Always in motion is the future

Thursday, 30 September 2004 — 4:38pm | Film, Full reviews, Star Wars

I follow a brief rule of thumb when it comes to browsing for books: consider any sign of “Star Wars” on the cover a red flag. This is because I believe the entire Expanded Universe print catalogue to be an abomination, and the only Star Wars-related books I have ever shelled out a penny for are archival, documentary works concerning the films themselves. Do not expect to read a full explanation of my aversion to this franchise “literature” anytime soon; for the time being, it suffices to say that the day will come when the Ewoks take issue with the tree-killing atrocities that reside in every “Sci-Fi/Fantasy Series” section and raze Lucas Licensing’s publishing arm to the ground as they did the Imperial base on Endor, and I will be there to say, “They had it coming.” This is a taboo subject for me that I have avoided thus far on this weblog because, as is the case with Peter Jackson’s liberties in translating The Lord of the Rings to film (about which I remain wholly positive), I have already written more than enough on the subject for a lifetime – not mine, but the lifetime of a stout green Jedi Master. By and large, I will continue to avoid it at the present moment.

I only mention Star Wars books because out of the few I own, there exists one that I consider to be an indispensable reference: Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, edited by leading Star Wars documentarian Laurent Bouzereau. The 336-page 1997 paperback coincided with the release of the Special Editions, and is a transcription of the entire text of the Classic Trilogy. Interspersed throughout are interviews with the likes of George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan and Ralph McQuarrie on all manners of things concerning how the films came together. It is not a shooting script complete with, nor is it a draft that represents the dialogue at a developmental stage; rather, the volume is the “quick and easy path” to scooping up valuable quotations without having to waltz over the VCR.

The interviews themselves are indispensible, perhaps even moreso because they offer a 1997 perspective; there are references to the story meetings while drafting Return of the Jedi that established Uncle Owen as Ben Kenobi’s brother, something that Attack of the Clones threw out the window. Should a debate ever degenerate into what New Criticism calls the intentional fallacy, this book was a genuinely authoritative resource amidst a cesspool of “authoritative” printed-page backgrounders like cross-sectional schematics of Imperial Star Destroyers born of a licensee’s fancy.

The Annotated Screenplays also features insets providing the alternate scenes written and edited into the Special Editions, some of which are a source of debate themselves. Here I speak not of Greedo shooting first, but a subtlety not on the screen but on the page, at the end of Jedi (Bouzereau, 318):

1983 Edition

“Luke sets a torch to the logs stacked under the funeral pyre where his father’s body lies, again dressed in the black mask and helmet. He stands, watching sadly, as the flames leap higher to consume Darth Vader – Anakin Skywalker.”

Special Edition

“Luke sets a torch to the logs stacked under a funeral pyre where his father’s armor lies; black mask, helmet, and cape. He stands watching sadly as the flames leap higher to consume what’s left of Vader.”

It’s the same scene and the same shot, only the original one cuts to the “Yub-Yub” celebration on Endor, while the Special Edition segues to a grand tour of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. So why the change in wording to emphasize that it is not Vader’s body on the pyre, but an empty suit?

See, one of the mysteries that has pervaded the saga since Obi-Wan Kenobi vanished at the end of the lightsabre duel in A New Hope – and one that remains largely unsolved even as Revenge of the Sith draws ever closer – is why, and under what circumstances, Jedi disappear only to reemerge as glowing spirits. The corollary of that mystery is an inquiry into whether or not the dead and thoroughly pasty Anakin Skywalker was still in the Vader suit as the flames of its combustion lit the Endor night sky.

The answer, as Schrodinger would no doubt propose, is that we have no way of knowing without removing the mask. But if we were to speak of author’s intent, George Lucas – retroactively or not – seems to have decided on the route that symbolically, makes a whole lot more sense. In burning the Vader suit, Luke destroys the last corporeal remnants of the machinery that consumed, yet sustained the living flesh of Anakin Skywalker, much as the Dark Side of the Force consumed his soul and identity. If Anakin Skywalker vanished upon death, it would mean that he at last found peace through his unity and “oneness” with the Force after a life of slavery. Throughout his life, he was never trapped by his body, but bound by external chains; hence, it is the suit that is destroyed. If we are to think that Luke burns it with his father inside, this closure is lost.

And that’s setting aside how Anakin manages to appear in the form of a ghost with the likeness of Sebastian Shaw – which brings me to the real subject of this post, which is the new 2004 DVD Edition of the Star Wars Trilogy.

As everybody is no doubt aware by now, Sebastian Shaw no longer plays the restored Anakin Skywalker. In his place is Hayden Christensen.

Not everybody is happy about what is, if not the biggest change in the DVD set, firmly in the top two. But when it comes down to it, all value judgments one way or another are best tackled if distilled into three separate questions. These are: a) Does George Lucas, as the artist, have the right to retroactively change his work? b) Do we, as the audience, have the right to commercially access the original editions in digital form? and 3) What impact, for good or ill, do the tweaks in the DVD versions have on the story itself?

Most of the controversy and outrage is squarely directed on the first two axes, and the third is referred to for peripheral justification at best. I am no fan of those fans. With that said, let’s take the entire issue out of the context of creative ownership and look it in the eye for once.

In Return of the Jedi, does the apparition of a young Anakin Skywalker make sense? As someone who actively avoids unsanctioned information on how things blow over in Revenge of the Sith and has yet to sit through the audio commentaries on the Classic Trilogy discs, any answer I could provide here would be on incomplete information. Setting all nostalgia aside, though, we should ask ourselves: did an old Anakin Skywalker ever make very much sense?

The answer depends on what we construe to be the nature of the Force, and the act of achieving spiritual purity with it. An old Anakin Skywalker implies that the ghosts appear to Luke alone, in a form determined by his own interpretation and judgment; that is, Luke sees Sebastian Shaw because having seen that pale face aboard the Death Star, the young Skywalker mentally reconstructs the rest of his father clothed in Jedi robes and with a head full of hair.

Then the question becomes, how do Yoda and Obi-Wan recognize the older Skywalker? Sure, like the audience, they can extrapolate who this guy is despite never having seen him before. Or more sensibly, perhaps the visage of a Jedi apparition is determined by the conscious self-image of that deceased Jedi, and not the eye of the beholder.

If we are to believe the latter, then Anakin appearing in the form of Hayden Christensen makes a whole lot more sense. Remember, his body ages and decays in the Vader suit. Why would Anakin’s perception of his former identity be an extrapolation of what he would look like at that age in a hypothetical progression where he never became Darth Vader? Why would it not be constructed from his memory of himself instead, which is firmly set in the days of his youth?

Let us not forget the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi: “He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed.” For all intents and purposes, Anakin dies when he suits up in the armor, helmet and cape. In Return of the Jedi, he is reborn through his redemption. So would it make sense for that rebirth to proceed from the last true preservation of his identity? Preliminary signs indicate yes.

I have been told that Lucas says as much when discussing the change in the commentary track of the Jedi DVD, but like I said earlier, I have yet to check.

Somewhat curiouser and curiouser is the big change in The Empire Strikes Back – the modification of the scene where Vader bows before a hologram transmission of the Emperor. For the sake of continuity, the face and voice of the Emperor have now been replaced by those of Ian McDiarmid, who plays the ruler of the Empire in Return of the Jedi and his younger self in the Prequels. This is not the shocking part. The shocking part is the addition of some new dialogue in the mix.

1980/1997 Editions

EMPEROR: We have a new enemy – Luke Skywalker.

VADER: Yes, my master.

EMPEROR: He could destroy us.

2004 Edition

EMPEROR: We have a new enemy – the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star. I have no doubt this boy is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker.

VADER: How is that possible?

EMPEROR: Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You will know it to be true. He could destroy us.

This poses more questions than it answers, and one must wonder if it is a setup for something that will be revealed in Revenge of the Sith, like the minor change in Return of the Jedi where Sebastian Shaw’s eyebrows have been erased.

Prior to this, the implication has always been that Vader discovers Luke’s identity between Episodes IV and V – hence the line in Empire‘s opening crawl: “The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space….” Mind you, this was never conclusive. We know that by the time Empire opens, Vader is aware that the Force is strong with this one kid who is suddenly with the Rebels, and was somehow under the protection of Obi-Wan Kenobi. His imperative for searching for the young Skywalker could conceivably be, at that stage, part of his search for this disturbance in the Force that has turned the tables in the Rebel Alliance’s favour.

But how common is the name Skywalker, anyway? Aside from Brock Skywalker of Alberta’s finest folk-rock band, Captain Tractor, there are only so many out there – and certainly any of them would have raised some suspicions about the boy. One is tempted to remark that perhaps the good side, the remnants of Anakin Skywalker buried deep beneath the armor and behind the mask, were so most sincerely dead by that point that there was no recognition here. But that would be patently false, as Vader clearly has some memory of his former self. Take this iconic line prior to his duel with Obi-Wan, for instance: “The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”

The best explanation, and one that I can hardly take credit for given how it has been deduced by many in the week since the DVD release, is that Vader most certainly had his own plans for Luke once he was found. We already knew as much from the “I am your father” scene on the Cloud City propeller, when Vader suggests to Luke that together they can overthrow the Emperor and “rule the galaxy as father and son.” After all, one of the tenets of how the symbiotic power struggle works within the order of Sith Lords, as the Prequels continually impress on us, is that “always two there are; no more, no less” – implicitly because both master and apprentice have the motivation to seek out a new recruit in order to pass down the ideals of the Dark Side. In this game-theoretical construct where the apprentice depends on his master, but has a desire to break free of that enslavement and become a master himself, is at the core of how a Dark Lord of the Sith operates and thinks. The “circle is now complete” line mentioned above corroborates this in a perhaps unintended, but entirely consistent fashion.

So here we sit, baffled by this line: “How is that possible?” And the answer may be that Vader is not referring so much to the fact that Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker, so much as a double entendre playing on how his plans have been threatened by how the Emperor was now on the case. Playing dumb in this matter is a display of complicity that allows his master to continue dwelling in his bubble of arrogance and illusion of complete control. (As Luke points out in Return of the Jedi, the Emperor’s overconfidence is his weakness. Indeed, it turns out to be his undoing, and one that parallels the arrogance that initially blinded the Jedi Order to his nefarious plans in the Prequel era.)

Recall how in the hologram scene, it is Vader who suggests that Luke not be destroyed, but turned. Here we already see that for some reason or another, Vader does not want Luke dead. It would be overly presumptuous to interpret this as a conscious act of charity; rather, the display of that unconscious concern is the first indication that there is a way to get to the Skywalker within, which turns out to be the bond between father and son. As far as we can tell at this point, the additional dialogue reinforces the theory just described.

So in the context of the story, does the change make sense? Possibly. At this stage, it requires one to be a critical observer and not merely a consumer of what is fed by way of bendable concave cutlery. But it should be well known by now that if you are not willing to read deep into Star Wars, this is not the blog for you.

There are few other changes in the DVDs that have a direct impact on the story; most are much-needed cosmetic improvements on the 1997 Special Editions. The new look of the Jabba the Hutt scene in Docking Bay 94 buries its predecessor. The Wilhelm added to Luke’s tumble down the Cloud City ventilation shaft in 1997 has been removed. Greedo still shoots first, but only sort of. Boba Fett’s two lines in The Empire Strikes Back have been dubbed over with the voice of Temeura Morrison, who plays Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones, and deserves some recognition because Maori accents are an objectively good thing.

I was rather surprised to see the Theed Palace in Naboo, down the same street as the celebration at the end of The Phantom Menace, was inserted into the “grand tour of the galaxy” montage at the end of Return of the Jedi. See, its intact appearance debunks a theory I once fancied – that in Episode III, the Empire would pillage it to little bitsies. I guess it survives the Prequels after all.

The best way to sum up the DVD editions of the Star Wars Trilogy is to dub it with the moniker, “the Consistent With the Prequels Edition.” Or the “Sequel Edition,” as the case may be. Naboo, Boba’s voice, Hayden Christensen – a lot of these are geared towards viewers who have the foreknowledge posed by the Prequel Trilogy. Now, due to how The Phantom Menace came together, this does not automatically make the saga watchable for the first time in the I-to-VI order. It does make that order tremendously watchable on a second pass, but that is because the saga has become cyclical. It is in Episode IV, the original Star Wars (or A New Hope) that we have a concise explanation of the story’s internal universe – who are the Jedi, what is the Force. The rest of the Classic Trilogy follows a dramatic thread of unveiling. The narrative drive of the Prequels, on the other hand, lies entirely in dramatic irony, and is predicated on the assumption that the audience knows what is going to happen. But now we have a Classic Trilogy that has retroactively looped itself back into the cosmogonic cycle, like a snake eating its own tail.

It’s a new way of looking at things, isn’t it?

And that brings me back to where this post began: Laurent Bouzereau. Until the release of the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD format, with its PC compatability and chapter selection and all that jazz, the best way to make quick reference to a specific scene was through The Annotated Screenplays. But now, Bouzereau’s book is even more archival than it was before, as it refers to not only the originals, but an intermediary as well.

With the new perspectives offered by the prequels and the release of yet another edit of the Classic Trilogy on DVD, we need a new Bouzereau. With any luck, we will have a whole new set of annotated screenplays in six parts after Episode III has come and gone. The presence of audio commentaries on the DVDs of all five released instalments serve a similar purpose, but I would love to see interviews with the Star Wars team that take the entire saga into account ex post facto.

Until then, may the Force be with us.

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