Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Problem with the "Star Wars" Prequels

(Pre-post warning. Unlike many bloggers, I haven't seen Episode III yet.)

It's not the wooden acting on the tin-eared dialogue that ultimately gets me (although they do bother me). The prequels could have been brilliantly made, I think, and they still would have been a mistake.

The original films and the prequels are, in a meaningful way, enemies. It's impossible for one set of films not to ruin the other. There's no conceivable order in which one could watch the movies without having one set of them spoil the plots of the others.

Much of the pleasure of the original trilogy comes from the surprises that Lucas weaves into their plots, which subvert your expectations and send the story off in unexpected directions. That Darth Vader is Luke's father, that Leia is Luke's sister, that Ben Kenobi and Yoda are no eccentric old men but warriors of unimaginable power - these surprises are as much a part of the appeal of "Star Wars" as the space battles or light-saber fights.

But, of course, if you watch the movies in episodic order (that is, starting with "The Phantom Menace") none of these things are actually surprising: the prequels are full of scenes of Obi-Wan and Yoda engaging in old school Jedi ass-whippings. (Once you've seen Yoda hold his own against Count Dooku, is it really all that surprising that he can pull an X-Wing out of the swamp with his mind?) And, as I understand, the paternity of Luke and Leia is revealed in "Revenge of the Sith". So the surprises of the original films are no longer surprises; the plot twists have all been straightened out ahead of time. The climactic scene on Cloud City in "Empire Strikes Back" is now less unexpected than your average episode of "Jerry Springer".

You might object: why not watch the movies in the order they were released, starting with "Star Wars" and ending with "Revenge of the Sith"? Well, I'd reply, we've been doing that, and frankly, it stinks. Because much of the drama of the prequels comes from stuff we already know the resolution of going into the movies. Who is Lord Sidious? What is Palpatine up to? Will Anakin succumb to the Dark Side? What will be the fate of the Jedi and/or the Republic? If you've seen the first three movies, you already know the answers to these questions, which robs the movie of whatever dramatic punch they might have had if they'd been properly made.

But what, you ask, if the movies had been properly tragic? If Lucas had filmed the prequels with an appropriate air of foreboding, correctly framing Anakin's inescapable fall into the Dark Side, driven by forces beyond his control to destroy everything he loves, including even ultimately himself? Maybe, but again, I'm not sure that, knowing that he's ultimately redeemed (is it technically a "spoiler" to reveal the end of a movie released 22 years ago?), it would be possible for even the most adept filmmaker to really frame the story as a tragedy.

I should get back to work, but my in-a-nutshell point is this: once all these movies are finished, there's going to be a serious (well, not in the grand scheme of things...) problem about what the proper order is in which the uninitiated should see the movies. And this is because the two trilogies necessarily radically undercut one another. I'd recommend giving up the prequels for lost, and showing the kids the originals first (or rather, the "originals", given all that "Special Edition" crap Lucas has been pulling). "Star Wars", "Empire" and "Jedi" are salvageable, if not spoiled by the prequels in advance.

I was a big fan of the prequels idea when they first came out, but it seems clear to me now that they were a mistake. Episodes I, II and III ought to have to remained exclusively in the imaginations of fans, forever perfect, well-acted and incapable of spoiling the original trilogy.

Of course, I'm going to see "Revenge of the Sith", once my Substantial is finished. I mean, how could I miss it? It's got Wookies!