise me, but then again those contradictions are all over the place (my favorite example are Jedi Robes. In most comics in the 70's and 80's, Jedi from earlier eras wore black jump suits, like Luke in RotJ, instead of the desert Robes half of the poeple on Tatooine - and apparently all Jedi - wore).

In any event, regardless of how the Jedi treat the clones they still use them. That tells us all we need to know.

The second interesting part of AotC, is Dooku's conversation with Obi Wan. In this conversation he reveals much of the Sith manipulations and successes. This is the first time in the films so far any character has been openly truthful with another character. That it is a Sith being open with a Jedi is wonderfully ironic but it shows us the difference between the two sides' manipulations: the Jedi conceal truth while the Sith use truth as a weapon. It is not the last time we will see such a manipulation by the Sith.

Revenge of the Sith

And here we have the climax of Lucas's Wagnerian opera. Early on, Anakin gives into his darker side and he executes Count Dooku. Palpatine/Sidious pardons him for his crime. While Anakin fears Obi Wan and the other Jedis' recriminations, Palatine sympathizes with Anakin's pain and anger. The only other character in the films to sympathize with Anakin to this point has been Padme. Once again, we get the positive emotions - sympathy, honesty, compassion - from the Sith and not the Jedi.

Despite defeating one of the only remaining Sith Lords, destroying the Seperatists' flagship, and rescuing the Chancellor, the Jedi continue to hold Anakin in contempt. Though he craves their respect, and is seemingly doing everything anyone could possibly ask for to earn it, they withhold that respect until... it's never quite clear what they're looking for. Certainly Anakin doesn't know and it's swiftly driving him mad. What do they want from him?

Based on the Jedi manipulations we've already discussed, the answer is obvious. The Jedi want to control Anakin. While I doubt any of them would say, "We won't appoint you a Master because it's better to use it as a carrot to make you jump when we say, 'rabbit,'" and would instead probably say something like, "You must learn restraint and discipline young Skywalker. No one can be a Master with such a fiery temper or such strong impulses," the point remains they want him to learn control. Specifically, their control. Only two people symapthize with Anakin on this: Padme and Palpatine (curious alliteration, neh?) and of the two the former doesn't believe Anakin's claims. Only Palpatine acts in any way interested in Anakin's welfare and happiness.

When Anakin tries to speak to Yoda about his fears for Padme's life it seems as if he might come clean to the Master and for once the Jedi will be honest with one another. Instead, Yoda tells Anakin that his emotions are invalid. Not exactly the best therapy. Certainly not a good way to engender trust. Even when Anakin tells Mace Windu that Palpatine is the Sith Lord, Windu still makes his trust contingent on Anakin's obedience. Anakin has just delivered the Jedi's arch nemesis to them and Windo still wants more? Really?

This is why the Jedi are villains: because they cannot trust one another to be heroes.

Is it any wonder that Anakin can turn against the Jedi? What do they mean to him except obedience and submission? How is his life as a Jedi slave substantively different from that as a junker slave on Tattooine?

When RotS finishes and the Jedi fall, I breathe a sigh of relief.

A New Hope

I also feel quite sad, as I should. Anakin's efforts may have ended Jedi tyranny disguised as wisdom but as we noted in TPM, the Sith are just as bad and often worse in their manipulations. Nor has Anakin even freed himself, but merely bound himself to a new master. At the start of ANH we are reunited with Anakin very early but his is hardly the glorious independent life he might have envisioned. He's busting rebels but he answers to Tarkin and simply comes across as a tired, bitter old man. I can't blame him.

When we encounter Luke, however, things are different. We see what Anakin could have been. If Qui Gon had left Anakin on Tattooine in a few years his mother would have been sold to a the moisture farmer Lars, presumably with her son, and Anakin would have grown up with Owen and Beru; he would have had a family. Luke may be awfully whiny at the start of ANH, but he is compassionate as well as adventurous. He knows nothing of the Jedi or the dark side but he chooses to become involved in this battle because it is right, not because it is a duty foisted on him.

It is likewise to Obi Wan's credit that he doesn't try to manipulate Luke. Perhaps in his exile he's realized what a mistake it was to try and manipulate Anakin, and his dialogue suggests as much ("I thought I could train him just as Yoda trained me. I was wrong."), but he accepts Luke's choice not to accompany him to Alderan, then accepts when Luke changes his mind. When Luke decides to become a Jedi it is a choice he makes freely.

Toward the end of the film we see Obi Wan sacrifice his life in a duel to save Luke by keeping Vader occupied. When Luke sees his mentor cut down it is wonderfully and tragically resonant with the scene in TPM when Obi Wan watches helplessly as Maul slaughters Qui Gon (I know, I know, the TPM scene is technically resonant with the ANH scene since TPM was created afterward, but we're looking at things chronologically). Unlike TPM, however, the death serves a different purpose. In TPM, Qui Gon was trying to kill Maul and simply lost a fight, but in ANH Obi Wan is trying to delay and distract Vader in order to buy his friends time to escape. Far from engaging in Jedi violence, Obi Wan uses his last act to teach Luke a lesson of compassion, and while Anakin spends the duel blowing up a ship, Luke spends the duel taking this lesson to heart.

The Empire Strikes Back

Easily the best Star Wars film, it is also the most poignant in terms of the Jedi's fate. When Luke goes to Dagobah, Yoda falls right back into the old Jedi ways: lying to Luke, twisting the truth, making him pass arbitrary tests to prove himself worthy of this training. Yoda seems to be genuinely trying to help Luke but they way he does so is so cruel and shortsighted.

When Luke wants to go fight Vader Yoda warns him that "only a fully-trained Jedi with the Force as his ally," has a chance. Clearly that didn't work so well for Yoda when he fought the Emperor. Much has already been made of Yoda's numerous false prophecies to Luke about how if he goes to aid his friends they will die and all they've worked for will fail. This does not happen at all. Was Yoda lying or just wrong? It doesn't matter, he hasn't learned from his mistakes.

Finally, we come to climactic scene of Luke and Vader. When Vader reveals the truth, that he is Luke's father, we once again see the Sith using truth as weapon, but at least they're being honest. On the Falcon, Luke asks why Obi Wan never told him the truth, but Obi Wan is silent. His answer in RotJ is bullshit.

Return of the Jedi

There are only two noteworthy parts of RotJ. The first is when Yoda and Obi Wan confirm that Vader is Luke's father. Yoda calls it unfortunate that Luke knows the truth, a statement that leaves Luke enraged. Even on his deathbed, Yoda cannot accept that people deserve honesty or that the truth will out no matter Jedi manipulations. He and Obi Wan instead do their level best to persuade Luke to kill Vader, a plan that worked so well the last time two fully-trained Jedi knights tried it, and only then will his training be complete. Luke refuses.

The second noteworthy part of the film is Luke's meeting with Vader when he refuses to fight him. Despite Vader's taunts and threats, despite the Emperor's, Luke steadfastly refuses to resort to the old Jedi violence. Moreover, he realizes that a momentary lapse does not doom his soul and even after striking Vader he refuses to give in to violence. Love, compassion, these are Luke's virtues, not Jedi discipline and control. This, and I love this part, leads to one of those most incredible parts of the Jedi saga:

Luke is proclaimed a Jedi.

By the Emperor.

It makes sense. The Emperor is the only Master of the Force left, Jedi or Sith. It is a title that only he can give and when Luke rejects his offer with finality the Emperor proclaims, "So be it, Jedi," and is the first and only person to give Luke the title in all of Star Wars. It was a title well-earned and justly awarded, but awarded for love and compassion. These are no longer just Luke's virtues but the virtues of the Jedi order he will found.

They are also the virtues that save Anakin. We all know how this motivates Vader to pick up the Emperor and hurl him down the energy shaft. As the audience we realize that he has fulfilled his destiny and destroyed the Sith, both in killing Darth Sidious and in returning to the Light. The scene parallels Vader's condition at the end of RotS: maimed, dismembered, and dying, but this time accepting rather than screaming in futile rage. Vader's compassion earns him a good death, with one he loves close by, rather than abandonment to soot and fire.

This is Star Wars: the tale of the Jedi, filled with hubris in their belief that they could and should control everything, brought down by one they tried to control, refusing to accept the scope their mistakes until the very end, and at last reborn in one who could see what the Jedi could not. Luke's victory is not in becoming the celibate warrior monk that his father failed to become, but in learning to love openly and completely as his father was never allowed to do.

  • L5R LCG Celebration Event

    I can't believe I'm back here. It feels like forever even if it's only been *checks calendar* nine years since my last Livejournal post.…

  • GenCon Schedule

    Prospective Schedule for 2012: Thursday 8:00 - SPA1233118 - Tai Chi 10:00 - SEM1229373 - Invitation to the Ball: A History of Ballroom Dance (note:…

  • Dance of the Day - Swing

    Every year UPenn does Dancing With the Professors, which is like Dancing With the Stars but makes the obvious substitution. I participated for the…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 


  • L5R LCG Celebration Event

    I can't believe I'm back here. It feels like forever even if it's only been *checks calendar* nine years since my last Livejournal post.…

  • GenCon Schedule

    Prospective Schedule for 2012: Thursday 8:00 - SPA1233118 - Tai Chi 10:00 - SEM1229373 - Invitation to the Ball: A History of Ballroom Dance (note:…

  • Dance of the Day - Swing

    Every year UPenn does Dancing With the Professors, which is like Dancing With the Stars but makes the obvious substitution. I participated for the…