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SnakebyteXX
05-08-2005, 10:22 AM
'Revenge of Sith' mirrors themes of post 9/11 world
William S. Kowinski

Sunday, May 8, 2005

In the hubbub surrounding "Revenge of the Sith," the latest and last Star Wars film, George Lucas has made no secret of saying the theme of this film and the prequel trilogy it completes is "how a democratic society turns into a dictatorship, and how a good person turns into a bad person."

A pop culture phenomenon like "Star Wars" has an inevitable relationship to other cultural currents of its time. This is especially true of Lucas' films, since the story within their space opera is political: the rise and fall of an empire.

The first "Star Wars" burst onto screens in 1977 when science fiction films were rare and dour. After Vietnam and Watergate and with the Cold War superpowers still facing off, the future seemed doubtful. The anti-hero ruled the screen.

Lucas came up with a simple, revolutionary concept: injecting heroic mythological themes into a fantasy world -- Joseph Campbell directs Flash Gordon.

"Star Wars" edged the old innocent virtues with contemporary knowingness in recognizable new heroes: Hans Solo, the swaggering mercenary with hidden heart, and Princess Leia, the damsel in distress who runs the war room and shoots the bad guys. Soulless technology became personable in the robots, C- 3PO and R2D2. But the true hero was Luke Skywalker, all impulse and openness.

Lucas captivated audiences on another level with an astonishing premise: The Force, which emanated from all life and was accessible to all, although present more strongly in some. The Force had a good side, accessed by the Jedi knights, like Obi Wan Kenobe, serving the rebel alliance.

It also had the dark side, represented by Darth Vader, serving the Imperial Empire and its powerful hooded emperor. The Force not only added an all-purpose explanation for fantastic accomplishments but also had a mystical and spiritual dimension largely absent from a 1970s American culture dominated by the linear materialism of economics and science.

In the third film of this trilogy, "Return of the Jedi," the empire was overthrown by Luke Skywalker and an underdog alliance with more virtue than technology in a final battle fought partly in space, and partly on a green world that looks very much like Eureka (Humboldt County).

It was a satisfying ending. Released in 1983, its message inspired New Age advocates and environmentalists as well as President Ronald Reagan, who began referring to the Soviet Union as the evil empire and proposed a missile defense system that was quickly dubbed "Star Wars."

But Lucas had a larger, more complex and less comfortable story in mind. Darth Vader, the black-clad, half-machine villain skulking in the darkness, turned out to be the evil father of Luke Skywalker and his twin sister, Leia. Even though Vader turns away from the dark side before he dies, the question of how an evil father becomes good was raised. The new prequel trilogy demonstrates the reverse: how good is the father of evil.

Beginning with "The Phantom Menace" in 1999, Lucas explores the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader in "Revenge of the Sith." (The Sith are revealed as the dark side equivalent of the Jedi.)

In the past several years, DVDs of all five prior Star Wars films were released (including "Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones" from 2002) with commentary tracks that include Lucas talking in his low-key Modesto way about the arc of the two trilogies.

In between chat on the mechanics of filmmaking (the Bantha is really an elephant in costume), Lucas reveals how deliberate his thematic thinking has been. The evil empire figures wear black and white because they represent a black-and-white world view of self-righteous certainties. The rebels are clothed in earth-tones, representing organic complexities. The same situations and motifs recur purposefully. The difference is in the choices characters make.

In "Jedi" we saw Luke reject the temptations of the dark side's power by restraining his anger and hate. The entire prequel trilogy may be seen as a demonstration of how someone makes the opposite choice, and Lucas has clearly tried to make Anakin Skywalker sympathetic as well as strong.

To up the ante, Lucas even gives him the equivalent of a virgin birth, born of the mating of a woman and the Force itself. He is the chosen one. Anakin is hot-blooded, but his reactions seem reasonably provoked: He is taken from his mother as a child, and as a young man sees her killed by kidnappers. He is forbidden the woman he loves. He is angry because his career is thwarted.

His personal descent is mirrored in the politics Lucas spends a lot of time elaborately setting up, with the apparently reasonable and reactive step- by-step transformation of the democratic republic into the dictatorial empire, although it is being manipulated by one of its own.

But will the political implications of the new Star Wars film be as welcome now as the '70s and '80s trilogy? The society and the hero that think themselves good but transform themselves into evil is a bold theme that in some ways goes against the grain of America after Sept. 11, 2001.

Lucas says his point of view was formed during the Vietnam war. Although he could not have predicted that this film would open while the United States has an army of occupation in Iraq, it inevitably applies, especially considering how officials declared the pre-emptively virtuous right to attack those they define as the axis of evil.

Moreover, Lucas is clear about the paths to the dark side: The hunger for more and more power serving a possessiveness and greed that include surrender to revenge and to the emotional demands of what Buddhists call attachment.

The prequel trilogy says that hot-blooded righteousness in a hero is not enough, for it is too easily perverted. Like all cautionary tales, this is a call to consciousness. Like all tragedies, it tells us that even born heroes have human flaws that mirror their society's faults.

That's a lot for a film series to bear, especially one wrapped up in the animated noise of a tech-crazy age and partly pitched to children. This film, Lucas warns, is darker than any of its predecessors, showing Anakin Skywalker's descent into Hell (almost literally, in the fires of a volcanic planet.) The birth of Luke and Leia could add a different emotional dimension.

How well this theme is expressed remains, like the film itself, to be seen. Will anyone now want to hear the film's message? In America, the audience seems split between angry triumphalism and forlorn, global-cooked dread. It's the rapture red staters versus the apocalyptic blues.

Perhaps the biblical imagery of hellfire will attract the religious right, suspicious of the New Age pantheistic/Buddhist sound of the Force. But even Lucas will probably not be surprised if this essentially moral message is lost or, as in the Reagan '80s, co-opted.

William S. Kowinski is freelance writer in Humboldt County. His sci-fi blog is soulofstartrek.blogspot.com. E-mail us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

catscradle
05-09-2005, 04:12 AM
Like most "critics" this guy reads more into this than is there. Lucas just took all the ww II fighter movies and Elizabethan age navy movies he saw and rolled them into one vastly entertaining movie set in an impossible future.
No deep meaning there, just entertainment.