A Defense of the Prequels

There’s a new Star Wars movie out. You might have heard about it.  I saw it and I can say that it is easily one of the top ten best Star Wars films.  But this post is not about the new film.  Leading up to the new film, I re-watched all six of the old films.  And I thoroughly enjoyed watching all six of them.  Which is surprising if you believe anything anyone says about episodes I, II and III.  So, I thought I would write a little bit about why they are actually good movies as, hopefully, a little antidote to the negative, joyless pit that is the internet.

I think the single biggest problem people have with the prequels is that they watch them wrong.  Rather than taking the movies on their own terms, they, understandably, watch them in the shadow of the original trilogy.  In a lot of ways, it reminds me of any time The Rolling Stones release a new album.  All anyone can say is, “It’s no Exile.”  That’s a huge mistake.  Of course it isn’t Exile on Main Street.  They already released that more than 40 years ago.  I can listen to it whenever I want.  The last thing I want is for the Stones to do it again.  When Lucas released The Phantom Menace, people wanted it to be A New Hope, and were disappointed when it wasn’t.  That says a lot about the audience, but very little about the film itself.

The prequels are certainly different than the original trilogy.  And surprisingly different from each other.  All three of the originals are action adventure/hero quest movies.  Phantom Menace is all about world building.  Attack of the Clones is pulp.  And Revenge of the Sith is tragedy.  When watched for what they are rather than action adventure/hero quest movies, they really work.

The Movies Themselves

Menace is a good word for The Phantom Menace.  Everything about the movie is somewhat unsettling.  And I mean that as a compliment.  All of the heroes know the right thing to do, but none of their decisions work out.  They know something is wrong, but they can’t tell what it is.  And they are constantly confused about how mundane occurrences have such great impacts.  It’s fascinating to see the heroes accomplish their goals and simultaneously make everything worse.  Add to that some truly spectacular light saber duels and brilliant music and stunning visuals and it is one entertaining movie.

As I said before, Attack of the Clones is, by design, pulpy.  There are three basic parts, a mystery, a romance and an adventure.  Lucas has often spoken about how he was inspired by Flash Gordon serials and old time radio shows and Attack of the Clones is where this really shows.  The mystery piece is almost noir with the seedy bars and underworld contacts.  The romance is out of a dime store novel.  And the adventure is just rip roaring fun.  Again, the look of the film is thrilling and John Williams’ score is fantastic.  Pulp may not be to everyone’s taste, but taken for what it is, it is another entertaining movie.

I think most people would agree with me that Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels.  Honestly, Obi Wan and Anakin’s (sorry, Vader’s) light saber battle is more than enough to make this a great movie.  But it has all the elements of classical tragedy.  You can feel Anakin’s dilemma.  Hubris ruins everything.  There is a crazy high body count (Not that that’s a good thing, but it is traditional).  The movie is dark and angry and sad, but always thrilling.

Taken as a whole, the story of Anakin’s fall really works.  Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid are amazing throughout.  Both probably should have won Oscars for their performances.  And, one of the things that I like best is that the story works with the original trilogy, which I will talk about next.

Degree of Difficulty

Degree of difficulty is a concept in “sports” (When I put quotes around the word sports, I basically mean judged athletic competitions.  They aren’t real sports, but judged athletic completion is too clunky.  I’m talking about things like gymnastics and figure skating.).  Basically it means that performances are judged on a curve based on difficulty.  If one person does a perfect routine, but the routine is easy, that person will not get as high a score as someone who does a much harder routine even with a few mistakes.  I understand that “sports” are different than movies.  No one is trying to win at movies.  But it can still be a useful concept when judging a movie.  No movie is perfect, but imperfections are a lot more forgivable when the movie is trying for something.

The prequels, especially Phantom Menace, have the highest degree of difficulty of any movies ever.  That sounds like hyperbole, but I feel like I’m understating things. First, expectations were unbelievably high. The original trilogy was the defining cultural phenomenon of my generation. It was what Beatlemania was for the baby boomers. Imagine if the Beatles has done a reunion album 16 years after their breakup and there’s an idea of what people wanted from Phantom Menace.

Second, the original trilogy is basically for young people. Lucas was in the unenviable position of having to decide if he should make a movie for the current age of the original fans or make more kids movies. He wound up kind of splitting the difference, which, I think, is a failing of the prequels.  It does work, but not as well as it should.  My nephew loves Jar Jar, but the darker material is too much for him.  People my age hate Jar Jar, but love Darth Maul.  Making a movie that can be enjoyed equally by both kids and adults is incredibly hard.  Not even Pixar gets it right all the time.

Third, Lucas locked himself into story elements before he had any idea the movies would ever come to be.  When he made Star Wars, which later became A New Hope, he had an idea for a trilogy, but didn’t know that he would get to make all three.  So, he made Star Wars a self contained movie.  Killing Obi Wan was necessary because of this.  Then, inventing Yoda to replace Obi Wan was necessary when the sequels got made.  That’s just what happens when real life imposes itself on creativity. In A New Hope, he also established the fact that Obi Wan and Anakin were good friends, both Jedi and fought in the Clone Wars together. Plus, Anakin was already a great pilot when Obi Wan first met him and Obi Wan was amazed at how strongly the force was with him. Their friendship was before the Empire at a time when Jedi Knights protected peace and justice in the Republic. Oh, and Darth Vader was a pupil of Obi Wan’s.  In the following movies we learn that Vader is Anakin and that he is Luke and Leia’s father.  We learn that he didn’t know about his own kids because Obi Wan hid them.  And we learn that Vader is more machine than man.

That’s quite a lot to be locked into before Lucas even started writing. So, we got the pod race to show Anakin as a great pilot. We got midichlorians (I think the biggest misstep in the prequels) so Obi Wan would know just how strong Anakin was with the force.  We got Obi Wan still a padawan when he met Anakin and starting to train him right after graduating, long before he was ready. We got marriage being forbidden for a Jedi. We got a corrupt senate with plenty of political machinations which morphed into the Empire. We got clones so there could be a Clone War.  We got Anakin’s forbidden marriage being hidden and his wife dying in childbirth.  And we got Vader having all of his limbs chopped off and being burned alive.  All of this had to be part of the prequels to make Anakin’s story fit with the original trilogy.  The fact that Lucas could work with all of those constraints and make a coherently plotted trilogy is almost miraculous.

The Complaints

There are a series of commonly made complaints about the prequels.  These are perfectly valid as reasons why someone would not like the prequels, but they are not proof that they are poorly made films.

Jar Jar Binks – The hostility towards Jar Jar has always puzzled me.  He’s a minor character with very little screen time.  He’s somewhere between a tertiary character and a plot device.  He was put in as comic relief for the younger viewers and he was successful with those viewers.  This isn’t to say I enjoyed him, but he’s such a minor part of the movies he certainly didn’t ruin anything for me.

CGI – This is another puzzle for me.  There’s nothing wrong with practical effects, but they aren’t inherently better than computer generated effects.  They are just different.  If you prefer practical effects, that’s fine.  But complaining about CGI in the prequels is a little like complaining that Pixar movies aren’t hand drawn.  They look exactly like Lucas wanted them to look.  He was never going for realism.  The look is reflective of the story.  You could almost watch the movies with no sound and still follow what is going on.

Politics – This is another relatively small part of the movies that gets a whole lot of attention.  Across all three movies, there are only a handful of scenes in the senate chambers and those are all short scenes.  In Phantom Menace, there is Amidala’s plea to the senate and call for a vote of no confidence.  In Attack of the Clones, there is the vote for giving Palpatine emergency powers.  And in Revenge of the Sith, there is the scene where Palpatine officially declares that the Republic is now an Empire.  (There was also Yoda’s light saber duel with Palpatine, but I missed the politics in that scene if there was any.)  It’s not like we witnessed the debates and it’s not like anything was complicated or confusing.  As I said before, the story required a transition from Republic to Empire.  So, I don’t see how this could have been taken out.  You may not like political drama, and that’s fine, but any story about a war is going to have politics.  The original trilogy had politics.  Lord of the Rings has politics.  Harry Potter has politics.  I like political drama, but if you don’t, it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the story.

Dialogue – For this one, it is what it is.  Lucas never rivaled Shakespeare.  I didn’t fall in love with the original movies for the dialogue.  I often say that there are three basic parts of storytelling: plot, character and language.  Outside of Jane Austen, I don’t think anyone excels in all three.  Shakespeare’s language and characters are amazing, but the plots are little more than excuses for language and characters.  Harry Potter has a great plot and strong characters, but the language is a bit clunky.  Lucas got two out of three, so I’m not bothered too much by it.

Acting/Directing – There is a strange lack of chemistry between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christiansen.  I can’t explain it.  But outside of that, the performances range from decent to extraordinary.  It is stylized in a way that is not fashionable.  But, it wasn’t Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher’s acting chops that drew me to the originals.  If all you remember about Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is the performances of Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton, that’s just too bad for you.

 Comparisons

I don’t recommend judging a movie by comparing it to other movies.  I prefer to take each one on its own terms.  However, if I am going to compare a movie to other movies, the last thing I want to do is compare it to my all time favorite movie.  Of course the prequels don’t live up to the original trilogy.  There’s simply no way they could.  But, if they are compared to other movies from their own time, they stand up pretty well.  I’m thinking things like The Matrix, the Tobey Maguire Spider Man movies, and even Harry Potter.  You can like whichever one of those the most, but there is nothing wrong or embarrassing about the prequels compared to those.

I don’t expect this to change anyone’s mind.  People enjoy what they enjoy.  But, I really don’t think I am alone in enjoying the prequels.  I think, for whatever reason, the internet has made a decree, and I’m tired of living by that decree.  I enjoy the prequels.  They are perfectly good movies.  And I want the other fans of the prequels to know that they are not alone.

Canon

In the lead up to the new Star Wars movie, there has been a lot of talk about canon.  Disney made a big deal out of the fact that the six movies and The Clone Wars are the only pre-Disney cannon.  Everything from the Expanded Universe (Novels, comic books, etc.), all of the TV specials and things like that are no longer canonical.   The perceived need to define a canon isn’t unique to Disney or Star Wars.  However, it does feel like it is getting talked about more now than in the past and it really bugs me.

One reason it bugs me is that I don’t see the point.  I understand religious canon.  If you are Catholic you follow rules based on the canon.  It’s politically and structurally necessary.  Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, Superman, The Avengers and all of these other things where canon is invoked are nothing like Catholicism, though.  They are entertainment.  There aren’t rules to follow in order to be a fan.  The only thing that is required is that you enjoy the product.  Having an official canon doesn’t help with that*.

The other reason it bugs me is because I really enjoy some non-canonical things and really don’t like some canon.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Christmas in the Stars, but it is spectacular (not really, but I do thoroughly enjoy it).  The plot is that R2 D2 and C3PO visit a factory where droids are making presents for S. Claus.  They sing a lot and then have an S. Claus sighting.  I just want to enjoy it without Disney or anyone else telling me it isn’t canon.  Is it a legitimate concern that I might think C3PO and S. Claus have a chat?  Will it somehow change for the worse the way I watch The Force Awakens?

Ultimately, people should be free to enjoy their media however they’d like.  If you really like The New Jedi Order, don’t let anyone tell you it’s not canon.  Go right on enjoying it, just like I will continue believing with all of my heart that R2 D2, C3PO and a collection of droids helped make the presents under my Christmas tree.


*The only way official canon can help with enjoyment is by giving people something to be snobby about.

A Quick Thought On A Couple Of Old Movies

I have always liked movies.  Really the only complaint I have about having a kid is that after she was born, I went about two years without seeing any movies.  Even now, I rarely see movies, but, thanks to TV and Netflix, I’m starting to catch up on all the movies I’ve missed.  And I’m absolutely delighted that she is able to watch movies with me now.  She’s a big fan of Disney movies, which is fine with me because they’re great.

In 2012, a couple of Disney movies came out that I wanted to see, but didn’t.  One was Disney Pixar and the other was Disney Disney.  The Pixar one was Brave, and the regular Disney one was Wreck It Ralph.  I wanted to see them for different reasons.  Brave looked like a very good movie.  Wreck It Ralph looked like a nostalgia trip for a child of the 80s.  But, I was disappointed to miss both of them.

An odd thing happened after the Oscars.  Joe Posnanski wrote this:

. . .Wreck-It Ralph is better. I’m not saying I think it’s better the way I think Peanut M&Ms are better than regular M&Ms. I’m saying it’s better the way Lou Gehrig’s .340 lifetime batting average is better than Tony Gwynn’s lifetime .338 batting average. It’s just BETTER. I mean no offense to the geniuses at Pixar, who make amazing movies, I’m just saying that Wreck-It Ralph was funnier, smarter, more touching and it had a better story. I’m saying our girls liked it a lot more than Brave. I’m saying we adults liked it a lot more than Brave. I’m saying it’s a better movie on every single level. Brave was fine. Wreck-It Ralph was better.

I probably would have completely forgotten about it, but over the past couple of years, he has kept harping on the fact that Wreck It Ralph is a better movie than Brave.  I like Joe Posnanski quite a bit.  I first started reading him when he started writing for Sports Illustrated.  I certainly don’t agree with him about everything, but I respect his opinions about sports and I enjoy his writing.  I also like his idea of a movie plus-minus system.  You can read his post about it here, but in a nutshell it is a way of factoring expectations into movie ratings.  If a movie is better than expected, it is a positive score and if it is worse than expected, it is a negative score and a zero would be a meets expectations.

I have finally seen both Brave and Wreck It Ralph.  Based on the movie plus minus system, Wreck It Ralph should have been the clear winner.  All I was expecting from it was a bit of pixelated nostalgia.  That means if it had the nostalgia and was even decent, I would have been thrilled.  And for Brave, I was expecting a good movie.  I know Pixar isn’t perfect, Cars was terrible, but most of their movies are great.  If Brave was anything less than great I was going to be disappointed.

I turns out that Brave was even better than I expected, but Wreck It Ralph was hugely disappointing.  Not only was it a bad movie, with a bunch of miscast voices, but the nostalgia completely missed.  It’s better moments were boring and the rest of it was annoying.  I felt like they had seen Finding Nemo and liked the scene with the vegetarian sharks so much that they decided to make a whole movie about it, only instead of sharks they would use fake video game bad guys that were kinda sorta like 80s video game bad guys.  I’m just glad I didn’t pay to see it.

The other disappointing things is that I no longer know what to think of Joe Posnanski.  If he can be so wrong about Wreck It Ralph and Brave while being so confident that he is right, I don’t know if I can trust his opinions on other things anymore.  Maybe RBIs are the best way to judge a hitter.  Maybe pitcher wins are the best tool for evaluating a pitcher.  On base percentage is probably overrated.  And Cleveland probably deserves its title drought.  It’s sad to say, but if those things are wrong in a bizarro world where Wreck It Ralph is a better movie than Brave, then they must be true in the real world, right?

Mad Max: Fury Road

This isn’t like a typical review.  It’s more like a warning.

I got out of work early the other day.  I haven’t been to the movies in ages and I really like going to the movies.  So, I decided to go to the movies.  Tomorrowland just came out and was directed by Brad Bird, I really like Brad Bird, but the reviews were pretty bad and it stars George Clooney, so I decided to pass.  I’d like to see Avengers, but everyone I talked to said it was pretty meh, and I didn’t want to waste my first movie in ages on meh.  So, I decided on Mad Max: Fury Road.  The reviews have been glowing, but I really had no expectations going in.  I figured worst case scenario was a cool action flick and I could live with that.

Sadly, that was not the worst case scenario.  I hated this movie.  I almost walked out, but I’d paid $7.50 and $7.50 is too much money for me to leave early.  I wish I had left early.  So as a warning to anyone on the fence about seeing this movie, let me count the ways I hated Fury Road.  I would say spoilers ahead, but everything in the movie was so predictable and obvious, there is really nothing to spoil.

1. The movie treated me like an idiot.  I found the whole thing insulting.  There is very little dialogue, but what dialogue there is is entirely expository.  I’m reasonably smart.  You really don’t have to explain everything to me.  And, as a matter of fact, I’d rather you didn’t.  They even did it visually.  From the second the concubines are introduced, there are about a million shots of the blonde’s belly.  It would have been more subtle if the film had paused and the director walked out and said, “She’s going to die later, but I’m not going to bother to create a character.  So, please notice that she’s knocked up so it will seem tragic when she dies.”

2. The movie was boring.  This is usually my number one beef with artistic things I dislike.  It would have been number one, but the fact that it treated me like an idiot was worse.  The movie barely had a plot.  That plot was Furiosa (Charlize Theron) takes the Boss’ concubines West in an attempt to free them.  When they discover the West has been poisoned, they go back East and free everyone.  That makes it sound more interesting than it was.  I can just imagine the discussion on set:

“That’s a wrap!”

“But, sir, we only have ten minutes of footage.”

“How do we only have ten minutes?  We filmed the whole plot.  They drove West, fighting the whole way, then they drove back East, fighting the whole way.”

“Right, that’s only ten minutes worth of film.”

“OK.  We’ll add another fight scene.”

“Sir, that only gets us to 15 minutes.”

“OK.  Another fight scene.”

“20 minutes, Sir.”

“OK, 20 more fight scenes, as long as they all look alike.”

“That gets us to two hours.”

“Perfect!  This movie is done.”

3. It was difficult to sustain my willing suspension of disbelief.  They seemed relatively advanced in a lot of ways.  It’s not easy to drill down to an aquifer, create vertical farms, drill for oil, convert the oil to gasoline and build and maintain internal combustion engines and automatic weapons.  But, their preferred method of fighting was ramming each other with cars and using spears.  I also couldn’t help but wonder if all but one of the blood types disappeared somehow.  And the whole basis of this world is that resources are scarce, so let’s strap a wall of amplifiers to a car and have a guy playing guitar and bass (on a double necked instrument) with fire shooting out of the headstock.  At first I thought it might be some post-apocalyptic fife and drum equivalent, but then I realized that no one could possibly hear him.

4. This is tied to number two, but the visuals were lousy.  They made a big deal about using practical effects, but it felt like I was watching a video game.  Almost everything looked the same.  When Max said, “That’s my car,” my first thought was, “How can you tell?”  It also reminded me of old, cheaply made cartoons.  If you watch one of those, it is always obvious which door is going to open or which tree is going to fall because it is a slightly different color.  In the case of those cartoons, it was to cut costs.  They could recycle backgrounds and they didn’t worry if it didn’t match.  In the case of Mad Max, I think they did it on purpose.  Max was used as a human blood bag at the beginning of the movie (I’ll ignore how little sense this made).  When he freed himself, he carefully coiled the tube and put it on his shoulder so that it would be obvious in every shot.  It would have been more subtle and visually appealing to have a CNN style scroll on the bottom of the screen that said, “Furiosa will be wounded and Max will save her by using this tube for a transfusion.”  I do have to give some credit.  There was one nice shot in the movie.  When they were driving at night and everything turned kind of purple, it reminded me of The Dark Crystal.

5. There were no characters.  I only know Max’s and Furiosa’s names because of the title of the movie (Mad Max: Fury Road).  I think Max and Furiosa were the good guys because their names are in the title, but I have no idea what motivated them or anyone else.  Some of the exposition was about freedom and a green place, but there wasn’t even any exposition about who these people were or why I should care.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  This movie was insulting and boring.  It lacked plot, characters and interesting dialogue.  If you’ve seen the preview, you know what every shot of the movie looks like.  Please, don’t make the same mistake I made.