Confessions of a PT Apologist
My name is Gabe Powers, and I am a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Apologist...
Reader discretion is advised.
‘I am a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Apologist. Hath not a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Apologist eyes? Hath not a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Apologist hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same blue milk, hurt with the same DL-44 blaster pistol, subject to the same Krytos virus', healed by the same bacta, warmed and cooled by the same Tatooine and Hoth as any unaltered OT fanatic? If you prick our robotic hands do they not quiver in verification of stimulation? If you run us through with a double bladed lightsaber do we not cauterize instantly and fall dead without bleeding? If you destroy our planet with your super-powered, planet sized space station do we not die?’
Part One: The Delusional Nuisance
I hereby call to order this meeting of SWPTAA ( Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Apologists Anonymous). We have a new member joining us tonight. This brings our standing total to three. Would you like to introduce yourself?
My name is Gabe Powers, and I am a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Apologist. (‘Hi Gabe’) It has been three months, two weeks, and three days since the last time I watched the Prequel Trilogy. My story starts the day I was born. The number one film in America was The Empire Strikes Back, and my foolish parents decided to take me to the theatre to see it while I was still in an infantile state. I don't blame them, though, it was Star Wars. I don’t remember the experience, obviously, but apparently the film burned itself thoroughly into my colour blind, non-cognitive little mind. Over the next eight years I spent my time creating new Star Wars adventures with my toy collection (I wasn’t allowed action figures with guns, but ‘blasters’ and ‘laser swords’ were okay). At the age of three I got to see the final instalment of the Star Wars series, Return of the Jedi in a theatre, though my mother made me leave the theatre temporarily during the Rancor scene, which she had read was scary.
George Lucas never touched my childhood in the bathing suit area.
At the age of ten I finally felt I had outgrown Star Wars (I was much more interested in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters by that time), and sold my entire toy collection (including the ghost Anakin Skywalker and Emperor figures you had to send away proof of purchases to get) to my collector uncle for the hefty sum of $100, which is a lot of money for a ten year old in the year 1990. I’ve since realized it was a mistake. It seemed the closest I was ever going to get to a new Star Wars movie were two awful made for video Ewok flicks, which I enjoyed as a child but now recognize as unwatchable tripe (except the monsters, those are still cool. Remember that stop-motion thing that tried to get the little bastards in the tree?). I went on with my life, only reliving a small part of the series when I was left home sick from school. Empire and Ghostbusters were the only two videos my family owned, and daytime television is awful.
Along came college, and my interest in film beyond occasional entertainment, specifically horror films, bloomed into a full-on obsession. This obsession led me to film related magazines and websites where I learned that George Lucas was in fact making a series of three prequels to the original Star Wars Trilogy. My interest was reinvigorated, thanks in no small part to my college roommate, whose father worked at a local grocery store and ‘borrowed’ the Phantom Menace promos on his son’s behalf. It’s hard not to get excited about a film when life-size Pepsi stand-up versions of its characters watch TV with you every night. For an entire summer I didn't throw out a Pepsi can without making sure it didn't feature a golden Yoda.
I lived close to a brand new theatre in Phoenix, Arizona (at the Metro Center Mall, where Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure had been filmed), and would take a trip to Suncoast Video every Tuesday to check out new releases. I decided I wasn’t going to see The Phantom Menace opening weekend when I saw a small line of people forming two weeks before release. Two weeks! There was no way this, or any film was going to be worth this much time in the Phoenix sun.
After about a week the fan line filled out into the dozens, and the mall management decided to let them inside, even overnight (apparently a bunch of unbathed people in Storm Trooper costumes and brown robes expiring on the front steps isn’t good for business). The geeks were partitioned off in the food court, like some kind of surrealist Science Fictional zoo attraction. I felt like I had walked onto the Preserver's ship, and half expected to find Superman behind glass. You had to walk around the geeks and through a gaggle of pre-teen mallrat goslings to enter the consumer utopia. The early word from these emporium barnacles was that the film was awesome, a juggernaut of satisfaction, and I had to take their word for it because I was going to wait another two weeks before I was going to pass my own judgment.
I was too concerned with bleeding all the local video stores dry of obscure foreign horror titles (one store had both Necromantic movies, and I only had to drive forty minutes there and back to rent them!) and finishing school to have even noticed the vehement hatred of all things Phantom Menace throughout the rest of 1999. I saw the film twice that year, the second time with a troop of ankle-biters from the local day-care I worked at, and they ate it up. I tried to show them the OT on video in the coming weeks but they were bored out of their minds. Little bastards. Before the Episode 1 DVD was finally released some time later I had finally been made aware that people really didn’t like the film. At that point it was really too late for me to care.
Then came November of 2001, and I sat down in a theatre full of screaming toddlers to see Pixar Studios’ Monsters Inc.. I never miss a Pixar film. The trailers ran, the theatre promo came and went, I was told to buy stuff from the concession stands and turn off my cell phone, then the screen went black. But then there was another green trailer screen. The following Attack of the Clones trailer is, in my opinion, one of the most effective trailers ever made. The images edited to the familiar rhythmic breathing of Darth Vader, the building music, glimpses of Jango Fett, C-3PO, and holy shit, was that Christopher Lee? I was born ready for May of 2002.
Due to a lack of lines I decided to see Attack of the Clones the Saturday after it opened. By the time the credits rolled Lucas’ baited hook was firmly caught within the fleshy tissues of inner cheek. I was a born again Star Wars fan. I saw it three times total, once with my mother (and I didn't even make her leave the theatre during the monster scenes). I am ashamed and humbled when I admit that it was Attack of the Clones, that reinvigorated my fanaticism for the series.
The day I downloaded the final HD trailer for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith my failing health was looking up, and I found a quiet complacency in knowing my friend George was going to be there for me in my time of need. Attending a few midnight showings of the Lord of the Rings films had fuelled my appetite, and I bought tickets for the first showing of the final Star Wars film. A friend and I got to the theatre at 9:00 PM and were shocked to hear that the theatre had been seating for over an hour already. It was okay though, we got decent seats, and some kindly strangers paid us twenty bucks a piece to hold seats for them (they came back drunk). I embarrassingly watched costumed freaks make spectacles of themselves, and laughed like a drug-addled hyena as one theatregoer tripped and spilled his popcorn in a glorious arc across the front row. The movie came and went, and once again, I enjoyed myself immensely.
Part Two: Blitzkrieg of the Facsimiles
How could I have been so wrong? What good did I see in these cinematic equivalents to Auschwitz? I try to explain this to the hordes of angry OT fans that egg my house every night, I try to put this unbelievable affection into words, and time and time again I fail. Come with me my friends, on a Technicolor journey of over-analysis.
I enjoy A New Hope and the Prequel Trilogy for pretty much the same reasons I enjoy Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. I like straight-faced, postmodern homage. I’m not a very big fan of spoof, and most blatantly referential cinema is spoof. If I were to critique Grindhouse it’d read as pretty much the exact opposite of most opinions I’ve come across. I think Rodriguez’s Planet Terror was entertaining but missed the point of the exercise. It was a spoof of exploitation cinema rather than an homage. Tarantino’s Death Proof is a modern equivalent to a grindhouse film, complete with space filling exposition and an entirely abrupt ending. It may be winking at its audience a bit, but I don’t see it as dishonest as a spoof.
Hold on a sec, let me strap on my SWPTAA members' exclusive Kevlar vest…
Empire Strikes Back is more or less universally accepted as the best of the Star Wars series. I agree that it is the best film with the word Star Wars in the title. I would, however, argue (against my better judgment) that it is actually the worst Star Wars film. It’s too realistic, too emotionally centred, too well acted, too well structured, and too empathetic. It's a real movie, with real characters that an audience really cares for. Return of the Jedi, Ewoks aside, has a solid and I believe affecting emotional core, that of Luke and Vader. Though generations of fans focus on the Ewoks as the negative aspect, I see them as more true to Lucas’ model than the rest of the film, and they even play into the ‘60s leftist political stance found in the PT.
The four movies in the series that were actually directed by Lucas are stylistically and thematically very similar. They feel like old movies with new special effects. The acting is purposefully stilted, the dialogue is corny, and the situations entirely fantastic within the realms of pop familiarity. Attack of the Clones is especially attuned to the notion of homage in that it effectively references dozens of film types, from ’30s era romance and swashbuckling, to ‘50s era, stop-motion monster movies and ‘60s era James Bond flicks. The romance is the one and only factor that even I can’t argue works, but it is definitely played out in the old fashion mould.
The final act of the PT (the one people actually seemed to have liked) diverts from this formula (the way I see it Attack of the Clones and A New Hope are the ‘purest’ Star Wars films), and goes more for an operatic representation of such unbelievable events. I thought this worked, many people did not. It’s overwrought, but then, so is just about every famous Opera ever written. Like Empire and Jedi (my two favourites), it takes the formula and matures it to a place where maybe it doesn’t belong. It's almost like, a real movie.
I think people wanted Star Wars to grow up with them, but that’s not what Star Wars is about, at least not the way I was made to understand it.
I once tried to explain the merits of digital effects to a kid on line at a comic book store. He slashed my neck with a Magic: The Gathering card protected within a thick mylar sleeve. I still bare the scare to remind me to keep my mouth shut. I learned a valuable lesson that day—people take the Star Wars universe very, very seriously. Why, just minutes before the incident I was having a civil discussion with my attacker about abortion rights. We disagreed by the guy didn't raise a finger, I mention the fact that I like digital Yoda and BAM, I wake up in the hospital.
From a visual standpoint, I believe the digital realm has afforded the PT a wonderful painterly feel, and I find it hard to believe that even the harshest critics honestly found the films graphically unattractive. The digital set designs are gorgeous, often evoking sci-fi fantasy novel covers from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They also evoke the painted backdrops of ‘30s serials, and are uncannily unrealistic yet tangible. The overall colour pallets of the three films represent a day to night transition ( TPM equals day, AOTC equals dawn, ROTS equals night). I'll never understand the critical stance that praised Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City for their all digital backdrops, while bashing the PT for the same reasons. There are other moments of real graphic purity in these films, like the beautiful cutting of flashing colours and faces when Anakin and Dooku first face-off in Attack of the Clones.
I absolutely agree that this is in contrast to the OT, where everything was rough and dirty, but I was under the impression that that was kind of the point—there’s no room for aesthetic beauty in Palpatine’s Empire, a function over fashion kind of thing (even the Emperor himself ditches his flowing red robe for a dull black one). Maybe I'm the guy taking this all too seriously now.
I was also under the impression that the Star Wars films, as a whole, were suppose to be old fashion serials from every angle except that of their state of the art special effects. This is the mindset I’ve taken to these films since I was old and wise enough to think critically about such a mundane subject, I may be wrong. This mindset is what causes me to object to the digital changes in the OT. The OT changes don’t bother me exponentially, but from a theoretical standpoint they go against my version of the series ‘thesis statement’. I'm of the theory that each film should represent the height of special effects technology for its given time. The effects in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were the best for their eras, right? That’s a story for another support group though.
Though I love a Muppet as much as the next guy, the puppets in the OT were only ever as real as their performers and the performances around them, and the same goes for the digital creatures of the PT. Jar Jar isn’t a bad character because he’s made out of CG rather than rubber, he’s a bad character because he’s badly written and annoyingly realized. I was just as enthralled by Yoda’s performance in parts two and three as I was in part five, because the character is well written, beloved, and Frank Oz is a great actor. I've actually heard people say that they didn't like the digital creatures because they weren't as 'realistic; as the rubber creatures in the OT. At the risk of grievous bodily harm, I'll say that I honestly think the end results of both the OT and PT are comparably ‘realistic’.
Do fans want more grown-up versions of the exact same three movies they fell in love with in the '70s and '80s? Do they want to pick and choose their specific favourite elements? Do they want rubber masked thespians, rod puppets, and stop-motion monsters speaking David Mamet level dialogue? This isn't me being facetious; I actually want an answer because I don't know.
On a completely unpretentious and non-analytical level, it comes down to taste. Good almost always outweighs bad per capita for me, and that's probably the reason I can enjoy so many Italian horror flicks. I can actually enjoy an entire film for a few good set pieces. The Star Wars Prequels have plenty of bits I don't enjoy, I’m not entirely insane, but each film has its fair share of bits I love. This is not a matter of lowering my expectations; this is a matter of me appreciating films in parts more than most folks I know. Just so we agree my taste is in question, rather than my methods.
Let's get down to brass tacks; here are some images I'll always remember:
The Phantom Menace: the giant fish scene (minus Jar Jar's screaming), R2-D2’s introduction (I know it’s short, but watching R2 units blasted off the wing of the ship is always good for a laugh), the pod race (as an exercise in image and sound, it doesn't get much better), and the final saber match (still not matched).
Attack of the Clones: the flying car chase, all of Obi-Wan’s ‘secret agent’ bits on Kamino, anything involving Christopher Lee, and the film’s final act where we go from Harryhausen monster movie, to full-on war film, to awesome Yoda vs. Dooku saber fight.
Revenge of the Sith is a film I honestly love. I don’t love it in that ‘at least it’s not as bad as the others’ way, I really, honestly adore it. I love its structure, I love its story, and I love its best bits more than any of the other best bits in the Prequel Trilogy. The opening rescue, Obi-Wan’s stalking and killing of Grievous, Anakin’s turn (I must be crazy, because I bought it), the purge (that score is heartbreaking), the flashy, and colour-coated final battle. I even thought Vader’s James Whale-esque birth and subsequent giant ‘No’ was spot on.
I love these movies for what they mean to me, not what they mean to the legions of die-hard fans the world over. That is why I honestly think future generations will forget the anti-hype and embrace the entire series as two separate but strangely equal wholes.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t change a few things if given the chance…
Part 3: Counterinsurgency of the Reason
After month of intensive consoling, drying up, and heavy medication, I'm finally able to admit that my love for the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy is not unshakable. I've found some problems with the films, and at the suggestion of my sponsor Blake (thanks for being there for me all those late nights brother, and thank your wife for the cookies), and because it is step six in my twelve step program, I've compiled a list of things I'd like to see Lucas change when he eventually starts tinkering with the PT. I've broken each down by film.
The Phantom Menace:
While watching the documentary on the Phantom Menace DVD, I noticed there were two other finalists for the role of young Anakin Skywalker. Both young actors seem better equipped for the role. I propose that ILM digitally insert one of these children into all of Jake Lloyd's scenes.
I'm pretty sure that no one here is a very big fan of Jar Jar Binks. I totally understand the point of the character; he's meant as another Kurosawa-esque servant character who acts as the audience's eyes through the fantastic journey. Unfortunately he's no C-3P0 or R2-D2, and if this is how Lucas views his audience, we really all should be a little insulted. I suggest the character design remain the same, but he be re-voiced and reanimated as a more soft-spoken character, preferably one that isn't a racial stereotype. If racial stereotypes are a necessity, then I suggest a Japanese character, in keeping with those in Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress.
More time should be spent on the political intricacies of Darth Sideous' plan. Way too much screen time is devoted to frivolous scenes on Tatooine and the Gungan city (though the pod race and giant fish scenes that follow are cool). I understand that the plot against the Republic was meant to unfold over the first two films, but Lucas spends way too much time explaining this part of the story on his DVD commentary track.
Though the fact that the destruction of the droid mothership shuts down the droids attacking Naboo is important to Palpatine's choice in clones over droids, I wish that the Gungans could have actually been victorious during the Battle of Naboo. Anakin accidentally saving an entire planet is weak storytelling all around.
Darth Maul is too cool to die in the first film, and playing hours and hours of the Battlefront 2 video game planted the awesome idea of him as a general in the Clone Wars. The guy is raised to kill Jedi from, like, birth, and he gets offed by the second one he comes across? Obi-Wan should probably still get the best of him, but he shouldn't have died (there's a neat 'what-if' comic short I read where Maul is repaired with a robot lower half and confronts an older Obi-Wan on Tatooine). Palpatine could just break the rule of two and take on Dooku anyway as the wealthy ex-Jedi is politically more powerful than Maul, but Maul as the ultimate, war-time heavy would've been great fun. We can insert him digitally, and give him spider legs or something.
Attack of the Clones
I've never had a particular problem with Hayden Christianson's whiny portrayal of teenaged Anakin. It seems appropriate to me that the early reasons for his downfall are his normal teenage behaviour, including rebellion against authority figures and having a childish crush on the wrong girl. These are all things that the Jedi should figuratively beat out of force sensitive youths at a very young age, but Anakin is just too old when he's finally trained. I actually wouldn't change this aspect of the film at all.
I would remove the frivolous and tacked on droid factory sequence, and replace it with the DVD's deleted scenes of Anakin and Padme getting to know each other. The love story should be sappy and old fashion (Han and Leia's was, no matter how you remember it), but it can stand to be a little more heartfelt. And the droid factory sequence is dumb.
I also would've taken the time to hire a few martial arts experts to fill out my Jedi armada rather than craft services and members of N'Sync. When Mace Windu comes to Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme's rescue his Jedi soldier look a little, um, 'unrefined'. Then imagine Windu and Jango Fett fighting as they do, Obi-Wan (having just killed that screaming spider-monster) rushes to Windu assistance, but stops short as a black cloaked character (who had been lurking at Dukoo's side the whole film) lands hard in front of him. The character removes his cowl to reveal a newly repaired Darth Maul. He could tear through a couple of the lesser Jedi on his way to Obi-Wan, who'd be nearly overpowered. This time Obi-Wan would barely escape to join Anakin on the trail of Dooku.
Revenge of the Sith
General Grievous, no matter how cool looking he may be, is frivolous, and the film's weakest story element. He serves only two purposes—a Darth Vader prototype (part machine, part organic creature), and a reason to separate Anakin and Obi-Wan, who at this point in the story arc are actually getting along. Though the sequence where Anakin kills Dooku is important, Dooku is a more valuable and well structured character, and should've been the one that Obi-Wan confronted on Utapau. This would feed Anakin’s frustration further, as he would find himself unable to avenge his missing limb. I'd replace Dooku in the rescue scene with my new hypothetical Robo-Maul, who Anakin would behead at Palpatine's behest as revenge for the death of Qui-Gon Jinn, thus making the same upsetting lurch towards the Dark Side.
Though I still love the operatic drama of the scene, I probably would've made the saber duel between Windu and Palpatine a bit more spectacular. I like Lucas' re-cutting the original footage to not have Anakin in the room the whole fight, but wish that we'd have a glimpse at Palatine's real power before he threw the fight for Anakin’s benefit. Even as a PT apologist I find Lucas' handling of such an important battle very weak.
I like Anakin’s initial fall, but like everyone else I wanted to actually see the new Darth Vader offing Jedi in the temple. We don't need to see him murdering children (that scene works perfectly as is), but a few short duels with Jedi like Shaak Ti would've been appropriate.
If you'll excuse me I've got a few other support groups to get to, including ‘Remaining Puny Banner Together’, my biweekly Hulk group, ‘Our Love is Real’, my Friday night A.I.: Artificial Intelligence group, and the latest addition to my self-help repertoire, ‘Symbiotes Are OK and So Am I’, my tri-weekly Spider-Man 3 group. Coffee and donuts are available in the back, if anyone cares to talk constructively among themselves on how to deal with the ever growing problem of Prequel Trilogy Apologism.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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