Sunday, June 5, 2016

From a Certain Point of View

I recently ran across this article purporting to describe all the ways the prequel trilogy "forgot" about the version of Anakin Skywalker established in the original movies. The author's contention is that the OT films lay out certain concrete story elements related to Luke and Leia's father, and that by ignoring those elements, the prequels gave us a less interesting story.

Now, there's no argument that much better scripts could have been written for Episodes I - III. And I don't think there's much argument that all of us old-school fans would have been less annoyed by the prequels if they'd followed our expectations.
But if you assume that the story of the prequels leads to the story of the OT, most of the inconsistencies raised in the article disappear with just a little examination. For example, the article's author wonders why Owen and Beru talk as though they knew Anakin, even though they basically met him only once in their lives. But the answer to this is simple: Owen and Beru both lived with Shmi Skywalker for some period of time -- months or years in Beru's case, and almost certainly years in Own's case. So Shmi would have told them all about Anakin ... probably more often and in more detail than they wanted to know. It doesn't take any reaching or straining to get to that conclusion. Anakin was Shmi's entire life. He was everything to her. There's absolutely no way she didn't brag about him and wonder aloud how he was doing and where he was in his adventures while the Lars family worked and lived around the moisture farm. 

Another complaint is that Ben speaks as though it was his idea to train Anakin, whereas the prequels reveal that the burden of doing so was thrust upon him by the death of Qui-Gon Jinn. How do we reconcile this? Well, the prequels also reveal that Obi-Wan idolized Qui-Gon and blamed himself for Anakin's fall, explicitly saying, "I have failed you, Anakin." We, the audience, don't put a lot of stock in Kenobi's announcement of his own culpability -- it's obvious to us that the entire Jedi order failed Anakin, starting with Qui-Gon. But Obi-Wan isn't the kind of person to point fingers at friends and colleagues, and he took the role of teacher to Anakin's padawan learner very seriously. Rather than admit that his mentor made a mistake by thrusting this responsibility on Obi-Wan when he wasn't ready, and rather than admit that he spent his life in service to an order that got so many things wrong, Kenobi bends over backwards to assume blame himself. He has a compelling subconscious reason to do so, above and beyond the fact that he's a stand-up kind of guy: if Qui-Gon blew it, and if the Jedi blew it, then Obi-Wan's entire life has been spent in service to futility.

The fact is, the great majority of our OT Anakin knowledge comes from Ben ... and Ben explicitly acknowledges that the things he has told Luke have only been true "From a certain point of view." Once we understand that Obi-Wan failed Anakin -- and KNEW he had failed him -- it becomes clear that Kenobi has spent 20 years struggling with his guilt and trying to find some way to reconcile his Jedi beliefs with the seduction of his friend. The idealized version of Anakin that emerges from this inner conflict is his solution: blame the Dark Side for the corruption of this terrific guy, and keep telling yourself that once the Dark Side seduces someone, it's game over, with nothing else to be done. In this way, he can preserve his faith in the Jedi order and his friends, and he can absolve himself of the responsibility to track Darth Vader down and attempt to bring him back to the light.

The prequels undoubtedly would have been much more adventurous and enjoyable if the Anakin we imagined from Ben's descriptions had been real. But that doesn't mean the prequels forgot about the OT Anakin. It just means what we already knew from Ben's dialogue in Jedi: the Anakin of ANH was a sugar-coated version of reality. We simply didn't know the degree of sugar-coating until we saw the prequels.

Now let's circle around to the other part of the article's thesis: that our OT-inspired expectations of Anakin Skywalker would have yielded a more interesting story than the story in the prequels. Frankly, I think this is bunk. A fair chunk of Star Wars fandom dismisses The Force Awakens as a mere retread of A New Hope. But I've yet to hear anyone say that TFA was as badly written and acted as the prequels are always accused of being. Even detractors generally admit that J.J. Abrams delivered some good popcorn-flick dialogue and managed to draw good-to-excellent performances out of his cast. So why don't we take a moment and imagine what the reaction would have been if Episode VII had featured the same clunky dialogue as the prequels, delivered with the same flat quality of performances. Imagine that all the practical effects had been obvious CGI instead.

Abrams would have been crucified, right?

And if we flip it on its head, how would people have responded to the prequels if they'd been full of snappy dialogue and compelling performances? The love story from Attack of the Clones is usually cited as the abominable nadir of Star Wars filmmaking, but what if it had been delivered with fantastic chemistry between the two leads and every line written to perfection? Jar Jar's annoying omnipresence and intolerable, offensive accent aren't elements of the prequels' storyline. They're bad choices in presentation. Remove them and replace them with genuinely clever dialogue, and there's no way he would be remotely as hated.

In the end, some people try to find fault in every aspect of the prequels that they can. But in truth, the story these movies tell is solid, consistent with the original trilogy, and much more subtle and socially relevant than the story we all expected.

Lucas just told the story in highly problematic, inaccessible ways, and ultimately, that's the crux of it: the prequels were badly directed.

We really don't have to go any farther than that.