Now, in the Year of Our Lord 2019, with the oceans warming and the air becoming increasingly toxic, I will write an opinion about Star Wars. I am fully aware that to do so is to shout into the void, to descend slowly into my own navel like a droid sinking into the Mustafarian lava. But here we are, fans with opinions. What else can I do? You clicked the link, and I’ve got words about Star Wars for you.
But perhaps the most agreed-upon opinion of all is that Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is the worst film of the series. Worse than the Star Wars Holiday Special. Worse than Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Worse than your Gungan cosplay and the Star Wars kid video combined. Everyone knows this. Episode II is awkward and slow and has some of the most god-awful lines of dialogue anyone has ever heard.
Episode II is also my favorite Star Wars film.
This isn’t meant as a troll-y bid for attention. It isn’t even really a defense of the prequels so much as a confession that I enjoy the stuff of Star Wars — the settings, the creatures and especially the mythology — more than the actual movies. And on that count, Episode II has all the others beat.
For a good example of the difference between film and mythology, look to the final 20 minutes of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
We switch here between the two main plot lines, one about Ewoks fighting Stormtroopers, the other about the final confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. In my opinion, these two plots epitomize what is great about Star Wars and what is only sometimes fun and entertaining about it. One minute, viewers are watching a teddy bear fight a giant robot; the next, an evil sorcerer goads, almost begs, his adversary to pick up his weapon and use it to kill him.
While some Star Wars episodes work better as films than others, nothing is really great on the level of, say, Blade Runner or The Man Who Fell to Earth or Children of Men. They range from really bad (Episode II) to pretty good (Episode V or VIII), and none rises above the level of entertainment.
But that said, the Star Wars mythos is endlessly evocative to me. And Episode II contains some of the most interesting moments in the series.
Actually, the ‘Sand Line’ Is Incredibly Important
The distinction between storytelling and mythos can be difficult to parse. It becomes a little easier understanding how stories proceed according to a certain logic, whereas mythology almost always defies conventional thinking. Even nonlinear storytelling has to function within some sort of causality. But myth very often deals in absurd, even childish stories that still somehow evoke deep ideas. For instance, think of Athena emerging fully grown from the head of Zeus, or the main villain of The Lord of the Rings being a giant eye. The point here has to do with their underlying meaning, rather than stories proceeding within a coherent logic.
Consider the infamous “sand line” from Episode II, which everyone (rightly) sees as being ridiculous, and not a thing anyone would ever actually say.
I argue this line has huge importance in terms of the series’ larger mythology. I don’t think there is a moment in any of the films where the difference between flawed storytelling and rich mythos is more pronounced.
To really understand the “sand line,” we first have to look at one of the main themes of the Star Wars films — the conflict between intellect versus emotion, particularly as either functions as mental scaffolding for use of the force in the Jedi religion. (Bear with me.)
Understanding Jedi Philosophy
Jedi powers are essentially telekinetic. But there appear to be different philosophies on how to optimize them. Some characters think that tapping into emotions is the best way to use the force, while others see honing the intellect as the best route. Like every other force mystery, this difference isn’t spelled out in the films so much as it is suggested through the dialogue we hear between masters and their students.
For instance, dark-side practitioners of the force often advise their charges to “give in to anger” or “let hate flow through” them. Jedi, on the other hand, tend to tell their students to let go of attachments and things that would inspire emotion.
Thus, on the surface anyway, there seems to be a pretty simple “emotion bad” vs. “emotion good” dynamic here, where Jedi do not like emotions and Sith do. After all, Jedi are always scowling and grimacing, like they’re bottling up what they really feel, and we know they don’t maintain human relationships in the conventional sense. But the films also drop certain clues here and there that the Jedi have a more complicated relationship with emotion.
Consider the exhortations by several Jedi Masters, including Obi-Wan and Yoda, for their students to “reach out” with their “feelings.” This isn’t exactly as strong an endorsement of emotion as the Sith telling their students to “give in” to emotion, but it suggests that emotions aren’t necessarily all bad for the Jedi.
One of the most notable examples of this happens in Episode IV, when Luke is practicing with his lightsaber against a drone on the Millennium Falcon. He has difficulty at first, and Obi-Wan instructs him to “let go of [his] conscious self” and to “stretch out with [his] feelings.”
But to understand this moment, it is important to understand Obi-Wan’s, and Anakin’s, character arcs in the prequels, particularly in Episode II. Let’s back up a minute and look at Episode II more closely.
The film begins on Coruscant. Someone makes an attempt on Senator Padmé Amidala’s life. A young Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his Padawan learner, Anakin Skywalker, are charged with protecting her. They start a round-the-clock security detail, just in time to save Padmé’s life when the assassin strikes again in the senator’s bedchambers. Obi-Wan and Anakin pursue the killer in a daring speeder chase that ends with the assassin taking cover in a local bar.
Before following the killer into the bar, Anakin and Obi-Wan share a moment outside, where the teacher urges his student to collect his thoughts before they go in. “Use the force. Think!” Obi-Wan says. “I am trying, Master,” Anakin answers.
The exchange is extremely telling. We learn that Obi-Wan has been drilling Anakin on the skill of controlling his emotions, encouraging him to approach the force more intellectually.
The Beginning of Anakin’s Descent
We had already seen that Anakin is a bit of a hothead. In the scene where Anakin, Obi-Wan and the senator reunite, Anakin lashes out at his teacher. He insists that investigating Padmé’s killer is “implied within their mandate” as protectors. Obi-Wan clearly had planned on taking a more defensive strategy. “You will pay attention to my lead,” Obi-Wan scolds. Anakin struggles with controlling his feelings, and thus Obi-Wan yelling at him to keep himself in check seems, more or less, like the instruction of a good mentor.
Later in the film we see our suspicions confirmed about Anakin’s hot temper. He slaughters the group of Tusken Raiders that had kidnapped his mother, not sparing even the women and children. This, of course, foreshadows Anakin’s murder of Padawan younglings in the Jedi Temple in Episode III, and more generally his descent into the evil, sadistic Darth Vader.
On first glance, Anakin’s back-talk to Obi-Wan and the ordeal with the Tuskens seem like warning signs that a young man with severe anger issues could easily become unhinged and dangerous. But when viewed against the instruction he actually receives from Obi-Wan to control his emotions, and to focus on an intellectual rather than an emotional connection with the force, that conclusion becomes a bit more complicated.
Fast forward up to Episode IV. Here, we see Obi-Wan give the younger Skywalker totally opposite advice to that he had given to Luke’s father. Rather than telling him to “think,” he tells Luke to “reach out with his feelings.”
So the question is, what happens between Episode II and Episode IV that changes Obi-Wan’s ideas about how best to advise students on how to use the force? Why does he instruct Anakin to “think” but tells Luke to “stretch out with his feelings”?
It could be that Obi-Wan sees that the two are different people with their own challenges to understanding themselves and their powers. But it could also be that, with the benefit of hindsight, Obi-Wan understands now that the Skywalkers tend to run hot, emotionally speaking, and that rather than tamping that tendency down, they should hone their emotional responses and use them to their benefit.
Obi-Wan Really Did Fail Anakin
In Episode III, just before Obi-Wan defeats Anakin in a lightsaber duel and leaves him for dead on the scorched landscape of Mustafar, he tells his former student that he had “failed him.” How? What did he mean by this?
My theory is that Obi-Wan is here referencing the way he had urged Anakin to focus on an intellectual approach to the force, when his natural inclination was to tap into his emotions. Obi-Wan failed his friend by not allowing him to be himself, by teaching him to believe that his approach to the force was wrong. But in the interim between Anakin’s fall in Episode III and the beginning of Episode IV where Obi-Wan begins his instruction of Luke, Obi-Wan learns from his mistakes as a Jedi Master and as a teacher.
The difference in approaches to the force, as taught by their common teacher, makes all the difference in the fates of the two Skywalkers. Luke succeeds where Anakin had failed, not because Luke is intrinsically “good” and Anakin was “bad,” but because Luke learned to use the force in a way that didn’t run against the grain of his nature.
But this also puts more responsibility for Anakin’s descent into evil, and his transformation into Darth Vader, onto Obi-Wan’s shoulders. Rather than there being something intrinsically evil about Anakin, he was given poor instruction by a Jedi who himself was only still learning the ways of the force. This inability on Obi-Wan’s part to acknowledge Anakin’s emotional nature only clears the way for the destructive influence of Palpatine, who provides for Anakin the emotional outlet he so sorely needed.
So what does any of this have to do with the “sand line,” or a mythological reading of the series?
It All Comes Back to the ‘Sand Line’
In a way, the “sand line” reflects the entire problem facing Anakin, the problem of his emotions, and the series’ larger ideas about how emotion functions in the Jedi religion.
At the point in Episode II when Anakin delivers the dreaded “sand line,” he and Padmé had been alone together in hiding from would-be assassins for a while. In that time, the two had hinted at pretty strong feelings for one another, but neither one had yet made a move. When he delivers the line, Anakin is in the process of trying to kiss Padmé, talking in a sort of casual way, drumming up the confidence to make his move.
“I hate sand,” Anakin says. “It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.” It’s a line that with better direction or performances could have telegraphed the awkwardness of the moment between them, rather than just come off as… awkward.
Eventually Anakin does kiss Padmé, or almost does. She pulls away, realizing that neither of them can afford to fall in love. She’s a senator. He’s a Padawan. Neither can give up their jobs to focus on a life together. So it appears for the moment that Anakin learns from Padmé the same lesson he had drilled with Obi-Wan — emotions are dangerous and will get you into trouble.
And yet the prospect of a strong emotional connection with Padmé has an immediate positive effect an Anakin’s ability to use the force. Important to note: It’s not emotional attachment that has this effect but emotion itself. Emotion actually heightens Anakin’s powers, whereas attachment, as the Jedi teach, later brings destruction.
This emotion/attachment dynamic becomes evident when you think a little about what the “sand line” actually means.
When Anakin is talking about sand, it is highly probable that he’s talking about his home planet, Tatooine. The last time he had been there, he had left his mother, Shmi, to continue in a life of slavery while he left with a Jedi Master to learn the ways of the force. Anakin no doubt feels intense guilt about this, feelings that must be wrapped up with his memories of his home planet.
Anakin delivers the sand line just before sharing a romantic moment with Padmé, contrasting the “coarse,” “rough” sand with the softness of her skin. Then, that very night, he has a vision that Shmi is in danger, which sends him back to Tatooine to rescue her. When he gets there, he discovers that Shmi had been kidnapped by Tusken Raiders some weeks before.
So the question is, if it had been weeks since Shmi was kidnapped, why had Anakin only just the night before had a vision about her being in danger?
The answer seems to be that his romance with Padmé somehow enables him to use the force to a greater extent and visualize a situation involving someone he loves, light-years away. Again, emotion actually heightens Anakin’s power, and not because he “gives in” to emotion in the way that a Sith would instruct. He and Padmé had actually pulled back from allowing their romance to run its course, and yet Anakin’s force powers leveled up significantly.
But maybe even more interesting than the fact of Anakin’s new powers is how the “sand line” factors into them. Anakin’s offhand line about sand comes in a moment when he’s trying to articulate his emotion for Padmé. Padmé’s affection for Anakin, along with this memory of his home planet, opens him up to articulate his guilt about leaving his mother, as that guilt is symbolically embedded within his psyche around the roughness of sand. Likewise, it is Anakin’s guilt about his mother, and his inability to let her go, that prompts his dangerous fixation on Padmé dying in childbirth in Episode III. It’s a fixation that leads him to take Palpatine’s side, who promises to save Padmé from death.
So the “sand line,” while rightly judged as ridiculous in terms of verisimilitude and story flow, has enormous importance in terms of the series’ larger mythos. It represents both the deep emotional connection Anakin forms with Padmé, which heightens his ability to use the force. It also represents the danger that connection ultimately brings about; their attachment to one another precipitates his fall to the dark side.
In other words, Darth Vader could not have become Darth Vader without the dreaded “sand line.”
But given that the mythology of Star Wars more or less suggests that emotion is good while emotional attachment is bad, does that mean it paints unrequited love as some kind of evil, ultimate-bad-guy superpower? Yes. Yes it does.
Which is all to say: Sorry, incels. Star Wars hates you.