Thursday, March 05, 2009

In Defense of Anakin Skywalker

I, Darcy, admit here before the internets and our readers (all three of you), that I liked the Star Wars Prequels.

Alright, hear me out.

The Prequels had their flaws; weak dialogue, annoying characters, bad acting (just to name a few). I will cover those too, but my main point is controversial, and will take up enough space. Some of my opinions might make some of you angry but please keep in mind that it’s not personal, it’s just how I feel. Agree or disagree with me all you like, just keep an open mind and keep it civil.

In my experience the general outcry against the prequels seems to be for Anakin Skywalker: a whiny pissant, undeserving of the epic badass-ery that every nerd grew up fearing/loving. A lot of the problems people seemed to have with Anakin come from Hayden Christensen’s performance in the second and third movie. I can see the various points and some I agree with, but at the same time I feel the almost universal panning of Anakin (or Christensen) is unfair. I love the Star Wars series with all of my embarrassingly nerdy heart, BUT I’m also a bit of a realist. So I can say without flinching that even the original series has its faults. I deem it irrationally unfair for fans with blinkered devotion to the nostalgia of loving the series since they were wee babes to dump all over the movies because it didn’t rise to the heights of their expectations. That makes me a hypocrite in some ways because I do it too. I understand that disappointment. It’s almost a sense of loss, I’ve been there too.
As much as I loved Darth Vader when I was a little girl, as scary as he was, it always bothered me just the tiniest bit that I didn’t understand WHY he was such an evil bastard. The tall, dark man of mystery thing only goes so far with me. The arc of the three movies ends with Vader’s redemption but it seemed somewhat hollow to me because I didn’t have any frame of reference for that redemption. He was just a big bully, choking his own underlings and bossing Luke around and being a giant bastard for really no other conceivable reason than an almost fanatical devotion to the Emperor and really bad asthma which would make anyone grumpy. Then, because his son is being tortured to death by the man he worshiped he suddenly decides to turn back to the good side, which leads to a five minute scene where he makes squinty eyes at his son and apologizes for being a bit of a bastard and then he’s dead. I remember distinctly wondering who the hell that other ghost was supposed to be when Anakin’s ghost shows up at the end of Return of the Jedi. I had no idea who Anakin was, we’d seen him for maybe ten minutes at the end of the last movie, and otherwise he’d only been mentioned in passing, was I supposed to give a damn that he was redeemed? I was an immature kid and I was still pissed at him for cutting off Luke’s hand in the first place. Shit, up until Yoda confirmed it I was still convinced he was lying about being Luke’s father at all. He was a bastard coated bastard with bastard filling and had done nothing aside from showing a slight deference to Luke to prove to me he’d ever had a good quality.

In my opinion, the three prequels filled the void; Vader was suddenly a much rounder character with a solid, epic reason for becoming the Emperor’s scary pet scumbag. (And hey, Storm Troopers are elite bad-asses now! Didn’t they use to be expendable red-shirt AI minion hordes that couldn’t pick the sprinkles off of an ice-cream cone at twenty paces?) They also gave depth to other relationships in the three original movies. All of the scenes where Luke is interacting with Yoda and Obi-wan have greater weight because you can see that when they look at Luke, they see the mistakes they made with his father. Luke is a bit of a whiny bitch in the beginning of the series too, until Yoda gets hands on with him in a swamp, keeping him focused and smothering his pissy tendencies boot camp style.

Would that have made a difference with Anakin or was it too late when Qui-gon found him to reverse his fall to the Dark Side?

Let’s start from the beginning: Episode I, the start of Anakin’s hero’s journey. A boy of about nine years old is happened upon by some warrior monks ass-deep in political intrigue. This boy has been prophesized to bring balance to the force. If, at this point you remember ANYTHING that Yoda has said about the Force and the path to becoming a Jedi then the warning klaxons should have been screaming away.

Yoda: Remember, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they.
The kid has been told since before he can remember that he is special. Young Anakin, though kind and selfless is also proud to the point of arrogance and this is obvious during the pod-race scenes. He has an above average intelligence and he knows it. The boy is emotional and quick to anger. His life as a slave has made him willful and given him authority issues. You get the sense right away that the little snot thinks the universe owes him something. He’s special; he knows he is he has no doubt about it. On top of that he was essentially sheltered on a small remote desert planet by his simpering sap of a mother and then suddenly taken away from her and the only life he’s ever known. Call it sissy if you want but even little boys of above average intelligence don’t handle being taken away from their mommies well. Shmi Skywalker, though a bit of a wimp, was the only positive guiding light in young Anakin’s life. Watto and Sebulba are admittedly bad behavioral models for a ten year old, not to mention a Jedi-to-be. It’s really only natural that Anakin latches onto Padme with her motherly attitude almost immediately. It’s basic psychology, folks.

So time goes on, the Jedi Council (read: Yoda) decide not to train Anakin as a Jedi because of all the fear clouding his future and Yoda’s legitimate fear that Anakin is too old, too set in his ways to train. This bolsters the saying I just made up, “No good can come of ignoring Yoda’s cryptic mutterings.

Yoda: Afraid are you?
Anakin: No, sir.
Yoda: See through you we can.
Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.
Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.
Anakin: I miss her.
Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?
Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?
Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.

The boy proves himself in war, showing off his pilot skills and we get to watch his ego expand. Meanwhile, the one Jedi that little Anni admired and respected enough to have some means of reining him in gets Darth Mauled. Obi-wan agrees to train him but he’s really only a sort of older-brother type figure to Anakin with less authority, which is seen in the later episodes in abundance. The seeds of failure are planted, but really there is still an inkling of hope that the boy can mellow out enough to accept the Jedi way of life.

The instant that Palpatine sets his sights on Anakin is the moment that he is truly lost to the Dark Side. Palpatine is arguably equal to Yoda in his mastery of the Force, a dark mirror of power, the yin to Yoda’s yang. There’s an exact moment when Obi-wan is introducing his young padawan to the Chancellor and Palpatine’s eyes practically sparkle eagerly as he promises to watch the boy’s career “with great interest.”
He sees everything in Anakin that Yoda sees, but instead of fearing it, Palpatine sees Anakin as the perfect tool for his new Empire. He twists and manipulates his way into every possible chink in Anakin’s character until the sweet, trusting boy that he was becomes a murderer of children, a choker of pregnant women and in all likelihood a kicker of puppies. I don’t know, maybe our generation is jaded but that’s just fucking evil.
At the beginning of Attack of the Clones Anakin is 20 years old and within the first ten minutes of the movie we can see that he’s still an arrogant little snot. He’s dissatisfied with his training and his relationship with Obi-wan, though brotherly and affectionate, is deteriorating slowly. Anakin turns to Palpatine for guidance, mostly because Palpatine tells Anakin what he wants to hear. He soothes his ego, plants little shoots of doubt and discord in Anakin’s head, feeds his urge for power. A lot of this character building interesting stuff happens in the background of Anakin dealing with his soon-to-be baby-mama drama which was the largest part of what annoyed me in the second prequel, but hey, it’s kinda important. You can’t have Luke and Leia until Anni does the horizontal mambo with the Cougar Queen. That’s basic biology, kids.

The biggest turning point in that movie is Anakin’s slaughter of the Sand People. This is the part I hear referenced the most when someone is calling Anakin a whiner. Anakin returns from murdering a whole lot of people in a blind rage and immediately begins to freak out about it to Padme. It’s the crying, right? The crying that infuriates fans, takes the badass Vader and turns him into a whiny kid that people can’t get behind. That’s important. Right.

I was discussing this scene with a co-worker, a guy named Sean who has a master’s degree in theater and is also a HUGE Star Wars geek. He wrote thesis papers about Star Wars and quotes the movies at least three times a day. (His son, age three, and his daughter, age one; love it when Daddy does his Yoda voice. His daughter regularly beats up her older brother with a light saber! A girl after my own heart, really.)

He liked parts of the prequels but basically feels that the third one is the only one worth watching. Sean explained to me that when you are an actor building an emotional scene one of the most important parts of the craft is the pacing of the scene. Say, like in this instance, the subject is trying to get an emotional breaking point across, in this case the lead JUST MURDERED DOZENS OF PEOPLE IN COLD BLOOD. That’s kinda heavy, no joke. Again, a jaded generation can just glaze over that kind of violence but one has to remember this is Anni’s first rodeo. This isn’t the Anakin who’s a seasoned war veteran, the Anakin that’s killed god knows how many bad guys and lead a clone army and done all sorts of shiny things all over the galaxy far, far away. He’s only 20 years old, his mother just died horribly, his entire world is collapsing around him and because of his Jedi teachings he’s been smothering some pretty intense emotions for almost ten years. He snaps. This leads to, in my opinion, a completely understandable emotional breakdown in front of his girlfriend. (And really, if you’re going to have an emo attack, might as well get pity sex out of it too, right?) It’s the pacing of this scene that creates the image of an emo crybaby. Instead of building to an emotional peak, Anakin jumps straight into the crying, this leaves the mood of the scene nowhere to go, which causes Anakin to come off as a bit of a whiner. Yes that falls on Hayden Christensen’s shoulders, as well as the director and the writers. (Pretty much all George.) When you are so concerned about spoilers getting out and are re-writing the script everyday because you didn’t write your dialogue so it doesn’t sound like asinine drivel it doesn’t give the actors very much time to rehearse and work on things like pacing in a scene. George’s biggest weakness as a writer lies in dialogue, and it’s kind of acceptable when your biggest influences are sci-fi serials from the fifties. When he upgraded to the super ultra modern mind blowing CGI effects the dialogue maybe shoulda evolved with it.

Moving on.

As we reach the final prequel we’ve come a long way baby. Anakin isn’t so much walking as stumbling his way to the Dark Side. He’s lost his hand, gained the stress of a secret wife, and attained Jedi Knighthood from a grudging Jedi Council. Palpatine is pulling all his strings and lining up his pawns to fall before he moves his secret rook. He coaxes Anakin to kill Dooku in person and plants Anakin on the Jedi Council in a pretty dickish move for someone who’s going for subtlety. The Jedi still refuse to Anakin the rank of Master. Meanwhile Anakin has accidentally impregnated his secret wife, triggering a vision of her dying in childbirth alarmingly similar to the one that foretold the death of his mother.

Yoda: Premonitions, premonitions. These visions you have...
Anakin Skywalker: They are of pain, suffering. Death.
Yoda: Yourself you speak of, or someone you know?
Anakin Skywalker: Someone.
Yoda: Close to you?
Anakin Skywalker: Yes.
Yoda: Careful you must be when sensing the future Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.
Anakin Skywalker: I won't let these visions come true, Master Yoda.
Yoda: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.
Anakin Skywalker: What must I do, Master Yoda?
Yoda: Train yourself to let go... of everything you fear to lose.

Fear, anger, aggression. I’m sensing a pattern here, Yoda. But alas, Anakin is weak and Yoda’s words fall on stubborn, arrogant ears. It’s too late for our fair hero.

Yoda: Twisted by the Dark Side, young Skywalker has become. The boy you trained, gone he is... Consumed by Darth Vader
On the plus side, this final prequel rewards our patience and suffering with two, count them two, epic and squee-gasmic light-saber duals.

And when the smoke clears, Anakin has indeed brought balance to the force by cold-bloodedly murdering all but two of the Jedi in the entire galaxy. In a sort of fair trade Obi-wan leaves him a smoldering scabby stump on Mustafar. Again, the Emperor steps in to pour poison into his ear, almost needlessly, and turns what used to be Anakin Skywalker into the giant, half-android, evil, sadistic space bastard we’ve all feared/loved since childhood.

Alright, I know the hatred runs deep for some of you, so this may have been a wasted effort on my part. Please, take a step back from the embittered grown-up nerd you’ve become and embrace that wide-eyed kid you were when you watched the original trilogy. Space ships! Sword fights! Political intrigue! Hot chicks with weird hair! (Or if you are me, hot guys with blasters, tight pants and light up swords!) Lasers! Big scary monsters! Explosions! It’s all still there; just with an Industrial Light & Magic budget and George with complete creative control (for better or worse)

I guess all I’m asking is give Anakin a second glance. He’s really not that bad, once you get to know him.


Danicus said...

I'm going to go to bed, and when I wake up I plan to muster all my encyclopedic Star Wars knowledge and tell you EXACTLY why you're wrong.

I see some of your points, but you've missed a lot of what angers me personally about Anakin.
Like i said, I'll get back to you tomorrow, when I'm a little less drowsy.

Danicus said...

Oh for fuck's sake. I wrote five pages and lost it all when my computer crashed. *SIGH*

Here's the gist, since I don't want to have to rewrite the whole thing.

Basically, Anakin's story is totally unsympathetic for a long time. Until the third movie, really. It's the story of a boy who has a huge sense of entitlement, and gets pissy when people dont call him special.

It's also the story of a group of people who constantly drop the ball with this child, because he IS special, and needs extra care that he doesn't get. He started training too late in the game, you need to watch him like a HAWK. And yet, no one does.

Obi-Wan is constantly telling Ani to get ahold of his emotions, but never once seems to think "hey, i need to tell him that a LOT. maybe something is wrong here."

When he slaughteres a village full of Sand People, does Padme ever tell anyone? I have to assume she doesn't, because I doubt that'd sit well with the Jedi. Sure, he was grieving and angry... but that should be a big ol' warning flag for the Council. ANGRY. And yet, no one takes him aside for some counseling or anything. I know the Jedi have lost people to the Dark Side before, wouldn't you think they'd have some sort of intervention process in place by now?

Anyway. Finally, in the third movie, I can start feeling for the guy. Anakin has been in a war, which is stressful enough for anyone, let alone a guy who is riding the razor's edge since his teachers can't be bothered to look for warning signs.
On top of that, he finds out his wife is pregnant, and has a dream that she's going to die.
Here, Anakin earns a million points with me. Does he immediately turn to his friend Palpatine? No. He goes to Yoda and asks for his help. Despite all the anger and fear, and all the things going wrong for him, the first place he turns is to the Jedi Council. Who, of course, offer some platitudes about the Circle of Life and shuffle him off on his merry way after handing him the "fear to suffering" flow chart.

Only then, when Yoda and crew offer no help, does he turn to one who offers him the power to help himself. See, THERE is a sympathetic villain. He damns himself with the best of intentions. He doesn't crave power for power's sake, he does it to save his wife and unborn children. Granted it all goes horribly wrong, but at least he was trying.

SO yeah, I guess in the final movie Anakin isn't all that bad, but my main problem is that as a whole the story seems to be more about a student who fell through the cracks in the system, thus ensuring that system's doom.

Really makes me wonder just how the Jedi made it as far as they did, being blind to everything around them. This ISN'T the first time a Jedi ever fell. Exar Kun, Ulic Qel-Droma... you'd think the Jedi would have learned and kept an eye open on angry, ambitious students.

Bah, that was way less comprehensive than my last version, but im all angry now. and anger leads to hating my computer, which im trying to keep from leading to making the damn thing suffer.

Lady Lara Jones said...

So what you're saying then, Dan, is that Darci isn't WRONG but you think there's more to it than she said. Cause you know, she did say it was her OPINION and that makes it pretty valid as far as opinions go.
Also, I think you both have excellent points. So there!

Darcy said...

I agree Dan, the Jedi did drop the ball there, a lot. Good point. But, I somehow get the feeling that Palpatine was holding that card in his deck too. He knew about everything, EVERYTHING pertaining to Anakin's problems, almost before Anakin did. He proved he could out think and manipulate the Jedi using the Senate, and the Clone Wars were almost entirely the machinations of the Emperor. He's a puppet master supreme. Yes other Jedi have fallen through the cracks, and yes the Jedi seriously need to re-think their educational system. But in this specific incident I think that Palpatine, because he'd found a tool for his own greed, was the guiding hand in the fall of a powerful Jedi to the Dark Side. But I don't dissagree with you!

Darcy said...

Ack sorry, left something out.

Also, if the bulk of the blame lies in a weak educational system for Jedi, how is that the fault of Anakin? How can you lay the blame of weak character upon the character himself when the way his parenting support characters interact with him is, from how I read what you said, fundamentally responsible for his weak character in the first place (because isn't it always the fault of the parent?)

How is it Anakin's fault that he was raised to be a snotty self important egomaniac? Can anyone be blamed for the way they were raised?

Danicus said...

Okay. Firstly, I said she was wrong last night, when I was tired. I actually addressed that in my original five page long diatribe, but was so frustrated at its loss that I neglected to type it again, in my rage. It was a bit of an apology for saying WRONG in the first place. so, sorry about that.
I also admitted to seeing a lot of valid points. So there.

I don't BLAME Anakin for turning out the way he did, I'm merely saying he isn't a character I can connect to, really. Not until he willingly Damns himself for someone else, thus showing that there WAS a spark of good in him all along. He does, deep down, care for someone else beyond himself.

But he doesn't show any real caring until that moment. Sure, he goes through the motions, but they never seem sincere until then. When Shmi dies, he doesn't seem to be mourning for her at all. There's only anger at what the Tusken Raiders have done to HIM. They took his mother FROM HIM. So he kills them.

And yes, I agree that Palpatine is a master manipulator, there's no sane way to deny that at all. But again, there's no reasonable way the Jedi could be so blind to his machinations. The very fact that he has such an interest in Skywalker, coupled with CONSTANTLY telling Anakin to control his anger, should have sent up some red flags. Sure, they didnt know Palpatine was a Sith Lord, but regardless, they feel he's a bad influence and his time with Anakin should have been monitored or curtailed.

Danicus said...

Anakin himself just seems to me like he's almost a non-entity until Episode III shows him to have actual caring, to be able to sacrifice all that he is, for people beyond himself. To be capable of truly loving someone beyond the man in the mirror.
Before that he's not a real person, he's just kind of a cipher waiting to get some rad black duds and a red lightsaber.

And y'know, some of this probably comes from the terrible acting and storytelling of those movies, coupled with my intense love of the Expanded Universe novels and such.

It just feels like everyone failing Anakin isn't really the best way that story could have been told. If the Jedi had tried a bit harder to save him and he fell anyway, I think that would have pulled on the ol' heart strings a bit more than the "oh, Anakin fell to the dark side? Yoda owes me ten credits." version that the movie seemed to portray.

Just because the audience knows its inevitable, doesn't mean the characters had to act that way too.

But now I'm starting to cross that line between 'movie issues' and 'problems with the character himself' so I'm going to stop for now.

Jayne said...

Okay, Darcy, you know how I feel about Hayden Christensen, and his portrayal of Anakin.

You have some valid points, as does Danicus, and I think my main problem lies with the storytelling.

George Lucas sucks at writing dialogue. Also, the three prequeals suffer from major pacing issues, bad writing, and by the third movie you could actually see actors like McGregor and Portman just stop trying.

Lucas did have a hard task before him: he had a lot of ground to cover in three movies, so along with moving the plot and intrigue along, he also had to have character arcs.

I feel that the character arcs suffered in the face of haivng high tech CGI light saber battles. Lucas is also not big on subtletly and love him some heavy handed symbolism (Obi-Wan dressed in light colored robes, Anakin in black leathers).

His handling of the way Anakin turns to the dark side shows the heavy handed method Lucas employs, and is not helped by Christansen's acting. It's not also helped by the pacing, in that you don't have a clear sense of the passage of time. For example, in the third movie the Obi-Wan/Anakin and Palpatine/Yoda are editied to make it look like they're happening simultanesouly, only Palpatine goes to pick up fried Anakin, who supposed to be on this far outflung planet before Anakin dies from his wounds. So not going on at the same time?

I can see the arc Lucas went wtih Anakin, which you lay out quite nicely here, but, again, it suffers from poor acting and bad writing. And, yes, I know the originals had the same problem in places, but an arc like Anakin's requires damn good writing and acting, neither of which was delivered.

Also, when Anakin goes to the dark side he does not waste anytime. You think he would have worked up to the child murdering, maybe killing a puppy or two first before the kids and the pregnant wife choking. Oh, Lucas, please hire actual screen writers next time, m'kay?