On November 15, I finally re-watched all six Star Wars films in one sitting. Not only that, but I got to re-watch them in what I call the Godfather order. We started with Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, which take young Luke Skywalker from a moisture farm on the desert planet of Tatooine to a lightsaber battle at the Cloud City of Bespin in which Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father, the former Jedi Anakin Skywalker. From here, we flash back to Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith to learn of Anakin’s fall from grace. Finally, with both our hero and villain fully fleshed out, we conclude with their final battle in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
The order that you watch the original and sequel trilogies is an important component of any re-watch, because you will notice different things depending upon the sequence. I chose the Godfather order (IV, V, I, II, III, VI; there is also a variant where I is excluded), but there are two other lineups which are much more popular, the Cinematic Release order (IV, V, VI, I, II, III), and the Numerical order (I, II, III, IV, V, VI). If I were to have another Star Wars marathon, I would be more likely to watch them in the Numerical order, and this is because the viewer is rewarded for sitting through the prequel trilogy by getting to watch the much stronger original trilogy. With any movie marathon, motivation is key, which is why I would want these cornerstone movies closer to the end of the schedule.
After watching all six films, I came up with a fourth re-watch option. I call it the Parallel order, alternating original and prequel films (IV, I, V, II, VI, III) to reveal similarities between the first (thirty plus minutes before we meet Luke / Anakin), second (Millennium Falcon / Slave 1 use an asteroid field for evasion), and third (Ewok / Wookie doing a Tarzan yell) installation of each trilogy.
As I mentioned earlier, your re-watch order will affect the meaning of the films. Here is a brief summary of what I gleaned from the Godfather-style marathon.
A NEW HOPE
Who is the main character of A New Hope? My knee jerk response is to say Luke Skywalker. However, at the request of Master Yoda (“You must unlearn what you have learned.”), I thought I would leave behind my preconceptions and approach the series with a beginner’s mind. My first thought was that the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO were co-leads. It was a huge risk, after all, to spend the first thirty minutes of this film following a pair of robots — only one of which actually speaks a decipherable language! — but to the credit of George Lucas and company, they really pulled it off. The droids are two of the most dynamic and engaging characters in the entire original trilogy, but they are not the main characters. As the story develops, it feels like we have an ensemble piece with multiple main characters, each with an interesting arc: Luke Skywalker is the whiny teen who wants to see the universe, Leia Organa is a rebel leader trying to escape the clutches of the Empire’s finest soldier, and Han Solo is a cocky smuggler who is in too deep with the wrong people. Even Darth Vader has a meaty story, trying to prove his worth in a military that values technology over his outdated religious order, and yet none of these people are the main characters of A New Hope.
From Aunt Beru’s fortuitous request for a droid who speaks Bocce to the magic missile Luke casts into the darkness of the Death Star’s hull, the key character of A New Hope and the invisible hand behind all that happens therein is The Force. This is not the case for Episode V and VI, which closely follow Luke Skywalker on his hero’s quest, and this is largely because Episode IV presents a theology of The Force different from all of the following films. It is a personified element that is with you moreso than a tool that is wielded by you. The choices and actions of The Force are the same coincidences that the uninitiated make fun of, the imperial soldiers who uncharacteristically allow an unmanned escape pod to launch, for example. In this way, The Force is like Shekhinah of Jewish Kabbalah or the Holy Spirit of Trinitarian Christianity. It is the god among us. The reason Luke appears to be the protagonist of this episode is because he has been chosen by The Force to serve as its actor. That’s right. I’ve taken a side. Luke, not Anakin, is the chosen one prophesied to bring balance to The Force.
As the trilogy unfolds, you can see that each of the original films presents the chosen one, the new and only hope, Luke Skywalker, with a new teacher, each unique in his approach, each meeting his death shortly after teaching Luke one final lesson. Obi Wan Kenobi is a wizard of the Tatooine desert and he is also Luke’s first teacher. Years of isolation and a natural proclivity toward recklessness put Kenobi at odds with the traditional teachings of the Jedi order, but I would argue that they make him more receptive to the workings of The Living Force. Kenobi’s choice to take on Luke as his apprentice is radical — the kid is much too old to begin learning the way of The Force — but Kenobi’s submission to his fate here, and then once again in his final battle against Darth Vader, gives Luke an object lesson in destiny. One of the true wonders of the Star Wars trilogy is whether or not Obi Wan Kenobi had a vision of the exact moment of his demise the instant Luke arrived in the canyons surrounding his cave. Either way, it is Kenobi’s death at the hands of Vader that finally brings home the idea of the personified Force. Obi Wan says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” In his death, Kenobi becomes the mouthpiece for the greatest power in the universe, The Force that, until that moment, voicelessly moved its constituents about like pieces on a chess board.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
In The Empire Strikes Back we are once again thrown into an unfamiliar situation. Our heroes are on the snow-covered planet Hoth where they appear to have assembled a new base. Months have clearly gone by since the Battle of Yavin as witnessed by changes in the relationships of Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo: Leia and Han have developed quite the spark between them whereas she and Luke seem to have an even stronger intimacy, and despite the tension this must have caused, Han has come to value Luke’s friendship so deeply that the normally selfish scoundrel risks life and limb on scant evidence that young Skywalker may be missing in the tundra. The news reel gimmick of the later CG animated TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars seems appropriate here, as we find ourselves quickly ensconced in a battle between imperial AT-ATs and AT-STs and Rebel T-47s. There is a clear choice here to shun weighty political discussions in order to focus on the feelings of the characters wrapped up in the struggle for freedom, and the pay-off is one of the most unique films of all time.
The reason that The Empire Strikes Back is so impactful is because George Lucas dared to make a movie where the good guys lose. On the tail of A New Hope, one would think that the Rebellion would have the momentum to turn the tides of battle, but Vader responds like a wounded animals — with his teeth, not his tail. From the get-go, tragedy is the main theme. Vader’s instincts regarding a missing probe put the Rebels on their back heel, with initial casualties hitting close to home with the death of Luke’s own rear gunner Dak Ralter. Evasive maneuvers allow the fleet to launch before their base is destroyed, but the imperial Star Destroyers become their shadows through space. Just when things start looking upward, Han’s old buddy Lando Calrissian betrays his guests, selling the Rebels out to Darth Vader and his newly hired Bounty Hunters. Han Solo barely survives being frozen in carbonite, C-3PO is torn to shreds, and Luke Skywalker escapes his first battle with his life but without his right hand.
I have to wonder if this victory for the dark side is meant to coincide with a new prevailing interpretation of The Force as a tool that is wielded by the force attuned. Empire Strikes Back shows us Darth Vader throwing inanimate objects with The Force or choking people from afar. Luke uses it to pull to himself his light saber from the floor of the Wampa’s lair. Yoda lifts an entire X-Wing out of a swamp with it. The Force is less an invisible being who walks beside you as it is a means for power, and with the situation framed this way it is not hard to see why The Sith are winning. If The Force is merely an implement for a Jedi’s will, then Obi Wan Kenobi is not its voice. He is no longer more powerful than Darth Vader can imagine. In fact, the more frequently we see the Jedi ghost of Kenobi, the more easy it is to realize that he is not a transcendent being. He is just as flawed as anyone else. Even Yoda, arguably the most powerful Jedi of all time and the second of Luke’s three teachers, is not without his imperfections. His lesson of discipline preserves Luke just long enough for him to meet his third teacher in Return of the Jedi, but he is ultimately wrong with his judgment that Luke’s decision to abandon his training and save his friends will end in ruin. I attribute this to Yoda’s strict adherence to the code of the Jedi Order which has served to distract him from the actual workings of The Force.
Luckily, Luke followed his own compass, because otherwise we would never get to see him battle Darth Vader in Cloud City, which is probably my favorite part of either trilogy.
THE PHANTOM MENACE
The Phantom Menace is equal parts overwhelming political talk, cinematically pretty fluff, and fodder for future video games, one of the most epic anticlimaxes of all time. The long awaited prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy suggests that George Lucas threw away all that made him great — his masterful storytelling skills and attention to detail — in search for the idol of better visual technology. In many ways, his own descent into darkness and obsession makes for a better story than Anakin’s escape from funny, happy, silly slavery on Tatooine. The crowning victory of The Phantom Menace is the confrontation between Obi Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and a double-bladed lightsaber-wielding Sith apprentice named Darth Maul.
Between the action choreography and the force field gimmick that kept the fighters from all being in the same room at the same time, I think my jaw was dropped for the entire span of the battle. At the conclusion of this film, I had a new hope: that Attack of the Clones would cheer me up, or at the very least keep my attention.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
The second installation of the prequel trilogy shares in many of the faults of the first. We are still drowning in politics, and both films are all over the place structurally, but Attack of the Clones also has its redeeming qualities. Because this trilogy was created during the era of instant Internet feedback, we get to enjoy a film with much less Jar Jar Binks, fewer instances of aliens speech sounding like racist stereotypes, and absolutely no pod racing. It is also during Attack of the Clones where it becomes hard to tell if George Lucas intends for this trilogy to be about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader or Obi Wan Kenobi’s struggle with leadership. There are easy answers to this question. We could say that it was always intended to be both of their stories or Lucas always intended for the trilogy to represent Kenobi’s perspective on Anakin’s fall from grace, but I think what this comes down to is the fact that Ewan McGregor stole the show and George Lucas decided to run with it in order to save face.
Anakin Skywalker is a brooding young Padawan who has gone from zero to evil in the span of one movie. There is no subtlety to his character development. He simply wants to do terrible things and nobody seems to see the problem before their eyes. This kid is expressing some clear signs of corruption even before Palpetine gets his mitts on him. What he lacks in characterization he lacks even further in narrative development. The story of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala on Naboo is basically a montage lacking its proper ’80s pop soundtrack and rife with horrible CG like the impossible body angles of Anakin riding the beast in the field or the amateur visual effects during the scene where the Jedi plays fruit ninja with The Force. Meanwhile, Obi Wan Kenobi is a multi-faceted action hero from the moment he dives out the window of Amidala’s Coruscant suite in pursuit of an assassin’s drone. We are intrigued as he attempts to unravel the truth behind the clone production on the ocean planet of Kamino (a mystery that is completely dropped, only to be resurrected years later during the series Star Wars: The Clone Wars). We are spellbound by the footrace, battle, and space pursuit between Obi Wan and Jango Fett, and boy were Jango’s sonic bombs cool! Moreover, while everyone else is killing time, it is Obi Wan who brings us to the climactic battle between the Republic and the Separatists on Geonosis. Stepping back, Obi Wan Kenobi also had the only remotely interesting dramatic arc in The Phantom Menace, transforming from Padowan to Master with the death of Qui-Gon Jinn.
Though Revenge of the Sith will provide further positive tweaks, like a much more balanced Anakin Skywalker (ironically), Attack of the Clones is probably the high point of the prequel trilogy.
REVENGE OF THE SITH
One of the most interesting things about the prequel trilogy is its artful inversion of the original trilogy. Where the original touts A New Hope, its shadow The Phantom Menace shows its face. The villains win in The Empire Strikes Back just as the Republic gains a critical advantage over the Separatists in Attack of the Clones. Finally, we experience, on the good side, the Return of the Jedi, and on the bad side, the Revenge of the Sith. If corruption is the intention and Anakin Skywalker is the protagonist, then the three mentors become inverted as well with Darth Maul in Episode I, Count Duku / Darth Tyrannus in Episode II, and Senator / Chancellor / Emperor Palpatine / Darth Sidious in Episode III. It becomes difficult to understand what perspective we ought to adopt in response to this inversion. Are we supposed to feel sorrow that a once great co-mingling of planetary of authority has been toppled or are we supposed to actually view the Jedi themselves as the enemies?
There is something to be said for this latter, more controversial, interpretation. As I mentioned in the section about The Empire Strikes Back, I firmly believe that Yoda was distracted by the power of the Jedi Order to such an extent that he ignored the workings of The Force. I think the prequel trilogy proves that this bias was prevalent on the Jedi Counsel. How else would they be so blind to Palpatine’s deception? How come the secretive origin of the clone army was not put to further scrutiny? Why wasn’t action taken against Anakin’s obvious dark side leanings? I believe that the Jedi became cocky, believing that the Dark Side could never again amass enough power to be a threat. I believe that a combination of systematic teachings and political power distracted them from the working of The Force, especially in their emphasis of selfless utilitarianism over the directives of human emotion. With the simple mathematics of practitioners and power, the prequel trilogy predicts that bringing balance to The Force will not benefit the Jedi. If that balance intends the destruction of dualism so that selfless tendencies can be balanced by selfish tendencies, then the massive Jedi machine is the biggest thing standing in the way. As we hope to bring balance to The Force, we realize that the Sith must first put an end to the hypocrisy of the Jedi. Even suggesting this makes me feel dirty, though, so let’s move on to the final movie in the marathon. I’d much rather talk about the end of the Sith Lord’s rule and the destruction of the intergalactic empire.
RETURN OF THE JEDI
The Ewoks were a fun, if controversial, distraction — some people really hate those fuzzy little guys — but the truly original contribution of Return of the Jedi is the dialogue (and ensuing action) between Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader, the protagonist of the prequel trilogy, and Luke Skywalker, the protagonist of the original trilogy. Put bluntly, Anakin wants to bring Luke over to the Dark Side, Luke wants to redeem his father, and, as per usual, Palpatine is behind it all.
The motivations are much more complex. Much of what makes Darth Vader easy to control is the implied death of his wife Padme and the child she had carried inside of her. Vader learns of the existence of his son Luke in the aftermath of the Battle of Yavin. He realizes that the only way he could keep his child safe from the Emperor would be to prove how valuable an asset the powerful young boy would be to the Empire. Though the prequel trilogy gives conflicting accounts of what ultimately pushed Anakin Skywalker over to the Dark Side, I think the Jedi Order’s rejection of a Jedi Knight having a family played a strong part. Like any father, Darth Vader simply wants his boy by his side. On the flip side, Luke has become incredibly powerful and incredibly cocky. As he dances closer and closer to the line between the Jedi and the Sith, he becomes more and more confident that he can save his father from the Dark Side. All of the stories he grew up on emphasized that Anakin Skywalker was a good and noble soldier for the most positive force in the universe, possibly the strongest individual the Light Side had ever seen, but it is possible that none of this matters. Anakin Skywalker was his father, and there are few things more powerful than a boy’s love for his father. I have faulted Yoda, and to some extent Obi Wan Kenobi, for ignoring the workings of The Force and being blind to the possibility of Darth Vader’s redemption, but it is very likely that the only one who could possibly see the good in this fallen man is his son.
Ultimately, Luke’s suffering at the hands of the Emperor reawakens the good in Darth Vader. The same thing the Jedi Order saw as a weakness is what ultimately brought down the Sith. Anakin Skywalker creates and solves the problem simply because he loves his family. With Luke’s help, he enacts the second step in restoring balance to The Force — putting an end to Palpatine’s Empire. In so doing, he also affirms his position as Luke’s third and final teacher, the one who teaches him the value of emotion. If he hadn’t taught Luke anything, I don’t think they would have let him join the Jedi Ghost party with Obi Wan and Yoda overlooking the victory party on the forest moon of Endor.
* * *
The reason everyone is re-watching the original and prequel trilogies, regardless of the order, is because Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens debuts in theaters on Friday, December 18, 2015. This is the first film to be released since George Lucas sold the rights of his franchise to Disney, and with it is the promise of a new way of doing things. This is seen as both good and bad. After all, many people think Lucas punted it when it came to the prequel trilogy. There is good reason to believe that this is because he took too much of the creative process on his own shoulders. What would have happened if Lucas had focused on general story and trusted everything else to the most skilled people in the business? Maybe this is what is going to happen now that Star Wars is in the hands of Disney. On the other hand, there is a strong anti-J.J. Abrams movement on the Internet, with people faulting him for his lens flares and other issues. You can watch all of the US and International trailers and TV spots, buy all of the merchandise, and read every article you get your hands upon, but will that tell us what to expect when it comes to the new Star Wars film? Probably not.
Here is what I think we can expect. Say what you will about J.J. Abrams, but the guy does his research. There are few people out there who are as dedicated to delivering an experience consistent with previous franchise work as J.J. Abrams. What I think we can expect from him is a continuation of many of the parallels between the preexisting films. Already, The Force Awakens delivers a similar title when compared to A New Hope and The Phantom Menace. Each of these titles suggests that something was lacking from the world and in a very small way it has just appeared. Where A New Hope introduces an up-and-coming Jedi in world dominated by the Sith and The Phantom Menace suggests that the Dark Side of the Force has found a crack in the Jedi world order, The Force Awakens promises that the power behind both the Jedi and the Sith is returning to a world that has forgotten it. Does this mean that The Force itself inverts both its light and dark side? Are we to believe that the primordial power of the universe wishes for something other than that represented by the Jedi and the Sith? I think (or maybe hope is a better word) that Abrams’ vision, and possibly George Lucas’s original vision as well, is that the dual nature of The Force needs to be overcome. This is what is meant by balancing The Force. We got a sense of what this would look like with both Anakin and Luke Skywalker who, each in his own way, embodied the balance of impartiality and concern. How will J.J. Abrams embody a balanced approach to The Force that shuns both Light and Dark? Who will represent the next generation of Jedi? Is it Luke Skywalker our protagonist’s first mentor, and if so, does this mean Luke is going to die in Episode VII the same way that Obi Wan died in Episode IV and Darth Maul died in Episode I?
Personally, I don’t trust anyone who isn’t excited for The Force Awakens, but you’re all entitled to your own opinion.