Right Wing Nut House

5/25/2005

THE DESCENT OF ANAKIN

Filed under: General — Rick Moran @ 12:17 pm

Watching what promises to be the last Star Wars movie turned into something of an emotional experience for me. When the first film in the series came out in 1977, I was in the business trying to make a living as an actor. Now actors are a notoriously jaded lot and it’s considered to be uncool to get too excited about anything, least of all someone else’s work. So, when I entered the theater to see this movie everyone was talking about (it was about a week after it premiered) I was fully prepared to be unimpressed.

Even though it was a Wednesday night, the theater was packed. The only place to sit was all the way down front in the first row. As my friends and I craned out necks upward, the first scene unfolded and took my breath away. The huge, Corillion Class Imperial Cruiser felt like it was directly over my head and the sound (70MM 6 Track later updated to Dolby) beat against my chest and made my entire body tingle.

The music score by John Williams was like something out of one of the epic films of the 1950’s. And the special visual effects, considered primitive by today’s standards, were imaginative and awe-inspiring. In short, I came out of that movie with a feeling that I had seen the future of film making.

Being out of the business so long, I can now take a more critical look at the movies and judge them from the only standpoint that should matter - as a storytelling experience.

Human beings have been telling stories to each other since the dawn of civilization. It’s been a way to impart universal truths in a memorable fashion. Simply talking about the grand themes of good versus evil or love and hate, life and death has never been enough. These themes resonate with people on a more personal level if the magic of storytelling is involved. From Homer, to Shakespeare, to George Lucas, there is a direct line of storytelling that illustrates themes that unite humanity no matter what culture you’re from.

This is not to compare Lucas to Shakespeare in talent. It is simply to point out that both men tell good stories about things that are important, things that matter.

Revenge of the Sith is a great movie. It’s not just good. It’s not just entertaining. Sith will go down in history as one of the finest examples of storytelling in the history of the American cinema.

And if it doesn’t, it should.

If that sounds a little gushy, please forgive me. After all, there is plenty in the movie to be critical about. Hayden Christiansen, brave lad, still cannot act his way out of a paper bag. Ditto Natalie Portman who at least is fine looking window dressing. And Ewan McGregor’s forced wisecrack’s and stilted banter with Anakin was distracting to say the least. I thought General Grievous was a little over the top and one dimensional to boot. And the general criticism of all Lucas movies - a too cute reliance on special effects - was on display for all to see.

All this being said, Lucas made a great film, perhaps in spite of himself. And the reason is that the primary focus of the film centered on Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness.

This aspect of the film could very easily have been mishandled. There is a very fine line between tragedy and melodrama. The difference is in the character’s awareness of his journey into despair. I once saw Arthur Miller’s classic American tragedy Death of a Salesman performed by a Polish Theater Company back when Poland was a communist country. Miller’s play is about the descent of Willy Loman into darkness, despair, and finally suicide and was very popular in communist countries because it ostensibly showed the evils of capitalism.

The production was laughably bad. Not because the actor’s weren’t good. It’s because the actor who played Willy Loman played up the melodramatic aspects of his character’s descent rather than the underlying subtext that gives the play its emotional power. Willy Loman goes to his death without a clue why his wife left him, his sons hate him, and why he’s a failure at his job. The sin of overarching pride dooms Loman, not the capitalist system. To play it otherwise is to invite laughter.

Similarly, Anakin’s seduction is possible only because of both his pride and fear. Anakin’s feelings of superiority are massaged expertly by Palpatine who inculcates a sense of destiny in his young charge that feeds his ego and confirms his own abilities - abilities that go unrecognized by Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council. Palpatine doesn’t cast a spell on young Skywalker. He uses the material at hand, aspects of Anakin’s personality already present to first intrigue, then confuse, and finally lure the young man to his side with the promise of freedom from fear.

With Sith, there was the real potential for disaster. If not handled just right, Anakin’s journey to the dark side could have been comical or worse, painful to watch. Instead, Lucas navigated the dangerous shoals and brought both Anakin and the audience safely through. And I consider this aspect of the movie to be a singular achievement in the history of American cinema.

Lucas couldn’t have pulled it off without the assistance of veteran character actor Ian McDiarmid whose Palpatine was played with a pitch perfect sense of seductive evil. It would have been easy to draw Palpatine with stick figure simplicity. But the depth of the Sith Lord’s evil resonated perfectly with themes familiar to theatergoers. The snake in the garden who offers Anakin a bite of the apple, the easy lie, the blurring of the line between good and evil so that evil actually appears good all work to undermine Anakin’s fragile sense of self, tied up both in his identity as a Jedi and his fear that he will lose everyone he loves.

And let’s not forget Padme’s role in all of this. An idealistic Senator who, too late, recognizes her husband’s transformation despite the signs being there since Attack of the Clones, Padme’s selfishness and single minded belief in the purity of Anakin’s motives blinds her to both Palpatine’s manipulation of her lover and his eventual crossing over to the dark side. Padme goes to her death a tragic character who never understood why the purity and absoluteness of her love couldn’t save Anakin. Love may conquer all - except when love is hoarded, not shared. Padme’s belief that by finally taking Anakin away to a place where he would be safe from harm shows how shortsighted she was. Anakin would never be able to protect himself from his own fear.

One note on the physical manifestation of the evil infecting both Anakin and Palpatine. The disfigurement of both was a master stroke by Lucas, hearkening back to the morality plays if the middle ages (and more recently Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) that showed the fall of Adam in a series of vignette’s where Adam gets progressively older and uglier, a result of his listening to the serpent in the garden and a consequence of his pride and disobedience of God. Chaucer also dealt with the ugliness of evil as his devil characters almost always had some kind of physical deformity that made them particularly repulsive. It’s no accident that the more revealed Palpatine’s alter ego Darth Siddius became, the less we saw of the harmless, white haired Chancellor and more the ugly Sith Lord. It’s one of the advantages of cinema over other art forms in that it shows image as substance.

So Anakin’s journey - a journey everyone in the audience knows the destination - couldn’t have been handled better. It wasn’t so much the acting that carried it off as it was the utilization by Lucas of universal themes that storytellers have been thrilling audiences with for at least 3000 years. And with some deft writing and some good turns by Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, the story of Darth Vader, one of the great villains in American cinema, comes full circle.

I know that many will disagree with my interpretation. Or perhaps fault me for not pointing out the superficial political statements that Lucas evidently tried to incorporate into the movie. Either way, I understand where you’re coming from, after having read so many negative reviews from conservatives on the web and elsewhere. Be that as it may, there are things more important than politics. Lucas has made an American masterpiece, a modern American morality play that will live as long as the themes he so masterfully illuminated mean something to all of us.

5 Comments

  1. I could care less about Lucas’ professed political beliefs. I can enjoy a movie despite the director being an idiot.

    But I have to disagree with your assesment of Skywalker’s seduction. I thought the entire thing was stilted, wooden and scripted. Christensen played his role as though an original thought never entered his head. The speed with which he was turned was unbelievable and his killing of Mace was just horribly out of character. I thought the rest of the movie was decent in spite of that part of the storyline. But that’s just my 2 cents.

    Comment by Drew — 5/25/2005 @ 3:24 pm

  2. I enjoyed Sith despite the movie, which I found to be pretty horrible. I enjoy Star Wars, so pretty much anything from that universe will entertain me. But the bad acting, too-smooth CGI action sequences, and lack of true evil on the part of Anakin left me wanting more. Wanting better.

    How many Jedi did we actually see Anakin kill? Zero. He stopped Mace from killing Palpatine, which allowed Palpatine the opportunity to finish off Mace, but that kill isn’t attributable to Anakin. He marched into the temple with all of those clones, and then we didn’t see a single battle. He lit up his light saber in the room with all the younglings, but we never saw him hack and slash. His turn to the dark side was too fast and dramatic, especially considering the fact that 1) it happened because he was scared of his dreams, and 2) Palpatine’s promises of saving Padme were unfounded as he didn’t have the power to do it.

    I wanted a movie where I learned to hate Darth Vader. I learned that the evil inside of him was too great for the good to overcome, and that he had done terrible things of his own accord because he was just evil. I feel that we could’ve formed a better emotional response to his turn to the dark side if we had seen him kill some Jedi, seen him kill the younglings, or seen him have a true emotional moment with Padme. Lucas can’t write (or apparently direct) a romantic scene. I’ve seen more passion from cereal commercials.

    One of the foundational problem areas, in my opinion, is the liberal-style thinking that went behind the movie that says no one is truly responsible for their actions. It is their circumstances and the people around them that cause them to do things out of character because they are deceived into thinking it’s the right thing to do or the only option they have. I felt like the filmmakers were trying to get me to feel the same way about Darth Vader as they would want me to feel about drug dealers in the ghetto. It’s not their fault - it’s a societal and community failure to show another viable option.

    Comment by James Wright — 5/25/2005 @ 5:02 pm

  3. My favorite line from the movie:

    “Only the Dark Side Deals in Absolutes”
    - Obi-Wan Kenobi

    Comment by James Wright — 5/25/2005 @ 5:04 pm

  4. James:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a “liberal-style” way of thinking at work in Sith. Anakin’s descent is much more attributal to his own hubris - else he wouldn’t have been seduced by the powers of the dark side.

    As for the rest of your critique, I too was disappointed that we didn’t get to hate Darth Vader more. But the look on his face and the way he said “I hate you” to Obi-Wan after their duel promised that he would grow in his evil - especially after being told that he was responsible for Padme’s death. The disfigurement by Obi-Wan and his own psychic pain at killing Padme (even though he didn’t, he believes his master) could easily explain his character in A New Hope and beyond.

    There was the brief scene when Obi-Wan reviewed the security tapes where we saw a holographic image of Anakin killing the younglings. Not satisfying enough, but a taste of evil nonetheless.

    I guess the biggest problem for all fans of star wars was that we knew what was going to happen to Anakin. There was no question that he would become Darth Vader so I guess perspective on how that occurred will differ. I happened to think it was very well done. You don’t.

    Viva la difference!

    Comment by Rick Moran — 5/25/2005 @ 6:01 pm

  5. And thus is the joy of art - it always gets filtered through our own experiences and prejudices before we ever see it at all. There is no objectivity in art, only perspectives. When “critiquing” films, I always try to say how it made me feel, as opposed to absolutes about how “good” or “bad” it was. This doesn’t especially hold true for quality of acting, special effects, or story, but it always holds true of how you view it and enjoy it.

    When it comes to art appreciation, certainly I can embrace “Viva la difference!”. In politics, however, you either agree with me or you’re an infidel worthy only of death. :)

    Comment by James Wright — 5/25/2005 @ 7:12 pm

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