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Vader: A Star Wars Story

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Even as New Star Wars steps into the past of its original characters, it steps further from what originally defined it. Luke, Han, and Leia are dead, with Luke suffering further injury by being shown as an attempted child-murderer. Yoda, Obi-Wan, and other Jedi are puff-piece, blue-glow cameos. With the ascension of Kylo Ren, an emotionally conflicted, emo manchild to the Emperor’s throne of the pseudo-knightly Space Nazi First Order, the integral otherness of the Empire has crumbled. Ren and Rey spent The Last Jedi in cahoots against both Snokey-Doke[1] and Luke respectively, and neither of them have any real ambition or vision save for what lines are put in their mouths for the sake of advancing the plot and replicating the earlier, more substantial Star Wars films.

Solo looks to further the cinematic distance between the original black-and-white moral formula of Star Wars by capitalizing on Han Solo as the leader of a criminal enterprise—a smuggler—and if the trailer is any indication, Alden Ehrenreich is being set up to be a Quill-Alike, and the film itself a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque space adventure with amoral parties being co-opted into a good cause. It is, of course, set back when the Empire had an Emperor fitting of the title, so one wonders whether audiences will be exposed to another noxious computer-graphics reanimation of Empire baddies, Grand Moff Tarkin-style, to give him a good cause to eventually embrace. Should the film choose to tread this path, it may struggle—Han Solo was always an accessory to Luke as the emotional focal point and narrative driver of the Star Wars story, and prior to his enlistment in the Rebellion was essentially an unknown quantity. Young Harrison Ford and Chris Pratt share the rugged charm and puppy eyes to be a successful leading man by way of being empathetic,[2] but the harder-faced Ehrenreich doesn’t quite have the physiognomy for it; I have a suspicion that Solo, like Rogue One and Infinity War, will prove to be ultimately uninteresting, cynical, and lacking in characters in which to be emotionally invested.

Snoke, whilst insubstantial, was still unambigiously a nasty character. With the axis of evil around which the Rebels revolved being snuffed out, is there room for the Rebellion in New Star Wars films to be anything other than contrived and morally vacuous?  Rogue One: Whatever jettisoned the morality of the Rebel cause by casting the Rebels as amoral, self-interested cutthroats in a guerrilla war, and The Last Jedi has undermined the validity of the Rebellion (Resistance, whatever, I don’t care) even further by placing someone essentially normal at the Empire’s center. Gone are the pleas to let the hatred flow through you. Gone are the days of cyborg mercenaries, summoning demonic forces normal men could not hope to fathom. Gone are the megalomaniacal dreams of a galaxy brought to order, held together by a fist in a black leather glove. Kylo Ren’s apologia to Ma-Rey Sue had him laying his white-knight feelings on thick in an attempt to woo her down the First Order aisle. The whole “restoring order to the galaxy” thing was a fabricated afterthought to impressing upon the audience just how gosh-darned special Rey is, dammit, and how anything Ren can do, Rey can do better. When rejected, he doesn’t even try to execute her.

In the grand Star Wars scheme of things, Kylo Ren is a weak, uninteresting character that evokes nothing of the liberal-religious phobia of Nazism that the original Star Wars creators (not necessarily Lucas) capitalized upon to bring gravitas and urgency to Luke’s struggle. Kylo shares none of those attributes of Palpatine and Vader which made the original Star Wars a compelling post-war narrative and a pseudo-religious tenet of liberal society. He doesn’t even have a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking set of alien henchmen to connect the fear of Nazism with the fear of terrorism and endless trade wars. With him in charge, the First Order is just a rabble. The fear that cemented the Empire is the fear of the unknown, and fear that freedom’s enemies were stronger and possessed of more powerful knowledge than the West. Few characters incarnate these mystic energies, and besides Adolf Hitler, the most well-known is the iconic movie villain, jackboot cyborg, and esoteric Evola-fan: Darth Vader.

The Star Wars prequels, whilst rightly considered tacky, cynical, and a naked cash-grab which has since been outdone in naked, cash-grabbing cynicism by Diversity Awakens and Rogue One, can now be re-examined for critical faults. Solo is of course an attempt to strain a few more pails out of an already abused and battered cash cow. Seeing as Disney is willing to jump through time as well as hyperspace in the Millennial Falcon to squeeze out what is presumably going to be a one-film origin story, it raises the question of what would have been necessary to dispense with and improvise in order to make the prequels what they truly ought to have been: a one-film origin story for Vader.

Compared to the total dispensation or subterfuge of primordial, heroic archetypes in Diversity Awakens and The Last Jedi (an African lead who ditches the multiracial alliance to get a parking fine, and an elderly Luke underhandedly using illusion and deception against his former apprentice), the prequels at least retained some elements of the original Star Wars to remain compelling—the mentor/apprentice pair of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan ending in a funeral pyre, the voodoo facepaint otherness of Darth Maul, and a young Anakin struggling with brutal loss and despair after his mother’s death. All of this is again jettisoned in favor of cringingly stale one-liners, enforced multiracialism, and trite tropes about galactic social justice by New Star Wars, leaving fans at least with the feeling that Lucas tried to do something original in the prequels, even if it was in service of selling tacky plastic toys.

Nonetheless, they represent a failure of the liberal imagination. Having conjured up an avatar for dark forces beyond his comprehension, Lucas failed to translate this into an effective coming-of-age story and muddied the waters with ’90s merchandising and convoluted filler about trade wars, underwater space creatures, and stamped-out clones, all of which corroded the integrity of the Empire as an emotional counterweight to Rebel heroism. Whereas the Empire was characterized by the individual strength and brutality of Vader, the Emperor, and mass-death-for-mass-death’s sake, the Clone Wars and trade federation squabbles impressed upon the viewer the idea that the armies dying on screen were mass-manufactured.

Vader, first introduced in A New Hope striding past slaughtered Rebel troops and trying to choke a confession out of a lying non-com, immediately is imbued with gravitas and quality, unlike the battles of the prequels predicated on the quantity of droids, Jedi, and so on. No surprise that prequel fan-favorite is Jango Fett, a bounty hunter struggling against the odds working as a dogeared mercenary, another character struggling against a tide of conflict originating far beyond himself.

Boba Fett is shown clutching his father’s severed head in a scene of astonishing excess in what is meant to be a family-friendly movie (remember that this type of material is absent from the original films), raising the question that if Lucas is to go to such lengths for the sake of a subplot, why couldn’t Vader be in Boba’s place? Are we denied even a simple beheading as a narrative force to drive Anakin to hate the Jedi?

The prequels set up Vader as an emotionally-stunted manchild who cannot accept that bad things happen as the world we know and endure tests us, and slavishly devoted to the Emperor Palpatine because, well, just because. Emotionally tortured, computer-graphics assisted Anakin with blazing red eyes yelling that he “hates” is the complete opposite of the Vader that choked, schemed, and doggedly pursued Luke through The Empire Strikes Back. Force-prophecies aside, Vader takes a direct part in the action from his introduction as a leading officer (“Commander, tear apart this ship!”) and a direct role in people-management and the details of invasion; choking Admiral Ozzel to death is a superbly voice-acted, timeless scene, with Vader’s vocals nearly quivering with anger and barely contained malice. What in the galaxy could fuel such single-minded dedication? Vader shoulders his responsibilities fully and fitfully, taking an active part in the conflict against the forces of Rebel decay. Anakin was a victim of circumstance, buffeted around by events and prophecies beyond his control.

The pivotal scene that defined Vader in the minds of the many in contradistinction to Luke, the Jedi, and the forces of Good is, of course, “No, I am your father.” Luke, still young and fresh from Force training, is idealistic and on a heroic quest, taken in by ideas of high-mindedness, nobility, lofty ideals, and fixed ideas placed above the self, and foolishly allows his enthusiasm to drive him to attempted suicide. Is there anything noble in this scene, really, anything high-minded, that comes from Luke and not from Vader?

The Force is set up as a sort of Zen Buddhist-like dichotomy of those who transcend their feelings and go through ascetic ego-annihilation as Jedi, and those who are allegedly consumed and ruled by their more primal emotions—the “dark side” of hatred, malice, resentment, and so on—but Vader lauds Luke for having control over his emotions and encourages him not to succumb to them, but to channel and make use of them: “Obi-Wan has taught you well. You have controlled your fear. Now, release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.”

Luke is, however, blinded by idealism and naïvety and makes the childish, immature mistake of closing off all avenues to change, all avenues to self-realization: “I’ll never join you!!!” Stirner again[3] has stern things to say: “As long as one knows himself only as spirit, and puts all his value in being spirit (it becomes a light thing for the youth to give his life, his ‘bodily’ life, for nothing, for the silliest point of honor) . . . one has only ideals, unfulfilled ideas or thoughts.”

Vader, however, is partly defined through something that the prequels got right, a lesson that power matters in the loss of his mother in a brutal, unthinking rape and murder by inferior, subhuman creatures. He is more than a youth, but a man; he is “fond of himself in the flesh, and enjoys him­self just as he is”; he knows the value of bodily life, of temporal life, and temporal power, and is no doubt given to scorn Yoda’s oh-so-sacred, sentimental advice that “you will know [the good from the bad] when you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

It is Vader’s egoism that makes him a man, “see if he doesn’t seem harder, less noble, more selfish. Is he therefore worse? No, you say, he has only become more certain, or, as you also call it, more ‘practical'” (Stirner). Of what use is Yoda’s advice to Anakin? Sit and be passive, continue your studies; do not want, do not desire, do not live; live only in service of the abstract, bloodless ideal even when you are stained with your mother’s blood; be ascetic and hermetic when you could be active, self-creating, and altogether more selfish.

It is this adherence to this empty ideal and projected assumption that the Right-wing is enslaved to their emotions that underpins the failure of the prequels. Lucas and his production team simply couldn’t stay true to Vader’s egoist philosophy, nor his appeals to Luke’s self interest and egoism: “Don’t let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did! . . . You do not realize your power . . . Join me, and I will complete your training!”

Nor could the prequels allow Vader to be a voice of reason against the Red menace, as he originally was: “With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring Order to the galaxy!” Of course, we are supposed to root for Luke and his all-consuming enthusiasm for pacificism and a dislike of particularism, of preference and looking out for oneself. We are supposed to root for this forerunner to Batman who adopts the trappings of fascism and vigilantism, and yet is absolutely shackled to a false morality that undoes him; in a more believable Star Wars, Luke falls to his doom in Empire when he himself plunges to martyrdom.

Imagine if you will a Star Wars story altogether more gritty and nihilistic, more enthusiastic for realism, and hungry for the red meat of selfish, egoist greatness.

A young Anakin never meets Padme or any of this wiff-waffling, irrelevant annoyances, and his story starts in his early teens, with his mother’s murder by Sand People. He goes through life experiencing bitter, near-genocidal discrimination on a sand-planet much like contemporary South Africa, and scrapes together the funds to attend a Jedi Summer Camp run by Yoda, who acts as a mentor but cautions constantly against desires (except, of course, for remaining silent on consumerism). As everything Anakin holds dear is trampled underfoot by the rabble in endemic civil war and ethnic conflict between different Sandling tribes, he is compelled by his family loyalties to return home, whereupon he is greeted by a fledgling trade federation—an Empire—who quells the conflict and eagerly recruits him.

A lifetime of injuries awaits him as he travels from planet to planet through his teens and early twenties, emotionally smoldering from the loss of his simple farm life and family in a genocidal, anti-European colonial struggle. He brings his emotions under an iron grip, and whilst he understands the need to let go of loss and to accept everything as transient and dreamlike as described in the ego-annihilating Jedi philosophy, he is able to devour that idea and take it back into himself, to acknowledge it as valid and yet irrelevant, and as an obstacle to his self-fulfillment.

Played by the undeniably handsome, expressive, and not-Jewish Hayden Christensen (who left Tinseltown to purchase a farm and start anew), he meets Liam Neeson, but as a friend, not as a foe.

Reprising the role of Ras Al Ghul, Liam Neeson takes standout soldier and increasingly command-orientated Anakin to Hoth, a desolate, Antarctic wasteland where the National Socialist Trade Empire have stowed their flying saucers. At this point, the progression of Order as desired by the more civilized people of the cosmos is an unquestionable good. The Empire provides protocol, counsel, economic structure, and cracks down hard on the scourge of drugs and open terrorism. Anakin is schooled in Traditionalist knowledge; not merely becoming, like Batman, “an idea,” for an idea is formless and abstract, as Stirner would say “the ghost of right”; but acknowledges the actuality of the Self.

At the moment of graduation, he and his fellow officers are attacked by a Rogue One band of mercenaries and terrorists. White phosphorous comes streaming out of the sky and the burning ash sears his lungs and face. Seeing his mentor’s incineration at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, Anakin’s respect for the forces of universal tolerance is burnt away. He vows to live for himself, for order, for the greatness of the Empire and self-mastery.

He becomes an implacable foe of those who are slaves to high-flying theory and fanciful ideals, who will scream bloody murder and napalm humans in the name of destroying those who are “inhumane.” Whereas Lucas’ Anakin was a melodramatic fake, an embarrassment crying over the loss of a girl and baby; as this Vader is placed under the mask of the Samurai, he becomes the Overman—aware of his desires and in full mastery of them, yet stripped of the last vestiges of human weakness and frailty. He becomes the radical of which liberals are terrified, uncompromising and willing to go to any lengths to bring down the reign of mediocrity.

His offer? Greatness. His promise? Struggle and self-overcoming. Only through sympathy for the Right can one arrive at the real identity of Star Wars’s most heroic character.

 

Notes

[1] I have to credit E;R with this phrase.

[2] Typecasting himself into the same Nice Guy in Space role in Passengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Infinity War, and the Jurassic World films (which may as well be in space, given that the dinosaurs are alien monsters and Terra Firma so riddled with sci-fi technology that it isn’t the Earth we live on).

[3] Max Stirner, The Unique and Its Property, translated by Wolfi Landstreicher (Baltimore, Md.: Underworld Amusements, 2017).

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5 Comments

  1. Gnome Chompsky
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks.

    Read both reviews. Suppose I should at least watch Rogue One some time.

    A long time ago, in an Earth very near in time, the Star Wars comics were really great, they had many alumni of the British 2000 AD working on them then, i am sorry that I did not notice the phenom. earlier, but treasure their takes on Fett (art by Cam Kennedy), droids (art by master of the cute, Ian Gibson), and a great Jabba the Hutt story, also by a 2000 AD alumnus, also a genius, but I forget the name right now.

    I discovered this phenomenon almost too late, so only bought those three volumes.

    That time was the peak for comics or graphic novels from the SWEU.

    So, somebody in the Lucas organisation really had exceptionally good taste for a short time.

    I look at later ones at a bookshop, words, narrative, illustrations are all crap.

  2. Matt_Grey
    Posted May 24, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    The great thing about motion pictures are that they can be remade.

  3. Gnome Chompsky
    Posted May 24, 2018 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Buttercup. Enjoyable light reading on this morning’s train.

    Like you, I do not hate the ‘prequels’, sure, they have their problems, but fun.

    I think the key factor may have been the flying insectoid Jewish creature in The Phantom Menace, Ani’s garage operator, but have never seen a review pointing out the obvious on that.

    That the child behaved as something of a brat suited the tale.

    As for Jar-Jar, I am fond of pointing out that the same actor played much the same character in The Fifth Elemeot just a little earlier, only without the giant amphibian CG, and I do not recalll any great outrage over that.

    Re. wooden acting, I’ve always thought that Nat Portlyman (I forget her (((real name)))) was the truly wooden player, and it is clear why no reviewer ever dared to raise that obvious point.

    Christensen is also quite good in Anti-Trust, a kind of take on William Gates (the Gates character brilliantly played by Tim Robbins). The writers made it about telecomms, instead of software, to avoid being sued by Gates.

    Have not seen one of the new Star Wars films, probably never will, sure never any with Boydega’s ugly mug as a major feature.

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