Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Miscalculations of the Star Wars Prequels

Huzzah, the first installment of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Force Awakens, is (as of this writing) just around the corner. And I thought I'd commemorate this occasion by......beating a dead horse and going on about the Prequel Trilogy.


Yeah, yeah, I know...pretty much everyone and their mother has critiqued the Star Wars prequels. We've now reached a point where most think-pieces on them fall into one of two categories: "The prequels really weren't THAT bad," or, "No, the prequels really did suck."

Personally, I'm in the camp that the prequels were not particularly good. So if you're expecting a defense of them here, you're out of luck—a lot of what I'm going to write here are my thoughts on why the prequels don't work.
However, don't expect cries of raped childhood or parroting of Red Letter Media either. I'm not interested in repeating the obvious complaints of too many special effects or poor dialogue or wooden acting. It's been done.

Overall, when I think of the prequels, what I see more than anything are creative miscalculations by George Lucas—hence the title. Because one thing I've noticed when people discuss the prequels is the question: have we any right to question George Lucas's vision, and was it ultimately impossible for him to meet the fans expectations?

A Story Worth Telling
I think a good place to start is the question that often plagues prequels of any kind: is this a story that even needs to be told?. What's the point of a prequel if the audience already knows the outcome? Is there anything in the backstory worth exploring? Should the backstory even be explored in the first place? Some things are better left a mystery or up to the audience's imagination.

Now, obviously, your average movie producer doesn't give a damn about that sort of thing. To them, it's just a matter of: "Will it make money?"
But I think it raises another question that should be considered when looking at the Star Wars prequels: Were they doomed from the start? Was the fall of Anakin Skywalker and rise of the Galactic Empire a story that needed to be told? 

Now, to start off...yes, I think this was a story worth attempting. Even if we already know the outcome, there's a worth-while story in how Emperor Palpatine rose to power, what the Clone Wars were, how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, what became of Luke & Leia's mother, and the fall of the Jedi.
As with many things, it was a matter of execution.

As pointed out, plenty has already been written about how the prequels failed in structure and plot. What I want to focus on are the core protagonists of the trilogy, Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padmé.  Because I'm of the belief strong, likable or interesting characters can make up for a weak plot a lot easier than a strong plot can carry weak characters.

I believe this holds especially true for franchises that look to expand into sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Novelty and plot can go a long way, but when it comes time for the story to continue, it's all on the characters. If your characters are crap, your story will more than likely fall flat, no matter how ambitious the plot or world-building might be.

The Deuteragonist
When discussing the prequels' failure in terms of character, I think an obvious—but often overlooked—place to begin is Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Now we like Obi-Wan. We remember him as the kindly, wise fatherly figure of the original trilogy who tells Luke about the Force and gives him Anakin's lightsaber.
So, when the prequels roll around, it so obvious it doesn't even need to be thought about: we upgrade Obi-Wan to one of the central characters. One third of the protagonist tri-fecta alongside Anakin and Padmé...like the tri-fecta of Luke, Han, & Leia...or Harry, Ron, & Hermione...or Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, & Jack Sparrow...or Superman, Batman, & Wonder Woman...

You get the idea.

Here's the thing—Obi-Wan in the original trilogy serves a specific function in the story: he is the mentor. He exists to tell Luke backstory, teach him about the Force, and give him advice on his journey.
He is NOT a protagonist.

A protagonist of a story has certain, for lack of better terms, obligations and expectations. He/she has to have a driving motivation and strong conflicts, both internal and external, and ideally should undergo some sort of arc. And there must be a degree of story independence and self-reliance for that character—meaning there must be a sense the protagonist is accomplishing his/her goals under their own power with their own initiative. Which is a long way of saying he/she should have agency in their actions.

Now, yes, I'm describing this using definitive black & white terms. There are no true "rules" to storytelling, and there are dozens of examples of protagonists throughout fiction that don't meet some or all of that criteria.
But for the sake of discussion—and Star Wars in particular, which was deliberately modeled to be a relatively traditional "Hero's Journey" adventure story—I'm operating under the general definition of what makes a character a protagonist of his/her story.

Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original trilogy was simply a supporting character. The mentor figure. He exists in relation to Luke's story. His motivation is help Luke. His actions serve toward developing Luke's personal journey. And he ultimately dies in keeping Luke's story going.

But when it comes time for the prequels, Obi-Wan is positioned as one of the key protagonists—but he didn't get any of the things a protagonist needs along with it. Lucas just took the supporting mentor character and gave him a lot more screen time.

As a result, Obi-Wan in the prequels is essentially a static character. He moves through the story, uncovering the mystery of the clones, he fights in battles, he lectures Anakin—but he has no true stake in anything that's happening. He's just going through the motions. He's a prop to keep the plot moving.
Therefore, we spend a significant portion of this trilogy hanging around with an un-engaging character, leaving us with big drawn out fight & action sequences and no one to really care about.

Honestly, this is a common problem that occurs with spin-offs in franchises. Taking a character who serves a specific function in one story and turning him/her into the main character of another story without actually making him/her a protagonist.

Something similar to this happened with Jack Sparrow in Pirates of Caribbean.
Everyone liked Jack, and I know a lot of people often asked: "Why do we need Will and Elizabeth? Just make it about Jack." But Jack, as engaging and entertaining as he was, was not the main character of the story. The emotional center of the Pirates moves was, for better or worse, Will and Elizabeth. Without them, you just have Jack bouncing around, doing his shtick, with no purpose or direction.

On Stranger Tides, basically.

This also hurts Obi-Wan in his function as a counterpart to the central protagonist, Anakin. Ordinarily, the function of the deuteragonist (the secondary protagonist) is to contrast the main character. The anti-hero to the hero.
We see this with Han Solo and Luke in the originals. Where Luke is idealistic, noble, and eager to fight for the Rebellion, Han is cynical, cocky, and a scoundrel.

See also: loony, scoundrel Jack Sparrow in contrast to the heroic straight-man, Will Turner. The dark and brooding Batman in contrast to the bright boy scout, Superman.
Et cetera.

How does Obi-Wan contrast Anakin? What does he bring to the "Power Trio" dynamic?
Obi-Wan could be the reserved, experienced master to Anakin's reckless, emotional student...but we see plenty of examples of Obi-Wan acting recklessly. Hell, Obi-Wan describes himself as reckless in his youth in Empire Strikes Back.

There is a craft to constructing a story. Every character has to serve some function, either in service to the overall plot or other characters. And if the story is entirely character-driven, then those characters have to have certain dynamics in order for them to be engaging and make us care about what happens to them.

Obi-Wan served a specific function in the original trilogy that worked for him and that story. Inserting the character—for all intents and purposes, unchanged—into a different role and function without making necessary adjustments hurt the dynamic.
A cog was taken from one working machine and put in the wrong place and, as a result, the machine didn't work as well.

The Tragic Hero
So let's move on to the biggest piece of the puzzle—Darth Vader himself, Anakin Skywalker. And again, I think a critical flaw to his portrayal is a miscalculation on the part of Lucas. Namely, what kind of tragic hero he decided Anakin would be.

To use simple terms, for lack of better phrasing, there are essentially two kinds of tragic heroes: the kind you pity, and the kind you feel sorry for.

For example, Michael Corleone of The Godfather is a tragic hero we pity. We watch what was essentially a decent man become this ruthless monster—but the key thing is it was pretty much his choice. Regardless of his motivations, HE chose to murder Sollozzo. HE chose to wipe out the Five Families. HE chose to have his brother murdered. HE chose to have Hyman Roth assassinated...even though, by that point, he didn't even have to.
At the end of the Part II, when we see Michael has alienated himself from what's left of his family, we pity him (or maybe we don't), but there's no denying he brought it upon himself because of his own flaws and choices.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's Carrie White from the novel/film Carrie. She is a tragic hero we feel sorry for because her tragic fate is thrust upon her. She is a victim of circumstance—abused by her crazy mother and subjected to horrible bullying—and when she finally snaps, we feel sorry for her because she never asked for any of it.

Again, for the sake of discussion, I'm describing these things in black and white terms—because there are ways Michael is a victim of fate and circumstance beyond his control, and it could be argued Carrie, however blinded with rage she was, still chose to burn the prom down—but ultimately, the key difference is victimhood.
One kind of tragic hero meets his/her doom because of the choices he/she makes. One has their doom thrust upon them from outside forces.

And therein lies the error Lucas made with Anakin. He decided to make him a victim. He wanted us to feel sorry for Anakin, when we should have pitied him.
We can argue the minutia of how Anakin should've been actually portrayed in the prequels, but I think one thing the vast majority of people can agree on is Darth Vader should not have been a victim.

That isn't to suggest "victim" characters are inferior. They have their place and there have been plenty of effective stories revolving around the "victim" tragic hero. It's just doesn't suit Darth Vader. The image of Vader people have is the imposing, stoic, cold, brooding machine. I don't think anyone wanted to find out he was an angsty teen, upset that he couldn't see his mom anymore and that nobody understood him.

Anakin was supposed to be seduced by the Dark Side—like the original Star Wars said. He should've been a likable, confident warrior who gave in to his flaws and chose to be this ruthless Sith lord...not a whiny, weak-willed brat who became a villain because life's not fair and the big mean Emperor tricked him.
To use Shakespeare as a reference, Anakin Skywalker should've been Macbeth. What we got was if Romeo survived the suicide attempt and became a supervillain.

If Lucas was trying to deconstruct the aforementioned image we have of Vader, that would be one thing—and might even be interesting—but I don't believe that was his intention. I think we truly were supposed to be invested in Anakin as this tragically doomed hero.

I'm not going to presume to know Lucas's motivation in making this creative choice, but it might be worth noting the "feel sorry for" tragic hero is usually the easier character to write. It's easy to write a poor schlub who goes mad because life's not fair and things just don't work out.
That type of character, when done right, is also more likely to maintain the audience's sympathy—because who hasn't at some point thought to themselves, "Why am I the universe's chew-toy?"

The tragic hero you pity is one that requires nuance and subtly, and there's always the possibility fans won't feel any sympathy for the character. Some might look at what becomes of Michael Corleone and say, "Good. The prick brought it on himself and he deserves to be alone and unhappy." And they're not wrong to feel that way.

And I can see Lucas being hesitant to risk that. As bad as Anakin becomes—and as odd this may sound, especially considering Episode III—I don't think he wanted us to hate him. I don't think he wanted that level of ambiguity. Even after Anakin chopped up a bunch of "younglings," Lucas wanted us to feel sad when he gets burned up and turned into Darth Vader.
And not in the, "What a shame, look at what he's become" way, but the, "Aw, poor Ani. He needs a hug" way.

I'm not going to accuse Lucas of deliberately dumbing things down or pandering to kids. Star Wars, at its core, is a simple story of good fighting evil, and admittedly, that kind of moral ambiguity might be too dark for even the darkest Star Wars. All I'm saying is he made a creative choice that I think went against what fans wanted.

And I don't think audiences were wrong for expecting that. It's very hard reconciling the cold-blooded, ruthless Darth Vader of the original trilogy with the wishy-washy child of the prequels who turned evil because...frankly, he wasn't very bright.

Part of the reason for that is we don't really see that transition. In the end, the most compelling development of Anakin is left to the latter half of Revenge of the Sith and unseen in the space between Episodes III and IV.
As a result, one has to look back at the other two movies and wonder: Just what were we watching for two and a half movies?

This is perhaps best exemplified in The Phantom Menace. With all said and done, did we really need to see Anakin as a child after all?

Lucas has stated the purpose of introducing Anakin as a child was to remind us once upon a time Darth Vader was this innocent boy, which again goes back to wanting us to feel sorry for him more than anything else.
It's manipulation really. A quick, cheap way to garner audience sympathy by parading a fresh-faced little boy around.

Episode I should've opened with Anakin as a young (adult) farmer on Tatooine who gets caught up in the Clone Wars and eventually joins the Jedi—which would be in keeping with what's said about him in A New Hope. Specifically, Obi-Wan's line to Luke: "[Uncle Owen] was afraid you'd follow old Obi-Wan on some damn fool idealistic crusade like your father did."
It ends on a triumphant note as Anakin becomes a Jedi, proves a hero in the Clone Wars, and maybe we at least see the beginning of his relationship with Padmé.

Episode II should've been Anakin's seduction to the Dark Side. In the wake of the Clone Wars, Palpatine rises to power, and it ends with the Emperor christening him Darth Vader—but not yet in the suit of armor.

And finally, Episode III should've been Anakin helping the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi. This is where we would really see him turn into the cold-blooded monster he is in the original trilogy, culminating in his fight with Obi-Wan that puts him in the suit.
Again, that could turn out darker and bleaker than Star Wars would want to go, but it would've offered a more satisfying and gradual arc than what we got where Anakin is just a kid, then he spends a movie moping and throwing temper tantrums, and then finally gets duped into turning into Darth Vader.

I know it's kind of hollow to sit here and write about how it "should" have gone, but I think this structure not only would have offered a tighter narrative and more natural arc for Vader, but allow a chance for Padmé to live up to her potential.

The Heartbreaker
Which finally brings us to Padmé and, frankly, I think if Lucas dropped the ball on any character in this saga, it was her. As much as Anakin is/was the centerpiece of the prequels, if anyone should have been the heart of these movies it, should've been her.

The characterization of Padmé is a huge wasted opportunity that I don't think people fully realize. Most focus on Vader and how he was portrayed, but I believe Padmé more than anyone should've been the character to watch and her arc should've been devastating.

For starters, let's begin with what little about her we knew from the original trilogy. Leia mentions barely remembering her, that she died when she was young, and describing her as beautiful, kind, and "a little sad."

Putting aside the continuity glitch of Leia remembering her mother when Padmé died in childbirth, and looking at the information presented in Return of the Jedi alone, what interests me are the implications of Leia's description. First, that she was alive to give up her children and therefore knew exactly what kind of monster her husband had become. Forget mopey Anakin being sad his mother died...THIS is tragic.

To go back to my idea of what Episode III would be; we would have Padmé, having just given birth in secret, on the run from her own husband and forced to give up her children for their safety before ultimately dying.
That's a hell of a lot more compelling than sitting around in her apartment, looking sad, and then "she lost the will to live."

I'll come back to this, but let's look at what we did get with Padmé in the prequels.
She's a prop. She's there to fill a quota. She's a thing that makes Anakin go. She's the object of desire that is either forbidden, just out of reach, or must be protected at all costs. She has to be an ideal—smart, strong, and wise...but also warm, longing, and devoted. It's the thankless role of a cipher.

Again, I have to call this miscalculation on the part of George Lucas. Similar to thinking Obi-Wan can just be inserted into a protagonist role, I think Padmé's portrayal is a case of writing without considering the full potential of the overall story.

Obviously, the prequels are, first and foremost, about Anakin Skywalker. He's the centerpiece and most focus is placed on him. And Lucas decided Anakin's love for Padmé would be a significant factor in his downfall, so that becomes her defining characteristic—she's the thing that motivates Anakin.
But by taking that approach, Lucas overlooked the potential of her as an individual with her own stake in what's happening, and a result, we miss what could've been some emotional gut punches.

The full gravity of Anakin's fall to the Dark Side should've been conveyed through her eyes—she's watching the man she loves turn into this monster before her very eyes. The consequences of his corruption should be conveyed through her—she's watching the galaxy be taken over by this dictatorship and she's forced to give up her children for their safety.

As it is, her function in the story is solely in relation to how Anakin responds to her. Sure, she's given some token bits and beats to make it seem like she's a "strong, independent woman." She takes the lead in freeing her kingdom from the Trade Federation, we see her handling a blaster well enough and getting in on the action, and...well, that's it. In Revenge of the Sith, she just sits home and then gets Force choked.

Otherwise, she is "the love interest" in the worst possible way. And I want to take a quick pause to mention something about the designated romance scenes. I emphasize the word "designated" because they really do feel like the movie just stops so they can be there, like an unwanted obligation.
Compare to the romance between Han Solo and Leia. That developed AS they were fleeing the Empire. It was weaved into the plot and worked into the narrative.

Another miscalculation with, frankly, a very easy fix. The idea in Attack of the Clones is someone is trying to assassinate Padmé, so Anakin is assigned to be her bodyguard and escort her to Naboo.
Here's a thought: along the way, there's another assassination attempt, forcing Anakin and Padmé to take a detour. Along the way, they get caught up in little mini-adventures—just like Han and Leia—and their romance develops over the course of their journey.

Now we have a romance sub-plot that is weaved into the actual story...as opposed to grinding the movie to a screeching halt so that Anakin and Padmé can have "romance" with each other.
Just a thought.

Anyway...deleted scenes from Revenge of the Sith depict Padmé being involved in what would eventually become the Rebellion. I would have gone even further with that. After giving up Luke & Leia, have her actively laying the groundwork for the Rebellion. Have her be a political dissenter, rousing the people of the galaxy to rise up against the Empire.

Culminating in her eventual arrest and execution as a traitor. And just to throw some salt on the wound, have the last thing she sees before her execution be Darth Vader in the full robot armor for the first time.
AND have her unjust execution as a traitor to the Empire then be the casus belli that triggers the Rebellion in the first place.

Not only does that add a lot of meat to Padmé's role in the story, it also retroactively adds some depth to Leia. Because that makes Leia the daughter of the martyr for the Rebellion. And that's something she would strive to live up to, hence why she's so determined to help take down the Empire.

Anakin was obviously the star of the prequels. The whole selling point of these movies was, "See how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader." And therefore, everything and everyone exists in relation to that point.
And unfortunately, that tunnel vision approach made George Lucas fail to see there might have been a just as compelling and tragic character right in front of him all along.

I've mentioned how we were meant to feel sorry for Anakin, but frankly, if any character should've been breaking audience's hearts, it should've been Padmé.
_____________________________

Fans can argue whether the explanation of the Clone Wars was any good. We can debate whether Palpatine's evil scheme to take over the galaxy really made sense. The Trade Federation, the origin of Boba Fett, the Chosen One prophecy, midichlorians....in the end, I think where the Prequel Trilogy truly failed was in its characters.

The story of Anakin Skywalker's seduction to the Dark Side and transformation into Darth Vader was a potentially great story. The tragedy of Obi-Wan Kenobi failing to properly train his good friend and being forced into exile, while Padmé Amidala watches the man she loves turn into a monster are also potentially compelling story arcs.

But, as explained, I think George Lucas miscalculated these characters—for whatever reason. As a result, we were left with three mediocre (at best) movies that managed to take what should've been a great, epic, and tragic story and turn it into......I hate sand.

But like I said, I'm not the type who cries the prequels "raped" my childhood or ruined my ability to enjoy Star Wars. And that isn't to say they didn't have some bright spots here and there like Ian McDiarmid's performance as Emperor Palpatine, Darth Maul, John Williams's score, the lightsaber fights, Natalie Portman's midriff...
A missed opportunity and wasted potential. If nothing else, that will be the prequels' legacy for me.

I guess there's not much else to say now except...let's hope The Force Awakens turns out good.

1 comment:

  1. Great read and an uncommon grasp of the issues. Nice one.

    ReplyDelete