The original “Star Wars” trilogy explored the crises of identity, love, and redemption in the midst of a technologically tyrannical world. The prequel trilogy, by contrast, is primarily concerned with themes of decadence, corporate domination, political corruption, and the insidious influence that these forces have on love.
Star Wars is one of most successful film franchises in cinematic history. More than 40 years since it appeared on the screen, it continues to dazzle generations. If there ever were a cinematic drama that encapsulates Richard Wagner’s notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, the Star Wars saga would be it—especially the prequels where John Williams’ theatrical musical scores and the aesthetic environments truly set the tone for the story. But how should we approach the prequels, especially in relation to the originals?
The original trilogy depicts an enchanting tale of man’s search for meaning and discovery of love in the face of technological tyranny. The films find their place in a generation of science fiction films which all tell a story—a myth—of tyrannical machines causing dislocation and death to the world (reaching, perhaps, its acme in Terminator). Yet the prequel trilogy does not tell that story. Instead, it is more appropriate to understand the prequel trilogy of Star Wars as manifesting the subconscious fears of the zeitgeist of the late 1990s and early 2000s as we entered a new era of decadence, hubris, corporate domination, and widespread political corruption and cynicism. The shift in tone and story, among other things, probably caused the lukewarm reception of the prequels. Nevertheless, the prequel trilogy is still endearing for many reasons—especially considering Disney’s embrace of the feminist zeitgeist for its trilogy.
I do not intend to discuss the intentionality of George Lucas and bow to authorial intention. Instead, I seek to deconstruct the trilogy’s underlying themes and character archetypes that drive the films to their conclusion.
Decadence, corporate domination, and political corruption are the central underlying concerns for the Star Wars prequels. So much is visible from the start with The Phantom Menace, the preface to the larger and more powerful story of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In contradistinction to the original Star Wars trilogy, the gaudy aesthetic of the prequels conveys the reality of decadence in the Star Wars universe. The very aesthetic environment of the Phantom Menace crystalizes this: There is greater light and color in the cosmos and the ships than in the earlier films, and the aesthetic of Naboo harkens back to Greece and Rome. The original trilogy was black, grey, white, and otherwise tame compared to the flashy ambience of the prequels. The sublime and overwhelming aesthetic in the prequels is meant to convey the reality of sensual decadence that was otherwise absent in the original trilogy. And two of our principal characters—indeed, most important characters—embody this gaudy and fleshy world of decadence: Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. (One might say cinematic technology played its part in this; that is true, to be sure, but such a critique fundamentally misses the underlying themes that cinematic technology helps to portray for us.)
We see that the Dark Side is no longer on the side of technological tyranny as it was in the original trilogy because that concern is no longer the unconscious force governing Star Wars. Instead, we see the Dark Side aligned with corporate domination and political corruption (which will lead to technological tyranny). In the Phantom Menace, the Dark Side uses the forces of corporate power (in the form of the Trade Federation and their battle droids) to advance its evils. Corporate power is once again used by the Dark Side in an even greater fashion in Attack of the Clones, and this alliance between the Dark Side and corporate power—the Trade Federation, Techno Union, Commerce Guild, etc.—brings forth the separatist rebellion which rips the galaxy apart in the Clone Wars. And, of course, the Dark Side is embodied by the most corrupt politician of the prequels: Chancellor Palpatine.
Palpatine plays the central role in demonstrating the trilogy’s commentary on the dangers of political corruption. Palpatine is a corrupt politician. This much is undeniable. And that the instantiated embodiment of evil, the Dark Side, is a politician, speaks volumes of the concern of political corruption. The centrality of Palpatine as a major character highlights this concern in a way that he, as emperor, never did in the originals.
As far as the prequels are concerned, the Phantom Menace sets the stage for the new tripartite manifestation of Star Wars. The currents of decadence, love and lust, corporate domination and political corruption, are more fully manifested in the second and third films.
Attack of the Clones opens with a political assassination (or, more accurately, a failed one), which sets the tone for the problems of political corruption in this galaxy. Obi-Wan and Anakin return as our heroic investigators assigned to protect Padmé and solve the mystery of who is seeking to kill the queen-turned-senator. As the plot unfolds, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase a shapeshifting bounty hunter, Zam Wesell, through a hyper-consumeristic, universally urban, and industrialized Coruscant. This pursuit visually provides a tour-de-force ending in a nightclub which epitomizes the decadent and corporatist themes. Upon wounding and capturing Zam, Jango Fett appears in the distance and kills her before she can speak to Obi-Wan and Anakin. Nevertheless, Obi-Wan is able to trace the origins of the poison dart used by Jango Fett and begins his journey through the dark web of corporate conspiracy and political corruption.
Just as there are concurrent stories running through the Empire Strikes Back with Luke’s search for identity and Han and Leia’s love story, there are also two concurrent stories running through Attack of the Clones. The first story is Obi-Wan’s descensus ad inferos. He descends into the dark and messy world of corporate conspiracy and political corruption as he attempts to track down the bounty hunter Jango Fett. The second story is the tragic love story between Anakin and Padmé that takes them across the stars. These storylines eventually intersect at the climax of the film, not at all dissimilar to the intersection of the concurrent storylines of the Empire Strikes Back at Bespin. (Perhaps Lucas was trying to reach back for inspiration in his composition of Attack of the Clones?)
Obi-Wan’s story brings him into the darkness of corporate domination and political corruption when he arrives at Kamino, the mysterious and vanished planet of cloners whose information has been erased from the Jedi Archives. Kamino is a dark, stormy, and turbulent world—its atmosphere conveying the darkness and instability of the galaxy. The dark and stormy world of Kamino is dialectically contrasted with the flush, beautiful, and sensual world of Naboo where Anakin and Padmé wrestle with their feelings for each other—more on that later.
On Kamino, Obi-Wan learns of a secret commissioning of a clone army supposedly by the Jedi Order. Through his dialogue with the prime minister of Kamino, it is implied that the commissioning of the clone army wasn’t authorized by the Jedi Council but by a rogue Jedi named Sifo-Dyas. This discovery adds to the mystery and byzantine world we have entered alongside Obi-Wan. There, Obi-Wan confirms his suspicions that the bounty hunter Jango Fett is responsible for the attempted murder of Senator Amidala.
During their confrontation, Jango Fett manages to escape but is subsequently tracked and pursued by Obi-Wan to the insect desert world of Geonosis where, after being captured, he learns of the separatist conspiracy headed by all the major corporate guilds and organizations operating in the galaxy. Count Dooku appears and tells the imprisoned Obi-Wan a startling truth—though Obi-Wan refuses to believe it—that the dark lord of the Sith is in control of the Republic’s Senate and galactic political system.
Concurrent to Obi-Wan’s descent into the dark pit of conspiracy, corruption, and forthcoming civil war is the tragic love story of Anakin and Padmé. Anakin and Padmé’s story explores the problem of love in a decadent and sensual world. As we witness their love story, from playful flirting to obvious desires of lust, we are left unsure whether we are entering a world of romantic love sheltered from the horrors of corruption and war or falling into the abyss of sensuality and tempestuous lust.
The aesthetic environment which surrounds Anakin and Padmé deliberately plays on this tension. Padmé’s characterization, especially her gaudy dress, conveys an undercurrent of decadence to the narrative. Anakin’s characterization, especially in his torment, portrays the internal unrest—not unlike the young St. Augustine’s in the Confessions—between the pleasantry of love and the dark struggle with lust. Although, as he even acknowledges, a Jedi is not supposed to love, Anakin does love (his mother) and wants to love (Padmé). This tension inside Anakin boils over into a maelstrom of rage when he discovers his dying mother on Tatooine and when, in reaction to her death, he massacres the Tusken sand people “like animals,” including “the women and the children.”
The core gospel of the Jedi preaches that one must control his passions. A Jedi shall not know anger, hatred, or even love. The Jedi Order is equivalent to a stoic knightly order with a New-Age flare. The knights all forswear love in their condemnation of the passions. Yet it is the lack of love which ultimately inhibits the Jedi’s ability to save the galaxy. It makes them indecisive, under the guise of contemplative wisdom, whereas passion directs concrete action, though impulsive. Love leads to action, contemplation to inaction. Hate cannot be confronted by the absence of love; hate can only be defeated by the redemptive power of love (we’ll return to this at the end of the essay).
While on Tatooine, Anakin and Padmé receive Obi-Wan’s distress call and relay the information of corporate conspiracy to the Jedi Council. Padmé, being the ideal feminist—headstrong, aggressive, and a leader—exerts her will over Anakin to rescue Obi-Wan. The two set sail into the storm that awaits them.
It is ironic, here, that Padmé’s impetuous will brings the two to danger and possible death. Yet Attack of the Clones then retreats into a far more classical trope concerning love—love manifested in the midst of chaos and war—rather than continuing the feminist Padmé arc. Ever since Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, love exists in the mayhem and maelstrom of war. It is not without significance that we witness their kiss—as the powerful love leitmotif by John Williams sounds in the background—in a colosseum. Their kiss here, contrasted with the first kiss that they shared on Naboo in a grand aesthetic atmosphere, brings the storylines together and symbolically, as well as psychologically, prefigures their eventual deaths (as we associate a colosseum with death, thanks to Rome).
In the jaws of death, the climax of Attack of the Clones violently erupts. The cost of love, as symbolically manifested in the climax and resolution of the film, is war. For it is only in the midst of war that the struggle for love is reached for Anakin and Padmé. But who is in control of this love relationship? In the original trilogy the love between Han and Leia is clearly headed by Han. While Anakin clearly leads in the desire for initiation with Padmé, Lucas has blurred the lines between person and passion in the love story of Anakin and Padmé, and we are left feeling that passion, rather than persons, dominates our two tragic protagonists in a way that wasn’t seen in the romance between Han and Leia.
In fact, in a featurette, Hayden Christensen explains that Anakin is “attracted to… the power and strength that [Padmé] holds within herself.” Thus our classical tale of forbidden love is consummated the only way this old archetype knows: in the turmoil of “aggressive negotiations.” And, as we witness in the film’s final scene, the two marry on Naboo under a sublime sunset (with the love leitmotif once again playing). The setting simultaneously portrays a romantic beauty and signifies the dark reality rapidly descending over our two star-crossed lovers as the sun sets over the horizon.
Revenge of the Sith picks up where Attack of the Clones left off, and the themes of corporate domination, political corruption, and decadence are still at the center of the story but with a progressive tilt toward technological tyranny and universal empire (which bridges the prequels to the originals). Superficially, Revenge of the Sith is the story of Anakin’s fall from grace and rebirth as Darth Vader. While this is undeniably true, the deeper core—the unconscious core—of Revenge of the Sith is how love is utterly destroyed in a world overcome by corporate domination, political corruption, mass decadence, and technological tyranny.
It is fitting, then, that the Revenge of the Sith is the darkest of the Star Wars films released up to that point. It was the first film in the saga to receive a PG-13 rating. And it is undeniably the most violent of the first six Star Wars films. We witness, firsthand—not at a distance and behind closed walls (like when the Death Star explodes)—more deaths in Revenge of the Sith than in any of the other Star Wars films. Not to mention so many with names and faces we have learned over the prequel trilogy.
The culmination of decadence, corporatism, and political corruption is war. And this is precisely what Revenge of the Sith opens with: the visually spectacular Battle of Coruscant where Anakin and Obi-Wan rescue Chancellor Palpatine from the clutches of General Grievous (who prefigures the robotic monstrosity that Anakin will become) and Count Dooku. Befitting a technological and mechanical world, a tight mechanical environment and aesthetic dominate the early scenes of the film.
Like all the Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith opens on a spaceship in space. Yet as the film progresses, we remain in the tight, metallic cockpits, docking bays, and hallways that increasingly define this world wrought by corporatism and technological progress. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones contrast this world of emerging technological tyranny with the flush open spaces of natural environs on Naboo, Tatooine, and Geonosis. This is no longer the case in the opening of the Revenge of the Sith. Even when we finally escape the restrictive confines of death machines battling and exploding around us, we arrive at Coruscant—a homogenous and universally urbanized planet.
When Anakin reunites with Padmé, we are faced with the crisis of love in a world where love cannot exist but where we desperately want it to exist and triumph. Anakin speaks more like a lustful adolescent than a confident and mature married man. He jumps at the opportunity to embrace Padmé upon first sight. Considering he has been away in war and confined to tight, sterile, mechanical places, the embrace of two humans contrasts the suffocating environs of technological power and utilitarianism. Yet we also sense that something is off.
Here, the story of Anakin’s enslavement to the political machinations of Palpatine is superbly done. A great Catholic writer once wrote about how lust leads to enslavement, and this is precisely what we see in Anakin’s story arc. As he gives himself over to his lusts, he becomes easy prey for the schemes of Palpatine. Had he not fallen into such lust, Anakin would have been able to resist Palpatine’s influence (under which, as he becomes Darth Vader, he remains until Return of the Jedi).
Furthermore, Palpatine uses Anakin as a cog, a commodified pawn, in his own pursuit of power. This was implied in the quick dispatching of Count Dooku in the opening moments of the film. In a world of dog-eat-dog utilitarianism and the pursuit of “unlimited power,” all relationships are merely utilitarian in service; when that use ends, the relationship is tossed aside. So Dooku falls victim to the very utilitarian emptiness he had helped to unleash. Palpatine now seeks to shackle Anakin with the collar of servitude in the bid for “unlimited power.”
The Revenge of the Sith is a roller coaster of a film because it serves as the bridge between the dying (natural) world overwhelmed by decadence, corporatism, and political corruption, and the emerging world of technological tyranny. Here, Revenge of the Sith synthesizes that old tale of decadence and civil war (seen in its appropriation of Greco-Roman aesthetic panache and symbolism) with the brave, cold future of techno-scientism. The worlds suffering under the cataclysm of war, in the film, like Kashyyyk and Utapau are naturally radiant and beautiful. These visually remind us of what we are leaving behind as we aggressively speed into the worlds of Coruscant, Mustafar, and the Death Star.
As Anakin falls into enslavement, which results in the death of his human heart and soul, we see him metamorphize into the cold, dark, robotic terror that is Darth Vader. Sir Roger Scruton writes, “The face shines in the world of objects with a light that is not of this world—the light of subjectivity.” And Anakin’s face, that shining light of subjectivity in a world of objects, is distorted by burns and is concealed by a dark and sinister mask.
In portraying this fall from grace, the answer to whether love can endure in a world of decadence, corporate domination, and political corruption is tragic and pessimistic: a resounding no. On one level we know that this fall must happen because the originals tell us that Anakin becomes Darth Vader. Yet, on another level, we still want the fall to be salvaged through love as so many of our great stories tell us.
The climax of the Revenge of the Sith is in the duel between Yoda and Palpatine and the “Battle of the Heroes” between Obi-Wan and Anakin—and Anakin’s force-choking of Padmé. The public and private must be destroyed for technological tyranny to fully manifest itself. Tyranny knows no boundaries as Hannah Arendt wrote. All must be subjugated to it.
Yoda and Palpatine’s duel in the Senate Chamber, and its resulting destruction, is an allegory of what corporatism, corruption, and decadence do to liberty—“this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.” We might better understand, now, that liberty dies under the smog of corporatism, corruption, and decadence. Palpatine drives Yoda away, and the march to tyranny is complete. With the sacred Senate chamber destroyed in the process, signaling the end of liberty, the new technological order has arrived.
On Mustafar, however, we witness the ultimate act of utilitarian power politics: the killing of the separatist leaders by Anakin’s enslaved will and the heavily choreographed but emotionally laced battle of Obi-Wan and Anakin. Anakin’s rage extinguishes the flame of love, and he chokes a pregnant Padmé. He then draws his lightsaber against his in-situ father-figure, friend, and mentor Obi-Wan. The two men duel in vicious battle in which Obi-Wan eventually bests Anakin. Anakin’s defeat exemplifies that most ancient wisdom: pride cometh before the fall.
Despite Obi-Wan having secured “higher ground” (which has a double meaning: Obi-Wan possesses a higher ground geographically, but he also possesses a higher ground spiritually and morally), Anakin’s pride in his “power” literally causes his fall into the fires of hell where he suffers severe burns and mutilation. Just as Lucifer transformed from the most beautiful and powerful angel into the dark demon, Anakin transforms into a mechanical monster. Pride truly does come before the fall.
As mentioned, it is essential to understand the symbolism of Anakin’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader through the wise words of Roger Scruton. Tormented, happy, angry, and joyful, Anakin’s face has been the lively manifestation of his passions. Now his face is covered by the black mechanical monstrosity of the Vader mask. Anakin figuratively is dead until the mask is removed in Return of the Jedi. This is of the upmost importance for us to realize and wrestle with: A human being dies when the face, the seat of subjectivity and love, dies. So Anakin is only resurrected when he frees himself from the mechanical suit and looks upon Luke’s face with his own eyes.
The original trilogy explored the crisis of identity, love, and redemption in the midst of a technologically tyrannical world (as I wrote here). It ended with the affirmation that only love has the power to stand up against techno-scientism. Return of the Jedi, which completes the original trilogy, ends on a note of optimism with party, family, and prospective marriage in the natural environment of Endor as its final image. The prequel trilogy, by contrast, while nominally providing the tragic backstory of Luke, Leia, and Darth Vader, is primarily concerned with themes of decadence, corporate domination, political corruption, and the insidious influence that these forces have on love. After all, this is what we witness at the film’s conclusion with the birth of Darth Vader and the construction of the Death Star.
This naturally leads us to the problem of interpretative continuity in the Star Wars saga. Superficially, the continuity is preserved through the characters and the Skywalker bloodline (even into Disney’s trilogy). At the deeper level, however, the original trilogy and prequel trilogy explore issues and themes relevant to their specific times. In the 1970s and 1980s during the first wave of science fiction filmography, we see the obsessive concern with mechanical monsters and what they mean for natural, organic life. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, despite the euphoria connected to the end of the Cold War, a new pessimism relating to decadence, shadowy corporate domination, and political corruption came to the fore. These themes dominate the Star Wars galaxy in their respective tripartite iterations.
Yet there remains a certain continuity that bridges the prequel trilogy to the original trilogy. The Revenge of the Sith is the bridge that portrays the end of the decadent, corporatist, and corrupt world—including the death of love—and its transformation into the sterile, technological, and tyrannical world of the original trilogy. Deep down, isn’t this a possibility that many of us subconsciously fear? That our world of decadence, corporatism, and corruption—where love struggles to blossom—is increasingly speeding toward a sterile, techno-tyrannical future?
While the prequel trilogy ends on a darker, more pessimistic note, it also concludes with a flicker of optimism. Anakin truly did love Padmé, for the spirit of love is always new life. Padmé, before she died, gave birth to Luke and Leia. Luke and Leia each find a home with adoptive parents. The final scene of Revenge of the Sith shows not a cramped, metallic ship but the natural world of Tatooine with the infant Luke in the embrace of Owen and Beru. The three look out over the natural world to observe the sunset. The natural light of love, symbolized in this scene, radiates overhead. But though the twin suns set, we know that they must rise again. This scene foreshadows the redemption of Anakin Skywalker in the originals which captivated a generation.
We can, then, indulge in an interpretation that sees love as the link between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. For love is the theme common to both trilogies. And both trilogies end with the opposite image of their openings: not the dark and cramped metallic machines of death but the embrace of human beings in love and hope in an organic environment free from the perils of techno-scientism.
Maybe love can’t survive the inevitable march into technological tyranny, but love—as is implied at the end of the Revenge of the Sith and majestically proclaimed in the pilgrimage of the original trilogy—is the only true “Force” strong enough to stand up against technological tyranny and bring about the return of the human face. Love always seals itself with the face-to-face gaze as C.S. Lewis writes. Anakin’s story is our story as we too live in an age of corruption, corporate dominance, and decadence which threatens to extinguish the flame of love and turn us into Darth Vader. But Star Wars is not predicting the future. It warns us against a possible future but proclaims the ancient and indelible truth that only love can save and cultivate a sacred space for human and humane life in a galaxy not that far, far, away.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.