Dark Side

Darth Vader

The dark side of the Force is a prominent moral, philosophical, metaphorical and psychic concept in the ‘Star Wars’ universe, which George Lucas intends as a metaphor for the universal human temptation towards cruelty and inhumanity as a means of gaining ‘power,’ or advantage, in life.

The dark side is the opposite of the ‘light side’ of ‘the Force,’ a mystical energy which permeates the universe. It is used by the Sith, and forbidden among their rivals, the Jedi. By channeling intense negative emotions – such as anger, jealousy or greed – into the Force, individuals can attain powers of the Force more easily – but at a consequence. They gain lust for power, and become increasingly self-aggrandizing.

Followers of this paths are always depicted as corrupt and wicked, engaging in a never ending self-centered pursuit of power. The Jedi, whilst recognizing tempting paths to the dark side, know that the dark side is evil and claim that immense restraint must be used in wielding the Force that limit its uses in accordance with justice. Jedi Master Yoda famously says ‘A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack.’

The Sith view the dark side as good, demonstrating one of Lucas’s central observations that ‘most bad people think they are good people.’ Those following the dark side claim it allows an individual to gain the full powers of the Force that followers of the light side cannot attain. Senator Palpatine (Darth Sidious, a Sith master who would later convert the Old Republic into the Galactic Empire and take power as the Emperor) claims that Darth Plagueis has the power to create life from nothing and save people from dying from natural causes but claims that this power remains a secret. However, when Padmé Amidala dies, neither Darth Sidious nor Darth Vader can bring her back; showing the futility of the dark side, whose only lasting effect is to increase suffering.

Lucas uses ‘the dark side,’ and ‘paths to the dark side,’ as a devices to suggest the distinction between good and evil is not a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (which is why creatures other than humans possess knowledge of both sides of the force); but rather a battle within ourselves, reflecting the frailty of human nature and our own competing (and equally compelling) internal impulses towards kindness on the one hand, and cruelty on the other.

As portrayed in all ‘Star Wars’-related media, the dark side provides powers similar to those of the Jedi — telepathy (mind communication), psychokinesis (the ability affect matter by using your mind), and precognition (future sight) — but draws energy from passion, an energy that is enhanced by emotion (generally by anger and rage). While the original films depict the dark side as a general concept of evil, the prequels and ‘Expanded Universe’ (e.g. novels, comic books) material elaborate on its nature, explaining that it may stem from all strong emotions, both positive and negative. The dark side is first mentioned in ‘A New Hope’ as Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi is explaining the Force to Luke Skywalker. When speaking of his former pupil, Darth Vader, Kenobi says ‘Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.’ Vader is later shown using the dark side to choke Admiral Motti, an ability portrayed in greater detail in subsequent films. Luke Skywalker uses the same move to choke the guards at Jabba the Hutt’s cave in ‘Return of the Jedi,’ which may mean that this is not specifically a dark side power.

‘The Empire Strikes Back’ elaborates on the dark side’s power. Yoda tells Luke that fear and anger will pull him to the dark side, and that there is no turning back from a dark path; Vader, meanwhile, entreats Luke to ‘know the power of the dark side’ and become his apprentice. Vader claims that by joining him on the dark side both of them can channel their powers together to bring an end to the Galactic Civil War and bring order to the Galaxy. In ‘Return of the Jedi,’ Luke comes perilously close to succumbing to the dark side during a duel with Vader, in which the Sith Lord suggests turning the young Jedi’s sister Leia to the dark side, sending Luke into a rage in which he nearly kills his father.  Palpatine plays on Luke’s fear for the safety of his friends to release his anger and kill Vader, which would turn him to the dark side. Luke, horrified at his own actions, refuses to deliver the killing stroke. Palpatine attacks with a torrent of deadly Force lightning. His son’s cries of pain break the dark side’s hold on Vader, and he turns on Palpatine, throwing him to his death; in the process, he is mortally wounded by Palpatine’s lightning. With his dying breaths, the redeemed Anakin Skywalker admits to his son that the good within him had not been destroyed after all, and then becomes one with the light side of the Force.

In ‘The Phantom Menace,’ Yoda explains to a young Anakin that his fear for losing his mother could lead him to the dark side; he says ‘Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.’ a teenage Anakin begins to feel the pull of the dark side when his mother is killed by Tusken Raiders, and he slaughters the entire tribe in a blind rage. In ‘Revenge of the Sith,’ then-Chancellor Palpatine manipulates Anakin’s fear that Padmé, by now his secret wife, will die in childbirth to persuade him into becoming his Sith apprentice. Palpatine first tempts Anakin by challenging the dogmatic view of the world he had learned in the Jedi Temple. When Palpatine promises that the dark side can prevent death, Anakin becomes his Sith apprentice, Darth Vader, and helps the Sith Lord massacre the Jedi and destroy the Galactic Republic. Mad with power, Vader uses the dark side to choke Padmé into unconsciousness when he suspects that she has betrayed him to his former master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Padme later dies during the birth of their twins (Luke and Leia) of a broken heart, caused by Anakin’s descent to the dark side; ironically, the dark side brings on the very tragedy Anakin joined the Sith to prevent.

The first three ‘Star Wars’ films, from 1977, have also been interpreted as Vietnam protest movies, with the United States of America being subtly portrayed as ‘the Empire.’ Niall Ferguson writes in ‘Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire’ (2004): ‘In ‘Star Wars,’ George Lucas perfectly captures America’s yearning not to be expressed as the dark side of imperialism. It is not without significance that as his cinematic epic unfolds backwards a generation later, the arch-villain Darth Vader is revealed to have been an all American Jedi Knight in his youth.’ Thus, the ‘Dark Side of the force’ represents, for anti-Vietnam activists like Lucas, the American Empire’s moral slide from engaging in noble projects in its preliminary years as the sole world superpower, such as the Marshall Plan (as represented by Anakin Skywalker’s original childishness and kindness), to becoming an occupying force engaging in acts of imperialist aggression, which is how many regarded the continuation of Vietnam (as represented by Darth Vader’s indiscriminate violence and lust for greater power and territory).

Similarly, Anakin Skywaker’s moral decent from ‘chosen one’ to villain – that is his choosing to follow the path of the dark side – can be seen as metaphoric of how large great powers can abandon their initially benign motives in favor of a politics and lifestyle based upon sentimental self-aggrandizing, selfishness, and aggression. Lucas told ‘CNN’: ‘In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship.’ When Anakin Skywalker tells Yoda: ‘[I have visions] of pain … suffering … death’ not speaking of himself, but someone he knows, this is representative of America’s desires, or indeed of any country’s desire, to intervene and attack a perceived enemy before they become capable of assault. Yoda tells him to be ‘careful when sensing the future’ and that such thoughts are a ‘path to the dark side’; and acts taken in this vein are really ‘the shadow of greed’ and not compassionate. Thus, this particular ‘path to the Dark Side’ can be seen as Lucas’s opposition to preventive wars, as expressed in the Bush Doctrine.

The Dark Side is representative of how masses of people, and how the individual in society, can surrender their moral compass and sense of decency in favor of cruel and inhumane actions. Lucas has said, ‘On the personal level it was how does a good person turn into a bad person and part of the observation of that is that most bad people think they are good people, they are doing it for the right reasons.’ The temptations of the dark side, and the seemingly effortless ways Anakin Skywalker often adopts them, can be seen as representative of how an advanced nation based upon laws can slide into a dictatorship, as Germany did in the 1930s. In Christopher Browning’s book ‘Ordinary Men,’ he argues that members of the Nazi party were not uniquely evil, but were typical members of the working and lower middle classes. Yet, they engaged in acts of extreme violence and murder against innocent members of the Jewish and other communities. This whim, a surrendering to the worst extremes of human nature, is conveyed when Anakin kills the young Jedi Knights, the most obscene act of violence, in Episode 3.

Michael Burleigh wrote in his book ‘The Third Reich: A New History’ that the rise of Nazism was a consequence of ‘masses of ordinary people [choosing to] abdicate their critical faculties in favor of a politics based on faith, hope, hatred and collective self-regard for their own race and nation,’ with the consequence being ‘an almost total, moral collapse of an advanced industrial society in the heart of Europe, many of whose citizens had abandoned the burden of thinking for themselves.’ Lucas shows this as the large numbers of people aboard the Death Star mindlessly follow Darth Vader’s orders, and how Vader himself unthinkingly follows his ‘master’ Darth Sidious. Lucas suggests, like Burleigh, that ‘paths to the dark side,’ or barbarism, are subtle and not clear-cut, that the distinction between good and evil is not a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’; but rather a battle within ourselves, reflecting the frailty of human nature and our own competing (and equally compelling) internal impulses towards kindness on the one hand, and cruelty on the other.

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