09 May 2014

Because Star Wars: An Examination of Macro and Personal Narratives

Maybe it's Star Wars Day this past week (May the Fourth be with you), or just an inspirational spark from the Cast of Episode VII: Probably Not As Good (2015) being released, but a lot of Star Wars has been on my mind lately. It's a testament to the cultural power of this series that after two good ones, one very marketable one, and three awful ones, that this thing is still getting folks pumped up for whatever George and J.J. have in store for us. That said, for whatever reason, I began thinking of the narratives of each film, particularly how A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) run completely inverse of each other, then how everything else is crazy.

A New Hope follows the personal story of Luke Skywalker as he gets caught up in this macro story of this galactic rebellion. Now, the macro story is where much of the adept worldbuilding comes from, and leads to discussions like this. Part of the film's success is how articulate Luke's heroic journey is from small town farmer to a key participant in this big climactic battle in the name of freedom in the Galactic Civil War. If you watch it, though, the stakes get less and less personal. One of the early horrors the Empire wrought (and one of the nastier things they do) is burning Owen and Beru Lars. This has more weight than the entire destruction of Alderaan because we met and got to know these people. Luke travels from avenging their deaths to saving a bunch of random people he just met for a cause he isn't wholly a part of yet. It's still great character progression, but the essence is a personal story flirting more and more with the macro until they are inexorably intertwined.
Do you wanna build a snowman?

The Empire Strikes Back works in reverse: It starts with a big battle where Luke does some awesome feat (single-handedly destroying an AT-AT), but the rebels still lose. He then retreats out of the forefront of the rebellion, as does everyone, really, and goes into hiding with a more personal journey with Yoda. Looking back on it, it's surprising how little Empire deals with the macro story of the rebellion beyond those first Hoth scenes. Luke's narrative here climaxes in a fight with Darth Vader that's both caused by personal reasons (his vision of Han in pain, and the fact that his friends were tortured and frozen solely to get to him), and then obviously ends on an extremely intimate note with the revelation that Vader is his pappy and how could you, you chopped off my hand. Luke spins away and away from the Galactic Civil War and back to his origin, in this case, an origin he didn't know he had.

Return of the Jedi (1983) is downright bizarre when read this way, though. The first half at Jabba's Palace doesn't really have anything to do with anything besides fulfilling the plot and getting Han back. Luke doesn't really learn anything, but he's able to show us his progress as a warrior since Empire. It also has nothing at all do with the Galactic Civil War. In this sense we could read it as part of his personal journey, but there isn't really any growth. The Endor half is also peculiar. We see the greatest mustering of both Rebels and Imperials ever, as well as the most significant battle and insight into their politics. For Luke, though, it's expressly personal. His final arc sees him confronting and dealing with his father's sins, as well as his own temptations before the face of the Emperor and eventually triumphing not through force but through earning his father's sympathy. It's a powerful statement about how Luke rejects the temptation of power, or even the nature of fighting, both earns and doles out forgiveness, and not only brings a return of the Jedi Order but a better one. I'm lost as to whether or not it's part of the macro - I guess it is only because his personal story at this point has huge ramifications for his universe.

So, now we have to discuss the prequels. The Phantom Menace (1999) is all over the place. I can't quite make rhyme or reason out of it. Whose journey is it? Obi-Wan's? Anakin's? Liam Neeson's? Let's go with Anakin, where you get something similar to A New Hope - Tatooine farm boy is caught up in this greater interstellar conflict - but trade disputes don't really have the panache of a Galactic Civil War. The macro conflict is also crazy, like, what does the podrace accomplish for any character? It's all plot. There are very little personal stakes anywhere, maybe when Darth Maul murders Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan has some motivation, but other than that, it's basically "I'm good and you're evil, so we should fight."
Tracking the arc of Owen and Beru Lars and their role
in setting up personal conflict for the Skywalker boys
would also make for a good post

Attack of the Clones (2002) heavily mirrors Empire, but it's far more hollow, except it once again ends with a battle instead of starting with one. Anakin goes from fulfilling the macro storyline through his duty as a Jedi to a very personal one with Padme. Considering that Luke went off on his own with Yoda, George is saying some interesting things about the perils of love here (maybe that's why nerds love it - girls are bad!). There are personal stakes, like Anakin's mother being killed by Sand People, but that's resolved fairly quickly, although there is supposedly some inner turmoil there (I do dig this reading, which suggests that the film should have transformed into an Old Western, with Anakin, Owen Lars, and One-Leg Cliegg searching out the Tusken Raiders, but oh well). Anakin and Padme also go to the final planet to rescue their friend, this time it's Obi-Wan instead of Han, who again had to battle through an asteroid field to get there. Obi-Wan and Anakin's final battle with Dooku is a smaller scale than the Geonosian conflict going on around them, and would at first seem to recall the duel in Empire with Anakin's hand getting cut off and the Jedis getting pwned and all. But there's also no real personal connection between Anakin and Dooku, so who cares? It certainly doesn't hold a candle to the conflict between Luke and father, so it ends up parallel but empty. There's no real need for Yoda to arrive besides being awesome, which is more the typical prequel route.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) succeeds for the most part because it's the only prequel that doesn't mirror its OT counterpart, but it does mirror Empire much stronger than Clones. It begins with a huge battle and even though the Republic wins, it's a somewhat Pyrrhic victory that showcases Anakin's flying skills much better than anything Phantom's podrace needed to do. It also features a throne room scene in inverse of Jedi, where Palpatine tempts Anakin to give in and kill Dooku, and unlike the mercy that Luke shows, Anakin commits. That's what training with Padme instead of Yoda will do to you. It then descends down Anakin's path mirroring Luke's mentorship with Yoda, but instead he's getting taught by the Sith Lord. It ends with perhaps the most personal battle in the sextology, with Anakin vs. Obi-Wan. As far as the macro goes, Anakin flirts in and out. He's inexplicably more caught up in it than any other moment in the series. When he's killing younglings and the nematoids, he's at once creating great personal anguish and ending the Clone War.

So, what does all this mean? It's easy to see that films that lay heavy work on the macro (Phantom) suffer, because it's tough to care about all this fiction that's just made up. Films that rely on the personal journey (Empire) tend to be a bit more revered. That doesn't seem like a difficult concept. Those films like Sith and Jedi that really intertwine the two, though, make for some of the best moments in the series. What will Episode VII give us? It's hard to tell, but perhaps we should look to Abrams' Star Trek (2009) to see something more like Jedi than anything else. What do you think?

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