Sunday, June 5, 2011

Those movies really weren't very good

When it comes to the Star Wars prequels, I tend to buck the trend.

It's one of the most popular sentiments on both the film blogosphere and the geek blogosphere that Star Wars: Episodes I, II and III were basically a travesty. I don't hate on them like that. I really enjoy individual sequences and ideas in these films, and I still remember the rush of being with a cheering opening night audience when we saw Yoda bust out his lightsaber for the first time. The comments a friend of mine made after The Phantom Menace probably sum it up best: "That was more Star Wars than I ever thought I'd see again."

Last night, however, I found myself regressing to the statistical mean.

A friend invited me to go with him to Star Wars in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl, an event featuring the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra playing John Williams' score, as well as a large screen playing clips from all six films. Throw in a modest laser light show, an expansion of the screen to fill the outer edges of the famous bowl structure for which the venue is named, and none other than Anthony Daniels himself hosting and doing some of C3PO's classic lines, and you've got the makings of a fine evening.

That is, except for all the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith that crept into the proceedings.

I clearly should have expected this, but to give you some idea how much I knew about it going in, I actually asked my friend (prefacing it with the admission that this was a dumb question) whether we might just be seeing the movie Star Wars with live orchestra accompaniment -- you know, like an organist used to play during silent films. As it turns out, the event is (there's another one tonight) a re-telling of the whole saga, more or less proceeding chronologically, comprised of video packages with their own headings, such as "The Dark Side Conspires" and "A Hero Falls." Each video package is introduced by Daniels in that familiar voice and that familiar eloquence you would expect from the retired protocol droid, and plays out over three or four minutes, accompanied by a song from the score. (Daniels looked great by the way -- he's younger than I thought, only 65.) There were packages devoted to the droids, to the relationship between Luke and Leia, to the Millennium Falcon, to the Mos Eisley Spaceport, to the battle on Endor ...

... only the battle on Endor sequence, entitled "Sanctuary Moon," was not just on Endor. This being a tribute to all six movies, accepting George Lucas' party line that they are all of presumably equal value (even Greedo shooting first made an appearance), the first three episodes had to creep in like a virus, even when they weren't wanted. Here I was, watching Ewoks take out Imperial walkers on Endor ... and suddenly they would edit in footage of Jar Jar Binks running away from battle droids like a damn fool on that planet that looked like a giant lawn. What this had to do with a "Sanctuary Moon," I didn't know. I did know, however, that my eyes became sad every time some of this goofy final battle from Phantom Menace came on screen.

And in fact you could say that about all the footage from the prequels. As I said earlier, I have a limited fondness for those movies, enough that I saw both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones twice in the theater -- though oddly, I am on record as saying I like Revenge of the Sith the best. I had even been thinking recently that I'd like to see them again, for the first time on DVD. Maybe make a weekend of it.

Last night cured me of that desire. Not only did I get to see most of what was good about those movies -- the long stretches of deadening dialogue being absent from this format -- but I was also reminded that even some of the stuff I thought was good was probably not so good. Yes, there's a basic excitement generated by the CGI images (especially the pod race on Tatooine), but they don't really have weight, do they? I had kind of an epiphany last night about what made those first three movies so dubious, seeing all those clips from their endless battle scenes. It's not like I'm the first person to say this, but it's almost impossible to remember what the stakes were in any of those battles, isn't it? Whereas in the original three movies, you know what the stakes are for everybody, all the time. Sure, the fact that they're trying to blow up a Death Star in not one, but two of the original movies tends to focus everybody's objectives pretty well. And sure, I've seen each of those movies a lot more than these, so their plots have been seared into my brain. But the prequels still seem to have battles only because a battle is what's required to showcase the new digital possibilities available to Lucas. And here's a completely unoriginal observation: Lucas was in it only for the digital possibilities, not for the story, as evidenced by the ways he also "fixed" the first three movies digitally.

So last night was very much a schizophrenic experience. I found myself tossed like a rag doll between my desire to cheer and my urge to wince. The entire time before intermission was consumed with prequel stuff, because that's how the chronology proceeds. But even after they moved on to the second half of the chronology, the prequels kept invading and trying to assert their relevance -- that's how the video packages were designed, to explore themes rather than just related story elements. If I thought the prequel stuff looked bad by itself in the first half, imagine how much worse it looks in the second when contrasted directly with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. My mind was literally shifting back and forth between "Good Star Wars, yay!" and "Bad Star Wars, boo!" at warp speed. During the final package that celebrated the victory of good over evil, in a miscalculation that was perhaps impossible to avoid, the producers expected me to feel an equivalent sense of overwhelming pride about Jar Jar vanquishing a bunch of battle droids as Luke and Leia celebrating the destruction of the Death Star. All Star Wars are not created equal, and last night proved that.

A couple other quick observations:

1) Did I really have to see Qui-Gon Jinn get a lightsaber through the stomach not once, but twice? I mean, there were kids in attendance. At least they didn't show the halves of Darth Maul's body falling down that air duct or Count Dooku being beheaded. Man, those movies were more violent than I remembered.

2) It was a heckuva fun time seeing all the people who were there in costume -- not only the amateurs, but the professionals in Darth Vader, stormtrooper and jedi costumes. (No one dressed as Leia in Jabba slave outfit, though -- darn.) I wished I'd had a stitch of Star Wars clothing in my closet that I could have worn.

3) Speaking of stitches of clothing, there was this great t-shirt I wanted to buy. It had Darth Vader's face comprised of orchestral instruments, and it looked cool as hell. However, its purple color should have been a tip-off -- it was available as a girlie tee only. Just as well that I saved myself the $35.

So I'm not going to go over to the hater camp. I'm not going to start indulging in the played-out ranting about the evils of George Lucas and Jar Jar Binks. I'll still credit the prequels with giving me more Star Wars than I ever thought I'd see again, and occasionally dazzling my eyes -- if not my mind or my heart.

But let's just say I'm good with waiting another ten years to watch them again.


Monty Burns said...

The funny thing if you go back at watch them now: the effects are not all that great. It has been well-documented (and rightly so) that having the actors act against nobody in front of a blue screen resulted in the acting feeling stilted, bored, and disconnected. All of this was to serve George's amazing new digital technology that would allow him to do all the things he couldn't do in the original movies. Now 10 years later, the lighting, rendering, comping all looks outdated and faker than anything in the original trilogy. The newer movies have no heart, no humor, and as you said, muddled-if-there-at-all stakes. The worst possible sin is to cut together shots from both trilogies, as it will only remind you how far the newer films fall short.

Vancetastic said...

Monty, it's funny you should say that because I kind of had the exact opposite impression last night -- and opted at the last minute not to include it in the piece. As I was watching the pod race, it reminded me that this was filmed/created in 1999 (actually, probably more like 1997 or 1998), and that I didn't think it would/could look significantly better if it had been made in 2011. It made me wonder why, with all the recent developments in computer animation, those effects did not look particularly dated. I guess I am probably being too generous. Certain things were as good as they get straight out of the gate: If they made T2 today, would the T-1000's liquid metal look that much better? Then again, I haven't seen T2 in 10 years or more, so I'd probably notice the difference.

One thing I did notice that looked so much more authentic as non-digital was C3PO and R2D2 when they're in the custody of the jawas. They've got this layer of grime on them, all smudgy and covered with finger prints and such. You can't fake that.

Travis McClain said...

I'm going to resist most of the bait, which I assure you my inner geek finds tempting. What I would like to comment on is the conflation of the Phantom Menace footage with the Ewok battle.

It should have been obvious to anyone paying attention in 1983 that George Lucas likes circular storytelling. Return of the Jedi is effectively a redress of Star Wars and in case anyone missed this penchant, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is chiefly a redress of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Some find it poignant, others find it lazy, but that's his bag.

Ergo, when I saw The Phantom Menace with that raucous midnight screening crowd in 1999, I was very conscious of the ways in which Episode I reflected Episode VI. It was as blatant as it was inevitable. The Battle of Naboo was clearly meant to evoke the Battle of Endor that preceded it in film and would follow it in continuity. Ergo, it makes perfect sense to me within the context of Lucas's storytelling proclivities that a comprehensive, saga-wide celebration such as Star Wars in Concert would marry the footage as you describe. In fact, I'd have been surprised if it hadn't.

Beyond this, the only thing I wish to say about the entire Star Wars subject is that I always felt fans had taken it way too far in the first place. There's really nothing to justify the Boba Fett obsession that permeated an entire generation, and there were entirely too many fans who referred to it as "The Holy Trilogy." I'm not terribly sensitive about sacrilegious remarks, but that term seemed to me to elevate these three escapist adventure films to a much loftier status than they warranted, and it suggested to me a level of fandom devoid of any critical thinking.

The greatest tonic for the current brand of Lucas Kool-Aid is to go find and watch the original documentary, From "Star Wars" to "Jedi": The Making of a Saga, in which Lucas himself makes frank statements that entirely undermine and even contradict the retroactive "visionary" dogma he's peddled since 1997. For instance, he outright admits that the revelation of Luke and Leia's relationship in Jedi came about because in the original draft of the screenplay, Lucas had vaguely written something to the effect of, "Vader taunts Luke into attacking him" and then during the revision stage they decided that Leia would become the bait for Luke. That pretty much negates the notion of this six-episode story about Anakin and his children was in Lucas's head since the early 1970s.