Sunday, November 16, 2008

In Defense of Star Wars

Cartoon Network is currently airing an animated series called Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The series takes place in between Episode II: Attack of the Clones (AOTC) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (ROTS).

In honor of the release of this surprisingly stellar series, I felt it would be a good time to take a look at the three Star Wars “prequels,” which have been loved by some and hated intensely by many others.

Now that the entire prequels series is complete and has been for a couple of years, the question should now be asked: Are the films as bad as people say?

If we are to answer that question by box office sales, the answer is a resounding no. The first in the prequel series, 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace (TPM), cost an estimated $115,000,000 to produce and grossed $431,065,444 in theatres. The trend continues with all three films, each of which made a profit over half the cost of production. That’s something that unsuccessful films obviously never do.

Of course, box office success doesn’t always mean success with critics and fans. Some of the most beloved films are ones like The Big Lebowski, which had only mild theatrical success but later became a cult classic.

It seems that the kind of viewers that make films into cult classics have had many criticisms in common toward Lucas’ prequels. Let’s go through them.

It’s said often that Lucas relied too much on computer animation and green screens for the prequels, hampering actors who need something real to interact with. This accusation fails to take into account that the original “Star Wars” was the genesis for modern special effects.

After the original trilogy was finished, Lucas developed Industrial Light and Magic in order to advance visual effects in cinema. Lucas dedicated 11 years to acting as a producer before he started writing the new trilogy in 1994. For Lucas to have gone back to just model shots and painted backgrounds in an effort in order to make his new trilogy appealing to retrospective nostalgists would have been bizarre given the history of his career.

Another criticism is that of a convoluted plot that was not as clear-cut as the original trilogy. The new trilogy is basically about the degeneration of a vibrant democracy into a totalitarian dictatorship. In the DVD commentary for AOTC, Lucas cites figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar as figures that squashed democracy. The confusing plot reflects history, as the descent of a free society into dictatorship and tyranny is almost never simple.

One criticism about the new trilogy that holds a lot of water is on the presence of Jar Jar Binks, an awful character that was fortunately put to the side after TPM. Lucas winked at his critics in AOTC by making Binks the one who proposes giving emergency powers to Chancellor Palpatine, thus throwing the galaxy into the grip of the Sith.

It's also noted that the prequels lack the magic of the original trilogy. This I definitely understand, and in many ways the people who level this criticism are correct. There is far more computer animation in the prequels and the universe that Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme interact in is far more similar to Blade Runner or Neon Genesis Evangelion than the grimy, earthy universe of the original trilogy.

This is a result of two factors. First, Lucas used the prequels to experiment with computer animation and do things he was never previously able to do. Scenes in environments like Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back were replaced with scenes like the Mustafar duel in ROTS. Second, the story that Lucas told was completely different than the original trilogy. The prequels told the story of a Greek tragedy, with a promising young hero becoming a twisted executioner. The original trilogy, on the other hand, told a folk tale of a merry band of rebels confronting and destroying evil in the face of insurmountable odds. Because of the great differences in story, they should be judged differently.

The most common criticism is that Lucas wrote awful dialogue. Sure, it’s cheesy when Anakin says in ROTS “You are so beautiful” and then Padme replies “So love has blinded you?” However, many critics are missing the fact that the original Star Wars trilogy is riddled with corny dialogue. Luke Skywalker was a very whiney character as well, like his father, and if it’s not corny when he whines to his uncle “But I wanted to go to Toshi station to pick up some power converters!!” then I’m a giraffe.

Nostalgia has blinded many to the fact that the original trilogy too was filled with very slangy and awkwardly informed dialogue and lukewarm acting, much of which actually helped make the films enduring. Some fans seem to have expected Star Wars to be something it never has been.

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