Monday, July 09, 2012

#434. The 7 Story Beats of the Star Wars Saga

Before I proceed, let me clarify that I only consider the six films (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith) to be part of the official Star Wars saga, so I will not include anything referenced in the expanded saga (books, comic books, video games, TV shows).

I read an article a few weeks back that kind of tried to reverse the traditional logic about who the good guys are in the saga.  I guess I should have made notes or something, but alas I cannot reference that article here beyond saying that it concluded that perhaps the Rebel Alliance was a reckless cause dooming the galaxy to anarchy with the fall of the Empire.  As to why, well, I will simply get on with the seven story beats of the Star Wars saga:

  1. Darth Plagueis begins the Sith plot against the Jedi.  In Revenge of the Sith, we overhear Palpatine explain the legend of this dark lord to Anakin Skywalker, who mastered the Force to such a degree that he was able to cheat death, until his apprentice betrayed him.  I understand that in the expanded saga there's a different version of what I'm about to say, and I don't care, and that's essentially the difference in philosophy I have with the fans who do care.  The suggestion in this momentous conversation is that Palpatine is that apprentice.  In my vision of this first beat in the Star Wars saga, Palpatine betrays his own master and begins all of this, and essentially spends most of his life in exile on Naboo.  He's already an established figure, and an old man, in The Phantom Menace. Considering that no one cares too much about questioning the establishment in the days before the Separatists and the Rebellion, it's not too hard to imagine that Palpatine could have easily carved himself a posh life for an extended period of time.  Yoda, who's been around for nine hundred years, is one of the most complacent Jedi around, as comfortable in exile at the Jedi temple as he would later be on Dagoba.  One of his closest contacts outside of this insular world is with the Wookiees on Kashyyyk, who also have extremely elongated lives (for this reason, it would not be inconceivable to assume that he knows Chewie better than Han Solo ever could).  Anyway, the suppression of the dark arts (a common theme with Harry Potter that J.K. Rowling didn't really settle) was essentially the motivating factor of this whole conflict, something for those who practiced them to hold as a mark of superiority over the established Jedi, who ruled like kings over countless worlds, and the rise of Darth Plagueis and his apprentice the first step toward years of war that would reshape the galaxy.
  2. Palpatine marks Anakin Skywalker as his next apprentice.  The idea of power is something the Sith value above all else.  The Jedi take so much for granted, they've grown to overlook this.  Palpatine makes a show of valuing democracy in public, but is secretly manipulating variations factions against each other, without any of them realizing what's happening.  He's so successful, it doesn't matter that the Jedi have been using the excuse of diminished powers for years to explain their growing ineffectiveness.  He was no doubt aware of Anakin from the moment of his conception, attuned to the Force as no other practitioner, always one step ahead when everyone else was busy ignoring what was happening.  The Trade Federation marks Naboo, whose only mark of distinction seems to be its influential politicians, which just happen to include Palpatine.  But Palpatine's intricate plans are already starting to unravel because he makes the classic mistake of outsmarting himself by allowing a young idealist to meet the very boy he has invested all his hopes in, when Amidala travels offworld and insists on accompanying a pair of Jedi to an unremarkable world (which they only visit by accident).  The key detail here is that Amidala is as skilled in subterfuge as Palpatine, perhaps even learning these instincts from him, and that's how the whole meeting happens in the first place.  He never even considers that something like this might happen.  He only marks the Jedi as his enemies.  He assumes everyone else will act as mindless pawns.  In some ways, Amidala does exactly that in her obstinate reaction to the Trade Federation's blockade.  And then she meets Anakin Skywalker, who will forever be ruled by his heart...
  3. Anakin Skywalker goes back home.  As Yoda predicted, bad things happen to Anakin because he's not in control of his emotions.  He has already developed an obsession with Amidala, which is strictly against the code of the Jedi.  (It's worth noting that for all the differences between the Jedi and the Sith, neither seems all that interest in romantic relationships, except for Anakin.)  First, an assignment to guard her chambers provides a convenient reunion, in which he learns where he stands with her, and won't accept that as an answer.  Then the situation with the growing Separatist movement against the Republic causes them to swap political views, and remarkably enough they're not so different.  Anakin then gets a chance to check back in on Tattooine, a development Amidala encourages, only to discover that his mom has been royally screwed over in the galactic jackpot, right after it seems like not only he got the future he deserved, but she did, too.  He goes a little nuts and slaughters Sandpeople.  Amidala, who has already heard his frustrations about justice, decides not to condemn him.  She's remarkably okay with his violent behavior, perhaps because she's already decided that she's throwing her lot in with the Separatists, and not the Republic, which she's currently serving as a senator.  The Separatists, it might be added, are currently fronted by Count Dooku, who is also the current apprentice of Palpatine, who has managed to turn a respected Jedi to his cause, one who is perfectly okay with the kind of duplicity necessary for the job.  Anyway, bolstered by a budding romance that quickly turns into a secret marriage, Anakin rushes into the kind of Jedi he thought he already was, even if he doesn't quite have the nerve yet.  He's hiding things now, too!
  4. Palpatine forms the Empire.  The exact same thing as the Republic, but with far fewer senators, the Empire serves as the permanent seat of power for Palpatine, who believes he's achieved everything he wanted, including the destruction of the Jedi order.  Except the one thing he didn't count on, much as the switch of the clone army from a force for good into a force for evil, was the Separatists giving birth to the Rebellion.  It's the same as the oversight of allowing Anakin to have allegiances to anyone but him.  He was able to sway the young Jedi to his line of thinking, and even eliminated Amidala without realizing it, but all of this confusion was already starting to affect his plans.  Anakin is maimed and nearly killed, and Palpatine (according to my version of events) didn't learn the secrets of Darth Plagueis well enough to preserve his life without needing an elaborate artificial apparatus to sustain Anakin's life, thus hindering his further development.  Yes, a powerful practitioner of the Force, but not a successor to himself.  In many ways, I'm sure he was glad of that, in a way, but his age was starting to become something he could no longer hide.  His duel with Mace Windu unraveled the bulk of his efforts in that regard, revealing the monster he truly was.  And without direct control over the Separatists, they were able to finally function as they would have, as he'd allowed them to, from the start, as a true rebuke to the establishment.  As a Rebellion.
  5. Luke Skywalker rescues Princess Leia.  The subtitle A New Hope has long been assumed to reference the rebirth of the Jedi in the form of Luke Skywalker, but there's another possible interpretation: Leia has been working as an operative for the Rebellion for years, and this is in fact a major problem that meeting Luke Skywalker (and with him, Han Solo) fixes.  To be blunt, no matter how spunky or sarcastic she is, Leia does not have the skills necessary to be the hero the Rebellion needs to succeed.  Luke is an outsider who was going to join the Imperial fleet, training at the academy just like his old buddy Biggs, not to mention Han Solo.  He's only vaguely aware of the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion.  The fact that he becomes a Jedi is secondary to the fact that he can be motivated to great acts, once certain obstacles are removed from his path.  He does tend to succeed by accident, at least at the beginning, much as Leia did for years.  It's Luke who drives all the heroics at the Death Star, the rescue of Leia and its eventual destruction.  Yes, he receives a lot of help, mostly from Han, but discovering that message from Leia motivates him to reach his fullest potential.  Still, by the end of these initial adventures, the Empire is still strong, still in control, because the only thing lost is one weapon, no matter how powerful, one only the Rebellion even knew or cared about.
  6. Darth Vader goes to Cloud City.  This one happens completely by accident.  He follows a lead from a bounty hunter while tracking down Han Solo, who he hopes will be the lure Luke can't ignore. The thing is, it's a huge tactical mistake.  Lando Calrissian is emblematic of the establishment that still exists in the galaxy, the apathy that allows the Empire to dominate, just so long as it doesn't bother business.  (Funny enough, the radicalized Separatists no longer care about the concerns they once attempted to safeguard, instead fighting for basic survival, as they now see it, because they've lost their voice and have been essentially repudiated, totally excluded from the establishment.)  By Han visiting this old friend of his, at first so ruthless in pursuit of his own self-interest that he sells out his own buddy, Lando has the chance to see up close what the Empire is all about.  It's the first time fresh blood has been introduced to the Rebellion since the creation of the Separatists.  Many things have changed, but it's only been a matter of decades.  This is the second generation finally finding a voice, and notably, this reincarnation is learning to build on associations and listening to each other, even when it seems they shouldn't.  Also, the Rebellion doesn't ken with bounty hunters, unlike the Separatists.  When you remove the cancer, progress really is possible.
  7. Jabba the Hutt is eliminated.  The Hutts were long established as a disinterested yet dangerous wildcard of power.  Tattooine may not be the most strategically important world to the Empire, but it is to the Rebellion.  This is where Anakin Skywalker was born, and where Luke Skywalker had to return in order to retrieve one of his key allies, and in order to do that, he had to tackle a seemingly insignificant obstacle that had nonetheless arbitrarily dictated the course of corruption that caused pretty much everything that built and destroyed Palpatine's plans.  The opposite of Lando Calrissian, Jabba was a self-interested gangster who never saw the bigger picture and didn't care to, ignoring the threat of the Empire because he never understood how it affected him.  Yes, he got his revenge on Han Solo, but at fatal cost, unleashing the full potential of Luke, who used both his prowess with the Force and his array of allies against him, toppling him in a fashion that would have appeared more unlikely to the Hutt than a race of primitive Ewoks helping to defeat a legion of Imperial troops.  Jabba's oversight directly parallels Palpatine's.  The Empire falls, the Rebellion wins, and everything that's been learned since the blockade of Naboo leads to a Jedi knight who can fight dirty but won't give in to his weaknesses and people who understand the value of cooperation.
I've heard nothing, since the release of the first prequel, but remarks that suggest George Lucas had no idea what he was doing, and that this was something everyone started to suspect with the underwhelming Return of the Jedi.  Lucas himself only seems to encourage the belief that you shouldn't think too much about these films, that they're made for children, but I have long held them as one of the greatest standards for storytelling that I've ever experienced, and this is a belief that held true for the three films I watched well after they were released in theaters, and through the three films I saw upon original release.  Everyone was pleased as punch when the saga was strictly about sensationalism, the shock of the first movie, and the bigger shock of the second one.  They loved Star Wars in a vacuum, and once that vacuum was removed from the equation, they assumed it was the fault of the nutty creator who somehow had the temerity to tinker with his own creations.  I suppose this isn't such a unique phenomenon, because fans of The Matrix started making the same decisions about the second and third films in that franchise, and I disagree with those conclusions, too.  There's a million things to love about the Star Wars saga, and for me, I guess my favorite is the story that thrived for six films, in ways most fans have never really appreciated.  


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

I think a problem with the prequels is that it gives Palpatine too much credit for everything. Especially if you use "The Force Unleashed" as canon, where Palpatine essentially creates the Rebellion too. I mean if this guy was such a master manipulator and so omniscient to make all this stuff happen, then why was he so blind to the idea that his own apprentice would turn on him? I mean in Empire Vader is already trying to get Luke to join him to overthrow the Emperor and yet the Emperor still has Vader capture Luke and bring him aboard the second Death Star, thereby making the classic comic book villain mistake of leaving the hero alive instead of just killing him when he had the chance.

Anyway, I think we tend to overanalyze these movies. They're just action movies but we've elevated them to essentially a kind of new mythology.

As for The Matrix I always think the problem with the sequels was they never expected the first one to be such a huge hit that they'd get all this money and resources to film two more so it was kind of, "Oh shit what do we do now?"

Maurice Mitchell said...

Tony, this is a really well thought out story analysis. I still think there's plenty of evidence that Lucas was making it up as he went along. But, this makes a lot of sense, especially the way you tie in the Hutts and explain Palpatine's plans.

Tony Laplume, Sith Architect said...

Maurice, I don't understand why people assume everything needs to be figured out by the creator from the very start. Any story takes time to be developed, no matter if it's before or after anyone else knows about it. That's a logical fallacy that bothered me about fans reacting to Lost during its six seasons (which some of the creators even started to play with during the third season; it simply doesn't matter).

PT, Palpatine (who I gave even more credit to) really did deserve a huge amount of credit, considering it was his idea to attack his enemies on two fronts, from a political as well as personal perspective. He gave himself the authority he needed to dominate the galaxy via the Empire thanks to allowing politics to confuse everything just enough for him to smash and re-establish order the way he wanted it, and he used his knowledge of the Force against its acknowledged best practitioners.

The thing that was his undoing, like I suggested, was that he basically outsmarted himself. He believed so thoroughly in the cleverness of his plans that he didn't even consider that once successful, they could be anything but. He was wildly successful, too, for decades. But like Alexander and countless other conquerors, he didn't really set up the framework of support he needed to keep it going without him (which to my mind is the great fallacy even of the Timothy Zahn books, or any creator who just thinks "clone of Palpatine!" to keep the Empire rolling as a threat). He didn't trust Vader, and he never did, not after seeing him nearly die at the very moment he became the new Sith apprentice. Vader became a liability, even if every fan likes to think of him first and foremost as the baddest of the bad guys. If you don't believe that, then ask yourself why he basically operated out in the open as a symbol of a threat rather than operate in the shadows as one, manipulating events like Palpatine and Dooku before him? Even Darth Maul was kept in reserve. The Trade Federation had no idea he existed, even though they'd been working with a Sith lord for who knows how long.

So Vader takes the first opportunity he sees to try and do the very thing he wanted to do before he became a Sith, establish his own order under his own rules. It doesn't work out, and so Palpatine still has that second chance to get the apprentice he wanted, and actually believes this relationship between father and son will work, in much the same way he was the mentor/father figure Anakin never really had, a way to manipulate a resource without having to come out and state exactly what he wants, because that's something he never did, and Vader can't help but do right from the start. He sees, right up until the end, either Luke as a potential successor, or one more obstacle to be easily eliminated, once his full power is comprehended. Vader's move against him is the first time anyone has rebuked him openly. He cannot actually withstand the challenge, because he never prepared for it. He never even considered it. He and his Empire fall to hubris, the oldest trick in the book.

MOCK! said...

I think I'll share your thoughts with my boy...I used the original trilogy (especially Empire in isolation) to discuss how stories can be broken up into "acts"...

He is growing up with all the movies always accessible...I saw Star Wars in the theater as a 6 or 7 year old...our perspectives are very different.

Tony Laplume said...

Well, that's pretty awesome. The way the story structure differs between the trilogies is something I think I'll be writing about at some point here. I was too young to see any of the original films in theaters, so I grew up watching all of them regularly, and so never really had the opportunity to think about them separately, except in what each of them accomplished. That was part of what I brought to the new films, adding to the experience rather than the criticisms some fans were already accustomed to with the release of Return of the Jedi, which I had never thought as inferior in quality to its predecessors. There's a different aesthetic feeling between the trilogies, certainly, but they're set in different eras, so most of it should be expected.


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