Friday, 5 March 2010

The Man Inside the Suit, or how I learned to love 'Star Wars' after all

I’m currently watching all six Star Wars movies on DVD - in chronological order of events, not of release. Having now reached Part III, I’m now less dismissive of the series as an over-simplistic cowboy fantasy in space. ‘Revenge of the Sith’, as well as perhaps the most visually spectacular, is also quite subtle psychologically (yes!), contains a timely commentary on world events, and is imbued with a sense of tragedy that was hinted at in the previous film, and makes it clear that the whole series is about Anakin, his seduction, corruption, fall and ultimate redemption.

It’s also stunningly beautiful. The opening shot, before which all previous memorable opening shots in the series pale in comparison, is incredible, with golden sunlight flaring in space and a dizzying battle which is exciting, humorous and yet already contains a sense of tragedy. The two friends are fighting together; they will end the film fighting each other. And the visuals, as they do throughout, are not merely spectacular (any video game can do that), but expressive of mood. The golden sunlight in this opening scene suggests that the sun is setting on the Republic – and indeed it is. By the end of the film the Republic will be no more – as will the strained but nonetheless deep friendship between Anakin and Obi Wan. This is the darkest Star Wars movie by far – something that could never have been imagined over thirty years ago, when we all poured into the cinemas for Part IV, the film that we now know as ‘A New Hope’ after the Republic’s (and the hero’s) fall.

Both falls, the personal and the impersonal, are depicted with some subtlety. In the second half, all the threads of Palpatine’s machinations are drawn inexorably together as democracy is destroyed – it’s all terribly believable. The Chancellor’s controversial ‘emergency powers’ are just one allusion to the War on Terror; no politician ever wants to give up temporary powers, which is why the piecemeal giving away of our freedoms is so dangerous. Natalie Portman’s Padme (sadly with less to do here than in the previous film) asks Anakin if he’s stopped to wonder if they’re fighting on the wrong side; if they’ve become as bad or worse than the enemy they’re at war with. And there’s a chilling reminder of the year 2001 when Obi Wan, desperate to help Anakin and avoid having to kill him, is told by his former apprentice “if you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!” Donald Rumsfeld spoke almost the same words at the start of the War on Terror. “Only the Sith talk in absolutes” replies Obi Wan, and in another sense he’s right. Darth Sidious, enjoyably chilling and creepy throughout, is the only purely evil character in the whole series. Anakin is portrayed with far more subtlety, and also quite movingly, by the much-maligned Hayden Christiansen.

It’s his transformation into Darth Vader, his betrayal of the friendship with Obi Wan and his relationship with Padme, which is the tragic heart of the series. Christiansen expresses Anakin’s fear, despair and conflict quite convincingly, and even at the end is far from simply ‘evil’. After rescuing Palpatine and causing the death of Windu, he collapses and cries “what have I done?!” And even after massacring the Jedi children, he stands alone (utterly alone) on the volcano planet with a tear streaming down his face. While Darth is destroying the Republic, Anakin is asking him from the back of his mind “What are you doing?” All this makes his final mutilation and transformation, from his burning at the edge of the lava flow to his encasement (imprisonment) in the famous suit, all the more upsetting. I found this scene distressing, as well as a little morbidly fascinating: what did the young Darth look like inside his suit? At the end of the movie, Anakin has lost everything. His is the real tragedy of the films, just as he remains, ultimately and despite his fall, the Chosen One. He does restore balance to the force, he does destroy the Sith! It just takes him six movies to do it.

The acting throughout is good. Ewan McGregor is really starting to look like Alec Guinness, the supporting cast are excellent (I’ll include the CGI Yoda in that!), and Natalie Portman portrays Padme’s heartbreak – well, heartbreakingly. She’s also astonishingly beautiful; I can see why Anakin fell in love with her!

I haven’t yet mentioned the humour. At times it’s a funny movie, and if dialogue is always claimed to be George Lucas’s weakest point, he’s not bad with the one-liners. “Not to worry – we’re still flying half the ship!” says Obi Wan before their impossible crash landing following the space battle. And R2-D2 is as engaging as ever (I didn’t know he could fight like that before!) But there’s even a sadness in the humour. R2 will not always be helping Anakin, and many of the jokes arise from the tense friendship between Obi Wan and Anakin. By the end of the movie it’s not longer a joke. The last words screamed to Obi Wan by the burning, mutilated Anakin are “I HATE YOU!!!” To which his heartbroken mentor cries “you were my brother! I loved you!” Full marks to both of these actors, who worked hard both on the fight scenes and on the psychological aspects of their relationship throughout these two films. It’s a moving and upsetting climax.

It might be said that I’m taking the film all too seriously. I would have said the same when Parts IV-VI were all I knew, but now I’m a convert. And the whole Star Wars saga was conceived and written during the Vietnam War, whose parallels with the War on Terror have been remarked on by Lucas himself. It was noticed also by right-wing politicians in the US, some of whom called for a boycott of the film after its release because it was ‘liberal’ and against the Iraq War. Which of course, is as excellent a reason as any for going to see it!

One wonders if Tony Blair will one day find some kind of redemption, as Anakin does in Part VI. Now that is hard to believe.

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