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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode IV: Leaner green screen

The last few posts have addressed a single question: how might the Star Wars prequels have been salvaged? How might George Lucas have kept that trainwreck on the rails? In the first post, I questioned the whole “prequel” concept. Then, I discussed how real-world analogues polluted the Star Wars universe. Finally, I suggested some ways that the prequels might have better explored the characters of Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Today’s post addresses the most obvious, glaring problem with the trilogy. To fix the prequels, you’d have to scale back the use of green screen.

“Green screen”—or chroma keying—has become an indispensable tool in the arsenal of modern filmmakers. It allows directors to compose shots that—just a few years ago—wouldn’t have been possible. Whole worlds can be invented, and the creator’s imagination faces nearly no limits.

Ironically, it is the lack of limits that makes green screen a problem for many directions. Creators need ceilings against which to bump their heads; they need obstacles to invent themselves around. Creativity means subverting the limitations of your chosen medium. A New Hope blew our minds because Lucas used models to make us believe in spaceships and laser beams. But without practical obstacles to overcome, Lucas leans too far out into the imaginary, making the action unrelatable and alien.

Overusing green screen and CGI poses problems for actors, as well. Actors need the context that green screening removes.

Why? After all, good actors don’t need a set to deliver a stirring performance. Thespians have dominated empty stages for millenia. Instead, it’s a problem of physics and improvisation. “Physics,” because an actors can’t really fake the subtle way that feet slide differently over carpet than over painted plywood. “Improvisation,” because green screen tends to remove the props and set-pieces that invite impromptu, grounding interactions. When asked to act to an empty room, actors tend to stand around. That’s pretty much all we get from Episodes II and III.

It’s a shame; Lucas hired great actors for his prequel trilogy: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid. If any cast could have convinced us that the world was real, it was this one. They couldn’t (no one could). Lucas wasted his fantastic actors by filming them in a sterile, green-walled prison.

This combination—static actors on a fantastically animated background—unnerves the audience. They don’t know why, but things feel unreal. They know, instinctively, that nothing’s really at stake. Such disbelief only further undermines the prequels’ subpar characters, dialogue, and plot. Conversely, while real sets and on-location shooting wouldn’t have single-handedly redeemed the prequels, it couldn’t have hurt.

That wraps up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. What more is there to say? Lucas wasted his fans’ good will and irreparably damaged the greatest franchise in cinematic history. No thought experiment can change that. But maybe, just maybe, future filmmakers can ask themselves the same questions and thus avoid making the same mistakes on the upcoming Star Wars sequels.

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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode III: show some character

Recently, I’ve been outlining ways that the Star Wars prequels might have been improved. First, I suggested that the whole ‘prequel’ concept is irredeemably flawed. Then I complained about how real-world analogues cheapen the Star Wars universe.

Today’s complaint? The Star Wars prequels spoil some of cinema’s best-known, most beloved characters.

Take Obi-Wan Kenobi, that quintessential space wizard. Now, if we’re honest, the Jedi Master comes across a bit static—even in A New Hope. In that original film, Obi-Wan learns nothing and can’t be rattled; he’s more like Luke’s Jedi Encyclopedia than an actual character. Even Alec Guinness himself despised the character and cursed the film’s “rubbish dialogue”.

In fairness, though, it made sense that Obi-Wan wouldn’t change much in Episode IV. The film depicts only the very last chapter of a much longer life story. Obi-Wan’s defining moments happened decades earlier, we learn: Clone Wars heroics and a tortured falling-out with Vader.

That’s where the prequels’ potential lay; we’d finally get to see how it all happened. How did Obi-Wan become the cool, unflappable mentor of A New Hope? What flaws did he overcome? What conflict shaped his elderly personality? One idea: maybe Obi-Wan’s inability to save his mentor’s life haunts him. Maybe it makes him overprotective. Maybe that control-freak behavior pushes Anakin towards reckless power grabs. In any case, regardless of the arc’s specifics, Lucas shouldn’t have hesitated to rough up the golden boy a bit.

Instead, Lucas extends Obi-Wan’s milquetoast personality all the way back to day one. He was (we learn) always incorruptible. Always steady. He’s always been the beige palette against which more colorful characters are painted: Luke, Qui-Gon, Vader.

Speaking of Vader… there’s another great character squandered. The prequels inherit the greatest villain of all time—then manage to spoil him. To Lucas’s credit, Anakin does has an arc (unlike Kenobi); he journeys from adorable, pod-racing wunderkind to moody teenager to malevolent cyborg. But if Obi-Wan’s statis bores us to tears, Anakin’s metamorphosis confuses us. We never quite believe the reasons we’re given for his downfall. Why can’t Anakin handle his mother’s untimely death? Why does he snap. After all, his son faced nearly-identical tragedy (his family’s horrific immolation) with courageous determination.

How might the prequels have better explained Anakin’s degradation? Show us how childhood wounds fester into adult corruption. Make the Skywalkers’ slavery unpleasant to witness. Make Anakin damaged and powerless as a boy, so that his hell-bent power quest makes sense. Show us the hurt; don’t rely on Hayden Christiansen to emote it with furrowed eyebrows and a whiny delivery.

Next time, we’ll wrap up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. In our crosshairs? The prequels’ over-reliance on CGI, to the detriment of story.

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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.  ↩

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Salvaging Star Wars

The Star Wars prequels were a catastrophe. These clunky, over-animated films enraged a generation. Thirty-something movie geeks, who had invested love and loyalty in this “far, far away” universe, watched as George Lucas transformed childhood daydreams into a commercialized, overwrought nightmare.

Many have attempted to redeem Star Wars since. Some dreamers still defend the prequels as “Star Wars for a new generation” (millennials enjoy the movies much more than Generation X). Others have attempted to “fix” the prequels via fan-edits, trimming the fat and re-rendering the most offensive animations. Still others, despite being burned in the past, look to the upcoming sequels to restore the tarnished Skywalker legacy.

But it’s too late. Episodes I, II, and III happened. And they sucked. They’re fine for distracting the kiddos on a Saturday morning, but they hardly belong on the bookshelf beside The Empire Strikes Back. Fans are left to dream wistfully of what might have been. To ask “What went wrong?” To wonder how Lucasfilm might avoided the prequel disaster.

I’ve got a few ideas. Over the next few posts, I’ll suggests a few ways that the prequels might have been improved. We’ll call the series “Salvaging Star Wars.”

My first suggestion? Don’t make prequels. At all. With very rare exceptions, prequel films pose problems that should daunt any good writer. First, such projects smack of corporate avarice. A good original film (or film series) ties up its plot threads and wraps up each character’s story. It’s meant to be whole and compelling and complete. But when that film earns big bucks at the box office, the suits trump the creatives. The studio demands a sequel, eager to milk its new-found cash cow. But because there’s no more future story to tell (the villain died; the galaxy was saved; the end), the writers must mine the past instead.

But there’s the second problem. The past is past. It’s history; the audience already knows what’s going to happen. In the case of Star Wars, we know that Obi Wan and Anakin and Yoda and the Emperor will survive. We know that Anakin gets hurt and becomes a hell-bent cyborg. We know that Padme will die. We know (or can very quickly guess) that Senator Palpatine is a secret Sith Lord.

The prequels attempt to generate some drama by introducing characters whose fates we can’t foresee. We get Jar Jar and Samuel L. Windu and Qui Gonn Jinn and Darth Maul and the Trade Federation bozos. But even if these were interesting characters (spoiler alert: they’re not), the audience can’t be fooled. If these characters don’t even get mentioned in the real Star Wars movies, how could they possibly be worth our time?

But there are other prequels that beat the odds. That present a compelling prologue to the original. Think of Godfather II or X-Men: First Class. It’s theoretically possible to make a prequel project work. So how might the Star Wars films have worked, then?

Next time, we’ll dive into the films themselves and explain how the Star Wars universe got muddled with our own—to the prequels’ detriment.