The Prequels Didn’t Over-Do CGI

George Lucas oversaturated the prequels with computer-generated images and the dated, artificial visuals contributed to their mediocrity.  This argument gets passed around often, to the point that many fans toss it out matter-of-factly.  But it’s incredibly flawed and misleading.

The biggest rebuttal to the criticism is the fact that each prequel commissioned more miniature models than the entire original trilogy combined.  A testament to the talent of modelers and the animators, miniatures of Coruscant, Geonosis, Mustafar, and other locales blend seamlessly with their digital counterparts.  Yet critics foolishly decry slick visuals that defy realism, almost certainly presuming numerous practical shots to be CGI.

While the confusion redeems the films against claims of primitive-looking visuals, the sterile, polished look of the prequels plays into another superficial attack.  Fans rightfully praise the original trilogy for its gritty, lived-in atmosphere.  The clean, shiny prequels strike some as inauthentic by comparison.  But there’s a perfectly good explanation beyond indistinguishable miniatures and CGI.

Lucas promised to show the Republic on the tail-end of its prime.  Of course the galactic capital should showcase posh regality, as should Naboo considering the films’ focus on its royalty.  The prequels feature plenty of grit, including a more fleshed-out Tattooine and dingy areas such as Geonosis and Mustafar.  Furthermore, the original trilogy had plenty of polished environments including Bespin and the interior of Empire ships.

Ultimately, these fans rely on false equivalencies built upon faulty assumptions.  Considering that the original trilogy featured a galaxy under the rule of a selfish emperor and focused on an underdog rebellion, of course, most action would take place in grungier environments.  But when the story called for it, the films offered slick visuals.  The same goes for the prequels, but a larger concentration of those movies took place in cleaner environments.

The look of the prequels served the story well.  Copping the aesthetics of the original trilogy would only cater to a stubborn, opinionated sliver of the fan base.  Granted, CGI gave the films a different look, but it has no bearing on their authenticity or essence.  If the technology existed in the 1970s, the original trilogy would have utilized it.

In their haste to demonize Lucas and the prequels, these critics fail to appreciate their monumental achievement.  With the original trilogy, Lucas revolutionized the special effects industry.  He somehow pulled it off again with the prequels.  Yet many fans want to stereotype the films as an exercise in mindless CGI and make Lucas answer for the sins of those who have since squandered the digital tools he helped develop.  Try as they might conflate the two, Lucas isn’t Michael Bay and the prequels aren’t a computer-generated mess.

Midi-Chlorians

When critics compile a list of reasons to prove that George Lucas ruined their childhoods, midi-chlorians are always in the running for most egregious wrong.  In many ways, these microscopic beings are a microcosm of the prequels themselves.  Detractors fundamentally misunderstand them and angrily conclude that they cheapen the original trilogy with over-explanation.

While mystery enhanced both the Star Wars backstory and the concept of the Force, the entire point of the prequels was to pull back the curtain on the unknown.  Where should Lucas have drawn the line on exposition?  In yet more instances the whims of self-important fans dictate the critical conversation about the films.  Treating the original trilogy as sacrosanct rather than simply preemptive sequels would have hamstrung the prequels far more than Lucas’ supposed foibles.

Midi-chlorians exemplify the outcry.  Consider the criticism itself, that Lucas removed the mystical connotations implied in the original films and ruined it with science.  First of all, since the Duggars don’t represent the demographics of these fans, it’s fascinating that they champion spirituality over religion.

Furthermore, the entire concept feels like a throwaway line for Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to quantify the powers of young Anakin.  An off-the-charts midi-chlorian count sounds way more impressive than “Hey you guys, this kid’s powers are off the hook!”  The filler aspect of the concept is far more offending than the canonical ramifications if the situation absolutely demands criticism.

Lucas left the door open for an ambiguous reading of midi-chlorians during a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone.

Is Anakin a product of a super-Sith who influenced the midi-chlorians to create him, or is he simply created by the midi-chlorians to bring forth a prophecy,” Lucas said of Anakin’s fatherless birth. “Or was he created by the Force through the midi-chlorians?”

The mystery remains, even if the concept of these lifeforms reformulates the conversation.  Critics hate that Lucas seemed to make Force sensitivity predetermined.  But the original films never suggested otherwise.  In fact, the importance of destiny and the Skywalker bloodline’s connection to the Force implied a genetic link.  To borrow from Andy Warhol if everyone’s Force-sensitive, then no one’s Force-sensitive, right?

“I respect and adhere to the canon,” J.J. Abrams said during a promotional interview for The Force Awakens, and then immediately pivoted.  “But I also say that the Force has always seemed to be more inclusive and stronger than (midi-chlorians).”

Yet one of the most mocked moments in Abrams’ film featured Han Solo shooting a stormtrooper at his back without looking.  The reason?  Han isn’t Force sensitive.  One of the bravest, most beloved characters who married Leia, hung out with Luke, and gave birth to a powerful Force user riled fans for the semblance of something relating to Force powers?  How inclusive.

Frustratingly, the tangent distracts from the heart of the issue.  Critics have masochistically chosen to interpret the midi-chlorians as a scientific explanation for the Force.  But Lucas demonstrated amenability to the idea that the Force worked through, not for, the midi-chlorians.

The mystery remains.

Did the Prequels Suffer from Weak Villains?

 

Of the many alleged failings of the prequels, the dearth of memorable bad guys is often bandied about.  There’s merit to components of the argument, but too many critics test the limits of hyperbole in their complaints.  But, in this case, the original trilogy legitimately outclasses the prequels which makes this particular criticism more difficult to dismiss.

First and foremost, the original films featured the 1927 Yankees of movie villains.  Darth Vader, Boba Fett (at least until he became a useless joke in Return of the Jedi), and Emperor Palpatine cornered the market on iconic evil.  By comparison, the lineup of Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and General Grievous don’t measure up.

Some have theorized that the prequels would have benefitted from excising Dooku and Grievous in favor of keeping Maul around.  This might have improved continuity and character motivation, but it’s important to not lose sight of Palpatine’s lurking presence behind these glorified underlings.  While Maul certainly captured the essence of evil and, dare I say, challenged Vader for intrinsic coolness, he was a pretty shallow character.  Prequel critics breathlessly protest the films as superficial and puddle-deep, yet a chief complaint is ripping Lucas for killing off Darth Maul (at least as far as the films are concerned).  It’s yet another red flag that their crusade against George Lucas is a façade for their inner emotional turmoil.

The films make do just fine with their roster of villains.  While Maul could have provided more believable misdirection from Palpatine, given Obi-Wan his own evil temptation to contrast with Anakin’s, and lent more weight to the chain of events that led to Anakin becoming a Sith apprentice, the characters and events featured in the prequels are incredibly compelling.  In fact, this argument neatly demarcates pondering interesting hypotheticals and trying to “fix” the prequels that separate Lucas’ most incendiary critics.

Searching for incongruities in films can be fun, but it should never be taken so seriously.  When someone presents an alternative story structure as a legitimate improvement, it takes some gall.  It’s kind of like the guy who pulls a guitar out at a party.  Even if it’s not halfway bad, the principle of the idea is annoying.

Weak Dialogue, Bad Acting

Even the staunchest prequel defender will typically concede that Episodes I, II, and III featured embarrassing dialogue and unconvincing acting.  That doesn’t mean it fatally inhibits the films, nor does it necessarily reflect poorly on the cast and crew.

In regards to the writing, Lucas has acknowledged his struggles with dialogue.  But he never strained to be Aaron Sorkin either.  (Though how cool would a walk-and-talk between Yoda and Mace Windu be?)  Instead, he dismisses the importance of dialogue.  As long as it advances the plot, it doesn’t matter how mechanical it sounds.

Does he deserve criticism for his ambivalence?  Maybe.  But the problem with critics of Lucas and the prequels is that they have absolutely no problem ignoring the same shortcomings in the original trilogy.  Those films weren’t a showcase of Shakespearian exchanges either.  The actors mocked much of the dialogue, and since Lucas’ detractors want to downplay his contributions to those films they paint themselves into a logical corner.

The dialogue never held the original films back, so it’s foolish to argue otherwise with the prequels.  I’ll see your scoff at “My little green friend” and raise you a “scruffy-looking nerf herder.”  Why the latter outclasses the former, I’ll never know.  And even the nadir of prequel writing – the romance – serves a purpose.  Anakin Skywalker is the Star Wars equivalent of a repressed home-schooler.  Attack of the Clones features a realistic portrayal of young love because there’s absolutely no reason that Anakin should have any game.  Whether or not Lucas planned it that way, his writing, soliloquies about irritating sand and all, works.

As for acting, the stilted performances are par for the course with the original trilogy, so why should the prequels be any different?  Lucas is adamant that he strived to hearken back to over-the-top acting from the early days of cinema with Star Wars.  Maybe that’s a convenient excuse for eliciting weak performances, but if the original films get a pass the prequels deserve one too.

Furthermore, much of the criticism dovetails with complaints about CGI.  Lucas’ obsession with digital imagery hurt the films, his critics will say because constantly surrounding actors with green screens fostered rigidity and led to unrealistic reactions to the characters on-screen.  This too fails the sniff test.  If I wake up tomorrow magically transported to Coruscant, I’m freaking out.  But if I was born and raised in the Star Wars galaxy, it would seem normal.  Same as if you dropped a bumpkin in the middle of Times Square vs. a hipster from Brooklyn forced to pick up a t-shirt at the M&M’s store for his stupid nephew.

Besides, if these critics demand shock and awe from the prequel characters, why don’t they make a fuss about the originals?  Using their logic, The Empire Strikes Back should have been at least ten minutes longer because Luke should have meandered through Cloud City, mouth agape in amazement.  “Oh my God, how far of a drop is that!?” He should scream as Darth Vader impatiently awaits in the carbon-freezing chamber.

Like so many of these complaints, it’s a double standard that exposes circular logic.  If the acting and dialogue truly harms the films, then the original trilogy has been massively overrated.  Acknowledging the same foibles in the originals undermines claims that Lucas fell backwards into success while riding the coattails of more talented writers and producers.  Lucas may not be perfect, but he’s certainly not a bumbling fool that so many characterize him as, which is quickly established by sifting through their individual grievances.

No Protagonist?

The claim that the film lacks a main protagonist provides one of the most memorable moments in Red Letter Media’s review of The Phantom Menace.  Symptomatic of the prequels’ supposed foibles, the fiction Mr. Plinkett declares that Episode I suffers from a lack of strong, complex characters.  He cleverly and effectively illustrates his point by eliciting responses from “random” Star wars fans, asking them first to describe key figures from the original trilogy and then to do the same for the prequels.

Obviously, a review that includes the exploits of a sexually abusive psychopath as supplementary material would not have an agenda.  So of course when the respondents gleefully and articulately describe characters from the original films, their inability to do so for their prequel counterpoints was totally organic.  How strange that all of the responses featured in the review mirrored the reviewer’s conclusions.  What a coincidence!

Especially since their full of crap.  The subjects could not muster a single adjective for any character from the film without resorting to physical attributes?  Anakin Skywalker is a good-natured momma’s boy.  Qui-Gonn Jinn is wise and paternal, with a bit of a rebellious streak.  Padme is courageous and service-minded.  Even Jar Jar Binks has loads of personality.  Granted, most people find him grating, but he would not inspire such rage if he was devoid of discernible characteristics.

Clearly, Red Letter Media has sought a demonstrable method to prove the faults of the prequels in an intellectual way.  The upshot of lacking a central character is that The Phantom Menace is an objectively bad film because of fundamentally flawed structure.  Essentially, these critics have always known the film sucked, but now they can prove it.

The Plinkett reviews are incredibly entertaining (and incredibly effective at articulating their message), but coupling shaky logic with a need to be funny results in vulnerability.  They can arrogantly assert their conclusions all day, but when they grade the prequels on following a generic filmmaking template yet contrast them with The Empire Strikes Back they lose credibility.  Empire absolutely does not work as a standalone film.  If a viewer with no prior Star Wars experience started with this film, they would be jarred by the immediate action and overwhelmed by a seemingly climactic battle 30 minutes into the film.  And if they demanded classic story structure, the open ending would be incredibly disappointing.

By upholding Empire as the ultimate, Red Letter Media betrays their bias.  It doesn’t mean that The Phantom Menace is better, just that Empire fails Plinkett’s rubric as well.  And if the review gives the original trilogy a pass on criticisms that he crucifies the prequels for, then it gives off a whiff of hypocrisy.  Red Letter Media is not necessarily a slave to nostalgia, but why expend so much energy obsessing over the prequels flaws when their presence in the originals never led to such gnashing of teeth?  By the same token, why devote hours to watching these reviews and referencing them as gospel without acknowledging the flawed logic and double standards?

So yeah, it’s probably nostalgia.  Kids who grew up in the 1970s and 80s became cynical adults, but Star Wars preserved a childish twinkle in their eye.  But because George Lucas’ vision didn’t match the story concocted in their imaginations in the 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, the prequels suck and Lucas is a dick.  Give me a break.

Welcome

Welcome to the blog.

Work on Rogue Genius is nearing completion, and the book will be available in early September 2016.  Are you unfamiliar with the book?  Let me give you a brief synopsis:

Rogue Genius looks at George Lucas’ early career and influences, his famous work on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and his further endeavors as a businessman and innovator.  It assesses his legacy and then investigates the harshest criticisms levied against him.

I grew up during the era of the Star Wars Special Editions and prequels and have always been a bit of a George Lucas apologist.  I wanted a writing project that would allow me to formulate my thoughts on Lucas and his work while challenging me to maintain impartiality.

My hope is that this blog will serve as a companion of sorts to the book while establishing a forum to share my thoughts and opinions on all matters related to Lucas and Star Wars.

I compiled hordes of notes in research for this book, and in the process of editing and condensing, I removed portions that might have been too tangential or redundant. Not every idea was a winner, but many worthy thoughts were left on the cutting-room floor in the name of concision.  Think of this blog as the special features of Rogue Genius.

I hope you’ll visit often and check out Rogue Genius when it releases next month.