pop culture | no politics
Moving on From the Star Wars Prequels
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been participating in some Star Wars podcasts with my friend @darthhockey for his website, howlinggeek.com. As I write this we’re halfway through the six movies, having wrapped up the prequel trilogy last week with our opinions on Revenge of the Sith. The whole process has been therapeutic for me, there’s something satisfying about airing all the grievances I’ve kept bottled up since The Phantom Menace debuted over sixteen years ago.
I’m not trying to sound overly dramatic by saying that, you have to realize that Star Wars was at the very center of my childhood. As kids my friends and I fought over who got to be the bad boy pirate Han Solo and the mysterious bounty hunter Boba Fett. My VHS copy of Return of the Jedi barely plays anymore, always skipping at the spot where I would pause and rewind so I could watch the Rebel Alliance jump to light speed over and over again. I drove my parents nuts by asking for every action figure from Wedge Antilles to Bib Fortuna. So even at the age of 23 I was extremely excited when it was announced that there were more Star Wars movies on the way. And as a result I let my fandom blind me into thinking the Phantom Menace was a quality product. I went to the theater six times to see it, that’s how drunk on the Star Wars Kool-Aid I was in the spring of 1999.
I’m sure the thinking before Episode 1 went into production was that it would be impossible to screw up Star Wars. And from a financial standpoint this is true, even after two mediocre films fans still turned up in droves to see the final chapter. But from a storytelling standpoint these films are failures, wavering between being incomprehensible and downright insulting to the intelligence of their audience. I’m not going to bother bringing up the popular criticisms of these film. What’s the point of kicking Jar-Jar around anymore? He sucks and nobody likes him, but would removing him from the Phantom Menace make it a good movie? No, we’d still be left a bloated mass of confusion populated by stale characters that make decisions a five year old would know better than to make.
Supposedly these movies are meant to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker’s rise to greatness and subsequent fall, as he becomes the most prominent icon of evil in the galaxy. What frustrates me is that the most interesting parts of Anakin Skywalker's tragedy happen during the gaps between the three films. As the curtain falls on The Phantom Menace he is set to begin his Jedi training, and by the time we see him again in Attack of the Clones a decade has passed and he's a young man that has already seen many adventures. Lucas teases us by mentioning these events through the casual banter between master and apprentice, but why couldn't we have seen some of these events transpire? They sound way more interesting than the trade negotiations and senate disputes the chew up so much of time in these three movies. And the gap between the second and third chapter commits even a greater offense by denying us the opportunity to see the Clone Wars. It’s clearly important to Lucas that the prequels echo the original trilogy, why not show this segment of Star Wars history? The Clone Wars are mentioned early on in A New Hope and getting to witness them on screen would’ve gone a long way towards tying the entire franchise together.
Another big problem with the prequel films is that nothing memorable exists within them. Episodes 3-6 are full of remarkable locations, characters, and vehicles. The Millennium Falcon is so fully fleshed out that it has become a character itself, an inanimate object with a charismatic personality. It’s cranky and high-maintenance, but also heroic. The Falcon is iconic and instantly recognizable by anyone that has seen the movies and likely some that haven’t. In comparison, the Queen’s ship that serves our heroes as their primary mode of transportation in Phantom Menace couldn’t be more nondescript. Honestly if asked to describe it the best I could do is “it’s chrome”. This is just one example as the prequel films are full of these kind of flat, dimensionless objects and people that might look interesting but simply aren’t. Nothing in the prequels has a soul or feels alive, likely a byproduct of such a gluttonous display of computer-generated imagery. Almost every shot in the prequels has some form of special effect in it, to the point where the effects are no longer special. It’s the law of diminishing returns, the more often you experience something the less unique it becomes. In the original trilogy it was huge deal to see a lightsaber ignited or to witness the Millennium Falcon blasting off Tatooine. These were special moments interspersed with scenes of interesting character development, and by giving us a break from the effects the audience waits in anticipation for the next time we see them. In contrast the prequels’ special effects are so prevalent that become dull and exhausting, they’re never absent so we are never given the opportunity to miss them.
Now let’s switch gears and take a look at the two romantic subplots that each trilogy offers. In the original films the love interest is between Leia and Han, two characters that couldn’t be more different. Leia is a princess and respected member of the Imperial Senate, she’s well-spoken and carries herself with a grace that exhibits her royal court upbringing. She’s selfless and pours her entire soul into the Rebel Alliance. By contrast Han Solo is a self-centered scoundrel, the kind of guy that doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger in the name of either saving his own skin or earning a quick buck. Given how dramatically different these two characters are there’s a natural tension between them, and it’s enjoyable to watch their relationship play out on screen. It’s understandable why Leia would be hesitant to get involved with Han, he seems like the kind of guy that has a girl in every spaceport. Yet as he moves along his character arc, we see that there’s far more to this man. And the audience gets to experience the same sense of discovery that Leia does as we all learn that Han Solo might be more hero than rogue after all. The seeds for this romance are planted in the first film and as we see them grow in The Empire Strikes Back our minds travel back to the scenes they shared in a New Hope.
Now let’s take a look at the Padme/Anakin relationship which is about as interesting as resealing your driveway. Lucas spends most of Attack of the Clones desperately trying to recapture the same romantic tension he had with Han and Leia but it fails in every way. A big part of the reason is that he can’t find an excuse for why they shouldn’t be together that the audience finds interesting. From Anakin’s perspective things kind of make sense, he’s committed to the Jedi Order which frowns upon attachment of any kind. But why exactly can’t Padme give into her feelings? Because she’s a senator? Pretty sure Bail Organa had a wife and I’m guessing he’s not the only one. Much has been made about the lack of chemistry between the two leads and that certainly translated into the final product, but I would make the case that the relationships fails because it’s just an uninteresting concept to begin with. Maybe in hands of a more talented screenwriter there could’ve been something there, but the entire relationship rings hollow. And given how central their relationship is to Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side this really was the one story thread that Lucas couldn’t afford to screw up.
I want to close with what I consider to be the biggest and most overlooked problem with this trilogy, the lack of interconnectedness between the three films. The original trilogy works so well because there is a spine that runs along all the movies, a backbone that bridges them together as three acts of a single story. There's a cause and effect relationship that stands on either side of the gaps between the films. A New Hope closes with Luke overcoming impossible odds to blow up the Death Star, saving the Rebel Alliance from being destroyed. The Empire Strikes Back opens with the fallout from his actions, Luke and his new friends are now being viciously hunted by Darth Vader because he destroyed the Empire's superweapon and embarrassed him. At the end of the second film Han Solo has been frozen and is being transported to Jabba the Hutt's palace to become a wall decoration. When we next see our heroes in Return of the Jedi they're off to rescue him. Cause and effect utilized to create natural cliffhangers, audiences couldn’t wait to get back to the theater to see how the story progressed in the next installment. You can’t say the same about the prequel trilogy, which feels like three individual spin-off films that simply exist in the same timeline. Phantom Menace closes with some kind of weird parade, everything seems great. Attack of the Clones opens with an incoherent plot to assassinate Padme who is now a senator. The audience is instantly confused and questioning the story. Why is someone trying to assassinate her? Wait, she’s not the queen anymore? When did the Separatists enter the story? I don’t remember them from the first movie! Huh? What? Who? Did I miss a movie where all this stuff happened? There’s nothing about the opening of this movie that makes our brain want to revisit the events of the last film, not a single story element to bridge the two movies. Less than five minutes into the second film of a trilogy and we’re wondering why the events of the first film even had to take place since we’re apparently starting from scratch here.
George Lucas is an amazing idea guy and deserves credit for creating the Star Wars universe. Without his vivid imagination we would never met Yoda or gotten to visit the endless sand dunes of Tatooine. But sometimes it’s difficult to translate what you see in your own mind to film, paper, or computer screen. That’s why it’s so important to find talented people you trust that can to make your story work. A good idea can’t tell an interesting story all on it’s own, it needs context. Here’s hoping The Force Awakens can wash away all the bad memories of the last three Star Wars films.