Posted by: Ken Brown | June 9, 2008

Good and Evil in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

I finally finished my latest Salvo article this morning, so hopefully I can get back to more regular posting now (but then again, my thesis is suffering from lack of attention, so we’ll see). In the mean time, here’s a reworked post on Star Wars Episode III, which I watched again today (I needed a break):

I can’t say if Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Star Wars film, but it ranks near the top. Yes, the acting and dialogue are pretty bad at times (in which Star Wars film aren’t they?), and yes the CGI was sometimes over-the-top (but much better than in Episodes I and II), but I love the glimpse it gives of the Old Republic in all its glory, the battle scenes are far and away the best of the series, and all around I think it gives good closure to the story.

But there are two particular aspects of the film that have left some people scratching their heads: The apparently superficial justification for Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, and the conversation between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi just before their climactic light-saber duel. In the first case, Anakin goes from learning that Palpatine is an evil Sith Master and wanting to kill him, to saving his life and killing in his name, only because he thinks it might save his wife Padmé’s life. In the second, Obi-Wan responds to Anakin’s insistence that he either support the Emperor or be seen as his enemy, by claiming “only the Sith deal in absolutes” – a strange thing to say considering Star Wars’ consistent emphasis on the choice between light and dark, good and evil. What’s going on here? Both of these oddities could simply be chalked up to George Lucas’ famously poor writing, but together I think they actually make an important point about the nature of good an evil.

It’s easy to think that evil is a power all its own, an equal and opposite alternative to good. Indeed, it seems possible to find such a view in Star Wars itself, with its emphasis on the light and dark sides of the Force. This, in fact, is what Palpatine himself affirms in enticing Anakin with powers supposedly unavailable to him among the Jedi. “The dark side is a path to many abilities that some consider unnatural,” he tells him, and implies that only through the dark side can Anakin save Padmé. Even Anakin’s destiny – “to bring balance to the Force” – could be understood in this way, as a balance of competing opposites. But Revenge of the Sith seems intent to deconstruct such a view. Palpatine, it turns out, has no real power that a true Jedi lacks – he doesn’t save Padmé, nor does he prove any stronger than Yoda in battle – he succeeds only by twisting the loyalty of others (itself a good thing), quietly turning the Republic into an Empire.

In the same way, Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is not presented as an embrace of dark and unnatural powers particularly, but as a misguided and destructive crusade (ostensibly) to save his wife. Believing that only the Emperor can do this, he comes to see all disloyalty as evil, blinding himself to the much greater evils he is doing in the process. It is this, then, to which Obi-Wan is responding when he says “only the Sith deal in absolutes.” It is not the absolute of good verses evil to which he refers – as though Star Wars had suddenly embraced moral relativism – but the absolutizing of one good to the exclusion of all others.

One path to the dark side, Lucas seems to be saying, can lie in making any particular good so all-consuming that everything else becomes dispensable. Anakin has become so obsessed with “saving” Padmé that he is willing to destroy everything good in the universe to do so – even, it turns out, Padmé herself. By opposing him in this, Obi-Wan has become – to Anakin’s mind – an enemy, but that is only because Anakin has lost sight of the true line between good and evil. In rejecting such an “absolute,” Obi-Wan is trying to confront Anakin with the danger of this path, but Anakin can no longer understand such thinking. He now sees any and all disloyalty to himself or the emperor as enmity, the only evil he can still comprehend.

By presenting the central tragedy of the Star Wars saga in this way, Lucas has in fact dismantled the dualism (light balanced with dark) that many found in the original trilogy, replacing it with a much more Christian understanding of evil. In fact, he’s really echoing St. Augustine, who argued that evil is not a thing in itself – some alternative power standing over-against God and good – but merely the absence or distortion of good. So when in the end Anakin does fulfill his destiny and bring balance to the Force, it comes precisely by destroying evil – killing the emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. Evil, it turns out, is not a balancing factor, but the source of unbalance, a parasite on the good, not its equal. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that evil in the Star Wars universe is known as “the dark side” – for darkness is not a thing in itself; it is merely the absence of light.

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Responses

  1. Yet another excellent post, Ken. Thankyou.

    I have to say, seeing you echo my own thoughts about the difference between good and evil gives me yet more hope for the possibility of dialogue between religious and non-religious viewpoints.

    What you call a Christian understanding of evil, I would have called a Humanist understanding. So, by extension, I suspect it is simply a thoughtful human understanding of evil, born of experience and an understanding of history.

    Cool.

  2. Thanks Timothy!

    I think you’re probably right that this understanding of evil is one that any thoughtful person could come to, but I think it is one that is particularly at home within Judaism and Christianity (and perhaps also Islam), with their emphasis on a good God as the source of all else that exists.

  3. Wow, you’re right! I thought I saw a subtle ideological difference there compared to the other films, but I could never put my finger on it until now. I like it, too; and agree that an absolutist mind is a danger to us all.

    I wish to add that I found Yoda’s message to Anakin concerning life and death particularly soothing. Our problem is we don’t take rational advice well when attempting to solve our emotional problems, and neither did Anakin. However, the effort was there.

    Cheers from your wonderful Toronto movie guide,
    Julie

  4. Wow, I didn’t get that at all. Remember Obi Wan’s statement to Luke Skywalker about the truth being from a certain point of view? That is a half truth, which is a lie. Why is it a half truth? Because It was an ambiguous statement. God deals in absolute truth, not half truths, or ambiguous statements that he can later back peddle and say, “Oh, that’s not what I meant, this is what I meant.” Dishonest people do that kind of stuff. For me, George Lucas shows his New Age beliefs fairly clearly, that though good and evil battle, but they share the same coin, The bible states that God is completely good, there is no darkness in him and he doesn’t lie. Satan on the other hand is completely evil, and is a liar and murderer, and he tries to pass himself off as an angel of light. That is what we see in Star Wars, evil trying to pass itself off as good, and good doing evil (lying and spying on “friends.”). What a moral mess huh?


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