Jan 16 2013 11:00am

Watching the Star Wars Prequels on Mute: An Experiment

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Over at The Chronicle Review, Camille Paglia stirred quite a few pots a while back by asserting that George Lucas might be the greatest artist of our time. It’s no surprise that your average appreciator is having a hard time with that statement, for a veritable walk-in closet’s worth of reasons. But I found myself won over by her argument in many places, particularly where she pointed to George Lucas’ myriad of influences and the fact that he is a primarily visual artist.

Which is when I decided to watch the Star Wars prequels with the sound off.

Love or loathe them, the Star Wars prequels are undoubtedly the blemish that has made Lucas’ name snicker-worthy for more than a decade now. Even if you’re a prequels apologist, there are certain elements of those three films that simply cannot be reckoned with by the light of day; the dialogue is depressingly trite and repetitive, the plot of the whole trilogy becomes incoherent 30 minutes into Episode I, and strange bits of retcon Lucas has since added to the original Star Wars films to smooth out the wrinkles leave most fans at a loss.

Then again, the dialogue of the first Star Wars trilogy is anything but poetry. The plots are easier to understand, but then again, the arc of those films is far more manageable than anything explored in the prequels: boy wants to know “dead” father, gets the chance to learn father’s trade, joins rebellion to overthrow tyranny, finds out dad is among the tyrant’s number, finds his sister, redeems dad, restores balance to the galaxy. It’s pretty Greek to me… and by that, I mean it sounds like a Greek comedy. Or maybe a Shakespearean one. Or a piece of Japanese theater.

Luke and Vader

Lucas has proved with every Star Wars film that what he is most interested in doing is meshing different elements of history, mythology and art into one big world stew. The basics of the Star Wars universe owe a lot to western mythology and Eastern religions and films, certainly, but there are hints that point to a vast encyclopedia of outside sources. There were Saturday matinees with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, comic books, art films by Fellini and Godard, dystopian science fiction, the drag race culture of the 1950s, and so much more. As though Lucas spent his youth absorbing everything he could, in an effort to combine the world’s storytelling efforts into one giant behemoth of super-culture. The charm of the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity. Its structure and tropes feel like they could have come from anywhere, at any time.

As Paglia expands upon, Lucas referred to his student films as “abstract visual tone poems” (which, if you’ve ever seen the student film version of THX-1138, is hard to dispute). So what if Star Wars was simply building on that sensibility? Building out and up, but not in a way that today’s culture finds acceptable? Because the Star Wars prequels are not what general audiences like these days. We like drama, sharp dialogue and complex plotting, and only when they pan out—many fans of LOST, Battlestar Galactica, or Nolan’s Batman trilogy will attest to the disappointment that ricochets when a beloved story lets them down. But George Lucas has never really cared about dialogue; Paglia points out that he has been known to call it “a sound effect, a rhythm, a vocal chorus in the overall soundtrack,” of a film. The script is “a sketchbook” and he’s “not really interested in plots.” And to most of us that surely sounds like madness. But to George Lucas, who considers film to be an entirely visual medium, it’s exactly right.

By that notion, one could eliminate the most problematic aspect of the prequels and watch them all over again for that visual experience. With the soundtrack playing, preferably, as the appointment of John Williams as the composer of these films was a very deliberate choice on Lucas’ part.

So, what do they look like? Well, here are some impressions from my own viewing….

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I’ll admit, there’s very little to save Episode I. Even with the sound turned off, the movie amounts to a lot of standing around interspersed with some incredible action sequences, especially at the beginning. Jar Jar is far less irritating when you don’t hear him, a slapstick vaudeville-looking creature with the whole schtick down pat. Because Jake Lloyd’s performance is the performance of a very young child, it’s hard to get a read on Anakin through the whole film; on silent, I almost wish he would camp it up so I could figure out how he’s feeling. The scenes with his mother are always the most telling. The visual cues delivered by Padmé’s costumes become far more clear—each color carefully chosen, each silhouette conveying a different emotion or persona.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The final duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul is just as effective as it ever was, perhaps more because we don’t need to hear Qui-Gon’s final request. It is hardly surprising that lightsaber fight techniques were overhauled for the prequels; if Lucas could make use of more than one style, allow for fencing, acrobatic, and martial arts techniques, it would only absorb more cultural reference points into his operatic collage. The visual symmetry of the Episode I’s finale against A New Hope’s medal ceremony is still a bit off-putting with the celebration music (one of Williams’ few missteps in my opinion), but it’s more ominous when we know what direction this story must go.

Onto Episode II… where the visuals are much clearer in terms of how they’re wrangling your emotions. The death of Padmé’s decoy out of the gate is a deliberate kick, a warning about the ever-downward spiral that these films become. Everyone seems much more sinister without hearing their dialogue, particularly Anakin, interestingly enough. The way his often wooden expressions change when he’s angry or sly is actually a bit terrifying. Obi-Wan is very clearly occupying the place of comic relief here, and I can’t help but wonder if his ridiculous haircut isn’t a part of it. The lights of Coruscant’s underworld districts invoke a bizarre echo of Blade Runner, but even trashier, more Vegas, which makes perfect sense.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The hardest thing to keep track of watching Episode II is the multitude of characters and how they all finally come together in the end. In addition, Lucas’ desire for visual symmetry often muddies the story; Anakin gets his arm cut off because Luke got his hand cut off in the middle chapter of the original trilogy. Visually, this retracing makes sense. Yet in Empire, Luke receives that wound as a teaching tool of sorts, reminding him that he made a mistake in chosing to face Vader ahead of time. It happens often in mythological yarns, the hero bearing a physical wound as a reminder of past failures or important lessons. (Frodo loses a finger due to his failure letting go of the Ring, Harry Potter bears the scar from Voldermort’s curse to remind him of his mother’s love and sacrifice.) But Anakin’s wound seems less meaningful—he has just lost his mother, and is worried that he might have lost Padmé as well; he is not thinking clearly, and his pain is ignored by everyone surrounding him because they are unaware of his recent trip to Tatooine. In addition, the loss of that arm teaches Anakin nothing that we are made aware of. It makes all visual cues dealing with the severed arm feel forced, unearned.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The love story, which has always received most of the ire from fans, is practically inoffensive this way. As I mentioned before, there’s a Greek or Shakespearean quality to it, perfect for silent film: people turning to each other and away again, smiling and touching, arguing and pleading. The costume changes for Padmé again let us know so much about her—when’s she’s feeling flirtatious, whimsical, or sexual. Without the specific dialogue problems, it’s much easier to connect with the couple. And when accompanied by John Williams’ patently epic theme “Love Across the Stars,” the emotion is right there for us to reach out and grab hold of.

And then the final chapter, Episode III. What’s shocking about watching this film without sound is how it visually conveys darkness closing in, limits the color palette of the first two films entirely, and seems intent on frightening you. The lingering on Anakin’s forced happiness at the thought of children and that first hazy dream of Padmé in unbearable pain, it’s like some gothic nightmare unfolding galaxies over. Compare the ships in Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith—we’ve gone from silvers and yellows to black and gray. Sleek elegance has been traded for sharp lines and shadowy corners. Forget the physics of it, this is meant to be a subconscious mass of clues. It’s almost Tolkien-esque in its arc, the cold metal clang of progress striding out ahead of natural beauty and creative venturing. Padmé comes from Naboo for a reason, a representative of old ways that will soon be destroyed by the Empire: refinement, political and artistic awareness and, especially, compassion. The fact that she maintains this, even as Anakin is fighting a war, even as his dogmatic views begin to destroy him, is all part of the puzzle.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The execution of Order 66 (which I have always found emotionally affecting, regardless) is staggering. Wave upon wave of troopers, young children fighting for their lives and failing, bodies collected on the ground, all of these elements linger when no one is speaking. Obi-Wan’s grief at losing Anakin is acute, rather than dispersed by empty lines about whether or not he can kill him, how he must stop him, who is meant to bring balance to the Force. Certain sections are still overreaching—the fight between the Emperor and Yoda fails to come across as either important or moving, but it occurred to me that it’s probably due to the location; holding it in the Jedi Temple, having Yoda fight to defend his territory and home from evil, would have likely been much more affecting.

In her article, Paglia clarifies the ways in which the final duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan represents a descent into Hell, the sort that renaissance painters had to capture image by image over so many years. Instead, George Lucas offers it all in one go, circle by circle as the station on Mustafar falls apart. We then move on to one of the great sci-fi nightmares, watching from Anakin’s own point of view as he is sealed forever inside a suit, maintained by machines that see and breathe for him. A monster of invention now, and without that ridiculous call of “No” that seemed to go on forever in the film, you can decide for yourself what he’s saying. Perhaps “Why?” or “Let me go” or even silence—a pose of supplication on Vader’s behalf, the futuristic image of a tortured robot saint.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The experience, all in all, is something entirely different. It doesn’t tighten up the story at all, nor does it give the universe the same “used car” look and feel that the original trilogy had, but it does play on a distinctly different emotional level. It’s probable that watching on mute still won’t do it for anyone—we don’t exactly appreciate silent films the way we used to as a culture (no matter how much I love Buster Keaton), and they’re not likely to make a comeback any time soon. But it made me feel as though I understood what George Lucas was going for. And even with the many layers of CGI, it cannot be denied that these movies are visually unique in a way that no one else ever matched. No one builds on Lucas’ scale. Because they can’t manage it or they don’t want to try, it doesn’t really matter either way.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Or, to put it another way—if some distant race from another planet got their hands on the Star Wars prequels with no foreknowledge… imagine how incredible that would look to fresh eyes. While “greatest artist of our time” might be hyperbolic, that doesn’t mean that the prequels have no artistic value whatsoever. Perhaps they just need to be viewed through a different lens. As “abstract tone poems” go, I’ll cop to being impressed.

Emily Asher-Perrin thinks that twin sunset will always be one of the best things ever captured on film. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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2. DavidEsmale
While films are a strong visual medium, they are not exclusively a visual medium. They are not paintings or sculptures, where the only sensory experience by which we can evaluate the work is through sight. Sound has been equally as important to the film experience for quite a while.

To call dialogue “a sound effect, a rhythm, a vocal chorus in the overall soundtrack,” says, to me, that George Lucas doesn't care about fully developing and working in HALF of what makes a truly great film, from a sensory perspective. That he feels the same way about plots is even more disappointing.

I can't deny that visually the films were stunning. But there is a reason the phrase 'all flash, no substance' exists. While cutting off half of the sensory experience of the films may make them slightly less offensive, it also (for me) makes for a substandard film experience.
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
That Lucas says of dialogue:
“a sound effect, a rhythm, a vocal chorus in the overall soundtrack,”
is a tad bizarre, but it does help explain the films. Very interesting.
3. Cmpalmer
One of my favorite things, visually about the prequels is how they consciously continue the period styles set by the original three.

Star Wars is a product of the 1970's and it shows. Empire "feels" like the early 80's and Return of the Jedi like the late 80's. I don't think this was by design, it was more unconscious and just a reflection of when the movies were made.

For the prequels, set decades before the originals, there seems to be a conscious effort to make them feel historical. Menace has an aesthetic of the late 30s/early 40s - the color palette, the uniforms of the pilots, the Art Deco look of sets and ships. Kind of a Pre-WWII Europe grandeur to it. With scrappy orphans and cartoonish villains.

Clones moves up to the late 40s/early 50s. More neon, color palettes of later technicolor films - for example, the scenes in Padme's quarters on Coruscant and the silver diner and bus line looking transport ships. Or the Geonosis battles against Harryhausen'esque monsters. More romance, more character flaws.

Finally, Revenge is maybe late 50's/early 60's - a bit darker, less trusting of authority, more angsty rebellion, and a tragic end. More 50's/60's sci-fi horror.

And yes, I notice this most with the sound off.
4. Jobi-Wan
Very interesting article. I am a huge Star Wars fan and even though I don't hate the prequels (well maybe Episode II), I don't think they are anywhere near as good as the originals. That being said, I may have to go back and try watching these with the sound off now. I watched them all in order from 1-6 when the Blu-Ray came out and enjoyed the experience, I had never watched them in that order before in a short amount of time. I also never thought of the prequals from a purely visual perspective and didn't realize that Lucas is a primarily visual artist. I guess my judgement was clouded by the dark side of the force and the hatred of certain characters and the awful dialogue. So thanks for giving me an excuse to go back and watch these again and consider them in a different way.
5. Theo16
Take out the dialog but leave the music and sound effects and you might really have something cool. But I doubt I could pay attention very long to just visuals.
Chris Nelly
6. Aeryl
I cannot tolerate Paglia, but I like that her article encouraged you to write this one, as it's incredible.

I am one of the apologists, and I'll be the first one to admit that this script needed a doctor, STAT! But part of my apologism comes from the fact that these movies weren't made for us(longtime fans) anymore than the originals were made for the new fans. For example, my daughter loves the prequels and doesn't like the orginals, at least not like I do. So I finally let go of my angst that my childhood shoes don't fit like they used to, and started to appreciate the movie trilogy for what it is, which is visually arresting.

I mean, I didn't even get to see Sith in theaters, but I about fell out of my seat during that first space battle, when Obi-Wan and Anakin dive from above the cruiser into the dogfight below, because that shot is stunning.

And there a lot of visual parrallels to the originals. The shot above, with Anakin staring into the distance as Padme walks away, that pose parallels the stance Vader uses all through the originals as he stares out the viewports of the Star Destroyer. When Obi-Wan touches Padme's cheek after Anakin strangles her, it parallels the same touch he uses on Luke after he's attacked by Sand People.

Anakin's failure to learn anything from losing his hand is an important part of the story. He should have learned something about letting his emotions get the better of him and to temper his actions, like Luke did. But he didn't learn those lessons, illustrating an important and vital difference between father and son.
7. Flavia of Ruritania
Curiously, although I am not a "visual art" person, nor did I tend to watch the prequel trilogy with the sound off (mostly the opposite, in fact), I had noticed the gradual darkening in Revenge of the Sith--just look at the shots of the Jedi temple sequentially.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
On a similar note, I've long thought that Episodes II and III would be greatly improved if you got Mark Hamill to dub over all of Hayden Christensen's dialogue. Not only did he play Anakin's son, not only can he actually act with his voice, but he's made a solid reputation for himself as one of the go-to villain voices for animation, so he could lend an effective sense of menace where Christensen just gave a sense of... nothing.

The problem with the SW prequels is the problem with Hollywood as a whole these days. Too many directors think that they don't need writers, that writing is a secondary and unimportant part of the process. Writers have no clout in the feature industry unless they're also producers or directors (like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Gary Ross, Nora Ephron, etc.). And so there are very many movies that have brilliant direction and casting and production design and music and editing, but fail because their writing is slapdash. It's just bizarre that this one area is considered so irrelevant even when so much care is put into the rest.

I read a proposal for another "experiment" with the SW films a while back. It made an effective case that the best order to watch the films in for the first time was IV, V, II, III, and VI. Everything in Ep. I is either irrelevant to the larger arc or re-established in Ep. II anyway, so it can be treated as a nonessential extra to be optionally viewed later, like The Clone Wars or the Expanded Universe tie-ins. But this way you start the saga where it originally began, you don't get spoiled about key events and revelations in IV & V, and inserting II & III as an extended "flashback" after V helps maintain the suspense that V leaves the audience with. Plus it works structurally -- V reveals that Luke's father became Vader, and then the prequels explain how that came to be, while setting up the character of the Emperor for his climactic appearnce in VI. I've never actually tried watching them that way, but it sounds like a cool idea.
9. theRightOrder
Jobi-Wan, I wonder if watching them in the following order would work best without sound too: 4,5,(1 - optional),2,3,6

Forget whose blog suggested this, and can't find it now, but this is how I will introduce to my son when he's old enough.
10. Kallie
I think the prequels are visually stunning and I really enjoyed this article. The screenshots just demonstrate how many great visual compositions are in the films. It's just that crushingly bad dialogue, and in some cases, poor editing, that really get in the way of rewatching (even though of course I have, many times). The best scene between Anakin and Padme in Episode III is the one where they're looking in each other's direction from the Jedi Temple and the apartment - no words! The hairbrush scene is only watchable with no dialogue. But they sure look impressive.
11. Joe H.
This reinforces my belief that the films could be salvaged (at least to the 75%-80% mark) if we just went back and overdubbed them with genuinely good dialogue. Also, all of the aliens (I'm looking at YOU, Jar-Jar, Watto, Neimodians, etc.) should have alien gibble-gabble dialogue with subtitles.
12. howard beale
There are some people working very hard to redo the prequels on a fanedit basis, including redubbing and reshooting some scenes. Information on this isn't hard to find, the forums of and are good places to start.

I used to be an apologist for films I-III but no longer are. I think one could eliminate I entirely and from II and III (as well as the cut scenes, particularly the formation of the rebellion scenes) salvage a maybe 2.5 hour film. My approach to franchises like this has evolved to this - the original article is generally the real deal, everything else is fan fiction. Some of it is quite good but more often than not it is awful. There is so much absent from I-III that made IV good that breaking that significant difference down would be an entire other article. The PT is a soulless effort to keep a franchise (and a merchandising machine) alive. I have zero hope that Disney will breath life into it. Put up a tombstone on this franchise please and just give us a real dvd with some real extras like the workprint and be done with this cash cow. What came in 1977 was special and with the excpetion of TESB that special heart and soul has been absent much more than present.
13. etv13
Let me just say: You don't have to turn the sound off to appreciate the visual beauty of Lawrence of Arabia.
14. Lsana
@8, 9,

The one potential issue with the 4,5,2,3,6 order is that while Vader claims to be Luke's father at the end of 5, we don't know that that's the truth. Admittedly it's all been spoiled by pop culture now, but I always felt that the real revelation wasn't the "Luke, I am your father" moment but Yoda's quiet, guilty, "Your father he is." That's the moment when everything really changes.
Adam Shaeffer
15. ashaef
Well that was certainly interesting. Don't think I'll try the experiment myself, but that does shed a new light on those 3 movies...
Aaron Moss
16. bruceiv
If you wanted to watch the movies with soundtrack + SFX, but without dialog, how about just switching the language to one you don't know? It'd be a bit hokey, but might get the whole "soundtrack rhythm" thing down.
Christopher Bennett
17. ChristopherLBennett
@11: Overdubbing all the dialogue would normally be tricky, but Lucasfilm or Disney would certainly have the budget to digitally alter the characters' mouth movements to synch with the new lines (something that is actually already possible and in use, but normally just for re-looping the occasional line here and there rather than an entire film).

@12: I actually have a lot of hope about the new SW movies, because the best SW movies to date have been the ones that Lucas didn't write and direct himself. The fact that Disney owns it now isn't that important, because Disney isn't a single group of people. It's a huge conglomerate that acquires content providers like Pixar and Marvel and Lucasfilm, or collaborates with creators like Jerry Bruckheimer, because it likes the way they already do things and wants them to keep doing it, just with the money going into Disney's coffers instead of someone else's. So Disney won't be hampering the Lucasfilm folks, and finally, at long, long last, neither will Lucas. So maybe they can finally make some good movies again.
18. hoopmanjh
The only part of Ep. 1 I'd genuinely miss is the Qui-Gonn/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber fight from the end -- I think that's the best saber fight in the entire series. I wonder if it'd be possible to combine everything into a single narrative -- take chunks of the prequels and insert them into the later movies. For example, "I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father" might lead to an Obi-Wan/Anakin from Ep. 2 or something like that.
rob mcCathy
19. roblewmac
Why in 200-whatever was I suposed to care about the childhood of the guy i'd known as DARTH VADER since 1982? We know he was a very evil guy who sort of redeems himself. I don't care how he GOT that way.
Keith DeCandido
20. krad
Prompting the writing of this article is the first thing Camille Paglia has ever done that I respect....

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
21. Snap Dragon
@ 8, 9

The order (IV, V, II, III, VI) that you're mentioning is called the Machete Order; you can find the original article easily if you google "Star Wars Machete Order."

I think this order really does make a lot of sense. The prequel trilogies were very much designed as prequels--that is, they make the best sense when watched after the original trilogy--so the order of I, II, III, IV, V, VI doesn't really work. Machete Order preserves the surprise reveal of Luke's parentage and also creates the surprises of the Emperor's identity as Palpatine and Leia's parentage in Episode III.
22. Earl Rogers
#3= Return of the Jedi was released in 1983. It wouldn't call that late 80s.

My memories of the late 80s don't exactly jibe with that film's visual universe either, except for the trend in cute, cuddly characters the Ewoks didn't kick off but did actively encourage.
23. rowanblaze
The name of the 4,5,2,3,6 order is the Machete Order, article can be found at the following URL: static dot nomachetejuggling dot com slash machete_order dot html (apologies for the "dots" and "slash.") or just Google it. I haven't had the opportunity to watch it in that order, but he makes a great argument for it.

Paglia's (I'm surprised by the hate, but then I've never heard of her.) assertion depends on the flawed equation of "artist" with "painter." Musicians are artists as well, for instance. Since Lucas' chosen medium is not paint or marble, but film, he has to be judged by his ability to deal with that medium. And since film, for over 80 years now, is both a visual and an auditory medium, Lucas' inability to effectively use half of his "palette" hardly makes him "the greatest artist of our time."

Honestly, the more control he has been to exert over the Star Wars franchise, the worse it has gotten. I welcome the transiton of Lucasfilm to the Disney unbrella, whose primary talent at this point seems to be the ability to sit back and say to their subsidaries, "Go make money." Witness Marvel's Avengers, the Pixar Library, PotC, etc.
24. howard beale
RE: "Iwonder if it'd be possible to combine everything into a single narrative -- take chunks of the prequels and insert them into the later movies. For example, "I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father" might lead to an Obi-Wan/Anakin from Ep. 2 or something like that."

This has already been done by a couple of the faneditors out there. I haven't seen the results as a cut like this is really something that doesn't interest me. You may want to try searching for information about the Topher Grace fanedit, it sounds like the best use of the material at hand. Sadly he has no intention of distributing like other fanedits have been.
25. Shanna Swendson
This may be why I'm usually blown away on the first viewing, and then find myself going "really?" during the second. I get caught up in the visuals, but then the plot and character issues hit me and the cringing begins. I actually like AOTC if I have access to a fast-forward button. Obi-Wan's noir-ish investigation is a decent movie. I just have to skip almost any scene involving Anakin.

And roblewmac, you've nailed the problem I had with the prequels as a whole. It's like making "the young Hitler adventures." Since we already know he turns out to be a villain, he doesn't work as the hero here for me. Someone else needs to be the hero figure at the center as we watch this promising youngster throw everything away on the descent to evil, and I think it wouldn't even have required too many structural changes to put Obi-Wan in the hero role, with Anakin as a kind of beloved antagonist. Unfortunately, Lucas seemed to have made Anakin his Mary Sue, and he seemed to want us to be cheering for him until near the end. I can see making us kind of like him so that it hurts worse when he goes bad, but he really can't be the hero since we know he grows up to be a planet-destroying villain.
26. John R. Ellis
#25- Yeah, the main problem is, Lucas seems to want us to be glad that one extremely last-minute act of good somehow redeems Anakin from decades of murder, murder, and more murder.

If you're going to do the whole "anti-villain who gets redeemed" route, the best way is to give evidence all along that there -is- salvagable there.

Take the anime The Vision of Escaflowne. Folken Fanel is the lead villain for most of the series, albeit not the true big bad. He does terrible, terrible things.

And yet, long before his actions (avoiding spoilers) in the latter portion of the series seem like even a faint possibility, they take pains to establish that 1) He truly believes these terrible things will lead to a better world for everyone and 2) He's a compassionate, sensitive person who's inwardly tearing himself apart over this.

In other words, there was real build up to there being the possibility of real change.

All we get for Vader is a couple of lines that there's "still good in him"...a little, I suppose, but we got info on it extremely late in the game. And it hardly seems sufficient to turn him into a beaming, bright Force Ghost. But what do I know?
Alan Brown
27. AlanBrown
Interesting article! This kind of fits in with stories I had heard about Lucas seeming to be surprisingly uninterested in the quality of the performances of his actors. If his primary concern is the visual image, then the most important part of an actor's performance comes with how they hit their marks, not how they deliver their lines.
I find it amusing that fandom, which seems so unanimous in hating it when Lucas tweaks his own movies when they are re-released, and clamors for the release of the original theatrical versions, seems so eager to get their own hands on the movies and reshape them.
I prefer the first three movies, but I suspect that is primarily because of my age. The next generation often prefers the prequels. The youngest generation prefers Clone Wars. A lot has to do with when and how you first encountered the Star Wars universe.
In the end, the Star Wars movies are pulp SF, fun yet uneven. Sometimes artful, but usually by accident. The surprising thing is not the fact that the prequels don't live up to the original trilogy, it is the fact that we elevated the original trilogy on to a pedestal in the first place.
Christopher Bennett
28. ChristopherLBennett
@25: Strictly speaking, it was Tarkin who was the planet-destroying villain. Vader was his subordinate in the original film, and he was shown to have a low opinion of the Death Star project.
29. Earl Rogers
The weird defense some fans of the prequels out forth of "Oh yeah? Well, the originals sucked too. You just liked it because you saw it when you were a kid." ignores a couple of important facts:

1) There were a -lot- of adults who liked the original films upon release, not just kids.

2) There are a lot of young people who didn't care for the prequels or the originals.

3) The Clone Wars audience is more diverse than "Just kids who prefer it to the films."

We'll leave aside entirely that "You just like it because you were too stupid to tell the difference" is a pretty poor way to defend anything.
Christopher Bennett
30. ChristopherLBennett
@29: You're right. I do think the original trilogy has gained a reputation that exceeds its actual merits, but they're still pretty fun films. They never aspired to be anything more than fun pastiches of classic movies and adventure serials, but they did that well. The original film is fun and fresh in the way it pokes affectionate fun at old adventure tropes and deconstructs them (Luke saying that he can't see through the Stormtrooper helmet is as meta as anything Robot Chicken has done). TESB takes a somewhat more dramatic tack and does it pretty well thanks to the Kasdan/Brackett screenplay. It's a mistake to think they were meant as anything more than popcorn movies, but they were very well-done popcorn movies.

The prequels, by contrast, were made with the goal of being Cinematic Epics with grand storytelling and social commentary about the erosion of democratic freedoms, but they were deeply flawed in the execution. The originals exceeded their modest aspirations, while the prequels fell short of their elevated aspirations.
31. Juanma Ruiz
The so called "Machete order" doesn't make any sense for a couple of reasons, while the numerical order I-VI does:

1) By making the prequels, the "surprise" at the end of Empire becomes "suspense" for almost the entire run of IV-V (IV to VI if we count the "brother-sister" revelation). Just read the filmmaking bible that is the Truffaut-Hitchcock interview, where the latter defines "suspense": if you are watching a couple talking around a table, and a bomb explodes, you have five SECONDS of surprise. If you show the bomb first, and the conversation next, you have five MINUTES of suspense. People who defend de "machete order" just isn't capable of thinking as if they were viewing the movies for the first time.

2) Anyway, there must be almost no one in the world (of any age) who, having seen the movies or not, doesn't know that Vader is Luke's father. This is such an iconic moment that people who see the films for the first time nowadays use to do it knowing it.

3) All of you have probably watched The Empire Strikes Back more than a few times, and the surprise just works the first time... but the movie, and that scene, works every time you see it... so the surprise TO YOU isn't what really matters: what matters emotionally is the surprise TO LUKE.

So the 1-6 order is perfectly valid, while the "machete order" is just a stupid way to try and hang on to our childhood memories.

P.S.: And that doesn't mean that the OT isn't better than the PT. Because it is. A lot. I'm just talking about narrative structure of the saga here, not quality.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
32. Lisamarie
I think this is really interesting. I do enjoy the prequels quite a bit (although not as much as the original), although I have a lot of issues with Attack of the Clones (mostly what others have said - bad dialouge, awful romance, I haaaaaaate the droid factory crap) as well as the tweaks to the original trilogy. But I love Revenge of the Sith and I actually enjoy Phantom Menace quite a bit (I have never quite understood this accusation that the plot is 'incomprehensible. I love seeing it as Palpatine's story, but whatever).

It is interesting that you did this when you did because my husband and I were recently discussing this. We have a 21 month old son who has recently become obsessed with Star Wars. We didn't actually try to do this to him on purpose, but he demands that we watch it at least once a day (more, sometimes). His main love is Empire Strikes Back and the other originals (but mostly ESB). We tried playing the prequels for him and he was just not interested - there were a few scenes he would watch but he was not as engrossed as he was with the originals. And we realized as we watched it from a 21 month old point of view...the tone, the color, the visuals, the sound - they were all very different. He doesn't really care about 'story' right now, he just loves watching the lightsabers, Chewbacca, Yoda, the battles, perhaps he is picking up on tone/emotion at some primitive level, etc. But we couldn't really articulate the difference.

It has definitely increased my appreciation for the original trilogy though - I think after years and years I got a little complacent about it, but seeing it through my son's eyes makes it hit home again how fun they are and how many great moments they have. Even after watching ESB a million times the past few weeks (I'm on maternity leave right now)...there are still parts I want to watch.

I'm not using this as a way to say, 'see, even a child knows the prequels suck!' - becuase I don't think they do. But there is definitely a difference.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
33. Lisamarie
Also, I love your captions on the pictures :)

And I was thinking the same thing about the scene with Boba holding his father's helmet when we watched it yesterday.
Matt Stoumbaugh
34. LazerWulf
Of course Boss Nass is the most important person in Episode I... he's BRIAN frickin' BLESSED!
Irfon-Kim Ahmad
35. Maize
It's too bad it's not trivial to mute just the dialogue, because there are some absolutely brilliant moments in sound design in the new trilogy. In fact, despite for the most part entirely disliking them, I went and saw Episode II twice in the theatres, and closed my eyes for the entirety of the second screening, just to listen to it.
36. Llama
As long as we all slyly ignore the fact that the prequels are also full of staggeringly boring, endlessly repeated compositions (most of the dialogue scenes) and barely functional shot-reverse shot of people talking in front of blue screens. The arguement for visual storytelling sort of falls apart for long stretches.

@27. AlanBrown
I am 'the next generation' and saw Episode I in theatres as a child: I do not enjoy the prequels. I didn't hate E1 when I first saw it, but I was disappointed and unimpressed with it (I see now that this was probably primarily because it has no protagonist and none of the heroes bar JarJar have any personality, the other problems didn't start bothering me until I was older). EII and EIII were just bad movies. EII was so bad, I almost didn't bother with EIII.

Honestly, you can say whatever you like about the OT being pulpy (it certainly comes from pulp roots), the truth is IV, V and VI are truly, timelessly great films and the prequels are emphatically not. 'A New Hope' is standing on equal footing with 'Gone with the Wind' as far as the strength of its images and its impact on the zeitgeist. It's not a flash in the pan thing about the revolutionary special effects, because the thing is just as compelling to kids seeing it for the first time now. It's just genuinely that good.
37. Mike Poteet
Great article! My only nitpick:

"The visual symmetry of the Episode I’s finale against A New Hope’s medal ceremony is still a bit off-putting with the celebration music (one of Williams’ few missteps in my opinion)"

I had a whole new appreciation for Williams' "Municipal Band" march when I read somewhere that it is the Emperor's theme from Ep VI transposed into a major key (since Palpatine was from Naboo). Ominous, indeed!
38. JHardaway
From a musical standpoint, the final theme to Episode I is, I think, one of Williams' best and most subtle ties of the prequel trilogy to the originals. Its hard to notice unless you are a music person, and if youc an get past the off putting childrens choir. However, if you listen the music that the kids are singing is an up-tempo, major key version of Palpatine's Theme song. All he did was change one note and speed it up, yet it changes the feeling of the song while tying together the two trilogies and with Palpatine on the Screen, its even more interesting.
Kylie Thomson
39. salimbol
@ 38. JHardaway: I remember being somewhat blown away when that was pointed out to me. Very, very clever, Mr Williams!
And for all their flaws (and oh, there are so many), I still kind of love the PT films for the moments of beauty and grandeur they managed. A different kind of love than what I feel for the OT, but it's there nonetheless.
Joseph Newton
40. crzydroid
While it is true that George Lucas is primarily a visual storyteller, and he does have negative views towards and problems with dialog, he also said "A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing." People often accuse Star Wars, original trilogy or new, of being just about visual effects and having no substance behind them, even when the conversation is not expressly about Star Wars (ie, Star Wars is brought up as an example of this when talking about some other film). I never really found this to be so. It seems that most people on here would agree that the originals have some depth to them. But I also never had a problem with the plot of Phantom Menace. Like Lisamarie, I enjoy that as Palpatine's movie. On the other hand, I have noticed that films that ARE guilty of only being about the visuals seem to be immensly popular. The Avengers sticks out as the prime example, but Avatar and J.J. Abrams Star Trek also come to mind.

People also like to lash out at George for 'ruining' the prequels, but that's easy to do when we have no counterfactual. They might have been better if someone else had worked on them, but it's also possible that they could've been worse. There are a lot of bad movies that have come out and continue to come out. I think ChristopherLBennett makes a point that can be applied in this regard. With the originals (and the first one especially), George just wanted to tell a story, hoping it could make its own money back, but he struck gold. With the prequels, regardless of who did them, there was the daunting task of making three new Star Wars films. As for Disney now making even more Star Wars films, I think I will remain hopefully pessimistic, and that way maybe I can be surprised.
Christopher Bennett
41. ChristopherLBennett
@40: In no possible way can The Avengers and Abrams's Star Trek be said to be only about the visuals. Both of them are emphatically character-driven films, and the visual spectacles are always in service to advancing the characters' stories. After all, both Whedon and Abrams learned their craft on television, where the special-effects budgets are tiny compared to feature films and the writing therefore has to be more character-driven and story-driven. That's why they're such good choices for directing FX-laden blockbusters like these -- because they can be relied on not to lose sight of the characters and plot under the weight of the obligatory FX orgies that modern audiences expect.

Avatar is more of a borderline case. Certainly showcasing the world he had designed and the technology he'd invented for depicting it was one of Cameron's top priorities there, and though I've only seen the film once (or rather, come in on the middle one day and then gone back and watched the parts I missed the next day), I think it's fair to say that the characters weren't as engaging as those in some of Cameron's earlier films. But I think Cameron considered his environmental message pretty important to what he was trying to accomplish.
Emily Asher-Perrin
42. EmilyAP
Hello all,

Some great conversation going on here! To speak to a few points -

@Lisamarie and crzydroid - As far as Episode I being Palpatine's movie, I'd agree in certain aspects, but the plot problems are definitely there. (Red Letter Media does a great job of breaking them down in their hilarious videos.) For example, we know that Palpatine is playing both sides by being both a senator and Sidious, but that causes a massive conflict: why does he keep yelling at the Neimoidians to make Amidala sign their treaty? If she signs it, then there is no battle and everything that he is working for breaks down. And that's one example of many.

@MikePoteet and JHardaway - Agreed, using Palpatine's theme as the base for Municipal Band track is cool, but it bugs me all the same--it's the execution I can't get past. The use of the Imperial March at the end of Anakin's Theme works beautifully, but here... the kids choir, their strange twittering laughter on the track, the nonsense syllables they're singing. If they'd been singing in Gungan I might not be bothered. But when we've already had two fantastic tracks with vocals in sandskrit, it's really hard to get past "ya, ya, ya, whoooooaaa"... I understand it's supposed to be celebratory, but it sounds so goofy that it ruins the impact of the ending for me entirely.

@Maize - Yes to the sound design! Ben Burtt really is a special sort of genius.

@krad and Aeryl - You are both far too kind! ;-)
Chris Nelly
43. Aeryl
I think we are supposed to get the impression that Palpatine is somewhat omnipotent, using the Force to foresee outcomes, and that the original plan was to subdue Naboo with the TF, forcing a conflict, instead of successfully resisting which extended the peace for a bit longer.

Or his plan is really convoluted.

Order the Jedi killed so they will escape to Naboo, which is leaving A LOT to chance.

Entrust the Jedi will find allies amongst the hostile natives to travel across the planet undetected by TF forces.(which is the argument in favor for using the stupid droids, because they were stupid)

Trusing the Jedi to defeat TF forces to escape from the planet with the Queen.

Trusting the hyperdrive to fail so they can land on Tatooine, to find his new apprentice(his interest in Anakin has to come from somewhere, so I'm going with Sith foreknowledge).

Order Maul to NOT kill the Jedi, only scare them so they can flee Naboo appropriately frightened.

There are just too many pieces that fall into place perfectly for this to be plausible. It would have been better, had the movie shown how Palpatine had to adapt his plans when the Jedi thwarted his intentions.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
44. Lisamarie
I always figured Palpatine had a few aces up his sleeve regarding the treaty - either he knew Amidala wouldn't sign it (since he did know her) and just wanted the Neimodians to keep putting pressure on her to exacerbate the conflict, OR if it did get signed, he could play some kind of sympathy card as a senator.

I'm sorry, I have to agree with crzydroid about the Avengers. I was so underwhelmed and bored by that movie, especially after it being totally hyped up. Okay, I'm a little harsh - actually, there were many parts I enjoyed - I loved the banter between the characters, and the few hints of character development and there were definitely places I laughed out loud. But I completely glazed over during things like Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America and the really long end battle sequence. That being said I had not seen the various backstory movies (except for the first Iron Man) so I could have been missing out there. But my husband had and still felt the same way, and said he liked all the individual movies better. I'd watch the Avengers again, but I'd probably fast forward through a few things.

Star Trek, I was also pretty meh about. But it's been a long time since I saw that and when I did see it, I'd only seen a handful of Star Trek episodes (to this day I still haven't seen that many OT episodes) so, yeah - I don't remember much about it. I think my big beef was that is that I'm not a fan of rewriting continuities so that kind of irritated me, and it just didn't 'feel' like Star Trek to just seemed like a typical sci-fi adventure movie. Not a bad movie necessarily, but it doesn't have the same appeal to me that the TNG episodes have, for example. I know that's really vague but the movie just didn't do it for me.

For the record I also find the A New Hope Death Star battle scene kind of boring too, and the stupid factory scene in Attack of the Clones and even parts of the arena scene make me glaze over, and some of the drawn out scenes in the Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit. I just don't like battle scenes, I guess ;)
Joseph Newton
45. crzydroid
@40: This is where I completely disagree about The Avengers. It had no character development whatsoever, and the barest shoe string of a plot. I went into the movie fearing it might just be, "Bad guy threatens Earth, a bunch of heroes have to get together but bicker amongst themselves first, then find some way to work together and defeat the bad guy in a big battle," and it turned out there really wasn't much more than that. There were a few potential gems here and there--Loki saying humans wanted to be dominated, Stark and Banner sharing their pain or whatever--but none of those concepts was developed more than a line or two. If some parts, such as the Thor vs. Iron Man battle, had been cut out, and/or other action sequences shortened, there might have been time in that movie for some character or plot development. Instead, it was pretty much one never-ending action sequence from start to finish.

As for the other two movies, I didn't exactly mean to throw them as deep into the same pool. But there were definitely parts of Star Trek--such as zooming in on one tiny blob of red goo for 10 seconds--that made me feel like they were just showing off the effects. Avatar did have more story development in it as well, but it just felt as though it was done to death and some parts were a little hokey. But I think the visuals ended up being a huge part of that movie (and I did like a lot of the facial animation stuff).
46. MAV
If Lucas intended the dialog to be more like part of the soundtrack, i.e. an instrument, than I wonder how we would experience the move if we didn't interpret the spoken words as having particular meanings?
Kevin Maroney
47. womzilla
When Attack of the Clones came out on DVD, someone commented on Usenet*, "I'm going to set it up with German dubbing and Japanese subtitles and just pretend it's an opera." Nice to see someone actually following through on that experiment.

*Remember Usenet?
48. Rosie66
When I thought there could not be another means to bash the Prequel Trilogy . . . I find one. How sad.

Look . . . you're entitled to your opinion. Then again, so am I. And my opinion is that I completely disagree with you. Yes, the PT has flaws. So do the OT. In fact, I just recently viewed the OT and discovered flaws I either ignored or did not notice in past viewings. I still love it just as much as I love the PT.

If you're going to bitch and moan about the dialogue in the PT, then you need to open your ears and notice the slew of bad dialogue in the OT. The dialogue is not as formal as it is in the PT, but a good deal of it is just as bad.
49. AlexandertheGrape
Author, though I have a more positive feelings about TPM than you or most people do, I'd still like to say 'hats off' for writing an unusally fair and intriguing look at the merits the Prequels do have, as opposed to ranting about what they are not.

I think Lucas was trying to make something more evocative of the 30s serials than even the OT was, and I think that was lost on people : hence, for example, the occasional blocks of exposition, delivered in pseudo-transatlantic Shakespearean, as if actors were standing on stage. Perhaps one day I'll publish this in depth.

I cannot abide what I call the 'George Lucas Bias', which goes something like this :

"As a young man Alec Guiness had dark hair, yet Ewan McGregor had red. Lol nice wun lucas cant even cast hair color right dos he know how to mk films yadayadayada ..."

On that note, my only objection is your characterization of McGregor's hair. You call it 'ridiculous'. As it happens, I have modeled the hairstyle I currently wear after Mr McGregor's in Attack of the Clones. I can assure you that it is majestic.

Great job.
50. Ryamano
@ 43 Aeryl

I don't think Palpatine's plan is convoluted, I think he just adapted it a lot a long the way.

I think his original plan was something much simpler like this:

1) get TF to attack and embargo Naboo, forcing the Queen to sign an unequal treaty (there's some social commentary here, on having the Chinese charicature aliens be the ones forcing another culture to sign an unequal treaty in a war. I never thought about that until now).

2) as the Naboo senator, Palpatine could complain after the events had happened on how inefficient the current chancelor was, letting a war rage to its end without having done nothing

3) Palpatine would then call a motion of no confidence. Another chancellor would be elected (Palpatine) and his plan would go one step forward.

Palpatine never had any plans regarding the Jedi Obi-wan and Qui-gonn. He did send his apprentice Darth Maul to find the Queen and kill her, but then this would only reinforce his position in part 2 of the plan above. He could say that the Naboo queen had died due to the TF actions (directly or indirectly) and that this had happened due to the current chancellor's incompetence.

Once the queen actually got to Coruscant, Palpatine had to adapt. He could use the Queen's testimony about the war and embargo to fill in for his part in step 2 of the plan above. He could even use his knowledge of how long it took for the bureaucracy to do things to manipulate Amidala into doing all the part of step 2 and call the motion herself (though that was no certain thing and he himself could've called the motion later. But having another being the one to call it would've made him look better, less power-hungry).

I don't think Palpatine knew about Anakin, but once the kid was introduced at the Jedi Council he heard rumours about the one who would bring balance to the force and kept tabs on him. Anakin is completely unnecessary to his plans all the way to Episode 3, and even there he isn't the most important part (another could've killed all the separatists leaders, maybe even himself as Darth Sidious; Order 66 succeeds due to the clone troops, not Anakin, who kills mostly children).
51. tommy gee
Hello Emily,

Interesting that I'm seeing this just now, and hoping that my comment still finds its way to your eyes and ears.

I had a similar thought, but saw it as the way to rehabilitate all that hand-carved dialogue. I didn't watch these without sound, though, but with the Chinese language overdubs. I tried to feel the best story I could see. Then, I was also free to rewrite the dialogue and reapply as new English subtitles, as I saw fit. Words make a difference, they can.

The only edit it in the opening crawls for all three movies, which I rewrote and rendered in iMovie.

Pop some corn and check it out, baby!

Tommy Gee

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