Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Great, Big, Epic Star Wars Post

I want to put things into perspective. Online, the Prequel Trilogy is absolutely reviled. To the point that websites and blogs and videos are filled with countless hours and pages of everything that is wrong with them and how they should be fixed. Meet people in person though, and usually the response is more reasonable. Yes, the prequels were not well liked, but do they deserve the hate and vitriol spit at them? Maybe for some things, but in the grand scheme, they’re middle ground in terms of quality films. I’ve definitely seen way worse. There’s definitely more disappointing iterations of a beloved property out there.

Ultimately, the prequels were never necessary. Some things are just better left to the imagination. When Charlie And The Chocolate Factory came out, the most egregious mistake for me was Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka getting this unnecessary backstory of a cold father figure who was a dentist that traumatized a young Wonka. We never needed a reason for why Wonka was the way he was. None of that story is present in the book either, because it just wasn’t important. And this decision coming up against what we know and love of the character made the two difficult to reconcile. That’s what happened overall with Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker. The transformation we saw was not dramatically satisfying. We couldn’t reconcile the intimidating figure of Darth Vader from the original trilogy to the underdeveloped, kind of whiny, impulsive, and brash Anakin Skywalker of the prequels. Could it have been done properly, could Darth Vader have been given a backstory worthy of the regard we hold him in? Absolutely. And there are seeds of good ideas present, but they aren’t developed properly and they are overshadowed by a myriad of distractions and problems having to do with 1) too many extraneous elements thrown in, 2) a lot of pressure to get the prequels lined up well with the originals and tying into that, 3) an unwarranted need to connect and tie absolutely every loose end within the continuity of just six movies.

But anyway, the idea of the first two parts of this post is to talk about things that a lot of people won’t often address: what is good about the prequels, and what is not good about the originals.

Admittedly? There’s not a whole lot for either. And when I say what works and what doesn’t, it’s the really big stuff. No nitpicking things like why is the Death Star’s weakness so blatant; no irrelevant things, like the lightsaber fights being “cooler” in the prequels than the originals; and some things I just left off the table. For instance, while I like many others find it unfortunate that Episodes 4-6 feature one woman in a prominent role with an additional two women who figure into one scene of one movie each, I can’t really cite that as a complaint because that’s true of so many movies. It’s a problem, to be sure, but Star Wars is far from the only film guilty of this.

But I do think it’s important to acknowledge things that work in weaker movies, and things that don’t work in better movies. It’s how we learn to tell better stories. It’s how we make those stories more entertaining. Is everything everybody’s cup of tea? Of course not. Your mileage may vary with the ensuing. So let me know! I am always down to talk Star Wars. So with that being said, Episode 1:

Things That The Prequel Trilogy Gets Right
The universe was opened up to be a more diverse setting
The prequels thankfully opened up the universe. The original trilogy’s settings cover a desert planet of Tatooine, Yavin (most of which we don’t see, but looks like jungle), snowy wasteland Hoth, swampy Dagobah, Cloud City on Bespin (and we don’t even see the rest of the planet), and then the forest moon of Endor.

With much of the proceedings taking place on one planet per movie, plus the planets feeling rather static because of their “one-note” make-up, I occasionally forget that Star Wars takes place in quite a big place.

Finally, we get to see more of the galaxy than before. Naboo, Coruscant, Geonosis, Kashyyk, Kamino, Utapau, Mustafar, and during the Order 66 sequence, we even get to see small glimpses of Cato Neimodia, Saleucami, Mygeeto (where one of my favorites, Ki Adi Mundi dies), and Felucia, that crazy, psychedelic-colored looking plant planet. Aesthetically, the prequel planets have more dynamic to them than just “snow”, “swamp”, “forest”, “desert.” We get to see deep ocean depths of Naboo as well as its palatial architecture. Coruscant outdoes Bespin as a sprawling city-planet. Kashyyk and Utapau have more realistic geography and Mustafar, while being one-note as well, is not as static because of its active volcano backdrop.

Basically, watching chronologically, it helps set the stage of a huge and multi-faceted universe for three movies before once again depositing us on Tatooine to begin Luke’s story in Episode IV.

The music was given more room to carry emotional drama, rather than be just thematic
For all the iconic music of the original trilogy, there is some truly moving music in the prequels. In fact, a lot of the storytelling is done through the music, even more so than the original trilogy. Music reflects mood more, the internal drama of the characters on-screen. Multiple scenes throughout the prequels take place without dialogue, and it’s actually where the prequels are at their strongest: the characters’ dialogue is replaced by powerful music, and the visuals are rendered beautifully. There’s a depth to the pieces, and some of that certainly has to do with more use of a choir in addition to the full orchestra. Of course, some of the music is edited over the film poorly, and is rendered forgettable as a result, which suggests a lack of confidence in the music, and that’s too bad. I wish they’d given it more of a chance, and I wish people watching the movies went back and gave the music more of a chance, instead of just remembering Duel of the Fates (which is awesome). Music to punctuate battle scenes is solid, but music brought about by the emotional struggles of the character is important, and more well done in the prequels.

The one character who is enhanced and grows and avoids prequel disaster is Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi -
With the exception of some of Episode I, where he is somewhat inconsistent (or simply isn’t given enough to do until after Qui-Gon’s death) Ewan McGregor excels as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The characters who traverse both trilogies are all over the board: Chewbacca doesn’t figure too much into the prequels, C-3PO is overused as a comic device in Episode II (while his backstory in Episode I is really straining believability), R2-D2 is mostly unscathed (though he becomes much more of a deus ex machina), and Yoda is unleashed as a badass but he’s not always handled so well (I think giving away a lightsaber duel of his in Episode II was too soon). Obi-Wan is mysterious, and Sir Alec Guinness gives the Jedi Master a lot of subtlety. Like I said in the intro, sometimes characters don’t fare well when we go back and try to fill in the blanks of their history. But the character we see in IV-VI is the appropriate ending of the arc in I-III. Obi-Wan is a teacher and mentor, soon a general, slightly rebellious (like his master), an accomplished duelist and strategist, and a masterful Jedi.

Ewan McGregor manages to pull off a good approximation of a young Guinness while also bringing his own spin to it. I’ll talk about it later, but the franchise overall is seriously lackluster in the acting department. The prequels have a well-established cast of actors who are all good in other movies. It simply doesn’t make sense that putting them into Star Wars would suddenly make them bad actors. But most of them turn in bad performances. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most charismatic actors ever, and he can’t overcome the wooden dialogue he’s given. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen are excellent when they aren’t forced to deliver the same awful dialogue. When they are just reacting, they are good, compelling. Liam Neeson never looks totally comfortable in his movie, nor does Jimmy Smits.

But McGregor handles everything thrown at him throughout the series, to the point where the prequel trilogy essentially becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi’s story, the story of him trying to rein in a rebellious student of his own, and his subsequent friendship, brotherhood, and sense of betrayal, as well as his sense of loss at the conclusion of Episode III. Anakin’s journey to Darth Vader and eventual redemption spans all six movies. Luke’s story is A New Hope to Return of the Jedi. Phantom Menace until Revenge of the Sith is all Obi-Wan. Speak to anyone about the prequels and the one that everyone absolutely can agree on is that Ewan McGregor is the greatest saving grace of the trilogy.

To a lesser degree, Ian McDiarmid as Senator/Emperor Palpatine / Darth Sidious becomes the other most successful casting of the prequels -
McDiarmid really chews the scenery, especially during Episode III, once he succumbs completely to being the Emperor. It’s not quite the prolific performance that McGregor pulls off, but it’s a compelling performance nonetheless. It also can’t be discredited that Palpatine actually manages to get away with his machinations and pulls off one of the greatest Xanatos Gambits you’re ever likely to see.

Again, it gives us some solid connective tissue for characters spanning the trilogies. We get to see just how deftly Palpatine manipulates the entire situation and how the entire series rests squarely in his lap. Never is he out of control, never is he in any jeopardy. He carefully puppeted the entire saga, until Luke Skywalker defied him.

The performance is at times campy and broad but it still works, because we give the villains a pass for that a lot, which is why I don’t rank it as significantly as McGregor’s turn. But it gives us a consistent villain to believe in. Rewatch the Opera scene in Revenge, it’s what the prequels should have been, political intrigue and subtle manipulation, instead of embargoes and trade agreements. He also has one of my favorite line-readings of the entire series, when Mace Windu comes to arrest him: “Are you threatening me, Master Jedi?” I get chills.

The first time I saw Star Wars was in 1997, it was on VHS, it was the first special edition that had been done. To me, it is perfect. I loved it immediately. Of course realistically, nothing is perfect, but the entire experience was so defining, and so wonderful, I was sold immediately. I bought every toy, I built every LEGO, and choreographed my own lightsaber battles. This episode is presented with nothing but love.
Episode 2:

Things That the Original Trilogy Got Wrong
Across the board, the acting is horrible -
With the occasional exceptions of Alec Guinness, who adds some subtlety, and Harrison Ford who gets a choice role to shine in, the acting of the original trilogy is nothing to write home about. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is unlikeably whiny. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia is wildly inconsistent (as are most of the characters) and she has this weird accent on her lines. Billy Dee Williams still sounds like he’s doing that Colt 45 commercial and doesn’t fit in this movie series. McDiarmid isn’t doing nearly as much in the originals. And even Guinness and Ford make grating choices here and there. These folks are also fine to good actors, and yet they are inauthentic and flat. Or their choices make no sense.

Basically, Star Wars benefits from establishing a world full of exciting potential and following a familiar enough archetypal story that we can accept the broad strokes as is. But under scrutiny, the characters suffer from their lame acting and no director giving them a consistent line to draw from. And actually, lack of direction leads me to my next point.

It’s fairly obvious to me that A New Hope wasn’t written to continue any long, over-arching story, and no foreshadowing is laid out properly for the ensuing events of Empire or Jedi -
It has always felt to me like George Lucas was making it all up as he went along and depending on where you go on the internet, that is confirmed or denied. Whether it’s true or not, there are clues in how A New Hope is laid out that they didn’t know what was going to happen in Empire or Jedi. Why is Darth Vader, the most powerful Sith Lord, a lap-dog to Grand Moff Tarkin? Why does Obi-Wan call him ‘Darth’?

On more personal levels, the Luke-Leia-Han love triangle isn’t set up (probably because the trio simply bickers through A New Hope), I have a problem with the Emperor only mentioned in passing and Yoda never being mentioned at all, I also have a problem with Obi-Wan not recognizing R2-D2 or C-3PO. These are personal and nit-picky to be sure. I said I would try and avoid those as major complaints, but they all lead me to the actual complaint that A New Hope feels to me like it sets up a self-contained story, not a three-part saga.

Overall, Return of the Jedi is an all-around mess -
Speaking of that three-part saga, Return of the Jedi is as wildly inconsistent as the acting involved in the trilogy it caps off. Jedi for me more blatantly rips off A New Hope than Episode 7 does (more on that later). It starts on a desert planet (the same desert planet, actually), it ends on a forest body, the strike team has to destroy the Death Star. There are some bright spots. Luke and Vader’s lightsaber clash is my favorite storytelling duel (close second is Anakin/Obi-Wan and Yoda/Palpatine from III), and the opening act, the rescue of Han from Jabba, is awesome but feels entirely separate from the rest of the movie. Also, another nitpicking point, why do they go through all that trouble of bringing back the Alliance’s greatest pilot only for him to lead a ground team to Endor? A smaller indication of what I’m talking about, though.

People deride the Ewoks and all that, but I get the symbolism of the conflict: a strong native though primitive force can overcome an organized and oppressive military power with home turf advantage and the element of surprise. My complaint comes with the tone. We didn’t see enough devastation on the side of the Ewoks. For them, it should have been a tragic and difficult conflict but we never really understood the stakes for them. Overall though, I don’t find it as offensive as some people do (although personally, I find the Gungan conflict to be a better representation of a comic relief army done well).

But in between those bookends, there’s some difficult stuff to get through. Yoda’s death feels dropped in, some of the dogfight is pretty boring (much of it is a retread from A New Hope) and until the Ewoks join the fight a lot of the Endor scenes are pretty plodding. Overall, it’s simply not as tight narratively as Empire, and it doesn’t have as compelling of a story as A New Hope. As trilogies go, it’s good not great, and that’s really too bad for something as monumental as Star Wars.

And finally, Episode 3:

Responding To Criticisms Of Episode 7: The Force Awakens
Kylo Ren is a bad villain -
I simply disagree with this assessment of the character. Kylo Ren is seemingly the first new Sith apprentice in this new era, and there is nothing to judge him against except for one: Anakin Skywalker prior to his Darth Vader transformation. Compared to Darth Vader, of course he pales. But compared to Anakin, he makes for a really interesting villain. He is tortured, conflicted, angsty, and ultimately succumbs to the Dark Side feeling it’s his only choice. That’s Anakin exactly in II and III, but he, similarly to Luke in IV, comes off whiny and unlikeable. We can’t relate to Anakin’s struggle. Kylo Ren’s struggle, while still mostly unrelateable, is handled more realistically and more tolerably. Kylo Ren is the angsty, immature, hot-tempered teen/twenty-something that Anakin should have been.

Kylo Ren is an interesting villain. The reasons he comes up short are interesting. And that’s what we demand of our villains. The fact that he doesn’t even compare to Darth Vader is part of what’s interesting about him.

Rey is an overpowered Mary Sue -
I’ve complained several times about how whiny both Anakin and Luke are throughout their respective stories, and it was so refreshing to see the protagonist not be so needy and angsty. We see a few moments of vulnerability, but they feel earned.

Rey is a loner who has to take care of herself and has learned to become self-sufficient. She is seemingly Force-sensitive too, so things sway in her favor. It makes sense that she is 1) withdrawn emotionally but because of her past is capable of emotional connection, she would be a horrible protagonist if she lacked emotion; 2) more than capable as both a pilot and a hand-to-hand combatant because she has to fend for herself as a scavenger trying to survive; and 3) fares rather well thrown into tricky situations, because she is first compelled to survive.

Is Rey on a Mary Sue level? Some will say so, but I think those folks are incorrect. Particularly if she is a Skywalker, (or at least trained by a Skywalker and is Force-sensitive) then her aptitude for combat and proclivity to the Force make sense. It’s obvious that Rey has some sort of connection to Skywalker and whether that means she is one, or she is a Kenobi, or whatever theory you want to subscribe to, she’s no stranger to Force training. With no training, Luke blows up the Death Star. With not nearly enough training, he fares about as well he could against Darth Vader in lightsaber combat (though it could be argued that Luke was protected by plot there, as in Vader wasn’t trying to kill him, and it’s hard to argue with you there). Considering everything surrounding the lightsaber confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren, Rey does about as well as expected and again, she’s shown to have combat training.

Her piloting and mechanic skills are used by the plot to bond her to Han Solo, which is brief but beautiful. I really enjoyed that established connection for the movie.

Yes, on a meta- level, it is important that she is a capable and strong female protagonist. Is it inauthentic though? No. For me, there are enough examples of similarly powered and leveled individuals within the universe and outside the universe of Star Wars that she doesn’t stick out as particularly glaring.

The First Order’s plan was to build basically just ANOTHER Death Star -
Simply, bigger is better. The idea was that a splintered military power was going to perfect their own attempt at a Death Star. And they pulled it off. They instead used a planet, saving some time on building, they used the planet’s own resources for material, and they harvested power from stars and suns. On top of that, the Starkiller did not have to warp to within any reasonable range to obliterate its target. And once again, it one-ups the Death Star by managing to destroy multiple targets.
It's simple math, really.

Here’s the thing. It’s not sound military strategy, but we see examples of it all the time: when a good idea develops, people don’t try and find a different idea, they try and perfect that idea. Once planes were introduced to combat, no one tried to push underground warfare, opposing sides attempted to develop better planes. The First Order was following exactly that line of human thinking.

Here’s the other thing. In terms of space combat, there is no better idea than a superweapon capable of obliterating a planet. So once the Death Star was created, there was no better idea to come up with than a better Death Star. Star Destroyers and the like were good for planetary occupation. But if a planet was simply a target or not useful or were completely defiant, then the Death Star was the effective symbol of complete power in the universe. So I never found it weird that again they came up with the idea of something like the Death Star. Again, if the goal is planetary destruction, they already created the ideal superweapon.

It’s just A New Hope all over again -
Now, I don’t disagree with this. I want to make that clear. But is this really a criticism of a movie that is well-acted, well-written, and manages to balance nostalgia and novelty while diversifying the cast and giving us opportunity to branch into new territory while also redeeming the franchise from the prequels. It had a lot to do, and it accomplished what it set out to do.

A New Hope is also repeated in beats by Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. There’s a noticeable lack of complaint for those though. I mentioned this fact earlier, but A New Hope follows closely an archetypal story of Overcoming The Monster. It does this so people can more immediately latch onto the characters and the world, instead of focusing on the plot. Force Awakens does borrow a lot from its predecessor, but a lot is cosmetic and ineffectual to the proceedings. And things that feel more blatant become painfully important and will likely have further-reaching repercussions down the line. For instance, Mos Eisley on Tatooine in A New Hope is the meeting place for Luke and Obi-Wan and Han and Chewie. It’s used as a transitional plot point. Maz Kanata’s castle on Takodana in Force Awakens plays the same plot point, but houses more important proceedings. It was important for Maz and Rey to meet, for reasons we will soon see I’m sure (not least of which are having to do with that lightsaber) and there were significant character developments for Rey, Finn, and even Han. So yes, again, beats are borrowed from A New Hope, but they are used to greater effect. During my first viewing, I noticed that it was A New Hope (and that’s how I predicted a lot about what was going to happen) and I was unsure if that hurt it or helped it, but on my second viewing it enhanced everything immensely for me. Like I said, everything was given more meaning and more significance.

Ultimately too, the universe is cyclical. And when you think of Star Wars on a mythical level, it makes sense. It’s not a criticism of the movie, it’s inherent to the story they are telling. Again, the beats echo throughout the story over and over: an isolated hero eventually joins events larger than they ever imagined, a mentor shows them the way until they meet their end, a villain builds an unconquerable superweapon, the ragtag heroes make a valiant effort shut it down. It’s the epic clash of good and evil, it’s history repeating itself. And this time, it was done with better acting, better writing, and more diversity. And for me and many others, simply that was enough.