May 19, 2015 by Alex Johannigman
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the latest Star Wars movie to hit theaters, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I re-watched the film over the weekend as a part of a bachelor party that I threw for one of my closest friends who is getting married on Saturday, as it seemed fitting since it is about a young man coming of age, finding his place in the world and purpose in life, and going to great lengths to care for his wife, the woman of his dreams.
Revenge of the Sith received very mixed reviews from both critics and my own friends when it came out. Many counted it among the worst of the saga due to its terrible dialogue, particularly between Padme and Anakin which was fueled by their lack of on-screen chemistry. Others just didn’t like the plot. I really enjoyed it and still do, and while I don’t consider it to be the greatest Star Wars movie, a title which will likely forever be reserved for The Empire Strikes Back, I do believe that it is the most interesting and philosophically complex of the six movies released so far. Since most readers have probably seen the movie, I’m not going to review it, but simply share three ideas presented by the movie that I think are worth thinking about.
Moral grey areas and the fallibility of our heroes
The political landscape of the galaxy during the Clone Wars includes three different groups that wield significant power: The Republic, The Separatists, and the Jedi Council. We are made to view the Republic as the “good guys” and the Separatists as the “bad guys” during Attack of the Clones because the Republic is led in battle by the Jedi while the Separatists follow the lead of the evil Count Dooku. But Sith begins to show that the good/ evil dichotomy isn’t as clear as it was in the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire in the Original Trilogy. Towards the middle of Sith Padme asks Anakin: “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we have been fighting to destroy?”
Sure enough, within a few scenes the forces of the Republic have turned on the Jedi as clone troopers attempt to kill both Obi-Wan and Yoda, while successfully knocking off a vast majority of the Jedi throughout the galaxy as they are engaged in battle with the Separatists. The audience still supports the Jedi, but more reluctantly than they did in other films. In Sith we begin to see that some of the characters who were previously viewed as wise and almost flawless heroes actually make mistakes too. Master Yoda misreads the prophecy about “The Chosen One” and is also unable to defeat Palpatine in their battle in the senate chambers. Obi-Wan rarely treats Anakin with much compassion or gives him significant encouragement, ultimately leading Anakin feeling jaded and angry at both his master and the entire Jedi Council.
Select members of the Jedi Council, led at the moment by Mace Windu, decide that they know best when it comes to who is running the government, rather than democracy. In a post about how the Jedi could be viewed as the villains of Star Wars, Andrew Dyce points out: “Anyway you look at it, the Jedi attempted a military coup, wishing to depose the elected leader of a democracy based on a personal vendetta. They had many diplomatic methods of bringing his Sith origins to the attention of the Republic, but instead decided to act without consent. The result: the Jedi were judged by the Republic’s leader to once again threaten freedom and exert control over the Senate, and had to be eliminated … The bottom line: marching into a Head of State’s office with guns drawn after discovering his racial, religious or philosophical background is a hard pill to swallow.”
We see elements of truth and virtue in every side of the conflict. We see it in the Separatists’ desire for independence and a reform of the corrupt bureaucracy that has taken hold of the Republic. We see it in the Republic’s aim to restore peace and stability, a value that even Darth Vader and Darth Sideous share with them. We see it in the Jedi’s quest to defend the innocent and fight corruption at any cost. Yet each of them are prone to overemphasizing some good points at the expense of other values that are also important.
I think this is a good reminder that no one person or institution aside from God has everything totally figured out. We all have flaws. If you find yourself at a point where you think a person or group can do no wrong, whether that is your company, your political party, or even your religious congregation, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. A lesson that I took with me from my moral theology class years ago is that good and evil are often far more nuanced than we want them to be, which makes forming our consciences of utmost importance if we are going to be able to discern right from wrong in an increasingly complex world.
Darth Plagueis the Wise
One story that caught my attention during my most recent viewing of the film was the story of Darth Plagueis the Wise. This was the first time that I drew a connection to a figure who I studied over the past year in both my systematic theology and church history classes, Pelagius the heretic. I thought it was interesting that both figures essentially thought that they could save themselves by their own knowledge and works and I now suspect that there may have been a church historian among the script writers. Darth Plagueis used the Force to prevent others from dying. Pelagius thought that our free will was enough to allow us to live without sinning, thus meriting our salvation. He was convinced that we were in no way impacted by original sin as St. Augustine did and could save ourselves by our own good works. Interesting.
Palpatine told the story of Darth Plagueis to convince Anakin that the dark side of the force may be able to prevent Padme from dying. He explained that “Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying… He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.” If you’re the type of nerd who reads about what happened in the Star Wars universe outside of the movies, you’d know that Palpatine was that apprentice. I also suspect (and I’m not alone) that he used that power of preserving life to keep Anakin from dying on Mustafar when he was being burned alive by the lava pit, likely by literally taking the life energy from Padme. The theory certainly makes more sense than “losing the will to live” or “dying of a broken heart.”
Two points came to me while thinking about this:
First, I was reminded again that pride is the root of all sin, an idea that I was first introduced to when I first read CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity during my freshman year of high school. Anytime we think that we are better than God in some way, or know better than him, we will succumb much more easily to other types of sin as well. It happens to Sith Lords just as easily as the rest of us.
Second, there is often more to a story than first meets the eye. Sherlock Holmes taught me that “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (A Scandal in Bohemia) This is an incredibly useful practice to get into given the state of the media today, where every story gets inevitably spun one way or the other to fit a particular ideology, and we need to look at the facts behind the stories if we want to discover any semblance of truth.
Anakin’s descent into sin, I mean, the Dark Side
The most compelling part of Sith to me has to be watching Anakin’s progression from hero of the Republic to murderer of small children. Yoda warned young Anakin first in The Phantom Menace that “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” This progression is seen most clearly as we follow Anakin through Sith as his fear of losing Padme leads to his anger at the Jedi for “holding him back” and then ultimately suffering at the hands of Emperor Palpatine when he is deceived into taking a path that leads to him losing the friendship of Obi-Wan and the love of Padme. The epic final duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin, what I consider to be the climax of the entire Star Wars saga so far, displays just how much Anakin has truly begun to distrust and hate even those he considered closest to him.
While few of us would ever go to such extremes of engaging in either the sin of slaughtering children or the crime of painfully bad dialogue with our significant others, his story is more similar to each of ours than we might realize. Driven by fear, we can treat others uncharitably, get angry at others when they let us down or do something that we don’t like, and put our own desires before what other people need. Think of the role that fear plays in some of our biggest moral issues today. I recently looked at how it’s fueling our political polarization and lack of love for people who disagree with us politically. And a significant number of abortions that occur in the world are motivated by fear: Fear of not being able to take care of a child. Fear of how the child may strain the relationship of the parents. Fear of how one’s life will change as that new life grows. I’m sure if you take a minute or two right now you can think of the sins that your own fear has caused you to commit in the last week or two.
This is why Pope St. John Paul II emphasized hope so much and frequently echoed Jesus’ encouragement to “Be not afraid.” As Anakin Skywalker showed us, fear leads to suffering when it prevents us from following the Light Side of the Force, or as many of us in the non-fictional world identify it, God’s will for our lives.