Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Prequels--A (Slight) Defense

I feel like Atticus Finch, standing up to argue a case that can never be won in front of this jury, no matter what I say.

And, obviously, in this case the accused are indeed guilty of many, many crimes.

Still, I feel compelled to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the prequels are a little bit better than many say they are.

Yes, in an awful lot of places, the acting in the prequels sucks. The dialogue sucks. (Still, hello--have you actually watched A New Hope lately? I mean actually paid attention?). There are a litany of complaints, often fair, about the prequels' direction, the over-use of CGI and green-screen, yadda yadda yadda.

But for a lot of people out there, the hatred for the prequels goes far deeper, and is more visceral. Amongst the comments given the recent discussions spawned by, and reviews of the new movie:

**One tweeter said The Force Awakens was a failed opportunity, and he couldn't get behind the new movies until they specifically repudiated midi-chlorians and other crimes of the prequels. Seriously--he felt they must be declared apocryphal, or else.
**Another said the prequels proved that George Lucas didn't love Star Wars as much as "the fans" did.
**Many joyously applauded that TFA had "real emotions" like ANH did, and not the "fake emotions" and melodrama of the prequels.

And those things, I think, summarize why so many Star Wars fans have such antipathy towards the prequels: there was a great mismatch between what the fans wanted, and what George Lucas wanted.

Clearly, George Lucas loved Star Wars. Please. You don't go back to a film time after time, tinkering and retinkering with each Specialer Edition, if you don't love it and want it to be perfect. But--and this is a crucial point--that also shows that, unlike many fans,  Lucas didn't believe that A New Hope was perfect upon delivery.

Some people have placed ANH on such a high pedestal, that any other movie must suffer by comparison. And honestly? That's a little bit nuts. Star Wars is great fun, but it has plenty of flaws (right, Siskoid?). It's a pastiche on Flash Gordon and all of the thrilling movie serials of days past...and it doesn't rise much above that. The characterization is wafer thin, the dialogue veers wildly between banal and portentous, the acting in general is not very good, the pacing is terrible (especially the first 40 minutes), and like the Saturday matinees, any plot was merely an afterthought.

That doesn't mean Star Wars was a bad movie--just overrated. Something can be overrated and still be good, and fun, and a heckuva ride. Defensive fans get their hackles up when their object of admiration is labeled "over-rated," but it's not a zero-sum game. Star Wars Episode IV was a perfectly cromulent popcorn movie, a fun romp. But it was really nothing more than that, and it didn't aspire to more than that. Critical polls that place A New Hope in the top 100 films of all time are, well, kinda dopey.

But Lucas must have thought A New Hope was somewhat over-rated himself, as he immediately started to build more actual backstory and plot into the sequels, and get darker, and go deeper than the vaguest platitudes that were spouted in ANH. You can argue whether or not he succeeded. or whether it was even desirable to try. But it's clear that such deepening is what he was trying to do.

Now, you can debate whether or not the prequels were "necessary," or whether any of the issues raised in the "original" trilogy really needed answering. But clearly Lucas felt compelled to actually explain the underpinnings of what the original trilogy laid down. And he found out the fans didn't want anything to do with it.

Which is where midi-chlorians came in.

I never really understood the intense backlash against an explanation for how the Force worked. We were told in the first movies that certain individuals were strong with the Force, that the Force "runs strong" in families. That certainly implies a biological basis, right? If Force sensitivity can be inherited, there has to be a genetic component, right? Right?

But some fans acted like they had been told there is no Santa Claus. Even though Lucas had the midi-chlorians explanation back in 1977 (but didn't have a good opportunity to put it into ANH), everyone screamed that their childhoods had been ruined, and that Lucas had just made this up on the spot because he was evil or something.

Of course, the real reason fans rejected this was because it meant that they couldn't be Jedi. You had to be born with certain genetic attributes, or you just weren't going to be a Force user. God or fate or the Force itself couldn't just pick you out for being an all-around great person who somehow earned hero-hood. Belief and good intentions were never enough. You had to be born into a biological elite.

And that was quite a shock to "the faithful." "How dare they put science into my vague mysticism!! How could George Lucas tell me that I could never be a Jedi through pluck and a good heart?!? This apostasy must be rejected." 

So the midi-chlorians tried to take the child-like faith of the original and provide science. And a lot of Star Wars fans didn't like Star Trek in their fantasy-in-sci-fi-drag.

Ditto with the portrayal of the Republic in the prequels. Lucas eschewed any real politics in the original movies. The Empire was bad because...they were bad. They blew up planets!! They reneged on deals with Lando! They...built another Death Star. And the Rebellion? Their agenda was...down with the Empire!! And after that...? "Down with the Empire!!"

That's not a bad thing, as long as you're content to be a pastiche of black & white movie serials. But in the break between trilogies, George Lucas decided to get a little bit more sophisticated. Governments fall for reasons. Revolutions have goals beyond toppling the current regime. He wanted to talk about how the Republic fell, how a huge democracy had let itself slide into tyranny. Because maybe learning how to prevent dictatorship is just as important as toppling one?

And again, fans reacted as if someone had assigned them social studies homework. Obi-Wan opined about how the days of the Republic were more elegant, more civilized, more refined. We saw Leia put on her "official government" British accent when called upon in the first movie. But when about 3 minutes (out of 136 minutes) were spent on Republic Senate debates in The Phantom Menace--actually showing a more elegant and more refined time--people acted like they had been forced to watch 3 days of C-SPAN. "OMG, they made a movie about trade disputes, as if that could ever cause a war or lead to changes in government!!! No, wars start because some people are good and some are bad, the end!!" Not fandom's greatest moment, if you ask me...

George Lucas tried to give us a fairly detailed, sophisticated metaphor about how a lack of vigilance and oversight can let venal leaders trick us, through overblown claims of war and terrorism, into giving up our liberties. Gosh, we have absolutely no use for that kind of insight and contemplation today, do we? How dare Lucas try to make us think?!?! Why would we ever want a movie with lessons that might apply to the real world? (How successful those metaphors were is a separate discussion, of course).

As to the "real" emotions? Sure, we can have Luke spend more time mourning a man he met 2 hours ago then he does the relatives who raised him from infancy--whom he never thinks about or mentions again. We can have Leia's entire planet blown up--along with her father--obliterated--and it will never, ever be mentioned again, not even in a "Remember Alderaan" slogan!!! We can have a "romance" that never rises above bad sitcom levels, with the continual trading of insults suddenly "revealed" as "love"....somehow kinda. After that, who would want the "fake" emotional story-lines of actually mourning dead parents, or a real long-term love story, or the devastating consequences that continual war can have on people and a society?

Hey, if you want to argue that Lucas overreached on these things, that he failed, that he was less than successful, that his execution was terrible? More power to you. You may well be right. And at least now you're engaging with the actual issues involved. And I won't have a ton of arguments against you.

But too many vocal Star Wars fans simply revert to "Lucas tried to give us something different than A New Hope, and we're going to hold our breath until you give us the exact same shallow, unsophisticated thing we had as children!" And, if you look at some of the reaction to The Force Awakens--[SPOILER ALERT] which has the exact same goddamned plot as A New Hope, virtually frame-by-frame for heaven's sake!--then you can see that a great number of Star Wars fans are never happier than when you're spoon-feeding them the same thing over and over, re-affirming their childhood experience as the bestest thing ever.

I have absolutely no inside information, no contact with George Lucas. But I like to imagining him thinking this, sometime after Star Wars became STAR WARS:
You know, I made this movie as a fun lark, as a tribute to fantastic movie fun when tickets were 25¢ for three serials and a cartoon and two features. And people seem to really, really love it, even though it's nowhere as near as adult or as sophisticated as American Graffiti, nowhere near as thoughtful or adult as THX-1138. Still, now that I've got the dedicated audience, maybe I can try to make Star Wars more sophisticated, more adult, to try and discuss some actual issues and politics, work some real meaning and metaphor into this whole enterprise! I can use this as a platform for discussing real, important issues!!
Sadly, Lucas obviously misread his audience.

Again, it's perfectly fine to argue that he failed in these goals--he clearly did, to some extent. And if you want to say that the films completely failed to meet those goals artistically, I won't disagree with you. But make the argument on those terms.

To say that he shouldn't have even tried, that he deserves scorn because he should have kept Star Wars at the same infantile level as A New Hope forever--I can't say that's an argument I agree with. Don't damn the man, don't claim that he didn't love his creation, just because he tried to do something deeper and more mature with it.

And, just so we're clear, C-3PO is far more annoying and offensive than Jar Jar Binks.


larry said...

Thank you! Thank you! And did I mention Thank you!
A Prequel Fan.

Siskoid said...

Great post, Snell.

For me, the problem with the prequels isn't in the idea of them, but the execution. The set pieces are thrown together with barely a thread to connect them to the main plot. I don't want to spend time with most of the characters (in stark contrast to TFA) as I find them annoying. It's tiring special effects porn a lot of the time. And (as with much of TFA), they don't just echo the original trilogy, they're repetitive and unoriginal.

And I'm as critical of my own fandoms. There is some terrible terrible dreck in the Star Trek and Doctor Who canons. I can point and laugh and grumble, and other fans will laugh and grumble with me. Possibly because there's (relatively speaking) so little material in Star Wars, its fans can't laugh with me. They often get on the defensive too quickly, or are, as you say, vitriolic about say the prequels, but still defend the original three. Suddenly, you're in a political or religious argument, and not only can't anyone win in those, but they create division and anger. Guys, guys, I've got my Star Trek V, why can't you accept you have your Revenge of the Sith?

Bottom line for me, the prequels are just NOT good films, regardless of how they relate to the franchise. Whether or not they succeed at "prequeling" or "deepening" the story, they fail as entertainments (at least for me). The plot is nonsense, the action overdone, the acting frequently terrible, the tone is a mess, and so on. I can forgive one or several of these, depending on the film, and I was definitely entertained by TFA even though it has similar plot problems (but better acting, a stronger emotional line, characters I actually like, stronger pacing, and tonal coherence). I think TFA works as a film of its genre, despite its imperfections. The prequels, for me, did not.

Green Luthor said...

As someone who actually likes the prequels, I think that there's not a whole lot here for me to disagree with. To be honest, I think you put things in ways I hadn't considered, but, hearing them, they make a lot of sense. Like I said, I do like the prequels, but I'm not going to pretend they're perfect. But their problems really have more to do with Lucas' deficiencies as a writer and director, not his motivations. A lot of the ideas weren't necessarily bad (though there were more than a few that should have been cut in earlier drafts), but Lucas *really* needed someone looking over his shoulder who could say "maybe let's not do it quite that way, George". Even some of the subpar acting could have been fixed with someone co-directing; some directors can coax good performances out of mediocre actors, and some directors can cause good actors to give bland performances. Lucas seems to be in the latter category, but he also hadn't directed a movie in 22 years by the time of Phantom Menace, and it showed.

Also, the complaints about midi-chlorians have always bothered me. "The Force was supposed to be this mystical energy field, but now it's just some kind of bacteria!" No, it isn't. It's still the very same energy field Obi-Wan and Yoda told Luke about. (Amazingly enough, Obi-Wan told the truth about something!) Midi-chlorians represent your ability to harness that field, not the field itself. (Honestly, given how nitpicky Star Wars fans can be (and I'm not exempting myself from that), and how devoted they are to explaining every little thing that ever appeared on screen (was anyone clamoring for the life story of the "Look, sir, droids!" guy?), I can't understand how this point gets so consistently misunderstood amongst the fandom...)

Did Lucas love Star Wars? Well, let's consider this anecdote. Ever notice that none of the films, starting with Star Wars, don't have opening credits? You get the Star Wars logo, then right into the opening text, then the movie. In 1977, that really wasn't done. The Directors' Guild actually had rules *requiring* the director be credited at the beginning of the film. Lucas thought the movie worked better, on an artistic level, without plastering *his own name* there. So he paid the DGA fine, quit the union, and left the movie the way he wanted. (The DGA since relaxed that rule.) Sure, he's made back that fine many, many, many times over... but *no one*, even Lucas, was predicting that level of success. I'd say that's someone who loved his film.

So... yeah. The prequels. Some good ideas, some not-so-good, and an execution that could have been better. Like I said, I can't really disagree with most of what you wrote. (Except that thing about C-3PO. I like C-3PO.)

George Chambers said...

You had me until that last paragraph, Snell.

David C said...

I'm with you on almost all counts, Snell.

One thing I think a lot of people forget or don't realize is that George Lucas had a number of goals with the prequels, and for good or for ill, they weren't limited to "make three good movies." He was also trying out new methods of film making, new techniques that could be applied by ILM to other work, etc.

I often say The Phantom Menace is the most expensive experimental film ever made. There's a lot of stuff that was done there for the first time (or the first time on a large scale, anyway), such as actors working on mostly or wholly virtual sets, or Binks as not a computer-generated "thing" but a full-fledged movie character.

Whether all that stuff workedis a different matter, but a lot of the stuff Lucas did in Episode I is now routine and widely done. I think a number of the actors struggled with the virtual sets, and weren't able to deliver great performances on them. It didn't help that Lucas was never much of an "actor's director," of course. But nowadays, being able to do quality work on a virtual set is no longer "optional" for a young actor.

Lucas was in a unique position where he could experiment with such things on a grand scale, but on a movie that was almost 100% guaranteed to not just turn a profit, but a very large one at that.