Al Sullivan's Movie Essays
Send in the Clones!
Problems with Lucas' trilogy
I had originally proposed to write three reviews, one for each of the previous generation Star Wars movies, but soon realized that - unlike the original trilogy (episode 4, 5, & 6) this sequence all suffer from the same syndrome and that the three films are really one large tale similar to the way the Lord of the Ring trilogy of films.
While the three Star Wars episodes differ in quality with the last as best and the middle one as least effective, all suffer from the same basic flaw: no one in the vast movie-making industry had guts enough to tell George Lucas his scripts sucked., his actors couldn't act, and many of his concepts of science fiction were juvenile at best and ludicrously childish at worst.
This is not to say Lucas lacked vision. The epic he proposed has mythological potential, but at times the writing is so sub par that had anyone but Lucas brought such scripts to a studio for consideration they would have been arrested for impersonating a writer.
But Lucas being Lucas, no one who actually gets a pay check as a result of his projects will tell him the truth.
Lucas' best friend in the industry, Steven Spielberg, might have offered Lucas sage advice, but Spielberg is such a busy beaver he hardly has time to put cream in his coffee or dip his cookies between one project and the next (Not to mention lacking time to grant this reporter and interview).
My favorite science fiction expert, Jim Freund, however, disagrees with me on several points. He claims the actors were more than adequate to play the parts, and, in fact, had excelled in other films. He places blame mostly on Lucas: faulty direction, a terrible script and the fact that the actors were forced increasingly to play on blue screen set - meaning that they were playing against imaginary characters that will be added later via animation.
Lucas fascination with special effects seems to have reduced his ability to provide his actors with believable dialogue and crippled his actors, by forcing them to use their imaginations rather than react to other actors or scenes through which they are actually moving.
While I disagree a little on this last point because many actors have risen to great heights playing in spliced together scenes such as the car scene in On the Waterfront where some of the actors shot their parts separately.
But to make such performance work requires a strong director, one who can help bring his actors to the emotional peak they need to perform their best. Both Freund and I agree, Lucas is hardly that kind of director. He often has his characters pointed off to this place or that, rather than actually performing some action.
In many was Revenge of the Sith modified many of the flaws of the first two films, giving a better venue for actors to act - leaving us with action scenes that actually depict the central characters doing more than pointing out an enemy and telling other soldiers to "shoot over there." This last film falls from Space Opera to soap opera only at those moments when its characters delve into love
Lucas is very ambitious in seeking to create a tragic hero, one who would let one fatal flaw bring him (and possibly the whole known universe) to ruin, a flaw called love.
Love has moved men to great folly before in fiction from Othello to Scrooge, and often, this thesis has produced great art as a result.
But the love Lucas presents us is one of the most juvenile concepts of love, the kind of love we might find in Brat Pack films of the 1980s, but rarely in Dickens or Shakespeare. While Lucas might argue that these are teens and therefore would express such love, I would call this bunk and point to West Side Story as one of the principle examples of teen age love risen to great heights. But this, of course, is Shakespeare in disguise, Romeo and Juliet, from which Lucas could have also borrowed. He wouldn't have been the first: Forbidden Planet borrowed from Shakespeare's Tempest to great success.
Borrowing from Shakespeare or some other equally competent writer would help deal with one of Lucas' other central flaws: a lack of a definable and cause-driven plot.
Unfortunately, Lucas seems to lack a basic text book on plotting, and hired supposedly quality actors only to equip them with stilted dialogue that results in questionable performances. The plot Lucas provided seemed to be scripted on whim rather than cause and effect, and as director, he appears to be more interested in what he can subject his characters to rather than providing them with real dilemmas to solve and challenging conflicts to overcome.
Although Lucas painted a gloriously rich historic backdrop against which his characters might play out their roles, his lack of proper moment to moment plotting makes all three films leap from action sequence to action sequence as a source of interest. Character charge off to do battle or discover information on the thinnest of pretexts, and may even be acting merely to justify the nifty special effect with which the film is so heavily endowed.
While Lucas' work is often heavy with cliché, this is less problematic than lack of clarity. This lack of specific and unmistakable motivation leads to great confusion. It is often difficult to tell who is on what side in various conflicts and why. Quality actors are often wasted, mugging - especially in the Clone movie - in order to act as a place holder for later action. Many actors seem perfectly content to mouth their lines, pick up their paychecks and go home when the filming is over.
How could Lucas have made these films better?
Short of hiring me as a consultant, plotting would probably serve him best.
Good plotting, so the old adage claims, overcomes most other flaws.
Steven Spielberg might be able to get away with loose plots, using allegorical or image based connections to create tension, Lucas cannot - at the second film of the Indiana Jones movie clearly shows.
For all of Lucas' special effects, his films are extremely conventional - character and narrative -- he needs to tell a story upon which he can hang all his ornaments. This requires plotting and in science fiction of his sort, cause and effect is key.
Part of the problem with this series is the fact that nearly anyone coming to the film already knows the outcome: the hero must turn bad, and must become one of the classic evil characters of modern films.
This series tells not what might happen to a character, but what already has. This would be a monumental task for great literature - which Star Wars is not.
How a character got a particular way is usually landscape reserved for back story, helping to further define a character through a series of flashbacks while the character moves ahead towards some as yet undermined destination. In this we have both stories ongoing simultaneous, and through the back story told in this way, we speculate on how the character will resolve some future crisis.
To make his task even more impossible, Lucas not only wants to tell us how a character got the way he is, but has taken on the task of revealing for us one of the greatest arch villains of modern cinema.
This is a task few except classic Greeks and William Shakespeare have taken on successfully, a task so monumental, Lucas might legitimately lay claim as one of the greatest film makers ever if he could have pulled it off.
For mere mortals such as the rest of us are, it is a task guaranteed to fail.
Lucas added to his own woes by leaving most of this task to the final movie rather than building up to it from the beginning. Anakin's flaw of character should have been harped on from the opening credits of The Phantom Menace and continued scene by scene to show his inability to live up to his own promise. Instead, Lucas paints Anakin as a kind of Tom Sawyer in the first movie in an effort to make us understand what a noble person we are losing.
Not even in great tragedies does a great evil character emerge out of characters so firmly rooted in good. The evil seed must begin its work right away, leaving us to shout warnings about his misguided deeds. Lucas never gets this, and even late in the film, Anakin's motivations are confused, contradictory and often silly. Within a few minutes film time, Anakin goes from protesting the need for a trial for one of the film's most notorious villains to slaughtering children. It is a leap of faith too far for any reasonable person to take and undermines even the best of the three films by painting Anakin as an inconsistent character at best.
While you might compare Anakin to Hamlet, unable to make a choice, in Hamlet, we had brought along with the main character through a body of evidence that justified his eventual murdering. In these Star Wars films we are forced to leap from one kind of character to another, and never really get a satisfactory explanation as to why.
This is a failing of plot, that inevitable plodding along from one thing to another, a character being forced to make continuous and slightly erroneous decisions until he comes to the point where he has become evil.
Anakin could still have been an admirable character in the first film, but we should have been provided with evidence leading to his decline. Perhaps the ethical and moral infractions of the first film might have been small, such as causing him to cheat during the great race. He might have cheated for a noble cause, such as saving himself and his mother from life as slaves. By the second movie, he should have been skeptical of the Jedi code of ethics, claiming it did not dole out justice properly, and that sometimes even a Jedi might violate the rules for a good cause.
His love should have been couched in similar terms. He should have questioned this future priesthood's restriction, asking how such an order to make such high demand. He should have struggled with the two options through the whole film, debating whether he wanted to give up his love or his ambition to become a Jedi. In the end of the second film, he should have decided that neither option was viable, and that he would have both - saying he deserved both, at which point we would see him making love to the senator while deceiving his master.
By the beginning of the third film, Anakin should already have been well on his way towards the dark side, committing acts which his master disapproved, creating a tension between student and teacher that would inevitably lead them to the final confrontation. His decision to take on a new master should have been as a power play against his old master, not as simply manipulation. Anakin - unable to live with the rules set by the Jedi - helps plot against the council, made even more bitter when the council refuses to give him the ranking he thinks he deserves.
All of these things would have made Anakin into a much better character and a much better tragic hero, someone who had potential, but allowed his lust for power and his desire for love to get in the way.
I'm told now that Lucas intends to develop another trilogy as he had originally planned.
George, don't be a fool. Call me. My newspaper's in the book.