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Some people feel that the Emperor’s attempt to turn Luke to the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi is a weak story element, in that there is very little in place to tempt him; that when we have heard of Vader being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, we should expect something more persuasive. Personally I feel that this misses the point. Certainly and trivially it’s true that “if you go with it, you can win the fight against Vader (your father!) and defeat me, the Emperor (although actually it will give me your victory)” is a rather weak argument. However, that entirely misses the point that it was never about an argument to begin with. Nobody ever said that Vader was persuaded to join the Dark Side. The Emperor was not depicted as a demagogue; his evil was blatant.

Ironically, the point that I think is missed by those who argue that the “seduction” of the Dark Side should have been more persuasive and had a more human element to it is that it was about…well, the Force. It was the Dark Side itself that was supposed to hold an unnatural and harmful attraction—not the course that took you there, not the goals it promised to, or actually did help you reach, but the power in itself: Once tasted, forever will it dominate your destiny. Of course Yoda turned out to be wrong in being quite so absolute, but if we accept him (as the story clearly intends) as wise, then we may infer that his error must ipso facto have been a rare exception.

I think of it more like a metaphysical drug, a psychic super-heroin: Use it once or twice and you’re going to be hooked, not because you enjoy it so much but because it gives you no choice—even if the exposure, as it were, is largely accidental, unwilling, and transient, as Luke’s enraged onslaught at the end of Jedi.

You might argue that this is not clearly stated in the films and that I’m just making it up as a post hoc justification. To this I say—well, maybe, to some degree. Still, regarding (as I do) the original trilogy as the authorative canon, it’s the only interpretation that makes sense to me. You don’t know the power of the Dark Side, Vader intones: I must obey my Master. This was not loyalty, which is still a matter of choice. Rather, the power itself left him no options; he was enslaved to it, using it and under its control.

It also explains the Emperor himself very nicely—twisted and physically distorted, gleefully malicious apparently gratia malice; corrupted, then, by long decades of addiction to the Dark Side. (Need I explicate that I find this a more compelling interpretation than having his face melted by Samuel L. Jackson?)

Speaking of the Emperor, his behaviour lends perhaps the strongest support to my view. I think it is safe to assume that he, within the context of the Star Wars universe, is no fool, and is certainly well versed in the ways of the Force. He has lived with the Dark Side for decades at least, and experienced first-hand whatever effects it has had on him, body and mind. He is, then, pretty well placed to judge its effects on Vader’s mind. Now consider his actions, and his terminal error: He provokes Luke into fighting Vader, apparently expecting Luke’s rage to snare him in the Dark Side. If he did not have good reason to think that this might work, his entire scheme to capture Luke makes no sense. And as he didn’t have anything compelling to tempt or persuade Luke, I submit that he must have expected the intrinsic nature of the Dark Side to do it for him—as his experience had taught him it would.

That’s not the end of it, though, for his behaviour becomes far more foolish on the “psychological view”. The Emperor, seeing Luke caught up in rage, encourages him to kill Vader, and take his father’s place at the Emperor’s side—this while Luke stands over the fallen Vader, who obviously hears every word. Consider this: The Emperor distinctly informs Vader that he’s ready to toss him aside, have him killed, and replace him. But when Luke refuses, and Vader gets back on his feet, the Emperor has no qualms about having Vader by his side again. So: The Emperor demonstrates he’s willing to have Vader killed; Luke refuses to kill his father because he won’t submit and keeps insisting that Vader is not beyond redemption; so the Emperor chooses to torture Vader’s son to death right in front of him, turning his back on this seven-foot cyborg while standing next to a deep shaft into the chasms of the Death Star. Unless the Emperor had strong reason to believe Vader incapable of betraying him, this is beyond foolish: it’s suicide-by-cyborg.

Now, of course it turned out that he was wrong—Luke could and did refuse, and Vader, under these extreme circumstances, proved that though his will had been constrained by the Dark Side of the Force, it had not been utterly subsumed.¹ He was able to make a final choice and redeem himself, though it killed him. (And was this from his injuries, or from the Emperor’s dying lashing-out, or was this because at last he denied himself the addictive substance of the Dark Side on which he had become dependent—and so effectively killed himself?) But unless his mind was constrained, Vader’s killing the Emperor was not a dramatic redemption at all. Of course he might well kill the Emperor, redeemed or not; he had just been betrayed.²

The only way the dramatic climax of the saga becomes a dramatic climax is if you accept that Luke’s resistance was rare, unanticipated, and difficult; and that Vader’s redemption was profound, unprecedented, and hitherto believed impossible by everyone we had met along the way, save Luke only.

Some of you may argue that the psychological view would have given us a better story. Personally I don’t mind a bit of fairy-tale Good versus Evil, so long as it’s not my only fare, but I will not insist that you are wrong. My point is not that a Star Wars version with metaphysical evil is better than a Star Wars version with purely ‘human’ motivations—but rather that judging by the original trilogy, and Jedi in particular, the metaphysical version is the one that was actually made.

You could also argue that if what we saw was a metaphysical conception, it could have been made plainer and it could have been written better. Well, that’s certainly true of all things Star Wars. Nonetheless I disagree with the specific criticism that Jedi is inferior to Revenge of the Sith in that sole aspect of Anakin having a “real temptation” versus the Emperor failing to really tempt Luke with anything. I could even argue that it’s the other way around: By giving Anakin a concrete motivation and casting his apostacy in terms of human motivation, we’re forced to consider the strength and credibility of his sudden turn from “I just want to save my wife” to “alright, I’ll go slaughter some children”, and in terms of human psychology—well, that doesn’t look very plausible to me. Precisely by invoking the mystical corruption of the Dark Side, the original trilogy can at least justifiably ask us to invoke suspension of disbelief.

¹ At this point the Emperor has evidence that the Dark Side was a bit less absolute than he (and everyone else) had hitherto believed, but he didn’t really have time to consider the implications. Seeing Luke resist him, maybe he could have predicted Vader’s redemption, but in any case he didn’t have time.

² It is perhaps a little ironic that the very extreme emotional circumstances at play for Vader are precisely the reason why the “psychological version” would take all the drama out of the climax of the film, by making the choice too easy.


Mar. 10th, 2009 12:31 am
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Having read the graphic novel, and agreeing within the limit of my experience with graphic novels that it may well be the greatest graphic novel ever written, I saw the movie with a very mixed set of emotions.

As I told some friends tonight, I can view it in two different ways, and reach two different conclusions. I can view it as a retelling of the story, in which case I feel it missed the point by losing the focus; or I can view it as filming a set of scenes from the story, in which case I think it was fantastic. Given the mix, I walked out of the theatre not quite knowing what to think: Not disappointed, because I couldn’t find a single detail to be disappointed in; not wowed, because it just didn’t feel like Watchmen.

In the first sense—as a representation of a set of scenes from Watchmen—I really think it was outstanding. The casting was great. I don’t quite agree with another friend that it was the best casting that could possibly be done (chiefly, Ozymandias looked a bit thin and there was something about Dr. Manhattan), but it was very, very good. The scenery was great, the lines were faithful (almost?) to a fault… A few scenes were modified, most notably the ending, which (unlike the rest of the movie) was changed in detail but not in spirit; more importantly, some of the fight scenes were drawn out (the death of the Comedian was drawn out excessively, and the assault in the alley had some gratuitous gore). At certain points, the choice of music, which didn’t seem to set the right mood. But really, even to someone as prone to quibbling over details as I am, these quibbles are very, very minor.

And there were parts that I were afraid they would sanitise out—the simple decision of putting Dr. Manhattan’s blue penis on the silver screen was one (not that I particularly care to see it, but to leave it out would have required some ridiculously contrived shots); more significantly, where V for Vendetta (not directed by Zach Snyder, but included here as comparison because it, too, was based on a graphic novel written by Alan Moore) left out some of the grimier parts, such as Evey going out to prostitute herself out of desperation and poverty—while V for Vendetta was sanitised, Watchmen included the ugly parts, such as the attempted rape, or the hideous scene with the Vietnamese woman. And while the villain was perhaps a bit more obvious than in the graphic novel, well, it had to fit within the three-hour time span.

If I were to watch the movie as a set of detached scenes—in the same way that I watched the trailer and quivered with anticipation and excitement at how perfectly these scenes were represented—I have no complaint that I would not dismiss as trivial and irrelevant.

That’s one way of watching the movie.

The other level at which I perceived the movie was as a representation of the story, Watchmen…and it didn’t feel like the same story. I had to digest it for a bit to quite figure out why, because every important detail was so perfect, but really, that was why. Zack Snyder spent all the screen time getting all the details right and making a movie out of it—and in order to fit all the right details under three hours, much of the spirit of the movie was lost.

What is Watchmen? It’s a very complex and multifaceted story, but to me, the summary that leaps out is that it’s an analysis of a question: What would the world really be like if the superheroes of the 1940s and 50s had been real? —With the superheroes of comic books, but the psychology and the politics of reality. And, as though that weren’t enough, the adjunct question: What if a superhero were added to that story who, crucially unlike all the others, had real, and vast, powers?

As such, Watchmen is a superhero comic with action, tough heroes, and the miraculous powers of Dr. Manhattan—but that’s not what it’s about. What it’s really about are the people, the psychology, the society, everything in reaction to that stuff. That’s what made Watchmen special, that’s what gave it literary influence beyond the comic book community, that’s what gave it the power to establish graphic novels and comics as having true literary value. That’s what made it great. And that’s what Zack Snyder, spending his time on awesome (if brutal) action scenes, his energy and attention on being faithful to every detail, didn’t have the time and energy and attention left to capture.

As Joe of Joe Loves Crappy Movies said, Watchmen sells its soul for the details. Or, in the words of MightyGodKing:

The action scenes are all at least decent, with points that are excellent, but… raise your hand if your favorite bit from Watchmen is an action sequence? Right. That’s what I thought.

And yet, I find it hard to criticise it. Many people (not least Alan Moore, who admittedly has a certain reputation for being unreasonable) have referred to Watchmen as unfilmable, and having seen the movie, I find it hard to disagree. If Snyder had sacrificed the details, it would have bothered me; he didn’t, and so—the movie bothered me. Ultimately, I don’t think that it would be impossible to capture the real Watchmen on film—but I think it would be very difficult; I think it would take not nearly three hours, but nearly five, of screentime; and I think it would face the difficulty of being what Watchmen truly is: A story about superheroes that isn’t about superheroic deeds, that’s about darkness and psychology and psychopathology, that takes the genre literally and turns it into literature.

I don’t think Snyder did a bad job. I don’t know that he could have done it better. (My nitpicking soul will not unleash its fury on him for sacrificing either detail or spirit needlessly, as it has on Peter Jackson.) Nor do I think that Watchmen is necessarily completely unfilmable. But I strongly suspect that it may be unfilmable as a commercially viable Hollywood movie, and under those constraints, it’s hard to see how it can be improved upon.

Whether that means I’ll buy it for my (small and selective) DVD collection, I don’t know. I do know that I will re-read the graphic novel as soon as I finish the book I’m currently reading—or sooner.

Unrelated to my opinion of the movie, here are two comedic takes that amuse me at this late hour:

  • Opening titles for a fake 1980s Watchmen Saturday morning cartoon
  • I thought that the substantial alteration of details to the ending were justified (as they would have had to include a subtle but pervasive subplot for it to make any sense, and the movie was long enough already). The Führer disagrees with me…


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Petter Häggholm

January 2018

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