Posted in Teahouse Rambles

Teahouse Rambles #1 – Pretentious Quill

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I’m not a Star Wars fan. That’s not to say I dislike Star Wars, that’s ludicrous. I grew up with all six movies on DVD, I played LEGO Star Wars to death, I had lightsaber battles with friends, I discussed my favorite fights and characters and scenes and whatnot, and I can pop in any of the movies and watch them just fine, including the prequels. I don’t claw out my eyeballs at “I don’t like sand”, I don’t fall asleep during the political scenes, and I don’t twist my panties into funny shapes over Jar Jar Binks. I can, and have, forgiven Star Wars of grievous things (General Grievous, for example).
It helps that a chunk of the movies are actually pretty dang good. A New Hope is an exuberantly entertaining revolution of moviemaking, though it shows its age in parts, Empire Strikes Back is one of the best science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, even Return of the Jedi, watered-down commercialization aside, brings satisfying closure to the engaging themes and conflicts of the previous two films. I also got a lot more enjoyment then I expected out of The Force Awakens, which succeeds as an entertaining blockbuster, an affectionate deconstruction of A New Hope, and its own earnest, emotionally engaging story (despite some lost opportunities and frustratingly half-realized arcs). So why am I not a Star Wars fan? To be blunt: I will never, regardless of my moderate enjoyment of them, cast any sizable lot on a series half (soon to be a third) taken up by some of the most embarrassingly unengaging and incompetent sci-fi blockbusters in recent memory.
The Star Wars prequels are bad movies. That’s not an objective truth, given the subjectivity of art, but from where I stand that’s a statement as obvious as “Citizen Kane is a good movie.” As much as I encourage nuance, difference of opinion, and agreeing to disagree, no nostalgic media trend of the last few years has (pettily, admittedly) gotten under my skin more than people in my age bracket gushing about the “unappreciated genius” of the Star Wars prequels. In second place is the trend of fanboying Gen Xers attempting to explain how these obviously incompetent movies are incompetent…and completely failing at it.
These anti-Prequel orators often fail because they don’t point out flaws effectively enough, but even more deadly is the practice of dwelling on and exaggerating flaws that either don’t matter or are only nibbles of the basic problem with these movies. The Star Wars prequels aren’t atrocious disasters, after all. They rarely dip below 4/10 territory for me (not that they ever go above 5), and the obviousness of their badness comes less from the gravity of the flaws and more from the fact that they’re so front-and-center. But since the overwhelming views of these movies are that they’re either underrated masterpieces or the worst thing to ever happen to film, and neither side takes into account the nuance that criticism needs, I feel the need to sound off about my take. Fair but probably unnecessary spoiler warning for both trilogies. Let’s get Plinketting!


THE GOOD
The Star Wars prequels are not, and never have been, irredeemable, but since the strengths are often forgotten in favor of “BLARG WORST MOVIES EVER” extremism, I’ve decided to backhandedly gush about the things they did well.
Let’s start with something uncontroversial: John William’s score. The masterful melodies, the soaring orchestration, the unsophisticated but in-your-face effective use of leitmotif…everything here is nigh-perfect, on occasion even better than the original trilogy. I firmly believe that the fan-favorite Darth Maul fight scene is so fondly remembered almost entirely because of Williams. Looking at the fight objectively…it’s boring. There’s nothing going on between the characters, one of who barely qualifies AS a character, the chorography isn’t particularly interesting (much less involving any kind of emotion), and the muted, monochrome setting is bland. But who cares when it’s backed with “Duel of the Fates”? It’s got an undeniable grace to it, with the flowing parts of the melody and the ancient-sounding chorus setting the stage for the clash of two ages-old factions , with the bouncy action-packed part of the melody swopping in and out seamlessly. The song’s echoic orchestration suggests the vast emptiness of the generator where the major part of the battle takes place, and the chorus and orchestra are in top technical form all the way through. Similar strengths pervade Revenge of the Sith’s “Battle of the Heroes”, and that’s just two examples! The score for all three of these movies is exactly what it needs to be when it needs to be, which is a best-case scenario.
Now, I’ll jump all over the direction of these movies later, but it is fair to point out that Revenge of the Sith in particular has some really neat technical flourishes. One of the most obvious is Anakin “suiting up” at the end. Most of the audience has known for the entire trilogy that he’s going to end up as one of the most iconic villains of all time, so to make up for the lack of surprise Lucas paints a shockingly gritty and unpleasant portrait of the transformation itself. The darkness contrasted with the harsh light, the medical robots looking more like they’re torture devices then anything (especially clever given the contrast to the softly curved, relatably human robots tending to Padme at the same time), and the choice to shot the money shot of the mask snapping into place from the side only increases the impact of the moment, especially after it’s punctuated with Vadar’s first breaths.
The “execute Order 66” scene is another example. The way most of the Jedi are attacked from behind with the camera showing them from the front is extremely smart, gut-punchy directing, especially when another Jedi is framed in the front with a bunch of Clone troopers behind him, except he’s heading off to destroy the Jedi temple. Framing the death of the younglings with the opposite setup is a nice visual twist, a striking representation of Anakin crossing the moral event horizon.
Speaking of villains, Ian McDiarmid absolutely owns the role of Palpatine. McDiarmind is obviously a character actor, and his charismatic yet over-the-top portrayal of the most evil guy in the galaxy makes for a delicious slice of acting ham, but in a way that feels intentional and effective instead of narmy. I’m all for bombast and ridiculous passion, and McDiarmind brings both in spades, making for a performance as entertaining as it is believable.
Now, I believe these movies fail almost entirely in their execution, but CONCEPTUALLY there are a couple of things I feel like I should praise, if only because if pulled off well I would be in love with them. The first is Anakin’s basic desire to become so powerful that he can overcome death. Making Anakin a sympathetic character was never going to be easy, as the thing that trips him up (a lust for power) isn’t exactly something most people can relate too. The most obvious solution is to make him want power to help someone else like…say, his wife. But what kind of power is both understandably sympathetic and dangerously irresponsible? The power to overcome death. This basic premise makes for a character at war with himself (“I want more, but I know I shouldn’t”), because the line he’s walking is delicate. Eventually, he gives in. Regardless of what you think of the meat of this story, the skeleton of this idea is absolutely phenomenal.
The other concept I’d like to vouch for is the bulk of Anakin and Padme’s romantic interactions in Attack of the Clones. HOLD UP! I’m not saying the romance is good. It’s not. It’s mind-blowingly awful. Portman and Christianson have no chemistry, no dynamic, and their interactions are as shallow as they are cringe-inducingly painful to watch, BUT I do not accept the criticism that part of the failing of the romance is that it’s “pandering” and its setup “doesn’t make any sense.” I mean, those are both true; their “dates” are dripping in cliché romantic Hollywood iconography (eating dinner in a room open to the outside, rolling around in the grass with waterfalls in the background, sitting on a couch by an earthy fire light), and the fact that the chaste Jedi sent an obviously hormonal teenager on a scenic trip to spend lots of time close to a woman who he’s clearly infatuated with (a woman who can’t get married because…she’s a senator? Huh? Why?) is as stupid as any plothole in these movies. However, I don’t find this setup inherently bad because I place emotion over logic. Not just in my life (though that’s definitely true, for better or for worse), but in art. If a storyteller wants to break the rules of logic just so they can deliver a sappy, saccharine, heartwarming love story, I’m going to come out in full support of them in principle, even if I think they fail in execution. The clichéness of the settings only makes them more universal, and the faux-tension created by the stupid restrictions on marriage for Jedi and Senators is manipulation I would have gladly fallen for. If the setup was just as unimaginative and nonsensical, but was about two characters I liked, I would have really dug this romance as standing up for a type of storytelling that gets unfairly pounced on way too often. I’m giving Lucas points for at least trying.
THE (OVEREXPOSED) BAD
These movies make no sense. I don’t think I have to tell you this. Even I, a person who doesn’t look for or care about plotholes, find the sheer density of inconsistencies, nonsensical decisions, out of character moments, unexplained basics, and unanswered questions headspinning. This seems to be the only thing people take away from the famous Mr. Plinkett reviews (which, though I find their priorities out of whack, are generally excellent as an entertaining and informative look at these movies). It’s the go-to criticism of almost every anti-Prequel protester, fueling the most arguments and meaningless mudslinging. Ignoring that the original trilogy also has plotholes (though nowhere near as much as the prequels), I don’t give anything even close to resembling the distant cousin of a crap about this criticism, but that’s my own bias. I don’t think plotholes, especially ones in service of the Rule of Cool, Rule of Funny, Rule of Heartwarming, Rule of Tearjerker, ECT, are ever something worth bringing up in a formal critical analysis, and even in an informal situation I find their discussion tedious. That’s my own sentiment of course, not something I can back up, but from where I stand “not making sense” is not enough to bring a movie this far down.
Then there’s the acting, which fluctuates between unintentionally hilarious and deathly boring. This is a more legitimate issue, but most people who rip into these movies place far too much stake in it while ignoring the root problem. While the acting in the original trilogy is a far cry from bad, most of the actors were very young and weren’t free from narm or whininess. Even excepting that, bad acting just isn’t severe enough to make a bad movie, just like how good acting isn’t enough to make a good movie.
I complimented a bit of the direction before, but everyone likes to point out how uncreative the cinematography in these movies generally is, what with the two cameras and all the shot/reverse shot. Then there’s the infamous CG boogeyman, which is not only dated but has bad cred among the “geek” crowd. My conclusion on this issue is more or less the same as the last two: the original trilogy also has brain-deadeningly simple cinematography and dated effects, and visuals aren’t directly impactful to the core of what makes a movie work or not work.
Then there’s the Jar Jar Binks debacle. Honestly, I’m not even sure if people still use this as a legitimate criticism, but if anyone reading this does: yes, he was annoying and blatantly kid pandering. He was also a minor part of ONE MOVIE. His presence is not a signifier of everything wrong with Star Wars, his legacy is not tied with the entirety of the prequels, and if you think George Lucas was the first person to put bad comic relief in a movie for kid appeal and toy sales, then you need to watch more movies. Specifically one called Return of the Jedi, where some chattering teddy bears were plonked in the middle of the second act because we needed more toys.
All these over-talked about issues were present (albeit to lesser degrees) in the original trilogy. Separately they’re not enough to drag a movie significantly down, when combined they mostly make mediocre sludge. If the only strong criticisms I could give a movie were these, I could see myself giving it anything from a 5/10 to a 7/10. So why don’t these diseases significantly drag down the originals or give a pass of mediocrity to the prequels?
Because they’re not diseases. They’re not the core, they’re not the root issue. So what is?
THE ULTIMATE FAILING

These movies are completely soulless.

I know that sounds like a cop-out, and I understand why. It’s vague, it’s extremely subjective, and it’s hardly useful, but in this case there’s no better way to explain what went wrong here.
The logical failings, for example, aren’t in service of anything cool or funny or heartwarming or tearjerking, they’re in favor of a lifeless plot that creaks from one drama-free cog to another like a rusty machine, patched over with duct tape that holds it together but leaves no consistency. The acting isn’t just narmy and boring, it’s completely inhuman. There’s no believable nuance, no relatable likability, no basic emotions drawn vividly to express a normally repressed but still normal part of the psyche (Palpatine is the exception to that last one), it’s just a movie full of people saying lines. It’s almost creepily robotic. Why did the actors play the characters this way? Because that’s how they’re written. Poorly defined motivations, vauge personalities and inconsistent behavior mar any chance for the audience to anchor onto them. This isn’t horrible acting and screenwriting as much as it LAZY acting and screenwriting, and laziness is the bosom friend of soullness.
You can see where it’s going from here. The detached, sitcom-y cinematography is there because of a detached director, as is the overuse of unimpressive CG and the presence of pandering figures like Binks. The ultimate reason why the Star Wars prequels fail is that they were made by passionless people doing a sub-par job with no enthusiasm, energy, originality or exuberance. The artists, for all intents and purposes, do not care, and as a result the story is completely unreasonant. Anakin isn’t sympathetic, his fall isn’t tragic, his relationship to Obi-Won is practically nonexistent, the Republic isn’t worth saving, and Palpatine isn’t worth stopping. They completely fail to engage on any kind of emotional level. When they try, they’re cheap, shallow and manipulative. When they don’t, they’re boring. They’ve been sucked dry of vibrancy and color in favor of setting pieces in place for the original trilogy. And speaking of…
SO DOESN’T THIS APPLY TO THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY?
Resoundingly no. When I watch the original trilogy, I don’t see an extended setup for a story, I see a story. It’s a simple story, but one that wrestles with concepts of identity, purpose, familial relations versus friend relations, loyalty, tradition versus modernism, even something as light as romance between superficial opposites. The original trilogy populates this story with strongly defined, likable, achingly human characters, played by amateur actors who throw themselves into their roles with boundless enthusiasm. It appeals to base human emotions through vehicles that make you revel their screen time. They pepper themselves with honest character moments, lighthearted humor, and stark tragedy, with an overwhelming sense of the permanence of actions. When Luke leaves Tatooine, he can never come back. When Han and Chewie come back to the Death Star and join the rebellion, they can never reverse it. When Luke abandons his training to save his friends, he can never resume it. One of the only choices that is given multiple times is Luke’s continual temptation to join his father, the central conflict of protagonist and antagonist, good and evil, traditions of family and loyalty to friends.
These are things you build drama around. This is how you invest people in your story to such an extent that its twists and setpieces because ubiquitous cultural landmarks. This is how you pour every fiber of your being into a world, giving it a continuous pulse that has captivated the minds of generations of moviegoers.
SOME GOOD NEWS LOOKING FORWARD
The Force Awakens knows all this stuff. It builds its plot around the irreversible choices of the characters, questions of identity and loyalty, and revels in the importance of being invested in your material. While its manic enthusiasm made it intolerably half-baked for some, it carries enough professionalism and restraint to keep the focus on the new story, regardless of its use as a deconstruction/parody/love letter to A New Hope. If this is the style the entire sequel trilogy will build itself around (with some more maturity along the way to keep things from becoming too light), we have two more good movies to look forward to. In spite of all its commercialization and marketing, Disney’s Star Wars isn’t soulless, it’s an engaging new story that doesn’t just cash in on the superficial trappings of the original trilogy, it takes its lessons from it.

In other words, Star Wars is back. That’s a nice feeling.

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Author:

I'm a teenager who writes about music, movies, and other popular art in a style somewhere between George Starostin, Bob Chipman, John McFerrin, and sometimes William Zinsser. It's worse then it sounds.

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