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The Originals: A Boring Swamp
PrequelsAreBetter
The Prequels: A Gorgeous City

We are under a month away from the much-ballyhooed release of “Star Wars VII: Will This Sith Never End?”.

Ok, so that isn’t the real title. But swapping a few letters  in that title neatly summarizes my reaction to it. I’m suffering from Star Wars fatigue.

Still, in honor of the upcoming premiere, I decided to re-watch the entire six movie saga. I came away from it with one overriding conclusion–one that won’t surprise my long-time readers, but will shock all others:

The Prequels are better than the Originals.

To this I add another sub-conclusion:

The Phantom Menace is the best of all of them.

And finally, the most controversial point:

The Empire Strikes Back is the worst of all of them.

Yes, that flies in the face of every review you ever read. But reviewers are subject to fads and fashions, and it was fashionable to bash the prequels largely because critics at the time were nostalgic for the originals.

I’ve always thought the prequels were good. But now I’ve realized they are way better than the dreary original trilogy, with its dull characters and repetitive plots.

Start at the beginning, with The Phantom Menace. Yes, Jake Lloyd was weak, but no worse than Mark Hamill. Moreover, everyone else did quite a good job. Liam Neeson portrays Qui-Gon as an arrogant rebel, and Ewan McGregor is great as his put-upon, trying-to-be-respectful-but-also-follow-the-rules apprentice. I also love the constant sniping between Padme and Qui-Gon. I’m going to come back to this movie later, but for now, we’re on to Attack of the Clones.

It was not as good as I remembered. The plot is an incoherent mess, and the romance is a disaster. But, one thing that was pleasantly surprising was how well Natalie Portman did at playing the romance. She couldn’t do well enough to actually create chemistry (alchemy would have been required to get any sparks from Christensen), but her acting in the love scenes is actually quite good.

The big question, other than why Padme marries Anakin, is how did the planet Kamino apparently keep churning out clone armies without anyone noticing? The Kaminoan Prime minister tells Obi-Wan it is “one of the finest” clone armies they’ve ever made, implying there are others.  No one follows up on this.

Revenge of the Sith starts out impressively with the massive space battle, drags a bit with the tiresome General Grievous subplot, but builds to a powerful emotional climax in the scene where Padme and Obi-Wan confront Anakin on Mustafar. It’s the best scene in all of Star Wars, with Portman and McGregor both doing a magnificent job, and Christensen (for once) showing some terrifying, insane charisma.

My biggest problem with the prequels was the sexism: the treatment of Shmi, who has no dramatic purpose other than to die, was bad enough; but when Padme (who is a very strong, well-written female lead in Phantom Menace) inexplicably falls in love with the loutish Anakin, it seemed like Lucas was saying “Oh, her and her lady brain! That’s just what chicks do.”

The reason the love story in Attack of the Clones is so bad is because Anakin has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A former Queen turned Senator and successful military strategist would not fall for somebody who was failing at being a monk and pouting about it.

The plot of Clones makes no sense–the Padme/Anakin romance is about as unromantic as it gets, even if you believe that opposites attract. The mystery of why Count Dooku hired a bounty hunter to sub-contract out the task of assassinating a Senator who was going to vote against the creation of an army to oppose forces Count Dooku himself was leading makes no sense either. Hell, I got confused just writing that.

Revenge of the Sith is better at making some sort of sense, but at the end we are still left wondering what Padme, or the Jedi, or even the Emperor himself, ever saw in Anakin. He is basically worthless to everyone; even the Sith.

But as weak as that is, it was still a more compelling story arc than: idiot blows up a space station–>idiot meets talking frog in swamp–>idiot’s friends blow up second, larger space station. Also, sword fights.

A New Hope looks downright silly. None of what Obi-Wan says to Luke is remotely accurate, and the special effects are horrible. The only likable character in it is Han Solo, and he is only likable because he wants to get out of this mess as fast as possible.

The story of A New Hope makes about as much sense as that of Clones; which is to say, very little. What is the use of a space station that blows up planets? It is perhaps the most worthless weapon imaginable–something the simply exterminated all life, leaving the other stuff intact, would be way more valuable. Moreover, why it had to orbit the planet before firing made no sense, nor did the rebels’ elaborate ceremony at the end.

Then comes The Empire Strikes Back, which is nothing less than a total drag. After a hilariously bad battle on Hoth, we are treated to a half hour of Luke sitting in a dark, dreary swamp, intercut with another half hour of Han and Leia sitting in a dark, dreary ship. It’s the dullest hour in the series. Jar Jar Binks addressing the Senate was more interesting.

So, then eventually there is a lightsaber duel in which Luke’s expression never changes until the end, at which point he sobs like a baby at the revelation that Vader is his father. (Note: great heroes do not break down crying like babies. Though I suppose Vader is to blame for that, too.)

In all the gushing over how great Empire allegedly is, critics lose sight of the fact that it goes absolutely nowhere.  It reminds me of Mark Twain’s “rules governing literary art”, stating “that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” Like Twain said of Fenimore Cooper’s work, Empire “accomplishes nothing and arrives in air”.

The only developments in Empire are these:

  1. The Rebel Alliance loses Han Solo, who had been trying to leave ever since he got there.
  2. Luke finds out that Vader is his father, which raises more questions than it answers, and sets us up for the big payoff in Return of the Jedi, when…

…the alliance has to waste time getting Han Solo back, for no apparent reason. The Jedi may preach letting go of attachment, but in practice, their motto is clearly “no man left behind”. (And I do mean “man”, since the misogynist pigs were all too glad to leave Padme in the sand on Geonosis.).

Anyway, the whole Jabba’s palace / rescue Solo sequence had nothing to do with the rest of the story. It served no dramatic or thematic purpose for Han to ever be put in carbonite.

Just remember that: the first third of that movie is dedicated to an irrelevant subplot.

Meanwhile, the Empire has inexplicably tried to replicate their biggest failure: another giant, useless battle station that does nothing except destroy the planets that probably belong to the Empire anyway. Then we have the obligatory lightsaber duel and space battle–a sequence completely upstaged by the similar one in The Phantom Menace.

It all gets blown up, at no cost to anyone, except one Ewok, a couple rebel pilots, and Anakin, who frankly deserved to die ever since he sexually harassed the Senator he was supposedly guarding.

What struck me about the original trilogy was how damn dull it was. Next to the sophistication of the prequels, it was like watching a movie a ten year old might make.

Overall, the prequels were decent, but not as good as I remembered. The originals were almost unwatchable. The people who tell you the original trilogy is better are just wrong. It’s horrible.

Most of the Star Wars movies make no sense. Clones is incoherent, Sith introduces new elements that weren’t foreshadowed in Clones, A New Hope doesn’t match up with anything that comes before or after, Empire is boring and pointless, and Jedi is spent resolving plot problems that Empire caused.

But remember: there is one more movie in the saga, and it actually has a *gasp* coherent plot!

Lucas pretty obviously spent those 15 years between Jedi and Menace writing one story, and it was Menace. After that, he realized he needed two more movies and just made it up as he went along.

In Phantom Menace, for once the plot makes sense: Federation blockades a planet; Queen escapes from planet, Queen returns with plan to liberate planet. This concept of a ruler returning to claim their throne is actually somewhat plausible, and sounds vaguely like something that might possibly happen in a universe that makes sense. (Queen Amidala’s appeal to the Gungans is pretty much a “Napoleon at Grenoble” moment.)

The twist with Padme the handmaiden being the Queen is the subtlest, cleverest piece of writing in the Star Wars movies. And it’s right in front of our eyes the whole time, but cleverly disguised by the Queen’s elaborate costumes. This is better than the “I am your father” twist, because that was only a twist due to Obi-Wan blatantly lying to Luke for absolutely no reason. That’s a cheat on the storyteller’s part. The twist in Menace has foreshadowing, buildup and payoff.

The other standout thing about Menace is how Padme completely outwits both the Jedi–especially the condescending, arrogant Qui-Gon–and the Sith. It’s the only time in all the movies someone actually tricks Palpatine. (Granted, Palpatine also maneuvered Amidala into voting for him, so he still got what he wanted out of it.)

It’s the only time in the movies when a character triumphs not due to ham-handed luck in order to further the plot, but rather due to a character actually crafting and executing a sensible plan.  It’s infinitely more satisfying than Luke destroying the Death Star by “trusting his instincts”

Menace is a good movie, hamstrung by bad acting from Jake Lloyd, and an overabundance of Jar Jar Binks antics. And even these aren’t as bad as the subsequent comic relief with C-3PO and R2-D2 in later installments.

I think the only Star Wars movies that work as standalone movies are New Hope and Menace. They have complete story arcs, whereas the others really don’t. Empire doesn’t even have any plot development at all.

My final verdict: The last hour of Menace and the last hour of Sith are the best parts of the entire saga. Ironically, while these are the highlights of the series, there is no logical way to get from one to the other. You would never guess they were from the same series if you watched them in isolation. That’s why a bunch of ridiculous stuff had to happen in Clones as Lucas tried to mash it all together.

Given that, which film is more satisfying?  Sith gets a more emotional response, but it also needed more clumsy writer manipulation to do it.  So the edge goes to Menace, whose upbeat tone feels more true to the old serials Star Wars allegedly imitates. (Very few old serials ended with the heroine dying in childbirth after being choked by the hero.)

In spite of what old-timers viewing the originals through rose-colored glasses will tell you, The Phantom Menace is the best Star Wars movie. We can only hope and pray that the new movies imitate Menace, and discard the baggage of The Empire Strikes Back and the dated, boring original trilogy.

Warren Spector recently wrote an excellent article stating that what video games need to legitimize them as a medium is a Roger Ebert-like figure whose criticism will help interest the general public in gaming.

I’ve often wondered about this myself, but I’ve ultimately concluded that it’s getting the order wrong.  I think the popularity of gaming will lead to the emergence of such critics and not the other way about.  I think the reason for this is that what popular criticism requires to exist is a sufficiently rare set of qualities that you need a large pool to choose from.

Now, that said, I think having a “Roger Ebert of gaming” would be awesome.  In fact, that’s kind of what I dream of becoming whenever I write a gaming post.  Not that I ever will be.  I think the thing few people realize about criticism is that the key quality it takes to be a good critic of anything is to be a good writer.  It’s not enough to know your subject matter and be able to come with interesting analyses of it; you need to be able to do it concisely, intelligently and above all else, cleverly.

Let me cite one of my favorite literary criticism essays: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“.  I suggest you read the whole thing–it’s short–but to encapsulate what makes it great, let me explain that I have never read any Fenimore Cooper books, and yet I enjoy the essay tremendously.  For all I know, Twain’s criticism is completely unfair.  But I enjoy the essay anyway.  Think about that: I have no idea what these books are about except for what Twain mentions, but his evisceration of them is fun to read.

So consider that the most important element of criticism isn’t about what you’re criticizing or what you’re saying about it; it’s about how you phrase it.  If you can be witty in your reviews–that’s the real key, I think.   Not that there isn’t plenty of wit in game criticism, but the issue with game criticism is that the humor too often comes from “in-jokes”, or references to other games.  It’s not accessible to the layman.

In contrast, take this quote from Ebert’s review of the movie Armageddon: “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”  I’ve never seen that movie; so I don’t know if I agree or not.  But it’s a great quote.  He could have said it about any bad movie, though; it has nothing to do with the subject of the movie.  It’s just a generally funny line.

I’m not saying that’s all Ebert was about–he had truly interesting ideas about movies, too.  But that’s not what made him famous.  What made him famous was that he was a very witty writer.

All we need then is somebody who loves video games, has interesting things to say about them, and is an extremely witty writer to boot.  So where is that guy?  Everybody who writes about games, including myself, wants to be that guy, but no one yet has succeeded.

Here’s another question: where’s the new Roger Ebert of movies, now that the original Roger Ebert has passed away?  I don’t know that there is a comparable figure in movie criticism.  Spector apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name.  He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an example.

I have a theory: criticism in general is not as good nowadays.  People just are not as good at it, possibly because the internet makes it easier to seek out criticism targeted at their specific interests.  Criticism is Balkanized now, unlike in Ebert’s heyday, when there was one movie critic in the city paper, and he had to write to appeal to the widest audience he could.

This theory could be wrong–I don’t like it because it’s a little simplistic, “things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be” kind of thinking,  but it does account for why there is no Ebert of gaming.

NOTE: Spector’s article has generated a lot of reaction–Shamus Young and Chris Franklin, among others–have written posts in response to it that make some good points about the issue. Young makes basically the same point I did about the need for game critics who can be read by non-gamers.