Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Week: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Revenge of the Sith (2005) finds the Galactic Republic embroiled in a Civil War with Separatists. Indeed, "War" is the very first word that appears in the film, on that famous yellow crawl.

Chancellor Palpatine (in office long past his term...) has been captured by the Separatists, and after an incredible space battle, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) board the craft of General Grievous and Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to rescue him. During the mission, Anakin slips towards the Dark Side by letting his vengeance get the better of him with aan act of murder urged on by Palpatine.

Meanwhile, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) reveals that she is with child, and this revelation terrifies Anakin, for he has been experiencing terrible visions (like the one about his mother, in Attack of the Clones.)

He fears that Amidala will die in childbirth and feels impotent to prevent this grim fate. Angry and feeling powerless Anakin seeks out the tutelage of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who tells him that there are ways to save Amidala, if only he explores the Dark Side of the Force.

Eventually, feeling he has no option, Anakin succumbs. He betrays the Jedi Order but in doing so, no longer remains the man that Amidala loved. On opposite sides of the war now, Obi Wan and Anakin duel, and Obi Wan wins, leaving a hobbled, burned Anakin to die on the side of a volcano on the planet Mustafar.

While the Galaxy slips into darkness and an Empire is born, Amidala dies of a broken heart after giving birth to the twins, Luke and Leia. Anakin survives, but is now more machine than man, locked into a mechanical suit -- a cage -- and re-named Darth Vader.

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." 

That is the essential idea at the heart of Revenge of the Sith, both in terms of the Republic, and on a more personal level, Anakin himself. And, in the tradition of all great art, this is a message that relates directly to the times we live in.

What has happened to the Republic? Well, to face a grave and gathering threat (the Separatist movement), the Senate voted for the creation of a "standing" clone army to fight evil renegade Count Dooku. In thousands of years (and presumably having vanquished many other threats), the Republic never required such an army, but rather was safeguarded by the noble protectors of peace, The Jedi Knight.

But now?

Fear-mongering often makes people make bad, rash decisions.

The first chip away at individual liberty in the Republic thus occurs when the Senate sacrifices the principles it has honored for so long, and puts a huge military force under the control of one man, the Chancellor. 

Then, by appealing to the Senate's sense of patriotism, the Chancellor is given further "Emergency Powers." He remains in office well past his appointed term, and then -- claiming an assassination attempt -- alters the structure of the Republic in the name of security. Now, he tells the Senate to "thunderous applause," it shall be a strong and safe Empire...but committed to peace.

This is how -- as Amidala says -- democracies die. The scared masses practically beg a "strong man" to protect them.

And he does. As he says to Darth Vader: "Go bring peace to the Empire." Alas, it is the peace of subjugation; the peace of oppression.

There are a number of interesting factors about this set-up that relate directly to America in the last several years (the time the prequels were made and released). 

The first thing to consider is this: we saw in Phantom Menace exactly how an Emperor began his ascent, chipping away at democracy a piece at a time. A Dark Lord and his allies, using the technicalities of the law removed the Supreme Chancellor (Valorum) from office, consequently gaining power for themselves. 

They did so by claiming that the Senate's bureaucracy had swelled to unmanageable and non-functional levels -- an anti-government argument -- and that Valorum himself was a weak man beset by scandal. The antidote was a self-described "strong leader," someone who could rally the Senate and get it to work again, someone like, say Palpatine. In other words, a man was chosen to replace a flawed leader, a man who could restore "honor and dignity" to the Republic.

In real life, of course, George W. Bush ascended to the Presidency, after the scandal-plagued Clinton. And after the attacks of 9/11, cowed Americans willingly accepted a massive new surveillance state with the passage of the Patriot Act.  And Bush had this to say to the World on November 6, 2001:"You are either with us or against us" in this war on terrorism.

In May 2005, George Lucas explicitly put the following words into Anakin Skywalker's mouth: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy."

And Obi-Wan's rebuttal? "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." 

Clearly, George Lucas has crafted Revenge of the Sith as a direct rebuke to the path America took post-9/11. Those who whine and cry that there is no such political message here are advised, simply, to grow up. You don’t have to agree with the message.  You don't have to like it.  But to deny its presence here is infantile.

What is clever and artistic about Lucas’s metaphor is not merely that it is timely (and frightening), but that Lucas tells his story on two parallel tracks. Fist, in terms of sweeping galactic governments, and second in personal, individual terms. Anakin goes through the same journey personally that the Republic citizenry undergoes on a wide scale.

Consider that he too is "terrorized," or rather, the victim of a terrible attack. Not necessarily by the Separatists, but by the Sand People on Tatooine. They kill his Mother. That loss hurts him deeply, and he pursues (mindlessly) his revenge against the agents who hurt him.

But then Anakin begins experiencing visions that he will also lose his beloved wife. So, like the Republic itself, Anakin willingly exchanges freedom and liberty for safety and security. He surrenders his golden ideals and turns to the Dark Side because he fears more "attack;" he fears the loss of his family.  He does not heed Yoda's warning that "fear of loss is a path to the dark side."

Thus Anakin is a follower. Might as well be a clone.

Anakin is prone to this weakness early -- as we can tell from his discussion on Naboo with Amidala in Attack of the Clones -- when he notes that a Dictatorship would make things easier, and thus prove preferable to democracy. Indeed it would be easier, which is why some Americans so gladly, to this day, accept the idea of a Unitary Executive.  But why would we give up our own paper, and hand it to someone else?

Only fear can make us do something so stupid.

For all his skills as a pilot and a warrior, Anakin is a weak-minded individual who would rather follow than lead; rather cede individual power and freedom to a dictatorship than make the hard decisions that go hand-in-hand with a democracy. 

Again, Anakin's path is a metaphor for the American populace in the post-9/11 milieu. When attacked, the first thing we do is scream for the government to protect us. We allow the Patriot Act to pass, and don't complain. We allow habeas corpus to be suspended...and we don't complain. We permit the Geneva Conventions to be violated...and we say nothing. We essentially become mindless, quivering "robots,' victims of politically-timed "Terror Alerts."  In other words, we all become Darth Vader: mechanical shells of our former selves, one now obedient to our Master. What remains of us appears humanoid, but functions mechanically and automatically; doing what is ordered.  Fear has programmed us to surrender our freedoms.

And when does Darth Vader/Anakin finally reject the Emperor? 

When his family is threatened...again. When it once more becomes a personal matter for him. He turns on his master not because it is the right thing to do, not for the ideals of democracy, but because he has been ordered to murder his son.

So the journey of Darth Vader is the journey of us. Anakin/Vader is explicitly a reminder of what happens to citizens when they cease to be rational; when they become so fearful that they trade away liberty for safety.

What remains so commendable about Star Wars, and in particular Revenge of the Sith is that George Lucas has given us a story about our times, but he has done so utilizing the language of mythology. There is no "Abu-Ghraib" episode; there is no "post September 11" mentality. There is no obvious metaphor for Islam and sleeper cells (spelled C-Y-L-O-N). On the contrary, Lucas has shown us that a galaxy far, far away holds much in common with what has occurred in human history; and what is happening now. It's all vetted on a symbolic level, not an obvious one.

Consider that the Star Wars films are about - over and over again - man's battle against the "dark side." Unlike many fans who respond to the films on a somewhat superficial level, I don't see that battle necessarily as occurring with light sabers, blasters and spaceships, but rather inside the human soul.

First Anakin, then Luke Skywalker is tempted to fall before darkness, to give in to hate and fear. The father does so; the son does not (at least in the OT).

But the movies repeat these themes (from one trilogy to the next), because that's humanity's constant battle. I can apply that battle to the context of post-9/11 age, and you can see how so much of it fits together, but you can also apply the films to other historical periods and cultures. The Rise of Fascism in the 1930s, for example.

That's why Star Wars resonates so much on a simple storytelling level. It's not just about "here and now," but rather man's perpetual struggle to fend off despotism. Revenge of the Sith tells us that people would give up any cherished right, just to feel, temporarily, “safe.”

It's no accident that so much of the final film's imagery is Hellish in color and dimension. Anakin and all those cowards who gave up their freedom for safety will dwell in that Hell of their own making.

Revenge of the Sith, to its credit, features a strong sense of inevitability. We know where it is headed, obviously, and yet are still shocked by the rapidity of the Republic's fall, and the regime change. This tidal wave of inevitability, which brings us right back to the beginning of Star Wars, is the film's greatest strength.

The film's first half-hour is its greatest weakness. Here, as if Lucas can't quite commit to Anakin's fall from grace (another reference to Hell, in a way...), we get a sustained action sequence in space and aboard Grievous's battleship. This set-piece is pacey, beautifully-filmed, and involving.  And yet, one can't help but feel the time would have been better spent on Anakin and Padme, and their feelings for one another, the feelings that, finally, cause Anakin to spiral to the dak side.

The film's  best scene, unequivocally, involves the Emperor's recitation of the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise.  This scene is fascinating in terms of the saga's history, in terms of the Emperor's back story, and in terms of the Sith.  It is absolutely riveting.  So many fans seem to hate the prequels, and yet I read constantly on the Internet these days speculation about Plagueis.  Clearly, this scene and its story of the Greatest Sith, works brilliantly. It is a foundation for a thousand speculations.

Finally, I love the film's great (largely un-discussed) punctuation or irony. Anakin goes to the dark side to discover immortality for those he loves.  He never finds it there.  But Yoda, and Obi-Wan, thanks to Qui-Gonn, discover that very immortality on the light side of the force (as we see demonstrated in A New Hope). 

Had Anakin stayed true -- and had faith in his friends (in democracy?) -- he might have had the very answers he so desperately sought. 

1 comment:

  1. This 2nd trilogy of Star Wars films had one high point, Dark Mau, maybe the best villain in the franchise including Dark Vader. But it completely lost me with Jar Jar Binks. I looked at that absolutely monstrosity of a character and made the decision that this franchise was lost, irrevocably so.
    So if the critique of Revenge/Sith is based on it's immediate predecessor and NOT on the clearly superior original trilogy, then it is an absolute masterpiece!!!!