Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy: A Look Back

In 1999, I was the perfect audience for The Phantom Menace, the first installment of a Star Wars prequel trilogy that promised to show us the untold history of Anakin Skywalker before he would become Darth Vader. We'd finally see the Old Republic at the height of prosperity, Obi-Wan Kenobi as a young man, and the mysterious Clone Wars referenced in the original 1977 Star Wars. Today, a new trilogy is about to begin, starting with J.J. Abram's Episode VII: The Force Awakens opening tonight. I rewatched the original trilogy countless times in my life, but never went back to reexamine all of the prequels. With the new movie ready for release, what better time than now?

I was just finishing my first year of high school when Phantom Menace hit, and I'd been in full hype mode in the months leading up to it. Like kids today buying Force Awakens toys, I picked up action figures of characters I'd never heard of, lining new classics like Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks on my shelf among my old favorites: Classic characters like Greedo (my first Star Wars figure), the dinosaur bounty hunter from Empire, and the walrus guy from the Cantina. I read all the Expanded Universe novels I could get my hands on even though I could tell, even as a young teenager, that they were largely terrible. I just wanted more Star Wars. I wrote a book report on Kevin J. Anderson's putrid 1995 novel Dark Saber, in which I explained in depth what a Wookiee was in case my teacher wasn't sure. I wore a gaudy tie-dye shirt featuring the faces of the heroes of Episode I, before my fashion sense moved on to the bombastic Dragonball Z shirts that were popular at the time.

Yes, I still have a Jar Jar clock.
I'd just moved across the country from Boston to Atlanta and Star Wars was something familiar for me to take comfort in. I was getting used to new places and new people, and had trouble adapting. I'd grow to love my new home (and still miss it dearly now and again, now that I'm back in Boston) but for that couple of months leading up to May, 1999, Star Wars was everything for me. Luke Skywalker's journey from his lonely homeland to the strange and dangerous new reaches of space was everything my awkward 14/15 year old self was looking for.

Cool robots, aliens, and a figure inspired by Jesus himself.

When the new movie finally hit, it didn't change my life, nor did it inflame the ire that possessed so many fans in the years that followed. It was just a movie; a mostly fun movie with a few parts I thought were super boring. I couldn't understand why there was so much bureaucracy when I just wanted more pod races, but I still enjoyed it enough to see it at least four times while it was in theaters. I'd say it cured me of my fandom; I stopped buying all the Star Wars stuff I could find, I moved on to better books, and my high school t-shirts became more varied, though still mostly hilariously embarrassing to look back on. I would see the next two prequels only once in theaters, and never owned copies of them until just recently. I was happier in my personal life, and happy to just let Star Wars be a series of movies I enjoyed, and not something I obsessed over. They were, and still are, special to me. But they're not me.

A ceramic Jabba the Hutt Christmas ornament, the perfect ornamental tribute to sloth and greed
Sixteen years later, I still see a lot of angry hyperbole over The Phantom Menace. From rants on blogs and forums about how a trilogy of films fans didn't like ruined childhoods (I'm refusing to use the actual language they use here) to entire films examining the fandom to long time Star Wars fans explaining that there's really only one, maybe one and a half films in the series worth watching, it's hard for me to understand the level of vitriol the prequel trilogy inspires. For those that say, "These were bad movies, I didn't like them," that's fine; all good. It's the ones that make their very existence into some sort of holy war that will forever remain strange and alien to me. People pray for The Force Awakens to be "real" Star Wars again, and the advertising has certainly played hard into nostalgia for the original trilogy.

I'm not interested in fan drama. It can be entertaining when it's not sad, but it's a distraction from the films that doesn't really have anything to do with them. I'm interested in the films themselves, so without further delay, here are my notes on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, rewatched closely for the first time since they were new.

I took notes on what worked, what didn't, and what baffled me in the prequels as I rewatched. These are not formal reviews or essays, but rather my bullet-point thoughts on these three films.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) 

• The Phantom Menace is good, mostly solid film. This will be the longest look back, as the events and themes of this film remain crucial to the next two as well.

• Jake Lloyd as young Anakin Skywalker is not a good performance. I respect the choice to make Anakin as young and innocent as he is here, as a contrast to the messed up teenager he becomes in Episode II. I think it's important to start here, rather than starting with him as an already accomplished man. This element of the tragedy works; the acting/directing, sadly, does not live up to the quality of the premise.

• That said: The relationship between Anakin and Amidala in later films is a lot creepier due to her babysitter-like role in this one. And Lucas plays up the creepiness angle hard in Episode II.

• Pod race is still pretty good, if a little longer than it needs to be. Same could be said of much of the film, though its slower pacing compared to action films of the day is a deliberate choice and not a mistake.

• Soundtrack's awesome, John Williams does a fantastic job here. Duel of the Fates is a wonderful piece of music.

• While it bored me as a kid, I actually do like the Senate/trade dispute drama now. It's a blunt "American bureaucracy's broken" commentary but it works. The Jedi being an inefficient group of crotchety old fogies also works. The Old Republic is not the utopia we expected as kids; it's corrupt, slow to act, and gives rise to fascism by being blind to the rise of fascist ideologies. The Empire does not destroy the Republic, it's a gradual transition. Phantom Menace establishes this well, with its parade of well-wishers who care more about fashion and lofty speeches than the plight of Tatooine's slaves or the Gungans. Qui-Gon's "We're not here to free slaves" line after freeing Anakin and leaving his mother behind is delivered gently, but is tells us everything. The Jedi will take and use what they need, while allowing suffering elsewhere when it's politically inconvenient.

• The Darth Maul fight's great, easily the best of the prequel action scenes. He's not much of a character, but he works as an embodiment of rage, the first of Palpatine's experimental apprentices, each representing a fraction of the perfect slave he later finds in Darth Vader (Maul as rage, Count Dooku as the regal leader, General Grievous as the mechanical man)

• Anakin blowing up the droid ship on accident really doesn't work, largely because of the dialogue he delivers. I'm all good with The Force guiding him to victory, but it feels more accidental than it really should.

• Midichlorians, the microorganisms in blood that Qui-Gon scans to detect Force Sensitivity, are funny in retrospect because a certain variety of nerd loves smugly using science to disprove religion but gets all aghast when fictional science explains a fictional religion they like. That said; I don't think they're a bad plot device, and I don't think they ruin the mysticism. Qui-Gon and the Jedi order care about the Midichlorian count, but what's their opinion worth? Yoda admits in the second film that the order has lost some of its connection to The Force, and that the Dark Side clouds the future. In this film, "diplomacy" means sending a trained Jedi Knight who easily can and will kill or mind-wipe anyone who gets in the way. They're already being poisoned and corrupted, it makes sense that their pure understanding of The Force would be corrupted as well.

• Jar Jar is great. He's unbelievably obnoxious, to the point that he actually becomes funny on another ridiculous level. He's a perfect use of The Fool archetype, revealing to us the truth of those around him even while we shake our fists at him. Qui-Gon treats him with no respect, telling him that the ability to speak does not make him intelligent. Amidala smirks when she nobly asks the Gungans to give their lives to protect the people of Naboo from the Droid Army. The Empire in the original trilogy is largely a Humans Only Club, and the attitudes that create that cruel system are blossoming right here, even within the film's heroes. Jar Jar is a poor, lonely outcast, and rather than be embraced, he is used (especially in the second film, where he inadvertently helps Palpatine attain unlimited power over the Senate) and scorned. The audience reaction to Jar Jar is basically Luke's reaction when he meets Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, except Jar Jar remains a clown and doesn't reveal himself as a secret wise man. But we should still show him respect. He is, after all, part of The Living Force. Should we not love all our brothers, even those who have really bad table manners and step in poop and yell pee-yousa?

• I love sequels that mess with expectations, and this one does so heavily by making the Jedi into arrogant peacekeepers who show little respect for the poor and happily raise child soldiers but lament the fact that this Anakin kid's too old to brainwash. The Republic falls down the stairs while it's too busy congratulating itself and celebrating unity while asking the Gungan Frog People to die on the front line as cannon fodder to buy time. The immense hypocrisy is unpleasant, and that's a valid reason for some fans to dislike these films when compared to the original trilogy. Personally, I find it compelling to watch.

I like that the Jedi Council plays an antagonist role in the film. They're brash, insensitive, and oppose our lead heroes every step of the way; refusing to accept Anakin, chastising him for worrying about his enslaved mother, ordering Qui-Gon around to his disapproval, telling Obi-Wan he's not worthy to Do The Trials and become a full-fledged Knight. The Warrior Monks becoming another cog in the system is part of why the Republic becomes what it becomes. They just sit in a circle pulling their beards ineffectively the exact same way the Senate and Naboo's council does, and the film explicitly calls out those latter two as being failures

I dig the whole Stage Play look this trilogy uses. I like the extravagant, to the point of hideous, costume design (same way I like it in The Hunger Games films) and I like the whole bizarre, overly formal dialogue style used, especially the way it clashes with how the aliens all speak. Every word Amidala's friends use is form over function. It's a good "society on the brink of collapse and they can't even see it" image. Zack Snyder would use very similar style and language devices in the opening scene of his 2013 Superman film, Man of Steel, showing us a grotesquely lavish Krypton in its dying days. The Jedi aren't fun to be around, and it makes the films drag at times, but I think it works well in spite of that.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

• I disliked this one when I was younger, but in retrospect it's not a bad film, nor is it a great one. It is, however, weaker than the other prequel films, and unnecessarily long; it's the longest film in the entire series so far, and its biggest problem is the endless action scenes in the second half, all of which are significantly longer than need be. Between the Clone War fight at the end, the utterly horrible Droid Factory platforming sequence, the assassin chase at the beginning, and the cheesy but endearing Monster Arena sequence, you could easily cut 45 minutes of the film.

• This is a love story between a child soldier and a princess who admits she was forced into her role too young. They're both emotionally damaged; he's a sociopath and she's in a situation where she can't really say no. If Amidala rejects Anakin, who has been assigned to protect her from assassination, her life is possibly at risk, especially once he goes on his Tusken Raider Murder Spree while grieving his lost mother. It's not bad acting, it's a legitimately grotesque, broken relationship. Neither of them has the emotional maturity needed for a healthy relationship.

Anakin's angry, teary "I'm going to be the strongest EVER!!" following his mother's death isn't bad acting, it's still the eight year old boy from the last movie now in an adult body, as part of an army that forbids emotional attachment. He's so messed up because they didn't brainwash him young ENOUGH. He doesn't have the understanding needed to deal with either death of love. I also really love Duel of the Fates building up right as he's about to break down and hunt his mother's captors. The score in this film is exceptionally strong, drawing on musical themes from Darth Maul's to Darth Vader's to Emperor Palpatine's in Return of the Jedi to tell us audibly where Anakin's mental state is. He's fallen to the Dark Side long before the third film, and it's in no small part the fault of the Jedi Order.

I love Dex's Diner. The robot waitress is great and Dex is wonderfully disgusting. I love bearded frog aliens. It's also home to Obi-Wan's biggest jerk line, "Well, if droids could think, there'd be none of us here, would there?" Not exactly the kind of language you'd expect from a Guardian of Peace in a world where C3PO and R2-D2 are two of the most independent and emotional characters in the series. Dehumanizing droids in general is an easy way for Obi-Wan and company to justify slaughtering Droid Army troops without blinking.

I like the design of Kamino but don't really like Obi-Wan's plot at all. As he seeks out Amidala's would-be assassin, he travels the galaxy on a wild goose chase. It's just not compelling, and there are some good scenes but it flounders and makes the movie longer than need be.

The Boba Fett connection is absolutely unnecessary. The entire first generation of Clone/Storm Troopers being clones of Jango Fett is a bizarre choice, and gives needless importance to an otherwise bumbling character from the original films who is mostly notable for his cool armor and for dying when a blind man accidentally bumps into him.

Yoda being tainted by the Dark Side by taking up arms is an underrated Star Wars Tragedy. Dooku tells the truth about everything! He tells Obi-Wan that the Senate has been taken over by the Sith! No one listens! You're damn right the Dark Side has clouded your vision, guys. Both Amidala and Yoda are against the idea of war when the films begins, but fully embrace the Clone Army at the end. Right then, the Republic ships transition into Star Destroyers. This is a good moment (following an unfortunately exhausting hour of action) that really hits home the themes of the Phantom Menace.

Jar Jar is used well. The Every Man character being used as a step stool for fascism to take hold is sadly realistic. He is forced into the Senate when Amidala leaves and is completely out of his element, allowing Palpatine to manipulate him into doing his bidding. A parallel is drawn here between Anakin and Jar Jar, which makes sense, given their parallels in The Phantom Menace, where both are lower class nobodies plucked from the street by the Jedi who succeed out of blind luck in that film's final battle. In a more innocent, but still "wude" parallel, Anakin uses the Force to playfully take some fruit from Amidala's plate, much as Jar Jar uses his frog-tongue to playfully take fruit from Anakin's mom on his visit to Anakin's home in the previous film. This, of course, also draws a parallel between Amidala an Anakin's mother. Anakin's got a lot of psychological baggage here.

I like C3PO's terrible jokes. They're SO BAD that I can't help but laugh. He is the only good part of the otherwise dire Droid Factory sequence. Yes, it's monumentally corny that he yells "I'm beside myself!" shortly before his severed head is dumped next to the rest of his body. It's the kind of corniness this film needed more of.

I even like the name of the film more now, after disliking it originally. It's also super corny, but it well serves the idea that the "good guys" are the ones attacking.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith


• This is the best paced of the prequels, and like Empire Strikes Back, I think it benefits from having its biggest action set piece in the beginning of the film and uses a more personal, one-on-one fight for its finale.

• The opening of this film, with a massive space battle happening simultaneously with Anakin and Obi-Wan confronting Count Dooku on his command ship, is a reimagining of the finale to Return of the Jedi. In both scenes, Palpatine sits upon very similar thrones, watching the action and goading a young Skywalker into killing. The entire movie is then a sort of hellish nightmare that asks, "What if Luke had actually murdered Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi?" The rest of the story shows that fall. Anakin becomes Vader not when he kills Samuel L. Jackson's underused Mace Windu, and not when he murders the Jedi child soldiers in training. It happens definitively the second he executes an unarmed Dooku, and both he and Palpatine know it.

• The space battle in the opening is very confusing to follow, and it's unclear which ships are on which side. It makes a good thematic point, that "evil is everywhere" and "there are heroes on both sides," as the opening text crawl tells us, but it's not a compelling action scene to follow. There's no real personal stake in it, even if it's got some solid subtext. Also, General Grievous is a very forgettable villain.

• Everything comes together here: The Jedi Order and the Senate have both been shown as complacent and blind for two movies, and it comes back to bite them hard here, as Palpatine is able to take control of the Republic without breaking a sweat. The problem up until now isn't that the Jedi (or the Senate) are evil, but rather, that they turn their eyes from evil. Slavery and racial strife (mostly shown with droids, including in the 1977 Star Wars, but also shown with the Gungans living in seclusion on their own planet in Phantom Menace) run rampant in the galaxy, and negotiations, even over trade issues, usually end in murder by one side or the other.

Palpatine isn't just a fluke who came in and screwed up the system; he's everything wrong with both the Jedi and the Senate made flesh. Seeing him fight using both a light saber and the literal chairs of the Senate as projectiles is pretty funny because of this. He also just has a fantastically fun time being pure evil. Unfortunately, his make up is a lot worse than it was in Return of the Jedi. Amidala's exasperated "So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause" when Palpatine declares himself Emperor is one of the better lines in the trilogy, even if she herself doesn't seem to fully realize how responsible she is for not seeing through Palpatine's game in the first place.

• Amidala still loves Anakin, but is clearly afraid of him for much of the film. Anakin loves Amidala, but as both a sort of surrogate mother he turns to for approval/to thrown tantrums around and as a perfect figure he holds on a pedestal. He cannot understand it when she disagrees with him. Continuing the themes of Attack of the Clones, this isn't a grand romance, but a really broken relationship that was never healthy to begin with.

• I still dislike Amidala dying of a "broken heart" after giving birth when she's stated to be otherwise healthy. I can understand her choosing death rather than following someone cursed by darkness (the same choice Luke makes in Return of the Jedi when he would rather die than kill Vader,) but it's extremely hard to accept her not wanting to live to be with her two newborn children. I suppose the Republic's medical droids may just be astonishingly incompetent.

• I really love the shots of Vader's birth from Anakin's burned husk happening parallel with the births of Luke and Leia. It's a nice piece of visual symmetry between the Light Side and the Dark, and while Vader's "Noooooo" at the end is terrible, the rest of the scene is a wonderful Birth of Frankenstein's Monster sequence.

• I've got no beef with Yoda being off-world helping the Wookiees, but it's too big of a coincidence to have him pair up with Chewbacca specifically. I get that in this universe The Force guides us all, and there is no luck and there is no coincidence, but it feels cheap.

• I've seen "grim" describe action-adventure blockbusters from The Hunger Games to Man of Steel to (inexplicably) parts of The Avengers series, but this movie is one that actually earns it. This is a dark downer of a film that ends with everyone dead, maimed, or in exile. The villain (both Palpatine himself and the Phantom Menace of systemic corruption) completely and utterly wins, and the innocent little kid we met two movies ago just slaughtered a school before being left to burn alive.

It's hard to buy Anakin going this overboard with his violence this quickly against people he knows, but we also have to remember that people here commonly use The Force to manipulate the minds of weaker people, and there's no moment in the story where Anakin's mind is as weak as it is here. He's a monster, but he's a monster born out of Palpatine's predatory manipulations (magical, political, and personal) and the Jedi Order's dogmatic refusal to allow its members to follow the power of love. Anakin is a sociopath manipulated by a narcissist who could have been saved if only kindness had been shown to his mother. We're not meant to agree with him, ever, but we are meant to pity him, and to understand that he's a symptom of a violent system, not the root cause. In spite of the numerous toys and kids' shirts and food tie-ins, George Lucas seems to have told this story in part to say "DO NOT IDOLIZE DARTH VADER." And yet even someone who has committed sins as dark as he is not beyond salvation, as Luke teaches us in Return of then Jedi.

• On a technical level, it's fun looking at the advances in CGI (as well as digital touch ups of real sets and miniatures) from Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith. The effects in Sith are much nicer looking, and even the big honking dinosaur-bird Obi-Wan rides into battle on looks fairly modern. There are some awkward visual bits in Episode II as the series makes the transition from film to digital, but they're mostly ironed out by the third movie.

So there we have it: The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy is a series of films with a lot of great material and strong themes, told with uneven pacing and some questionable acting. While the execution isn't great, I enjoyed them more than I expected to, and will be disappointed if The Force Awakens learns nothing from them in terms of both what worked and what didn't.

It's easy for me to understand what some find objectionable about these films: Outside of parts of The Phantom Menace, they lack the fun, adventurous attitude of the original trilogy. It's easy for someone to want to be Luke or Leia or Han; no one wants to be Anakin or Amidala or Jar Jar. The original films show us a clear conflict between good and evil, while the prequels present a more complicated world where the two grow organically from each other. The prequels are far more cynical films, though I don't feel that they completely discard the hopefulness of the originals. The original trilogy feels legendary, and functions as a fairy tale; the prequels feel grounded in politics, trade disputes, jealously, hate, and fear. In Return of the Jedi, love wins and it's time to party. In Revenge of the Sith, hate wins and it's time for self-reflection, meditation and questioning everything we know about the people we trusted.

I hope that with enough time and distance, people will watch these films and ask what's really going on here, instead of just lashing out at what's different. If someone watches them closely (meaning without yelling at the TV or posting on a forum at the same time) and still dislikes them, that's not a problem. These two trilogies, in spite of the parallels they draw, are extremely different sets of films. They're not for everyone, and neither are the original three films. In the end, they're a series of movies that have become cultural behemoths, serving in themselves, separate from their very content, as heroes to cheer and villains to boo. As a fan of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films, I'm excited to see where he takes the Star Wars story with his new film, but whether it's good or bad, I'm happy to watch it as a film, and not tie it to my identity or take its good/bad elements personally.

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