Thursday 7 May 2009

Examining Star Wars via Revenge of the Sith

In the course of this annotated essay, with special focus on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I will attempt to foment an understanding of the conscious and unconscious reasons why Star Wars is so loved, not to try and dissect the magic but honour it, for my own curiosity as much as anything.

What is it that electrifies hordes of fans pouring into theatre foyers as if libation to a celluloid God?

0:23 'A Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'

Star Wars immediately establishes itself as a tale both mythical and timeless. It sets the past within the schemata of science fiction futures.

The sense here is that the story is a newly discovered artefact, ancient yet entirely unknown. It begins without credits, not created but found.

1:20 Title Crawl : War!

The Title Crawl diminishes into the distance. It takes the form of a magic carpet dragging us amongst the stars. All Star Wars films begin with a shot of limitless space and infinite possibility. We cannot help but be transported by it.

People took joy from Star Wars, in part, because of the joy Lucas put into its making. Star Wars was an overt homage to the matinee serials he devoured in the 1950s and 1960s, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers chief amongst them.

Star Wars began its life as a paean to nostalgia and now is itself an unparalleled object of nostalgia.

2:03 Two tiny craft in battle over Coruscant

Anakin and Obi-Wan join battle on their way to 'rescuing' Chancellor Palpatine. Their miniature fighters descend into a vast maelstrom of sound and fury. They lead us into the excitement of light and sound, explosions and giddy fun that has come to define Star Wars.

Star Wars
is, in many ways, a Myth in spirit and structure. Myths tend to concern ostensibly insuperable odds and the idea of becoming more than we are - indeed perhaps supra-human like the Jedi. This is a wonderful and stimulating conceit.

Star Wars was unlike anything seen before

It pooled the talents of varied and timeworn fields of expertise puppetry, miniatures, sound design, matte painting and yoked them to embryonic
and cutting-edge special effects industries established by Lucas himself THX and Industrial Light and Magic. Computer-aided animation was born and the effect it had on the populace in presenting a universe of magnificent realism and resonant otherness was tremendous.

2:28 In Medias Res - the battle rages

Like many ancient Myths - Greek (for example, the Odyssey), Roman, Phoenician, Egyptian, Mayan - Revenge of the Sith and the Star Wars Saga as a whole begin in medias res i.e. in the middle of things.

The Star Wars Saga began with Episode number four of six. Revenge of the Sith begins mid-battle.

We are thrust into the world as if a newborn child. We have nothing to cling onto. Every sound and movement is
amplified and intensified. Our senses are heightened and the drama grips us from the second the curtain goes up.

2:58 R2D2 along for the ride.

The first character we see, as in Attack of the Clones, is R2D2. R2D2, like Chewbacca and, to some extent, C3PO are cyphers, without true language or expression. We are drawn into the action because we are forced to draw in their emotions with our own. These characters appeal directly to the imagination of children in the same way that pets do. They are unremittingly loyal. They are the most vulnerable and the most weak. They are no more than leaves blown along by fate.

As in Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress the tale is often told from the perspective of those least informed. They totter through the galaxy like mimes, mechanical Buster Keatons barely dodging the glare of danger. In this way the scale of the action is magnified.

5:45 'In the name of - '

The world of Star Wars is a mystical one. It has a religion yet it is an impersonal, non-theistic incarnation. The Force is just that, a spiritual force, a source of power. Assailed by the enemy, Obi-Wan has nobody to blaspheme.

Star Wars is syncretistic. That is it is a collage of cultures and beliefs - especially Buddhism and Taoism. George Lucas said he wanted to take

"...all the issues that religion represents and try to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct..."

Spiritual sentiments are intensely human yet rigid religious organisations are losing ground in society. Star Wars offers a largely non-didactic (Han Solo called it a lot of simple tricks and nonsense ), powerful alternative. Here is a religion not tightly bound with moral corollary.

7:07 'I have a bad feeling about this'

The framework of the Star Wars narrative is founded on repetition. Familiarity breeds a sense of audience ownership. When Anakin says "this is where the fun begins" as Han Solo will do, when Padme brings in the blue milk in Attack of the Clones, impugns committees as her daughter will, or when Obi-Wan calls a blaster "uncivilised" it gives us a truly warm feeling inside.

The saga is really two cycles of three. One about the Father Anakin and the other about the Son Luke. Luke faces the same temptations as his father, the same challenges yet resists the seductive nature of the Dark Side.The constant repetition of images and themes across the films create a sense of wholeness, of fate, of a grand scheme, of a circle being complete.

10:48 From Slapstick to Tragedy

R2D2 fries a couple of droids who are left slipping about in an oil slick. Star Wars invests itself with the technicolor coat of human existence, from slapstick to tragedy. There are Fools and there are Kings. Fools can be Kings for a day and Kings can be made into fools.

13:15 Personal influences the Universal

Anakin and Count Dooku fight while the Clone Wars rage behind them, impersonating the rhythms of their flashing swords.

Myths are about seeing the most personal and intimate influence the biggest stage. The essential family struggle that defines Star Wars will decide the entire fate of the galaxy. Myths are about the most familiar and the most alien : the sense of being safe and yet challenged.

18:06 Cheeky Droid

General Grievous snatches a lightsaber confiscated by a battle droid. The droid sarcastically counters: "You're
welcome!" Part of what makes Star Wars so loved is that every character is endowed with a personality. No detail is too small. The galaxy is teeming with life.

22:41 Wipe Scene Transitions

Wipes are by no means an incongruent relic of the old adventure serials. Wipe scene transitions (in all their myriad
forms) add immediacy and momentum; actions and consequences co-exist for a while, like at the turning of a page. They are elegant, neither jarring nor disorienting.

34:27 Father Figures

Born without a father, and purportedly the offspring of a Virgin birth, Anakin is forever seeking a father and a mentor.

He yearns for a guiding influence yet does not wish to be controlled. These contradictions forge much of the tension that drives the narrative. In an exaggerated way, Star Wars revolves around this collision of childhood and maturity, independence and integration. These distinctions are mirrored in those between the Light and the Dark side: compassion and selflessness opposed to passion and self-indulgence.

40:03 Love Stories

From the understated, awkward and gentle relationship between Anakin and Padme (who grew up in peaceful times) to the fiery, bantering love between Leia and Han (who grew up in an age of war and suspicion).

Anakin's love for Padme is the catalyst for the whole tale, more specifically the lengths to which he will go for her.
Anakin's turn to the Dark Side is made intensely human, natural. An audience is willing to follow him into the depths of despair because he retains those good intentions, that kernel of righteousness. Anakin's fall is subtle. It is a fatal alignment of circumstances: his fears for Padme, his grief over his mother, the Jedi's distrust, his lust for power and his poisonous manipulation by the Chancellor - Iago to his Othello.

To digress, people in love often talk about the feeling of 'us against the world'. This is taken to a literal extreme at1:40:58 when Anakin says "we can rule the galaxy, make things the way we want them to be" . He is rejected by Padme and this vast loneliness is poignantly echoed in The Empire Strikes Back as he pleads with his son to join him..

44:24 Grand Symbolism #1

Star Wars is painted in broad brush strokes. It is played out a mammoth stage by actors with megaphones. It is Big and Bold. It is outrageously epic geographically and emotionally. The symbolism is grand too and because it is in keeping with the story's sweep it does not unbalance the story.

Here, at the Opera House, the Mon Calamari put on a show where sperm-like ribbons float in and out of a massive watery egg. The discussion between the Chancellor and Anakin about the creation of life cements the
visual message.

45:44 Biblical References #1

"Ironic isn't it?...he could save others but not himself"
Chancellor Palpatine

"He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One"
Priest Luke 23:35

The director George Lucas uses the language of Christian heritage, words already resonant with meaning, as stepping stones to a greater understanding. In this way he subtly illuminates for us the roles, the motivations and the size of what is at stake.

46:07 Kashyyk Technology

George Lucas has done something extraordinary in creating and populating an entire universe.

It is a universe where as Roger Ebert said "we somehow can't and don't believe that life ends at the edge of the screen", a world in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living . Star Wars is all-immersive in a way no fantasy world had ever been before. Our attention is held and our hearts stirred by dozens of visual asides, throwaway vignettes a robot losing its balance, Jabba the Hutt flicking a bird off a balcony, a monster eating another ("there's always a bigger fish") etc. etc.

It is in these details, quirky and mundane, where true devotion comes from. We all feel the need to worship something - something popular enough to be shared yet complex enough to be fully understood and appreciated only by an elite army of fans.

The example above is of a craft built by the Wookies on their home planet Kashyyk. See how they are clearly modelled on the
physionomy of those indigenous beings. We feel the plausible organic nature of cultural and technological progress.

49:29 The sound of another world

A space cruiser roars overhead. From the ships to the weapons, the sound design of this world, as in any film, is of paramount importance. It creates a concreteness, a fully formed reality. So much of Star Wars is fixed in the subconscious by the neeeeaaaooou of a ship, the whirr of a lightsaber or the dark breaths of Darth Vader. Credit must go to the perseverance and ingenuity of sound designer Ben Burtt.

55:16 Foreshadowing

General Grievous is a living being within a synthetic construct. His twisted body, pained breathing and bent philosophies prefigure Anakin's fate as Darth Vader. There are constant reminders of what we know to be true yet what we want to avoid. This creates a morbid fascination in the audience, a dramatic torque.

This Dramatic irony, rewarding fans with constant allusions and repetitions, is part of the charm of the Prequel trilogy. It's chief success is in holding a mirror up to the events of the Original Trilogy, deepening it's focus, deepening its thematic plane..

56:06 The Lightsaber

Electrifying, glowing, beautiful.

"This weapon is your life"

1:03:00 Biblical References #2

Now Palpatine is no longer a mocking onlooker but instead casts himself as a saviour, encircling us with his words:

Only through me can you achieve a power greater than any Jedi

Only through me can you reach salvation

1:04:17 Pits of unending darkness

Here Obi-Wan dangles above a precipice, almost defeated by General Grievous.

So many duels in Star Wars take place on the lip of seemingly bottomless pits filled to brim with darkness and the threat of imminent death: Obi-Wan v Darth Maul, Luke v Darth Vader, Darth Vader v The Emperor. This sense of oblivion, of complete physical and moral descent permeates the saga.

The end is only a step away.

1:05:51 Trust

Anakin loses trust in the Jedi because they do not trust him. Here Anakin tells Mace Windu that Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith Lord "we've been looking for" . Mace forbids him to accompany him in the arrest of the Chancellor, saying "if what you say is true you will have earned my trust".

He is treated like a child. We can all remember parents or those in authority disbelieving us on the basis of past
indiscretions. That is why 'The Boy who Cried Wolf' is such an affecting story. No-one could or was prepared to help him. This lack of trust changes everything.

The audience is crying out for Anakin to be included but is powerless. The film begins to slip away from us vertiginously, as thrillingly as a rollercoaster.

1:06:54 Telepathy and Bonds

Padme and Anakin sense each other across the glowing Coruscant skyline. They are bound together by the Force, as well as by love. They reach out with their hearts. The Force gives us a sense of community and specialness. As Master Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back:

"Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter"

1:11:25 Perspectives

Twice in Revenge of the Sith Anakin is told that someone is "too dangerous to be kept alive".

First he is told this by the Chancellor and now by Mace Windu. One he grudgingly accepts, the other he violently repudiates. The prequels are about perspectives, adding shades of grey to the black and white dichotomies of Star Wars' extraordinarily powerful yet naively simple Good v Evil dynamics. They are about how even those on the Dark Side believe they are doing good, doing what is right:

From my point of view the Jedi are evil

Star Wars shows us inside the helmet of evil to explain why they do what they do.
cf: 2:01:22 inside the helmet of evil

1:17:31 Grand Symbolism #2 : Execute Order 66

One 6 away from the number of the beast. The order to eliminate the Jedi and thereby take control of the galaxy is given. The number 66 could also be a reference to 'Executive Order 9066', an order signed in 1942 by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordering the internment of Japanese Americans.

1:18:36 Paradise Lost

Anakin's fall is in consort with the casting of the galaxy entire out of paradise. The most poignant moment of the
execution of Order 66 is the murder of Jedi Aayla Secura on Felucia. Felucia is an abundant Eden, rich with flora and fauna.

The audience has a palpable sense of Paradise Lost. We are angered and moved.

1:19:33 A 360 Degree World

The camera swings back and forth, struggling to take in all the action. The sense of scale and mayhem is exhilarating.

1:19:54 Monks kick ass

In Star Wars the moral guardians, the keepers of the peace, the monk-like priest-like guardians of the Force moonlight as fearsome warriors. Throughout the saga they vacillate between staid emotionless pontification and necessary force .

In overturning the priestly stereotype, Lucas creates a double-edged brand of heroism. All talk and all action.

1:21:34 Colour

There is a distinct polarisation of colour in Star Wars, and the further through the saga you go the more marked it
becomes. It allows us to indulge in the delirious melodrama, instinctively recognising whom to boo and whom to hiss.

Luke and Leia wear white. They are aspirational, pure, innocent, delicate. They are Good. White is also used for the Clonetroopers to convey their genetic purity an Aryan army for a Nazi Emperor, clad in a black cowl.

Black is worn by Evil characters, most notably Darth Vader.

See how Han Solo, the cynical Bogartian renegade, wears white with a black vest on top.

1:27:35 Mustafar - Welcome to Hell

Anakin's first step towards evil was the massacre of the Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones. That was preceded by a shot of him leaping from a cliff wreathed in stars.

He falls from the stars like Lucifer and, like Lucifer, Anakin's name is changed: As Lucifer became Satan so Anakin becomes Darth Vader. Here on this hellish lava planet Obi-Wan will come to confront him amidst the creative and destructive power of molten magma.

These images not only have a euphoric visual force but they carry with them great meaning and symbolism.

1:31:07 Economy of Storytelling

Star Wars is impressively streamlined. When there is so much to fit in from so many corners of the galaxy, speed of narration is everything. In The Phantom Menace Jedi reflexes are mentioned, nonchalantly, and then entirely out of the blue Qui-Gon catches Jar Jar's whiplash tongue.

Here Obi-Wan and Yoda discover the slaughtered younglings

Obi-Wan: Who could have done this?

There is a beat and we cut to Anakin / Darth Vader cutting down Separatist leaders. The transition from thought to visualisation is literally breathtaking. It leaves us spinning, galvanised yet disoriented.

These cuts take on feverish proportions in Reel Six of each Star Wars episode. This is where the film draws the main storyline threads to a close, intercutting and interweaving them with ever-shortening scenes spiralling around one another.

Here we are taken in the palm of the Director's hand as he traverses the galaxy in enormous bounds, in the
control of the omniscient omnipotence of an artist with a colossal vision..

1:32:25 This is how liberty dies...

Star Wars is also the tale of how a
Democracy becomes a Dictatorship. We have already discussed a few
historical references that help make Star Wars the myth of contemporary reality.

In Attack of the Clones Palpatine took 'emergency powers' for himself just as Hitler did. Like Hitler, these powers are never relinquished and here "The First Galactic Empire" is created.

His rise to power might also hold allusions to Vietnam War conspiracy theories. It is said that the C.I.A. and the
Pentagon believed the War must continue at all costs to benefit the arms trade and the general economy. They therefore assassinated the anti-war JFK to install Lyndon B Johnson as a patsy, a puppet. In Attack of the Clones Palpatine tries to assassinate Padme, a significant roadblock to conflict, and in her absence exploits Jar
Jar to help push through the emergency powers.

These references add realism, whether we are aware of them or not. They summon concerns and frustrations deep within us.

Star Wars hit cinema screens in 1977 in the midst of Cold War fear. Contemporary Hollywood output majored either on the depressing and nihilistic The French Connection, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon or post-apocalyptic science fiction like Logan's Run or George Lucas' own THX

Star Wars offered a vision of a nefarious regime toppled by a plucky band of heroes. It was an inoculation against the anxieties of the time.

In an era of turmoil we burn our imaginations to warm reality.

Is it any wonder that Ronald Reagan, in baptising a missile defense system in times of great upheaval, a beacon of hope, called it Star Wars

All this shows how we can sleepwalk into a nightmare, unaware that what we feel is right might have terrible
consequences. It prompts Padme to say, in one of Star Wars' most poetic moments :

"This is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause"

The prologue to the 1976 Novelisation of A New Hope talks about this death of liberty:

Like the Greatest of trees, able to withstand any external attack, the Republic rotted from within

This could conceivably be seen as a metaphor too for the rotting of Anakin's very soul.

1:35:57 Destiny - "You're going to kill him aren't you?"

An audience is enraptured by the idea of destiny: only special people are sent for a purpose. It lends any plot a certain (celestial) gravity. Certainty is a strong sensation and a durable crutch to lean on.

Star Wars is marked all over with the fingerprints of destiny. The names characters are given denote the path they will take. Apart from the Skywalkers, one can evoke Boba Fett (a bounty hunter with an archaic name for 'to fetch'), Darth Sidious or indeed Padme. She is named after a flower called Padma. It is a flower said to provoke dreams and die shortly after blooming. She does provoke disturbing dreams in Anakin and she does die 'shortly after blooming'. Note also that the inside of the senate, her arena, is arranged like a flower.

Precisely because of the power destiny holds over us, it is used as a weapon in Star Wars. Luke in particular is told by the Emperor and Darth Vader that it is his destiny to join the Dark Side of the force.

However, what is even more titillating for an audience than Destiny Fulfilled is Fate Denied!

1:43:17 Biblical Reference #3

"If you're not with me then you're my enemy"

Anakin has taken on the messianic language fed to him by Palpatine and he echoes these words of Jesus:

"He who is not with me is against me"

NB. These words are also uncannily reminiscent of President George W Bush's statements regarding terrorism and the axis of evil. Lucas uses modern-day parallels of supposed power-hungry madness, still fresh in the memory.

1:45:00 Scene Crescendi and Music

The battle between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan rages as we cut to Yoda fighting the Emperor. Many of the scenes in Star Wars end on a crescendo, dramatically and musically, on a mystery or a mini-epiphany, on an exclamation mark or a question mark.

The majority of contemporary films treat scenes as individual phrases with symmetrically drooping cadences. They end on a full stop. In Star Wars the following scene is elevated onto a higher dramatic plateau by the crescendo of its predecessor.

The Music of Star Wars is instrumental to the success of the story. It is epic and alluring. John Williams' rich tapestry of melodies have helped found the images in our minds and imprint them as beloved memories. The music becomes a character in itself, sometimes reacting to events, other times seeming to provoke them.

1:48:14 Grand Symbolism #3: Destroying the seat of power

Yoda and the Emperor duel in the Senate building. Balconies are turned to rubble as they fight over the political course of the galaxy at its political heart. Nothing is sacred and everything is up for grabs. Wonderful stuff.

1:55:05 You were the Chosen One!

Anakin was meant to be a messiah (Jesus was referred to as the Chosen One) sent to bring balance to the force .

The idea of a messiah has a tripartite force it offers proof of destiny, it offers hope for a better future free from social oppression and it fulfils the mythic quality of a man who is more than a man.

Unlike so many films depicting the idea of the one this prophecy comes to pass in a most convoluted way. Anakin
does eventually bring balance to the force in Return of the Jedi but only after he has further destabilised it. Star Wars delves deeper into despair in the knowledge that the joy for the audience at seeing the light will prove still greater for it.

2:00:45 Birth and Rebirth

Hope for Anakin dies when he is reborn as a besuited Darth Vader and a new hope is born with the arrival of his twin children Luke and Leia.

There is such a strong feeling of Life and Death, Joy and Sorrow, Fall and Redemption. These are a few of the key concerns of Star Wars.

2:01:21 Inside the helmet of Evil

cf 1:11:25 perspectives

There is hope in this image in that we are with Anakin as the mask begins to cover his face

2:01:24 "Relax, take a deep breath"

In this story of Anakin's fall, Padme (with whom intimacy was forbidden by the Jedi code) acts as the apple. He tastes and soon finds her "intoxicating" . As his feelings develop he starts experiencing (metaphorical) breathing problems:

"When I'm around you, I can't breathe"

His love for her and his succumbing to tempation will irrevocably lead to the his reincarnation as wheezing part-machine Darth Vader

2:01:59 Faith - "There's good in him"

Faith, Forgiveness and Belief in the power of Good are integral to the character of Star Wars:

Luke: I don't believe it!

Yoda: That is why you fail

As Padme lies dying she tells Obi-Wan that there is still "good in him". Luke will become her avatar, echoing these
words to his Father in Return of the Jedi::

"I sense the good in you" .

An audience finds the idea of the transformative power of good supremely inspiring. In Episode VI Yoda and Obi-Wan have lost faith in Luke ( "he was our last hope") yet Luke alone, inspired by his Mother, believes purely in the Force.

Luke's faith and hope redeems his Father with a stunning stand for humanity and love:

"I am a Jedi, like my father before me"

He lowers his arms in refusal to turn to the Dark Side and it is this act of selflessness, his helplessness, that prompts Vader to kill the Emperor and fulfill the prophecy.

The circle is complete and Vader becomes Anakin again. His helmet removed, he is able to say:

"Tell your were right about were right about me"

How moving.

2:02:41 Slavery to Slavery to Slavery

Tragically, Anakin never achieves freedom and when he does he fails to recognise it.

He is always trapped. He begins his life as a slave to Watto on Tatooine. He is threatened with death if he tries to
escape. Taken by the Jedi, his talent and emotions are enslaved by their strict code of behaviour:

"He's holding me back!"

"Attachment is forbidden"

Finally he ends his life as a slave to the whims of the Emperor. He is no more than a glorified bodyguard.

That is why the sight of Anakin's ghost at the end of
Return of the Jedi is so uplifting. He is free.

2:03:34 Popular Cultural Iconography

Star Wars dredges up the sedimented layers of our imaginations, imaginations enriched by sundry folktales and fables.

In doing so Star Wars gains full-born and legendary significance and places stepping stones to a deeper understanding:

Attack of the Clones: Count Dooku, the evil witch, flies on a narrow broom-like craft

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke uses the Force to pull his lightsaber from the snow of an Endor cave as if it were Excalibur and he King Arthur

Revenge of the Sith Darth: Vader rises clumsily from the table like Frankenstein's monster

This is just a small selection of the references that enable meaning to be more quickly conveyed and assimilated.

2:06:03 Shapes and Colours

Colour drains from the galaxy as hope and freedom does. The primal rainbow spectrum and curved contours of the Prequel trilogy give way at the end of Revenge of the Sith to straight lines and monolithic grey shapes. We can feel the soul being picked out of the story..

2:06:09 The Unreal become Real

Above, Darth Vader walks onto the familiar bridge of a star destroyer overlooking the construction of the Death Star.

Due to the achronological release of the Star Wars episodes, fans, by and large, already knew what would happen in Revenge of the Sith.

They didn't go to the cinema to find out what would happen. They didn't necessarily go to find out how it would
happen. They went to see what they had always dreamed of come true. They went to make sure it happened.

This was cinema as fantasy become concrete, the unreal made real.

What an astonishing sensation, what an otherworldly frisson it is to experience Cinema in this manner, as if the Silver Screen had been turned 180 Degrees.

2:07:20 Love and Humanity

Above, Leia is welcomed to Alderaan by her adoptive parents. Star Wars feels nice and warm and cosy. The characters care and we sense that the filmmakers care about them. This is in part because Lucas aimed the saga at 12-year old children. He gave them a simple story of Good overcoming evil through love, hope and determination.

Star Wars has a clear moral force. Characters who are aggressors lose battles - Anakin launching himself at Dooku in Attack of the Clones and gets struck by lightning - and those who are defensive and pacifiers (as Obi-Wan is in the bar in the same film) gain the upper hand and are granted victory.

2:08:14 Grand Symbolism #4 : The Twins and the Twin Suns

Luke is held by Beru on Tatooine. On the horizon are the two suns of Tatooine representing the two twins. Like Luke and Leia they are seemingly close but yet far far away from each other.

They represent our small lives projected wide on the universe and they signify a New Hope, a light still shining in the gathering gloom.