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.

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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.

Remakes and Reboots

I saw the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.  Apparently (according to the credits), it is based on a novel by JRR Tolkien called The Hobbit.  I have read a book called The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien many times, but I’m struggling to find the connection.  I can only conclude that Peter Jackson and all of the others who were involved with this film either did not read the book or there is another book out there called The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien with which I am unfamiliar.  If anyone knows which of those is the case, please let me know.

Anyway, seeing this movie got me to thinking about aesthetics, an area of philosophy I have long found interesting.  It is an area, in my opinion, that is not taken seriously enough in the academy.  In particular, I have always been fascinated with remakes.  When I watch Romeo and Juliet and then watch West Side Story, in what way am I watching the same thing?  In what way am I watching different things?  Exploring these questions will teach us a lot about identity and meaning, among other things.

There is a long history in the arts of recycling.  There has never been a definitive Pieta or Annunciation.  These sculptures and paintings have been done over and over again by many different artists.  Composers have long used folk melodies in their works and paid tribute to other composers by using their themes. Brahms has an excellent piece known as Variation on a Theme by Haydn and Shostakovich used Rossini’s William Tell Overture in his 15th Symphony.  I can’t even count how many vampires have been put on film.  Fairly recently, however, people’s views seem to have changed.  Remakes and sequels are more common than ever, but people tend to see them differently than before.

On the one hand, people get very protective of their preferred version of something.  I suppose that is what I was doing in the first paragraph of this piece.  People get legitimately upset that Kid Rock would do a hybrid of “Werewolves in London” and “Sweet Home Alabama”*.  People were furious over a shot for shot remake of Psycho, especially because it was in color the second time.  People were even mad at Bob Dylan for painting based on photographs rather than using models.

On the other hand, there are people that see these remakes as a way for artists to put their own stamp on a canonical character, song or story.  They are no longer stand alone pieces, but part of a continuum.  People loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot.  No one is sorry that Jimi Hendrix changed “All Along the Watchtower”.  While this might seem like a description of the old ways, it is different.  In the reboot view, the new version directly impacts the old version.  It’s not enough that JJ Abrams made a couple of bad Star Trek movies. That had been done before (Star Trek V anyone?).  These movies were made into canon.  People spent time talking about alternate timelines and how both Into Darkness and Wrath of Kahn are part of the Star Trek universe.  What would have been just a bad movie years ago is now forced on all Star Trek fans and has to be dealt with.

While I prefer the old way (which is weird for me), I don’t think either of the new ways are wrong.  I appreciate the fact that the change basically comes down to a new way of consuming art.  In general, people are much more savvy than ever before in their aesthetic consumption.  It’s refreshing that people recognize Hitchcock’s Psycho as a work of genius.  Frankly, prior to the 20th century, it was unlikely normal people would have been familiar with multiple versions of artistic works.  There’s a good chance that if everyone knew Michelangelo’s Pieta from St. Peter’s, they would have been scornful of whatever version happened to be at their local church.  We live in a world where everyone can know Alfred Hitchcock and it turns out that most directors aren’t as good.

I also appreciate the fact that part of the aesthetic experience is living with, or even in, the work of art.  Anyone my age knows that half the fun of going to see Star Wars was coming home and playing Star Wars.  Anyone who knows a young girl has seen the same thing with Frozen. Because of this, artists need to be aware of how their new editions will affect the fans of the originals.  If Star Wars and Frozen are real for the fans, if the fans are truly invested, artists are constrained.  I think this is where the reboot concept came from.  It was once taken for granted that each new movie, story or song was specific.  Now, it is taken for granted that it is connected.  Announcing something as a reboot gives the artist some freedom back.  It announces that while Christopher Nolan is working with the same source material as Tim Burton, he is not beholden to Tim Burton’s vision.

There are complications with both of these views nicely illustrated by Star Wars.  When people get attached to a specific work of art as definitive, they start hating George Lucas.  We spent countless hours with Han Solo.  We like Han Solo.  We admire Han Solo.  Then, twenty years later, Lucas comes along and tells us that the character we have spent so much time with, the one we like and admire, was actually a different guy.  He didn’t start out a scoundrel and grow and change into a hero.  He was a hero all along and Greedo shot first.  And, by the way, your dog isn’t living on a farm, he’s dead.  This is a legitimate complaint.  However, this is also horribly constricting for an artist.  George Lucas created Star Wars.  It’s not his fault his vision conflicts with the fans’ vision.  If artists rely on the audience too much, we get the happy ending of “Return of the Native”.  Servicing the fans will never satisfy them and it will compromise the end product.

This gets us back, finally, to what I mentioned at the beginning.  Thinking about aesthetics gives us insight into identity and meaning and these need to be our guides when it comes to questions of remakes and reboots.  JJ Abrams should have asked himself what makes Star Trek special.  He should have wondered what makes it Star Trek, because he missed it completely.  The continuity of story from Kirk to Picard to Sisko to Janeway is huge.  By abandoning that, he made a gigantic mistake.  The world of Middle Earth is defined by its characters.  Peter Jackson missed that.  He seems to think that it is defined by incredible fight sequences.  But, by having Sam leave Frodo alone with Gollum in the third Lord of the Rings movie and by having Kili prioritize his feelings for an Elf over his loyalty to Thorin in the Hobbit, it ruined any chance either trilogy had of working.  In contrast, Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins understood exactly what made Romeo and Juliet work.  They were able to change a play set in Italy hundreds of years ago to a musical set in 20th century New York and make it work.  They knew that the themes of love, loyalty and prejudice were the keys.

Remakes and reboots are still fertile ground for making artistic statements.  I just wish the artists involved would think more carefully about it.  If they are going to change something fundamental, they should make something original.  Remakes and reboots carry additional responsibilities.  They are tied to, and commenting, on someone else’s vision.  If they stomp all over that vision, it is just insulting to any fans of the original.

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* This is weird since they are the exact same song.  They were practically begging for the Kid Rock treatment.