Let’s Talk About Star Wars: The Power of No

Most people who know me would say I’m a Star Wars fan. This is true to a point: I’m a fan of the Star Wars films and works that series creator George Lucas personally oversaw and directed but have no interest in the mass produced husk that the Walt Disney Company has been in charge of since the fall of 2012 when Lucas sold his company to the Mouse. I know that most who would call themselves Star Wars fans were quite happy with this news as those same people have not been happy with Lucas’s handling of the franchise.

As a George Lucas fan, any criticism of the man’s handling of his own work is beyond me. I cherish each and every frame that he crafted with the movies and still look forward to my viewings of the proper George Lucas saga despite having seen the films umpteen times.

One of the things I hope to accomplish with my personal site is to give readers some insight to the films, music and works that mean something to me and inform my own work and there has been no other work of art that has had the impact on me that George Lucas’s Star Wars saga has. I’m excited to christen this site with the first in what I hope will be a series of blog entries that will provide a long overdue re-evaluation of the themes, ideas and techniques present in Episodes I-VI of the Star Wars saga.

Since the Star Wars films have, at this point, been agonizingly torn apart as naseuam by this point it should come as no surprise to learn that certain moments and phrases and images occur more than once throughout the six films in George Lucas’s saga. This is not by accident but by design: Lucas has gone on record in the past stating that he “…like(s) to think of the Star Wars films as silent movies, movies whose stories are carried forward visually and by a musical score.” (quoted from the liner notes of the 1999 soundtrack to The Phantom Menace)

As the story told throughout the six films spans two generations, six episodes and four decades, the films then depend on the audiences’ familiarity with said images to understand the context and meaning that changes throughout the saga. Perhaps the most impactful of these visually leitmotifs may also be the most maligned.

The high drama and emotion found in Lucas’s Star Wars movies can summarily be distilled into one small word, “No.” It is uttered by one character in each film Lucas directed and oversaw, although later added by Lucas into the end of Return of the Jedi for its 2011 Blu-ray release. Although many cried foul when they learned of this inclusion, doing so completely dismisses the impact of the moment that serves as a declamitory end to the pain, heartbreak, evil, and hatred that has followed the trajectory of Anakin Skywalker’s life.

The Phantom Menace

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Following the duel with Darth Maul, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn is struck down and dealt a fatal blow by the agent of the man who would be emperor. As he watches his master collapse to the ground, padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi cries out in shock and terror, “No!”

After vanquishing the threat that was Darth Maul, Kenobi races to comfort Qui-Gon, promising him that he will fulfill his dying master’s wish and train young Skywalker this sealing Anakin’s fate in a moment of grief and sadness.

Attack of the Clones

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We follow young Anakin Skywalker as he races toward the Tusken Raider encampment where he hopes to find his mother whom he has learned was captured by them from her homestead. After finding her bound and beaten, she succumbs to her wounds in his arms. Filled with rage, he gives into his anger and destroys the men, women and children who held his mother hostage.

Halfway across the galaxy and deep in meditation, Jedi master Yoda feels Skywalker’s pain through the Force and it is in this moment that we hear Qui-Gon Jinn cry out in anguish over Skywalker’s massacre, “No.”

Revenge of the Sith

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Perhaps the most misunderstood moment in Lucas’s sixth and final entry in the Star Wars saga, we find the newly christened Darth Vader strapped to a surgical table, now more machine than man, following a fiercely battle with his old master Obi-Wan Kenobi. After learning from the Emperor that in his anger he is responsible for the death of his wife Padme, he breaks free from his shackles and cries out in disbelief, “No!”

A New Hope

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The loss of the teacher is paramount to the hero’s journey, the archetypal model devised by writer and professor Joseph Campbell. It is in A New Hope’s emotional core that Luke Skywalker is ushered into a larger world alone after his old friend and mentor Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi is struck down by the sinister Darth Vader. The emotion in this scene fittingly mirrors the moment when Obi-Wan himself sees his old master killed by Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.

The Empire Strikes Back

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Perhaps one of the most iconic moments not only in the saga but in cinema history, Luke Skywalker’s reaction to the knowledge that man he thought had murdered his father is in fact his father strikes at the heart of father/son dynamic that the saga pivots on. Luke’s cry in disbelief is the moment the saga enters an arena few other films dare to enter. What started as a tragic conflict of good and evil now resolves itself as a battle for the very soul of a once good who has become twisted by his ambitions and desires and has brought his own son to the precipice of death.

Return of the Jedi

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We come to the last and perhaps most important moment in the saga punctuated by the use of the word, “No.” After besting Darth Vader in combat with a lightsaber, the Emperor proceeds to torture Luke Skywalker for lacking the vision demanded by an agent of evil. With his final reserves of energy, Luke pleads with his father, Darth Vader, begging him to help. Vader finally resolves the conflict within with a declaratory, “No” and turns against his Emperor to save his son. Many write the use of “No” in this scene off as a mirror of the moment in Revenge of the Sith when Vader cries “No” following the realization that he killed his own wife.

While this is certainly what was intended, there’s something more going on in this scene. This “No” comes at the end of the saga and, fittingly enough, at the end of Anakin Skywalker’s life. It is with this “No” that Vader rejects the hatred, the pain, the anguish, the grief, the fear that has come before and embraced his own destiny, less as the one who will be bring balance to the force and more as a father who must now give up everything for the love of his son.

This is what Star Wars is all about, what all of George Lucas’s films are about. The spaceships, aliens and effects are merely artifice to a story that is ultimately about us as a people, as a culture; what we value and what we want future generations to take with them.