THE SINS OF THE FATHER:
George Lucas’s Star Wars Sestina
A Reflection by Victor Lana
I watched the sixth and final film of the Star Wars series with great anticipation, feeling very much like the kid who saw the first film twenty-eight years ago. The opening sequence, which involves Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) attempting a rescue of the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (played to slimy and slithering perfection by Ian McDiarmid), drops us right into the combustible kind of battle sequence that made the first Star Wars movie so popular. George Lucas seems to have gone back in order to move forward in these frenzied first moments, relying on the spaceship dogfights that made Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) household names back in 1977. By finding the old formula and making it new, Lucas gets this film off to an amazing start.
Of course, Revenge of the Sith is ultimately not about the old formula. The first three films chronicle the story of farm boy Luke and Princess Leia (they do not know they are brother and sister at first and are assisted by space pirate Solo), who battle an empire and bring it crumbling down, and in the process redeem Luke and Leia’s wretched father (Darth Vader). The sequence of those first three films is a cinematic roller coaster ride: high up with the first, way down in the second, and even greater heights in the third.
In the second film, The Empire Strikes Back (now called Episode V), Vader cuts off Luke’s hand (as Count Dooku will cut off Anakin’s hand in Episode II) in a climactic battle and then tries to lure him to the dark side, using of all things a fatherly plea with the now famous line, “I am your father.” Luke has an inner strength and conviction that Anakin, his father, does not possess in Revenge of the Sith. In a similar situation when Chancellor Palpatine is battling Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) after Palpatine has been revealed as a Sith (dark lord), Anakin cannot find the strength his son will call on to resist a turn to the dark side. Anakin falls into damnation in this moment, saving Palpatine by attacking Windu, thus losing all hope for happiness.
The relationship between Palpatine, who finagles political chess pieces to become Emperor, and Anakin (who will become Vader, his second in command) mirrors the one between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Luke in the first film (now known as Episode IV). There is, however, a vast difference between these two mentors. Palpatine has no desire other than to magnify his power and use the “dark side” of the Force (a stream of spiritual power) to accomplish it. Anakin becomes a pawn in Palpatine’s game, for if he can lure the young man to the dark side, he will most assuredly destroy the Jedi Knights (those who use the good side of the Force), which will vastly increase his power and position. Obi-Wan’s goal in mentoring Luke is as teacher and adviser. His goal is to instruct Luke, to guide him, and to steer him clear of the terrible path his father Anakin chose to tread.
Revenge of the Sith thus becomes the second best film of the six in the series (after the original Star Wars). At the center of the film is not the question of how can the forces of good defeat evil, but rather why does someone inherently good become evil? Anakin is said to be the “chosen” one, born of a virgin, and the last two (largely inadequate) films The Phantom Menace (Episode I) and Attack of the Clones (Episode II) went to great lengths of chronicling Anakin’s origin, his nascent powers, and his inability to deal or come to terms with his supposed destiny. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan even reminds his fellow Jedi that Anakin is the “chosen one,” but both Mace Windu and Yoda (again the voice of Franz Oz) caution that perhaps the prophecy was wrong. Even the evil one, a sort of anti-Christ, can come of a virgin birth.
This film takes us through the stages of Anakin’s fall. Hayden Christiansen captures some of the youthful angst that is necessary for his scenes, and there is a rather palpable love for Padme (Natalie Portman), his secret wife and former queen, that is at the heart of the matter. Palpatine plays on Anakin’s bad dreams (in which the young man pictures Padme’s death); one might expect that the dark lord of the Sith, with such great power, just might be inspiring such nightmares. Anakin’s love for Padme is so great, his fear for their unborn child so overwhelming, that he allows himself to fall to a point of no return in order to save her. When he slaughters innocent children in the Jedi Temple as per Palpatine’s command, his fate is sealed.
The final duel between good and evil takes place on the planet Mustafar, a volcanic world spewing flaming red bursts of lava. Padme rushes to save Anakin from himself, but Anakin feels betrayed when he sees Obi-Wan (who has stowed away on Padme’s ship). The inevitable battle ensues after Padme collapses (of what we later learn is a broken heart). The sequence recalls the great battle scene between Darth Vader and an aged Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Death Star in Episode IV. In that scene, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to save Luke and his sister, but more importantly to integrate his spirit with the good side of the Force. In that scene Vader is surprised to find that Obi-Wan’s body has disappeared; in the scene in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is shocked that his fall to the dark side has not made him invincible.
The horrendous conclusion of the scene on Mustafar, which obviously represents the hell to which Anakin has descended, includes a dismembering of the young man’s body as he loses his battle with Obi-Wan, and then depicts his being partially bathed in lava to permanently disfigure and mutilate him. Rescued by Palpatine, Anakin is brought to a place that is reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Here he is transformed into Darth Vader. As the black mask is brought down over his face, Anakin stares up at it with solemn blue eyes that are almost lost on his ravaged face, indicating that he is very much aware that he has become more machine than man.
The final few moments of Revenge of the Sith are lovely and end the series by bringing us back to the beginning. After Padme gives birth to her twins and dies, Obi-Wan and Yoda decide to separate the children for safety. Leia goes to live with a wealthy senator, and Obi-Wan brings Luke to Anakin’s boyhood home of Tatooine where he will be raised by his aunt and uncle. As Obi-Wan sees the boy for the last time, he is bathed in the light of two setting suns, reminiscent of the scene from Star Wars when Luke stares at the same binary sunset as he deals with his teenage angst. Thus, the series comes full circle as it ends.
Lucas has crafted a visually stunning and emotionally moving series of films (even when considering Episodes I and II in the whole); it is like a sestina in a way, if you think of lyrical construction. There is recurrence of action, successively rotating order of plot, and the conclusion feels much like the beginning. The series has always posed a most pertinent question: can good be triumphant over evil? It also reminds us that humanity, even in all its fragility, can persevere despite overwhelming odds.
After recently watching the six films of the series in order (five on DVD and going to see Revenge of the Sith in the theater), I believe Lucas also provides an answer to an even more important question: after going to the darkest depths of hell, how can one can be redeemed? In Return of the Jedi we see Vader return to his senses as Palpatine tries to kill Luke the same way he killed Mace Windu (with the electric pulses from his decrepit hands). In this case Vader reacts as Anakin could not, and he dumps Palpatine down an air shaft to a most deserved death. The mortally wounded Vader reveals himself to Luke, who sees the scarred face of his father and speaks to him briefly before the old man dies. Later, in a bright and blinding light, Anakin appears to Luke with Obi-Wan and Yoda (though now, on the new DVD, it is Hayden Christiansen who stands in the light and not Sebastian Shaw), indicating his passing over to the good side.
The Star Wars series is a celluloid sestina that transcends generations in its power to move and entertain. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…” When I think of the first time I saw these words on a movie screen in a dark theater in 1977, I felt a turn in my stomach and now I know why. That first film and the subsequent five captured something in my imagination, in my heart, and pulled me along with it over all these years, across time and space and the infinite black void between spiraling galaxies. That’s the true beauty of the series, one in which a father’s lost son can become his nemesis and ultimately his savior. Good prevails over evil, all is right with the universe, and this series of films leaves us with the notion that the Force is with us for all time.