Thursday, March 29, 2018

Star Wars - The Prequel Trilogy

So I recently revisited the Star Wars prequels. Well, more specifically, I revisited Episodes II and III. I skipped Episode I, because I feel like I've given that movie more than enough chances over the years, probably more chances than any other movie, but it just never quite works for me, outside of a handful of scenes here or there. But anyways, while I've never really been a fan of the first movie, I've always loved Episodes II and III. Those two have always been real comfort movies for me, and have always held a special place in my heart as such.

I had always enjoyed the original Star Wars movies, but never really found that personal connection to them that so many had. They were just good fun flicks for me for the most part, and I didn't really think much of them beyond that. However, Attack of the Clones was the first time that Star Wars really started to connect personally with me, and this feeling totally continued with Revenge of the Sith, which is the only movie in the series that just about pushed me into legitimate Star Wars fanboy territory, as opposed to just a fan in general of the series. Like, I was legit obsessed with Episode III when that first came out, and it was a rare of example of a film that really left me feeling like I had just watched something truly special.

However, it's been quite a while since I last watched them, close to a decade at least, so I was curious how they would hold up for me upon a revisit. Particularly now that the newer Star Wars movies produced by Disney have left me less and less enthused with the franchise with each new entry, I was curious, was it really Disney, or was perhaps my admiration for the franchise, or even just this kind of movie in general, just naturally diminishing?

Well, I won't hold you in suspense for too long, as they definitely more than held up for me. But I gotta say, I was genuinely concerned, and as such went in with reservations in mind. After all, there have been a handful of times in the recent past where revisiting other movies that I had at one time loved really wasn't too kind to the films in question. Films such as The Time Machine, or more recently, Spider-Man 3, where their flaws stood out all the more clearly to me now than they had before way back. I can assume this has something to do with my ever evolving taste in film, plus my overall knowledge on the medium increasing as much as it has over the years, which may make me subconsciously look back at some of these movies with a bit of a more critical eye than I may have initially done. Not to say that I now suddenly hate these movies in question, mind you. I still quite enjoyed them, even if my enthusiasm for them had perhaps diminished a bit.

But the Star Wars prequels held up for me much in the way as another recent rewatch did, that being Independence Day, which I covered at the time of that particular revisit. There was a concern back then that perhaps that movie wouldn't be nearly so impressive, now living in an era in which such big bombastic blockbusters are so much more commonplace and, quite frankly, oversaturated within the market. But thankfully, that movie held up and managed to stand out all the same due to the sheer care for craft, character, and artistic integrity that so often feels missing in a lot of today's major releases. And I found much of the same to be the case while rewatching Episodes II and III.

I'll just come right out and say it, I think that George Lucas' direction on these films is criminally underrated. I know that a lot of people may have some gripes with some of the acting, which I've also jumped to the defense of in the past, but just from a pure visual perspective, these films are impeccable. Sure, some of the CG effects may be showing their age now, which is honestly the only real gripe I was able to come away with upon this latest rewatch. But otherwise, I was just taken aback by the sheer visual storytelling on display in these films.

Lucas has a way of really placing emphasis on such striking imagery throughout, imagery that just ingrains itself in your brain. And as I was watching, I just kept thinking of my admiration for another visual filmmaker favorite of mine, Zack Snyder. Just the way he's able to conjure up such striking, iconic images in his films that really embed themselves in you, rewatching these films really felt like a precursor to all of that, and probably helps to explain where my initial admiration for Snyder may well have originated in the first place.

As a small example of this in practice, there's an old Chris Stuckmann review of Revenge of the Sith where he complains about a particular closeup shot on Obi-Wan's eyes, as he's facing off against General Grievous and announces, "Oh, I don't think so."

Stuckmann complained about the framing of the shot in question, how it's not centered. And I was curious about this while watching his review. However, seeing this scene in the movie itself, all I could think was, of course it's framed in the manner that it is. It's because, how many times have we seen that exact shot that Stuckmann is complaining about, the centered closeup on the eyes? It's been done and done to death. But by framing it just a bit off center, suddenly, that same shot stands out. Suddenly, that same shot is something new, something different. Something that sticks with you, where you can just see it in a screencap and know exactly where this is from and what's being said. Basically, by framing it how he did, he created an image that truly stays with you, as opposed to merely recreating the same sort of disposable image that we've already seen time and time again, to the point that it's perhaps lost its effectiveness.

And there's really so many more examples of this throughout, most notably to me in the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. And speaking of, just the whole entire conclusion to that movie is really just stunning. About the last ten minutes is almost completely devoid of any dialogue, as the remainder of the story is all told almost exclusively through its visuals and music. And yet even so, these closing moments are among the most emotionally stirring in the entire series to date. And that's not something that just comes by accident, that's exceptional filmmaking and direction.

But even beyond the visuals, what also really struck me was the sound design, particularly in Episode II. Like, I was just blown away listening to all of the inspired sounds in that movie. It really just made me think of just how inventive this series has always been with its sound effects, and Lucas definitely never lost his touch in this regard at all. It's like that inventiveness of such futuristic sound work was kicked up another notch in this particular film, to a level that's just off the charts, in a way similar to his visual work, where they just really cement themselves in your mind. And as such, the sounds of various ships and other tech throughout this movie were really just hitting me in those nostalgic feels in a way that I wasn't nearly prepared for, like being revisited by an old friend who you didn't even realize how much you'd been missing them.

But this is the genius of these films. Where I feel that so many blockbusters these days are just mindless, "in one ear, out the other" affairs, these were movies that were truly elevated to a level that really stays with you. They're a lot more complex than they're given credit for, but a lot of the complexities play out more in the background, while the main story is more simple and relatable, placing the focus more on the emotion and characters first and foremost, and allowing for the dynamic visuals and music to help tell that story, rather than act as mere spectacle.

Granted, this is more so the case with Episodes II and III, as I felt that Episode I was perhaps the opposite in that regard. And in fact, I've always felt that The Phantom Menace was the oddball of the whole series, the one entry that really didn't feel much like a Star Wars movie at all. In terms of tone and music, it feels far more kid-centric than any of the rest, and even the fact of how far apart it is in timeline with the rest has always presented a bit of a disconnect. That's why I've always had a hard time really even considering the prequels to be a true trilogy.

But then it hit me recently, that perhaps, it's not really a trilogy. But rather, it's a two-parter, with Episode I acting more as the prologue to the events of Episodes II and III. It's a movie that really acts more as an introduction to this universe in general, laying down the groundwork for how this universe operated during this period of time, and perhaps was more just George Lucas reacquainting himself with this universe as well, before really diving into the story he really wanted to tell. So it's something that adds some depth and background to what you're watching in Episodes II and III, should you decide to watch it, but is perhaps not entirely necessary viewing in order to still enjoy and appreciate the main story being told in these prequels.

Speaking on the timeline a bit, I also really dug how you could totally tell these films were taking place during an entirely different era in this universe. Looking at the new films from Disney, I almost have to roll my eyes and groan at just how much of the typical iconic imagery they reuse from the original movies in order to market them, images of storm troopers and classic ships and such. Despite taking place 30 years later, it all looks the same. But not so with these prequels.

Hell, Episode I has almost no familiar imagery to fall back on in order to sell itself. The ships all look newer and sleeker, we visit a number of brand new locales and cultures, and the general look of the people and these worlds are vastly different in these films. And as we move on to each new entry in the series, you can see the natural evolution as the world around them continues to progress. So much thought and care went into all of this aspect to really further build this universe, and it especially emphasizes just how unimaginative the newer Disney movies have really gotten in comparison.

Moving on to the main story though, I'll just say that, up until now, I've always considered Revenge of the Sith to be not only the superior movie, but honestly my favorite Star Wars movie in the whole series at that. However, if there's one way in which my shift in film tastes may be prevalent upon this rewatch, it might be that I think I may have actually liked Attack of the Clones even more this time around. And I think that may have to do with my brewing appreciation for much smaller stories being told in films, with recent examples including A Ghost Story or this year's Thoroughbreds.

I'm beginning to grow a bit tired of so many grand sweeping epics, and am finding myself more and more drawn to the more minimal approach in film. And not to say that Attack of the Clones is a minimal movie or anything like that, but I just found myself really digging the more personal story being told on the slightly smaller scale in that film in comparison. Anakin's struggle with his emotions felt so raw and so real to me, particularly when you take his young age and circumstances into account. And while yes, the big payoff leading to the grand epic that was Revenge of the Sith is certainly earned, I just really appreciated the more scaled back look on these characters' lives in this go around.

As for Revenge of the Sith, well, I just said it, didn't I? It's a hell of an epic, and it's a movie that is quite frankly six films in the making, taking the original trilogy into account, and it makes the absolute most of all that buildup. Where I complain about so many big movies just going all out with a mind numbing degree of spectacle and action, it's pretty rare these days for such scenes to come across as truly earned. And this was certainly one of those rare times, which is why I think it struck me so much back when I first saw it, and why it's continued to stay with me after all this time. Lucas knew he needed a big payoff, and he delivered in the biggest and most emotional way possible, showing us the downfall of our heroes and this society as a whole, and really driving the point home in a sheer visceral level with its striking visual metaphors to boot.

And with that ending taken into account, it's so amazing to go back and see how much of the movie plays out rather comedically early on. The back and forth banter between Anakin and Obi-Wan during the rescue mission just really tickled me, and painted a perfect picture for how their friendship had developed since we last left off with them. But it also makes their downfall all the more tragic and gut wrenching to witness, as the film progressively takes a darker and darker turn. It just goes back to my old theory that you've really gotta shine just enough light in there first in order for a truly dark story to be most effective. And to this day, it's still stunning to see it all play out.

And it was actually as I was watching these final moments in Revenge of the Sith when it suddenly struck me just what it is about these prequels that make them work for me so well in a way that the new movies from Disney just don't. And that reason is, these films truly feel like a genuine artistic expression first and foremost. These feel like films that Lucas made because he felt he had a story to tell. Whereas, on the other hand, the new movies just feel like cynical cash grab products to me, movies that are made solely with money in mind, and little in the way of true artistic integrity, which I just personally find really off-putting. Now I can get into more detail on all of that, but I feel that that's an entirely different discussion altogether, which we'll have to save for perhaps another day. Or not. Who knows?

So anyways, those are my updated thoughts on the Star Wars prequels. And quite frankly, not only did they hold up for me, I actually think that upon revisit, they're far better than even I remember them being, and certainly better than they're largely given credit for. Attack of the Clones is a genuinely fantastic movie that gets a whole lot of hate, which I've never quite fully understood. And Revenge of the Sith stands as a testament of how to pull off such a tragic fall from grace in the grandest manner imaginable. These films are certainly underappreciated works of art, and I honestly feel may have been well ahead of their time. But hey, don't take it from me. Give them a revisit for yourself, and see just how well these movies may well have aged over time for you, too.