Of Angels, not Men

I have a problem. I expect that when a writer puts a couple characters into nearly every scene and circumstance in a story, that those characters would become implicated and pivotal. I think that this would be especially true when the characters are made themselves to seem unaware of it.

To my reckoning of storytelling, angels represent a visible manifestation of distant or untouchable Power and allegorical of an ongoing fight between good and evil. Within many stories, good characters are often made to interact with angels directly; bad characters, if portrayed as being aware of them at all, run from or try to destroy them. Angels exist to show inherent goodness or badness in other characters by the degree to which we can be convinced they feel angelic presence.


Throughout the entire Star Wars saga, we see that only the likable characters, even if likable briefly, are the ones whom we see interacting most closely with a pair of robots, C3PO an R2D2. This rule is so consistent, I think you could determine whether or not a character is malevolent based strictly on the instances in which they interact with one or both of the robots. Those characters having better natures listen to the robots, They address them as individuals. They even argue with them or admonish them. The bad characters, in contrast, treat them as little more than appliances, if they acknowledge them at all.

These two robots are in most circumstances made to seem as invisible as janitors,  so it adds a strange quality to the story and a twist to my stated rule that Anakin Skywalker was made out to be a child prodigy and a genius with natural and expansive technical skills with rockets and robots. What is so strange is that he spent so much effort and time rebuilding C3PO only, by all appearances, to never again acknowledge his early interactions with C3PO in later episodes. This was the robot he reassembled as a boy, after all! I suppose this could demonstrate (assuming the features were written deliberately) the almost symbolically spiritual qualities of the robots: It is as though by embracing “evil” (“turning to the Dark side”) and descending into a deeply sublimated denial, Darth Vader loses his ability to see his old robot for what and who he is.


Compare the natures of a pair of robots invented in the 1970s with the nature of a pair of similar characters in a later movie with a very different pace and setting. In Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders presents us with angels who are made to be observers of human life. Cassiel admonishes Damiel:

Allein bleiben. Geschehen lassen. Ernst bleiben. Wild können wir nur in dem Maß sein, wie wir unbedingt ernst bleiben. Nichts weiter tun als anschauen, sammeln, bezeugen, beglaubigen, bewahren. Geist bleiben. Im Abstand bleiben, im Wort bleiben.
[Keep to yourself. Let things happen. Stay serious. We can only allow ourselves wildness in as much as we remain serious. Do no more than watch, collect, be a witness, keep. Remain in spirit. Remain in the distance. Remain in the Word.]

No one can see them, even the man who had once been an angel himself could do no more than suspect the occasional presence of his old, angelic colleague. These figures are intensely self-conscious and aware of their effects. They are driven in a task. They are ethical, but this ethics is not separate from desire (hence the English title?). In fact, I might guess that the greater the desire, the greater is the need for the ethical.

The 1977 robots of Star Wars, predating the 1987 angel Cassiel, did more than “let things happen”: They were involved, but without realizing the significance of any of it. It is an interesting contrast. Knowing nothing but raw facts (they needn’t have been told, “keep your word”), they were yet unaware and central. They had no desire for significance, which they had in surplus; they were everywhere in story, but as machines, existing only within their programmed point reality.


Look back yet another decade prior and consider how the The Prime Directive was upheld, ostensibly, as the highest ideal and the driving principal of exploration in the 1967 world of Star Trek. The explorers of that universe were told, as with the later robots of Star Wars and the angels of Wings of Desire, to observe and investigate, but not to meddle in the independent development of isolated civilizations. Yet, almost weekly, we saw the captain of a Federation starship routinely violate that directive with complete impunity, all the while making a hypocritical show of keeping the faith! We know that he should have been invisible, and high technology allowed an entire space ship to appear and disappear in a flash of light. We could repeat to ourselves, just as the characters of Star Trek did occasionally, the doctrinal position in defense of our Glorious Society that “the high ideals of the Federation make them a force for good”. This Kirk fellow had the power, the freedom, and the self-assigned privilege to be visible, then invisible at will, yet chose constantly to be influential where he should not have been at all.


Talk of invisibility and influence makes me think just now — forgive me — of yet another invisible character in yet another story: The invisible janitor in Flawless (2007) who, taking advantage of the common knowledge that no one sees a low-status service worker, even when said low-status service worker is standing right there in the room, managed to rob a diamond firm. In this way he was propelled out from his invisible station — or made to fall, like an angel, depending on your perspective. As the story unfolds we discover that the diamond company had used their own quite visible powers for evil, so it turns out this invisible angel wasn’t “fallen” after all. He had been invisible, to their knowledge, at a time when he was a mere benign non-force within their organization; he remained invisible to them, stubbornly, even when they later really wanted to find and prosecute him.

Now and until the end

I once read that George Lucas said Star Wars is a story about Anakin Skywalker. I stopped cold. How could that be? The only two characters present from the beginning, who remain largely unchanged to the very end when literally everything and everyone else had changed completely, are a pair of robots. In Star Wars, we are shown how the robots met, how they depended upon one another, how they came to depend on humans to free them from one or another temporary oblivion 1. It is true that we never learn about what they think or feel about anything. They remain yet partially invisible to us.

Star Wars is not about a war — not merely about a war, I should say — a war is just backdrop. And it isn’t about any of the petty jostling for power, love, or wealth. Those are subtexts and devices put into most stories to ferry along particular assumptions and moralities. Whether Lucas likes it or not, Star Wars is a story that pushes a particular point through a constant, physical presence. It is a story about how a pair of robots demonstrate empirically that The Force is absolutely nothing but hand-waving and that it is more important simply to be where you need to be, when you need to be there, to do what you need to do, and to do that, whether anyone ever knows you exist or not.

  1. I have something else to say about what it means to be a machine-based consciousness in my short, free-form essay, The Endless Horror of the Singularity