For all the audience knows, Palpatine is pissed that Mace Windu showed up at a party wearing the same lightsaber...

>> Saturday, August 15, 2009

So I watched Revenge Of The Sith tonight. It's a helluva lot better than I remembered it, though it's hard to tell how much of that is due to minor edits George Lucas made for the DVD release1 and how much is due to faulty memory or time healing wounds (Sith was, frankly, a terrible disappointment in the theater after the ups-and-downs of Phantom Menace, which is awful, and Attack Of The Clones, which I think is a better movie than Return Of The Jedi).

That said, Sith is a fucking mess. It's just all over the place. A lot of it is the usual suspects list of George Lucas-movie problems, but some of the issues, frankly, are legacy problems from the way Lucas made Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones. Lucas probably needed another movie in there somewhere to explain what the fuck was going on and to make Anakin Skywalker's fall-from-grace make sense; better yet, Phantom Menace simply should have been a different movie--it should have been Clones, basically, with something else serving the role of "Episode II."

This sense is only reinforced by the other DVDs I watched en route to watching Sith again. I've actually owned Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars three-season "microseries" on DVD for a while now, and I watched them again "in sequence" between Clones and Sith, and it's still depressing (though a testament to Tartakovsky's gifts) that Clone Wars manages to do so many things that Lucas' features fail to do. The third season (second disc) of Clone Wars tells a powerful little story and fills in all of the nice bits of character and motive that really needed to be in the features, and just weren't.

This brings up one of the interesting problems with the prequel trilogy, and it's not one that gets discussed too often because fans miss it and non-fans just don't give a shit: one of the biggest problems with the prequel trilogy is how much Lucas depends on "virtual mass." What I mean by that is that there are all these bits and pieces in the prequels that are supposed to have weight, but they only have weight if you're already immersed in Star Wars lore via the "Expanded Universe" of comics, games, and novels. It's not just throwaway lines, like Obi-Wan's comment in Clones that Anakin will be the death of him--those are alright. It's entire characters and moments.

Take, for instance, Senator Palpatine. He shows up in The Phantom Menace and you're obviously supposed to know who he is and that he eventually becomes the Emperor, and that things like the bit where he tells Anakin he'll be watching Anakin's career have a touch of menace to them. But, you know, as far as I can recall, the name "Senator Palpatine" isn't mentioned in the original film trilogy a single time. That's not to say it's a new thing or recent development in any way--my recollection is that Palpatine is mentioned by name in the Alan Dean Foster-ghostwritten-for-George Lucas novelization of the first movie. "Palpatine" is a longstanding bit of Star Wars lore. But if you're not a fanboy and if you're not old enough to recognize Ian McDiarmid, I think you're justified in wondering who the fuck the geezer is.

It gets more fundamental than that. Ask a fanboy about the title of Episode III, and he'll tell you that in the real world it's a nod to the original title for Episode VI before Lucas decided Jedi don't take revenge (a decision made so late in the process that there are collectible promo materials in circulation featuring the Revenge Of The Jedi title) and that in-universe the Sith are getting revenge for their humiliation in the Great Sith Wars that took place one-to-two thousand years before the Battle Of Yavin in Episode IV (that's "BBY" to the cognoscenti) and that the Sith themselves were a non/quasi-humanoid race strong in the Dark Side of The Force who were on the wane on a few isolated planets like Korriban until Jedi explorers happened upon them and were overtaken by the temptations of evil.2 I know that because it's in games and comics and such--why, I'm working on a Saga Edition campaign for friends that's set in the Knights Of The Old Republic-era, and a player characters' sidetrip to Korriban certainly isn't out of the question.

But not a bit of that is in Episode III. What the fuck is a Sith? I know, but it's not in any of the movies. Why are there only two at a time, a master and an apprentice, as Yoda says in Episode I--again, I know the answer, but it's just a tossed-off line that's never explained in any of the prequels, and it doesn't make a lick of sense (okay, it doesn't make a lick of sense in the Expanded Universe either, but I still know the answer). What's a "Darth"? Revenge for what? Honestly, based on what's in the prequels, the only people with a real right to be pissed are the poor to-be-slaughtered Jedi, and they're not allowed to be pissed (for reasons that, yet again, really aren't adequately explained in the movies).

I think this is actually a pretty bad issue for the movies, and it's worth studying just because anyone with an interest in genre lit--especially those with an interest in writing genre lit--should take notes. Ever come into the middle of a several-book series and found you not only had no idea who the characters were, but you couldn't even force yourself to care because all the "interesting" things about them were established elsewhere and are just casually, meaninglessly referenced when they're mentioned at all? Yeah, it's the same thing.

Adding insult to injury, Lucas responded to the backlash against Phantom by saying it wasn't a film meant for fanboys, it was a film meant for a new generation. Which is fine and all, but fanboys (and girls--yet again, I'm using the masculine for convenience, not exclusivity) were and are the only ones with any hope of understanding or even caring that the Sith have returned and what it means to be in Hutt Space and here's a reference to something else there, etc. I found myself, yet again, wondering if any of these movies had anything to offer someone who wasn't already in love, and of course lovers are fated to be disappointed by these particular gifts, again and again and again.

Still, learn from Uncle George's mistakes, eh? I know there are readers here who are also writers in their own right: should you write a sequel (or perhaps you have already), don't assume that everybody already knows what's what and who's who. A scene in which all of the weight is based on some other happenstance somewhere else isn't real weight, and it usually isn't earned. Sure, your repeat readers may find it terribly emotional that so-and-so tells somebody-or-other that the great-whatsit from another source has suffered or enjoyed a terrible whatever, but that's really a hollow simulation of an experience at best. And at worst? It's a plain-flat-out-tired-old cheat is what it is. So please don't.

1Weirdly enough, I remember seeing a list of changes, including a claim that the infamous "NOOOOOOO!" is shortened (which it seems to be), and now I can't find it. All I can find is the repeated claim that officially there are no changes to the DVD release of Sith, which is contradicted by a repeated recognition of one minor change--a wipe being replaced by a clean cut.

The opening battle seemed to me to be both tighter and include more material, but that may just be my faulty memory at work. Still, the whole thing seems strange.

2Am I a fanboy? I'd say "yes," but I actually fret that hardcore fanboys would turn on me as a poseur. I play the videogames, have read several of the novels, own the complete Dark Horse reissue of the Marvel run of comics from the '80s, and own all of the Saga Edition rulebooks currently in print (along with copies of two West End manuals and Wizards' RCE). And I'm familiar with the Death Star diameter debate. And yet I've only read a few of the novels and don't own hardcopies of any of them, I haven't seen the most recent animated movie or series, and no doubt a real fanboy could mop the floor with me in a trivia contest. I'm not ashamed of my Star Wars fannishness, I just don't want to write checks I can't cash.


MWT Saturday, August 15, 2009 at 3:39:00 AM EDT  

Heh, reminds me of a discussion I had shortly after Phantom Menace came out, with a guy who'd completely missed who Palpatine was. Which became obvious when his arguments eventually boiled down to: "Why should we care about some stupid trade dispute on some backwater planet?"

To which I think I said "but it wasn't just any trade dispute. It was the first key step of Palpatine's ascension to emperor." ...and then I had to explain who Palpatine was, but that was basically the discussion-ender.

I liked Sith, actually. That is, I liked the story that I could see in it: the tragic fall of a man who saw no way to save his true love other than by sacrificing himself - but in so doing, lost her. It was just badly told...

Michael Rawdon Saturday, August 15, 2009 at 12:33:00 PM EDT  

I enjoyed the original trilogy well enough, but other than reading a handful of comics (mostly the old Marvel stuff and the earliest Dark Horse series from the 90s) I've never been interested in any more of it than that. (I've always been more of a Star Trek guy anyway.)

So yeah, most of the stuff you mention went right over my head.

Although honestly I can bleep right over stuff like "What's a Sith?" by assuming they're just the bad guys who want to take everything over. Star Wars - and, more importantly, the tradition it's rooted in - has never been noted for especially strong motivations. The fact that the raw stories in the first three films make very little sense other than as a thin pretext for some cool-looking battles is the real problem with the films, I think.

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