What was said about history being philosophy teaching by example can also be said of movies. Movies can illustrate philosophy (and even theology) by showing the consequences of following ideas to their logical conclusions. Due to the extent to which people, consciously or unconsciously, turn to movies as their source of principles to guide their lives, the analysis of philosophy and theology incarnated in movies is always a worthwhile exercise.
Despite its flaws, the Star Wars trilogy (episodes 1-3, the prequels) remains an important achievement and phenomenon that simultaneously reflects and influences contemporary thoughts and attitudes. The trilogy comments on many aspects of human existence, bioethical issues included. Some of the trilogy’s messages must be taken with a grain of salt, but all the more, then, do they deserve to be discussed.
Ever since my mom has been asking recommendations for films to show for discussion at her bioethics class in a university, I have been alert to bioethical themes in movies, no matter how remotely connected to the story. Thus, the horrific possible consequences of cloning and the “new hope” that would have been killed had Padme Amidala decided to terminate her inconvenient pregnancy was not lost on me.
Then, there’s the matter of Anakin Skywalker accepting Senator Palpatine’s offer of a power that could be learned “not from a Jedi” – power to alter the midichlorians to create life, power to save Padme from dying in childbirth. Not everyone in the audience, perhaps, will consider it a metaphor for experimentation on embryos and other morally questionable scientific procedures, but just the same, the question is raised: does the desire to save one life justify appropriating God-like powers over life and death to oneself?
The trilogy’s answer unfolds as Anakin turns to the Dark Side and massacres many innocent people in his quest for that power. Themes of the end not justifying the means and the pernicious effects of wanting to be the master of life and death develop. (Unfortunately, George Lucas had to ruin what was supposed to be an epic battle between good and evil by making Obi-wan say, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” but this is a matter for another essay.)
However, while analyzing Anakin’s turning to the Dark Side uncovers important bioethical lessons, it also exposes flaws in the world view that pervades the trilogy.
Anakin was certainly wrong to turn to the Dark Side just to save Padme, but it could be asked, was the desire to save her life, in itself, evil?
According to the Jedi way, it is wrong to mourn for those who die. But this attitude is not only contrary to human nature; it is also un-Christian. While Christianity warns against excessive attachment to our loved ones, Christianity not only allows but in fact commands us to love our neighbour. Christianity does not preach a stoic, unaffected acceptance of death; rather, Christianity preaches a God who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Whether intended or unintended, a critique of “the Jedi way” comes from the trilogy itself. In his review of Revenge of the Sith, Catholic film critique Steve Greydanus writes,
“xxx Yoda, his speech patterns sounding more convoluted and less sage-like than ever, has a final speech on the Jedi precept of detachment that goes well beyond Christian freedom from excessive attachment into Buddhist impassiveness. Attachment, Yoda teaches, is ‘a way to the dark side,’ and our detachment and acceptance of death should be so complete that we shouldn’t even mourn the dead.
The problem with Yoda’s ethic of detachment is that it’s dead contrary to the unabashed humanism with which the whole story ends in Return of the Jedi, where human attachments — filial loyalty, paternal bonds — ultimately save the galaxy, destroy the Sith and the Empire, and redeem Anakin’s lost soul. Yoda and Obi-Wan consistently counsel Luke (and, in the prequels, Anakin) against the very bonds that finally lead to the triumph of good over evil.
In the end, alas, the Jedi do seem too “narrow” and “dogmatic,” not the great sages Lucas presumably wanted them to be. Perhaps the “prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force” was misinterpreted after all: Perhaps the prophecy was really fulfilled not by Anakin destroying the Sith order, but by Luke humanizing the Jedi ethic.”
The development of Anakin’s character arc from his proud desire to stop people from dying in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, to the scene in Return of the Jedi where he asks Luke to remove his mask, answering “it does not matter now” when Luke warns him that he’ll die, is brilliant. But Star Wars with its world view can only go so far in giving a satisfying answer to the question of how we should face death.
It would be worth to compare and contrast the Star Wars world view with expounded on by St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. He did write that the believer “accepts from God the need to die” and that “Certainly, the life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good for the believer.” But he also wrote:
“The dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of Him. In the light of this truth Saint Ireneaus qualifies and completes the praise of man: ‘the glory of God’ is indeed, man, living man”, but “the life of man consists in the vision of God.”
Immediate consequences arise from this for human life in its earthly state, in which, for that matter, eternal life already springs forth and begins to grow. Although man instinctively loves life because it is a good, this love will find further inspiration and strength, and new breadth and depth, in the divine dimensions of this good. Similarly, the love which every human being has for life cannot be reduced simply to a desire to have sufficient space for self-expression and for entering into relationships with others; rather, it develops in a joyous awareness that life can become the “place” where God manifests himself, where we meet him and enter into communion with him. The life which Jesus gives in no way lessens the value of our existence in time; it takes it and directs it to its final destiny: “I am the resurrection and the life…whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. (Jn. 11: 25-26).”
Popular culture is not devoid of valuable insights on universal questions like life and death. At the same time, popular culture sometimes raises more questions than answers, and the insights found in it must be purified and completed by the Christian world view in order to give truly satisfying answers. This need not spoil the fun of watching Star Wars. But it is just as rewarding to reflect on and discuss Star Wars insights on life and death, as well as on many other things, long after the credits roll and the John Williams score ends.