Tuesday, February 19, 2013

#523. Seven Ways the Star Wars Prequels Are...Better

With all the chatter about the next Star Wars trilogy, it's more important than ever to remember that the prequels don't suck.  I know, I know, it's as much a part of the culture now that they do, the same as the originals being untouchable (unless it's Return of the Jedi), that you're probably laughing your head off, and waiting for my punchline.  Except it isn't coming.  I've adored the prequels since they were originally released, in 1999, 2002 and 2005.  Sure, George Lucas started making a play at the kid's table long ago, but we're so far away from the dreadful Holiday Special (which, by the way, had no involvement from Lucas), I think we need to put things in perspective.  The prequels rock, and in some ways they're superior to the originals, and it's high time we stop kidding ourselves.

Anyway, here are my arguments:

  1. Narrative Coherence - Everyone knows that the whole point of the prequels was that they were meant to explain how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.  The thread of the originals was never that clear.  In fact, the big surprise of The Empire Strikes Back is that the audience learns a giant secret along with Luke, that Anakin and Vader are in fact one and the same.  That's unarguably the moment Star Wars transitioned from a fun little space adventure to an epic story, when people started taking it seriously.  So it's always puzzled me that it's the shock and not the story that fans are ultimately interested in.  They still rely on their memories rather than the movies themselves.  The prequels are all about the story.  I'm a story guy.  I love when a writer displays a command of their story, no matter how that command is demonstrated, and it was a bold choice from the start to say that Anakin was only a boy when it all started, not quite naive but definitely very childish, and even at that point was subject to the corrupting influence of bad breaks and unrequited desires, and actually getting some of what he wanted but not all of it.  The audience believes as much as anyone in The Phantom Menace that Episode I ends on a happy note, the only thing ominous being whether it was the Sith master or apprentice who was eliminated.  And yet the audience knows the answer to that, just as much as they know that Anakin's story is not happy, not by a long shot, no matter how it seems.  That's George Lucas playing exactly opposite the Empire moment.  In Attack of the Clones, we catch up with a frustrated Anakin who does some very bad things, well before being corrupted by Palpatine to the Dark Side of the Force.  It's the first sign that it wasn't the Sith that defined Vader but rather Anakin himself, exactly what Yoda was saying in Menace.  Yet in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin has all but conquered his fears.  He's a happy Jedi performing admirably, channeling his aggression in positive directions, when again he gives in to fear, this time knowing exactly what's going on and accidentally walking into his peril.  He's gotten everything he wanted, except one, to finally be accepted for who and what he is, to love Padme openly, and to join the ranks of the Jedi masters.  There's none of that in the originals.  Ben Kenobi makes it seem like Luke will instantly become a Jedi, and yet Yoda basically says that the very idea of it is a joke, only to later admit that he was being overly hard on him, that the only regret in the equation was Luke's knowledge of and confrontation with his father.  Really?
  2. Character Continuity - See that I'm not just focusing on execution?  But that'll come later, too.  As outlined in my previous defense, characterization was huge in the prequels.  In the originals, it's mostly Han Solo.  Without Han, the originals would be sunk.  And he's not even a Jedi!  He's not even technically a Rebel!  He only sticks around because he bonds with Luke and wants to be in a relationship with Leia.  He's the opposite of the entire Star Wars message, or rather the entire message of the original films, thereby supplanting the arc that emerges starting with Empire, the focus on the Skywalker legacy, something that's supposed to be integral to A New Hope, but instead is all about convincing Han to stick around and take things seriously, like the whole notion of the mystical Force.  Hokey religions indeed.  In the prequels, everyone knows their role, even when the audience doesn't.  Jar Jar Binks may be the greatest example.  The prequels always knew this character far better than the audience.  The audience rebelled against Binks the way everyone did against the Empire in the originals.  Once one person said a bad thing about him, everyone else did, too, and that's the story of the prequels in general.  Word of mouth became perception of reality.  Yet Jar Jar makes perfect sense, both in Menace and more importantly within Clones.  He's the version of Chewie that would have existed if Chewie hadn't just been Han's buddy.  He's the character who's the alien, but in this instance his context isn't just in relation to someone else, but within his own culture (if there's any real mistake in Menace it's that there isn't a fine enough contrast between Jar Jar and the rest of the Gungans, but even then the overall point of the population of Naboo is made perfectly well) and against the rest of the characters as well.  Obi-Wan lumps him in with the other "pathetic life-form" of his and Qui-Gon's adventures.  The other being Anakin Skywalker.  In Clones Jar Jar, whose role is greatly reduced and yet effective for the role he was always intended to fulfill, represents the weakness of the Republic.  That's all you need to know.
  3. Supporting Characters - There's literally no one like Palpatine in the originals, and that's just the tip of why he's the secret heart of the prequels, the strongest and most unifying element, and he's only a supporting character!  There's also Jango Fett, used far more effectively than his son Boba in Empire, even if the mystique of the latter will always eclipse (at least for the foreseeable future) the former's reputation; Count Dooku, who's a huge reason why Clones deserves a better reputation; Darth Maul, another Boba Fett surrogate who surpasses the original; even Zam Wessel, yet another surrogate Fett who's more interesting than the original, simply for having far more to do than look cool, with far less screen time.  Don't get me wrong.  Yoda is the best supporting character in any Star Wars, or at least the most iconic, and I will always be a big fan of Lando Calrissian, but Lando was a variant of Han, and Yoda didn't survive the prequels with his reputation entirely intact (even though he's yet another standout element of Clones with his so-called Jedi-fu).  Mace Windu, A.K.A. Samuel L. Jackson in his trainer franchise role, is someone who could never have existed in the originals, where no one existed unless they were a main character or reported directly to a main character.  Storytelling evolved in more ways than one for the prequels.  Depth of characters increased dramatically.  Subtlety was not always the point, but it was also one of the best things about them.
  4. Presentation - Yes, the originals reshaped the entire landscape of filmmaking.  But the prequels have been at the vanguard of the modern movement, and you will know this by the continued complaints of digital landscapes that somehow don't comprehend that this is absolutely the future of movies.  Simply put, the prequels are gorgeous.  That's the whole reason why George Lucas continued to revamp the originals. There will always be a difference between the two trilogies, because one is essentially a Western (the originals) while the other is a fantasy (the prequels).  The originals are all about the starkness of existence in the face of a terrible struggle and the endurance of the spirit, and so there will always be a remoteness necessary to them, even if half of that was simply how movies were made at that time, just as new capabilities in special effects informed (and helped inspire Lucas to make) the prequels, where everything that the characters in the originals were trying to restore actually existed, including the Jedi in their prime.  Speaking of which:
  5. Choreography - Simply put, the Force rocks in the prequels.  Lightsaber duels may yet define the legacy of the prequels, as they are undoubtedly the highlights of both Menace and Clones, as well as the whole reason for Sith, where we finally see the fatal encounter on the lava world between Obi-Wan Kenodi and Anakin Skywalker, in some ways the real reason the prequels were made in the first place.  Darth Maul is the essential performance of this new art, and yet of course there's also Yoda, and the two waiting to steal the show in Sith aren't so bad, either.  Yes, the fight between Luke and Vader in Empire is a set piece that defines the originals, even before the big reveal that ends it, but it's not nearly as breathtaking as what Maul does in Menace, even when he's just pacing (something I still do in tribute, by the way).
  6. Knowledge of the Star Wars Universe - It's true.  Most of the story of the originals is skirting around any concrete information.  The very fact that there are three different directors probably still has an impact on how that information was disseminated, the whole Skywalker family (and why fans still have a joke that Luke and Leia kissed), not just going back to the narrative coherence that started this list, but all the little details.  Alderaan is blown up in Hope.  So what?  It mostly matters because that's Leia's home world.  We see Hoth, Dagoba, Tatooine, and they're all on the fringes, and isn't that a little disappointing in hindsight?  Wouldn't you expect now for the Rebels to have taken the fight a little more directly to the Empire?  Are we just going to assume that Tarkin's pet Death Star meant that much, even though it's admittedly not even taken seriously by Vader, who is himself considered a relic?  That Lucas accepted a lot of the expanded universe (i.e. material created by someone other than himself) into the material presented in the prequels is one of the more prescient details, especially in the years leading up to the first films that will be made entirely by others.  The prequels understand how thing actually work so much better.  They're not improvised.  They're not, in essence, a Rebel production.  The Jedi and the Sith and the Force all get their own mythology.  There was backlash to some of that, especially concerning Midi-chlorians, but who cares?  It's the details that make things tick.  That's why fans were so excited about learning who Vader really was in the first place.  The prequels are loaded with that kind of material, which is perhaps why they were so easy to take for granted.  But that doesn't make details a weakness, but rather a definite strength.
  7. Integrated Storytelling - Empire is a romance.  Again, mostly because Han Solo hijacked the originals, especially in Empire, where romance is all about Han and Leia, and then secondarily Luke and the Force, and even Chewie and Threepio (!).  Hope is the most obvious Hero's Journey moment of the originals, while Jedi is all about wrapping everything up.  Yet the prequels have a dozen things going on in each of the films, moreso than the originals.  Sith alone, much like but on a grander scale Jedi before it, juggles several distinct acts.  Clones has the romance much like Empire, but Anakin is so much a combination of Luke and Han, it's no wonder fans never got around to figuring out who the Han surrogate was, because he was a bigger rogue than ever before, and it was suddenly all about trying to figure out what you really think about that archetype, rather than simply being charmed by it.  Han was pretty one-dimensional, all things considered.  Anakin was like the prequels, all over the place, yet very focused.  It was following him from moment to moment, and even Obi-Wan as he struggled to keep up every step of the way.  There's a reason why Anakin thought there was a love triangle in Sith, which was very different from the one Han perceived in Jedi.  And there's a reason why there was a podrace that stole the middle of Menace, and why there's nothing like that in the originals, unless you maybe count the Endor speeder bikes in Jedi or the asteroid chase in Empire.  That's another reason why having one director rather than three allows a single vision to encompass far more than three separate visions all trying to represent themselves can be a strength, rather than the traditional view that Lucas "just didn't have it anymore."  He did indeed have it.  He knew exactly what he wanted, and was able to accomplish so much more because of it.  By the time Han ends up in carbon freeze, Leia is simply there to finally admit what he was trying to get out of her from the start of the movie.  By the time Anakin wraps his arm around Padme, it's about both of them.
All of this is not to say that I don't like the originals.  I love the originals.  Always have.  Yet I don't see the contradiction in also loving the prequels, as so many fans seem to think must exist in considering both.  It's Star Wars.  I'm a Star Wars fan.  That's all.

7 comments:

MOCK! said...

I came here prepared to be upset, but if I re-read the title with the addition of "...than you think" or "...than you remember" and beyond some minor nit-picking (shocker!), I think I am in agreement with you on the majority of your points!

Tony Laplume said...

One day, a billion to go!

mauricem1972 said...

Tony, I like how you channeled your passion into this piece. I don't agree with all of it,(for example Chewbacca had an actual job and skill rather than screwing up) but I admire your logical progression of your arguments.

Spacerguy said...

I think its the emotional attachment to the original stories and characters that wins. I like Yoda, whose observations bring us closer to humanity while Palpatine has more scope to be evil as a politician than an emperor in the original trilogy. Still, its great watching Vader choose.

Tony Laplume said...

Maurice, like I said, I love the original films, and love Chewie, but my generalizations here are exactly what people have been doing to the prequels for years, making them sound as bad as possible. Yet my points still stand. Chewie doesn't exist outside of Han's shadow. He's awesome, but as annoying as Threepio continues to be, once he's switched on eve he manages to own scenes with everyone's favorite Wookiee. When you flip it around, it can be just as annoying that Chewie doesn't speak as it is for people that Jar Jar does.

It's true we never really get to know Palpatine as anything but the sinister Sith or the politician, but he's still infinitely fascinating, and has more than soundbytes to share. Yoda does make good copy. But he ends up being not much of a character because of it. The Yoda of the prequels (though he can sometimes be cloying) has more dimension. For a great warrior ("war make not one great!"), he seems pretty content to be slum it on the bog planet. He's a cartoon, well before he's actually animated.

Still, I'm offering the devil's advocate here.

Nigel Mitchell said...

Well, I admire the passion. I disagree about narrative. Anakin's path to the dark side is incoherent. In the first movie, he's not dark at all, even though he's a slave. In the second movie, he's all moody and angry, and believes in dictatorships, so you can see where it's going. Then in the third, he's suddenly calm and mature and loving...and transforms into pure kid-killing evil in one moment.

But I agree that in terms of visuals and choreography, the prequels have it all over the originals

Tony Laplume said...

It's all in Yoda's prophecy from the first one: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." It's a cycle Anakin doesn't break until his son Luke helps him. In Phantom Menace he's a little boy who's resentful about other people's perceptions of what he is, giddy about his prospects, but reluctant to leave his mother behind. Fear in this instance means gaining what he wants by losing an essential part of himself, and that would be his mother.

In the second one he's fearful that he's not being taken seriously by his fellow Jedi, although he's developed a considerable ego, which again was already present when he was a boy, when he was unknowingly using his Jedi instincts to win podraces.

In the third one he's again fearful that he can't have what he's gotten for himself, and once the catalyst of actually losing Padme is presented to him, he latches onto the first answer to come around, which is the first time Anakin himself comes up with a solution to improve his situation. The problem is that he's always stumbling into these horrible situations. He certainly didn't ask to be born into slavery, and that his mother would be kidnapped and tortured by Sandpeople, or for Padme to die in childbirth.

The problem is that Jedi clairvoyance never seems to be any more useful than the Imperial jibes tossed at Vader in A New Hope. Both Anakin and Luke had incomplete visions that didn't turn out so well for them when they impulsively hoped to prevent what they saw.

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