As we close the door on 2015, nobody will argue that (despite its late December release) this was the “Year of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” We were heralded with a year round onslaught of store merchandising, online and print advertising, and an overabundance of geek nostalgia for the return of one of pop culture’s most beloved cinema mythologies. It was also the return of old arguments and endless plot dissections among the fan base. Now I have tried to keep a dispassionate head down and ignore the fiery online rhetoric of my fellow film reviewers. However, nothing raises my ire more than those who use the new Episode VII release for another opportunity to bash Episodes I, II, and II.
From a More Civilized Age: In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
Nothing divides the fan base more than creator George Lucas’ 1999-2005 prequels to his original trilogy. Some make a point as to the difference in the politics. Those who favored the originals like the simplified story of an intergalactic civil war between the formidable threat of the Empire and the romanticism of the Rebel Alliance. Those who criticized the prequels bemoaned the boring “money wars” between the Trade Federation, the severely Force “dumbed down” Jedi, the members of the Republican political sheep, and the triumphant and more impressive Sith. Others point out the wooden acting of principal lead Hayden Christensen in the role of the fallen Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker, future Sith Lord Darth Vader. Another point of contention was for Lucas’ overuse of CGI characters.
Needless to say, the prevalent thought is that the prequels strayed too far from the originals. And, worse…that the prequels are best left forgotten. And this is what gets me.
After the initial theatrical release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, I felt (as a fan) a tinge of depression that a door was closed on one of Hollywood’s most endearing epics. How happy I was when (more than fifteen years later) Lucasfilm announced production of a new trilogy, set before the events of the original. This meant that the story of Darth Vader, one of film’s iconic villains, would finally be told. When the last film in the prequel trilogy “Revenge of the Sith” was released in 2005, however, most of the fanbase was left perplexed. This series was a far cry both in tone and visually from the beloved original trilogies. And my response to these fan’s puzzlement over this direction of the franchise is: “Well, what did you expect”?
There is a scene in the first film, “A New Hope”, where Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi is presenting Anakin’s lightsaber to his son, Luke Skywalker. He described it as being “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” Fans of the original trilogy were used to the grime and grit that comprised the aesthetics of those movies. Comparing the universe in the original film series to the universe in the prequels would be like comparing the geo-political landscape of modern New York City to that of Ancient Rome. When we think of Rome, we think of civilization at its finest. The very pinnacle of achievement in both politics, military, and art. The world of the intergalactic Republic and the Jedi Order was meant to reflect these ideas. Although I appreciated the “cowboy spirit” of the first trilogy I appreciated the Machiavellian politics of the second as well.
As for the wooden acting, I place the blame not so much on Hayden Christensen’s shoulders but on George Lucas’. Lucas had not directed a movie since the release of the first film, “A New Hope.” Most of his subsequent film efforts were of producing and writing Episodes II and III, as well as developing new technologies for film at his Skywalker Ranch. His was a return from a twenty-two year absence from the director’s chair…and it shows. Sometimes I felt that the rhythms of the performances in the scenes were off. However, I felt Christensen (over the course of Episode II and III) grew into the role. There were certain scenes where his anger rang closer to what I imagined the essence of a young Vader should be. The effect of his performance is felt in the agonizing scene towards the end where the severely burned Anakin is finally encased in Vader’s life support armor. To see the tragically scarred and horrified face of the newly converted Sith Lord as opposed to the fresh-faced and heroic Jedi knight introduced in “Attack of the Clones” was truly jarring. I’m sure that a more experienced director could have smoothed out the rough edges in Christensen’s performance. As a famous quote attributed to Harrison Ford states about Lucas’ directing style , “George you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it”.
And the last debate has been focused on Lucas’ overuse of CGI created characters. Lucas along with filmmakers Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson has always maintained a focus on the development of special effects in the movie industry. Unfortunately, I share the belief that Lucas relies too much on the PC than he should. Some of his characters do come across as lifeless and remind me more of a Boss Level villain in a PS4 game. My biggest concern is with Lucas’ CGI airbrushing of the Star Wars films in the Special Edition. The worst case I feel is not in the infamous “Han shot first” revision but in the last shot of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. As everyone knows, Lucas chose to show the young Anakin Skywalker standing next to Alec Guinness’s Kenobi and Yoda existing as spirits of the living Force. I thought he did a great disservice to actor Sebastian Shaw who was brief but memorable in the role of the elder Anakin in Vader’s death scene. I remember his inclusion as a ghost alongside Kenobi and Yoda got a big cheer when I was among the audience during it’s initial 1983 run. It doesn’t make sense for Lucas’ to cut him from such an emotionally satisfying twist to an already beautiful scene, regardless of his arguments for its necessity.
Despite these misgivings and out of respect for the artistic choices of its creator, however, I feel these movies have earned their place in the canon. And, although, I feel that Episode VII is a more than worthy entry into the Star Wars universe and closer in tone to the original trilogy, I certainly feel it isn’t the last shovel of dirt on the casket for the funeral that the hardcore fan base are eager to give the prequels.