The arrival of Episode Two: Attack of the Clones (E2:ATC) has renewed interest in my two widely-discussed Salon articles reviewing Episode One: The Phantom Menace (E1:TPM), and my follow-up essay about George Lucas and the Star Wars Universe. People have written to ask if I intend to boycott the latest episode, because of the deep moral and storytelling flaws that I found in Episode Six: Return of the Jedi (E6:RTJ) and E1:TPM.
Of course not. These are, after all, just movies. And despite George Lucas's oft-spoken contempt for the very same masses who pay his bills, I believe people will simply shrug off any of his messages that don't suit the character of their civilization and times. In other words, people will just ignore the propaganda underlying the razzle-dazzle fun.
Hell, I don't interfere at all with my own small children's enjoyment of Star Wars. I can afford the action figures and at their level, light-saber-morality is pretty harmless. The issues that bother me are issues for grownups. I see no reason to bug kids with dour concerns about 'demigod worship' and 'futility plots.'
Indeed, to show that I try to keep an open mind, I went to see E2:ATC (Attack of the Clones) at a recent matinee and was... well... surprised!
True, it helped that my expectations were low. Still, I found myself quite enjoying the first half of the film! Even during the second half, when plot holes gaped like star-swallowing singularities, I was in a mood to go along and give E2:ATC some credit for a good try.
For one thing, the designers at LucasFilm are getting better all the time. They have been developing a lavish — almost voluptuous — mythical technology, one that has apparently been around long enough to grow refined and a little decadent, with a deeply aristocratic eye for beauty. What Queen Amidalah's costumery did for E1:TPM — distracting us from the movie's tediously banal dialogue — was achieved in this film by architecture, set design, digital world-building and loving attention to every visual detail.
Many things were handled better than I expected, e.g., the teetering dance of the Anakin Skywalker character, hinting at his future dalliance with the Dark Side. In this, nothing helped more than the pas de deux use of background music — playing the "Luke Skywalker Theme" when Anakin did something lonely and brave... then growling the "Darth Vader March" during moments of murderous angst. Ironic scenes on Planet Kamino showed that Lucas had finally decided to use the Obi-Wan character to full potential, making up for his ridiculous underuse in the heroless E1:TPM.
(Again: who was the 'hero" in that film? Every classic 'Campbellian' role was filled, except for that one! See below.)
Still, the building character-angst of Anakin/Darth remains a shallow thing, not capable of bearing much scrutiny. The kind of adolescent inner-struggle that Lucas is portraying has been faced by innumerable good men throughout history. Steven Spielberg routinely portrays his heroes struggling with such flaws — then deciding to transcend them and do what's right. Anakin is shown doing this too! So why hold onto the ridiculous all-or-nothing cult of utter mental purity that Lucas has preached relentlessly since E6:RTJ?
That's not how human minds — or heroes — work. Indeed, there are subtler and more interesting things that George Lucas could do... that he still has time to do! Alas, all signs show that he won't.
Shall we quibble a bit over Anakin's sudden interest in his mother's welfare, after ten years of never sending her a single letter? Yes, a Jedi should strive for detachment. Nevertheless, he had rich friends who owed him favors after E1:TPM. They could have bought Mom out of hock a decade ago, and helped ease his mind a bit. Set her up in a small house on Naboo. Safe. See her on holidays and spend the rest of the time concentrating on studies.
But no, he left her there. So why the sudden interest? Should we even sympathize?
(Let's not even go into micro-illogicalities, like having CP30 work for 'Uncle Owen' for ten years... then later they won't recognize each other at all.)
In a recent Time Magazine article, George Lucas explains the depressingly foreordained saga of Anakin Skywalker's slide into evil-demigodhood by saying: "He turns into Vader because he gets attached to things. He can't let go of his mother; he can't let go of his girlfriend. He can't let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you're greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you're going to lose things, that you're not going to have the power you need."
Internet commentator Stefan Jones replied: "I can picture Star Wars fans across the country trying to figure this out: 'Wait, I think I've got it. He's saying we should move out of our mom's basement, and we should get rid of our Mint In Box collector's figures, but we'll turn evil if we get girlfriends... right?'"
Let's parse this out: a hero should NOT love mom or a sweetheart or a wife, or indeed, care about anything real... but wait. Doesn't Vader's ultimate redemption, in E6:RTJ, happen because he allows himself to grow attached to his SON?
"Jedi Knights aren't celibate — the thing that is forbidden is attachments and possessive relationships" (George Lucas at a London press conference/premiere of E2:ATC). But um, isn't this the inveterate bachelor's philosophy of 'love em and leave em'?
Again and again, we see Anakin being punished for being, er, human.
Still, let me admit that I was rather surprised to see this highly questionable philosophical system foisted with more subtlety and art, this time.
And — to my delighted shock! — for the very first time, an action-plot twist! Out of the four Star Wars films that Lucas has directed, for the first time he did not resolve the action by having someone fly a teeny ship into a great big ship, shoot the 'reactor' and then run away real fast from a slow-motion explosion! At last.
Still, the final third of the film could not keep up my hopes for something truly memorable. For example, the whole audience broke out into disbelieving titters when old Yoda — the green-asbestos oven mitt — suddenly started flying around the room, whirling a light saber. Nor could anyone believe it when the penultimate battle scene was based on the the worst piece of tactical stupidity ever portrayed on film — all the Galaxy's Jedi Knights drop into a blatant trap inside a gladiatorial arena (yes, the clichéd arena) surrounded by a giant robot army, without an iota of a plan, in order to be slaughtered as foot soldiers, instead of acting with a glimmer of their famed subtlety.
Yes! Lucas needed to whittle the Jedi down in a tragic and colorful way. But couldn't he have shown them suffering calamity despite behaving cleverly and well? Doesn't he have peers to workshop this stuff against?
Here's an interesting point raised by Brad Templeton: "The Jedi tell their trainees to reach out with their feelings to discover the force, but to repress their negative emotions, which would take them to the dark side. It's curious that we almost never see the Sith lords acting with fear, anger. They are cold and calculating, almost robotic — in the standard Hollywood motif of offering audiences snidely-superior villains to hate. In fact it's almost silly the way they calmly keep telling Luke to give in to his anger, reminding him of what he's been warned about. But they don't seem to give into anger themselves."
I mention this because it's hinted again and again that Anakin will "unite" the schism in the force. But this has been poorly foreshadowed at any level. Have we even a hint what this MEANS?
(Well, there's a way it could mean something, and I hint at it in the 'afterword" below.)
Minor nitpick... did anyone notice the repeated use of the phrase 'fire on the Federation starship!' and 'don't let the Federation starship get away!' What are these guys — Klingons?
A dig at Star Trek? What do you want, a monopoly? Hey, people have enjoyed 100 times as many hours of that universe as they have yours, George. Live with it.
But worst of all is the movie's macro plot. Exactly as in E1:TPM, the completed plot arc of E2:ATC comes down to an unalloyed bummer. Every member of civilization, and every institution, is shown acting in the most stupid possible way.
No systems of accountability function. The most outrageous political manipulation is made utterly obvious to us... while escaping notice even by the wisest Jedi. Above all, just as in E1:TPM, every heroic action by brave characters serves no purpose at all. None.
Think about it! The villains aren't foiled or even slightly inconvenienced. Lucas continues preaching that democracy, civilization, and even genuine heroism, are all futile, futile, futile. Sometimes you can rescue a friend. That's it. The rest is hopeless. Just the message we need at this time, while we fight for the survival of democracy and a decent, renaissance civilization. The only civilization that ever delivered hope. (See below for a way he could get out of this!)
So, what are my net feelings, having just seen E2:ATC? Far better than I expected! It is an eye-feast; Lucas has surrounded himself with brilliant artists. And, in fact, he did not do a bad job of directing his own story. Within its own context, this horribly tragic, dour bummer-epic was moved along in a competent and — occasionally — rather moving manner.
Alas, I remain deeply pessimistic about Episode Three. Despite every flaw, there IS a way that Lucas could weave all the threads together and pull a miracle of cinematic legerdemain, causing it all to make magnificent sense.
I'd wager my house that he won't do it.
The following includes a lot of jotted notes that I've exchanged with people during the time since my last Star Wars article was published. They may seem a bit shuffled and disjointed. Some observations were contributed by correspondents. Make of it what you will.
"Oh, speaking of women, at least we see some female Jedi trainees in the new film — a direct result of huge outcry and pressure — the same kind that brought racial color in after the pure white cosmos of the original SW film."
To be fair, there is no sign of assertive racism or sexism on Lucas's part. Leia was cool and Chewbacca wasn't exactly a meek Rochester to Han's Jack Benny. But left to his own devices, who can doubt that Lucas's Jedi world would be a monastic order of pure-thinking white males... plus one green preachy oven mitt. Latino critics say "Episode Two: Attack of the Clones plays on American paranoia about Mexican immigration with its army of lookalikes marching in lockstep by the tens of thousands. The fact that the soldiers are bred on the planet Kamino — which sounds like the Spanish word 'camino' — is a dead giveaway to the bias and bounty hunter Jango Fett even looks Latino."
Arab-Americans seized on the fact that Jango's son calls him "Baba," Arabic for father, as proof Lucas is denigrating them.
These accusations sound like a real stretch and normally I'd have a twinge of sympathy for someone being targeted by PC selective/hypersensitivity. But every act of inclusion on Lucas's part was forced on him by external pressure. Hence Lando after the lily white E1:TPM. Now you see girl Jedi trainees, anathema to GL in past versions but included now after complaints. Next movie will surely have a Chicano low rider caricature help Obi-Wan make his escape with the twins.
Oh it goes on.... These things can be viewed on so many levels, e.g., that of the 'hero' — a topic GL widely proclaims himself to be a "Campbellian" expert in.
But first, consider Steven Spielberg's view of heroes. Spielberg actually interviewed scores of real-life heroes before filming Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. He portrays heroes as real men, flawed, prone to anger and weaknesses, often slipping or falling... but then doing what real heroes do, getting back up and confronting evil once again. That is how it's done, proved a million times. A true moral lesson... and the diametric opposite of everything G. Lucas teaches about "heroism" — that it is a zen-purist godlike state, ruined by any thought of self or attachment or genuine human emotion.
Kenneth Turan, reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, put it this way: "Look back over the series, and you notice a lot missing from his universe: memorable talk and wit; how people work and endure; family life as more than the nostalgic loss; sex in its fire and danger; religion, rather than male-bonding uplift; actual science; human history; the costs of militarism; nature, apart from odd critters; violence causing real pain and loss..."
George Lucas's version of romanticism is obsessed with nostalgia, feudalism, pyramid-shaped social orders, elitism, a hatred of science and the concept that only genetically advanced demigods matter. He openly avows to never having researched what real heroes do. He also expressed open contempt for this democratic civilization, telling the New York Times that he prefers a 'benign dictatorship.'
His silly Yoda-philosophy was bearable in Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back (E5:ESB), where it seemed a mild pseudo-eastern wisdom. Indeed, E5:ESB conveyed something true — getting angry CAN cloud your judgement. Calm can help a hero stay effective.
But then E6:RTJ and E1:TPM went much farther, spreading an outright lie that tipped over into madness, claiming the following... that the mere act of getting angry AT evil will TURN you evil!
So, all the men who got mad at Adolf Hitler ran right out and joined the Nazi Party, right? Find one example where that happened. Even one. Yet, dig it, that IS what Lucasian force-dogma predicts.
Oh, some people have been saying, "Look, it's just a movie."
George Orwell had a reply to claims that political considerations have no place in art or entertainment critiques. He said (paraphrase) "To critique the aesthetics of a brick building and ignore the fact that it is being used as a gas chamber in a concentration camp is to defeat the whole point of aesthetics."
Again, I had few complaints about Episode Four: A New Hope (E4:ANH). The Jedi stuff, though hokey, was OK.
Empire Strikes Back was marvelous! True, I disliked snooty-superior-secretive lying Yoda even then. I wanted him to turn out the "sanctimonious goody villain" counterpart to the Emperor.
No, it was Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace that went down the road to hell.
Consider just one glaring awfulness. Despite Campbellian pretensions, E1:TPM follows NONE of Campbell's prescriptions! Forget the "reluctant hero"... there isn't even a hero!
Think. We have a wise elder expedition leader, a sidekick, a cute kid (who doesn't even show up till 1/3 of the way in and follows none of the classic protagonist tropes) and a saucy wench/princess. So who is the protagonist or hero of Phantom Menace? It should have been young Obi-Wan, who actually does the hero's duty of slaying the bad guy. But he's left on the ship for the whole middle third and gets no good lines!
So alas, even by George Lucas's own standards, he's a no Campbellian storyteller.
The biggest irony is this — I could scribble a 3-paragraph outline that would save Lucas. It would explain every awful inconsistency/paradox in his universe. It would make the #!#*% coincidences all work out... including the totally predictable lunacy of having Obi-Wan grab baby Luke and hide him from his darkside father... on Darth Vader's home planet, in his old home town! This is the core scenario that we know will happen in "Episode Three" and it is the most towering of three dozen real plot horrors. But the amazing thing is that I see a simple way for Lucas to climb out of this hell.
In fact, a scenario is possible, if Vader and Obi-Wan conspire together against BOTH Emperor and Yoda. Go on, follow all the movies with this possibility in mind.
Why else would Obi-Wan 'hide' Vader's son in Vader's home town? Their final 'deathfight' distracts the guards to let Luke/Han/Leia get away. How else do you explain that Vader grabs/interrogates Leia, yet never detects her force? Watch carefully... Vader's 'chase' of Luke in the first film clears all the other Imperial fighters off his son's back and halts the antiaircraft guns, giving the kid a clear shot! And guess who's the only Imperial survivor?
It goes on and on! (Including the coincidence of whose droids carry the message.)
I once spent an hour scribbling notes — the plot for Episode Three writes itself! (At least, I see it clearly with a professional's eye.) Almost the entire list of awful coincidences and silly paradoxes can be eliminated in a certain clever way that would make George Lucas's entire universe make incredible sense! It could even go down in history as something profoundly moral and clever.
Oh, it's delicious! There's a way out... and GL could claim "I was planning this all along!"
Holding my breath. (Not.)
Copyright © 2002 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
Indeed, to show that I try to keep an open mind, I went to see Episode Two: Attack of the Clones at a recent matinee and was... well... surprised!
"Attacking the Clones: The Star Wars Debate Continues" (published in full here) was written because the arrival of Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones renewed interest in Brin's widely-discussed Salon magazine article about George Lucas and the Star Wars Universe.
The original article — "The Dark Side: Star Wars, Mythology and Ingratitude" — was first published on Salon.com in two parts, as "'Star Wars' Despots vs. 'Star Trek' Populists" and "What's Wrong (and Right) with 'The Phantom Menace'." It has since been published in Through Stranger Eyes, a collection of David Brin's book and film reviews.
The debate sparked by the original 1999 Salon magazine articles hasn't subsided. It spilled over to this website, then became a Smart Pop book titled Star Wars on Trial.
Hear David Brin's interview for WIRED Magazine.
David Brin, Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition (book)
Star Wars The Digital Six film Collection (films 1-6)
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