Friday, December 30, 2005

Brin(g) 'Em On -- I'd Prefer a Straight Fight to All of This Sneaking Around

I read David Brin's article on The Phantom Menace some years ago and was very disappointed to find that an author I respected greatly would work himself into such a frenzy despising something I so enjoyed.

My previous entry, for some reason, called that event back to mind, and made me wonder if perhaps Brin had continued to write on the subject as the other movies have arrived. Indeed, it turns out, he has. I am sorry to report that the results are no improvement.

What's most astonishing is the way that he and his commentators manage to completely spell out the coherent message of these films while insisting that the message is something completely different.

They complain that Episodes I-III lack real heroes, that the Jedi are elitists and out of touch, that for all the wisdom Yoda mouths, he never effectively gives real help or workable advice in the whole series. Brin goes on and on about the fact that common people, not Jedi, are responsible for the defeat of the Empire at the climax of the saga -- then he goes on to insist that this must be an oversight on Lucas' part. He rightly remarks that the "light and dark" sides of the Force are virtually indistinguishable, but fails to recognize that this provides the impetus behind the repeated references to a need for "bringing balance to the Force."

I'm entirely appreciative of the fact that lovers of good plotting and dialogue and acting have many valid bones to pick with SW I, II, III and VI -- and at least a few with IV and V. But for some reason, in their rush to hate the entire Star Wars universe, Brin and company find themselves driven to counter-rationalize its philosophy. It's not enough for them to hate it on the grounds of quality alone. They have to get inside George Lucas's head and through some form of telepathy discern which portions of the dialogue and plotting are purposeful illuminations of his ethos, and which ones are slapdash bits of hackery that the author failed to see as undermining his attempt to make a point.

I defy any of them to demonstrate a single slip in any of the six movies that's inconsistent with this simple theory: the Jedi are a stagnant if benign cult that has long outlived its purpose, and it takes a common person who has not been raised in their sterile order to reclaim the true worth of their philosophy. I defy them to point to any instance in the movies where doing right by those around you leads to a negative outcome, or where acting in the reverse ultimately brings something other than significantly bad consequences.

The most simplistic mistake you can make in interpreting literature is to assume that the protagonist is always in the right. In fact, it's almost impossible to tell a good story in which the protagonist does not have some flaw to overcome.

Why is it so difficult for Brin and his sort to see that at work in the Star Wars saga?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

So Be It, Jedi

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Revenge of the Sith is the way it turns everybody uncool. Darth Vader isn't cool -- he's weak, petty, and manipulated. Padme isn't cool -- no more picking locks and smacking alien panthers down with a chain; she can't even find the strength to hold on to life so that she'll be there for her kids. The Jedi aren't cool -- they deliberately piss off Anakin and set him up for failure, even though they know there's a Sith Lord out there somewhere monkeying around with things. And Obi Wan Kenobi isn't cool -- he's bigoted against droids, perfectly willing to sacrifice clone troopers, too slow to recognize Anakin's vulnerability, and unable to recognize that the statement, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," is itself an absolute.

When Obi Wan leaps up onto the bank of the lava river at the end of his duel with Anakin, he speaks two sentences that are very telling: "It's over, Anakin. I have the high ground."

Of course, we know it's not over -- there are still three movies to come. But at that point, Obi Wan has no idea that Yoda will fail to defeat the emperor -- no idea that the Republic has already fallen.

Likewise, Obi Wan only thinks that he has the high ground. Even as he admits that he's failed Anakin, even while he's telling him that he loved him like a brother, he is preparing to leave him to die a gruesome, horrifically painful death, alone and helpless -- and he makes sure to pick up the guy's light saber as he goes.

The prequel trilogy ends with evil triumphant because the good guys have dropped the ball -- and what's most interesting is that the pattern inverts itself in the original trilogy. Luke's triumph in Return of the Jedi is not a part of the victory over the Empire. It's a personal triumph for him, turning his father back from the Dark Side. But it does not effect the outcome of the Battle of Endor. The good guys get lucky that a bunch of furry Ewoks help them out, and that Han Solo pulls a trick on the shield generator crew that only an idiot would fall for. The Emperor would have died when the Death Star blew up whether Darth Vader threw him down the generator shaft or not -- and the reason he was doomed to die is the same reason the Jedi fell in Episode III. He didn't keep his eye on the ball.

The message of the saga as a whole ends up being pretty simple: politics will come and go, and those with power will sooner or later grow overconfident and assure their own downfall -- so be good to the people around you, because that's what will ultimately make a difference.