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Opinion How violence sets the ‘Star Wars’ movies apart

Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen in “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.” (Credit: Lucasfilm)

The “Star Wars” movies have long had a reputation not just as space operas, but as family films, a franchise that’s transmitted from parent to child like power in the Force, and a series that’s easy enough for children to understand but engaging enough to keep adults’ attention. I certainly have participated in the family traditions around “Star Wars”; a cousin introduced me to the movies, and I waited with great anticipation until my brother was old enough to watch them. But it’s always striking to me that people feel this way for a series that is defined in part by scenes of violence that, by the standards of contemporary action movies, are extreme in their depictions of suffering.

The first time two people square off in a lightsaber duel, it’s a literally bloodless affair. After promising his former protege “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine,” Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) stops fighting. And when Vader (embodied by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) swings his weapon to cut his teacher in two, Kenobi’s body vanishes. It’s a moment of great mystery and power, but it also lets “A New Hope” off the hook from showing us the vivisected trunk of a character we’ve come to know and respect.

That approach changes the next time we see two characters square off in lightsaber combat. When Darth Vader strikes off Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) hand, the movie doesn’t try to disguise the physical agony Luke is feeling. There’s no manly grunt of concealed pain, but rather a howl carried away in the winds that buffet Cloud City. And part of what feels striking and adult about “Empire Strikes Back” is just how long the film lingers on Luke’s suffering, and the emotional cruelty of Vader’s revelation of Luke’s parentage that surrounds it. Luke sweats. He cradles his maimed arm. His face contorts and becomes puffy with tears and shock. And when he manages to get to the bottom of the space station, only passivity is left to him: he drops helplessly onto the top of the Millenium Falcon.*

In a contemporary movie environment, where superheroes shake off shattering blows because they just have to get on with the mission, darn it, there’s a moral power to seeing a hero suffer that sort of pain and weakness.

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And for all the prequel movies George Lucas released in 1999, 2002 and 2005 often betray the best spirits of the original trilogy, the finest sequence in “Revenge of the Sith” is defined by that same willingness to depict both violence and the consequences of it. Towards the end of that film, Obi-Wan Kenobi (played here by Ewan McGregor) travels to the volcanic planet Mustafar to confront his former student, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), who has fallen to the Dark Side and killed many people, including children, at the Jedi Temple.

The battle that results is both exceptionally violent — “Revenge of the Sith” is the only “Star Wars” movie to be rated PG-13 rather than PG — and emotionally complex. Kenobi doesn’t quite have the fortitude to kill Skywalker, so he maims him instead, cutting off his arms and legs in an echo of what Skywalker will do to his son in “Empire Strikes Back.” Kenobi may not be a murderer, but he causes Skywalker astonishing suffering, and Lucas focuses closely on Christensen’s increasingly red-rimmed, hysterical eyes as pain consumes him and he slides into the fires of Mustafar. Christensen’s acting in the three prequel movies has met with much-justified criticism over the years (though some of the scripts he had to work with were truly wretched), but in this scene, like Hamill before him, he holds our attention with his expressions of agony and fear.

It’s the one scene in the prequels that really achieves the emotional and moral heights of the original films, and that provides a real sense of history and gravity between characters when Kenobi and Darth Vader meet again in “A New Hope.” Contrasting the peace in a dying Anakin Skywalker’s eyes at the end of “Return of the Jedi” with his pain-maddened visage in “Revenge of the Sith” is a testament to the idea that a good death can bring resolution as well as hurt.

Though the “Star Wars” movies do a particularly strong job of deploying violence between individuals, it’s also worth noting just how well “A New Hope” handles the planetary stakes that have become commonplace in superhero movies today. The world is so often in peril in films like “The Avengers” that it has become difficult to be particularly concerned on Earth’s behalf. Our mightiest heroes always save the day, and while they feel an obligation to save their fellow citizens, they don’t experience the same sense of shock and powerlessness that the ordinary people who are crushed by falling buildings, stabbed by alien warriors, or shot by intelligent robots do. Those people are game pieces rather than actual characters; their fear exists to create stakes for our heroes rather than to awaken our empathy.

But while we never see Alderaan in “A New Hope,” we do see its destruction from the perspective of someone who loves it passionately.** Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is never more rattled than when Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) threatens her planet to extort the location of a rebel base from her, and gives the order for the Death Star to fire on Alderaan. She sketches in Alderaan in just a few words, protesting that “Alderaan is peaceful! We have no weapons,” but our knowledge of her home world matters less than her clear demonstration of what the planet means to her. This is no rampage through New York that will be neatly reset with few apparent consequences for society at large by the time the next big blockbuster rolls around. Even if Leia will be too busy to stop and grieve for Alderaan over the next three films, her planet’s destruction is an event that forges her as a revolutionary and as a woman.

There are lots of reasons to love the “Star Wars” movies and the stories other artists have told in George Lucas’s fictional universe. But one of the things that elevates them beyond the children’s fare with creative monster design to which Lucas has sometimes reduced his own creation is the films’ very real engagement with violence. In a story about starship battles and interplanetary conflict, “Star Wars” returns again and again to what it means for individuals to maim, to suffer, and to kill.

* One of the things I find fascinating about the original “Star Wars” trilogy is the way each main character takes a turn in what’s effectively the princess role. Leia needs to be rescued in the first movie, Luke in the second and Han in the third.

** My columnist Sonny Bunch argued yesterday that the destruction of Alderaan was justified from the Imperial perspective. He’s wrong on practical grounds, not to mention the obvious moral ones: Princess Leia’s prediction that “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers” looks better, long-term, than Grand Moff Tarkin’s prediction that the use of the Death Star would be an effective deterrent. When you can’t scare off Ewoks, you’re not very effective. And Sonny’s also completely wrong about the idea that the Empire, which was highly racist against aliens and rarely promoted even talented women, was some sort of meritocracy. Even if you reject the evidence of the Expanded Universe, just take a look at the crew aboard any Imperial ship: are you really telling me that in a Galactic Empire chock-full of alien species, the most qualified people are all pasty white dudes?