|Tuesday, May 17, 2005
11:11 - Maybe we should just turn our brains off for a bit
My company's Engineering department will be honoring a long-standing tradition and going out en masse to see the new Star Wars movie on Thursday, and I'm looking forward to it as nothing more than a couple of hours where I won't have to think about networking or author review for a change. (Yeah, this time AR started during the weekend, so any respite I thought I'd be getting has been an elusive chimaera. But hey, it's going quickly—I'm a quarter of the way done, and I'll have it all taken care of by Friday.)
I've read reviews and exposed myself to spoilers. That's the degree to which I've become blasé about the whole enterprise; I really don't hang too much hope on the movie redeeming its two immediate predecessors, but I wouldn't mind seeing something that does justice to the insane richness of source material that there is by now—it seems like it'd be really, really hard to screw it up too badly under these conditions. (Though I'm sure that if anybody can find a way, Lucas can.)
I don't expect it to even try to address the gaping plot holes, like C-3PO not remembering he was built by Darth Vader or used to work at Owen's hole in the ground, or R2-D2 getting his rocket-packs removed in a thirty-year downgrade of technology—simply because the textural disagreements with the original movies are vaster still. Remember how in the "first" three movies, the Empire was just the Empire—it was just "there"? There wasn't any politics involved. When I first saw the movies when I was a kid, I got the impression (somehow) that when they talked about the Old Republic being "swept away" and the ancient Jedi Order vanishing and the Clone Wars, they were talking about something that had happened hundreds of years ago, and Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi and such characters had far longer lifespans than normal humans—the events they were talking about just seemed far too distant to have occurred within living memory, because there was no indication that anybody cared. It seemed like the Empire was a fact of life that everyone had just accepted generations ago, and when they spliced in those scenes at the end of the re-released Return of the Jedi with citizens on planets all over the galaxy thronging in the streets and cheering, I was like, the hell? Since when did the people of Coruscant hate Darth Vader or the Emperor? We'd certainly seen no indication that anybody but the Rebels or the occasional incompetent admiral had reason to hate or fear Vader's trachea-crushing grip.
A third prequel won't change what's already on the screen in the original three movies; it's under expectations to be bigger and badder than even its two high-budget CG-fest predecessors, which means the textural jump from Episode III to IV—if you watch them in order—will border on the absurd. I know they're finally trying to make some effort to wrestle the ship designs back in time a quarter century through some plot device that makes vehicles stop looking like CG-rendered SR-71 Blackbirds and turns them into big Lego models, and for that I commend them (I say guardedly, for plot devices can malfunction); maybe they'll even put in some of that great atmospheric dialogue about grimy and junky ship technology that worked so well in The Empire Strikes Back—remember Han trying to fix the Millennium Falcon? "Well, there must be a reason for it; check the other end!" "No, no—that goes over there, that goes over there!" —The kind of stuff you'd expect to hear in an actual garage, instead of the antiseptic, liquid-mercury, Syd Mead-ish unreality of the ships in Episodes I and II where you might as well have just reloaded fresh copies out of the holodeck instead of breaking out the torque wrenches. But nonetheless, they can't suddenly inject political context into the original three movies to match all the internecine trade and cloning machinations that the prequels have indulged, however ineptly. So unless Lucas decides to remake Episodes IV thru VI again—and I suppose I shouldn't put it past him—these are always going to seem like two totally separate trilogies, created by two totally different filmmakers. Which indicates not so much that Lucas wants to do different things with them, but that he himself just isn't trying that explicitly to say anything meaningful with his movies. They're just big dumb space operas. They're fun. They're not allegories to Vietnam or Iraq. They're just excuses to see lots of explosions and root for the good guy. Lucas never thought it out clearly enough to make it into anything really cohesive in any capacity, allegorical or fantastical. And that's okay.
And with that in mind, I have to question what people like Professor Bainbridge are on about, when they talk about the direness of Lucas' undermining of his own movies' spirit. Bainbridge claims that when Obi-Wan in the new movie says, "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," it's not even so much as tedious commentary on the War on Terror that the line grates, but as a betrayal of the original trilogy's philosophy, in which the old Jedi masters were the absolutists.
As proof that Obi-Wan is painting the world in black-and-white terms for Luke to rebel against, he quotes this exchange from Return of the Jedi:
Luke: Why didn't you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-Wan: Your father... was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and BECAME Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was TRUE... from a certain point of view.
Luke: A certain point of view?
Obi-Wan: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to...
Obi-Wan: depend greatly on our own point of view. Anakin was a good friend.
[Luke sits next to Obi-Wan]
Obi-Wan: When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot. But I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him. I took it upon myself to train him as a Jedi. I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong.
Luke: There IS still good in him. I've felt it.
Obi-Wan: He more machine now than man; twisted and evil.
Yeah, hear all that absolutism there? You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. Phew, boy! Someone get this man a latté and an upside-down ankh pendant, he's way too uptight. No wonder Luke didn't dig his scene, maaaan.
Bainbridge's contention is that both the Sith and the Jedi had started seeing the world (and the Force) in absolute terms, which was the reason why Luke had to bring "balance" to it—and that itself sounds a whole lot like relativism to me. Jedi and Sith, two sides of the same coin? Red lightsaber, blue lightsaber? Two sides to every Schwartz? Please. Star Wars became famous for its good-vs-evil mantras, and has been derided for it, even blamed for America's own obsession with seeing the world in the absolutes that Hollywood—by which a lot of people instinctively mean Star Wars—taught us. Lucas wasn't trying to get us to see the world from Darth Vader's point of view, he was trying to explain how a person could be evil and yet be redeemed, saved from the brink. If he was trying to preach relativism, then Vader's capitulation to Luke at the end and betrayal of the Emperor was just so much more evil, "from a certain point of view", right? Bah.
That's why this has got to rank among the best blog posts of all time: it gives us that Darth Vader viewpoint, boiled down to its essential Tao, and yet doesn't indulge in any of those wanky platitudes made popular by high-school kids in the 60s who thought they were being deep and insightful by writing fiction stories where black people were the dominant race in America and the whites had to sit at the back of the bus. No insipid "Just replace Iraq 2003 with Poland 1939" exercises here; just a good theory about what the "dark side" really is, and why reasonable people might reject the Jedi way even though everything it purports to stand for is such sweetness and light.
Leave it to the fans to come up with a coherent and plausible backstory... because I don't think Lucas is up to the challenge. He can deliver the explosions, and we'll imagine the rest.