Friday, January 29, 2016

Movie Musings: What Works in the Star Wars Prequels - Part 2

Check out the first half of the list here. And now the final five elements of the Star Wars prequels that are effective.

5. The Assault on Geonosis

An extra helping of chaos on the battle field.
The prequels mirror the original trilogy in a number of ways. This includes taking action set pieces from the original trilogy and modifying them to fit the prequels. In Empire Strikes Back we got a large scale ground battle in the first third of the film. In Attack of the Clones we got a large-scale ground attack, but at the end of the movie. Both featured huge lumbering walkers, flying airspeeders and lots of blaster bolts flying to and fro (but especially fro).

I have to hand it to George Lucas because the ground assault of the clone troopers on Geonosis is a visual marvel. It makes the Battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back look like a small level skirmish. You have clones versus droids. You have those bizarre insectoid aliens adding the chaos. You have Jedi running around and tearing up the battlefield. You’ve got all kinds of crazy vehicles. You’ve even got Yoda playing Patton (but without a militarized version of his Theme, John Williams score is mostly edited in from Phantom Menace due to Lucas’ constant re-edits).

Send in the clones... too late, they are already here.
To me this may be the high point of the visual chaos that Lucas was able to pull off in the prequels. The camera work puts you into the action, with dust obscuring the scenes and the laser bolts creating this odd myriad of lighting. The opening starship battle in the beginning of Revenge of the Sith may look a bit more polished, but it has those silly droids and goofy banter. Attack of the Clones avoids silliness in this assault and it is a better scene because of it.

4. Anakin’s corruption based on love

You know its love when your gal will blast a robot in
the face to save your bacon.
Corruption is a vital power of the Dark Side. Much like the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the Dark Side of force uses positive emotions to gain a foothold and then twists them into darkness. We saw it clearly in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke’s compassion for his friends causes him to leave Yoda and face Darth Vader – and it all goes to hell, with Luke nearly being captured. In Return of the Jedi we see the Emperor do the same thing, twisting Luke’s compassion into fear, hate and ultimately to the dark side of the force.

For this reason the Jedi of the prequels look at everything from an emotionless standpoint. Justice and order do not rely on emotions, right? Well we could argue that all day, but from the Jedi’s point of view emotions are too easy to twist. And love, what many consider to be the most powerful emotion, may bring with it the most powerful fall.

The perfect couple?
We see that play out in Revenge of the Sith. Anakin is deeply in love with Padme, he will do just about anything to keep her safe. His real conflict begins when he has a vision of her in pain and torment (mirroring Luke’s vision of his friends in pain in a “city in the clouds”). Convinced that his vision is true, Anakin seeks some way to keep Padme from dying. But he can’t discuss this with his mentor Obi-Wan, because according to the Jedi code, he is not supposed to have any emotional attachments to anyone.

Listen to your elders, unless they are Sith Lords!
So it is to Palpatine he turns, and the wise chancellor tells him a tale of a powerful Sith named Darth Plagueis, who was able to cheat death. Even though Anakin knows that the Sith are evil, he becomes intrigued with this idea of using The Force to keep someone alive. It is for this reason that Anakin eventually protects Palpatine (after he discovers he is the Sith lord) and then becomes his right hand. Love does conquer all, but in this case, it also destroys the Jedi Order, kills Padme (in a cruel ironic twist) and turns the most powerful Jedi into the most feared Sith in the galaxy.

It is the Mount Rushmore of evil!
I’ve got to give Lucas his due for that. After we see a love story blossom in Attack of the Clones and end with a wedding, this happiness is twisted into darkness and despair. The full thrust of this irony hits Anakin right in the heart when he learns that after all his efforts, Padme is dead and he is Darth Vader.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO indeed.

3. The overall mythic structure of this trilogy

Little Anakin ready to leave the honeycomb hideout.
Since I’m talking about story structure, I might as well say it. From a high overall level, the story of the prequels is actually a fascinating and exciting one. It charts the birth of a tragic hero with many interesting points and twists along the way.  Hang in there with me on this. I'm going to get really wordy.

It starts with a slave boy who was born of a virgin. This is a very ancient mythic trope that predates the most well known version featured in Christianity. This slave shows amazing powers that will allow him to rise up and forge a vital place in the world. He meets a mentor who promises to guide him on this path, and the two help each other. The boy is freed and he travels with his mentor into a new adventure.

But the boy is scorned by the very order he admires. They don’t want anything to do with him. Already he feels alienated. When his mentor dies, he is then handed off to a younger man who obviously isn’t so keen on training him. This unwanted feeling persists even as the boy grows into a man. Yes, now he has bonded with his new mentor, who he sees as an older brother (not the father figure that Qui-Gon presented). But like most siblings he often feels his older brother doesn’t give him enough credit for his skills and powers.

Mediating or asleep? Hard to tell.
Then the boy meets a girl and we all know what happens then. Head over heels for her, he becomes her protector. She eventually comes to care for him, and when he has a vision of his mother in peril, she goes with him back home. Once there he finds his mother dying at the hands of savages. This boy with so much power in his hands loses his mind and kills all who were responsible and many who weren’t.  He feels this dark side in him and it is frightening but empowering.

Feeling he is losing control, not just of his powers, but of his ability to protect people (he failed his mother, and he may feel he failed Qui-Gon as well), he leaps to rescue his brother/mentor when he discovers he is in danger. The young man does his best to help, but ends up captured (and powerless again). In the end the Jedi Order comes to the rescue, and the young man is literally disarmed when he attempts to be the hero again.

Anakin wanted to try sitting on his butt just one
time before going to the dark side.
As I mentioned earlier it is this feeling of powerlessness, this fear that he can’t protect or help those he cares about that drives Anakin to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine does what the rest of the Jedi Order will not do, he listens to Anakin, he provides advice, he acts like a father and mentor. Put in this light, it is obvious why Anakin turns.

Petulant and angry. Not a good combo when
wielding a lightsaber.
Once it is set in motion, Anakin becomes doomed to fulfill the vision he strove so hard to avoid. Padme ends up in anguish and pain because of his efforts to save her. This ultimate failure completes his arc. He forges a new path, one of order and power alongside a man who listened and advised him, and destroying an order that marginalized and feared him.

That is the story we are presented in the prequels, and it has so much potential to strike us right in the soul with its tragedy . Unfortunately various missteps of how this story is told ultimately sink it. But I strongly believe that the core of the story is excellent, and one of the best things about the series.

2. The production design and its evolution

Art Deco City!
I know some folks are going to disagree with me on this, but I really feel the production design of the prequels is amazing. The Phantom Menace presented us with a shiny world of colors and new technology. There is an opulent feel to everything (a far cry from the used universe look of the original trilogy). We are seeing a civilization at its peek or maybe at its over-ripe finale. Naboo and Coruscant both have a large scale grandeur to them. Hell, even the podrace stadium on Tatooine is larger and more impressive than anything we’ve seen on the planet before. Everything we see here has this look of art meeting technology, especially with the Naboo production design.

Prototype Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers
Attack of the Clones continues with some of this, but we also see the creeping militarism into the design. Things start to look more functional and less artful. We see the trends of ship design that will lead us to Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters of the original trilogy. But the sleekness of the design from the previous film is still present. Jango Fett’s armor is like a chrome sleeked up version of the more clunky and heavy looking armor Boba would wear later. Then you have the clone armor (modeled off of Fett's design) that would evolve into the Stormtrooper armor of the original trilogy.

Got a little bit of everything in this shot.
Revenge of the Sith completes the arc of militarism that spread throughout the galaxy as the Clone Wars have raged. Now we see very definite precursors to X-Wings, TIE Fighters and Star Destoyers, all in service to the clone army that will turn into the Empire’s army. Even the opulence of the Coruscant feels muted and subdued here.

Each film shifts us closer to the look of the original trilogy with starship and costume design. I’ve seen many people complain how the prequels just don’t look enough like Star Wars to them. But I really like that Lucas showed us the evolution of the galaxy in a visual sense. It is the one thing I wish they had done a little more of in The Force Awakens. By the end of Return of the Jedi the old TIE Fighters and X-wings were being replaced by the newer TIE Interceptors and the A-Wings and B-Wings. I know the creative team was going for familiarity, but it would have made more sense to see an evolution from the later designed ships.

The underwater city of the Gungans is still pretty
cool looking.
I also really like some of the creature design in the prequels. The Gungans (no matter how annoying they are as characters) have a really great design. They look like they would be at home under the water and in marshes. Their city, weapons and armor are well thought out and interesting to look at. In Attack of the Clones we get the cloners (one of my favorite new races in the series) with their water planet and unique design. Then you have the disturbing insectoid creatures that ended up creating the Death Star. Those things can’t be squished by AT-ATs fast enough for me. Revenge of the Sith ends up throwing a ton of new aliens and planets into the mix. So many that it is hard to get a grasp on all of them. Probably the most unique is the lava planet of Mustafar, with its black metal architecture and droid technology.

You could argue that Lucas and his crew spent too much time on the visuals and not enough time on making the scripts work or focusing on casting. But I hold that it is hard to argue with the visual impact that the Star Wars prequels actually have.

1. John Williams Score

"We will add the electric guitar here, and maybe some
To me, the best thing about the Star Wars prequels is the music. John Williams did some amazing work and under tough circumstances. For The Phantom Menace and into Revenge of the Sith, the score for the prequels includes an element that was rarely heard in the original trilogy – the human voice. That’s right if you listen to the original trilogy there are only a few instances where a choir is used. We hear it in the Falcon’s approach to Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back. We hear it in the Emperor’s theme in Return of the Jedi and in the same movie we hear the choir burst out when Luke finally gives in and unleashed his hatred in his final duel with Darth Vader. Other than that, you don’t hear a peep out of anyone.

The prequels use choir throughout all three films. Two of the key themes from the prequels are based on choir use. You have “Battle of the Heroes” for the final duel with Obi-Wan and Anakin. But my favorite is the massive and imposing “Duel of the Fates”. To me, this is the sound of the prequels. It is an amazing piece, one that we didn’t expect in a Star Wars film. In fact I remember when this score was first released that people were saying it didn’t sound like a Star Wars score. “Duel of the Fates” was usually the reason why.

The irony is that when The Force Awakens came out people were complaining that it didn’t sound like Star Wars because it didn’t have any choral stand out moments.

Another triumph for Williams is the main theme for Attack of the Clones. This love theme is called “Across the Stars” and it is the heart of the film. Williams does his best to create a golden age romance theme. The music does a better job of conveying romance and young love than the actors do (and it often feels overdone when combined with the muted acting on the screen).  But in this theme we get something that Williams had never done before (but would certainly do again with his impressive score to The Force Awakens). “Across the Stars” has multiple parts built into it. So Williams is able to use the theme in nearly any kind of situation. Sure you have the romantic moments, but there are portions of the theme that he adapts into action music very successfully. It works great as Padme and Anakin team up to save Obi-Wan. He also uses portions to hint at the darkness within the relationship, scoring key scenes with the same theme played in an unsettling way. “Across the Stars” gets plenty of stand out moments in the film and is pretty catchy to boot. So a lot of film music fans consider it the highlight of the prequel music.

Unfortunately Williams ran into issues while working on Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Lucas was constantly re-editing the film. This made it very difficult for Williams to write music when the scenes were constantly changing. For Attack of the Clones he eventually let Lucas just cut together music from earlier in the film and from The Phantom Menace to fit whatever final version of the end battle Lucas ended up with.

When it came to Revenge of the Sith Williams opted for a different tactic. He created a lot of individual themes for moments in the film. The result is shorter cues, but a more colorful score than anything we’ve heard in Star Wars. This score is bursting with great moments and powerful use of choir. At the same time (and I’m guessing this came from Lucas, but I haven’t confirmed it) Williams was asked to reuse key moments from the original trilogy to score new scenes. Only a film music nerd is going to notice how the music from Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back was removed wholesale and plunked down in the middle of the Yoda/Emperor battle. But yeah, I find it incredibly distracting.

In the end I don’t blame Williams for the reused music in the prequels. When you listen to the new themes he crafted for these films it is really amazing. He also took his new technique of scoring action and built on it. The action music in the prequels is more complex, intense and propulsive than the music in the original trilogy. One of the craziest pieces is “Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Couruscant”. Williams goes insane with percussion and even adds some electric guitar wailing away in there.  

We end up with a kind of trade off. Instead of action scenes built on stand alone themes that mirror the visuals, we get a blast of activity that is both musical and chaotic. At times it works better than others. The Phantom Menace is the best score of the prequels because it balances everything Williams attempted just right. Plenty of new, a few nods to the old, excellent new style action music and “Duel of the Fates”. Awesome stuff!

Now I won’t be one of those who thinks Williams can do no wrong. I really don’t like “Battle of the Heroes” too much. Some of the action music in Attack of the Clones just isn’t very interesting, and the piecemeal approach to Revenge of the Sith is colorful but feels like it lacks narrative flow (something no other Star Wars score ever has a problem doing). My opinion may change if we ever get a chance to hear the full scores away from the movie. The current album versions are missing plenty of music. But even with these detriments, I am glad we got the Star Wars prequels if only because John Williams crafted some of the best movie music of the 1990s and 2000s.

What are your favorite elements to the Star Wars prequels? Did I miss something, or did you find some of my picks laughable?

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  1. There is no shortage of movies with simple revenge themes: as the villain asks “why?’ as the hero poises to strike the final blow, we hear, “You killed my _________ [mother, father, sister, lover, dog, or whatever].” Lucas opted for a more complex mythic and Freudian construct for which I give him credit, sometimes telegraphing his intent – e.g. Darth Vader evoking Death Father and the obvious identification of Lucas with Luke. The prequels explore all that more deeply. I have yet to see the non-Lucas “The Force Awakens,” but we’ll have to see if Disney follows the established pattern by, as some fans speculate, revealing that Rey is the daughter of Han and Leia.

    1. The Smithsonian did a whole exhibit in the late 90s about Star Wars (the original trilogy) and its mythic origins. I have the companion book and it is a real interesting read. Lots of nods to Norse and Arthurian legend of course. But it also noted how the production design pulled from all kinds of things: Samurai armor, WWII uniforms, even 1970s flight suits for U.N. Pilots. That potent mix of past, present and future helps the story resonate so clearly to so many people (at least that is their theory, but I think it is a good one). The Prequels really kept that mythic approach and it gives them more weight when other elements of the films don't work as effectively.

  2. Good analysis Roman. You establish a good case for watching the prequels. No matter how someone negates them, they probably end up watching them because Star Wars has such a resonance with pop culture, even more so if you're a SF type person.

    You many have seen Stuckmann's analysis on what was wrong with the prequels, and I can agree with him, and it may have been why they didn't work as well as the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens works well. It's something I hadn't noticed, but he says that the movies should have action sequences and less exposition in telling why something is happening or happened. He's probably right about that. All that telling drags things down. But I'll give you points for pointing out a few things I'd forgotten about, and I'll pay attention when I get ready to rewatch the prequels.

    1. Yeah Stuckmann and I agree a lot when it comes to the prequels. He makes a great point about Lucas going from showing in the original trilogy to telling the prequels. It is an especially big problem in "The Phantom Menace". One of the reasons me created the hated Midochlorians was so that he could have an empirical measurement of The Force. But that wasn't needed. Instead the Pod Race offers the best visual opportunity to see Anakin's wicked reflexes... or force awareness. But the thing is that Lucas actually has that in there too. So really that makes the Midochlorians even more useless!

      I also agree with Belated Media that the prequel trilogy lacks a central character. Lucas should have told the story from Anakin's or Obi-Wans point of view and stuck with it. The lack of focus ends up hurting the film.