Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Movie Musings: What Works in the Star Wars Prequels - Part 1

Nothing starts an adventure quite like a good
trade dispute.
So one of the things I keep reading and hearing when people write or talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it is better than the prequels. Hell, I even said it. For many people the Star Wars prequels are considered pretty low in entertainment value and not worth the time spent watching them. But some time and perspective made me realize that the prequels actually have some good points to them. They will never be great films, but I do think they are worth watching (at least once) for anyone who wants to experience the full Star Wars story.

This started off as a simple top ten list, but I got a bit wordy and felt I needed a bit more space to defend my position (one that some feel is undefendable… prequel hatred runs strong). So I’ll treat this as more of an detailed exploration of the 10 things the prequels did well.

10. Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi
Whatcha talkin' bout Anakin?
This was element of casting that I was actually looking forward to when The Phantom Menace was in its early stages. I had seen McGregor in Trainspotting and really liked him. But I had missed most of his films between that and Episode one. Still I figured if he could make me care about a heroin-addicted slacker, than he had a good shot at playing Obi Wan.

McGregor delivers in the role. He studied the films of Alec Guiness and did his best to emulate the actor, but never slip into parody. His performance feels pretty natural. I believe that the man we see evolve from a Jedi in training into a master in the prequels is the same one we meet in A New Hope.

Whatcha talkin' bout Kenobi?
In addition to continuity McGregor also delivers a fine performance in the films. Most of the acting in the prequels feels flat and empty. For the most part McGregor rises above this. There is warmth in his interaction with Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson). The bond of friendship between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Attack of the Clones is built mostly by McGregor’s performance. Finally he brings the emotions and pain to Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. He delivers the betrayal and the horror in key scenes. For me, when the prequels work on any kind of emotional level, it is because McGregor is in the scene giving it his best.

9. Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine

Kicking the smarm into high gear.
But as much as I admire McGregor’s performance in this trilogy, it is Ian McDiarmid who brings the fun. When he created the role of The Emperor in Return of the Jedi, he was the epitome of the dark side of the force. His supreme confidence, his distain for Luke’s faith in his friends, and his goading made him a memorable villain. And that accent, has anyone identified what that accent is… or is it just the accent of pure evil?

In any case most Star Wars fans were pleased to see McDiarmid return for The Phantom Menace. In that film he played the role as a smarmy senator who is obviously making a play to get what he wants out of Queen Amadala. It works and he is soon Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate.

"Of course I'm evil. Look how I'm dressed!"
But McDiarmid gets to really shine in the next two films. His corruption becomes clearer and his interaction with his Sith minions and the Jedi builds to its terrible climax. I love his scenes where he warps Anakin to his will. Even performing with a very wooden Hayden Christensen McDiarmid is able to make the scenes count. Palpatine delivers some grand speeches as well, and his words and performance not only convince the senate, but give the audience a chance to see how manipulative he really is. He becomes more and more menacing as the films progress.

"Being evil is hilarious!"
But lets be honest, he is also having a hell of a good time. Unlike much of the cast who is underplaying, McDiarmid is going up and over the top, but he’s loving it. Palpatine isn’t just evil… he is EVIL! His final battle against Yoda is so entertaining because he is laughing like a loon and chucking floating chairs like they are micro machines. One descriptor of the prequels that I don’t see too often is that they are fun. But I will argue that when McDiarmid is on the screen the movies become more entertaining because he is having a good time being so bad.

8. The Clones

Long lines at the lunch counter.
Luke asks Ben “You fought in the clone wars?” And with that simple line Star Wars fans came up with all kinds of stories about these mysterious wars and Obi-Wan and Anakin’s role in these wars. Hell, they even worked Boba Fett’s armor into the fray at one point. Expanded Universe books delved deeper and created this mythic struggle of Jedi against clones battling before the Empire was established. The key is, the clones were the antagonists and the Jedi were the protagonists in this battle.

So it was surprising to see Lucas treat the clones as a helpful tool the Jedi use against the droid armies. For most viewers this seemed to go against everything we thought or felt when it came to clones. Cloning is often considered something only villains do in most science fiction. But here Lucas views it more like he views droids in the series, they are helpful and used properly can achieve great things.

I love these guys and their soup spoon chairs.
Even the cloners don’t come across as diabolical masterminds in Attack of the Clones. They seem like perfectly reasonable craftsman who are very proud of their work. To them clones are just products. I love their interaction with Obi-Wan and the great pride they get in showing off the fruits of their labor and describing the process and work that went into creating the massive army. I also really like their design and the way their facility looks, but I'll get into that a little more later in this exploration. 

The droid army is defeated by Gungans. Think about
that for a minute... GUNGANS! 
Lucas establishes early in the Phantom Menace that the droid soldiers are pretty lame. They respond slowly and obviously to threats. They tend to be fragile and easily disabled. It is only due to sheer numbers that they are able to be victorious. The clones can think on their own and improvise. They just seem to be better soldiers all the way around. It was a good solution to the fact there were few Jedi to combat such a wide spread menace. But it was also the genius of Palpatine that leveraged the clones into his newly created Empire. So our expectations of evil clones were met, from a certain point of view.

7. Portrayal of the Jedi

Pretty much how the Jedi spend their time in these movies.
But I think the bigger surprise is how the Jedi are portrayed in the Star Wars prequels. Based off what we observe as Obi-Wan and Yoda interact with Luke in the original trilogy, we came to see the Jedi order as this bastion of justice and order. Luke is carrying on a noble legacy, especially in light of what Vader and Emperor are doing in those films. Once again the Expanded Universe of comic books, video games and novels cemented this idea of the Jedi. They were a combination of the Knights of the Round Table and idealized samurai.

"Well of course I'm right. Would you argue with me?"
But the prequels actually present us with a very different take on this order. For the most part the Jedi are portrayed as stagnant, obstinate and completely blinded by their confusion to actually accomplish anything worthwhile. Yes they still strive to achieve justice and order, but instead of valiant knights defending the people, we get a bunch of guys sitting around and talking. Worse they deny facts that are placed in front of them time and again. Their mantra seems to be, "Well that is impossible, so it can't possibly be happening." And the audience becomes quite aware that all these things are happening and they are getting worse. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) is the poster boy for this attitude. He comes across as the stubborn know-it-all who is constantly wrong about just about everything. When he finally accepts the facts, he is still blind to Anakin's point of view and it costs him his life.

Even as holograms the Jedi just sit around and talk!
I think this may be one of the reasons some viewers didn’t respond well to the prequels. The Jedi legacy is completely undermined here. In many ways, the Empire may have done the galaxy a favor by getting rid of those befuddled and impotent council. But keep in mind, we are seeing the order in its final days. I always got the feeling that the Jedi legacy was built on some amazing stories. It is to Lucas’ credit that he went in an unexpected and more interesting way with the Jedi order. It also makes for an interesting contrast to where the Jedi order ends up in The Force Awakens.

6. The Duel (of the Fates) in Episode 1

Three colors of lightsabers that go great together.
The lightsaber battle is a staple of all the Star Wars films. I have to admit that back when these films were first released, I really liked how the duels played out. They were flashy, fast and choreographed so well. These are Jedi and Sith that are well trained and have honed their dueling abilities.

But these days I find most of the duels to be a little too perfect, too flashy and actually lacking a lot of tension. One thing the original trilogy had in the duels with Luke and Vader was a sense of aggression and desperation. We don’t see too much of that in the prequel duels.

Oh yeah, he's a bad ass now, too bad George killed him off.
However, the best of them in my mind is at the close of The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi face the dreaded Darth Maul (Ray Park). Part of the attraction is seeing the double-sided saber face off against the two Jedi. But there is also an unknown element to this fight. We only saw a brief skirmish between Maul and Qui-Gon earlier in the film. So we are unsure of how powerful Darth Maul really is, or what abilities are at his command.

This Sith puts up a great fight, and one that feels more realistic than the perfected moves we see in later episodes. He actually looks like he is finding it difficult to deal with two skilled Jedi. But Obi-Wan as the Jedi in training actually makes some mistakes and adds to the tension. There could have been a bit more of that actually.

Finally you have John Williams supporting this battle with “Duel of the Fates”, probably the most iconic piece from his prequel work, and one that adds power to pretty much anything it plays against (even a pony eating corn on the cob).

Two outs, bottom of the 9th and a man on third.
Qui-Gon steps up to the plate.
I actually like how the battle ends, with Maul running Qui-Gon through so quickly that you almost doubt you see it. Then he turns and saunters over to Obi-Wan with this cocky attitude. Obi-Wan’s rage is unleashed and Maul suddenly looks a lot less cocky. The final moment when Obi-Wan turns the tables on Maul is a bit silly but surprising. It is a shame that Maul was finished off in this movie. Park really did a fine job in the role and he is one of the most memorable villains of the series.

That wraps up the first five, but my top picks are still on the way. What do you think of the list so far and do you think I need to have my head examined?

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  1. Like pizza, even bad Star Wars is pretty good. Lucas had a story to tell. If some parts are more exciting than others, so be it, but if you want the full tale you need to see the six movies. I like that Lucas -- having finished what he wanted to say -- simply sold the franchise and walked away. The current release and all future ones might someday be regarded the way we regard Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Arthur Conan Doyle: whatever, their other merits, they are non-canonical.

    I like the less than perfect Jedis too. Of course, the Knights of the Round Table weren't perfect either, what with Lancelot carrying on with Guinevere behind Arthur's back.

    1. Actually, elite guards like the Jedi (sort of) notoriously are troublesome to those they supposedly serve. Note the troubles caused the Ottomans by the Janissaries, the Russian Czars by the Streltsy, or the Roman Emperors by the Praetorian Guard who were almost as likely to kill them as protect them.

    2. yeah you make a good point about those Praetorian Guards. when I was listening to "The History of Rome" podcast, I was stunned by how much power they really had. Those guys actually wrote history!

      I was watching a review on "Belated Media" where he went through an pitched an improved version of the prequels. His hypothesis was that the three films lack a central character. Action is split between Obi-Wan, Anakin and the political struggle. The result is a rudderless series. I think I agree with him. His solution was to make Obi-Wan the central character.

      But he also solved a few other issues I have with the films. But one of the big ones is casting... wow is the casting poor in those movies. "Force Awakens" really made that clear.

  2. I enjoyed the prequels as well although I can understand where some fans view them with disdain. There are certain scenes in all of them which make them watchable though. I didn't even mind Jar Jar Binks to tell you the truth. I was amazed that they could make a CG character look and interact that well! I also thought the pod racing sequence was a lot of fun even though some of those pods were pretty unconventional looking, particularly the one Anakin rode. In all those Star Wars games I wondered if they'd kept a pod racing scene. That would be fun to play.

    I agree McGregor is a good actor. It's been so long since I've seen the three prequels they've jumbled a bit in my mind. At any rate, one of the scenes I enjoyed I believe was in Attack of the Clones when an assignation (Zam Wesell?) gets flubbed, and Obi Wan goes after the assailant jumping from flying craft to craft. Those action scenes like that are always fun.

    You alluded to Yoda and his fighting scenes, and I remember laughing in the cinema at those. Part of it might have been just the absurdity in them seeing such a little green creature kickass so well. But they were fun too.

    You also mention the clones and have that picture of the alien-like cloner creature--that whole white filled scene was pretty awesome.

    As I said, it's been a while since I've revisted these, but I'd agree they are worth seeing if only to fill in gaps, and if you're a Star Wars fan, well, you gotta to earn street cred.

    I'd also mention that those animated Clone Wars and The Clone Wars that preceded the SW sequels are worthwhile as well.

    1. Yeah there is plenty to like in these movies. But I still feel the overall experience just isn't that great. "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" have some serious pacing issues and as I mentioned above the casting (and maybe the lack of director focus on the acting) resulted in some really weak performances. A story this operatic really needs energy not the lackluster wooden performances we got.

      There were a couple of pod racing games on PS1 I think. I'm horrible at racing games, so I never picked them up. But I had a couple of friends who loved the pod racing games.

      The Yoda saber battles always bugged me. From the way he talks and acts in Empire and Jedi, I got the feeling he was not the warrior type at all. He understood The Force and the way to tap into it. He was above such petty things as swinging sabers around. That is probably my expectations of the character, but I think they just went overboard with him a bit in those movies. I know a lot of folks liked the Yoda vs Dooku battle in "Attack of the Clones" when it came out, but these days they just roll their eyes.

      I've heard the "Clone Wars" series (both of them) are really good. I saw part of the micro-series that ran in 2005, and it was impressive. Not much dialogue but man did you get the point. Star Wars really seems perfect for animation and video games. I always like the "Dark Forces" video games back in the day.