Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Series Criticism: Star Wars (Part 1.75: Where did the fun go?)

Okay, now we're getting into the bread-and-butter of my criticisms of the franchise itself. Look, the prequels are bad. We all know that. (Well, besides some writers who want to be controversial and go against the crowd, often saying that the prequels are better because of... uh... reasons? I'm guessing stuff like OH CGI IS BETTER and THE PREQUELS ARE SMART... but come on, does anybody really believe those things?) The prequels failed, maybe not in terms of money, but certainly in terms of support in the thinking people of the world because there was no heart to them.

Now, this is going to get complex and very opinionated, and I can't help that. All of this is opinion, and my opinions can sometimes be controversial or downright insane. Most of my reviews don't really go into some of my more crackpot theories, and I tend to try to avoid complex ideas of what people (actors, directors, writers) were thinking. But sometimes I have to point out when I think people are having fun or when they're not... and also when there are more abstract ideas of what makes something good or bad.

I don't like sell-outs. I like my moral high ground. I like having this idea that nobody ever has to sell out. Selling out=bad to me. And that's the problem. Star Wars was already a franchise based on selling crap, selling media, selling toys to the kids who would see it, but it always had a soul, a heart, in the center of it. Watch A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back and go and tell me that there wasn't a heart to those movies. The actors had passion for their parts. The directors and writers had passion for the story. Yes, they were making money, but there was care for quality. Everybody put in their time and effort. They went to locations and shot their scenes in deserts, in tundras... forests for Return of the Jedi. They built sets, sometimes, like with the original Death Star, from thousands of battleship models put together. That's insane and brilliant. It made the whole movie feel not only more real, but used up in so many ways. It added to the aesthetic which added to the mood which added to why the movies were so good. Practical sets are hard, but they pay off in the end by having stunning visuals that CGI just cannot replicate.

CGI is the bane of existence today. It makes good movies into cartoons and makes bad movies so much worse. George Lucas wanted to push the boundaries of CGI with the prequels and he did. I can't argue that. He pushed the boundaries of what can be done with CGI and movies. The problem is that he sacrificed story, characters, and the Star Wars franchise to do so. You can tell what he wanted. He wanted full control, he wanted to make money, and he wanted the movies to hold up against modern movies in terms of the look of the movies. He wanted to compete with other gorgeous movies, using every trick in his book to make his movies better. He wanted to appeal to every demographic, wanted Star Wars to be KING.

The problem is the movies, at their center, had no soul. There was no reason to care about Anakin or Obi-Wan. Hell, I barely had any reason to care about any of the characters. Anakin was a supreme jerk in the latter two movies of the prequels and in the first he was an annoying kid. Yes, he had some moments of trying to appeal to the audience, like when his mother died and whatnot, but ultimately it failed and fell extremely flat. I don't care about Hayden Christiansen as an actor one way or another. He could have been the best actor ever, his emotions still would have fell flat. Christopher Lee is a case in point. The guy is a very good, very accomplished actor. He's certainly had some bad films, but he's always had dignity in his roles. Compare his role as Count Dooku in the prequels to his role as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings films. There is no comparison. Count Dooku is both lackluster and unneeded. He has no personality, no reason for me to care about him or think about him at all. In fact he's become the punchline to a lot of jokes I make. But then you see Saruman and see that Christopher Lee is a damn good actor who can put in a performance that is simply brilliant. The Star Wars prequels didn't have the good direction that LotR did. That's for sure. But they also didn't have the well-written, well thought of characters. None of them mattered. Yes, we knew the story, we knew what would happen, but did it have to be so full of nothing? I mean, I've seen very few movies where both the settings and characters suffered so much because of issues on the filmmaker's part. Was the plot okay? I have no idea. Maybe it could have been, but the characters were so flat that I didn't care about that either.

Go ahead and tell me there characters are well-done. Go ahead. I dare you. You can't even do it with a straight face, can you? It would make your brain explode to call Anakin or Padme great characters worthy of being etched in history. I mean, Palpatine was the only character I enjoyed watching in the prequels and only because he was evil and didn't give a damn. His complications come from the fact he's playing both sides, acting both good and bad simultaneously. It gives him the illusion of complexity while he remains just as flat and stupid as every other character. Yoda was ruined by the prequels, although I guess everybody knows that by now. Mace Windu was garbage. And do any of the others even matter?

Compare any character from the prequels to the original trilogy and tell me what you get. The original trilogy, is always better. The characters are almost never flat, and the situations and scripts are well done. Watch The Empire Strikes Back and tell me that Luke and Han don't seem like best friends despite spending almost no time in the actual movie together. They do. And yet Anakin and Obi-Wan say they're best friends, spend half of Attack of the Clones together and never feel close at all. Do you see?

The prequels and Star Wars in general has lost their respective hearts and souls. They have sold out beyond comprehension, hoping to sell, to appeal, to look great, to be funny, serious, tragic, comedic... the list goes on and on, but the ending is always the same: the spirit of Star Wars was sacrificed to make room for a "vision," a vision that couldn't work, didn't work, and alienated people away from the franchise. And that's all I can say. The fun of the movies, the enjoyment... the adventure... was stripped out in favor of looks and flashing lights and a focus on a romance that not only didn't work, but couldn't work. The characters were broken beyond repair, flat and dead on arrival. And there was nothing that could be done once that happened.

I used to read the Star Wars novels back in my misspent youth. Most of them were not good, but they weren't brain-crushingly terrible either. They had silly plots sometimes, and each of them (before 1997 or so) seemed to be intent on getting Luke to marry their girl of the month or whatever, but in general, although there were some very high quality ones and some very bad ones, most were humbly mediocre... and that's fine. I still read them. I still pretty much enjoyed them. But after the prequels came out, the whole soul of Star Wars seemed to shift. First it was the genre shifts as seen in The New Jedi Order books with the Yuuzhan Vong, bringing out a focus on both gore, grittiness, horror, and realism that Star Wars had long lacked. These elements were a break from the romantic and adventurous ideal Star Wars had been based upon, but maybe it was time for a change. maybe it could work. There were a few of the books in the, I believe, 19 book series that were pretty good. Some were awful too, but that's to be expected. On the whole though, the books and Star Wars, were stepping on thin ice, pushing the boundaries of what is Star Wars.

The problem was that despite the seriousness, the characters never seemed to change. Luke, Han, and Leia were essentially the same characters from the original trilogy of movies. Their twenty years of character development, relationships, and losses were all but forgotten under the guise of a new series, with new writers trying their best to make these characters their own. And the series fell into what I like to consider at the best of times "Fanfiction" and the worst of times something unspeakable. The things that are called Star Wars novels today are but a shadow of even the worst of the novels of the nineties. And that's terrible. I haven't read any new novels in years... probably since the Legacy of the Force novels, where I became so insulted at the writers of that series that I actually quit Star Wars. How could I not with such egregious violations of the fans' trust? Killing off a popular character in order to prop up an unpopular one? How is that even... I'm not getting into this. My point is that there were a lot of bad decisions and I hope that the teenage girls reading the Star Wars novels now are really happy in just how screwed up the franchise is. It has been a long fall,and it's still going.

Again, the heart of the franchise has been torn out and eaten. There's nothing left but the terrible parts of Star Wars. When no KotOR III established itself, I knew the franchise, to me, was dead, finally. Have there been some good thing in the past few years? Yeah, I guess. I liked some parts of the Legacy comics, and I like the idea of horror and Star Wars combining... but beyond that, I'm done with the series.

In a way Star Wars reminds me of some of my more hated franchises, like Harry Potter, which I felt sold out a long time ago... or, and I may like the webcomic all right, but the soul of it is now gone: Homestuck. Now, these two franchises are certainly, at this point in time, examples, in my opinion, of creators selling out, forgetting original visions, and appealing to the blind mass of fans rather than the art of the thing. Maybe it's just me, but that's how I feel: utterly disappointed in the creators.

I need to take a breath for a while, but Part 2 in which I rant about the early Star Wars expanded universe and Return of the Jedi will be coming soon.

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