Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Worst Thing

At the exact middle of the Prequel Trilogy, the central character commits an act of horrible evil. Anakin Skywalker’s mother has been kidnapped, he goes to rescue her only to see her die, and he kills upwards of thirty Sand People in revenge. He then goes back to his girlfriend and cries in her arms over it. We cannot resist analyzing such a powerful piece of the story (even if any of the characters never do.)

Much like with the Phantom Menace, and the droids themes running throughout, the movies make no attempt to hide from this evil. It is explicitly spelled out that Anakin killed this tribe, including their children and women (presumably non-combatants.) Whether we dwell on it is left up to the audience, but we can’t not know.

And uncomfortably, the proto-Lord Vader is badass when he does it. In fact this is perhaps the first time in the trilogy that Anakin is unquestionably cool. The Sand People are not defenseless, they’ve already fought off one law enforcement party and presumably will continue doing evil for a while. They murdered his mother, and although we don’t know the details of it every piece of evidence is that it was horrible. So Anakin flies off on his land speeder, full of grim determination, with Duel of the Fates playing in the background. We are given every reason to wish Anakin some measure of vengeance. So when Anakin pulls out his light saber and deflects the first shots of the guards he is ambushing, part of us cheers for justice served.

The movie shows us what a terrible mistake that was. He commits mass murder and we are undeniably provided with the evidence that this was evil. Given that Attack of the Clones broader political theme is “sometimes you go too far when fighting even your legitimate enemies”, this scene fits in perfectly with that.

(Practically speaking, many movies contain mass killing done by the hero of course. Often without emotional consequence. Luke blew up untold thousands on the Death Star, and at ten years old Anakin made a similar attack of mass destruction. I generally feel that this is bad messaging and bad art, where the target of the attack is treated like an object, and the consequences to people are not considered. We hand wave it away with “they were military targets so it’s okay” and return to the character driven drama. Which is fine, since we are here for character drama and often these objects function mostly to highlight successes for the characters. So it is a very different style of scene, and message, when a movie takes time to show genuine regret and even utter horror over the murder a character inflicted.)

The second half of this arc follows shortly. Anakin breaks down and tells Padme what happened out there.

Annie, what's wrong?

I... I killed them. I killed them all. They're
dead, every single one of them...

(ANAKIN focuses on her like someone returning from far away.)

Not just the men, but the women and the children
too. They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like
animals... I hate them!

(There is silence for a moment, then ANAKIN breaks down,
sobbing. PADMÉ takes him into her arms.)

Why do I hate them? I didn't... I couldn't... I
couldn't control myself. I... I don't want to hate them...
But I just can't forgive them.

To be angry is to be human.

To control your anger is to be a Jedi.

Ssshhh... you're human.

Anakin confesses an act of utter evil to the epitome of good guy liberal democracy in these movies and… she has no idea how to react. Remember that the Senator is often a moral giant who opposes the military buildup, stepped down from being Queen when she could have continued, and in many other ways is doing the “right” things by the Republic. Yet what does she have to say in the face of genuine evil, but “you’re human”.

Assurance of humanity is a very disturbing point in response to Anakin killing aliens. He calls them animals, and Lucas’s costume design has always done a good job of making tribal cultures appear dirty and lower-class. Subhuman, almost (until we finally unite with them). People like Amidala and the Jedi should be the least racist of anyone in that culture, but slip into it easily when thrown off their emotional balance.

Not that this blog is supposed to give Padme Amidala lessons in how to treat her boyfriend. Perhaps she should have run away then and there, or had him tried, or gotten him extreme therapy to make sure he doesn’t kill again. But without comprehension of actual evil, she’s incapable of doing any of those things. 

We must understand that Padme is emblematic of the Republic’s failures and not personally accountable for them.

She was trained to fight conservatism in the Senate, not confront a vicious and grieving murderer. Much like the Republic has been trained to deal with technocratic problems like the Trade Federation taxation issues, and not solve slavery on rural planets.

So Anakin’s anger, and severe attachment issues get forgotten. Like Yoda sensing the Dark Side, all of the problems that bring down the Republic are explicitly presented in Episode 2, and ignored by the “good guys” in their mad dash, only in order to explode later.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Breaking: Episode 7 Trailer

I can’t not comment on the trailer for Episode 7 that just came out. Disney and Abrams are definitely returning to the set and prop design feel of the Original Trilogy as much as possible, probably as a reaction to the reception of the Prequels. This will probably work out fine.

I’ve been fairly optimistic about this movie ever since I heard the title was “The Force Awakens”. It shows a lot of awareness of what the movies are about, compared to various alternatives. The movies are a spiritual journey after all.

But this trailer makes me really excited.

For one there’s the black stormtrooper we see as the first character. This is excellent. A lot of racists in youtube comments may feel this in violation of the entirely white Imperial Order we saw before, but readers of this blog know better. The clones are one of the many underclasses of the Star Wars universe, and are used by white humans as cannon fodder to die for them. The fact that even post-clones, the front line troops continue to be the underclass fits in perfectly with the Empire’s hierarchy.

(Of course in the Original Trilogy there is one Imperial character played by a black man. Darth Vader. And his general treatment by and of the Imperial staff definitely re-emphasizes this theme of racial strife.)

The light saber tripart hilt is interesting. We may be seeing the continued debasement of light sabers, like we saw in the Prequels, where they’re everywhere instead of being holy objects. Or it could be the further sanctification of them, as it literally looks like a cross*. We will have to see.

But the best thing is the final line. The narrator says “The Dark Side” while showing a Sith.

And then says “The Light Side” and shows us… the Millenium Falcon.

The Millenium Falcon is the home to our heroes who are united in trust and the Force. It shows up multiple times out of nowhere, just to save the day. It’s non-standardized and illegal. It is the best non-character symbol of trust and community in the entire six movies. It's a TAZ. Understanding that the Millenium Falcon is the Light Side of the Force shows that JJ Abrams really gets it.

* Of course these are Christian movies. The main figure has an immaculate conception, and dies to rid the universe of the Dark Side. Along the way we all find out that we are one and the best path is to love each other unconditionally. I'm surprised at how few crosses there are.

Friday, November 28, 2014

We are the droids we've been looking for

Star Wars deals with a large number of sci-fi beings, and uses them to say a lot about our world. We just discussed how Force ghosts are more message than person, so the next question that comes to mind is where droids fall on the spectrum. Are they "real people", who should be afforded dignity and happiness? Are they part of the Force?

Long before I started writing this blog, two comments about droids stood out.

  • The droids in Phantom Menace talk to each other as if they have social structures that connote some level of independent action (the droid captain has to tell the other droid soldiers what to do), while they are also dependent on a central computer.
  • The characters, particularly good characters, often treat C-3PO like an object, wiping his memory or selling him to Hutts without any respect to his wishes.

But subtle statements about the droids and their status populate the entire series. I mentioned "machines making machines" earlier… which perhaps could best be described as "machines commenting on machines making machines" for even more escheresque terminology. The most loaded scene is probably R2-D2 playing holo-chess against Chewbacca, when Han and C-3PO give the famous warning "Let the wookie win."

So what are droids? Droids are servants, through and through. But just because they aren't servants doesn't mean they aren't still people.

One of our first introductions to them is as Leia has given R2 and C-3PO a secret message and put them on an escape pod. The Imperial officer who scans the pod says it shows no life signs, and so dismisses it as a threat.

The (racist) Imperials do not detect for droids, only for biological people. And in doing so, they miss a key thing that leads to a major defeat for them.

This would be just like a British upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners, where the fact that the elitist gentry ignores the servants becomes their downfall. Servants are still people, as it is so easy for the elites to forget.

C-3PO is particularly interesting, which is to say, he is very self-consciously servile. He treats most  humans exactly like an eager butler. He's fronting, pretending to be part of their upper class, while never actually claiming equality. He's gold plated.

(C-3PO really does not get along with the other underclasses. He insults Chewbacca, the 70's blaxpoitation cariacature, and condescends to the Ewoks when he first meets them. This is the sort of status-affirming class conflict our history is all too familiar with, where the people not at the top of the pyramid find it most important to emphasize that they are still above some other groups. By the end of Return of the Jedi, though, C-3PO is giving a gentle funeral service to the natives he was previously mocking.)

And we get this sort of… gentle effeminity across droid depictions. The droids of the Trade Federation army are purposefully non-threatening, which Lucas said he was going for. We're supposed to think of them as vaguely cartoonish and silly. Much like Jar Jar makes us uncomfortable, to demonstrate that treating him badly is still wrong.

(I'm particularly struck by how philosophical C-3PO often his. He off-handedly spouts theological truths, like we would expect more from the wise servant figures of an Alfred or Wooster.)

"But Blue," you might ask if you were philosophically inclined, "these are beings deliberately made to be our servants. Why do the humans owe equality or respect or autonomy to people who's very definition is to serve humans?"

And the movies show that even if a being desires to help you, you can still treat it badly or well. Senator Bail Organa coolly orders C-3PO's braind wiped at the end of Episode 3, at once pretending indifference while being quite clear at the violence that is being done. This recalls the scenes on Tatooine in Episode 1, where Anakin matter of factly states that there is a bomb in his head and he doesn't want to be a slave, but gives up on this moral message when the Jedi just ignore him.

C-3PO whines, but he whines about things that are very legitimate to be hurt by. Having his brain wiped, being lost in a desert, being sold to slavers. We laugh, the same way we laugh at Jar Jar when he insists he is sentient because "I spake!" It's against our ideas of politeness and stoic manners, but it's still true.

We should remember that just because someone is coded on the side of "good" does not mean they are acting correctly. Luke is plagued by the Dark Side. Good characters continue the logic of classism and corruption throughout the series. It is only in brief glimpses of transcendental logic do even the best characters manage to follow the Light Side. Only when they trust other people.

In comparison, Leia trusts the droids and works with them. R2-D2 himself "talks" to other computer systems on Bespin, and convinces the computer to do things around the security locks the Empire has put in place.

Which answers the question about those battle droids. They do have independent existence and have to hear orders from superiors to know what to do. But also they are slaved to a central computer that if it shuts down, they will shut down. This is not a contradiction, but instead a demonstration of how cruel the universe is to the lower classes. They are damned if they do, damned if they don't, just like the system wants them to be.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Yoda Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

At the end of the Prequels we get Yoda explaining to Obi-Wan about how to become a ghost. This scene is amazing and key on so many levels.

(continuing) Master Kenobi, wait a moment. In your solitude on Tatooine, training I have for you.
An old friend has learned the path to immortality.
One who has returned from the netherworld of the Force to train me . . . your old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn.
Qui-Gon? But, how could he accomplish this?
The secret of the Ancient Order of the Whills, he studied. How to commune with him. I will teach you.
I will be able to talk with him?
How to join the Force, he will train you. Your consciousness you will retain, when one with the Force. Even your physical self, perhaps.

For one, it's awkward and stilted. We can compare it to Obi-Wan's first reference to what will
become of him "If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." This is a very numinous line that is seared in our memory. It specifically makes a connection between the sacrifice necessary for greatness. It also explains, like, nothing. Yoda by comparison is boring and technocratic, explaining a great deal more (including who invented it). Once more we are seeing the midichlorization of the Force, reducing belief to fundamentalist knowledge.

But what are they discussing? Yoda is offering immortal life. Did this movie have anything else to say about immortal life? Oh right, we just spent the whole movie watching Anakin obsessively chase after Dark Side immortality, as he destroyed everything he cared about for it. Why would the Jedi be researching immortality too?

Palpatine sez: The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.

So this is a movie where we both get that line, and we see separate Sith and Jedi methods for attaining immortality. Lucas could have easily left this scene out (there's no tactical necessity to explain Force ghosts at this point), but is able to include it in such a way that draws further equivalencies between these teams.

Third, it returns us to Yoda's character and his reliance on the "real self". Remember his line of Episode 5 "Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter." Guys guys, he must be thinking, I've finally found a way to really be a luminous being! Concerns about the world, or the effect of our imperfect actions on the world, can go to rot. We can float off and be star ghosts instead of dealing with messiness and reality and other perspectives.

And of course he's wrong.


What is a ghost? (Well, a Force ghost, in this universe.)

It's important to note how they are described. In Revenge of the Sith, Yoda describes them as a way to continue on, to maintaining themselves. This is not how Obi-Wan describes or practices it in the Original Trilogy. Then it's a way to continue to affect the world even after he is gone, a way to help and save people.

Here is what Obi-Wan looks like as a ghost.

Does this look like anything else we had seen in the movies so far?

Force ghosts look exactly like electronic transmissions in this universe. They are a way to communicate with people. Whatever Obi-Wan is (dead, in heaven, etc) this representation is not him. It is him communicating with Luke.

This is why Han can't see him and rides through his appearance on Hoth. This is why Obi-Wan only talks to other characters, and doesn't simply use his transenergy state to fly in and blow up the Death Star himself. We never see ghost Obi-Wan chilling by himself in deep space. He's not really there. We are simply seeing a visual representation of his communication with Luke, which is all a Force ghost can do.

But if the Force is the connection of all believers, then even after death we can influence the world. In fact our ability to influence others – others who trust us – is all that the Force is.

And as we are told, that – and not hanging on forever – is more powerful than you can imagine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Video Games!

Something a bit more light-hearted now.

Remember that to some degree, Episode 2 is a reaction to the criticism of Episode 1, particularly of Jar Jar Binks’ uncomfortableness. We’re given a huge amount of movie chock full of mindless action. Pretty much from when Anakin and Padme land on Geonosis and visit the droid factory, to the end of the movie.

But meaningfully mindless.

The factory scene is so rube-goldbergian and arbitrary that it evokes a video game level. Our heroes have to run on conveyer belts and avoid rotating platforms and fight off trivial enemies and… do you really think this wasn’t on purpose? Of course it’s a game.

The best line of this scene is by C-3PO when he first sees the factory: “Machines making machines!”

Remember that this is the same C-3PO who starts A New Hope, while wandering in the desert, by complaining “We seem to be made to suffer.” This robot is constantly spouting theological profundities, masked as wimpy whining. But in fact the universe under Darth Sidious is made to suffer, and it’s a philosophical truth many have wrestled with.

C-3PO is seeing the system they face (of artificial conflict ginned up by Sidious) as a constant cycle of endless war. You kill my father, I become full of revenge and kill you, your son kills me, etc etc. We are mindless machines and we make more machines.

It’s just one line, but remember that false, self-perpetuating conflict is the entire point of everything on Geonosis.

(For another good discussion of "real internal self" vs action, watch C-3PO when his head is on a droid body and his body has a droid head, and both go haywire. Which one is the "real" C-3PO?)

Which brings us to the arena scene. The heroes are chained to pillars while Count Dooku and his allies and a stadium full of fans watch.

We’re bored. The scene isn’t done with any sense of drama (we know all three will escape) and the characters are mostly exchanging annoyed quips. There’s no dramatic musical score - which is a thing Lucas usually uses to great effect (or well, John Williams at least.)

Dooku looks bored, and even has to explain to his ally why they aren’t shooting. It’s all a setup.

Dooku knows about the Clone Army, and Yoda’s imminent invasion. This is just the opening act before the main event. The boredom of the “game” is meant to make the attack of the clones look more exciting and “real” by contrast.

Similarly, the CGI-looking Prequel Trilogy is meant to make the genuine journey in the Original Trilogy look “more real”.

Machines making machines.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Death and Rebirth

Why did Senator Padme Amidala die?

[Note: While these analyses owe a lot to others in general, today’s post in particular is pretty much wholly taken from others who did this work and interpretation first. Today’s post is also more emotionally impactful than most.]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Revenge of the Sith in Short

I rewatched Episode 3 for this blog, and had the chance to contrast it with Return of the Jedi. Remember that Episode 6's most important action is Luke trusting Darth Vader again and again, despite no empirical reason to do so.

What does Sith have to say about trust? I did a simple search on “trust” through the script to make this point, but I think it comes through pretty clearly this way. (I removed lines from the script that didn’t make it into to the movie. They are sometimes useful auxiliary evidence for interpretation, but a cut can be just as important for showing what was consciously taken out.)

I know the Council has grown wary of the Chancellor's power, mine also for that matter. Aren't we all working together to save the Republic? Why all this distrust?


Anakin, I've known you since you were a small boy. I have advised you over the years when I could ... I am very proud of your accomplishments. You have won many battles the Jedi Council thought were lost . . . and you saved my life. I hope you trust me, Anakin.


Anakin, the only reason the Council has approved your appointment is because the Chancellor trusts you.


Too much under the sway of the Chancellor, he is. Much anger there is in him. Too much pride in his powers.

It's very dangerous, putting them together. I don't think the boy can handle it. I don't trust him.

He'll be all right. I trust him with my life.


I would worry about the collective wisdom of the Council if they didn't select you for this assignment. You are the best choice by far … but, they can't always be trusted to do the right thing.


Anakin, search your feelings. You know, don't you?

I know they don't trust you . . .

Or the Senate . . . or the Republic . . . or democracy for that matter.

I have to admit my trust in them has been shaken.


Obi-Wan and the Council don't trust me.

They trust you with their lives. Obi-Wan loves you as a son.


They don't trust you, Anakin. They see your future. They know your power will be too strong to control. Anakin, you must break through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you. Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force.


(after telling Mace Windu about Palpatine’s dark side, so that Mace Windu runs to arrest him)
I must go, Master.

No. If what you told me is true, you will have gained my trust, but for now remain here.

Because the Council did not trust you, my young apprentice, I believe you are the only Jedi with no knowledge of this plot. When the Jedi learn what has transpired here, they will kill us, along with all the Senators.

The movie, about the triumph of Darth Sidious, is basically constant talk of distrust. The Jedi don’t trust the Chancellor or the Senate. The Jedi don’t trust Anakin. Anakin comes to not trust the Jedi. Anakin doesn’t trust Padme.

(Sidious does hope that Anakin trusts him, but never acts as if he relies on Anakin’s trust or even asks for it. In fact when he reveals himself, he’s quite understanding towards Anakin immediately turning him in. His climactic arguments to Anakin aren’t to trust him, but ones of self-interest.)

(There’s also some ambiguity about Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan has genuine love towards Anakin, but his actions hardly show the trust he claims.)

What can we tell from this? Much of the fault for his own fall is young Skywalker’s, and hence so is the rise of the Empire. But the movie is showing us that this sin was all around. If the Council of Jedi had blindly trusted Anakin… there wouldn’t have been a split. Which isn’t to say they had reason not to trust what was happening -- they can clearly tell that Palpatine is manipulating them. But the very thing he is manipulating them into doing is this lack of faith. They ignore their normal rules for loving conduct because of the threat of their enemy… and play right into their enemy’s hands.

The key exchange of these is between Mace Windu and Anakin. Mace is demanding that Anakin earn his trust. We don’t ever in Star Wars see someone demanding this evidence of fealty. It works out very, very badly for Mace Windu.

Frankly it takes some awkward plot decisions to make this the key way the Republic falls. From a realist perspective, why would Master Windu be skeptical of Anakin after Anakin has betrayed his mentor to them? But once distrust has taken root, it infects everything. We see characters make decisions we consider illogical or paranoid, in order to reflect the fallacy of this theme.

The Jedi were corrupt. And so they fell.


I think this glance-over also gives us an idea of what the Star Wars movies are actually saying about attachment.

An attachment that causes you to distrust someone, makes you jealous and afraid. That is the way of the Dark Side, and we see it infect Anakin from an early age. He never engages with this part of his personality, and his Jedi mentors just tell him to stop caring altogether about what happens to his loved ones.

But an attachment that causes you to rely on them, to know they will be there for you when you need it without reassurance, is the only hope the universe has. Han Solo returns to battle in A New Hope and shoots Vader’s TIE fighter from taking down Luke. Leia guides the Millenium Falcon to be at the exact spot to rescue Luke at the end of Empire Strikes Back.

Trust the Force.