the rise and fall of Darth Vader, a redemption story

A few weeks ago, I watched all six of the live action Star Wars films (that had been released on DVD, of course) with a friend who had never seen them before. The best part was that I took a day of paid time off from work and we watched all six in one day. Now, I’ve been watching Star Wars since I was old enough to quit taking afternoon naps, but never in my life before that day had I watched all six in one sitting.

It had been awhile since the last time I had watched the prequel trilogy (episodes one through three) for obvious reasons I won’t take the time to go into here. Episodes one and two were what they were, but I was particularly struck by episode three. For some reason, even though I had seen this film countless times before, I was affected by it in a new, stomach-churning way.

Episode three, entitled Revenge of the Sith, is easily the most tragic installment in the series, as hero Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side, spearheads an unprovoked slaughter of the Jedi Order, and aids in the dissolution of galactic liberty and the accession of an oppressive, xenophobic regime. The impetus for such unconscionable behavior is complex, and to a point disturbingly understandable, yet truly heartbreaking (if you’re willing to overlook the fact that Star Wars is completely fictional). Obi-wan Kenobi, Anakin’s master and father figure, sums up the anguish of the situation as he stares down at his former friend, who has been physically disfigured by his fateful duel with Obi-wan and spiritually twisted by the tentacles of evil. “You were the chosen one!” Obi-wan mourns. “It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.”

To which Anakin (or as he is then known, Darth Vader) responds in an inhuman shriek, “I hate you!”

“You were my brother, Anakin,” Obi-wan continues. “I love you.” And then, Obi-wan leaves, seeing Anakin’s body catch fire and believing his dear friend’s death to be inevitable. Of course, Anakin does not die. Instead, he is rebuilt into a horrific cyborg who terrorizes the galaxy on behalf of his new master, the Emperor, Darth Sidious.

Now, we all knew that Anakin would become Darth Vader. And yet, there’s this horrible feeling that comes from watching Anakin’s descent into darkness. Even after seeing this movie many times, I was devastated by it anew. Perhaps it was because I had matured quite a bit since the last time I had seen it and could more fully understand the weight of Anakin’s decisions. Or perhaps it was because I came to the chilling realization that I could actually empathize with Anakin. After all, Anakin’s turn to the dark side wasn’t immediate or wholly intentional; it was a slow, gradual trajectory of bad decisions guided by deception and manipulation.

The order in which we watched the movies was such that we watched episode six, Return of the Jedi, immediately following episode three. Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite chapter in the Star Wars saga because it is when good finally triumphs over evil. Spurred by the unconditional love and faith of his son Luke, Darth Vader renounces the sale of his soul to evil, sacrifices himself to destroy the Emperor, and succumbs to redemption moments before his death. Later, while celebrating the Rebellion’s victory, Luke sees the diaphanous specters of his former teachers who have passed on into death in the Force—Obi-wan and Yoda. Moments later, another form appears. It is the unmasked figure of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker.

In the original version of the film, Anakin is portrayed by Sebastian Shaw, who represents Anakin at the age he was when he died (albeit with all of his original limbs intact and the scars that come from burning alive erased). When the special edition of the film was released, viewers were surprised to find that Shaw had been replaced by Hayden Christensen, who had portrayed Anakin in the prequel trilogy. For years, I was upset and nearly offended by Christensen’s presence in Return of the Jedi. That is, until I watched all six movies in one day.

Hayden Christensen represents who Anakin Skywalker was before he was destroyed and remade into Darth Vader, “the good man” as Obi-wan describes him. Only Luke doesn’t believe that “the good man” that was Anakin Skywalker was destroyed completely. As he explains to Darth Vader in a palpably tense verbal confrontation, “[Anakin Skywalker] is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully.” As it turns out, Luke is right about his father. There was good in him, and it only took one decision for him to be redeemed.

That’s why I have come to appreciate the interpolation of Christensen into the luminous role of Anakin in Return of the Jedi. Christensen’s appearance, frankly, evokes a more visceral response than does Shaw’s, because we have developed a more emotional connection to Christensen as Anakin. Whatever your views on Christensen’s performance in the prequel trilogies (and people have many), I believe he rightly represents the full circle of Anakin’s redemption.

I love redemption stories in general, and Anakin’s redemption story in particular. I don’t believe in lost causes or bad apples. I don’t believe that there’s anyone so far gone that they can’t be brought back. And Star Wars—to use verbiage that would otherwise make me gag—is a beautiful depiction of such a belief. When you watch the last hour or so of episode three, Anakin—or rather, Darth Vader by that point—would seem to have found himself too deeply entrenched in the sway of the dark side to have any hope. That conviction only grows stronger as you watch episodes four and five, as well as the first half of episode six.  For all intents and purposes, Darth Vader is evil incarnate. Until he isn’t.

The story of Anakin Skywalker revolves around the truth that there is always hope. After all, if Darth Vader could be redeemed, then who couldn’t? Anakin’s hands (organic or otherwise) had committed such abhorrent deeds and yet, in the end, he uses what is left of them to save his son and destroy his puppet master. “You were right about me,” Anakin tells Luke, just before he dies.

As difficult and idealistic as it may seem in the real word, I want to be like Luke. I want to have hope for those seem hopeless and believe in those who seem too lost to be found. In the midst of unyielding darkness, I want to be a beacon of light that refuses to give up on lost causes. If Darth Vader could be redeemed, why can’t they?

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