Today is Easter Sunday and also midway through the month of Ramadan, so it seems like a good time to talk about sacrifice and redemption.
Star Wars has its origins in melodrama, a form of storytelling that promotes a black-and-white, Manichean view of the world, with a clear separation between good and evil. Lucas understood how costumes, set design, and—above all—music could be used to delineate moral allegiances for an audience. For example, Mark Hamill has said that as he watched the filming of Darth Vader’s first appearance, he asked Lucas, “You know in the script, aren’t you going to cut to two characters saying ‘Who’s that?’ ‘That’s the Dark Lord of the Sith, and he’s the …’ You know, some exposition. And George just casually said, ‘Yeah, no, he’s all dressed in black, and we’ll play some scary music. They’ll know he’s the bad guy.’”
Mark Hamill speaking at the Oxford Union in 2016: “They’ll know he’s the bad guy.’”
As early as A New Hope, however, Lucas planted the seeds for the complication of melodramatic effects, allowing the stormtroopers to have some comic moments that had the effect of, at least temporarily, humanizing them.
The Empire Strikes Back raised the stakes of the saga by shifting the focus away from black-and-white melodramatic representation to the investigation of shades of grey, through the dream-like sequence on the planet Dagobah in which Luke imagines his own face behind Darth Vader’s mask and then through the revelation that Vader is in fact Luke’s father. In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan laments that "Vader is more machine now than man, twisted and evil,” but Luke insists that there is still good inside Vader, a belief that ultimate leads to Vader’s redemption at the end of the film.
The logic of the six Skywalker films that Lucas either directed or produced—the original and the prequel trilogies—is the movement from revenge and tragedy to return and redemption, a version of the classic exile-and-return motif that I discussed in the last newsletter and that is a part of so much world literature and central to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth. And what paves the way for redemption is almost always a sacrifice made in the name of love and protection: in A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself so that Luke and his friends can escape; in Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save his son and thereby regains his identity as Anakin Skywalker; Qui-Gon Jinn dies fighting Maul in The Phantom Menace; Luke Skywalker sacrifices himself to save Rey and the Rebellion from destruction in The Last Jedi; Kanan Jarrus sacrifices himself to save his beloved, Hera Syndulla, and the crew of their ship, the Ghost, in Rebels; Han Solo and Leia Organa sacrifice themselves in the sequel trilogy to try to turn their son, Ben Solo, back to the light; Ben, in turn, sacrifices himself at the end of Rise of Skywalker to save the life of his “Force twin,” Rey.
Asajj Ventress in the 3D animated Clone Wars series.
As the Star Wars universe has developed, more and more of its writers have been interested in exploring the grey areas between melodramatic extremes, and this interest is at work in the evolution of one of my favorite characters from Star Wars media beyond the films: the dark side assassin, Asajj Ventress. Trace her trajectory from antagonist in the now non-canonical Star Wars Clone Wars 2D animated series to protagonist of the canonical novel Dark Disciple (written by Christie Golden from unproduced scripts for the canonical 3D animated series), and you will see the logic of sacrifice and redemption at work.
HAVEN'T HAD ENOUGH YET?
For further discussion of Star Wars and my book Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe (Bloomsbury), check out the following: