Monday, June 18, 2007

An Alternative Star Wars Universe

So, I was reading an essay about the Matrix and film genres in The Matrix and Philosophy, and it occurred to me just how George Lucas messed up in Episodes I-III and what he should have done to fix it. Basically, Mr. Lucas screwed up because he was trying to write both a Romance and a Tragedy at the same time, and not doing either particularly well. The Romance genre is a mythical quest story where the hero embarks on a great adventure to overcome terrible odds to save a kingdom, rescue a damsel in distress, or do some such heroic deeds. Tragedy, of course, is an entirely different kettle of fish. In a tragedy, the adventure turns sour in a twist of fate (remember character is fate, according to Aristotle) as a great, noble, and heroic person brings about his or her own demise, often through some sort of tragic flaw or other personal failing.

Now, I'm no expert on writing either a Romance or a Tragedy, but I am familiar with the train wreck that is Lucas' second trilogy (the Anakin/Darth Vader one as opposed to his first trilogy about Luke Skywalker), where he clearly tried to include elements of both genres in all three films. I was so disappointed with Lucas as he continually tried to include reasons for Anakin's turn to the Dark Side. Let's see, there's his being raised as a slave, his abandonment from his mother, the denial of his Jedi abilities by the Jedi council, his pain leading to anger leading hate Yoda nonsense, his lust for control and power that only the Emperor can satiate, his desire to overcome death, but let's not forget that critical scene where he goes to rescue his mother from the sand people and when he finds her tortured and dying, massacres them ruthlessly like animals in a powerful display of ruthless hate and unconscionable revenge.

This last bit of evil seems the most morally abhorrent and suggests that Anakin is possibly the most untrustworthy, unstable, psychotic hate-monger you could possibly imagine, a true psychopathic criminal mass murderer that should be locked up, at the very least. But this scene is couched in the middle of a Romance, a story of Anakin's quest for knowledge as a Jedi and the love of a woman. After Anakin confesses his crime to Padme/Amidala, why on earth would she ever love him? Wouldn't she fear him instead; and if she had the opportunity, turn him in, or at least, inform the Jedi council? And she a Senator too, who should know right from wrong in the area of genocide after evidently experiencing one at the hands of the trade federation. She doesn't even probe him about this major moral lapse, I guess because she just assumes that this is what any adolescent Jedi would do when seeking revenge for the murder of his mother. Well, it makes me wonder if she is really all that ethical; that is, if she can hypocritically overlook such a glaring impediment in her true love. I know. She just likes bad boys. Still, her character is so underdeveloped and stereotypically servile and feminine that we never get to see what is driving her love (other than motherly compassion, of course), nor do we get to explore Anakin's moral failings through her supposedly more adult perspective. Neither one of them seems capable of learning anything from the vicissitudes of life, not to mention developing moral character through these trials. Our hero fails in his quest before it even begins, and as a result of trying to plant the seeds of tragedy so often throughout the trilogy, Lucas has completely ruined the attempt at Romance. Not that this stops him dead in his script, however. Instead, he blissfully carries on with the same Hollywood platitudes, right through to an ill-fated secret marriage with a one-armed murderer and a hypocritical Queen, Senator, or whatever she is.

But not only is the Romance ruined, the Tragedy is also undermined from the get-go. We never see Anakin as a good and noble man who will inevitably experience a terrible reversal of fortune because of his own failings. Lucas morally undermines him almost from the beginning of the tale. I've never seen any kid who has had so many reasons to turn to evil. It's surprising only that he didn't turn to the Dark Side sooner. The problem with heaping all of these causes for evil one on top of the other over the course of three films is that you never get the sense that Anakin does have the seed of good in him or that he knows what it is to be good; that is, to make a conscious decision to do the right thing. Yes, there's the tip of the hat to the true love he feels for his mother and mother-surrogate, Amidala, as the motivation for his goodness. But does this really explain why he would rescue his estranged son at the end of episode VI? I really don't think so. It's as if Lucas just gave in to the old cliche that this is just one of those family bonds that can never be broken or explained--A simplistic blood is thicker than water explanation. So, I ask again: What attachment could Anakin/Vader possibly feel for Luke, given his natural penchant for evil and his willingness to cast aside his friends and loved ones, even his true love Padme, when he believes that they and she betrayed him? Where are the "seeds of good" that Luke feels still exist inside his dark father (Darth Vader)? Where is Anakin's role model for a loving sacrifice that the man Darth Vader will call upon when faced with a choice about saving his son or saving himself?

Well, the answer to the last few rhetorical questions, at least, is that Lucas never provides them. Something magical happened to Vader while he watched his son being tortured. (The lesson for the Emperor is never torture the son in front of the father, never turn your back on the father, and never have an Nardo Pace, the Empire's worst engineer build a bottomless shaft in your throne room. Hat tip to Something Awful website for the last one.) Perhaps, the God/Bright Side/Force finally awakened in him a spiritual connection to his son. We just don't know. We're left guessing as to why suddenly, miraculously he takes pity on his son. The audience, of course, is ecstatic that he chose the way he did, but Lucas didn't give us any reason to believe that this type of redemption could occur from his misguided, poorly conceived, morally suspect Anakin trilogy.

However, it didn't have to be this way. If Lucas had not tried to mix genres in his three films, but stuck with a more workable framework, he might have been able to save his entire franchise from the Dark Side of bad script writing. What I propose he should have done is to write his first story as a boy's adventure. (Sorry, girls, but you will just have to wait for someone to concoct a coming of age story for Leia, which is an excellent idea and really should be explored, but is definitely outside of Lucas' ability. Best to wait for better screenwriters, preferably women, to take a crack at that one. Ms. Boyens, are you available?) His second story should have been a traditional adventure Romance where Anakin comes of age, shows his true nobility, honesty, courage and faithfulness through the trials of the Clone Wars, and by doing so gets the girl in the end without all the morally indefensible actions, hypocrisy, and lies that currently define his character and their intimate relationship. Then, in the final film, you turn to the Tragedy of Anakin, an honest, noble Jedi who falls to the guile of the evil Emperor because he is, in fact, seduced by the desire for power. This seduction alone can provide adequate reason for his evil. By making Anakin unequivocally a hero in the first two movies, you make his downfall all the more tragic. This simple outline could have saved Lucas a lot of confused plotting and muddled character development.

A key moment, however, must be included, preferably early on in the first film--a moment that shows a loving sacrifice--not a sacrifice on Anakin's part, but originating out of his mother. My proposal to that misguided script writing team would have been to keep the slavery part, but to force Anakin and his mother to escape on their own without a bunch of silly pod racing bets and contrived Jedi meddling. However, the crucial part of this scene is that the only way Anakin survives a dangerous and desperate escape is through his mother's self-sacrifice. This scene should mirror Darth Vader's final sacrifice to save Luke using some such electrifying plot device, preferably involving her being electrocuted with flowing lightning bolts. She could be holding up electric fencing used to imprison them while Anakin escapes. She could be fending off robot guards who have electric shock guns or sticks wielding robot guards. Best of all, Jar-Jar, if inexplicably brought into existence at Lucas' insistence, could also be mercilessly killed in this ill-fated escape attempt. But to the point, this scene would be staged so as to evoke the scene where Luke is electrocuted by the Emperor at the end of episode VI. You could even have his mother give an inspiring death speech after the electrocution (wouldn't be Hollywood without a good death scene, would it?), where she sends him on a mission, empowering him to become a champion of freedom and peace. This scene would be the critical seed of self-sacrificing love planted in Anakin that he would bury and carry with him until it finally took root, grew, and yielded fruit in the one great climatic moment of The Return of the Jedi, when Vader finally casts off his self-serving desire for power and embraces humanity again by destroying the Emperor and saving his son.

Well, that would have been my proposal at the script development table. Maybe in an alternative Star Wars universe this story will be told. Or maybe we just need a new universe and a new story. One that Hollywood and Lucas can't turn over to the Dark Side.