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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

I know we're both lookin' at his belt

Tonight at work I've been given the inspiring task of sitting in front of a computer from 11 to 7 without falling asleep (ah, government work), so - inspired by my recent reading of How To Watch Revenge of the Sith - I've decided to devote another post's worth of valuable blog space to discussing Star Wars. I think Mr. Yeti makes some good points (although it seems like he should learn how to spell "Anakin," "Kenobi," and/or "Lucas" before his career as an Internet Star Wars-ophile can really take off).

The thing about the prequels - and they'll always be referred to as "prequels," I think, because they're obviously dependent on Episodes IV, V, and VI (a point John made very well back when he was still blogging). If they were better movies or if they were more consistent with the original trilogy they might be called "the first three movies" or something similarly inspiring. Unless Lucas puts out another re-cut of the originals that's tremendously bad in hopes of smoothing out the disparity, though (which would be unsurprising but very very sad), I think they'll remain "prequels."

As I was saying, though - the thing about the prequels is that they're not horrible movies unto themselves. They've got very strong premises, stunning visuals, lovely soundtracks, excellent acting (Christiansen and Lloyd notwithstanding, although I think that might have been intentional - Lucas trying to justify Mark Hamill's stiff acting by presenting the idea that the Skywalkers are just awkward emoters from way back). Set in one of the great settings in the history of fiction, too - I'd say that LAFFA Galaxy ranks with Middle Earth or Narnia as an outstanding place to set a story. There was so much potential for these movies to be great - all they needed was a few good scripts and a good director. Ideally a few great scripts and a brilliant director, but I think "good" would have more than cut it. If Lucas could have let himself turn the reins over just a little - pointed out to himself, perhaps, that the brilliant premise and stunning special effects and very good basic storyline were all his and that he could still have final veto power over anything and that his name was still and would forevermore be inextricably linked to the Star Wars world so maybe it would be okay if someone else was in charge of exactly what the characters said and maybe it would be okay if someone else was in charge of exactly how the movies were put together - then these movies could have been absolutely spectacular. With the basically unlimited budget and the complete resources of ILM available they could have been the Star Wars movies that Lucas wanted to make back in the 70's and 80's. And because of that fact - because they danced so close to "incredible" but only reached "okay, maybe good in parts" - they're almost painful to watch.

Remember back when The Phantom Menace hit the theaters? Remember the immense amount of pre-movie hype? PepsiCo, if memory serves, invested over a billion dollars in advertising - everywhere you looked, it seemed, you saw Obi-Wan or Darth Maul or wee little Anakin. Every entertainment-related magazine published a Star Wars issue. Lucas demanded that theaters be compliant with his new sound system standard so theaters across the country upgraded - Phantom Menace triggered a nationwide theater ticket price hike. Inspired by the memory of what it had been like to see the original trilogy in the theaters a few years before, Star Wars geeks tingled in anticipation of a brand new chapter - especially those of us who'd been either too young or too clueless to be caught up in the magic the first time around. "Remember how AWESOME it was when we saw the digitally remastered (!) X-Wings fighting over the Death Star?!?" we giddily exclaimed. "Remember how cool the new lotsa-aliens Mos Eisley looked!?!?" Occasionally someone would say something like, "Remember how confused and unimpressed you were with digital Jabba? Remember how you couldn't figure out why on earth Lucas would put that scene in? Remember how it felt like the whole point was to say 'Hey, lookit what I can do!'?" but those people were categorically snubbed.

The lines were insane for Phantom Menace, but we were sure it was very much worth our time. I sat in the parking lot of the Crossroads 12 Theatres in Waterloo and played 3-handed 500 with Jason and Mark while we waited. There were TV camera crews walking around getting human interest "Hey, you're a geek, aren't you!" pieces and people dressed up in costumes despite the summer heat. When the line finally started moving there were people literally hopping up and down with excitement (Mark and I hopped up and down, too, but we were just mocking them). We sat impatiently through the previews, cheered when the "Lucasarts" logo appeared on the screen, cheered even louder when the immensely kick-ass first chord of John Williams's score rang through the speakers, and settled back into our seats prepared to be blown away as the cool trapezoidal blue text crawl started (some of us quietly reading it aloud, as all blue words must needs be read).

Two hours later, we walked out of the theater confused and underwhelmed. The movie certainly had Star Wars-y elements, but there were so many jarringly weird bits (no pun intended). Why had Lucas gone away from making aliens cool and/or useful to the plot characters and made them all silly instead? Did the movie's climactic ending really center around Anakin pushing the wrong button in a starship? Why oh why were there no characters in this movie that we were interested in? Where, in a nutshell, was the cool?

Nothing daunted, we decided we must have just missed something and promptly went back into the theater for the second showing (complain though I might about how disappointing these movies were, they were still Star Wars films and I'm still a Star Wars geek - I saw all three prequels twice on opening day). Same result, though; we left feeling like we'd missed something we were supposed to see.

Apparently the feeling was fairly global. Remember when Attack of the Clones came out? There was quite a bit of hooplah, but no more than any other summer blockbuster would receive. Certainly not a This Is The Only Thing Going On In The World Of Cinema-level carpet out-rolling like Phantom Menace received. And Attack of the Clones was better than Phantom Menace but still disappointing. And then Revenge of the Sith came out almost quietly - certainly compared to Menace - and had some parts that were better than AotC but some that were worse and was overall underwhelming again.

And that's it. No more Star Wars films, and I for one feel like we're still sort of owed three Star Wars films. They were breathtaking eye candy, but they weren't sagas or epics or any of the other superlatives that they were darn well supposed to be. Instead they're three very strong supporting examples of the theory that there's no more important part of the moviemaking process than the scriptwriter. Sigh.

In keeping with the rant-y theme of this post so far, I'll go through some specific points of the prequels that annoy me. All of these have probably been covered elsewhere already (some of them probably by me in my last Star Wars post), but here are a few more specific gripes with the three prequels:

>>Why oh why oh why did Lucas decide to introduce midichlorians? Why why why? The Force is possibly the single coolest idea in the entire LAFFA Galaxy setting; I can't think of another example where fantasy and sci-fi are blended so seamlessly. And there's already a great explanation of it in Star Wars: An energy field created by all living things which, Ben tells us, surrounds us, penetrates us, binds us all together, and partly controls our actions while still obeying our commands. Very nice indeed - a science-y explanation of magic, basically. Tiny little creatures in our cells? That's a horrible explanation, and it makes Ben sounds like an idiot when he explains the Force to Luke in Star Wars. Maybe he also thought midichlorians were dumb and thought he'd pretend they didn't exist by not telling Luke about them.

Seriously, though - I can't think of a single reason why adding the idea of midichlorians was anything but dumb. Did he want to soften the blow of explaining Anakin's virgin birth by having tiny little subcellular creatures be responsible instead of a mysterious Force? Did he want a way to quantify Anakin's Force-ish badassness by letting Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take a midichlorian count? Or - this is my personal favorite - had he made a bet with Spielberg that he could introduce one really stupid idea into The Phantom Menace and still have the top-grossing film of the summer?

>>I thought Jar-Jar was annoying, but not so much because of how he was characterized as because of the role he was given. All the important, acting-intensive roles in the old trilogy were given to humans. Yoda comes closest to breaking that, but he's really just a supporting character in the old trilogy; a way for Luke to learn more mad Jedi skillz. There's a reason for that, and it's not just because it requires a huge technology investment to make a special effect into a main character. People are used to reading emotion from other people. At best we can read broad emotions from non-humans: the dog is happy to see me. This wasp seems to wish I wasn't here. When you have a non-human in a major acting role like Lucas tried to do with Jar-Jar it doesn't work. We the audience see a special effect that's emoting, not just the emotion. Sure, Jar-Jar was annoying, but Chewie would have been just as intolerable placed in a major role like Jar-Jar's. Jar-Jar could have been cool (or at least interesting) in a supporting role, but he's not at all fit to carry a major role.

>>Why did Lucas decide Tatooine was so important? It went from, "If there's a bright center to the universe, you'e on the planet it's furthest from," in Star Wars to being the site of much of the action in the prequels. Almost every time Lucas tried to do a cute nod to the old trilogy it didn't work. Look, they're back on Tatooine! That's neat, huh? Now we can meet Owen and Beru when they were young, even though we hardly met them in Star Wars and we don't really care about meeting them again! Yippee! That sure does make hiding Luke on Tatooine seem like an idiot idea, though. At least pick a spot other than the hut right by Anakin's mom's grave and maybe change Luke's last name since we've established that Anakin Skywalker is a galactic celebrity. Far too high a price in awkward plot mechanics to pay for being able to say "Ooo... Tatooine! I remember that!"

>>While I'm nitpicking, why do you suppose the names of Sith Lords became less subtle between the old trilogy and prequels. In the old trilogy we had Darth Vader, which has a lovely evil sound to it but doesn't really mean anything. Maybe part of "invader". We also have the Emperor, but he never uses his Sith title - which we can interpret either as Lucas brilliantly forseeing his desire to have the Palpatine Is Sidious connection be all secretive and startling in the prequels or as Lucas not having thought of the idea of the Sith being ancient enemies of the Jedi and the Emperor being a great Sith Lord as well as a regular old Dark Jedi. But, to stay somewhat on track - we have Vader. Very cool, evil-sounding name. In the prequels, we add Darths Maul, Sidious, and Tyrannus and learn about former Sith Lords Darths Bane and (this one is my favorite - run out of unsubtle "this word sounds bad!" names, George?) Plagueis. Good grief. If the Emperor had successfully turned Luke to the dark side in Return of the Jedi, I think his cool Sith name should have been Darth I'mGoingToGoHurtSomePuppiesNow.

>>I've complained about this before, but I can't understand Lucas's insistence that having cameo appearances by characters from the old trilogy is cool. I think that meeting Boba Fett as a young kid works fairly well, but only because he's more of a plot device than a character in the old trilogy. If Lucas had known how he was going to use wee Boba when he made Jedi, he would certainly have had a huge, drawn-out fight between Boba and Luke where Boba expressed his lifelong hatred of Jedi. It would have been silly and a delay in the plot, but by heck it would have been a tie-in back to another movie. The touching moment 'twixt Yoda and Chewbacca in RotS was perhaps the dumbest moment in all six movies, made even more so by the fact that Lucas felt an entire scene on Kashyyyk was necessary to set it up. Both CGI Jabba appearances (in I and IV) are grating in their lameness; non-CGI Jabba was a very cool character. CGI Jabba was a joke.

Even the non-cameo crossovers were awkward. R2-D2 and C-3PO didn't need to be in the prequels. They had major roles but were still basically just "hey, I know him!" cameos. I was stunned and unimpressed when I saw them in Phantom Menace and I never changed my mind about it. If Lucas does remake the old trilogy (which I can see him doing - get rid of all the pesky actors and make the whole thing CGI) I hope Artoo at least gets to keep his ability to fly and defeat super battle droids single-handedly and whatnot.

I'm sure I could find more things to list, but this is a pretty long post (especially considering its completely meaningless content) already. If you're interested in reading further ranting-by-me about Star Wars, feel free to peruse my review of Revenge of the Sith. If I think of more particularly objectionable points I'll add 'em to this post later. I certainly encourage feedback. Disagree with me or add to the list - either way, I'd love to hear it.

On a more serious and relevant note, Happy New Year's to you all and a blessed 2006. You know, just in case I don't get around to posting again until next December.

Well ranted. Indeed. Too much to really take in right now and discuss in any sort of informative way, but lots to think about. I did want to point out that I believe the first sentence fragment in Star Wars is in blue and the trapezoidal text crawl is in yellow. Your post reads like the whole thing is blue.
Finally, I quote I recognize. :-)

So many pictures in the sky!
You got from "settled back into our seats prepared to be blown away as the cool trapezoidal blue text crawl started" that I thought the whole thing was blue? Silly Mark...

Yeah, that's my bad. Of course only the long ago, far far away bit was quietly read.
Maybe it's not all blue. But fortunately, the "Sweet 'N Low" song lives on, as Thomas discovered tonight at Bennigan's.

Anyway, sorry for the incomprehensible non-sequitur, Charlie's other readers. I should probably also chime in on the whole Force/midichlorians thing, just to be topical. Like an ointment. Anyway, as Lucas has repeatedly stated, the Force is not magic; it's God. Maybe he hasn't said specifically, "It ain't magic." But he has said it's a stand-in for all religious notions. (Sorry, wiccans, but for the sake of argument I'm not including magic as a religious idea.)

My point being that it's even dumber to have midichlorians if the Force = God. That's why it always bugged me that Zahn invented Force-proof trees. Trees! That evolved a resistance to God! Huh?! That just seemed like a lazy way to keep Luke impotent while Zahn's forgettable stand-ins saved the day.

So midichlorians, which are apparently like mitochondria that commune with the almighty, trump any amount of wisdom or virtue you might possess. Either you got 'em, or you don't. I'd think Yoda would be very popular at the blood bank. To quote Syndrome, "Lame, lame, lame, lame, lame!"

And I hope that "Plagueis" is just a translation that does no justice to the word in LTAFFA-galaxy lingo. Because it makes my eyes hurt to read it. I keep wanting to say "Play-goo-ees."

Lastly, who the hell is Sifo Dyas?
Sifo-Dyas is apparently a character that Lucas never got around to explaining (no doubt because of all the "Look at what I can do with computers!" shots he had to cram in) - so sayeth Wikipedia, anyway.

I guess I never got the sense that the Force was supposed to be god. That seems to contradict Obi-Wan's explanation in ANH - "god," to me, implies some sort of supernatural energy with conscious purpose and the Force ("Will of the Force" comments notwithstanding, especially since all of the "Will of the Force" comments I can think of happen in the prequels) doesn't seem to be alive unto itself, really. Really, it does seem to be sort of like magic - at least magic the way it's portrayed in the Tolkein/D&D mythos: an ambient energy that some people can learn to harness to their needs.

However, you seem to be agreeing with me, overall, so I'll stop refuting your points. "Plagueis" is indeed a name beyond idiocy - if I hadn't read the novel I think I would have given Lucas credit for at least choosing a logical spelling.
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