Friday, January 30, 2009

George Lucas and the 'Heart' of Star Wars

Looking back on my posts, it may seem as though I hate George Lucas. But honestly, I don't. Oh, I get frustrated with him, to be sure, but how can I dislike someone who crafted the movies that so greatly impacted my life. When you look back at his earlier movies like American Graffiti and Star Wars itself, you see a really great talent—someone who is able to make truly memorable films. Star Wars in particular has a perfect mix of action, effects, character moments, humor and a 'mythic' plot. He also had a hand in the rest of the original trilogy and the equally brilliant Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones movies (we'll just leave the 4th one out of this for the time being...) 

The man has talent, and drive, and in a time where studios were trying to tell him how to do everything, he went out and did it his own way—and it worked. 

I know that I was very excited when news of the prequel trilogy first surfaced. And when I heard that Lucas was going to direct them, himself, I was psyched. But as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, the prequel trilogy just fell flat for me. As a Star Wars fan, I liked the films. But I don't love them. Yes, of course I had high expectations, but I don't think that those expectations were out of line. Lucas has proven how good he is. Why shouldn't I expect that?

Everything in the prequel trilogy was top-of-the-line, from effects, to sound-design, to sets, to costuming, to talent to...well, about everything except writing. Oh, the plot was solid enough—In fact, I earned a whole new respect for the Emperor in these movies—but the dialogue between most of the characters was just...boring or outright cliche. The prequel just didn't have the 'heart' that the first movies did. 

In the original trilogy, you get a real idea of who the characters are by how they react and interact. They all have 'moments' where the action stops and its just the people, the 'human' element. You see the eager and excitable Luke trying to convince the mercenary Han to rescue the princess (Luke (slyly): "She's rich..." Han (suddenly interested): "How rich?"). You see Han and Leia sparring on the Death Star (Leia (snidely): "You came here in that? You're braver than I thought." Han (Testily): "Nice."). You see the droids actually being funny (Threepio (scoldingly): "I don't think he likes you very much." Artoo: "*Plaintive, inquisitive whistle*"Threepio (huffily): "No. I don't like you either."). It is these moments of brisk, clever dialogue—not just the special effects or scenery—that truly make the original trilogy great. 

Somehow, that all seems to have gotten lost in the prequels. It is quite ironic when you look at the caliber of actor in the prequels. Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan Macgregor and Samuel L. Jackson can act. I've seen them all do it before. And yet they all seem so cardboard. You don't get a sense of who they are by how they act, it is more like we are just expected to feel for them because we're told to. The relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin is a prime example of this 'dictated emotion'. We are supposed to believe that these guys have a friendship that rivals brotherhood, and yet in the movies, all we ever see is the two of them not getting along. Obi-Wan comes off as a snide nag—never ever satisfied with anything Anakin does. Oh sure, Anakin is impulsive and ambitious (and even whiney about it), but come on, have the Jedi never heard of positive reinforcement?

The same can be said for Anakin and Padme's relationship. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin comes off as kind of creepy and obsessed. Some girls may like that, maybe Padme is one of them, but I think even those kind of girls would be a bit put off by the whole "I slaughtered an entire tribe of Tusken" thing. And yet it seemed to have the opposite effect on Padme, who announced her love just hours/days later. There was an attempt to show the growth of their relationship, but it seemed rushed—probably because it was. In any case, I didn't really feel the connection between the characters. It was like they fell in love because the script says so. 

Don't even get me started on the whole droid comedy relief thing. Their 'humorous' moments in the prequel trilogy were more annoying than funny. Threepio's one liners ("This is such a drag") were so bad, I recall the entire theater groaning audibly at the puns.

A friend of mine (Martin) put it best when he said (and I'm paraphrasing): "When all George Lucas really had to work with was actors and their characters, he made a movie about those characters—filling the screen with them and letting their stories carry the movie (as it should be). When George Lucas has the money to build (RL or CG) sets, then he focuses on those sets." And that truly seems to be the case. The characters and their moments get lost in the sheer spectacle of a grandiose and imaginative setting. Even from what I've seen in the documentaries and commentaries on the prequel trilogy, Lucas was incredibly involved in the designs and effects. Maybe its just my perception, but I don't recall any moments showing him having writing workshops or working with the actors to perfect their roles and characters.

And so, what we get is ultimately bland writing, bland humor, bland dialogue. But not just bland, sometimes just plain wordy. It could have done with some serious editing. We didn't need the Force explained to us with the god-awful concept of 'midicholorians'. I think everyone was pretty much onboard with Ben Kenobi's explanation in the first movie ("Its an energy field"). We didn't need Anakin to tell us he was obsessed with Padme, he could have just acted it. Likewise, we didn't need Anakin to tell us he killed all the Tusken. Imagine how much more dark and brooding it would have been if he had kept that bottled up inside, even as Padme tried to console him (maybe even hearing the screams of the tusken as she embraced him). In fact, Anakin could have had half his lines cut and wind up all the better for it. I think that audiences are smart enough to pick up on inner turmoil without him saying things out loud (.i.e. "Gee, I really shouldn't kill Count Duku..."). And again, imagine that scene where Anakin becomes Darth Vader. Instead of the incredibly lame "Noooooooo!", how cool would it have been if he'd just stood there, completely silent, and destroyed the room with his telekinetic fury and anguish. 

But I digress. My point was, Lucas was a good film maker once. I'd like to think he could still be, but he's in a position now where he doesn't seem to take any creative input from anyone, and so he just delves into the things he likes, seemingly without a thought as to what made the movies popular in the first place—the characters.

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