Flaws in a Good Heart

Leave it to Yoda, "Star Wars" resident sage, to articulate the moral descent experienced by villainous Darth Vader. "Fear leads to anger, anger to hate, hate to suffering."

"That's the path," says "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. "Without that, there wouldn't be any prequel, because there wouldn't be any story to tell."

Lucas, creator of the world's most popular film franchise--nearly $1.5 billion domestic box office and counting--is speaking from the Bay Area, where he's about to catch a plane for London to oversee musical scoring for "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones." The picture, fifth in the "Star Wars" saga, opens May 16.

But back to Yoda. His pronouncement on the roots of evil occurs during "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," the 1999 "Star Wars" episode that presents the once and future Darth as a spunky, tow-haired tyke named Anakin Skywalker. He's Jedi material, argue his mentors, but Yoda senses fear in the boy.

Just how prescient was Yoda? Jump ahead in the story--and back in real time--to the original 1977 "Star Wars," wherein Anakin, renamed Darth Vader, serves as a fearsome henchman for a wicked emperor. Vader tortures Princess Leia, helps blow up an entire planet and crosses light sabers with freedom-loving rebels.

In "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), he packs Han Solo into a frozen keg of carbonite, chops off Luke Skywalker's hand, then reveals that he is father to the wounded Luke. Darth wreaks more havoc in "Return of the Jedi" (1983), insisting to Luke that he's incorrigible before finally redeeming himself by throwing his wicked boss into a black hole.

But who was Darth Vader before he hid his face behind a shadowy visor? To answer that question, Lucas needed to take a look at the man in black back when he was a golden child named Anakin Skywalker. Lucas says of the first "Star Wars" prequel, "'Phantom Menace' was done really to determine that Anakin was a good person, good heart, nice kid. We're not talking here about an evil little monster child--we're talking about this great kid just like we all start out as, or [we] think we start out as."

In "Episode II," Lucas says, "the issue then becomes, what is it in Anakin's personality that makes him turn bad? What is his flaw? He has a couple. The groundwork is put forward in this movie much more clearly."

"Attack of the Clones" was shot in 61 days using the high-definition digital video format Lucas believes will one day become the industry standard. Principal photography in Australia, Italy, Tunisia and Spain wrapped a year ago last fall. For the past 16 months, Lucas and his company Industrial Light & Magic have been working on special effects for the film, budgeted at about $110 million.

As with the previous "Star War" movies, "Episode II" plot twists have been kept under tight wraps. The director's production company, Lucasfilm, has pressured Web fans to remove "spoilers" and unauthorized script snippets from their Web sites and Lucas isn't about to divulge anything--yet.

But this much is known: Ewan McGregor returns from "Phantom Menace" as Anakin's mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Natalie Portman is also back, but she's given up her crown as Queen Amidala of Naboo to become Senator Padme. Anakin has grown into a headstrong 19-year-old Jedi-in-training who falls in love with Padme while serving as bodyguard during her trans-galactic travels. His loyalties are torn because the Jedi oath forbids romantic love.

Hayden Christensen plays Anakin. The 20-year-old Canadian beat out more than 400 actors considered for the role. Since completing work on "Episode II," Christensen has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for his work in "Life as a House." Speaking from Toronto, his hometown, Christensen said, "Like Anakin, we all have to make choices, following instinct, reasoning and our heart. We're continually being presented with influences, sometimes very opposing ones, that motivate us and affect our decisions. Hopefully we choose wisely."

Of course, when a character chooses rashly, it makes for a far more interesting yarn. Lucas says, "What brought me back to finish the whole thing off was the question of why, and how, Darth Vader became evil. The whole reason for going back and doing the back story on 'Star Wars' is that there is an evolution from this very good person, very kind person, very loving person into something that one would describe as evil."

Post-Sept. 11, any effort to explore the impulse toward evil takes on heightened relevance. How is it, for instance, that a kid named John Walker Lindh from a middle-class San Francisco family would grow up to become a Taliban soldier?

Lucas says that's not his domain. "'Star Wars' deals on a much more general level with age-old issues relating to fear, the unwillingness to let go of things. Out of that comes jealousy, and anger, and wanting power. So 'Episode II' has to do with greed, power, jealousy and fear, and doesn't really get into specifics of how you might relate it to what's going on today.

"This stuff was written 25 years ago, so however relevant it is now is based on issues that have been around a long, long time," says Lucas, who spent two years in the early '70s researching mythology and religion before he sketched out an outline for the entire "Star Wars" odyssey. (Lucas created the basic story for each "Star Wars" film. He wrote the original "Star Wars" by himself, then delegated "The Empire Strikes Back" screenplay to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Lucas co-wrote "Return of the Jedi" with Kasdan, wrote "Phantom Menace" on his own, and co-wrote "Attack of the Clones" with Jonathan Hales.)

"I wanted to have this mythological footing because I was basing the films on the idea that the Force has two sides, the good side, the evil side, and they both need to be there. Most religions are built on that, whether it's called yin and yang, God and the devil--everything is built on the push-pull tension created by two sides of the equation. Right from the very beginning, that was the key issue in 'Star Wars.'"

In "Attack of the Clones" and continuing through the yet-untitled "Episode III" prequel to be filmed in 2005, Anakin will be getting worse before he gets better. "As evil begins to take over, it pushes the Force out of balance," Lucas says. "It's easier to succumb to evil than it is to be a hero and try to work things through on the good side. Evil is inherently more powerful--it doesn't have the burden of worrying about other people."

Lucas hopes his "Star Wars" tale, when completed, will simply portray on epic scale what ordinary mortals deal with on a daily basis.

"What Luke sees in Darth Vader at the end of 'Return of the Jedi' is something that I thought was worth understanding: the idea that Darth actually was a very good person," Lucas says. "Except he's slightly more powerful than other people and when you get into that situation, your ability to do evil is much easier to come by.

"But the issues Darth struggles with as he grows older are the same issues that everybody struggles with, the fact that sometimes they don't consider the consequences of what they're doing because it's not expedient."

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Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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