Tag Archives: prequels

Prequels Can Work

Prequels, by their nature, face an uphill battle in that we know how they are going to end. We know that Logan is gonna lose his memories in X-Men: Origins, we know that Sully and Mike are gonna be best friends (but only one of them a scarer) in Monsters University, and we know that Anakin is gonna become Darth Vader. By explicitly being movies of the stories that came before, we enter into them knowing where they end up, and, well, already being spoiled.

But, if spoilers don’t necessarily spoil, then this factor shouldn’t necessarily make prequels less enjoyable. Monsters University is still plenty fun, mostly because we want to see how we get to where Mike and Sully are in Monsters, Inc. That the film starts with them in such different spots from where they are in the original. The journey to the familiar is where the excitement of the movie lies. Thing is, it’s easy there for it to quickly become just the retreading of what’s been done before or, at worst, a slow march to the inevitable. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of The Sith doesn’t feel like a character choice so much as a plot point hit because it had to happen.

Revenge of The Sith could have – should have – explored why Anakin opted for the Dark Side. What was it that drove a promising young Jedi to become a Sith lord? But rather than exploring any of that, the movie just trucked along about the ending of the Clone Wars, an Emperor rising to power, and an arbitrary turn to the Dark Side. Essentially, Sith doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s little depth added to the events of the originals, we end up exactly where we started with little change in the narrative status quo – A New Hope has the precise same impact whether or not you’ve seen Sith.

And this is where I talk about Rogue One.

We know the Rebels steal the Death Star plans. The question is how.

So the easy thing to do would have been to have just followed the heist of the plans and let that be that. Rebel spies steal plans. Done is done.  Instead, Rogue One contextualizes A New Hope.

For all its grandeur, the original Star Wars showed only a relatively small sliver of the galaxy (a backwater planet, the Death Star, and a Rebel Base) populated by farmers and outlaws, Imperial villains, and a handful of mostly-Rebel pilots. We begin in media res, with all the wheels already well in motion so we can focus on a farmboy from the middle of nowhere. Rogue One expands the scope of the story, showing more of the Alliance part of the Rebel Alliance and further emphasizing the threat of the Empire come A New Hope.

But the movie doesn’t over explain. The Phantom Menace felt the need to explain the mystical Force as microscopic organisms and C-3PO as a kid’s side project. Instead of feeling the need to, say, explain why the Death Star plans are on tape, Rogue One opts instead to fill in some plot holes and expand on things mentioned in the original movies (again: Alliance), but never seems beholden to what came before.

So Rogue One does what a prequel can do best, does what a prequel should do. It tells its own story that feels complete in and of itself, but in turn also adds a layer to the movie that already exists. A New Hope doesn’t feel any different knowing that it’s Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and all that under the helmet, but the final showdown against the Death Star takes on another level of meaning knowing what led to it.

Prequels get a bad rap because, well, a lot of them are bad. But Rogue One is inarguably a prequel (with a sequel already directed by George Lucas), and it’s one that does what those sort of stories can do. I’ve more rants essays to write about this movie, but for now, one thing that this movie does is prove that, hey, prequels can be really good.

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Thoughts on The Prequel Trilogy

Last year I watched all three of the original Star Wars movies and commented on them in the lead to The Force Awakens. Since we’ve got another prequel coming out, I figured I’d do the same thing for the prequels before Rogue One (which I’m seeing on Thursday [!!!] on the biggest freaking screen in New York City[!!!]).

Now, I have a soft spot for the prequels, so this isn’t going to be the angry nerd ranting you may expect.

In fact, I think they actually aren’t all awful. This got a little longer than expected, but that’s because I have Many Thoughts on Star Wars.

I first saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday, in theaters. I loved it and Qui-Gon was (and is) my favorite. These days I still think it’s the best of the prequels, because though it’s a bit irrelevant as a whole, it is relatively well put together. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.

  • After the typically Star Wars offbeat gag of the droid coming out we get to see two Jedi in their prime kicking ass. It’s also a great visual introduction to them, showing us the Force, their ability to block blaster bolts, and how lightsabers can cut through walls. Instant exposition!
  • The conversations between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are such fun, with Qui-Gon’s brashness and Obi-Wan’s chastising despite being the apprentice.
  • One of the biggest flaws of this movie is its unconnectedness. Scenes seem to just happen and characters say things without much cause and effect (ie: Panaka’s “I don’t think this is a good idea” and Qui-Gon’s “You must trust my judgment” has them carry on to Tatooine without issue).
  • Argh, Anakin’s introduction to Padmé shows the issue with telling instead of showing. Anakin tells Padmé he’s gonna leave this planet. In A New Hope we see Luke Skywalker longingly watching the binary sunset. We feel Luke’s want, but are told about Anakin’s.
  • “The Queen’s wardrobe maybe…” Gotta love Obi-Wan’s dry humor.
  • And with Shimi’s introduction The Phantom Menace already has more speaking female characters in its first forty minutes than all of the Original Trilogy (Captain Madakor in the beginning, Padmé, Sabé, Jira the saleswoman, and Shimi vs Leia, Beru, Toryn Farr, and Mon Mothma).
  • The lack of music for most of the Podrace is striking; the engines make their own soundtrack.
  • Anakin having to leave home would have meant so much if we actually gave a crap.
  • When the vote of no confidence is called, Chancellor Valorum sits down out of the light and into shadow. Gorgeous visually.
  • There are still moments in the movie that are just so cool, like all the Battle Droids unfolding as the Trade Federation theme plays.
  • AND DARTH MAUL. AND DUEL OF THE FATES.
  • Seriously though, the lightsaber fight in Menace is one of the coolest things in the Star Wars movies, period. It’s so cool you don’t really care about the lack of narrative purpose. Plus, each combatant’s fighting style reveals character, another cool touch. Its effective, wordless, visual storytelling makes the Gungans & droids, space battle, and palace raid feel clunky.
  • Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is such a great duel.

Whenever I watched Attack Of The Clones as a kid I’d always fast forward through the romance between Anakin and Padmé, preferring to stick with Obi-Wan’s more interesting plot. Which kinda made sense given how crappy theses scenes are as an adult. That said, Across The Stars is a magnificent piece of music.

  • And within its first three minutes Clones does what the Originals never did: pass the bechdel test.
  • Obi-Wan at the bar with the deathstick pusher is a wonderfully funny gag.
  • Anakin and Padmé striking off together should be fun, flirty adventure, but it’s played so darn drily and self-serious.
  • Anakin is so friggin creepy in his romancing.
  • Obi-Wan’s plot is actually engrossing, which makes the stagnancy of Anakin/Padmé so frustrating.
  • …maybe it’s Hayden Christensen that’s the problem here. His deliveries are a far cry from Han’s gruff charm (which is the benchmark).
  • It’s like Anakin doesn’t believe in subtext. Or a filter.
  • Shimi’s death is legitimately tragic…
  • …which is undercut by Hayden Christensen’s overacting. He really might be the problem.
  • Christopher Lee is excellent. And Dooku and Obi-Wan’s conversation is so well done.
  • The movie seriously gets better after Dooku shows up.
  • Anakin and Padmé’s entrance into the arena: really cool, really effective; just wish their scenes before actually made us care about them!
  • The prequels in general, but especially this one, take themselves so seriously. Where’s the fun romantic adventure that was a hallmark of the originals?

I saw Revenge of The Sith in England the day after it came out. Was really excited and really liked it at the time. Watching it again a few years back I was frustrated about how flat Anakin’s arc felt (especially in light of the Clone Wars show) and, with it, the entire tragic thrust. It’s the messiest of the movies, with some of the prequels’ best moments, but also the weakest.

  • The opening crawls do such a great job in letting the movies open in media res without too much exposition.
  • That opening shot that goes from the Venator to the ETA-2s that race along it and plunge into the battle below is so good.
  • Rescuing Palpatine feels a lot like the cold open-esque ones of Empire and Jedi.
  • A Hispanic actor was cast as Bail Organa, someone mentioned in the originals as Leia’s father. For all the crap George Lucas gets, there was noticeable diversity in the prequels’ casting (Panaka, Tycho, Queen Jamillia, Mace Windu, etc). Small parts mostly, but an effort nonetheless.
  • The political intrigue with the Council having Anakin spy on Palpatine is kinda interesting, if half-baked.
  • Anakin and Padmé’s discussion on the war, however, wasn’t even put in the oven.
  • Ian McDiarmid gives Palpatine such menace and subtext.
  • Padmé is so useless in this.
  • The duel between Grievous and Obi-Wan is shot with far too many close-ups (as was Dooku vs Anakin). Compare it back to the fight with Darth Maul where we could actually see the fight and close-ups were saved for special occasions.
  • Anakin’s fall to the dark side is a result of that sitcom trope where the woman walks in and her boyfriend’s all “this isn’t what it looks like!”
  • Which means that Anakin’s fall is so weak, so unearned. It’s the big turn, but it doesn’t work!
  • The Order 66 sequence is downright inspired, especially the choice of shots for Ki-Adi Mundi’s death and cross-cutting to Yoda.
  • Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa is wonderful. Why wasn’t he in the movie more? Why isn’t he hanging out with Padmé and doing stuff?
  • Holy crap, Yoda is on an assassination mission. Why isn’t this addressed?
  • The two final duels are pretty cool. Especially the music.
  • Oh that clash with the lava in the background. A+
  • Seriously. Obi-Wan vs Anakin is great (if you get past some of the silliness). I just wish the movie had done more to really sell us on how much they loved each other and made the fight genuinely painful (ie: Iron Man vs Captain America in Civil War)
  • But “I have the high ground” is a poor note to go out on.
  • Dear god, Ewan McGregor is so good as Obi-Wan. You can feel his heartbreak in his ‘goodbye’ to Anakin.
  • Vader’s masking, chilling.
  • …why does Padmé die? Argh.
  • The final sequence with Leia and Luke ending up on Alderaan and Tatooine is downright beautiful. It’s such a strong visual ending to a lousy plot.
  • To be honest, Lucas’ prequels are best when his characters shut up and he lets the visuals and music speak.

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35mm

Two things were announced yesterday: Ben Affleck will be the new Batman and Dan Mindel will be the Director of Photographer for Star Wars VII. This one is about the second one.

The announcement of Dan Mindel was accompanied with the information that the movie would be shot on 35mm. That is: film. Alright: history lesson. Attack of the Clones was known for being one of the first films shot entirely on digital. It was different, and coupled with its groundbreaking use of CGI, a harbinger of what digital filmmaking and effects could be. It was a big deal, and rightly so.

Then Revenge of the Sith came out a couple years later and time enough passed for the prequels to settle in. And, well, they aren’t so bad, but they aren’t that great. Least nowhere near the quality of the Holy Trilogy (that is, the originals). There was this distinct feeling of style or substance. Where the originals placed a strong emphasis on characters and their story at the heart of an epic conflict, well, the prequels were more caught up in the flash of the conflict. Much of the blame for this has fallen squarely on George Lucas’ shoulders and his love affair with CGI and green screen.

A month ago, Kathleen Kennedy, producer of Episode VII, said that they were taking their cues from the originals. That they want to capture the feel of the originals, find what made them work, they want to go after real locations (think Luke actually crawling through the snow in Norway instead of Anakin miming his way through a digital droid factory). Not only that, but story and characters are key for them. They want to make this work, they want to do right; to the point where they don’t want to film on digital.

Now, I think digital’s great. It’s a cool format, it’s allowed a cheap way for people without studios/money/training (read: me) try our hands at filmmaking. There’s nothing wrong with digital. Guillermo del Toro, a self-professed huge fan of using film, used digital for Pacific Rim on account of it simply working better for what he was aiming to achieve. There’s a time and place for digital and film, but we’re at the point where the two are almost indistinguishable. Unless you’re a super film nerd, in which case I apologize for making such a sweeping and obviously inaccurate statement.

Anyway.

All that said, what’s the big deal about J.J. Abrams and Mindel deciding to film with film instead of going digital? After all it was Star Wars itself that pioneered digital filmmaking, isn’t it? What’s the big deal?

It’s symbolic. The prequels leave a poor taste in many fans’ mouth, not solely for being less-than-amazing movies, but for being bad Star Wars movies. They lost that feel of adventure and lived-in science fiction that made the Holy Trilogy so great. They were flawed and are usually excluded from Star Wars marathons (or at least from mine). Abrams and crew want to distance themselves from them and instead hew closer to the ones we know and love. They’re making the sequels, a continuation of A New Hope, Empire, and Jedi, not a follow up to the prequels. Thus far the actions by Abrams and the others have been to reassure us.

Some of the original cast will be back, there will be a focus on story and characters, they’re going to aiming for practical locations, heck, they’re filming on 35mm film. They’re telling us that, in the inverse of 2009’s Star Trek, this won’t be the Star Wars we saw ten years ago; this is gonna be our fathers’ Star Wars. They’re working for our trust.

Now I just hope they use miniatures. Those are the best.

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The Prequels Aren’t So Bad

One of the most controversial series of films released within the past twenty years is the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. In all seriousness, the Star Wars prequels do get a lot of flak for not living up to the precedence of the Holy Trilogy. But I’m here to say they’re not the travesty of film that a lot of us make them out to be.

 
By no means am I saying they’re flawless. I grew up with Star Wars and can’t recall a time in my life where I didn’t know the story of the classic three. I saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday and loved it for all the reasons an eight year old would love The Phantom Menace (that is: Qui Gon Jinn). I thought Attack of the Clones was, well, whatever, and Revenge of the Sith was fantastic. Then I didn’t watch any of the prequels for almost six years.
 
So I watched them again a few months ago and, well, they’re not that bad.
 
Oh, they’re definitely not amazing. They lack the sweeping narrative and engaging characters of the originals. Where the originals were character driven adventures, the new ones are more poorly-written political dramas. We lose that sense of grand adventure in favor of stories weighed down with unnecessary intrigue. While the Classic Trilogy had Luke, Han, and Leia getting out of all sorts of scraps, in the new ones we watch the heroes navigate pointless discussions in the Senate and other assorted politicking.
 
But there are things the prequels did do right – they’re very pretty. We’re afforded a deeper peek into the world: more ships, more planets, more buildings, more people. There’s this tangible life to the world. The podrace in The Phantom Menace would never have been possible when the original movies came out. The new movies took the technology afforded to them and built a world. A world without particularly engaging characters, but a world nonetheless.
 
Building on that, the action and fight choreography stands unrivaled by few other movies. From Qui Gon’s encounter with Darth Maul on Tatooine in The Phantom Menace to the final duel on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith, every fight is a joy to behold. This is sword fighting like we always wanted just never knew we did. Fast paced and intense we watch them fight for, um, because they have to? But that’s beside the point; the fights are great and even though we’re not sure why we’re invested in them we’re still drawn to them. They’re flashy, but somehow they still strike an emotional chord with us.
 
And that’s because of the music. John Williams’ score for the prequels stands as one of the best of his particularly illustrious career. Duel of the Fates gives the climatic duel in Menace the appropriate grandeur and gravitas. Likewise, Across the Stars actually makes you almost care about the horribly written romance between Anakin and Padme. An echoed refrain of the theme that plays back during Revenge instantly tugs at your heartstrings. More so than in the original movies, the score in the prequels pull you into the movies and makes you feel what the writing and acting does not. It’s easy to look back on them and realize how they aren’t that good, but while you’re watching them the music and the visuals are simply captivating.
 
But they never quite measure up to the original movies.
 
The prequels failed because of, yes, poor writing and lousy characterization, but also because they just didn’t feel like Star Wars. The Holy Trilogy was an adventure. The new ones, less so. Rather than following characters we’re following the plot as it develops. We’re not watching Luke become a Jedi, we’re watching a trade dispute lead to war. It’d be okay in another movie, but it feels too impersonal and distant to be Star Wars. That is the movies’ falling.
 
When I think of Star Wars I think of the Empire and the Rebellion, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, and Luke and Vader. Despite being the ‘intended’ age when the prequels came out, The Empire Strikes Back and the rest of the Holy Trilogy are my favorites. But, like I’m trying to say, the prequels aren’t that bad.
 
Writer’s Note: I know there are literally hundreds of other arguments about the prequels’ failings. I’m not gonna get into them because we’ve heard them before. I’m making an attempt at a defense (which kinda gets bogged down because, well, yeah).

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