The day I have waited for has come! Someone besides me has said that the Star Wars prequels were better than the Original Trilogy!

Sorry for all the exclamation points, but it’s about time. (Hat Tip to Christopher Knight, whose post on this is also well worth reading.)

To be completely honest, I don’t totally agree with the guy’s reasoning, and he ties his argument a little too much to political events, but I am glad to see someone at least taking this position.

UPDATE: Guess I should add–you can find the defenses of each of the prequels that I wrote last year here, here and here.

I haven’t seen The Phantom Menace in 3D yet. I’m not sure if I’m going to, either. Like I said back when it first came out that they were making these, I’m kind of conflicted about the idea. On the one hand, I’m curious to see how they did it, but on the other, I wasn’t completely blown away by the 3D effects in Avatar, and it was shot in 3D. And I assume that something originally designed for 3D would be superior to a movie that was subsequently converted to it. (Technically speaking, that is. I thought that as stories, Avatar was lousy and The Phantom Menace was pretty good.)

What would be really cool would be if they would make some new Star Wars movies optimized for 3D. (A Mandalorian Wars movie would be awesome.) But, let’s face it, that probably won’t happen anytime soon. And, in the end, as Avatar proves, it’s the quality of the movie that really matters. Generally, you get better results when the director’s vision drives new technology than when new technology drives the director’s vision.

Can you think of any scenario where 3D alone could make the difference between a movie being good or bad? I can’t.



This quote from George Lucas has received a lot of attention lately:

“The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo, in Episode IV, what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo [who seemed to be the one who shot first in the original] to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t. It had been done in all close-ups and it was confusing about who did what to whom. I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.”

I assume most readers are familiar with this controversy, but for background, read this.

I first saw Star Wars in 1997, in its “Special Edition” form. I feel it necessary to state that up front, because your first impression of the films is always the one that will feel “right” to you. Also, the article with the Lucas quote includes the original 1977 version of the scene in question, so you can watch it there if you haven’t seen it. But I think that most people have.

Watching the ’77 version, all you see is Greedo threatening Han, then Han says “I’ll bet you have” and there is some sort of explosion in front of Greedo, after which he slumps over the table. I don’t know if the explosion is supposed to be Greedo being hit, the table exploding (why are the bar tables highly explosive?) or the muzzle flash of Greedo’s weapon, while Han’s shot hits him under the table.

While Lucas could be trying to rewrite history so that Han never shot first, (and we have always been at war with Eastasia), I do think that the 1977 scene could be interpreted as Greedo firing first. It’s pretty hard to tell what happened, so I think Lucas might have a point here.

In the Special Edition, Lucas has indeed clarified things by having Greedo fire and miss, followed by Han firing (twice, for some reason) immediately afterwards and hitting the mark. The idea that a professional bounty hunter like Greedo could somehow miss a man seated across the table from him seems ludicrous, although the implausibility is lessened when one considers the shoddy marksmanship of even the Empire’s specially born-and-bred soldiers. In this galaxy, missing a sitting target at point-blank range makes you just an average shot.

So, Lucas is sort of right: it’s possible that Greedo fired and missed perhaps a millisecond before Han fired in the 1977 version. Or that Greedo never fired at all. Or they both fired simultaneously. Or that Greedo tried to fire, and that explosion is actually his weapon malfunctioning. (Probably forgot to clean it and it… jammed? I don’t know; these weapons make no sense.)  It’s ambiguous, in my eyes.

In the Special Edition, it isn’t ambiguous at all, but it does look pretty ridiculous. So, though Lucas may be correct that the original version was misinterpreted by the viewers, it’s still a better scene than the updated one. As I’ve said on other occasions, filmmakers should make the audience do their thinking when possible.

(Hat Tip to Christopher Knight.)

[Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and as always, spoilers!]

The last of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, is not hated quite so much as its two predecessors. No doubt it is hated by many, but there are those who admit it has its good qualities.

I, of course, go even further. It’s not only my favorite Star Wars film,  it’s one of my favorite films ever. The first shot of a Republic battleship crawling along against a background sound of big guns, then swooping down into a frantic battle scene, is one of the most memorable intros I have ever seen.

And the beginning is the film’s weak point.

There are so many things I like about this film, from the clever echoing and foreshadowing in the opening sequence, to the brilliant performances of Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson,(Jackson’s sarcastically addressing Palpatine as “My Lord” is but one example) to the subtle but effective political commentary spread throughout the film.

Of course, the best performance is that of Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine/Darth Sidious. He dominates Revenge with a subtle, charming temptation in the first half, and with an insanely malevolent ecstasy in the second. It is awesome to behold, and here I must say that while Darth Vader gets the headlines, Darth Sidious is a far more terrifying–and, in some ways, plausible–villain. The scene in which he tells the tragedy of Darth Plagueis is the deepest scene in the saga, and McDiarmid carries it off masterfully. “Not from a Jedi” is a simple line, but the delivery lends it tremendous power.

It is fitting that the catalyst for the rise of Darth Vader is so splendidly handled.  Because in the end, it is all the story of Anakin’s fall to the dark side. Revenge is the absolute blackest hour for Anakin, it is his destruction and spiritual annihilation. And this forms the core of the story.

The depths of this fall, the darkness into which he is plunged, cannot be overstated. When critics nowadays say “darkness”, they mean “violence” or “suspense” or “the macabre”. That is not “darkness”. “Darkness” is the idea of flawed men and of Destiny. “Darkness” is good intentions gone awry. “Darkness” is a philosophical concept–a state of mind.

The entire saga culminates in the unutterably grim scene upon the landing pad on Mustafar. Anakin’s betrayal is completed in this scene, and his descent into depravity is laid bare to the horror of his wife and his friend. It is a scene of immense power, and one with a power quite foreign to the typical action/adventure viewer.

Surely, most audiences would be shocked at such an ending unless first primed for it by the knowledge that better days were ahead in the fictional universe. If you watched Revenge of the Sith without knowing what happens next in the series, it is almost as dark as Chinatown. It is about as much bleak tragedy as one could imagine in a summer blockbuster.

The essence of the classic tragedies is that the Hero has a fatal flaw which destroys him. You could interpret Revenge this way; that Anakin’s arrogance destroyed him.

But I look at it another way: Anakin’s flaws did not destroy him.

His virtues did.

This is why the original trilogy had to come first. Vader needed to be built up as the iconic villain before it could revealed that this most terrible of galactic evildoers became such because he loved his family. He loved his wife. He loved his friends. And it destroyed them all. “The road to Hell…”

That is “darkness.”

I could go on. I could say that I think the “Order 66” sequence is excellent. Critics rightly compare it to a similar scene in The Godfather, but neglect to note that it is carried out more successfully by Lucas than by Coppola. I could add that I think the music for Revenge is some of the best ever in cinema. Or I could explore my belief that the entire series can be interpreted differently from the mainstream approach, in that the Jedi order can be seen as a failed institution that the Sith are right to eradicate.

But after all, it’s up to you to decide. These posts have been my own opinion, and if yours, and all the world’s, are different then that is simply the case. It changes nothing for me or you. But I thought it might be interesting even to those who hate the films to hear the rationale of one who likes them.

(Part 1 is here. As before, spoilers ahead.)

The thing that I admire most about Attack of the Clones is its focus on Palpatine’s machinations. It, more than Phantom Menace or Revenge of the Sith, shows Palpatine carefully manipulating the Jedi Council, Amidala, Anakin and finally the Senate into giving him power.

Such a subtle character is quite absent from the original trilogy; either among the heroes or the villains. It’s also not the sort of thing that appears in most action/adventure epics. Ian McDiarmid does a splendid job not only subtly showing the Emperor-to-be’s devious side, but also at showcasing his charisma. He seems like a a fine fellow, as when he says to Senator Amidala “The thought of losing you… is unbearable.” But even so, we simultaneously see a glimpse of Darth Sidious, just for a moment, in the pause.

But McDiarmid’s performance is one of the few aspects of the film which has in fact drawn widespread praise, so I shan’t dwell upon it here. The major theme of Attack is mysterious goings-on and subtle things, as emphasized by Obi-Wan’s search for Zam Wessell’s killer in the first half-hour. This part of the story was rather overshadowed by the concurrent romance between Skywalker and Amidala, but I feel that it merits more attention than it gets. Obi-Wan is shown to be genuinely puzzled, as are all the Jedi. This is rather important, as it shows the Jedi are losing their grip on Galactic Affairs.

This bafflement is shown in the scene in which Obi-Wan, Mace Windu and Yoda converse in the Jedi temple. Yoda agrees with Obi-Wan that Anakin is “arrogant”, and notes the flaw is growing “more common” among Jedi. And indeed it is, but it may be that Yoda doesn’t realize just how high up it goes…

When Obi-Wan eventually does track down Jango Fett, the ensuing scene is a very tense dialogue–the sort of scene audiences tend to think of as “boring”, but in my opinion the polite veneer over Jango subtly evading Obi-Wan’s interrogation is one of the best scenes George Lucas ever wrote. “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the Universe” strikes me as the sort of evasive, yet oddly prideful phrase a politician might  use when questioned about a scandal. I can imagine Nixon saying that after “I am not a crook!” But I digress.

If the romance scenes in Attack of the Clones are an example of poor writing–and even I concede that they are–I maintain that the dialogue scenes between Obi-Wan and Fett and later between Obi-Wan and Count Dooku are examples of unusually good writing, at least for this sort of flick. I especially like Dooku’s dry remark before leaving the captured but resolute Obi-Wan: “It may be difficult to secure your release.” The whole scene is quite good, with Dooku amusingly feigning innocence throughout–he seems almost offended at Obi-Wan’s implication he is involved with holding him prisoner.

Count Dooku is worthy of more attention; he’s one of the better villains in the six films. I don’t know how obvious this is, but he’s always seemed to me a little bit like Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee was an older, aristocratic gentleman who had been in the U.S. Army, and then agreed to lead a rebellious Confederacy of States. Dooku is an older, aristocratic gentleman who had been a Jedi, and then agreed to lead a rebellious Confederacy of Star Systems. I like little touches like this.

And now, a few words in praise of the love scenes. The dialogue, as I have said, is poor. They are far from excellent scenes, no doubt. But there is one way in which the love story is better than most in popular entertainment: it does not begin with the lovers-to-be squabbling constantly. This is a technique used far too often, including in the original trilogy, and it’s grating in the extreme, as I’ve noted before. So, even of the film’s weakest point something good may be said.

And again, as with The Phantom Menace, the action scenes around which the film is based and which are essential to a film of this kind all seem to me to be perfectly enjoyable. So, given all this, I again do not understand the overwhelming dislike of the film.

[I have yet to see the new blu-ray versions of the Star Wars saga, but in honor of its release I thought I’d post some thoughts on the prequel films which I’ve been mulling over for years. Spoilers follow, of course.]

The almost universal hatred for the Star Wars prequels amazes me. Not just because I think the films are rather good, but simply because such a uniformity of opinion is quite rare nowadays. If the situation were reversed, I would think it equally amazing that so many people could agree to like something.

However, it is my belief that the prequels are underrated films, and that the hostility towards them is unjustified. I will address why the hostility arose later, but for now, I shall content myself with presenting the films’ merits, beginning with The Phantom Menace.

One of the complaints often leveled at Menace is that its politically-focused plot is boring. A trade dispute serves as the original issue from which the Sith will launch their plot to take control of the galaxy. Most people find this concept, as well as Senator Palpatine’s machinations, to be boring. I rather like the idea, however. How much evil is wrought because people do not pay attention to “boring” issues? As the Roman orator Cicero said: “The beginnings of all things are small”. It’s a subtle thing, but also quite believable.

I thought that Episode 1’s plot was rather clever, giving you a much more realistic feel for the situation, as opposed to simply saying “There are bad people. We must fight them” as most adventure films, including the original Star Wars seem to do. After all, though it’s little noted by critics, Queen Amidala’s major action in the film is to aid Palpatine’s rise to power. She’s the heroine of the prequel trilogy, and yet even she has been conned into unwittingly helping the Sith, and it sets the tone for all three films. Even when the protagonists think they’re winning, they lose.

This may not seem terribly impressive, and I’ll grant that it is by no means an intricate plot, but by the standards of adventure movies, it is complex and subtle.

Another too-little praised element is the acting. While Jake Lloyd’s performance is rather poor, most of the other actors do quite well. In particular, I think Liam Neeson is excellent as Qui-Gon, who is one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars movies.

What I like about Qui-Gon is that he’s kind of a jerk. Again, it’s not played up in the movie, but the animosity between him and Obi-Wan and between him and the Council is referenced a couple of times. Qui-Gon is clearly a bit of a rebel Jedi, who makes decisions without regard for the Council. He also can be a little bit cold at times.

Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it would’ve been easy to make Qui-Gon a Perfectly Wise Old Man, like Obi-Wan in A New Hope. But Lucas chose not to do that; instead, he made him a more complex character than the kind we are used to from the original trilogy. And again, Qui-Gon’s rebelliousness ultimately leads to disastrous consequences for the galaxy and the Jedi. The heroes’ best intentions are working against them.

There are flaws in Menace, to be sure. Jar-Jar, while I don’t utterly despise him like most people do, definitely did not merit such a big role. Darth Maul is pretty much squandered. The podrace is rather tedious, although no more so, in my opinion, than the race in Ben-Hur which inspired it. But taken altogether, I think The Phantom Menace is almost as good as The Empire Strikes Back.

The qualities I’ve listed above are not in themselves enough to make a good film, I admit. But when we recall that it is an action-adventure movie, it seems to that it enough uncommon subtleties of plot and characterization mixed in with plenty of enjoyable feats of martial arts (who doesn’t like the duel scene?) and futuristic gun-battles that it deserves to be considered a very well-made film, and more intelligent than most of its kind.

Via The Escapist, a very amusing article by Lt. Col. Dan Ward of the U.S. Air Force that criticizes the wastefulness and mismanagement the Evil Galactic Empire demonstrated in the creation of the Death Star.

It’s a delightful piece, but in addition, Lt. Col. Ward makes some very important points about organizations and management.

Also, as I think about it, I realize that there is, tragically, a parallel in military history to the Death Star:  the Japanese battleship Yamato. It was a giant and fearsome ship, yet it was utterly squandered in the war, needlessly wasting the ship and the lives of the men aboard.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times on here lately, I didn’t much care for the last book in the Harry Potter series. So I was pleased to see this Entertainment Weekly article by Jeff Jensen that expressed one of my many problems with it. As Jensen says:

“I wish Harry’s final victory over Voldemort had nothing to do with the technicalities of Elder Wand allegiance. Not that it doesn’t make sense… But it bugs me to this day that the most dramatic, cathartic moment in Rowling’s story pivots on a twist that required a bunch of exposition to explain.”

I’ll go one better: it makes very little sense, except inasmuch as anything can make sense due to magic. This “magic did it”  explanation is perfectly satisfying when things seem dramatically “right”, but, as Jensen observes, it’s weird for Potter to have to stand there and explain the legalistic intricacies of who actually owns the wand. It would work well enough in a comic opera, but not at the climax of a seven-part fantasy epic.

Jensen goes on to say:

“Maybe [Rowling] didn’t want Harry to ‘win’ by killing anyone, even someone as loathsome as Voldemort. Messianic Chosen Ones don’t murder their way to righteous, world-saving victory. See: Luke Skywalker.”

Okay, but the ending of Return of the Jedi is way more effective in my book. The Potter ending is sort of like if Emperor Palpatine were defeated because his payment on the Death Star’s electric bill didn’t go out on time due to a bank holiday. Not dramatically satisfying.

Well not for me, anyway; though clearly most other people feel differently about the book.

I enjoy Andrew Sullivan’s blog, but I wish he wouldn’t do things like this:

“Palin has been airbrushed out of the GOP race by the entire scene – from Politico to National Review. And yet, for some unfathomable reason, she has secretly put together an hour long Triumph Of The Will “Evita” “Undefeated” documentary that will attempt to do what Josh Green tried: to reframe her as a visionary reformer.”

I, along with many others, have repeatedly expressed my dislike for the Nazi comparison rhetorical device. Now, of course, a great many movies were influenced by that film. (I have even heard it said that the ending scene of Star Wars: A New Hope was influenced by a scene from it!) Maybe it will turn out the Palin film has some technical similarities, although so far I know of no reason to think it will. Such comparisons are very interesting from the point of view of a film student, but I don’t think that’s how Sullivan meant it.

My Conservative friends used to tell me, with an air of someone revealing esoteric and terrifying knowledge, that the Obama “Hope” poster was based, in some way, on the famous photo of Che Guevara. Well, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. What poster designer wouldn’t mimic one of the most iconic pictures in the world? But it seems to me it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the ideology of the figures depicted. Same logic applies here.

I watched the 2008 film adaptation of the book The Thirty-Nine Steps last week. I’ve never read the book, or seen the classic Hitchcock film, but this version was quite enjoyable, being well-paced and fairly well-acted. From what I have read, however, it bore little resemblance to the novel.

But one thing that irritated me was the film’s use of a rather tired trope. The film’s hero and heroine meet while the hero is being chased by German spies. As they are trying to flee their pursuers by car, they are trading petty insults back and forth, even as the spies are closing in on them.

Ultimately, of course, they end up falling in love.

This sort of thing seems to be very common in film nowadays. Personally, I’m tired of it, and it wasn’t all that good to begin with. I’m all for injecting wit into even serious films; but the fact is that most people will not be coming up with clever insults while being pursued by armed enemy forces.

Moreover; I don’t know who decided every movie couple has to start off being annoyed by and arguing with each other. From what I have heard, I was under the impression it was more regular for a couple to like one another at first, and only over the course of years of knowing one another do they start fighting. But that’s quite cynical, I admit.

One of the reasons I hold the Star Wars prequels superior to the original trilogy is that they managed to almost entirely avoid this kind of thing. Whereas Han Solo and Princess Leia fight with each other almost constantly throughout A New Hope and the first half of The Empire Strikes Back, in the prequels Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala are actually shown to be in love first, before they run into… difficulties in their relationship.

I am not arguing for the Star Wars prequel love story as some kind of model for cinema romance. It is rather shabbily written, no doubt. But as a concept, it stands out from contemporary film romances. (Admittedly, this is partly because it is willing to embrace even older tropes that have lately fallen so far out of fashion they seem more original.)

The essence of drama, the saying tells us, is conflict. Therefore, in order to create drama, the lazy writer simply creates conflict wherever he can, even if it doesn’t make sense for the characters and story.