Sunday, January 3, 2016

In defense of the Star Wars prequels: The critic strikes back


The Force Awakens has finally opened worldwide and has been received with universal acclaim. As a standalone film, it’s a success; it has likeable characters, humor, special effects, creatures, lightsabers and the classic battle between the light and dark sides of the Force. It has everything audiences go to a Star Wars movie for.

Movies should be critiqued on their standalone merits. This website recently published a column dismissing negative reviews of Spectre as the result of viewers comparing it to Skyfall and then, because it is not as good, deciding Spectre isn’t a good movie. What is troubling about reviews of The Force Awakens, is the way this film is gaining praise on the backs of Star Wars Episodes I-III, the much- (unjustly) derided prequel trilogy.

Cristopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote, “With The Force Awakens. Abrams has begun one of the most important reclamation projects of our time: the complete erasure from cultural memory of The Phantom Menace and its sequels.”

The “complete erasure from cultural memory” of the prequels would be a very sad cinematic event indeed. At this point in time, it’s difficult to track the origin of the derision and to ascertain how many viewers sincerely dislike the prequels and how many say so because they are trend whores of the California bear T-Shirt, planking and Harlem-shake mentality. The Phantom Menace, released on May 19, 1999, grossed $431,088,295 domestically (a 2012 3D rerelease grossed $43,456,382 domestically) according to Box Office Mojo, an industry tracking site. Yes, box office doesn’t mean a film is good, yet when looking at major reviews of The Phantom Menace, the loathing is even more complexing.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “But stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Mr. Lucas's first installment offers a happy surprise: it's up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway, creating illusions that are even more plausible than the kitchen-raiding raptors of ''Jurassic Park.'' While the human stars here are reduced to playing action figures, they are upstaged by amazing backdrops and hordes of crazily lifelike space beings as the Lewis Carroll in Mr. Lucas is given free rein. The ''Star Wars'' franchise was funnier and scrappier when it was new. But it simply wasn't capable of this.”

The last sentence above is a crucial one. Maslin expertly recognizes what many viewers didn’t about the prequels, which is they are intended to have a different look than the originals. Lucas spoke many times about how he had intended to do the first three episodes once technology caught up to his vision. Maslin’s mention of “Jurassic Park” is apropos because Lucas stated the success of the CGI in “Jurassic Park” convinced him it was finally time create the Star Wars universe as he wanted it. Fans of the original trilogy complained of Episodes I-III being overwhelmed by CGI and the characters and story fading into the background. It is a fair criticism for someone to say they don’t like a movie with so much CGI, but this is separate from the film being poorly made. However, to criticize the film for lacing character development (which it actually doesn’t) is to ignore what the Star Wars franchise is.

Roger Ebert, who will forever be the most insightful and brilliant voice of film criticism, wrote, “At the risk of offending devotees of the Force, I will say that the stories of the "Star Wars" movies have always been space operas, and that the importance of the movies comes from their energy, their sense of fun, their colorful inventions and their state-of-the-art special effects. I do not attend with the hope of gaining insights into human behavior.”

It’s not as if the original Star Wars films were Tolstoy-esque character studies with the occasional lightsaber battle and creature effects. They were vehicles for fun and imagination and anyone who criticizes the prequels for lack of rich characters either misses the point or is trying to sound highbrow. Incidentally, there is much character development in the later prequels and this will be addressed later.

Ebert enjoyed the movie and said on his TV show, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”

Ebert did say the plot details of the trade dispute brought the Star Wars universe to a more scaled down level. This is a criticism which can be accepted (although the elements of the trade dispute were admittedly

The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, in a review mostly comparing how he felt watching this to how he felt watching the original when he was 22 years younger, wrote, “Part of the reason for this lack of wit is that 'Phantom Menace' is intentionally skewed quite young. One of its key protagonists, as anyone who cares knows by now, is 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, and many of the film's characters and situations are set up to please tender minds. "We're doing it for the wide-eyed 13-year-old," one of the film's key technicians told Premier magazine, not necessarily a pleasant thought for the rest of us.”

Again, it’s a fair criticism for someone to prefer a story about adults to one focused on youth, but this is not something fairly used to demonstrate the film’s supposed lack of quality. This would be like criticizing the quality of Kramer Vs. Kramer because a child is a central figure in the story. The difference is Kramer Vs. Kramer wasn’t part of a franchise which earlier focused only on adults. Strangely, it would only be two years from The Phantom Menace when a cartoon called Shrek would so enthrall supposed adults that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would create a new category specifically to give Shrek an Oscar (and ensuring years of lackluster nominations like “Surf’s Up”).

Episodes I-III were heavily criticized for wooden acting. Natalie Portman, who portrayed Queen Amidala said in an interview she had difficulty getting work following the films because people in the industry assumed she couldn’t act well. It’s true actors that are good in other films (Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Hayden Christensen and Christopher Lee) sometimes give poor line readings in the films. However, this like the focus on effects over characters, is something that existed in the original trilogy. The most famous example of this is Luke Skywalker’s exclamation that he was on his way to pick up some power converters when he was asked to do a chore by his uncle Owen in A New Hope. Fans that cite this as a reason for the prequels’ supposed lack of quality are ignoring the fact it existed in the first three movies. 

Episode II was the first to star Christensen and until The Force Awakens, was the weakest entry in the series. Yes, Attack of the Clones is superior to The Force Awakens. If Episode I was the foundation of Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall story, Episode II was the segment that first revealed the early stages of a declining republic and a rising empire. In a featurette on the Episode II DVD, Lucas describes Anakin as a “transitional character” in this episode. In the film, Anakin is now a Jedi of 19 and fighting against the work of Darth Sidious, while also showing flashes of anger vengeance and mort than a flash of love, which will lead him to the dark side. When his mother is killed by the sand people, Anakin wrathfully murders every member of their camp including women and children. Anger is also present in Anakin’s resentment of Obi-Wan, who he believes is “overly critical” and responsible for holding him back.

Another strong element of the prequels (and one most fans do recognize as a strength) is John Williams’ transporting scores for each film. While he created “Duel of the Fates” to accompany the climactic lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul in Episode I and “Battle of the Heroes” for the Obi –Wan Vs. Anakin battle in Episode III, it is his stirring love theme entitled “Across the Stars” in Episode II which is arguably his greatest of many great contributions to the prequel trilogy. By definition, the prequels are showing audiences how characters arrived at a destination already known. Episode II tells a romance everyone knows is doomed from the outset. Williams tapped into this by creating a theme in “Across the Stars” which is beautiful, but also touched with notes of melancholy. This piece is woven into the film in several moments, but is perhaps most effective just before the climax. Anakin and Padme have been captured and are about to face an elaborate execution attempt in an arena. Padme, who has always adamantly opposed a romance between the two because of their respective positions, confirms her love for him and the music swells as the two kiss as they are transported by their captors into an arena to face an execution.

Revenge of the Sith, while a casualty of the prequel backlash, is at least regarded as the strongest of the three. This is justly so, as it succeeds at being both an exciting, sci-fi epic and a significant character story. Ten years after its release, the most memorable pull-quote which could be seen on newspaper advertisements for the film was an excerpt from Ty Burr of The Boston Globe who wrote that “Sith was a “terrifically compelling high-stakes human drama.”  Burr also called it “the most emotionally powerful  of all six.”

Revenge of the Sith dives right into the action with the series’ most exciting opening sequence.  In a single, long tracking shot (although aided by CGI) Anakin and Obi-Wan pilot their ships along a massive destroyer in space as a familiar score by Williams plays and builds to a crescendo as the two Jedi take sharp turns in their fighters and the audience’s viewpoint follow them and the full expansiveness of the battle is visible, with explosions going off and enemy spacecraft at every turn. The camera then narrows its focus on the battle, closing in on Anakin in the cockpit of his small starship. Anakin and Obi-Wan land in the hangar aboard General Grievous’ ship in order to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine. It’s a thrilling start and when the heroes are back on the ground, the story continues to build quickly.

Padme is expecting a child with Anakin, although their relationship is still a secret and Anakin finds his allegiance tested when he is asked by Chancellor Palpatine to be his representative on the Jedi Council and in turn is asked by the council to report on the chancellor’s dealings. Anakin once again is driven to act because he fears for the safety of a loved one. He dreams Padme dies in childbirth and Palpatine uses this as an opportunity to bring Anakin to the dark side.  In one of the trilogy’s best dialogue-driven scenes, Palpatine tells Anakin of the tragedy of Darth Plagueis. He says Plagueis had such knowledge of the dark side he could stop the ones he cared about from dying. Anakin listens intently and asks if it’s possible to learn this power and is told, “Not from a Jedi.”

There is treachery everywhere in Revenge of The Sith and it all builds to a rousing and heartbreaking conclusion. This already emotionally powerful and action-heavy adventure is made even more thrilling to watch by the fluidity of its editing and the significance behind some of the scene transitions. The Star Wars saga has always used wipes as an editing technique, which as always adds to the sweeping quality of the viewing experience and Sith has a particularly expert use for added emotional impact. In the film’s final minutes, Lucas shows the procession at Padme’s funeral. Her body is being carried with her hair at her sides and her hands clasped together on her chest. Entwined in her fingers is the pendant Anakin made for her years earlier, which she still wears. The camera focuses on the pendant as a circle forms on the screen, transitioning to show a star destroyer as the scream of two TIE fighters becomes audible and the familiar imperial ships fly through space. It is one of the series’ most powerful moments of visual storytelling.

The hatred for the prequels is extremely misguided and perhaps the result of fans’ inability to recognize and articulate that they don’t feel the same I their present day as they did years earlier about a first-time viewing experience. It’s completely fair to express an opinion that the look of the original trilogy is better than the prequels. Yet the prequels are true to the original trilogy in many ways. Therefore, to regard the prequels as an awful exercise in moviemaking and the destruction of a legacy means there is a great disturbance in the Force.

 

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