I’ve never fully understood why George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy is such a divisive topic among Star Wars fans, generating more ire than makes any sense to me. But it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s confused! On 14 September, Ministry of Cinema will release their new documentary The Prequels Strike Back digitally on Amazon, YouTube, and VHX. The film follows one fan on a cross-country trek to try and unravel why people hate these films as much as they do…and see if perhaps there’s more merit to the Prequels than some give them credit for. Inspired (and excited!) by this week’s upcoming documentary, I figured I’d talk about an oft maligned aspect of the Prequels that I adore – the character of Anakin Skywalker.
Star Wars is, without question, the story of the Skywalker family. The Original Trilogy follows Luke on his Hero’s Journey as he seeks to save the galaxy and ultimately redeem his father. The Prequel Trilogy gives us the back story, following Anakin on his Hero’s Journey and tracing the course of his eventual fall to the Dark Side. The oft repeated chorus (at least among a certain type of fan) is basically that they’re upset because Anakin isn’t a bloodthirsty badass through all the Prequels. They seem angry that such an iconic villain could ever be presented as an innocent, joyful boy or a whiney teenager or someone awkwardly smitten by their first (and true) love. They don’t want those scenes. They want the Sith Lord.
But that’s not the point. Anakin’s fall is beautifully presented through the Prequels. It’s power and importance come from who Anakin is in the films leading up to that point. There’s no story in watching an evil person just be evil through (most of) six films. That’s a one note character and a narrative with no elegance, thought, or power to it. There’s also no truth in a story like that. No one is born evil. All of us are born good. We live. We are tempted. We may make poor choices. We can fall. And that is exactly what happens to Anakin. His fall is all the more powerful – and chilling – because of how relatable it (and he) is.
In class I often tell my students how we define love is the most important question of our lives. Love – its role, its pursuit, its purpose – is the center of life. Love is (hopefully) the core of our relationships with God, family, friends, significant others, our self, and (again, hopefully) our jobs. So how we define and understand love will shape how we exist in all of those relationships. There can be no question in our lives more important that: What is love? Love is everything. Love gives life meaning. And without love, life has no meaning.
What makes Anakin primed to fall (as well as ultimately be redeemed) is his willingness to follow love wherever it leads him, regardless of reason or logic, consequences be damned. He marries Padmé even though it’s a violation of the Jedi Code. It doesn’t matter. Nothing else, including the Jedi Order, is as important to Anakin. She is what’s important. Padmé is everything to Anakin. For Anakin (to paraphrase John Lennon), “I just believe in me. Padmé and me. That’s reality.”
Yet with his love comes a grave fear of loss and this will lead Anakin to the Dark Side. He begins to have visions of Padmé dying in childbirth. These visions mirror those he had of his mother Shmi right before she died, calling to mind both his guilt (at being unable to save her) and his vow (to become powerful enough to stop people from dying). Further underscoring the forbidden nature of their love, Anakin can’t seek help from the Jedi Council. If the Council learns he is the father of Padmé’s child he will be expelled from the Jedi Order.
It is interesting to note that the Jedi Order seem to fear love, as the Sith do, but for their own reasons. The Jedi are all about control, never allowing themselves to be a slave to their emotions. Love is that which we can never hope to control and, as a result, a problem for the Jedi life. In his small yet wonderful text On Religion, postmodern religious scholar John Caputo asks, “Since we are told that God is love…Is love a way of exemplifying God? Or is God a name we have for exemplifying love?” The answer to both questions is yes. And this is why the Jedi and the Sith seem to fear love. For the Jedi, love is divine and, as such, something they can’t control. To believe we can force (no pun intended!) ourselves to love someone or not love someone is as fallacious as believing we can bend God to our will. For the Sith, as love is the ultimate gift of self to the other (or Other) and the Dark Side can only grow in isolation, anchored in our most selfish nature and given over to our fear, anger, and aggression. Love is the most powerful force there is (it was intended that time!) and as such both the Jedi and the Sith seek to stay clear of it.
James Lawler, in the essay “The Force Is with Us” (from Kevin S. Decker’s collection Star Wars and Philosophy), sheds more light on this surprising similarity between Jedi and Sith. He eloquently explains, “The Jedi too are afraid – afraid of real human love, afraid of connection with the other person, afraid of the loss of self-control that comes to the ‘I’ of passionate love which is at the same time a ‘We’….But such compassion without attachment, without possession and being-possessed, is a superficial, abstracted, intellectualized form of love. Attachment and possession are forbidden because such connections to particular things and people lead to fear for them and fear of losing them. And fear leads to the Dark Side. Therefore, the love of the Jedi Knight must be a detached love – if it can be called love with its willingness to sacrifice friends and loved ones for the perceived higher good.”
While Anakin is alone and fearful Palpatine strikes. Anakin is unable to seek help from Obi-Wan or the Council and Palpatine tells him only the Dark Side can give him the power to save Padmé. How can he resist? Ultimately, Anakin joins the Dark Side out of fear of losing Padmé and the desire to gain the only power he believes can save her. And so Darth Vader is born. The new Sith Lord, kneeling before Palpatine shaken and crying, begs, “I will do anything you ask. Just help me save Padmé’s life. I can’t live without her.” It is in love, desperate and fearful love, that he joins the Sith.
This leads to Order 66 and the haunting climax of the film on Mustafar. In one of the saga’s most powerful scenes we see Padmé and Anakin reunited on a planet intentionally designed to look like our popular conception of hell, with a harsh landscape ravaged by raging fires and molten rock. We see how the corruption of the Dark Side has pulled this young couple deep into a literal hell. We also see how fully the Dark Side has crippled the man who was once Anakin Skywalker, separating him forever from Padmé.
Padmé—“Anakin, all I want is your love.”
Anakin—“Love won’t save you Padmé. Only my new powers can do that.”
Padmé—“At what cost? You’re a good person. Don’t do this.”
Anakin—“I won’t lose you the way I lost my mother. I’m becoming more powerful than any Jedi’s ever dreamed of. I’m doing it for you, to protect you.”
Vader, at this moment, has the same motives he held as Anakin. He’s trying to protect Padmé. But when he loses faith in love he has truly fallen. He broke the Jedi Code for love but now he’s given up on that love. His anger, guilt, and fear pushed him to the edge of darkness and, ultimately, away from the very love he was living for. Without love to hold him anymore the darkness claims him completely. Anakin is gone. Darth Vader is born.
Padmé—“Stop now! Come back! I love you!”
Padmé pleads with Anakin but he no longer believes her, the one he sacrificed everything for. Padmé’s heartbreak embodies the Dark Side’s evil. Anakin wasn’t always a monster but he was corrupted, destroyed, and transformed until only Darth Vader remained. The Dark Side killed everything Padmé loved. Therein lies the incredible symbolism of the Sith adopting a new name. This is what evil does, corrupting and changing us from who we once were into something new, something monstrous.
Chillingly, the first time Vader uses the Force Choke to strangle someone, it’s the woman he loved. Granted, it’s the first time he uses it in the chronological narrative of the films. However, we do see instances of him using this in The Clone Wars illustrating his slide towards the Dark Side. Regardless, the first time I watched Revenge Of The Sith (before The Clone Wars were created) a dark and ominous chill shot through me as I saw this iconic move of Vader’s being used on his wife. All I could think was, “I’ve seen Vader do this all the time! The first time he reacts in anger, reaching out to choke the life from someone it is directed at Padmé?!?!?” This powerfully illustrates how deeply he’s changed. It is one of the saga’s most tragic and heart breaking moments.
So love sets the stage for Anakin’s fall but it is only once he’s forsaken love in the grip of the Dark Side that he is truly gone. In that moment, only Darth Vader remains. The Dark Side can use love to tempt us, but love can’t continue to live or grow in the Dark Side. It’s easy to forget this and, as I said above, at times those lines can become fuzzy. Obsession, lust, desire, possession, control – all of these can rise from or be tainted by evil, by the Dark Side. Yet LOVE is of the light. In fearing for Padmé, who he loves above all else, the seeds for Anakin’s fall are sown. But it’s in the moment he fully abandons his faith in love that Darth Vader truly takes control.
And herein lies the brilliance of his fall, the power of the Prequels, and the incredible genius of George Lucas’ narrative. Place yourself in Anakin’s shoes. Who among us wouldn’t do the same?
I’d like to say I’d take the high road. I’d like to say I wouldn’t give myself over to evil. I’d like to say that I’m more morally incorruptible than that. But can I really? Can I say that with any sort of definitive certainty? If I did, I’d be lying – to myself most of all. Love is the one thing I know I’d do anything for. Love is the one thing I honestly and deeply believe justifies all else. In the deepest core of my being, I believe there is nothing I owe a higher allegiance to than love. Love is the highest law. As the life of Anakin Skywalker vividly illustrates, that can be a fine line to walk…and it can easily set the stage for temptation and fall.
If I put those I love most in Padmé’s place, if I saw a painful and lonely death in their future and I believed I could save them I can honestly see myself making a deal with the devil. I would absolutely know it was wrong to do so but, in that moment, I could see myself believing either a) I’m strong enough to resist the pull of the devil or b) even if it costs me my soul, it would be worth it to save one I love with my whole being. Is that right? Of course not. The Dark Side can never really save anything. That’s not the nature of evil. From scripture to Star Wars we see again and again that love is the tool of transformation, love needs to be the weapon of whatever revolution we’re waging. Love alone brings redemption and transformation. But, again, it’s a very slippery slope.
And that’s why we need Anakin exactly as he is in the Prequels. George Lucas created an emotionally intelligent and intimately relatable story arc for Anakin, filled with remarkable nuance. We can’t identify with an evil monster. But we can easily identify with Anakin. While many of those who lament Anakin’s character are upset they didn’t see more of the heart-stopping villain from the Original Trilogy, they are missing the entire point of the story. In the Prequels, we can see how simple it is for any of us to fall. That’s why Anakin’s story is so important. Any of us can turn. On the one hand, we must be cautious because any of us can fall. On the other, we must be reckless because love demands it. We must be willing to give ourselves over entirely to love, leaving all else by the wayside. Only in and through love can we find purpose and ultimately salvation.
Returning to his essay, “The Force Is with Us,” James Lawler offers the single greatest analysis of Star Wars I’ve ever read. He writes, “we finally come to appreciate why Luke recognizes the good in his father. It’s because Anakin doesn’t fear to go where love takes him, both when his love of Padmé takes him into the darkness and when his love of Luke brings him back again. We understand that his destiny, subtly and beautifully orchestrated by the will of the Force and the magic of George Lucas’s art, has all along been to love. By loving in a way that’s truly unconditional, without fear of the darkness into which his love leads him, he fulfills his destiny, destroys the Emperor, and so brings balance to the Force.”
So I grant a certain group of fans don’t appreciate Anakin being anything other than an aggressive, angry force of nature. And I see how they use that as fodder for why they hate the Prequel Trilogy. But, again, that misses the entire point of the story. The rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker is so much more than the tale of a one-note, static villain. Darth Vader was never meant to be a horror movie monster, hounding our heroes relentlessly until the end. Anakin’s story is instead a cautionary tale and also a shining example. Anakin shows us all what can happen to any of us if we aren’t careful. But he also illustrates how none of us are ever beyond the reach of transformation and redemption – as long as we put our faith and life back in the hands of Love. If my love, clouded by fear, were ever to pull me toward such a horrible, dark, tragic place I can only pray that – like Anakin – I’d have the courage to let love lead me back out again to redemption.
Writing this makes me want to go marathon the Prequel Trilogy right now! But, given the fact that I’m no longer on summer vacation, that may have to wait for the weekend. Those lessons won’t plan themselves. BUT I still have an exciting documentary to look forward to! Remember, be sure to check out The Prequels Strike Back (as it look amazing!!) this week and maybe buy a copy of the film too. In so doing you’re getting a great Star Wars documentary and supporting independent film making all at the same time! The Force is strong with that sort of move.