Monday, 21 November 2011

Annakin

Last night, I watched a couple of episodes of series 2 of The Clone Wars with my 6 year old daughter, Isobel. We both like The Clone Wars, and for myself, the series does a much better job of articulating Lucas's ideas about the Jedi than the prequel trilogy is ever able to do. In particular, Annakin's journey from padawan to Obi-Wan's equal to Darth Vader always seemed under-motivated to me, partly through the execrable script in Attack of the Clones, and partly through Hayden Christianson's limitations as an actor in that film and in Revenge of the Sith.

The idea that Annakin wishes to forestall the death of Padme as a kind of psychological effect of the loss of his mother doesn't really work for me; how does this explain his fall to the 'dark side', and in particular the scene where he enters the Jedi temple to slay all the younglings? How does this square with him soon to become a father? While I think it's an interesting thing for Lucas to do to make Annakin so monstrous at this point, the 'fall' is insufficiently convincing psychologically. This is where The Clone Wars comes into its own.

The series fit into the gap between the second and third films, where Annakin has grown from callow and precocious teen-warrior (as in Attack of the Clones) to the brooding presence of Revenge of the Sith. The Annakin of The Clone Wars is heroic, his reckless courage the resolution to many of the narratives, but he is also placed in the role of mentor to the female padawan Ahsoka Tano. This 'father' role (in which the young girl comes to resemble Annakin in temperament and recklessness) plays against the Revenge of the Sith in an interesting way, shading the characterisation of Annakin to make him far more sympathetic. He has flaws, but he is one of the good guys.

However, in the second series, just what Annakin has been trained to be, and what the Clone Wars are turning all the Jedi into, becomes increasingly apparent. In the episode 'Voyage of Temptation', Obi-Wan accompanies the Mandalorean Duchess Satine (an avowed pacifist) and protects her from assassination by a war-mongering dissident group from a Mandalorean moon. It is revealed, as the episode goes on, that Obi-Wan and Satine were once unrequited lovers, the object of ironic commentary from Annakin, who expresses surprise that Obi-Wan has come close to violating the Jedi code not to allow personal emotional entanglements to cloud their judgement.

At the end of the episode, a traitor kidnaps Satine and is pursued by Obi-Wan. Satine escapes the traitor's grasp, and she holds a blaster on him, while Obi-Wan has his light saber in close attendance. The traitor baits them both, noting that if Obi-Wan kills him and saves the ship (the traitor has a device to cause the ship to explode) he will be a hero, except to the ultra-pacifist Satine, who will abhor him; if Satine kills the traitor, she will violate everything she holds dear. This no-win situation is ended when Obi-Wan calls up the need for a 'cold-blooded killer'; the next moment, a light saber protrudes from the chest of the traitor, wielded by Annakin, who catches the device as it falls. 'What?' Annakin asks, to their horrified looks. 'He was going to blow up the ship.' The insouciance with which Annakin dispatches the Mandalorean (no mere droid) is purposely chilling: the act has no ethical weight for Annakin. He has become so inured to battle, to violence, to killing, that this moment of ethical decision is entirely lost on him.

But who is to blame? Is it Annakin himself, or is it the Jedi training and warrior role he has assumed? One of the things The Clone Wars is able to do is to complicate Obi-Wan, not only by offering romantic entanglements in the past, but to suggest that his judgement is awry at crucial stages of the narrative. This is most evident in the confrontation in Revenge of the Sith, during the light saber battle between he and Annakin. In a pause, Annakin declares that to him, 'the Jedi are evil'. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan shouts back, 'then you are lost!" It's actually one of the most striking lines of the film, but it points out Obi-Wan's failure as a mentor to Annakin: even here, he could explain things, try to show Annakin where he has done wrong; but instead he only repeats that he has 'failed' Annakin. Later in the sequence, he calls Annakin 'brother', not 'son'; it is, in a sense, the failure of patriarchal authority at work here. Annakin becomes what the Jedi need him to be, the warrior nonpareil; unfortunately, the warrior-prince finds another father and brings about the doom of the Jedi that made him.

In Revenge of the Sith, the failure of the Jedi is partly couched in heroic terms, in the personal duels Mace Windu and Yoda have with Palpatine which fail to kill the Emperor-to-be. However, I think The Clone Wars more cunningly reveals that it is not a failure of heroic action which is at the root of the Republic's downfall: it is an ethical, strategic and political failure on the part of the Jedi - a 'peace-keeping' order who assume the role of pursuing martial victory - that is the real cause of defeat. It's a shame, then, that the prequel trilogy, in its inability to tell the personal/ dynastic AND political narratives of the fall of the Republic (most apparent in the clumsy structure of Attack of the Clones) at the same time, has somewhat marred the reputation and reception of the Star Wars films as a whole; The Clone Wars, with its painterly animation and more shaded (though still heroic) storylines, recovers much of the lost ground admirably.




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Saturday, 5 November 2011

on Starship Troopers

Here's a short section from my book Masculinity in Fiction and Film:

The rhetoric of the frontier [...] is clearly crucial to science fictions that involve contact (and warfare) with alien species. Alasdair Spark suggested that Heinlein should be considered a ‘Social Darwinist, whose ideal society is one in which the individual is free to rise to his “natural” level of power, wealth, and authority'. The same may be said of the model of competition, between humans and Bugs as competing colonists, that Heinlein employs macrocosmically in Starship Troopers. Victory, in the MI troopers war, will produce the colonial hegemon. Ziauddin Sardar has suggested that ‘Wherever we look, the colonising, imperial mission of science fiction is hard to miss. Space, the final frontier, is the recurrent frontier on which Western thought has been constructed and operated throughout history, or time’. Domination is legitimated through the pseudo-Darwinist competition for resources. Politically, this is legitimated through the novel by yet another authority/ father figure, Major Reid, who operates as a similar mouthpiece to Dubois. Underpinning the authority of the state, he argues, is force: the law is secured by violence.

“To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives – such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! – the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or ten billion, political authority is force.” (p. 155)

(The bundle of Rods is another symbol of fascism, itself appropriated from the Roman republic.) [...] In his film version of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven manipulates this speech for satirical effect: ‘force, my friends, is violence, the supreme authority from which all other authority derives’, put into the mouth of the character of Rasczak (Michael Ironside, who performs the roles of both the teacher Dubois and the original leader of the Roughnecks). Where Heinlein made the franchise the prime authority (made so by elective citizenship), Verhoeven exposes what he sees as the legitimation of military aggression in this rhetoric. Indeed, his cynicism about the construction of a military state approaches that of C. Wright Mills: he said, at the time of the film’s production, ‘The US is desperate to find a new enemy… Alien sci-fi gives us a terrifying enemy that is politically correct’. The threatening Other is a necessary legitimation of the militarised nation-state.

Although Starship Troopers is clearly a Cold War text, deploying what David Seed has called the ‘Communists-as-bugs trope’ common to science fiction of the 1950s, Verhoeven’s film version emphasises Western intertexts rather than either the war film or the Cold War. Arriving on a disputed planet, Rasczak, Rico and the Roughnecks seek out a human outpost that has lost contact with the fleet. The landscape they march through is red desert; in the visual rhetoric of the Western, this is Indian country. They come across the fort to find it overrun and all its inhabitants slaughtered. I.Q. Hunter is surely correct in identifying Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as a ‘parody of Heinlein’s novel [and] a wicked deconstruction of the xenophobic militarism of both 1950s sci-fi and the war film’, but here, his identification of the ‘Bugs as Indians fighting off genocidal colonists’ is more pertinent. One of the most spectacular images in the film is when the Bugs emerge to surround the fort: the mixture of alien other, flood or tide, and imagery from countless Westerns is telling. The MI troopers [...] must withstand the ‘red tide’. Even if the film is camp and overblown, which it certainly is, Verhoeven is intent on exposing the underpinnings of militarism in narratives of the frontier, and how the price of ‘colonialism’ and ‘expansion’ is often death and destruction on horribly vast scales. The citizen-soldier, the Starship Trooper, becomes a troubling presence, whose violent means are not obscured by ideologically-sanctioned ends.

(End of extract.) I do not think Starship Troopers is a fascist text, but it certainly relies upon a rather naked expression of power or force as the primary relation between states, and between individuals. For liberal sensitivities, this makes Starship Troopers an uncomfortable book. It is, I think, a peculiarly American one, in terms of the ideals of the Republic, the ideologies of the Cold War, and its 1950s (re-)constructions of masculinity and fatherhood. But remember: the main character is Juan Rico, whose first language is Tagalog. He is a Filipino. In a novel which articulates a rather disturbing relationship between us and them, self and Other, Heinlein's protagonist and focus is from the developing world and not the USA, whose ethnicity is not 'white': no small thing for a science fiction text from the late 1950s.