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Monday, April 19, 2010

Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones, and Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith

1999 136 minutes, 2002 142 minutes, 2005 140 minutes
Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen
Written and Directed by George Lucas

When I was a kid, there wasn't Star Wars: Episode Anything. There was Star Wars, there was The Empire Strikes Back, and then there was Return of the Jedi. The plot of the movies can be drawn from the titles. In the first, their is a war in space. The good guys, or those on the side of the Jedi, win. In the second film the Jedi's enemy, the Empire, hands the Jedi a series of defeats and "Strikes Back." In the final film, the Jedi literally return and vanquish their foes. Being a young child, I could gather some semblance of what these movies meant just from this. As a soon to be high-school senior relishing his last summer of youth, I did not go to see Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace. I went to see Episode One. That is what we called it. During the summer of 1999, my first with the freedom of a car, I visited the theater five times to see this movie. I can still remember the feeling I got when those big yellow words marched up the screen and out into space. Outside of visits to see the Special Edition releases of the original trilogy, I had never seen anything like this opening on the big screen (unless I somehow peered through my mother's womb during her trip to see The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe that's why I inexplicably yelled "He's your father!" during my first post-natal viewing. Dagburn fetus-spoilers!). My first viewing of the film produced a pretty stunned reaction. Starships blasting through space on a 40-foot screen. Lightsabers clashing. Darth Maul doing backflips and getting chopped in half. I don't know what I took critically from the film on first viewing (and I was a pretty critical 17-year old), but my senses were certainly blown away. On the following four viewings I found myself doing things I never did while watching the original trilogy. Horrible, dirty things.
Actually, not really that dirty. Compared to your average movie, Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace is a pretty entertaining flick. The action scenes are extremely well done, the special effects still hold up, and the movie looks downright beautiful. Does anyone know what downright means? Is it just a misheard lingual travesty of "done right"? (What about dagburn? What does that mean?) The visual and aural aspects of Episode One are definitely done right. The problem is that this was the only thing I was truly taking away from the film. I found great pleasure in the things previously mentioned, and I enjoyed the fact that good and evil were back epically fighting each other on the big screen, but I was being forced to search for reasons to like the movie. As the summer ended I realized that I never had to do that with the Original trilogy. I watched them and I liked them. I did not have to search for reasons to like them. They were really good movies and I liked them.
Still, Episode One is only one film. A final year of high school and two morally confusing years of college later, and here was Episode Two. We did not call it Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones, or even just "Attack of the Clones." Just Episode Two. This film has some strong aspects. The subplot with Obi-Wan Kenobi hunting and facing off against a renegade Bounty Hunter and his cloned child is quite thrilling. Though we still don't really get a sense of who Obi-Wan Kenobi is, Ewan McGregor injects enough into the performace to make him someone likable--and the strange father-son bond of B-Villians Jango and Boba Fett make them sympathetic as well. This often feels like a different movie from the misplayed romance of the A-Story. Still, the movie is even prettier than its predecessor (and sounds even better, too). The lightsaber battles at the end are even more thrilling. These pros are reason enough to enjoy the film.
Two and half years of college and sixth months of bizarre desert wandering later, and here comes Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith, or just Revenge of the Sith as we called it. That title was just too good. Revenge of the Sith was even PRETTIER than the previous two films, had even BETTER action scenes, and gave even MORE reasons to type things in ALL CAPS. Revenge even gave cause to a bit of audience emotion.
Nope. I can't. Star Wars has been a sort of parallel story to my life. Not so much the prequels as the original trilogy, the corresponding media, book series, comic series, video game series, tapper-keeper folders, what have you. Like many, many people, the original mythology of Star Wars has struck a strong chord in the mythology of my own life, my relationship with my parents, my siblings, my wife, my child, my faith. It's real...dagburnit. At the same time, it's only a bunch of movies made by a short, bearded man-child who does best when he throws out big ideas to directors and writers more talented to he is, then spends the rest of the production riding the special effects and set designers to get the visions of the wonderful things in his head out correctly. Star Wars, at its absolute best, is just this. I can't totally hate on the prequels, but I can easily point out the reasons why not only I, but even my four year old cousin will easily pick watching the original trilogy over the prequel trilogy any day. but
True, but I haven't written about this yet, so I think I may bring a different perspective to the table. That's right...

What works in A New Hope, but does not in The Phantom Menace:

Within the first fifteen minutes, A New Hope has a chief protagonist. He is a young man named Luke Skywalker, and he lives on a backwater planet with his Aunt and Uncle. He hates it, and he wants out as soon as out can be had. He never got to know his parents. He is extemely identifiable, as most people want adventure and feel like they could be doing something better at any given moment. He has distinctive personality traits: he is a bit whiney and impatient, but he is good-hearted and obedient. He is joined in his quest by an old man name Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi is a calm, centered man who not only claims to be one of the last of a mythical group of supernatural warriors called Jedi, but also an old friend of Luke's father Anakin. Kenobi says Anakin was also a Jedi, betrayed and murdered by a dark warrior named Darth Vader, a vision of evil incarnate we are introduced to in the initial moments of the film. Kenobi and Luke get off planet with a cocky, violent smuggler named Han Solo, and his similarly violent, yet possibly more level-headed sidekick, Chewbacca. Together this motley group attempt to save Princess Leia, a leading figure in the Rebellion against the galactic empire. Leia is a five-foot tall tornado, angry, uptight and headstrong. That means she is stubborn, not that her head can lift mass quantities of weight. Those are our principal characters.
The Phantom Menace does not have a chief protagonist. This role is split between, arguably, four or five characters. Unfortunately, these characters have no identifying character traits. One is a master Jedi--so he must be wise and calm. One is his apprentice--so he must be slightly less wiser and calmer than his master. This apprentice is a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, so we infer his character from the previous trilogy. His master says he is headstrong (and I am guessing again that this means stubborn), but we are never shown any examples of how he could be considered this. He seems pretty by-the-book. They meet up with a bumbling alien named JarJar Binks--he is bumbling. They rescue a queen--she is queenly, apparently--named Amidala--and end up on another planet for kind of illogical reasons where they meet DRUMROLL Anakin Skywalker. Anakin is a kid who likes to fly around. I would tell you more about him, but that is it. These are the main characters, and instead of actions dictated by character, they perform actions based on what the story needs them to do. This lack of real character is mocked far more hillariously and intellectually by the famous 70-minute Youtube review of this film, so I'm not going to harp on this more. I don't even know how to play the harp, but I like the way it sounds.
Because the characters in the first trilogy are actual characters, they are allowed to have character arcs. They evolve as the trilogy progresses in ways the characters in the Phantom Menace can't because they aren't really characters. Because A New Hope's characters are actually characters that we can care about, we attach emotions to them. The death of Luke's Aunt and Uncle strike an immediate chord. His search for the truth about his father and his enthusiastic desire to live a bigger and more impacting life makes the life-crushing revelations he faces later on all the more heartbreaking. Han Solo's arrogance and shoot-first attitude make him immediately likable to the American viewer, thus his humiliation later on is even more shocking. Leia's changes are more subtle. She is the most steadfast and unwavering, yet she finally allows some of the emotional walls she's constructed around her to come down. These are actual people who change gradually over time, just as we all do.
On a technical level, The Phantom Menace destroys A New Hope. Unfortunately for the Phantom Menace, it doesn't have the characters to match. As Luke stares off at a fantastic twin-sunset and ponders his future in A New Hope, things crash and boom in The Phantom Menace, but the sunset and the longing it brings is more beautiful than any explosion Industrial Light and Magic can render.
Because the characters cannot carry the film, The Phantom Menace has to rely on an overly complex story that most people would still be trying to work out in their heads if they were still actually thinking about the movie. They aren't, but I can give you the plot of A New Hope in one badly constructed sentence fragment: Save the Princess, don't get blown up. Though I am wordier than most, most things aren't worth a single sentence if they can't be summed up in a single sentence.
Oh, and I haven't gotten into the well-known horror of JarJar Binks, a Phantom Menace side-kick character that is perhaps the title character of the film, haunting every scene with his menacingly annoying presence.. Everyone already hates him enough to the point that complaining about him would be redundant. I'll just say that C-3PO of A New Hope is the obvious comedic counterpart to JarJarBinks in Episode One. The difference is that C-3PO is not an obviously visible mockery of a minority, his banter with fellow robot R2-D2 is actually cleverly written and un-obnoxiously performed, and he is not in EVERY SCENE IN THE ENTIRE MOVIE.

What works in The Empire Strikes Back, but does not in Attack of the Clones

The Empire Strikes Back seems to kickoff right after A New Hope. Our heroes have been running from the monstrous enemy they have just handed defeat. There is already forward momentum. Attack of the Clones seems to happen at the end of a ten year nap. Anakin is a Jedi now, Obi-Wan is a Jedi Master, and Queen Amidala is now Senator Amidala...and that is about it. Anakin is played by a different actor and whines more, but really only the titles before the character's names are different. This lack of change in Anakin is a bit disheartening...because this guy is supposed to become Darth Vader. SPOILER! Wait, you're supposed to put SPOILER before the spoiler, huh? Oh well, guess I ruined that for you. Sorry. Bruce Willis' character in the Sixth Sense is dead the whole time. Book and Wash die in the Firefly movie. When Buffy and Angel do it, he turns evil, and she has to kill him. Santa Claus isn't real. Easter Bunny isn't real. Soylent Green is people. The Planet of the Apes is really Earth the whole time. Dumbledore dies. Ross and Rachel finally get together forever, but it really isn't that satisfying. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.
Not yet, though.
Right now he is just a whiny teenager, much like his son will be, except that isn't his son's only character trait. Anakin has the Galactic President whispering in his ear, but he really doesn't tell him much except, "Anakin, you're awesome." That's probably because their ONE scene together lasts about 20 seconds. Little-known to Anakin, the President is moonlighting as a dark Lord of the Sith. Flash forward to the Empire Strikes back, and Luke Skywalker has someone whispering in his ear, too. After an attack by the Empire splits up our heroes, Luke takes the advice of a now ghost-form Obi-Wan, and heads to a swampy planet to find and train under Yoda, a great Jedi Master. Yoda turns out to be more than Luke bargained for, first pretending to be a cranky eccentric, then revealing himself to be perhaps the wisest most-powerful (to our knowledge) being in the galaxy. Also, he is two-feet tall and green.
Yoda reveals the complexities of the force to Luke, as well as the difficulty of serving the light and resisting the darkness. Yoda is a great character, and his many scenes with Luke prepare Luke for the darkness ahead
. They toughen him up, get the whine out of him, and give him a new resolve that is visible throughout the rest of this film and the next. Meanwhile, we don't get a parallel to this in Attack of the Clones. While Luke is smelted into a warrior for good, Anakin makes awkward faces at his love interest and does more whining. Scenes of Anakin's heart subtly being twisted by his future dark master would have added loads to the development Anakin is supposed to undergo. Instead we get a sudden scene where Anakin murders an entire village of aliens responsible for the death of his mother. Besides his whining, we don't really get a build up to this, he just gets angry and kills a bunch of people. Had Luke not received the training he received from Yoda, his resolve in the face of overpowering evil at the end of The Empire Strikes Back would have been a little unbelievable. This contrasts directly with Anakin's murders in Attack of the Clones, which really seem a bit ridiculous given we've never had any evidence before that this man is violent, let alone a murderer.
I'm not even going to get into a comparison of the romances in these two films. Lying. Of course I am, what's this blog for?

Han Solo and Princess Leia's romance works because it realistically reveals tenderness in two characters who hadn't shown much up to this point. It works because the characters are well drawn enough so that we can see that the proper, uptight Princess needs a devil-may-care scoundrel like Han in her life. Scoundrel? I like the sound of that. Speaking of, here's a sample of dialog between Han and Leia leading up to their first kiss:
Han Solo: Hey, Your Worship, I'm only trying to help.
Princess Leia: Would you please stop calling me that?
Han Solo: Sure, Leia.
Princess Leia: You make it so difficult sometimes.
Han Solo: I do, I really do. You could be a little nicer, though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I'm all right.
Princess Leia: Occasionally, maybe... when you aren't acting like a scoundrel.
Han Solo: Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.
[Han starts to massage Leia's hand]
Princess Leia: Stop that.
Han Solo: Stop what?
Princess Leia: [timidly] Stop that. My hands are dirty.
Han Solo: My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of?
Princess Leia: Afraid?
Han Solo: You're trembling.
Princess Leia: I'm not trembling.
[Han moves in closer]
Han Solo: You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.
Princess Leia: I happen to like nice men.
Han Solo: I'm a nice man.
Princess Leia: No, you're not. You're...
[they kiss]
Thanks, IMDB.
Wow, isn't that nice. It just crackles off the screen of my blog.
Now, let's compare a similar scene in Attack of the Clones, where Anakin and Amidala, or Padme, or whatever her name is first kiss:
[Anakin and Padme are about to be carted into the arena]
Anakin: Don't be afraid.
Padme: I'm not afraid to die. I've been dying a little bit each day since you came back into my life.
Anakin: What are you talking about?
Padme: I love you.
Anakin: You love me? I thought we had decided not to fall in love. That we'd be forced to live a lie and that it would destroy our lives?
Padme: I think our lives are about to be destroyed anyway. I truly... deeply... love you and before we die I want you to know.
Uh, thanks again, IMDB.
Believe it or not, this scene was not written to be acted out by robots. Two humans actually have to robotically force these words out of their mouths. Ouch. Oh, yeah, and in cased you were worried, they don't die...yet. SPOILER.
I'm not really sure what Padme sees in Anakin. Maybe she has some weird younger man fetish. Whatever it is, we definitely aren't shown. Bah. Also, they're not supposed to be together because of some stupid rule that I'll get into in the next movie comparison.
Hey, let's talk about the final light saber duel.
The lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is easily one of the best movie scenes of all time. We witness Luke's growth and increase in skill since the first film, and his terror and marvel at the power of his foe. After the fight and Luke's defeat, we witness the shocking revelation that the man who just badly beat him and chopped off his arm (and on top of that, killed his mentor Obi-Wan in the previous film) is actually his father. Not only that, but we get an offer from Darth Vader to Luke that is almost impossible to resist. Join me or die. Luke's heroic surrender to the force and the subsequent escape it provides is well earned after everything we've seen. Now, let's compare this emotional scene to its counterpart in Attack of the Clones.
Anakin is forced to fight the evil Count Dooku, a character he has never met or heard of in his life. That's it. All the emotion of the scene in Empire Strikes Back finds no counterpart in Attack of the Clones. Anakin gets his arm (both his arms actually) chopped off and loses to his stronger, darker foe, and that's it. Strangely, though, this fight is the prequel trilogy's finest sequence. It reveals more about Anakin's character than any other scene. We see the well-illustrated result of Anakin's impatience as the fight begins, and then, in the most poetically shot moment of the prequel films, we see how a man like him can be seduced by the dark side. This is the only moment in the prequel trilogy that does this:
The ferocity of Anakin and Count Dooku's fight destroys the artificial lighting in the room. As Anakin and Count Dooku fight in the darkness, the red light from Dooku's lightsaber washes over Anakin's face. Anakin bathes in the light, wonder fills his eyes as he marvels at the power of the darkness, lusts for it. Jeez, that part was awesome.

What works in Return of the Jedi, but does not in Revenge of the Sith

Things look pretty grim by the time Empire Strikes Back's credits roll. On top of Luke Skywalker going and getting his arm chopped off and having his soul stomped on and everything, Han Solo gets captured by the Enemy and frozen solid in a black block of futuristic ice. After facing almost complete defeat, the good guys decide to start their "Return" by rescuing Han.
Revenge of the Sith starts with a rescue as well. Of course, following in the tradition of previous prequels, the character kidnapped is not only kidnapped offscreen, but is the Galactic Chancellor, who we don't really know or care tremendously about. His rescue is extremely thrilling and well shot, though, probably the best action sequence George Lucas has ever directed. The sequence even ends with a callback to Return of the Jedi, with Chancellor Palpatine/The Emperor, whoops...SPOILER telling a Skywalker to brutally finish off their defeated, unarmed (literally...hahahahahahahahahahaha!) opponent. Of course, we have seen Luke's metamorphosis througout the last three films, so when he does the right thing, our convictions and investment in him are greatly rewarded. When Anakin does the wrong thing he looks confused and pained, and his morally confused interactions with the Chancellor throughout the beginning of the film are well-played, but I kind of feel like I am getting ahead of myself here, AND THAT'S JUST WHAT THIS MOVIE DOES. Instead of building up to Anakin's turn to the darkside SPOILER...? he just turns. Instead of showing us how a good man is gradually worn away into an evil one...well, George Lucas doesn't seem either capable or willing to do so at this point. So midway through the film, Anakin Skywalker goes from slightly irritable hero of the Galactic Republic to child killer. That's right. After getting whammied by Chancellor Palpatine into believing that his wife Padme and their unborn children will somehow die if he doesn't learn some secret power from Palpatine, Anakin decides to murder all the Jedi, including all the Jedi children. Anakin even gets down on his knees and pledges to serve Palpatine. Sounds ridiculous? That's because it is! It's almost like George Lucas suddenly remembered, "Oh crap, Anakin is supposed to turn into Darth Vader. Dagburnit, I forgot about that! Now what I'm I supposed to do? Well, I guess if I suddenly make him murder children for no reason, people will just go along with it. Yeah, that's it! That's really evil, and no one will even realize that five minutes ago Anakin was selflessly putting his life on the line to save people. It doesn't even matter that I forgot to build up to this!"

Yes, it does!
Anakin's "coronation" into evil is the most frustrating scene in the entire prequel trilogy, even though it appears in the best film in the trilogy, because it is supposed to be the most important scene in the trilogy. The trilogy.
Actually, this should have never just been one scene...this should have been what all three movies were about!!! AHHHH!!! After investing so much time into these films, almost everything wrong with these prequels could have been overlooked if Anakin's turn had been done convincingly...and it is not. If not for this one terrible scene, I might not even have worked up the angry nerve to write this semi-diatribe that no one will ever read (and if you do, could you please proofread it for me? This thing is really long).
So here we have an instantly evil Anakin, and that is the movie for the most part. After some good scenes, we have this abrupt turn, most good-guy characters are murdered, Obi-Wan and Anakin fight to the (near) death, Padme dies from grief (or robotic malpractice?) after giving birth to twin babies, Luke and Leia Skywalker, and a burned and decapitated Anakin Skywalker gets put into an oversized Darth Vader costume/life-support device.
The fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin is particularly heartbreaking, not just because the two actors did have a decent father-son-brother chemistry, but because Ewan McGregor, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, is obviously not sure what emotion he is supposed to be displaying because of George Lucas' conflicting philosphical/religious opinions manifesting throughout the films. This ties into the "rule" Lucas creates to keep Padme and Anakin apart that I mentioned above. Apparently in this version of the Star Wars Galaxy, Jedi are not supposed to have "attachments".
If you were thinking, hey, that's just like the concept of Upadana in Buddhism, it is. Were you not thinking that? Well, it is. Though I think my religion is the one true one and the rest of you's crazy twaddle is not, I still know all about the rest of you's crazy twaddle. And if Buddhism is George Lucas' crazzy twaddle, he sure makes a mess of it. If Lucas is saying attachments are a cause of suffering, well apparently they are the cause of Anakin's, as they make him easy fodder for the Chancellor's machinations.

But wait a Return of the Jedi, after Luke refuses to kill his vanquished father and join the beckoning Emperor, does he say, "No. Because of my complete disattachment from the people around me, I am easily able to resist your offer, Wrinkles."?
Earlier in the film, the Emperor himself tells Darth Vader, "His (Luke's) compassion for you will be his undoing." Actually, Evil Incarnate, Luke's compassion for his father will be your undoing. Upon Palpatines's command to Luke to murder Darth Vader and take Vader's place at his Evil side, Luke Skywalker says (this is so badass, I'm giving it it's own paragraph),
"Never. I'll never turn to the Dark Side. You've failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me."
Man, that's powerful. I'm about to tear up just typing it. This emotional involvement I have in the characters in the Original Trilogy has been well earned. After all, they care for each other, and I care for them, even though they aren't even real. At least not as far as I know.
The Emperor's response to this is, "So be it, Jedi." This response seems to dictate that a Jedi is someone who loves and cares for others, and is motivated by this love to do good. Evil force-users like The Emperor seem to be the ones with no attachment. So with a shrug, the Emperor shoots lightning from his fingertips and begins to burn an easily overmatched Luke to a crisp.
And what do you know? Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, consumed with love for his son, selflessly gives his own life to destroy the Emperor and save Luke Skywalker.
Looks like attachment might be a good thing after all.
Is this what Lucas is actually trying to say? Is he actually against this anti-attachment philosophy? Is he equating the fall of the Jedi because of their lack of attachment to say, the Catholic church's current problems with pedophile priests who were not allowed to marry? Well, I don't know, George Lucas might not even know, and his prequel trilogy actors certainly do not know. As Obi-Wan defeats Anakin in a final duel, reducing his protege to a burned-up, somehow-living torso and head, torso-head Anakin looks up at his master and shouts, "I hate you!", but Obi-Wan responds, "You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!"
I wish we could have had more scenes of these two together to establish their relationship before this moment, but McGregor absolutely sells the line with emotion. Moments later, though, as Obi-Wan boards his ship and flies away, his brain (McGregor's not Obi-Wan's) appears to be attempting to decipher what emotion his face should be registering. After all, his character just left a man he viewed as a brother to die. But then again, for some reason he isn't supposed to have any attachments to anyone. So while the original trilogy actors, having no hokey, half-assed philosophical notions "attached" to them, would have no confusion that they are supposed to be registering complete, dejected sadness, McGregor does not have this freedom of clarity. This is a shame because McGregor's charisma has arguably carried the prequel trilogy along. What is he supposed to do, though, when the values his character espouses have reached a point where they contradict and make no sense? He is painted into a corner. The emotional spear of these films is again blunted.

Meanwhile, Return of the Jedi, even with one two many furry muppets and plot rehashes running around, ends in style. A now redeemed Anakin Skywalker's spirit, along with fallen comrades, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, beam with joy at victorious Jedi Luke, as he sends the glorious flames of his father, also victorious, into the heavens.
I haven't even mentioned the growth of Leia, who is now vulnerable to the point that she actually asks another character for a hug, and Han, who now does the right thing without question and is willing to risk his life for his friends.
As for prequel development, Padme goes from a Queen, to a Senator, to pregnant, to dead. Obi-Wan goes from Jedi-warrior on a city planet, to Jedi-warrior on a desert planet. Anakin Skywalker grows a foot or two, murders some children, gets chopped up, and wears a black plastic suit. I'm not really sure how they are different people at the end, except for Anakin. His character development is easily equatable to a coin-flip.

This ends my comparisons.
I sometimes wonder if the prequels existing is a good thing or a bad thing. They contain some of the best action and special effects put to film, but do they enhance the original trilogy, or justify an existence on their own? I dunno, that's not the point of this 4815162342 word blog. I can say, though, having read at least forty or fifty novels set in the Star Wars universe, uncounted comics, and thinking about Star Wars more than what I am going to wear on any given day, that Star Wars operates best on a certain level.
Star Wars operates best when the characters are at the forefront, the lines between light and dark are made clear, and when George Lucas mainly draws the pictures of the spaceships, puts his name on the poster, and stays out of the way.

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