January 29, 2007
POP CULTURE: The Force Could Have Been With Him
Re-watching some of Revenge of the Sith the other day finally crystallized my thoughts on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, now with a distance of some 18 months from the completion of the last of the prequels.
When each of the prequels came out, I enjoyed them (my review of Episode III is here). Of course, any male born between about 1965 and 1975 was hard-wired to embrace the prequels, given how much the original trilogy dominated popular culture in our childhoods and preteen years. It took a lot to alienate us Star Wars fanatics; although George Lucas nonetheless succeeded in alienating a good number, most everyone who loved the first three could find something to like in these - the Phantom Menace, for example, had all sorts of problems as a film, but the lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan was the best lightsaber fight of the whole Star Wars series; likewise you would need a heart of stone not to get excited about finally seeing Yoda square off in combat at the end of Attack of the Clones.
Looking back, Lucas produced two uneven films (Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones), each of which had a bunch of fun scenes but also with plenty of cringe-inducing scenes and neither of which hung together that well as a complete film, and one good movie (Revenge of the Sith) which could and should have been a great movie but for a few potholes along the way.
If Lucas' goals were simply to complete his story arc his own way, make a bucketload of money from films, books, games and other merchandise, and play around with modern special effects, then he succeeded. But there was no reason to set his sights that low. The prequels could have been genuinely outstanding films.
The particular errors that Lucas made are well-worn ground by now - Jar Jar was a bad joke told for far too long, the midichlorians unnecessarily de-mystified the Force, the fish-faced Neimoidians with the Charlie Chan accents were silly and off-putting at best, racist caricatures at worst, and the handful of efforts at contemporary political commentary were distracting and incoherent. I'm more interested in not just the excising of particular mistakes but rethinking how the films could have been better, even within the parameters of the basic prequel storylines and characters as they have been laid out in the films, novels and the animated Clone Wars microseries.
Lucas started the films with two related and significant disadvantages - first, a lack of suspense, since everyone knew that the prequels had to end with Anakin turning into Vader, Obi-Wan headed to Tattooine, Yoda to Dagobah, Palpatine becoming the Emperor, etc. And second, limited ability to get creative with the storyline for the same reason - his endpoints were already set in stone.
But the films also started with tremendous advantages that most filmmakers would kill for: (1) an emotionally powerful, built-in double dramatic arc of downfall and betrayal, both Anakin's and that of the Republic; (2) a stable of pre-existing characters with known and in some cases reasonably vivid personalities, who require little further introduction, combined with a pre-existing fictional universe free from current realities of human existence; (3) employment of the best special-effects teams and the best film composer of our times; (4) a huge, built-in audience; (5) complete creative independence and an essentially unlimited budget, given Lucas' wealth and the justifiably high box office expectations; and (6) the combination of pop culture cache (especially for male performers of roughly my generation) with the prior two factors, making it child's play to attract the best talent in Hollywood to work on the films.
Bearing those in mind, here's four things Lucas should have done differently:
1. Don't Go It Alone. I'm hardly the first to make this point, but it was the original error that spawned so many of the others. Lucas is a man of considerable gifts, and some of these are still evident in the prequels - his imagination, his talent with special effects, his gift for the pacing of action sequences. But he has always had weaknesses as a filmmaker - he has no talent for directing actors, his dramatic and especially romantic dialogue can be horrendous - and one thing he did well in the original trilogy (well-timed wisecracks and one-liners) seems to have ossified in the intervening years as he went from quirky and ambitious film buff to merchandising tycoon.
All of that would have mattered a lot less if Lucas had made the decision to bring in the best help he could get from talented directors and writers to work over the films and make them wonderful and realistic and human. It's not as if Lucas would have had to worry about losing creative control, since he owns the place, and it's not as if fans and reviewers would have forgotten that this was a George Lucas production (how many besides Star Wars fanatics can name the directors of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?). The use of a revolving door of directors has worked quite well for the Harry Potter films, for example. If Lucas had only been willing to get the input of some other people, he could have worked with better dialogue, better performances, and people to point out huge mistakes before they hit the screen.
2. Combine the First Two Films. Since the original Star Wars ("A New Hope") billed itself as "Episode IV," the prequels had to be three films. But they didn't have to be these three. In fact, I think most Star Wars fans expected the first of the three films to introduce Anakin, the second to cover the Clone Wars, and the third to bring Anakin over fully to the Dark Side.
Had Lucas stuck with that order, a huge number of the narrative problems and omissions in the prequel trilogy would have fallen away. First, Lucas himself has admitted that he had to pad out Phantom Menace to get to a full-length film. Making an Episode I that covered Phantom Menace's storyline in 45 minutes before jumping ahead 10 years to pick up the Attack of the Clones storyline would have immediately removed or drastically shortened a lot of the filler and the redundant plotlines - the Gungans (Jar Jar even would not have been so bad with five minutes of screen time), the storyline where Anakin accidentally destroys the Death Star-lite, the fun but overlong pod race, the repetitive fight scenes at Padme's palace. As a corollary, instead of being off in a star fighter Anakin should have been present for the final battle with Darth Maul. That would have presented several opportunities - have him witness the death of his first mentor, intensifying his emotional scars. Have him play some role, through a not-entirely-intentional use of the Dark Side of the Force (perhaps even a Force-choke on Darth Maul that isn't noticed by Obi-Wan) that saves Obi-Wan and lets him kill Darth Maul, thus (1) establishing Anakin's unusual precocity without the need for a midichlorian blood sample and (2) serving as a sort of original sin in his relationship with Obi-Wan. Personally, I would also have laid out near the beginning the death of Sifo Dyas, whose critical role in ordering the clone army is never explained onscreen.
Granted, Attack of the Clones covers a lot of plot, some of which would get submerged if you combined the two, but with a full Clone Wars film to work with, the reworked first episode could have cut a lot of the romantic scenes with Padme, to be developed during the war. Some of the more video-game-y scenes could have been dropped (i.e., the conveyer belt scene). Certainly there was a half hour's worth of fat to be cut, and the films could have run close to three hours without exhausting audience patience if done right.
The resulting space cleared for a full-length film treatment of the Clone Wars would have given the trilogy much-needed epic scope (we see far too little of how the main characters' dramas affect the wider galaxy) and dramatic depth, as well as giving us a lot more insight into the character development and growth to manhood of Anakin, a little backstory to make cartoonish villains like Dooku and Grievous less incomprehensible, and perhaps space to let Sam Jackson take Mace Windu out to play more. Certainly the novels and the microseries offered numerous examples of the kinds of storylines available during the war - seiges, hostage situations, the deaths of Jedi in battle, intrigue among the villains, opportunities for Anakin to learn how to command, the whole whodunit story of the Jedi pursuing Sidious (leading to Palpatine needing to get off Coruscant to dry up the trail and thus motivating him to stage his own abduction). A full Clone Wars film could also have given us a live-action Asajj Ventress, a character who is vividly drawn in the novels, and who is naturally theatrical, with her shaved tattooed head, taut, leather-clad figure, double lightsabers and depthless rage; in fact, she could well have been a sort of Boba Fett crossed with Princess Leia in terms of combination geek factor and weird sex appeal. She would also have given us a chance for either Anakin and Obi-Wan combined, or perhaps Yoda or Mace, to get another lightsaber kill.
3. Rethink and Recast Anakin: Hayden Christensen took a lot of grief for his performances, but in Attack of the Clones I thought some of the criticisms unfair - he was asked to play a whining, petulant, self-important teenage boy, and he gave a very realistic portrayal of one. In Revenge of the Sith he was asked to do more as an actor, with decidedly mixed results - he stuck one key scene perfectly (the final showdown with Obi-Wan), gave a weak performance in the other (his conversion to the Dark Side), and proved incompetent at any scenes with Padme.
The core problem, though, wasn't so much Christensen himself as Lucas' failure to grasp Anakin's full potential as a character and cast him accordingly. While Obi-Wan is important to the plot, Anakin's personal drama is, after all, the center of the prequel trilogy. And the Anakin we could have expected from watching Vader in action and hearing about his youth had enormous potential as a classic film role: a young man who is cocky, ambitous, and supremely talented, but also rash, reckless, impatient, and subject to passions and rages he can't control and that ultimately consume him. Any screenwriter worth his salt would kill to write that character, any actor to play him. He could have been the ultimate bad boy anti-hero, James Dean with a lightsaber, the guy every teenage guy admires and every teen girl wants (indeed, ask Peter Jackson how it helps the box office to have teen girls swoon over your male lead). The role could have launched the next Brando, if written and cast properly - more swagger, more smirking, more volcanic temper, less whimpering and speechifying. Leo DiCaprio would have been perfect for the role if he was a foot taller.
4. Find A Han Solo: One of the critical elements of the original trilogy was the balance between the whiny, self-centered Luke and the wisecracking, free-wheeling Han. Throughout the films, Han (and his relationships with the other characters) kept the movies light-hearted, deflated some of the pretensions of even Obi-Wan and Leia, and generally injected the same retro 1940s charm that Harrison Ford would later bring to Lucas' Indiana Jones films. Han was at all times the movies' sense of humor about the absurdity of its own cosmology.
Obviously, neither Han nor Harrison Ford could appear in the original trilogy, but some character could and should have been given a Han-like personality to lighten the mood. There's no reason it couldn't have been a Jedi (the first two Jedi we meet are the mischievous Yoda and the dryly witty Obi-Wan, so there was no rule that says Jedi have to be somber and dull to be self-controlled), maybe even Mace Windu, but regardless, somewhere in the films we needed a foil for the overly serious tone. As discussed above, a better Anakin would have provided a little of this mood-lightener in the re-imagined second film in particular, and in fact a whole film focused on the Clone Wars would have created more room for a gun-wielding character who helps command the Clone Troopers.
Excellent analysis. Your point about Attack Of The Clones being better if it was 30 minutes shorter and with fewer romantic scenes was proven by the IMAX version which was only 2 hours and cut those scenes. It was much more coherent and enjoyable.
My high school senior son who is into theater had some similar observations. He's the type who, after we saw The Departed together raved over the camera angles and use of editing and cuts.
Anyway, the fact that we knew the ultimate outcome means little in the overall enjoyment of a film. I lived through the real Apollo 13, yet can still watch Ron Howard's movie with bated breath.
In many ways, George Lucas is a born producer--high concept guy, great with financing. I also agree with you about DiCaprio playing Anakin. In fact, there was a rumor about that; unlikely. Lucas generally shares Hitchcock's contempt of actors, but unlike Hitch, is generally unwilling to pay for high level talent. Harrison Ford worked cheap, and is really among the finest movie actors in history. He took awful dialog and made it work. Now of course, Lucas wouldn't pay him. Let's face it, no one thought he was great until Witness.
Lucas can't write, is not much of a director--the camera angles and scene setups are really dull when he did them, and his editing is poor. His other big success was Indiana Jones, and I'm reasonably sure Spielberg and Ford had a lot to do with that one.
So let's not totally blame Hayden Christiansen. He had little to work with, and he's not Harrison Ford.
I think the one critical mistake the underlies all of these problems was Lucas's idea to give Anakin an Oedipus complex (elaborated in painful detail) to drive his transformation into Darth Vader.
For example, to give Anakin his core of mother-related emotional trauma, they have to get him away from his mother and planet Tattooine. The only function of the much reviled Jedi "midichloriants" in episode I is to give Master Qui Gon Jin a presumably good reason for carting baby Anakin off of Tattooine to planet Coruscant ("We're not taking your son away. See, his midichloriants are off the chart..."). Otherwise even most 19th century American plantation owners would have felt more unease about taking Anakin away from his enslaved mother than our Jedi warriors display.
Or for another example, notice that Obi Wan Kenobi's power level always seems to drop precipitously whenever another Jedi (usually Anakin) is in the room. Obi Wan is the real action core of the movie, and his fight scenes against non-Jedi bad guys like Jango Fett and General Grievous are excellent. But since Anakin is the mystical Balancer of the Force (yet another lever to pry baby Anakin away from his mother), and thus a Jedi of exceptional power, Lucas has to keep having Obi Wan screw up his fights in order to make Anakin look good by comparison.
To avoid getting too deep, since Lucas's story, while dealing with archetypes, really isn't so far reaching, the "Chosen One" was a Skywalker, just not Anakin. I think Lucas made that clear once he named his hero Luke.
The more I think about it, the more Lucas' lack of desire to pay what was needed for Anakin was a big mistake. You pay for (moderate level) Liam Neeson, you get quality, you pay for the then unknown Ewan Magregor (now expensive), you get a great Obi Wan. Natalie Portman has loads of talent, but could not then pull off what Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford did: generate believability from a script with terrible dialog. It can work. Just look at Casablance. There are reasons everyone in it was a major force (pun intended).
I have long agreed with your points 3 and 4, but consider them the same thing. The key problem with the films (#2 in particular) is Anakin's character. He should not be a whiny little bitch, he should essentially be Han Solo. I thought an Anakin that the audience loved, perhaps with a caustic sense of humor, would be all the more devastating when he turned to the dark side.
I agree with all of these points, and agree with "right" that the primary problem is Anakin's character; although I don't think making Anakin's character more of the free-wheeling Han like character is the right solution.
In episodes 4-6 the essence of Darth Vader is that he is a brilliant (talented and deeply self-aware) tortured soul. He is very good at what he does, he gets results. This was believable to me because he had to be more than just brawn, he had to have brains, and a very strong spirit, or else it doesn't make sense that he is so strong. It is this intelligence that makes his story arc (which really is the story arc of all 6 episodes) believable.
Sorry to say it, but dumb, unaware, childish punks aren't interesting to watch "struggle" with their identities. You can only be drawn to this anti-hero if you believe that there is a great potential in redemption.
With that backdrop, clearly, the Anakin of episodes 1-3 is a complete and utter failure. I have no interest in watching him struggle with his identity. He is a punk... self-absorbed? Maybe, but who cares. I don't mind self-absorbed if the subject with worth being absorbed in... Anakin is boring. As my 4 years old says "I'm boooooooored."
The fix: Anakin needs to be much smarter. But still plagued with self-doubt. Most young smart people are incredibly self conscious. This would allow Palpatine to prey on him. Palpatine is the one person who sees through the boyish lack of self confidence and sees the true potential. This awareness on Palpatine's part adds the additional sub plot, that he knows Darth Vader will likely ultimately betray him.
The fix part 2: The childhood friend/sidekick... this is in my opinion the best way to fix the "sans-Hans" problem. Although I love the idea of Samuel Jackson playing more of a comedic wise-cracker, I think a more believable fix would be the boyhood friend of Anakin who is not as book smart, but full of street smarts. This is the other person in the world that understands Anakin. But he knows that Anakin is vulnerable and would never betray his best friend. So he is there to defuse those tough situations, to crack the joke at the right time, to get in trouble and deflect the blame off of the struggling Anakin.
This relationship adds additional credibility to Anakin's internal struggle. As Anakin moves closer to the dark side, his true friend (an ordinary guy on the outside, with nothing special to offer other than a never say die street tough attitude) moves closer to the fringes of society and becomes more and more disenfranchised from society. Anakin sees his friend throwing his life away and realizes its his fault, adding more fuel to the fire of Anakin's guilt.
Heck, maybe this kid is a young Hans solo... that wouldn't be that hard to believe.
Anyway, that's my two cents... clearly the problem is the Anakin character... since he is the point of the entire story arc.
Actually, if you re-watch Eps. 4-6, Vader constantly takes foolish risks and acts rashly and short-sightedly, and he invariably fails to get any sort of effectiveness from his subordinates despite having the whole Imperial Starfleet at his disposal. He's forceful and devious and ruthless, yes, but not brilliant by any means.
I think your ideas would have helped, but must say that you seem to be giving the absolute horribleness of these moveis a pass. I would rate episode I as being absolutely horrible, II as being mostly horrible, and III as being horrible. I think Hayden was terrible all the way through II and III.
Also, I ended up rooting for the separatests, which means that I did not think much of the republic Lucas created in these movies in the first instance. It was never clear why planets going off to govern themselves was "evil" and needed to be stopped through use of force, which actually made the republic look like a tyranny well before Palpatine was chancellor.
Finally, there should have been some attempt at consistency in the technology. Yes, the special effects could be better today - but Lucas made the universe much, much more technologically advaced in the prequals than in the originals. He also made the Jedi much, much more powerful.
Based on all of this, there was nothing that could have saved these films except having Lucas bow out and let others who cared about the franchise take over. I did not get any sense from these movies that Lucas actually cared about the story, just about the money. Everything was made with an eye to marketing tie-ins and videogame releases. Nothing was done with an eye to making good movies.
The part about combining 1 and 2 and making the second movie about the Clone Wars was exactly what I was thinking while rewatching all six movies.
I mean, the Clone Wars have been talked about forever, yet all we got was the beginning, the end, and the middle as a cartoon. Very disappointing.
I also remember as a kid wanting to hear more about Han, Lando, and Jabba's early careers. Maybe that will be covered in the proposed weekly Star Wars TV show.
This series shows how hard science fiction is. When you're creating a new universe, with new rules, you better make sure they are internally consistent from the get-go, and have your whole storyline mapped out. Lucas obviously didn't have the talent to make his after-the-fact justifications look natural or consistent (hello? Midichlorians?WTF?).
First of all, Lucas screwed the story up when he made Vader Luke's father in Empire and had Darth Vader not be his actual name but rather a Sith alias, with his real name being Skywalker. To me, and I was 12 when it came out, it made no sense. First, Obi-Wan calls him Darth in A New Hope. Second, and this gets me the most, how do you hide someone and not change their name?! Wouldn't it get back to him? And having Vader sense Luke from hundreds of miles through space in both Empire and Jedi, yet not sense he and Obi-Wan when orbiting Tatooine in A New Hope?
As for the prequels, I actually enjoyed TPM (that sabre dual at the end is the best of the series, by far), but felt let down by the others. As others have said, the love story simply had no chemistry (Portman is horrible and wooden, which is why it doesn't hurt in TPM, since she is supposed to be wooden as queen), the turn to the dark side is ridiculous, and Anakin only comes away as naive and easily manipulated. Makes his turn seem too much like someone else's fault.
In summary, the mental gymnastics one has to go through to twist things around to make the continuity seem plausible caused the most problems. And these problems started in 1980 with Empire.
Look up your last name in your city's phone book. How many matches can you find? Then imagine how many in the WORLD (including the same names in different languages). Now multiply that by more than 10,000. Yep, all Vader had to do is look Skywalker up in the phone book. And a lot of Outer Rim planets (such as *GASP* Tatooine) didn't have a government, so no leagl way of keeping track of names.
I liked TPM, partly because I like politics, but I totally agree with the idea for the combination of I and II along with the other things. The Republic was NOT supposed to be likeable. It was a corrupt and beaurcratic government, and senators looked for their own intrest 98% of the time.
The original trilogy was masterfully done. Remind me of Vaders incompetence in IV-VI please. During Empire, Vader didn't have control of the entire fleet. He had 7 big ships, and if he had split them up, even the Rebel fleet could have easily amassed and picked them off one by one. To concentrate the whole Imperial fleet, would have been a disaster. People rebel against authority when they aren't reminded of it, and you need something to keep peace. And the Galaxy is BIG. As for sensing Luke... Place a 1"x1" piece of paper in a far off corner of your attic. Now bring your wife or a friend into your house and, WITHOUT telling them to find it or even of its existence, see if they ever find it. Now 1 week later YOU try to find it, by remembering where you put it. Somewhat similar. Now for sensing Obi-Wan on the Falcon, administer the same test, but color the paper black. Now put it a little to the side of say, your wife's computer. See if she can find it after you tell her there is "Something in the room". The naval officers of the Empire can be compared to the Soviet Union's naval officers. They are told to follow orders, not think creatively. And they MUST always adhere to the Emperor's ideaology.
My 2 cents. More like a quarter actually.
Dead on about the Han Solo factor, or lack thereof. One thing: If Leonardo DiCaprio were a foot taller, he'd be playing in the NBA. As is, he stands about six feet.
Good stuff here. This to me stands out: "If Lucas' goals were simply to complete his story arc his own way, make a bucketload of money from films, books, games and other merchandise, and play around with modern special effects, then he succeeded."
That, in a nutshell, was the beginning, middle and end of why Lucas did what he did. I can't forgive him for it, not that he cares a whit. The sad thing is he probably believes he made some great movies with 1-2-3.
EEI - the point about the names is this: he was an infant, with no parents, so why not have him be a Lars? Adoption wasn't an option? Leia didn't keep Skywalker, but then again, she was hidden in plain sight. Another problem, you may dismiss the "feeling" thing with time and distance, but he was 2 inches from Leia in ANH and never sensed anything.
Another thing, he knew Obi-Wan was alive, he knew Obi-Wan did this to him (this being left him for dead all burnt to a crisp), you really think he wouldn't go after him? And Obi-Wan hiding by changing his name to Ben? Yeah, that'll do it.
I submit that much of the problems with the new trilogy was this fly by the seat of your pants plot changes in the original trilogy.
Again, I too liked TPM, but the convoluted jumps to maintain continuity were not only caused by the new three. They were started in the old 3.