Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Scraped the Surface, the Movies Did

(I guess I better warn Jaquandor that he might want to skip this post as I give a mixed review of a Star Wars movie. So Jaquandor, you've been warned. :) Also, there's some spoilers, but seeing as how we're weeks away from the premiere, I don't know why I mention it.)

I saw Revenge of the Sith a week and a half ago, and I think finally the impressions and thoughts and such have simmered enough to let me post coherently and completely on the experience of the prequel trilogy, or whatever the hell it should be called. First of all, I do want to congratulate Lucas for answering the big questions: How did Anakin get to be Vader? How did the Emperor gain his power? How did the Jedi fall to the state we saw them in the original trilogy? Those are good questions and we got capable answers. Sadly, though, I realized as I watched Sith end that we only got answers that scraped the surface. We could've had more. We could've had another trilogy that does more than just entertain and look pretty. There was a promise of that in Phantom, and tantalizing glimpses in Sith, but Lucas dropped the ball where he so gloriously ran with it in the original trilogy. They're fun, beautiful movies that set out to tell us something and told us that something, and I'll buy the boxed set when it comes out. But I'll never be able to treasure these movies as I did the original trilogy, though I see many ways in which it would've been possible for the prequels to have been the treasures that the original trilogy is.

What do I mean by that? Well, I do want to make it clear that my opinion of the movies stems mainly from my writer's mind, and how I look at the construction of stories and characters. I don't know if that's a "fair" thing to do to any movie, but it's my frame of reference all the same. I had similar issues with The Chronicles of Riddick regarding how we were deprived of some fascinating worldbuilding and characterization in favor of stunning action sequences. Worldbuilding has never been and never will be difficult for any Lucas film. He always does an amazing job of showing us diverse worlds and creatures and making everything fit into the worlds he creates. He balances the showing and the telling so we believe that these worlds exist somewhere and life happens in the complex ways it happens for us. But characterization has been a huge issue throughout the prequels, and it is what's kept me from embracing these movies as I did the original trilogy.

Take Anakin. He's the focus of the prequels, and we've got to believe that he can go from a good kid in good hands to an evil man in evil hands. We've got to see that journey. And we've got to be cheering for him to stay good and wanting him to not become evil, even though we know he has to. Phantom did an excellent job of starting us on Anakin's journey. Attack then proceeded to do nothing to enhance or even advance his journey, unless somehow showing a whining brat of a teenager not getting his way and snapping when his mother dies qualifies. I didn't believe a thing about Anakin in Attack. He had no depth. He was a stereotypical brat. His destruction of the sand people seemed more like an escalated temper tantrum that happened to be convenient than vengeance for the death of his mother. And Padme wasn't someone he loved so much as an object he wanted to possess, most likely because someone had told him he couldn't have her. It was like he was already Darth Vader and the good Anakin had vanished in puberty.

And then we have his arc in Sith, which starts out OK. He's obviously conflicted with very good reason. He's got people he respects telling him different things and expecting everything and nothing from him at once. He's afraid for the safety of his pregnant wife and wants to do anything to protect her because he failed his mother after he had similar fears. I'm with him in this movie, believing that struggle, and thankfully forgetting about the shallowness of Attack. Everything's going along fairly well until Mace Windu goes to arrest the Emperor. Anakin, in a rough spot, tries to stop the battle between the Jedi and the Sith Lord so the Emperor can be arrested and the Jedi don't have treasonous taint on their hands, and ends up helping Mace to his death. Anakin staggers, says, "What have I done?" and I'm prepared for a battle of wits and perhaps light sabers as Anakin attempts to haul Palpatine to prison. Instead, ten seconds later, Anakin is on his knees, pledging his allegiance to the Sith.


But then he has to go kill him some Jedi, per Palpatine's orders. OK, I'm ready to forgive this brief (but humongous) dodging of character conflict and tension and watch it build again as he storms off to the temple. When he goes into the room with the younglings, I'm bracing for something truly amazing--yet tastefully done--to show Anakin's struggle. But all we get is two seconds of his face and two more of his light saber going on and then we're done. I understand not wanting to show the slaughter of children, but I don't understand the further dodging of revealing just how tortured Anakin is at that moment. Unless he's not supposed to be tortured anymore, that the weight of his good side was gone as soon as he pledged his allegiance. And I can't buy that. In a series of three movies that, as I understood it, were primarily supposed to show us how someone like Anakin could become someone like Darth Vader, dodging Anakin's character conflict seems a huge flaw. But I could've had improper expectations for the prequels. Perhaps they were just supposed to show us the mechanics of getting from point A to point B without really delving into the characters all that much.

Brief side note: When the hell did Padme go from butt-kicking Queen to whimpy, whiny, I-can't-do-anything-without-Anakin Senator? Because even though she had the poor sense to fall in love with an angsty, brat of a boy in Attack, she still ran off--of her own choice--to kick some serious ass at the end of the movie. Then all of a sudden she's pregnant and needs a man to so much as blink in Sith. WTF? We have a nice moment where she's in the Senate and we get to see some of her strength and wit with her line "So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause." Then she's right back to barefoot and pregnant and bed-ridden, apparantly, pining for Anakin. She shows no frustration or anger toward Anakin, which is what I would've expected, given her previous performances. She exhibits some backbone as she goes chasing after Anakin at the end of the movie, but then gives some mewling speech until Anakin quite understandably tries to shut up her whining by doing the Vader choke thing. I was actually cheering for him at that point, even if it meant killing Luke and Leia along with her.

I also had problems with the stakes of Sith, especially the final two battles. They're set up in a "who's going to survive" fashion when we bloody well know who's going to survive from the beginning. This might be where a movie just can't do what a book does. I dunno. All I do know is that I found the battles extremely anti-climactic because nothing was at stake. Absolutely nothing. That's the challenge with any prequel: surprising the reader/viewer by revealing that something they assumed from the previous material was actually wrong. MacDonald and Doyle do an excellent job of this in The Gathering Flame of their Mageworlds series. We know what has to happen by the end of the book, and we think we know how they get to that point, but boy-oh-boy are we wrong. All because we were allowed to assume something in the preceding three books that we learned was wrong. We had a hint of that with the midichlorions creating Anakin, and then learning that the Sith had the power to do such a thing in this last movie. Man, did I want to spend some more time with that little plot thread. Talk about playing with some stakes and characters and conflict. To think that Palpatine may have actually created Anakin? Whoa, that's something we weren't expecting. But it gets toyed with and abandoned, though not as quickly as the "crap, we have to mention how we can do that glowy after-we're-dead communicaton before the movie ends" line that Yoda says. That would've been another interesting thing to delve into and shake up what we thought we knew from the original trilogy.

The prequels are fun to watch and definitely beautiful, but they don't have that same transcendant quality that the original trilogy has. Which is really too bad--and kind of annoying. Especially because now I'll have to write what I think should've been seen in those movies in some fashion in a book of my own. Damn you, Lucas! I already have too many book ideas cluttering up my noggin! The one thing Lucas did absolutely right was the ending sequence beginning with Vader's first breath (though I would quibble with how he goes with the easier "your anger killed her, Vader" instead of the much more staggering "her death was caused by you trying to stop her death"). As we heard the music and saw the double-sunset on Tatooine, I was tearing up and praying that Lucas was smart enough to realize that the movie had to end right then. Thankfully he was, otherwise I would've had to have made a quick trip to California to beat him over the head with my boxed set of the original trilogy.


Kohler said...

I agree with many of your points but have to nitpick nontheless.

While I also will never be able to love these movies the way I love all the OT, I think it's only fair to say that this is only partly because of any actaul weaknesses in the prequels. Don't get me wrong, there are many, but there were many in the originals as well. Thing is, our generation grew up on those bloody things, allowing us to absorb any of the rougher parts until we didn't even notice them any more. Stuff that, quite frankly, sucks about the OT is so familiar to us that we actaully love it or at least tolerate it (Anyone up for runnin' down to Tachi Station pick up some power converters and a six pack? How about for chillin' with some ewoks?).

We never really loved the Ewoks, but we did watch all the stupid Ewok specials, bought Ewok toys, etc. That's pretty much the approach the current generation takes with horrors like Jar-Jar. They don't LOVE him the way they do other characters, but they didn't pray for his gruesome death the way we did.

Either way, on to the details:

When it comes to the Anakin/Palpy non-fight after Mace dies, I'm actually cool with that transition. I agree with many that Sith, the way it was filmed (i.e. excluding exterior sources like the Clone Wars series), does make him turn really, really fast and with little reason. Thing is, once he's lashed out and gotten the #2 guy on the council killed at the hands of a Sith Master he's pretty much past a point of no return and he knows it. That you don't see it on his face as much as you might a normal character, frankly, is one of the built in weaknesses with building a movie around stoic zen-master samurai types. Thats why OT needed Han, Leia, Chewie, and the Droids: once Luke starts goin' all Jedi you still need someone for the audience to to laugh and cry with.

Personally, that's why I put most of the blame not on Haydn Christianson (who was indeed terrible in AotC), but on Lucas' writing and on Portman. From the beginning the entire prequel trilogy needed more Han to complement the serious contemplation of all the Jedi. The scripts instead tried to compensate by giving obi-wan a few lines to make him more rouguish and charming (which I liked) and by inserting stupid comic relief through Jar-Jar and C-3PO (which I didn't).

The sheer waste of not making Padme a real, kickass, witty, Han/Leia style character (and, for that matter, introducing a couple extra characters) is really quite appalling. Not only did they make Padme yet another overly serious politician (essentially, in temperment, she's a Jedi without powers), but as the series progresses she indeed becomes yet another lame barefoot & pregnant female character. If Leia knew how lame her mother was she would have hung her head in shame...

They did a good job with casting the minor characters in much of the series (the guy who played Captain whatever, Padme's bodyguard, was Mephistopheles in that RSC Faust we saw, and is a total badass who does nearly nothing cool in the movies) but almost without exception wasted them.

Lucas, who claims to have learned so much from Kurosawa, violated one of Kurosawa (and Shakespeare's) key rules: If your primary characters all are serious-minded, honor-bound types, make damn sure you have a few other characters as foils or alternate views; a breath of fresh air from the straightlaced nature of the Samurai/Nobles/Jedi/Whatever, whether Seven Samurai's peasants, Lear/Ran's Fool, or the myriad of smart & funny rouges and servants which color Shakespeare's comedies. The key isn't just to throw in some slapstick (any slapstick inherent in Shakespeare or Kurosawa directed towards lower-class folk is usually treated with depth to a level where the justice of the slapstick is called into question, while Lucas just has droids and aliens who get hit and fall down a lot), but to provide a real alternate viewpoint whereby the audience can approach the main characters. We might relate to Luke far less had we not had Han and Leia's mix of scepticism and faith in him and his role as a Jedi. Something like that to help along the audience's approach to Anakin would have worked wonders. You can have him turn almost as fast as long as you have some Han/Leia style character around to talk about how bottled up those "damn Jedi" have to keep their emotions.

Instead we get Padme trying to keep him bottled up, all while putting on a "I don't give a damn, just give me my paycheck" performance.

Kellie said...

Oh, I've always had issues with Luke as your stereotypical whiny teenager and some of the clunky dialog (sometimes hard to avoid, though, with SF, since a LOT of terms are going to be foreign-sounding and awkward since they aren't a part of our regular vocab). But the overall stories and characterization worked so it was possible to overlook those sorts of rather minor flaws. And I've never understood the hostility toward the ewoks. But keep in mind I was a cute little five-year-old girl at the time, so that could explain that. :)

And I don't agree with that it's OK to have Anakin flip over to Bad Mode in a few seconds and not see it just because of the zen-master samurai thing. We got to see plenty of emotion and struggle in Obi-wan throughout the prequel trilogy (even despite shit-ass lines like "there's a storm coming" as rain and sand pelt him in the face). And really the entire prequel trilogy was building to that moment of choice, and it took ten seconds? That's a storytelling copout right there.

As a writer, I can't forgive that at all.

Kellie said...

the guy who played Captain whatever, Padme's bodyguard, was Mephistopheles in that RSC Faust we saw, and is a total badass who does nearly nothing cool in the movies

No WAY! How did I miss that? Oh, wait, I remember. It's because it was Faust who had the spread-eagled full frontal nudity scene in that production, not Mephistopheles. Some images just sort of burn into your retinas to the exclusion of all others. And I ain't talkin' in a good way. By the way, Faust's face always shows up in my mind as Jeff Foxworthy whenever that horrid scene flashes (hehe) before my eyes. Should I be disturbed by that?

Kohler said...

I'm gonna go with yes. A big yes.

Seek help.

And I just adored that production.

Though still, to nitpick, it wasn't really a 10 second choice. He pretty much knew what he was gonna do as soon as he hopped on that speeder or whatever to follow Mace. And that bit is quite of while of him pacing, thinking; being very non-zen.

Frankly, after you help kill a Jedi Master, I'm surprised it takes even 10 seconds to realize you're now playing for the other team.

Kellie said...

I don't really remember anything about the production except it seemed like we were always seeing someone's naughty bits, and the Swan theater isn't exactly a venue where you can avoid looking at said bits or being far enough away not to see them in all their detail. Let's just say that I wasn't prepared for such an intense look at male genetalia at that point in my life. Blame it on my Catholic upbrining.

As for Anakin's switchover, I think we've hit upon something similar to Sam hesitating in giving the ring back to Frodo in Return of the King. I thought it was clear that Sam was fighting the power of the ring, wanting to keep it for himself. I've heard other arguments that the it was equally clear the ring held no power over Sam, that he hesitated because he didn't want Frodo to have to bear the burden anymore. It's all in the cues we take away from the scene. For me the music and the close-in shots were too reminiscent of all the other times the ring was affecting someone that it seemed obvious that the first interpretation was the only interp. That and if they were going to have Faramir be affected by the damn thing, then they sure as hell better make Sam feel the lure.

The scenes and dialog leading up to Anakin's change made it clear to me that he was very much caught in the middle. Didn't like what the Jedi were doing, didn't like what Palpatine was doing, and he wanted a just resolution to the mounting crisis. That justice involved arresting Palpatine, not killing a Sith Lord. So when Mace is going to kill Palpy, Anakin tries to stop the fight. It provides an opening for Palpy to deal the death blow to Mace. This still leaves Anakin clenched in a tight spot, aligned with neither party but in serious shit with both of them. For the character I believed Anakin to be at that moment, he should've fought for that justice he wanted still, even knowing he was doomed by both sides of his world to do so. Instead he kind of does a "Well, the Jedi aren't going to like me anymore, and this Sith guy at least has talked some sweet shit to me. Might as well join up with him and screw that whole 'justice for the Republic' tripe I've been thumping for the past hour and a half." That's how I read those scenes, and once I get my hands on the DVD, I'll be happy to sit down with you scene by scene, frame by frame, line by line and tell you exactly why I came to that conclusion. Just as I'm sure you'll be equally capable of doing the same for your interp. And then we'll share a philosophy class moment of "neither theory can be proven absolutely, making us both equally right and equally wrong" or somesuch, crack open a bottle of wine, and watch A New Hope.

I say we skip the futility and just get to the wine and movie. :)