Thursday, March 18, 2010

George Lucas' Big Mistake

I should probably start out by saying that I love the Star Wars movies. How could I not? I was born in 1975. The original 'Star Wars' practically rewrote the entirety of pop culture during the most formative period of my life. I'm always going to be a Star Wars fan, and there is nothing that George Lucas can do to wreck it. That said, I am not one of those people who believes that Lucas Can Do No Wrong. He made lots of mistakes in crafting the six films that make up the Star Wars saga--Jar Jar Binks, having Boba Fett get beaten by a blind guy with a stick, abruptly changing the inspiration for the Jedi fighting style from samurai movies to wuxia films, the whole "having the Trade Federation guys talk like Thai busboys", failing to explain who the Sith are and what they want revenge for, failing to explain what the prophecy about "bringing balance to the Force" was and whether the Jedi were for it or against it, the entire podrace sequence...

But he only made one big mistake. George Lucas made one key mistake in the Star Wars films, one that affected the entire perception of the story for generations of fans. Specifically, he made the Jedi too awesome. (Especially Yoda.)

Because the point of the whole Star Wars saga is that the Jedi are no better than the Sith. Sure, the Sith establish the Empire, crushing the Jedi and ruling the galaxy with an iron fist...but the Jedi establish the Republic, and it sure does seem like all the alien races immune to the Jedi mind-control powers wind up stuck on the arse end of the galaxy with a chip on their shoulder, doesn't it? The Jedi don't believe in love. They take away children and raise them to believe that it's bad to love their parents, it's bad to form attachments to other human beings, and the only thing that's important is "the greater good". (And notice that we never see any failed Jedi? Plenty in the Expanded Universe, sure, but we've seen lots of evidence that the Expanded Universe doesn't represent Lucas' vision. In the Lucas-helmed Star Wars films, we're left to wonder.) The Jedi philosophy is sterile, cold, repressed and joyless, and they're the enforcers of the peace in the Republic. Does that sound like a fun place to live? Everyone pointed to the line "Only a Sth thinks in absolutes" as an accidental irony, but there's no accident to it.

And Yoda, the exemplar of the Jedi philosophy, is wrong about everything. Literally everything. He tells Luke that there's no such thing as redemption--"once you start down the path of the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny." He says that love always leads to fear and pain and loss, that if Luke tries to save Vader that he will die and his cause will be lost, and that Anakin's only path to redemption is to give up on his love of Padme and stand by and watch her die. His inflexible, blinkered philosophy is directly responsible for Anakin's fall as much as Palpatine's influence. When Luke says, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me," it's not just a repudiation of the Emperor, it's a repudiation of Yoda as well. The implication is clear. Anakin was a true Jedi; before he failed the order, the order first failed him.

But all that gets lost in the sheer awesomeness of the Jedi. The signal-to-noise ratio is too high--Yoda is a cool Wise Old Master with all the good bits in Episode Five, Qui-Gon Jinn is played by Liam Neeson and Mace Windu is Samuel Freaking Jackson, and the lightsaber is the coolest weapon in the history of film. Everyone takes Yoda's words at face value--even the authorized sequels, which show Luke trying to re-establish the Jedi in the image of the old order. Everyone assumes that Luke narrowly won his struggle with the Dark Side at the end, but in fact, he did exactly what people do every day. He got upset, he channeled his anger constructively, and then he calmed down. Only the Manichean nutbags who run the Jedi and the Sith think that this is some kind of near-impossible achievement. The Jedi aren't the heroes of the film, Luke is, for realizing that there's something more than the false duality that trapped and ultimately destroyed his father.

That's the message of the Star Wars films, and it's a shame that Lucas made it so hard for people to notice.

16 comments:

Mory Buckman said...

Wow. Do you think this was all intentional subtext on George Lucas's part?

Greg said...

I kinda doubt it was - sometimes a story has a way of taking on a life of its own. I wouldn't know what Lucas' intentions were when he first embarked on all this, but part of what I enjoy about Star Wars is the subtext that the events of the movies manages to create, whether intentional or not.

When I watch the prequels, I love watching the ways the Jedi fail Anakin, Anakin's need for a father to the point of starvation (compare Anakin in Episode 2: "You've been like a FATHER to me." to Obi-Wan in Episode 3: "We were BROTHERS!" or Palpatine in Episode 3: "I need your help, SON." Imagine if Qui Gonn survived the fight w/ Darth Maul?) We get just enough reason for why Obi Wan Kenobi should be considered among the greatest of the Jedi (the first Sith Lord any Jedi has faced in over a thousand years and he slices the dude CLEAN in half!) I like watching Count Dooku in action, fully unaware of how much of a patsy he truly is.

Intentional or no, it's like watching a Shakespearean tragedy at work. I often wondered if that were the reason for all the criticism levied at the prequel trilogy - damned things reminded too many people of high school english!

JD Atlanta said...

Some day ... and that day is not very far away ... enthusiasts will be able to use rendering on home computers to make their own Star Wars sequels (starring the original actors). On that day, I want to see your sequel.

And your Superman movie.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the revenge aluded to isn't about The entire Sith as a people. It is refering to one Sith--Vader. He wants revenge for the Jedi failing him and his wife. It's sorta like the word Fish, which can refer to one fish, or the entire species of Fish. But i think it is just refering to the one.

John Seavey said...

Oh, I absolutely think Lucas did it on purpose. I think it's the entire point of the prequel trilogy, but he got too addicted to the action set-pieces and the awesome bits to make it all come into focus.

(This is, I think, the big flaw of the prequels; without anyone to edit him, Lucas got used to being able to put whatever he wanted into the film. Things that a good producer would have forced him to leave on the cutting room floor because they were too expensive and didn't serve the overall story, Lucas got to put in because he was funding the movie himself and it made a profit before he even sold a single ticket.)

But you can see it in places. Watch the battle between Dooku and Anakin and the one between Luke and Vader; they're clearly designed to echo each other. Watch Yoda when he deals with Anakin afterwards; he's stern and unbending, giving him exactly the wrong advice. It's there, it's just not brought out well enough for people to notice.

Greg said...

But John...YOU noticed. That's what I enjoyed most of all about the prequels - they may not do the best job of laying it all out for the audience, but sometimes I don't WANT it all laid out for me. The most fun I had with the prequels was talking with friends about what we thought was going on between the lines...and spot on about Anakin vs. Dooku meant to mirror Luke vs. Vader. There are a coupla little moments like that here and there:

Episode One/Episode Four: The fall of a Jedi Master to a Sith blade, a lucky shot saves the day, the hope of the galaxy found on a backwoods planet...

Episode Two/Episode Four: a love story takes center stage and a Skywalker gets his first taste of the Dark Side before facing a Sith Lord well before he was ready...

Episode Three/Episode Six: A Skywalker's power comes from his emotions, and his one choice decides the fate of the entire galaxy...

E. Wilson said...

Well, in fairness, we're not the typical movie-viewing public; we're the anal nerds who write/frequent blogs and generally think about these things beyond what is healthy.

But I would have to disagree that the subtext is intentional on Lucas' part; by the time of the prequels, Lucas is simply not capable of subtlety anymore. I'd say the recurring subtext comes more from Lucas purposefully holding to the same mythic archetypes as he'd drawn from for the first trilogy.

The difference tends to be academic, though; the result on the screen is the same.

Dean said...

That is what the STAR WARS prequels needed more than anything: someone editing Lucas down.

The pieces really do fit together, but Lucas goes off on tangents that take too long and say too little. The signal gets lost in the noise.

Take Jar Jar Binks. He serves a purpose. Padme trusts him from their experiences together and leaves him to be manipulated by Palpatine. However, Lucas gave him way too many scenes in the first film to achieve that. Also, he goes off on a long tangent about how the Queen is really democratically elected that undermines the effect of Padme appointing essentially a crony to a key position at a critical moment.

JNG said...

You might enjoy Bioware's upcoming MMO, The Old Republic. They seem to be raising many of those same points, particularly that crushing your emotions isn't particularly healthy.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/99333-Are-The-Old-Republics-Sith-In-the-Right

Kate Holden said...

The role playing Video game 'Knights of the Old Republic 2' probably my favourite thing related to Star Wars outside of the original movies, really explores this. It's a deep game which confronts the problems with the jedi and sith philosophies. If you haven't played it, I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

well f---kin said my friend. excellent commentary. i wonder - i really wonder what GL would say if asked directly what he really think of the Jedi after all this... are they really the same guys he thought they were when he made the OT ????

Viagra Online said...

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Juanita's Journal said...

"But he only made one big mistake. George Lucas made one key mistake in the Star Wars films, one that affected the entire perception of the story for generations of fans. Specifically, he made the Jedi too awesome. (Especially Yoda.)"


No, he didn't. The Jedi made mistakes in both trilogies - including Yoda. But many fans were too busy accepting Obi-Wan's idealized description of the Jedi to notice.

Anonymous said...

John,

I have to disagree here.

To use your terminology, the problem is that Lucas switched Storytelling Engines.

The Jedi were awesome because, in the original trilogy, they WERE the unabashed good guys, and their vision of the Force WAS the only correct one.

Remember, Lucas' film was riding high on the recent popularity in America of anime' and zeitgeist embrace of a pop culture version of Buddhism & Taoism. (Many filmgoers saw the AT-ATs on Hoth as nothing more or less than an homage to the mecha genre of anime'.) In the pop culture interpretation of Taoism & Buddhism, the wisest path is the one of harmony, which is how Obi-wan and Yoda describe The Force, while the corruptive and destructive path is the one of appetite, fear, anger, and social duty -- which is the path taken by the original film's Darth Vader, an angry, rapacious villain fettered to his duties to The Emperor and Tarkin.

In the original film, the Dark Side of the Force is the corrupted side of the Jedi, the fallen side, the side of Sauron in Middle Earth and Jadis in Narnia and Voldemort at Hogwarts and the Black Guardian in Doctor Who (or perhaps that chained demon).

(Does no one remember when preachers would rail from their pulpits against Star Wars as allegedly corrupting America's youth with "Oriental religion" and mysticism?)

In the original trilogy, the protagonist is clearly Luke Skywalker, and the film is clearly about his story and not about the story of Darth Vader. Lucas outright states this in his interviews about the relationship between his films and Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, back when he had sworn the one trilogy was the only trilogy he would ever make.

But then, when Lucas decided to relive his greatest monetary victory with a second trilogy, he realized it had to be focused on Annakin/Darth, and thus, Luke was displaced as the protagonist of the Star Wars saga.

The protagonist now had to be Annakin.

But this necessitates a refigured depiction of The Force.

Lucas curried favor with Christian critics by replacing the Buddhism/Taoism with a simple biological cause, Midichlorians: the Force becomes nothing more profound than a power source that some people can access via a biological advantage they happen to have inherited, and the religion surrounding it becomes merely the sort of sacramentalization that Christian crusaders had given their swords.

Lucas needs Annakin to be both a fallen Jedi and sympathetic (in a sympathy for the devil fashion or as tragic hero, but sympathetic nonetheless), and the easiest way to do so is to present the Jedi as tarnished extremists. True, this directly contradicts the depiction of the Jedi in the original trilogy, but since Obi-wan had already been refigured as an untrustworthy source by the revelation of Vader's identity, the contradiction can be swept under the rug as hyperbole from a pro-Jedi bias.

--to be continued--

Anonymous said...

--continued--

Clearly, the Storytelling Engine for the combined two trilogies only works if the Storytelling Engine for the original trilogy is thoroughly and ruthelessly rebutted.

Thus, the Light Side of the Force changes from the original trilogy's wise harmony with the mystical implicate order of reality or the Tao into merely one side of a conflict in which both sides are equally biased, a dichotomy to be transcended -- Annakin fails at transcending it, and Luke is retconned to have transcended it, which nicely retcons Lucas' mistakes in the original trilogy as having been intentional.

Thus, Obi-wan and Yoda change from the original trilogy's wise mentors, not unlike Christian saints or Buddhist sages, to individuals who have been blinded by loyalty to one side of the dichotomy and who pretty much mess up Annakin's life.

So the Dark Side of the Force changes from corruption to simply the other half of the dichotomy of the Force.

A new Storytelling Engine for the combined trilogy, one radically incompatible with the Storytelling Engine for the original trilogy.

And yet, after creating a trilogy that can exist only by defiling the original trilogy, Lucas still wonders why original fans don't like it . . . ?

The Rush Blog said...

The Jedi were awesome because, in the original trilogy, they WERE the unabashed good guys, and their vision of the Force WAS the only correct one.


From the moment Luke discovered that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were one person in "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK", he realized that both Obi-Wan and Yoda had lied to him. This is the moment when the idealized portrait of the Jedi begins to wash away. This continues in not only "RETURN OF THE JEDI", but also the Prequel Trilogy films. But I see that you have failed to notice this.