Thursday, February 17, 2011

The two biggest flaws of the Star Wars prequel movies

I watched Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III recently, for only the second time. I've problem seen the other three, the original three, the good three, a hundred times or more (I watched them a lot as a kid).

When fans of the originals complain about how bad the prequels are, one response you hear sometimes is, "Look, the originals were just as bad, you just remember them fondly because you were a kid. They are all completely absurd space operas with lousy dialog and naive kidsy themes. And you complain about Jar Jar -- look at the freakin' Ewoks!" I've never felt this complaint was quite right, but I've also had some trouble refuting it in the past.

One thing I noticed on the first viewing, and this was while watching The Phantom Menace in the theater when it first came out, was that the CGI they used in the new ones just looks too "clean". One of the lovely things about the originals was that the highly detailed models Lucas and his team built just looked so gloriously dirty. They actually looked like something that had been traveling through deep space for a long time. In contrast, the ships and robots in The Phantom Menace just looked like run of the mill modern sci-fi. (I suppose one could justify this on the grounds that the Old Republic had better, more well-maintained stuff; but this reeks of Star Wars apologetics, and I'm not having it)

However, on the second viewing, I think this was a minor problem at best, and really a subset of a much bigger problem. So without further ado, here is where I think Lucas made two very simple missteps that severely tarnished the prequels and prevented them from having that fantastic charm of the originals.

So let's talk about Jar Jar. No discussion of what's wrong with Episodes I and II can be complete without discussing the much-maligned Senator Binks. As I stated before, some Jar Jar defenders/fanboy critics have compared Jar Jar to the Ewoks, saying both are equally comic, equally silly, had equally annoying voices, and that both are obviously designed to appeal to kids rather than adults. Fair enough.

And yet, the Ewoks don't piss me off nearly as much, and, though I realize this is hopelessly subjective and I have no real basis to assert this, I just can't make myself believe that the reason is because I grew up with the Ewoks. Flight of the Navigator seemed like a grand adventure to me as a kid, and was also one of my favorite movies, but today I see it for the corny trash that it is (though I do think some of the sound editing, particularly in the early scenes just before the protagonist discovers the spaceship, is masterful). Why did the Ewoks age so much better?

I think I know why: The Ewoks didn't speak English. In fact, they weren't even subtitled. Sure, when Wicket screeches "Beecha-wawa!" after almost being hit by a Stormtrooper's blaster, it's just as grating as anything Jar Jar says -- but it feels like an alien who just happens to have a high-pitched voice, because of the Ewoks' inscrutability: an inscrutability that would have been impossible to pull off if they had spoken English. In contrast, when Jar Jar says, "Meesa so scared!", it sounds like a damn cartoon character.

If you compare both trilogies, this is very consistent. Virtually every alien in Episodes I, II, and III speaks English, whereas in the originals most of them do not (and many of them are not subtitled). Hell, R2D2 and Chewbacca were main characters through all three movies, and neither of them ever said a word that was directly comprehensible to the audience. (As a brief side note, Ebert's review of The Empire Strikes Back notes -- correctly in my opinion -- that the film's biggest flaw is Chewbacca's incessant mournful cries. They work to express the intended emotion, but they just get so repetitive. However, that was a problem with execution, and a minor one at that. Just imagine how bad it would have been if Chewbacca had the same voice, but talked in pidgin English! Perish the thought...)

Think of the scene with Greedo in Episode IV. Nobody is going to call that scene kidsy -- Han Solo murders him with a gun concealed under the table, for chrissakes! But think about it: Greedo had a pretty funny-sounding voice, didn't he? Imagine if Greedo had that gurgly, almost trilly voice, but spoke English instead of Rodian. Granted, it wouldn't have quite been a disaster of Jar Jarian portions, but it would have significantly undermined the tension in the scene. (Another brief digression: In the updated version released in the 90s, why oh why did they have to make Greedo fire first? It's so freakin' corny... From a realism perspective, how the hell would he miss at that range? And from a character development perspective, it sort of undermines the early establishment of Han Solo as a "scoundrel". Oy...)

In any case, having your aliens speak their alien language allows you to get away with a lot more, without having it come across as cartoonish. I'm sure Lucas felt that having the characters speak English improved pacing and made the movies more kid-friendly by obviating the need for subtitles -- but I was probably seven or so when I first saw the original trilogy, and I still was enchanted by it. Big mistake.

On a side note, I have no particular opinion on the racial aspects of the anti-Jar Jar criticism. I am certain it was not intentional. But I absolutely see how people perceive it that way -- though on the other hand, my wife does not see it at all. I'm not sure if it rises to the level of being racially insensitive or not. As I said, I have no strong opinion on that issue.

Moving on... The other big problem with the prequel trilogy, particularly Episode I, is more subtle, but possibly more pernicious. You see, one of the reasons the original trilogy worked so well despite a number of absolutely preposterous conceits (a freaking laser sword being the preferred weapon of the Jedis? When guns are available??? Uh huh...) is that the entire Star Wars universe exists in a vacuum. You can make yourself believe it's in "a galaxy far, far away", because there is a total absence of pop culture references. Those concepts which overlap with our world tend to have a historical mystique to them ("Imperial senate", "knights", etc.) which contributes to the other-worldly flavor rather than detracting from it.

Now think back to the pod racing scene in The Phantom Menace. Intended to be the most stunning set piece of the movie (they had a freaking video game based solely on that scene timed to coincide with the release of the film!), it was marred by the corny two-headed announcer(s). Out of context, there's nothing so bad about that gag. It was like something straight out of a Pixar movie, and you know what, all the Pixar movies are pretty good. I'm sure kids found the announcer(s) to be pretty funny, and while the jokes weren't exactly scintillating humor, the dialog was passable as it goes.

But the reason that gag "worked" is because it was a parody of the standard two-person commentator team used in most US sporting events, play-by-play and color analyst. It was a direct pop culture reference. So what the fuck? Does this "galaxy far, far away" get American broadcast television? From the future? No, of course not, it was just a bad choice on the part of the scriptwriters, but nonetheless it degraded the illusion of otherness that pervades the original films.

Though the two-headed announcer(s) were the most egregious example, such problems pervade Episode I, and are present to a lesser extent in Attack of the Clones as well. (I feel Revenge of the Sith finally broke this trend, and is one reason why many fans feel that is the best of the prequel trilogy) I mentioned earlier that the ships look too clean; they also look too much like modern conceptions of sci-fi. Compare Qui-Gon Jinn's ship in Episode I to the Millenium Falcon, both pictured below. If you had never seen any Star Wars movies, and I told you that one of these was thought-up by humans and another was built by aliens, what would your guess be? I thought so. Most of the other ships from the original trilogy are less alien than the good ol' Falcon, but they still don't look like modern fighter jets. (Which brings me to a minor realism niggle: All of the ships in the prequel trilogy are highly aerodynamic, which doesn't matter a damn in space. Many of the ships from the original trilogy are far less so.)

I think there are other examples that are more subtle, and I won't attempt to list all of them. I'd have to watch the movies again in order to catch many more anyway, and I don't expect to be doing that again until my eldest son is old enough to dig Star Wars. But I'm telling you, I think this sort of problem is what wrecked the prequel trilogy, or at least the first two episodes. For all the corny dialog and stilted acting and baldly implausible ideas in the original trilogy, it felt like something from out of this world -- which made suspension of disbelief that much easier, and made all the crap much easier to swallow. The flaws were partially obscured by a fantastic other-worldly mystique. The prequel trilogy mostly failed to cultivate this atmosphere, and as such all of its warts were laid bare.


  1. My main beef with the prequels: the dogfight scenes are paced about 10 times faster than the original series -- fleeting shots of this or that ship, but no sense of WTF was actually *happening* from moment to moment. In the original you got at least a few seconds on each, so you could see what was going on, who was shooting at whom, etc. Maybe 10-year-olds can perceive things that fast, but I sure can't.

    For reference: the original Star Wars came out while I was in university.

    1. The kid blew the Trade Federation ship by accident. It is like having Luke blowing the death star by accident.

  2. Yeah, I had mixed feelings about that. Similar with the light saber duels. I think I liked the fast pacing of the action scenes better, but it does make it feel a bit me-too-ish. The original trilogy just felt so different from everything else, whereas the prequel trilogy sometimes feels like just another sci-fi blockbuster -- sometimes because of objectively better execution.

    For reference: the original Star Wars came out while I was in university.

    Oh yeah, it never occurred to me that lots of the Star Wars fans who liked the originals and hated the prequels didn't grow up with the originals.

    So how did you feel about the Ewoks?

    1. ET was a teddy bear without fur.

  3. Have you ever watched this review? The whole thing is hilariously spot-on, but its key insight about The Phantom Menace is that the movie has no protagonist.

    Watch any of the original three, and obviously it's Luke's story. But who is The Phantom Menace about?

    1. Phantom menace. I never felt the menace, and I never knew who was the phantom. The phantom of boredom perhaps?

  4. So I almost never watch really long videos at work (for obvious reasons), but I'm 8 minutes into that one and it's totally worth it. I'm gonna get some more coffee and finish it on my lunch break. Thanks for posting that!

    That's a great point about the lack of a protagonist. I think I intuitively felt it was Obiwan, on both watchings, but yeah, he was fucking boring in The Phantom Menace (and not much better in Attack of the Clones).

    Episode I is definitely the worst of the lot, by a wide margin. II is just tolerable, and on second viewing, I think III is actually a pretty good movie and more or less worthy of being part of the Star Wars storyline. But Episode I... my God, it's awful.

  5. So how did you feel about the Ewoks?

    The cutesiness was overdone, though it was amusing in a satirical kind of way to have the heroes taken prisoner and threatened with sacrifice by teddy bears carrying pointy sticks. Besides, after waiting six farkin' years for the finale....

    And while I'm babbling: I didn't mind prequel Ep II, despite the script saddling Nathalie Portman with some truly horrible lines (as V for Vendetta showed, she deserves much better). But Ep III is definitely the best of the lot, rising towards high tragedy towards the end.

    1. I'd like to see Dave Filoni remaking the prequels.

  6. Lucas started jumping the shark while making Jedi. He told produceer Gary Kurtz they could have made Empire for half the cost and still have made the same amount of money- people only care about the rolloer coaster ride. Kurz has said that the worst thing that ever happened to the Star Wars franchise was Raiders of the Lost Ark- it's the film that convinced Lucas of his roller coaster theory.

    When Kurtz left (in frustration), it meant there was nobody left to say no to Lucas anymore.

    Think about it, Jedi is a decent film, but the plot is the same as a New Hope: The Empire has a super weapon called the Death Star they will use to destroy the rebellion once and for all, which the rebels must destroy...I don't really care for the Ewok parts at all: too corney.

    The Ewoks were supposed to be Wookies, but were changed for marketing purposes, cuddly Ewok toys are easier to sell to little kids.

    The wookies were supposed to be slave labor fro building the Death Star, why not just spray the planet with nerve gas to get rid the annoying ewoks?

    Regarding Han shooting first: I'm a little surprised at all the people who use it as an example of Han's character development from rogue to hero. To me, he shot first because that was the best way to avoid being killed or taken to Jabba by Greedo- period. As a hero, is he supposed to just let Greedo kill him or take him prisoner? No, rogue or hero, when someone points a gun at you and threatens you with lethal force, you are justified in defending yourself with lethal force- you don't have to wait for them to shoot first.

  7. Yeah, I grew up with all three of the original Star Wars movies, so it is harder for me to see the flaws in Jedi -- but I know they are there. I actually don't mind that the plot was analogous to A New Hope; it sort of gave the trilogy a nice cyclical feeling to it, and tied up a bunch of loose ends of course. The Ewoks were the Ewoks... not as terrible as Jar Jar, but definitely a disturbing sign of things to come, in retrospect.

    The biggest flaw in Jedi is probably the overlong and overwrought climax, although it's also pretty amazing that they made it more or less work. I mean, the climax is like an hour long or something and alternates between three separate threads, but it ultimately ends up more or less making sense and keeping your attention. More or less. It's not like the climax to Phantom Menace where it's like, "Wait, what? Why are they shooting these robots again? And why is Anakin in a fighter, I forgot...? Oh wait, now we're back with the princess... Oh snap, that guy's got a double-ended light sabre! Oh wait, but then there's those robots... What are they doing again? Goddamn, I'm so confused..."

    As far as the Greedo thing... you are analyzing it from a legal/ethical perspective rather than a character development perspective. First of all, even if he was fully justified, how many of us would be able to calmly pull a gun from out of its case under the table, blow a guy away, and then pay our tab and leave without so much as blinking? It paints Han as a stone-cold motherfucker -- even if he was fully justified, the audience is like, "Woah, this guy is a badass."

    The other side of it is that, real world be damned, in this sort of comic book-y fiction, the hero doesn't kill a guy just because he's got a gun pointed at him. The hero either waits for the bad guy to shoot first, or else does some jujitsu move to incapacitate the bad guy without using lethal force. It's corny, but it's convention. By deviating from the convention, it communicates to the audience that Han is not a hero. Even if they wouldn't necessarily have gotten the same message if the same events were to transpire in real life, or even in a different type of movie.

  8. Star Wars raised my love for space. I was raised with high culture, and a slow movie does not mean necessarily boring, i.e. Solaris (the russian version), Star Trek movie, 2001 space odyssey...

    Star Wars OT was aimed at more general audiences, but it had a WOW factor, something really exotic and weird, a world unlike ours. Problem with prequels was that it was more a world like ours. You had aliens speaking english, telling jokes on poop, having aerodynamic ships that seemed the same designed flipped backwards for all ships, but most of all a movie where big chunks could be cut without missing anything great. How about character development?

    Princess: I have to save my people
    Qui Gon: We must protect the princess
    Obi Wan: I must follow my master
    Jar Jar: Missa say poop jokes

    Aside of being a master of swords, and dress like a devil, what was the big deal with the Sith? Oh yeah, they are ugly and they are disabled people turned into cyborg. If you are disabled, you must be a villain. And if you are a woman, you either go to politics or become a dancer in a night club. Gender equality? Come on this is space where women have a future as nightclub dancers. Luke got one of these dancers as his wife, probably a nightclub is a nice place to go date if you want to get married... well in the Star Wars universe.

    Trade federation, sports commentators, 1950s US alien restaurants... it is USA in space (not something appealing to worldwide audiences). Yawn!! The speech when Anakin was dating her was unlike Titanic. No woman would feel it was romantic, and the actor sucked as he seemed a spoiled teen with no depth. You have this shy Jesus kid, turn into an impulsive teen and then a cold blooded Vader. How is that? That's because the Force is a bacteria in the blood.

    Lucas filmed this in a green room. Actors had nothing to react too, and a crappy script, and in the end editing mad things too boring. Lovers of high culture just do not think prequel is worth a bit.

  9. When episode 1 came, Matrix was in the theater.
    I went to see Matrix first, thinking I was leaving the best of last.
    Episode I felt as a bigger failure as Matrix was so well done.