Last time out, I belatedly posted my old review of Revenge of the Sith, and promised some further thoughts. What follows is assembled from an email dialogue between myself and Matt “The 10-Minute Astronomer” Wedel, so he can share credit. (Basically, all the dumb parts are his work, and the good stuff is mine.)
It’s hardly a novelty to observe that the Star Wars prequels (episodes I-III) rewrite the original trilogy (episodes IV-VI). This phenomenon has been noted by much better writers than myself, but it’s worth another look because the whole shape of that original trilogy gets so completely changed when viewed in the new light.
When you experience the classic trilogy for the first time, all these things keep happening to Luke, and his horizons and his awareness of his place in the universe keep expanding all the way through. But you still get the feeling that things happened the way they did at least partly by chance. This is one of the defining, and most appealing, characteristics of A New Hope. Luke is no-one special, and that is sort of the point of him. Neither is Han, really — just a low-rent smuggler. I find it enlightening that the novelisation of the film had a tagline something like “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes”. And we see the same thing in Han and Luke’s dialogue in Jabba’s palace: “How are we doing, kid?” / “Same as always” / “That bad, huh?”
But that aspect of the original trilogy’s appeal is rather erased by the new perspective. Now it’s almost as though Luke is the pawn of Obi-Wan and Yoda. He is the superweapon that they craft against the Empire, no less than the Death Star is the superweapon the Empire crafts against the rebels. Obi-Wan now appears like a father who never achieved what we wanted to, but tries to live through his son by (for example) pushing him to play football more than the kid wants to.
On the other hand, calling Luke a superweapon may be overstating it a bit, especially compared with the old-time Jedi. The lightsabre duels in the original trilogy are sort of stately and choreographed. You can see and understand what’s happening, and follow the progress of the battle. In The Phantom Menace, the speed and elaborateness were raised in the Darth Maul fight, though I admit to good effect — helped by the clever choice of Wagnerian choral soundtrack music. By Attack of the Clones, they were too fast to follow, and in Revenge of the Sith they are faster still, so we literally can’t see (or, really, care) what’s happening: the result is that the fights — all of them, and there are plenty — end up being reduced to a random whirl of light that continues until someone arbitrarily wins. The relevance of this (it’s not just whining) is that given the heights Jedi duelling has reached by Ep. III, the manoeuvres of Ben and Vader in Ep. IV, and of Luke thereafter, look very lame. This actually makes some sense: Vader is a cripple, Ben is an old man, and Luke is a novice. So it doesn’t offend me dramatically. But it sure doesn’t back up my earlier contention that Luke is any kind of a superweapon.
The interesting thing is that Luke succeeds despite his manifest inferiority in Jedi power to the Emperor (and also to Vader, except during that final rage-energised assault — it’s clear that Vader is not really trying most of the time). His final success is in turning Vader, or maybe we should say Anakin, against Palpatine. And the quality that makes him able to do that is of course not any Jedi powers he has acquired, but the simple fact of his being Vader’s son. In a sense, all Luke’s Jedi training is a red herring: what defeats Vader is simply the recognition of his own son — whose presence makes stark the choice between the Dark Side that he has chosen and the other path that he has rejected. Luke’s superweapon in the end is his own vulnerability, and it is only through his utter defeat that he is triumphant.
Working out the parallels with the crucifixion is left as an exercise to the reader. The Star Wars films are not explicitly religious, but I don’t think it’s a reach to say that they gain a lot of their gut-level power by analogy with Christian theology. Of course, while Christianity itself is desperately untrendy, Christ imagery is near ubiquitous in movies and TV. It’s almost impossible these days to film a hero falling off a high place without him spreading his arms Christlike as he falls. In the crumbling last days of Russell T. Davies’s regime, it felt like David Tennant was pulling this visual trick several times every episode, so that whatever power the mere visual pun may once have had got diluted down to homeopathic levels. It’s sobering to look back on Star Wars, of all things, and realise that it was pulling a similar trick but with real depth.
That’s the thing about Star Wars. The depth is all below the surface. When the original movies are good (which is most of the time), they arrive where they do by touching deep nerves, but not doing so in an obvious way. They look like mere pulp adventure, but they’re not. The more I contemplate them, the more I admire them.
What this reading of Luke’s superweapon status does to the relationship between the trilogies, I am not sure. The rational interpretation would be that it shows how desperate RotS-era Obi-Wan and Yoda are, to pin their hopes on such a weak card. They surely know Luke’s chance of success as a Jedi-in-combat are minuscule to non-existent. But is it possible — just possible — that they know enough of Anakin to think that grown-up Luke might be able to turn him? It is still an outragous gamble for them to take, and it paints them in a very manipulative light; but this interpretation does at least give them some realistic reason to hope. (Viewed in this light, of course, the New Hope of the original film’s title is not the rebellion, nor the destruction of the Death Star, but Luke himself.)
And so once more, we come face to face with the central question of the Star Wars hexology: is Lucas a genius who put all those layers in there deliberately? Or is he just monstrously lucky?
By the way, I assume the significance of the name Anakin has not escaped you? “Ana” is the Greek prefix for “again”, as in “anastasis” (“again life”) for resurrection, and the so-called “Anabaptist” church, which baptised adults who had already been Christened as children. “Kin” of course means “family”. So Anakin is one who one again becomes family. Having explicitly abdicated his role within the family of the Jedi, and even repudiated his love for Padme and, by implication, for his unborn child(ren), he finally returns to become both reunited with his son and, again, part of the Jedi family. Can that be accidental? If so, if “Anakin” is just a nonsense name like “Boba Fett”, then it is the most absurd piece of good luck of Lucas’s part.