Salvaging Star Wars, Episode II: Cheap Analogues

Earlier, I bashed the much-hated Star Wars prequel trilogy. How did a franchise so beloved produce something so unwatchable? In the posts to come, I’ll explain how the prequels might have been salvaged.

Here’s one way: let the Star Wars universe stand apart. Throughout Episodes I, II, and III, George Lucas tosses out cheap analogues to real-world culture. In Phantom Menace, for example, the pod race features a track announcer straight out of NASCAR. The character serves to help the audience understand the race as it progresses. But its clunky “on-air” banter and over-obvious observations repeatedly remind us that the Star Wars world is shallow. The move effectively screams, “We don’t have enough ideas of our own to bring this world to life. We’ll steal some that the audience is already familiar with.”

Another example: in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan needs some inside information, and he visits a favorite informant for the dish. Okay so far. But their rendezvous point is ridiculous: an American diner, straight out of the 1950s, complete with gleaming chrome, steaming kitchen, and upholstered booths. Worse, the informant himself is an aproned, greasy short-order cook, glossed over with an alien face. Not so much “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but more “1993 in a Dayton Waffle House.” The informant’s name? “Dexter Jettster.” You can’t make this stuff up. Or, rather, you can’t make this stuff up, unless you’re already obsessed with merchandise sales.

To be fair, fantasy requires some real-life analogues; the imagined world should intrigue us with its alienness, but it should also be familiar enough to understand. If Star Wars really cut its ties to our world, after all, there’d be no human characters, no English dialogue, and no intelligible plotlines. Yet there’s a line here between intelligible references and on-the-nose anacosmisms.[1]

Other fantasies—even great films—fall prey to the same temptation. Consider, for instance, Gimli’s “axe embedded in his nervous system” line from The Two Towers (extended edition). This dialogue would be clunky in any film, but it’s absolutely cringeworthy in Middle-Earth (with its medieval understanding of anatomy). But such missteps interrupt our sojourn through Lord of the Rings very rarely. In Star Wars, they come all-too-often. The filmmaker seems to delight in watering down the marvelous with the mundane.

“Salvaging Star Wars” continues next time, when we’ll consider how the prequels squandered and spoiled one of the greatest characters in cinematic history.

  1. Made-up word. If an “anachronism” is something that’s out of its native time, then an “anacosmism” is out of its native universe.  ↩