Tuesday, March 04, 2014

#694. You Were My Brother!

I'm one of the crazy people who loves the Star Wars prequels.

(I've admitted this before.  Don't act so surprised.  I'm not on any mercy mission here.)

I love them for a variety of reasons.  One of them is surely because I loved the original trilogy so much growing up, but that particular prerequisite don't seem to hold much water with other fans, and so when I talk about the prequels, I usually have to explain more than that.  This time I'll be talking about Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The prequels are often seen (when not completely dismissed) strictly as the story of how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Even people who generally hate them begrudgingly admit that maybe Revenge of the Sith is not as terrible as the other two (especially The Phantom Binks).  In truth, that's my favorite of them, too, and the basis for everything I will eventually focus on later.

I will continue to argue, however, that one of the reasons the prequels get such a bad rap is that they came in at the start of a new movie era.  The originals, did, too, only they were the ones to usher in that era.  The prequels were released at a time when numerous blockbuster franchises competing for attention had just become a thing.  Today we wouldn't really bat an eye at it.  We've very comfortably slipped into a time when most of them can very easily be hits at the box office and still be talked about kindly by the fans afterward.  This wasn't always the case.

The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.  Fans had been waiting nearly twenty years for another Star Wars.  It was going to be a massive hit one way or another.  In that sense, instant success regardless of the actual response was another thing Star Wars pioneered.  The problem it faced that year was that The Matrix was also released.  The Matrix stole the zeitgeist.  It didn't have something blatantly uncool like Jar Jar Binks running around.  It defined cool the way that Star Wars previously had.

And then Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted two years later.  For some people, these films immediately supplanted not only The Matrix but also Star Wars as the new cool. I mean, they even gave the arguably much bigger phenomenon Harry Potter a run for his money.  When the two Matrix sequels were finally released, they had lost the zeitgeist just as they'd stolen it from Star Wars.  There are always a number of ways to explain why something is a failure, and most of the time people quickly agree with the first person who says it's the material itself, but I happen to favor the lemming effect.  Once a reputation is soiled, it's hard to clean it up.  Once someone says something's bad, everyone else just sort of takes it for granted that this is exactly the way it is.  They internalize the thought process, assume they came to the conclusion themselves.

(And will continue to believe that years later.  Because most people never really reconsider things.  Not for nothing, but I know I'm capable of this.  When I first saw the video for U2's "Beautiful Day," I became convinced that Bono and the rest of the band had jumped the shark.  I totally gave up on the band.  Some time after, I became a bigger fan of U2 than I had ever been before.  And loved the song and the whole album around it.)

Getting back to my intended point a little, when Jackson's original Tolkien trilogy came to an end, one of the highlights of Return of the King was the moment where Sam tells Frodo that he can't carry the ring, but he can carry Frodo.  It was the ultimate statement of the fellowship they alone had carried from the first film.  It was the last great moment of the trilogy.

Revenge of the Sith ends on a comparable note, also in a setting of molten lava, when Ob-Wan and Anakin are dueling what had until that point been one of the most legendary unseen moments in Star Wars lore, the fight that ends their friendship and ruins Anakin's body, forcing him into his iconic Vader apparatus.

And near the end of it, Obi-Wan utters the words: "You were my brother!"

And so I want to talk about that.  I think it means a little more than it seems to on the surface.  I think it resonates through the whole prequel trilogy.

For Obi-Wan, he basically means it literally.  In that moment, this is the greatest betrayal of the whole Star Wars saga, and on the basis of that understanding, this is easily one of the elements that elevates the rest of the material, for me, far above the common estimation.

Going back to Phantom Menace, one of the first things Obi-Wan says after meeting Anakin for the first time is a fairly dismissive comment about "pathetic lifeforms," which is his way of linking the boy with the annoying Jar Jar.  Yes, even in Phantom Menace people know that Jar Jar is annoying.  That's the whole point of the character.  In that moment, Obi-Wan is just like any other Jedi.  He doesn't see Anakin's potential at all.  He's nothing like his mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn.  (This in itself might be jarring, because in the original trilogy, the older Kenobi is basically on par with Yoda, who is the closest match to Qui-Gon the saga has.)

It may need reminding that in Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan himself is still only an apprentice.  That's one of the major points of the prequels, the extended apprenticeship the Jedi experience in order to be fully sanctioned as a knight.  It's something Luke Skywalker experiences in the earlier trilogy, but it's perhaps all the more shocking to learn that the very young Anakin is still considered too old and that Ob-Wan, who at this point is probably about as old as Luke will be when we first meet him, is still just learning the craft.

All of this is to say that as far as he is concerned, once Anakin actually is inducted into the program, they are more or less on equal footing.  (Que the epiphany that even in that, there's poetry in how the final duel plays out.)  Despite his misgivings, Obi-Wan ceases to consider Anakin anything other than a brother Jedi-in-training.

Which is to say, they grow up together.

By the time of Attack of the Clones, they're still working alongside each other.  This is not like the relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in Phantom Menace.  They're still on equal footing.  By the time of Revenge, the distance has widened a little, but that's because everyone has begun to sense the danger Anakin represents and is no longer keen to advance him so quickly.

But as far as Obi-Wan is concerned, Anakin remains a brother Jedi.  It was never really for Obi-Wan to consider the nuances of the prophecy concerning Anakin, and he never really did.  He accepted the interpretation at face value.  In some ways, he actually was in awe of Anakin, considered it a privilege to work alongside him.  If that's never really clear until the climactic moment in Revenge, consider this the moment where that's corrected.

All along, especially throughout Clones and the first few acts in Revenge, Obi-Wan and Anakin are inseparable, the way we only imagine Luke and Han Solo are in the original films.  Han was always far more cynical about the whole relationship than we can sometimes think.  They spend more time apart than at each other's side.  That's probably why it's so easy to view the first trilogy in such rough terms.  Even the parts that work together don't really work together.  In the prequels, everything is too streamlined, it seems.  I've argued in the past that this is because we're in times where the old ways are still functioning.  It's Anakin slowly smashing them apart, moreso than Palpatine, that creates the conditions necessary to produce a guy like Han Solo.  Anakin is not Han Solo.  He's not Luke, either, and neither is Obi-Wan.

Their dynamic, then, is the whole basis for the prequels.  If you view it through that prism, does your opinion change at all?

To me, the prequels were never meant to be carbon copies of the originals.  They had their own story to tell.  The originals were about a classic heroic journey.  The prequels were the far less explored villain's journey.  If there's a hero to root for in there, it's an equally tragic one.  And that hero is Obi-Wan, the one who never saw it coming, was blinded the entire way by a friendship that once established he never questioned.  Yes, he gets the big triumph at the end, but clearly he still loses.

Tellingly, whenever Anakin foreshadows his fall, Obi-Wan isn't present.  Those moments are reserved for Padme, the slaughtering of the Sand People, for instance.  It was Qui-Gon who understood everything about Anakin, from the start.  Yoda and the rest of the Jedi, including Obi-Wan, only considered the elements of the prophecy, good or bad.  Obi-Wan's imperfections, or perhaps his purity as a hero, rest in what he's missing, just as Anakin's journey depends on what he's missing, too.

Obi-Wan initially views Anakin as just another tag-along.  Qui-Gon saw far beyond that from the start.  Padme makes the observation in Clones that mentors have the ability to see the flaws in their pupils that the pupils otherwise overlook.  Qui-Gon questioned where Obi-Wan went with the flow.  He even became good friends with both Anakin and Padme, and not only didn't see their relationship develop, or that Anakin's dark side was slowly emerging.

The flaw in the whole Jedi philosophy was also something Obi-Wan unwittingly uttered, that "you're either with me or against me" is a Sith concept, but it's the Jedi who reject those among them who go against the regular order.

I'm not here to argue that Obi-Wan was basically an idiot, who didn't see what to others (especially the audience) might have seemed pretty obvious.  Every other Jedi, including Yoda, didn't see it coming either.  Something about Sith lore blocks Jedi awareness.  I'm here to say that Obi-Wan took certain things for granted, along with every other Jedi.  He was the quintessential Jedi, in fact.  And he thought Anakin was, too, or wanted to be.  And he considered Anakin to be his brother.

So he was betrayed on all accounts.  By the time he had to do something about it, he didn't hesitate to butcher Anakin.  This is easily one of the most shocking moments in the whole Star Wars saga, even if you know it's coming from the moment they clash for the final time in A New Hope.  Tellingly, of course, in that moment, Anakin describes their relationship in very different terms.  He describes it simply as mentor/pupil.  The worst thing about how Revenge ends is that Obi-Wan never figures out where he went wrong.  He believes for twenty years, even, that he was still right.  That's why he initially describes what happened to Luke's father as a betrayal.  Because for Obi-Wan, that's the only description possible.

And by that point, just before he dies, Obi-Wan has reduced the whole thing to the only thing that still makes sense to him, that it's not really about friendships at all, but about the Force.  The very thing he was focused on all those years ago when he dismissed the little boy he first met as just another straggler his mentor had picked up in their travels.

But, that's not what he really thinks.  He's still protecting himself.  He's more honest with Yoda, more honest with Luke.  The old Obi-Wan, which is to say the young Obi-Wan, really was far too focused on his studies and his wishful thinking and his best case scenarios to even consider such honest moments, to consider himself on par with Yoda, for instance, or to speak so honestly, to think so honestly.

When you think about the prequels like that, I think they become less about what they weren't and more of what they were, a character study in the Star Wars saga.  Two character studies.  Of a pair of brothers.  And a betrayal.

To the common assessment, the prequels were a mess, a vision George Lucas had that was flawed in too many ways.  For me, all of these elements explain everything far too well.  They're too calculated to be considered mistakes.  They were deliberate.  In their own way, they became, for me, at least as iconic in the whole saga as the first three films.  Even the execution is knowing, the so-called wooden acting.  There's a formality built into this vision of the old Republic, that without it an important piece of the puzzle is missing.  Qui-Gon has always been one of my favorite characters.  He's an anomaly in every way, and with good reason.

Obi-Wan and Anakin, both should have taken so much more from their fallen champion.  The fact that they didn't leads directly to that molten lava.

"You were my brother!"


Pat Dilloway said...

Obi-Wan was the best thing going in the last two movies.

Tony Laplume said...

You always throw me for a loop when you don't say the opposite of what I've said.


Great read!
I've always heard that the stories in Star Wars are circles. Luke has the same choices that Anakin did. He lost his hand as his father did, but chose not to take revenge on his father or Palpatine. Obi-Wan Kenobi didn't listen to the Living Force like Qui-Gon Jinn. After his encounter with Anakin at Mustafar he chose to listen, and knew he could better serve Luke by sacrificing his physical form.

Maurice Mitchell said...

I'll admit I never saw the prequels in that light. The prequels aren't TERRIBLE, but they just didn't feel like Star Wars. Maybe that was the point.

Remembering Grace said...

Awesome essay!
I've seen each of these movies at least five times and I can't believe now I'm gonna have to go back and watch with this fresh perspective, I love it!!

Tony Laplume said...

One of the things Obi-Wan was supposed to do on Tatooine was figure out the trick Qui-Gon had accomplished in returning as a spirit.

The prequels for me were always a separate experience. The three originals were already different enough from each other to begin with, it seemed reasonable to assume that the prequels would continue that trend, especially with mostly new characters and a mostly different story to tell.

I try, I try!


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