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What the Star Wars Prequels Did Right


They’re terrible movies. Let’s get that out of the way. But watching The Force Awakens again, and then again the divine Original Trilogy, I got this weird and unsettling flash of appreciation for something Lucas had done in those stillbirths of CGI and suffering actors and dialog usually confined to airport novels written by ex-advertising executives. He built a universe and showed it to us.

Of course, he’d already done a bit of that with the Originals. We had an Empire and its Rebels. We had spectacular aliens and even more spectacular spaceships. But what we saw of it was only so much as needed to give the characters somewhere to be. Very little came off as existing without them. Luke’s farm sits like as movie set in the middle of nowhere. Alderaan is just a blue sphere until it’s not. Hoth’s a Rebel base and nothing else, and Dagobah is Yoda’s hut and a murky pond.


Not that we don’t get tastes. Tatooine in Episode IV has Jawas, a pass through Mos Eisley, and that wonderful cantina. Cloud City in Episode V features hallways with doors behind which people presumably live and earn a living. Jabba’s palace and Endor in Episode VI show denizens up to things unrelated to the struggle for a new Republic.


But those are small. Just tastes. The prequels gave us the whole meal. Planets and citizens. Civilizations from screen corner to screen corner. We knew about this stuff, some of it, going in, because we could imagine it in the Originals’ lacuna and had been told about it in novels and comics and games. Still, the prequels widened, radically, the scope of Star Wars.

That’s what I missed from The Force Awakens. It’s a great movie, a return to form, a revitalization and a demonstration of faith on Disney’s part that they get it, that they’re fans, too. But it’s a return to form, too, in narrowing that scope. Again we’re in a universe of isolated sets, of points of light in otherwise wilderness. Even Maz’s castle seems to exist without neighbors. There are no cities in The Force Awakens, save for a single shot, and only two villages, if we can call Niima Outpost that, and if we count Lor’s tiny settlement, which we only witness dying and never living. The wide angles of the prequels have become tight.


Perhaps this was intentional, meant to remind of us A New Hope, as so much else does, or to keep us focus on fresh faces as a way to establish them in our consciousness the way Luke and Leia and Han are. The fresh worlds will come. But after the expanse of the prequels and then the Clone Wars TV show, The Force Awakens feels a little small.

The prequels feel big.

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Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS

Star Wars: The Force Awakens did was it needed to. It restarted the franchise after Lucas’s disastrous prequel turn. It stamped Star Wars as Disney’s in the same way Iron Man did with Marvel. We weren’t just picking up where we left off, but rebooting a bit, too — and that’s fine. It’s what had to happen.

I enjoyed the movie immensely, and not just because I got to take my six year old daughter for her first experience of Star Wars on the big screen. (She loved it.)

What follows isn’t a composed review. I’ll need to see it a few more times for that. Instead, it’s more a random set of things that occurred to me during the movie and after. I’ve avoided spoilers, too.


My daughter’s a Star Wars Rebels fan and her favorite character is Sabine. Still is. But Rey’s edging in. I never really understood how bad the movie business (and the publishing business and the television business) is at giving girls action heroes to root for until I had a daughter. Now I can’t escape it. It’s a constant struggle finding something to show her or read to her that has a female protagonist who isn’t a princess or school girl obsessed with boys or isn’t focused on teaching how to be nice or how to get along with friends.

Rey’s exactly what Star Wars needed. A girl who kicks ass and isn’t a princesses and — unlike Sabine — gets top billing. When we left the theater, Nora said, “I want to be Rey for Halloween.”


I was always optimistic about this movie. Leading up to it, all the signs pointed in the right direction, and all the new Star Wars stuff Disney gave us was pretty damn good. Star Wars Rebels was easily the best new Star Wars on a screen since Return of the Jedi. The new comics capture the feel of the good Star Wars movies. It was clear Disney saw the Rebellion Era as the “default,” and would use it to inform the look and feel of future material.

And we were going to see a return to practical effects. Which goddamn did we need, after the bad (and not just dated) CGI of the prequels. For the most part, The Force Awakens succeeds here. The aliens in its version of the Cantina sequence look great.

But — and here’s my turn toward complaining — the large creature work failed. The creatures moved like stage productions, where you admire the artistry while still seeing clearly that it’s a few guys in a suit. None lived up to the standard Jabba set 30 years ago. You could watch the costumes crinkle around the knees, and the stilts inside as they walked. In fact, I’d say that both the big creatures (the one Rey runs across in the desert when she finds BB-8 and the one Finn shares a watering hole with) are far less convincing as living animals than, say, Jurassic Park two decades ago.

Maybe in the era of computer imagery for everything, large-scale practical creature effects is a lost art.


Now the oddest thing about the movie, and something that bugged me from the opening scene. Nearly ever shot with people in it felt compressed. Like everything happening was in a small area in the middle of empty space. Especially when the action took place outside, I got a distinct impression of watching a filmed stage production. Everything felt crisp, and constructed, and right there in front of you, because, unlike with the prequels, it all was.

The original trilogy, this made come off as a lived in universe. The Force Awakens too frequently looked like a built universe. Almost as if it were a very high budget fan film.


Which leads to my biggest complaint about the movie. As bad as they were, the prequels gave a strong sense of a universe. What we saw in the camera’s frame was but a piece of a much larger place, with events happening we weren’t being shown. It felt like stuff was happening off frame.

The Force Awakens (consciously?) returned to the style of A New Hope, with little indication that there was a universe out there. This worked for the first Star Wars. But I think it did because that movie oriented us. We could extrapolate from the little it gave us. There’s a galactic empire that controls basically everything. So what we’re not seeing is probably controlled by them. There’s a Rebellion that’s small and scrappy. What we see of it is close to all there is.

The Force Awakens plays the same game. Except, shouldn’t the roles be reversed? The Rebellion won and we’re told there’s a Republic now. But all we see of that Republic is a small and scrappy band of freedom fighters, with only a handful of X-Wings, and a single shot of people standing on a balcony in a city on an unknown world. The First Order, on the other hand, is supposed to be a remnant of the Empire, because we’re told it is. But what we see is a dominant organization with access to countless ships and soldiers, an organization that certainly appears to have near total control over the area of space the movie happens in. So while A New Hope showed us only a tiny portion of its universe, we had not trouble imagining the rest. The Force Awakens shows us only a tiny portion of its universe, but what we see conflicts with what we’re lead to believe about the rest.

I know the details will get filled in by novels and comics, but sitting in the theater, I found myself thinking more than once, “I don’t get this setting.”

Note: After writing this, I came across a post at Vox that helps clear things up quite a bit. Short version: The First Order is a sovereign nation outside the borders of the New Republic. The Republic is sponsoring and supplying an insurgency within the First Order’s territory. That’s the Resistance.


I loved the color. No orange and teal. The effect was to make the movie feel older than it is, like a throwback. Which I’m sure was intentional. Though in ten years, it’ll make the movie feel more contemporary than contemporary movies now, as the orange and teal look will make those films look dated.


The movie was too short. Important events — or important explanations for important events — were very clearly cut in post. I hope that someday we’ll get a Peter Jackson style extended cut, adding an hour or more of footage. It’ll be a better movie for it.


Setting aside what I said about the confused world-building, I don’t mind at all the in medias res nature of the story. It enunciated the clean break from Lucas’s Star Wars. This is Disney’s franchise now. They’ll go good places with it.


Yes, it repeated many of A New Hope’s story beats. Some worked, others didn’t, and still others could’ve been taken away entirely and not missed at all. This shared skeleton seems to be the biggest gripe people have with the new movie. But I guess it didn’t bother me. I took it as Disney building a new franchise out of the corpse of the old, and doing it by going back to where this all started. Star Wars has always been packed with repeated beats. The ones in The Force Awakens worked fine.


I still can’t believe we’re going to get new Star Wars every Christmas.