Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Light Saber Duels

Star Wars! Blaargh!

Pardon me while I geek out a moment.

I haven’t seen the new Star Wars animated movie-TV-pilot-thingie. If you’d known me back in college, or any time before the prequels were released, this would be shocking. I was an elementary school kid when the first Star Wars movie literally exploded onto the scene. There’d never been anything like it before. Hollywood was still emerging from a morose fascination with disaster movies. Star Wars was unexpected, imaginative, and sunk its hooks in my like nothing else before or since. I loved the original trilogy (even the ewoks), and the story was important to me, on many levels. I never played in a Star Wars RPG in part because I never felt I could do justice to the feel and power of the original stories.

I shouldn’t have worried so much, since apparently George Lucas can’t, either.

Ok, yeah, cheap shot, and what follows is, in part, a rant about why the prequels suck. There’s nothing directly game related here, in terms of mechanics or styles. However, I think it does have game-related significance because I will be talking about staying true to your themes, and making things cool. And I’ll be talking specifically about those coolest of military mystics, the jedi.

The lowest point of the three new movies, for me, was from “Attack of the Clones”. Chritopher Lee’s character had captured Obi-Wan. The words “jedi knights” came rolling off Lee’s lips in that incredibly rich voice of his, and a thrill ran down my spine. Jedi knights! The name evoked a fusion of ancient mysticism and the Round Table, of spiritual quests and courage and transcendent vision. I wanted to see more about these awesome jedi knights!

And then, like a dunk in cold water, I realized that the jedi knights were these G-Men in bathrobes we’d been watching through the whole movie.

The problem goes beyond midichlorians and over-exposure. It’s not so much the loss of mystery as the loss of vision and mission that reduced the jedi from mystic warrior-saints to mundane government agents from your standard Tuesday night police procedural. Consider the light saber duels. The new movies understood the importance of these as centerpieces, and each was a rousing spectacle of special effects, stage fighting, and stuntwork. But the fights were not really about anything more than fighters going mano-a-mano, trying to kill one another. Story-wise, they were no different from Amidala and her guards blasting away at droid soldiers. The duels look great, but they don’t mean anything beyond simple conflict. They remain mired in the purely physical.

What am I talking about? Ok, let’s go back to Episode IV’s light saber duel. It’s Vader vs. Obi-Wan as played by Alec Guinness, and, as the “later” fights go, it’s kinda lame. Two old guys shuffling around, banging their weapons together. But the fight works because it gives us clues to the as-yet-unknown past, and because Obi-Wan isn’t trying to kill Vader. He’s competing on a completely different plane. He knows he can’t kill Vader, and he’s not even really trying. He’s just toying with Vader, goading him on. Vader can’t see it; his only goal is to murder another jedi and push the order that much closer to oblivion.

Obi-Wan stops fighting as soon as he knows Luke is watching. He wants Luke to see Vader as a butcher and knows he’ll be in a better position to guide Luke’s development after he’s dead. Vader wins the fight but loses the duel; he doesn’t even begin to suspect that he’s been had until he’s prodding at the now empty robes of the dead Kenobi.

The next two duels of the original trilogy carry this theme even further. In “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke wants to kill Vader. Vader, however, has something else completely in mind. Killing Luke is the last thing he wants to do. Instead, his desire is to corrupt and convert Luke. The duel is a showcase for how weak Luke is and how little he understands. Vader is constantly throwing Luke off-balance, either by chasing him through dark tunnels, using the Force to toss furniture at him, or making startling revelations about their secret history. In the end, Luke wins the fight by escaping, but loses the duel. His faith in Obi-Wan is shattered and he’s had his first taste of the seductive power of the dark side. When we next see Luke, at the beginning of “Return of the Jedi”, he’s abandoned the calm and humble earth-tones of the Alliance and jedi for a black-on-black ensemble, complete with creepy, Palpatine-style cloak.

The final battle of “Return of the Jedi” is rife with this theme. While the Alliance fights for its life around them, the Emperor, Vader, and Luke square off in a struggle unlike any other I’ve ever seen in a movie. The physical action isn’t just a metaphor for deeper struggles, but an active agent of them. Death is the least of everyone’s worries in this duel, and while the Alliance starships are dieing to keep their struggle alive, the conflict around the Emperor’s throne is for the very soul of the galaxy. Not only is Luke not interested in killing anyone, it’s his very refusal to take life that gives him victory. Only by elevating his perspective above the bestial kill-or-be-killed can he ward of the real attack of the Emperor, which has nothing to do with light sabers and warships, and everything to do with hate, love, and reason.

And it’s that which made the jedi so cool in the first three movies. Not that they could kill their foes with all sorts of neat tricks, spinning light sabers, or nifty force powers. It was that they operated on a plane above the normal, physical struggle of the conflict of the day, towards the more universal conflicts that are at the heart of every person. In the realm of the jedi, why you were doing something was vastly more important than what you did. In the mundane realm of Han Solo and Wedge Antilles, being willing to sacrifice yourself for the cause is noble, but in the plane of jedi combat, sacrificing yourself while in alignment with the natural flow of love and hope, or the light side of the Force as they call it in the movie, isn’t just noble, but an undeniable and absolute victory. And that’s something we haven’t really seen since Vader decided he’d rather be a father than a Dark Lord of the Sith.


Joseph said...

I think that's one of the themes of the prequels. The Jedi, who were supposed to be the uber-cool "guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy" had indeed become corrupt. Not in the mundane way that Dooku or Ventress portray it. They were using their powers in mundane ways, just slicing off limbs and heads as a by-product of tracking down bounty hunters. One cool thing is that you get the idea that the Sith were pushing them ever so gently in that direction (at least Dooku and Palpatine), and that might have been going on for a long, long time.

Anonymous said...

Trollsmyth, thanks for posting that: it goes a long way toward explaining why the prequels were so underwhelming. Undoubtedly the most watchable of the three was "Revenge of the Sith," as two duels (Anakin vs. Samuel Jackson, Anakin vs. Obi-Wan) were about something. But by that point, Lucas had alienated everyone except his hard-core fans.

I suspect that a project focusing on Mystic Characters is always going to run into the problem of making the character identifiably human, yet compellingly Other.

Incidentally, the latest Star Wars: Clone Wars movie is dire. Anyone who thought the prequels were less than 100% cinematic perfection should stay away. I was a Star Wars fan from the time I was 18 months old. But not now.

RipperX said...

I deeply loved the prequels, which isn't to say that they are all free of problems. Jar Jar is so over the top that he almost makes the film unwatchable, and if Lucas wanted to make a love story he should had farmed the dialog out, because the banter between Amidala and Skywalker was truly dreadful.

The key to it, I think, is that, 1. You actually got to see real Jedi Knights in action, and in their hayday.

Luke was always in training, he couldn't keep a master longer then a couple of weeks. We got a glimpse of what a Jedi is capable of, but that was it.

2. This film was about the rise of America's favorite Villain, Darth Vader. This was done (with the exception of bad dialog) masterfully, at least on a physical level as well as emotionally.

There are some things to struggle with. What is the deal with Mitaclorians? Well, I think that Obiwan's time away from the council and through speaking with his dead master, he now feels that the force is actually more of a spiritual thing then a physical, which since Yoda seems to agree before his death, this is clearly a case of folks TRYING to come up with an explanation for something and getting rid of religion, but in the end, going back to God.

The other thing that I don't like about the films is that I am of the opinion that the Universe shouldn't had forgiven Vader, not after what he did.

But all of this debate is what makes all of the Star Wars films so good. It brings fans together and it asks tons of questions that it don't even try to answer. BRILLIANT!