Op-Ed: The Case Against Star Wars: Episode I
This article is a direct response to “In Defense of Star Wars: Episode I” by Joey Esposito, which can be found here on IGN. I would like to thank Mr. Esposito inspiring me to write this op-ed.
Before I begin, I would like to make it clear that this op-ed is not an attack on Joey Esposito by any means – rather, it is a deconstruction of the points he makes in his article “In Defense of Star Wars: Episode I” I greatly admire both his steadfast adoration for The Phantom Menace and his willingness to stick his neck out for a movie that is largely reviled amongst Star Wars fans and general audiences alike. I do genuinely believe that Mr. Esposito likes Episode I and that that is why he decided to make a case for the film, and it is with that notion that I would like to take apart his argument piece by piece.
So let’s get started, shall we?
One of the most interesting things that Mr. Esposito mentions in his piece is that he was a fan of the original series. In spite of this, he asks the reader to take Episode 1 on its own merits and not to compare it to what may have been an unreasonably high standard. I would like to point out that, according to my philosophy as a film critic, it is not my policy to simply ignore other movies in a franchise unless the new film is meant to be a reboot. In addition, it is certainly no secret that I am not a fan of the Star Wars prequels, and that I am a huge proponent of the original trilogy. Bearing that in mind, we can proceed.
Let’s face it – people went to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in theaters in 1999 for the Star Wars brand name. Yes, there were other factors at play – George Lucas was indeed helming the film, and a few notable actors and actresses were taking center stage, but in the end, moviegoers were really hoping for a technologically updated installment into what many consider to be the best movie trilogy of all time. Within this context, it is entirely reasonable to draw comparisons to A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of of the Jedi – and it is within that context that the prequel movies begin to completely fall apart.
And that brings me to A New Hope. While Mr. Esposito draws some very interesting parallels to the first Star Wars film, I can safely say that I have never seen anyone be so generous to one of the prequel movies… and for good reason. The Phantom Menace is a convoluted mess of a story that meanders constantly as the film progresses, touching on so much political drama and intergalactic trade route information that it’s difficult to keep everything straight. Moreover, the reward for keeping up with the pages of obtuse dialogue is minimal at best, because the backstory is largely irrelevant gobbledygook that exists merely to get Obi Wan and Qui Gon from Point A to Point B, Point B to Anakin, and from Anakin to the final multi-part showdown in the climax of the movie.
On the other hand, A New Hope is the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking, residing with features like Shawshank Redemption as one of the greatest movies of the 20th century. Everything from the pacing, to the extremely distinct environments, effects, and art design, to the simple efficiency of the plot, makes me feel like a totally different George Lucas directed the prequels. Yes, there is political context to the events taking place on Darth Vader’s ship, but it is all very straight forward and easy enough for anyone to understand – unlike it’s counterpart plot in Episode I. Keep in mind, I am not asking that the Star Wars movies be “dumbed down” to cater to a common denominator; in fact, not talking down to the audience is precisely this sort of thing that I praised in Tomas Alfredson’s work with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I am merely asking for actual coherence and reduced complexity for what is, at heart, an action/adventure series.
One of the most obvious points where the The Phantom Menace cannot hold a candle to the original series is the way in which fight scenes were handled. Mr. Esposito raises a very problematic point in is his commentary regarding the flashy choreography and interminable special effects used in the prequel series. I admit, for their time they were incredibly impressive and dazzled many viewers to the point where they apparently didn’t feel the need to care about things like plot and character development. However, in hard critical analysis, visual spectacle has never superseded the need for a coherent storyline and investment in the protagonists – it was this very problem that I took the most issue with for the theatrical release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. What bothers fans so much is that George Lucas seems to have spent many, many hours working on making everything look good without ever stopping to think about the ingredients that made the original series so superlative.
Mr. Esposito states that other films released prior to Episode I were famous for their flashy sword fighting, and so Star Wars should have included that level of panache, as well – but I will have to respectfully disagree on this point. In fact, the fight scenes from the original series were all closely matched with samurai duels from the legendary Akira Kurosawa films, and particularly his 1958 feature Hidden Fortress. These films all emphasized this emotional, realistic fighting style, and all Star Wars did was [successfully] apply this concept to a distinctly science fiction universe. On a related note, if the technical ability was there to add more pizazz, then that says something about the restraint George Lucas had back then; it seems that at this point, he can’t not add crazy effects not only to his new movies, but to retroactively to his older films.
Fast forward to the early 21st century, and you have Yoda, Obi Wan, and Anakin jumping and flipping and waving their lightsabers about in a manner that in no way reflects the inspiration from which the original series drew. More importantly, I cannot point to a single fight in the prequel series that carried any emotional weight whatsoever. It was almost as if George Lucas was actively trying to impress me with cool effects to distract me from how little I cared about whichever two to three people happened to be dueling. This trick has been used many times throughout film history (looking at you, James Cameron), but it rarely works on a discerning audience.
Fights in the original series were shorter, more realistic, and altogether better cinema, even if they were hardly the overly-scripted, very expensive combat scenes of the prequels. Indeed, be it the superior screenwriting, lack of any annoying little kids and semi-racist alien sidekicks, or the sincere emotional weight we felt when watching the protagonists, the very foundation of the original films was ultimately more structurally sound. In summary, there is not now and will never be a time when most critics will look back favorably on the Star Wars prequels, and all for the simple fact that they are, quite frankly, really crappy movies.
So, do you disagree completely? Was I totally off-base? Hit me, I can take it! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.