Wow, it's been a while, hasn't it? The hectic nature of the holiday season put this, and a couple of other ongoing blog projects, on hold, but now we're into January and it's time to get back to business.
Before I do, though, a reader wrote in regarding the Fixing the Prequels project:
Hello. Out of curiosity: The prequels ranked high on your Favorite Movies list, yet you've expended quite a bit of effort in making extensive changes. What gives?
I only ask this because The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith are two of my favorite films, and if I were to rewrite them, it would feel like I'm waving a white flag to the bashers.
That's a reasonable question. If I love the Prequel Trilogy (the PT) so much, why am I going to so much effort to examine their flaws? Well, it's never been my contention that the Prequels are perfect. Far from it, actually; the PT is, as a rule, more problematic than the OT. I can't really argue otherwise. But what I can argue – what I do argue – is that the PT's flaws aren't nearly as pronounced as most people think them to be, and that in fact the PT manages to rise above the flaws and tell a very compelling story. There is a lot in the PT that is not bad; in fact, there's a lot in the PT that is downright good, and there's a fair helping of stuff in the PT that is frankly great. This whole exercise is as much about addressing the real flaws as it's about pointing out the numerous – and oft-ignored – strengths of the PT, and putting the flaws in a better context than "OMG, Jar Jar sucks and therefore everything George Lucas touches sucks and by extension the original films must have sucked as well except for the little bit of good stuff in them which is only there because Gary Kurtz was there to keep George from infecting everything with the LucasSuck Virus anyway."
Look: there will always be people who can't get beyond Jar Jar, or Anakin saying "Yippee!" or ever having been a kid in the first place (I suppose they'd rather that Darth Vader had popped into existence, fully adult and evil), but my feeling is that if you can see that Jar Jar really does undergo some character evolution, and that Anakin's fall isn't that unrealistic at all, then maybe you'll see a lot of the better stuff in the PT that so often goes unnoticed.
Yes, there are many places in the PT where George Lucas makes some mistakes. Most of these are in the writing, but even so, it's always seemed to me that the writing problems amount to fixing dialogue and explaining stuff and tying other things together. His story in the PT, the plot itself, seems to me pretty robust, which is another case I try to make.
On a more "meta" level, I'm reminded of something Leonard Bernstein once wrote - two things Leonard Bernstein wrote, actually. Both can be found in his wonderful book The Joy of Music. In one, Bernstein writes a dialogue between himself and a Broadway producer who can't understand why Bernstein's newest show (I'm guessing "On the Town"?) didn't have a single hit in it. From this they go to discussing Gershwin, with Bernstein ripping apart the Rhapsody in Blue as being basically a series of jazz tunes dressed up in standard European orchestrations and tied together with cadenza-like passages and not a whole lot of real development of musical ideas. Bernstein's interlocutor is stunned, saying, "But you love the Rhapsody! You've recorded it a bunch of times! How can you riddle something you love full of holes?" Lenny's response is to note that what's bad, structurally, about the Rhapsody in Blue doesn't change the fact of the wonderful, wonderful tunes within it. What's good in the Rhapsody is so good that it outweighs what's wrong with it. (Earlier in the book, he makes a similar case regarding Beethoven, whose music has real, demonstrable flaws that don't subtract from Beethoven's stature as one of the towering figures of all human art.)
(This is paraphrased, obviously; Bernstein's book can be read here, with the essay in which Gershwin comes up starting on page 52.)
Well, whether what's good about the Prequel Trilogy is good enough to outweigh what isn't good is open to debate. I think it is. The Pod Race, the battle with Darth Maul, the machinations of Senator Palpatine, and the meeting of Anakin and Padme are enough to make me forgive Jar Jar stepping in a pile of shit. And so on. This whole exercise is largely quixotic, but I am hoping that people who encounter it may look at the PT in maybe a little bit of new light.
Thanks to David for the question! And with that, let's get back to Attack of the Clones.
We've just left our Jedi friends in Senator Amidala's apartment as they make security preparations. We cut to a secret meeting between an assassin named Zam and a bounty hunter in armor that's very familiar to Star Wars fans. Noting that they really need to get this job done, Jango Fett gives Zam a pair of presumably poisonous centipedes, which she then loads into a droid and sends on its way.
After that, in the script there's a brief scene that didn't make it into the movie. Back in the Jedi Temple, Yoda and Mace Windu have a brief discussion:
INTERIOR: JEDI TEMPLE, CORRIDOR – NIGHT
MACE WINDU and YODA walk down the long hallway, silhouetted by a lit room at the end.
MACE WINDU: Why couldn't we see this attack on the Senator?
YODA: Masking the future, is this disturbance in the Force.
MACE WINDU: The prophecy is coming true, the Dark Side is growing.
YODA: And only those who have turned to the Dark Side can sense the possibilities of the future.
MACE WINDU: It's been ten years, and the Sith still have yet to show themselves.
YODA: ...Out there, they are. A certainty that is.
There is a long silence as they walk away. Only footsteps are heard.
I like this exchange, but its placement here seems odd, so I would not reinstate this scene here. Instead I'd convey this information later on, someplace else. More on that later.
Now we cut back to the Senator's apartment, where she is sleeping while Obi Wan and Anakin maintain their watch. I've always enjoyed this part of the film, and I think the discussion of Anakin's dreams of his mother would be better served if we've already seen one of those dreams, as I did in the last installment. They discuss the security arrangements, and they talk about Anakin's dreams, which are deeply troubling him. This is the first spot, really, where the Jedi start to let Anakin down, isn't it? Anakin's suffering very vivid visions of his mother in terrible danger, and Obi Wan's answer is basically "Well, just wait it out." Throughout the PT, the Jedi have the incredibly bad habit of taking the wrong things seriously, turning left when they should be turning right, and paying rapt attention to what the right hand is doing at the expense of paying any heed at all to the left.
Obi Wan's distrust of "politicians" is also interesting, in light of his later insistence (at the end of RotS) that his allegiances are to democracy and the Republic. The Jedi don't seem to be terribly thoughtful agents of governance, which is another factor in their extremely quick downfall when it happens. Obi Wan cites Padme's status as a politician as a reason why Anakin should not be attracted to her, which is fairly odd; one would think that Padme, at least, would have earned his respect during the Naboo affair. Thus, a bit of change is called for in the dialogue:
ANAKIN and OBI-WAN continue their conversation, moving out onto the apartment's balcony.
OBI-WAN: You look tired.
ANAKIN: I don't sleep well anymore.
OBI-WAN: Because of your mother?
ANAKIN: I don't know why I keep dreaming about her now. I haven't seen her since I was little.
OBI-WAN: Dreams pass in time.
ANAKIN: I'd rather dream of Padmé. Just being around her again is... intoxicating.
OBI-WAN: Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin, they betray you. You've made a commitment to the Jedi Order... a commitment not easily broken... and don't forget she's a politician. They're not to be trusted.
ANAKIN: How can you say that Padme is not to be trusted? After what happened ten years ago...you knew her then!
OBI WAN: I know. But that was ten years ago, and she's spent the time since she was Queen in the Senate, which is something completely different. That kind of power can change a person.
ANAKIN: And you think she's changed? Become power-hungry?
OBI WAN: It is something to fear with anyone in the Senate.
Something like that, I think.
You really have to wonder sometimes about the Jedi and love. The whole concept seems so alien to a lot of them, as though love is driven out of them at an early age in some way. This is never discussed at all in the PT, and I have no idea if the subject comes up in any "Extended Universe" books or materials, but once again I note the parallels (which George Lucas may not realize or have intended) between the Jedi and the Knights Templar, that famed band of monastic knights during the Crusades who were, among other things, sworn to celibacy. Anyhow, nobody other than Obi Wan has the slightest idea that Anakin harbors strong feelings of attraction toward Padme, and Obi Wan has no idea how to deal with those feelings at all. (He doesn't do a whole lot better later on, when it's Luke agonizing over whether to help Han and Leia. His, and Yoda's, advice then remains the same: forsake them and follow the Jedi way. Maybe Luke Skywalker's greatest triumph isn't his making possible the redemption of Darth Vader; maybe it's to demonstrate that love and being a Jedi aren't mutually exclusive things?)
Back to AotC, though. I've always liked the way Lucas set up the entire "second assassination attempt" bit, with the probe droid cutting the window open, and Padme sleeping, and R2-D2 sweeping his eye around the room and not seeing anything while the two centipedes hide in the shadows. This whole sequence is really well done. (Odd, you know, since Lucas is such a hack director. I'm rolling my eyes, here.)
So the Jedi sense something amiss and burst in, where Anakin bisects the centipedes with his lightsaber (some very nice precision work with the blade there, too; an inch the other way and he slices Padme's head open!), and Obi Wan leaps out the window to grab onto the probe droid. Next Anakin goes upstairs, grabs a speeder, and gives chase.
(Some hilarious bloopers from this sequence can be seen as an Easter Egg on the DVD. Hayden Christensen did a lot of wiping out when running across the sets; in one, he's running out of Padme's bedroom when he wipes out, leaving Natalie Portman and the other extras there laughing. There's also a funny bit of Christensen getting too enthusiastic about "piloting" the speeder, pulling the control arm off the dashboard, and a terrific one of Ewan McGregor "piloting" the speeder and then shifting into a bit of "funky rhythm". Anyway....)
Now, really, the entire Coruscant sky chase is, in my opinion, one terrific action sequence. Only a few problems exist here, for me. As usual, much of it is dialogue related. In the first place, this is where it becomes clear that Obi Wan addresses Anakin with some variant of "My young apprentice" or "My young Padawan" way too often, making a lot of the lines cumbersome. I'd eliminate a lot of that. And then there's this exchange, which comes right after Anakin pilots his speeder so that a free-falling Obi Wan can land safely inside:
OBI-WAN: What took you so long?
ANAKIN: Oh, you know, Master, I couldn't find a speeder I really liked, with an open cockpit... and with the right speed capabilities... and then you know I had to get a really gonzo color...
[This last bit about the color isn't heard in the movie.]
They zoom upward in hot pursuit of ZAM as she fires out the open window at them with her laser pistol.
OBI-WAN: If you'd spend as much time working on your saber skills as you do on your wit, young Padawan, you would rival Master Yoda as a swordsman.
ANAKIN: I thought I already did.
OBI-WAN: Only in your mind, my very young apprentice. Careful!! Hey, easy!!
OK. If we're going to have Anakin say something smart-assed, can't we have him say something actually smart-assed? "I just wanted a speeder with the right speed capabilities"? Ugh, what a bad line. What would I do? Well, maybe something like:
OBI WAN: What took you so long?
ANAKIN: Well, Master, I decided to take into account everything you've ever said about my "impulse control" and not jump out the eight-hundredth floor window.
OBI WAN: The Living Force guided me to do that.
ANAKIN: And, thanks to me and this speeder, you're still living. Which way did the assassin go?
OBI WAN: That way.
He points in a direction that is particularly heavy with sky traffic.
ANAKIN: Oh, good! I haven't done this in a long time.
He steers the speeder straight into oncoming traffic, causing much consternation and uproar among the other pilots and generally wreaking havoc. Soon he is gaining on ZAM. Meanwhile, Obi Wan is hanging on for dear life.
OBI WAN: And there's a reason you were punished severely the last time you did this!
ANAKIN: That was for fun, Master. This is Jedi business. Don't worry, the Living Force is guiding me now.
I think that Lucas was going for banter between Obi Wan and Anakin, but a lot of the time it comes off as Obi Wan being the stick-in-the-mud teacher type. Now, that's actually called for some of the time, but I think the tone trends too heavily in that direction.
Anyway, I've always liked the Coruscant skyline chase a lot, and there's really not a whole lot I'd change, except perhaps for the exchange when it seems that Zam has given the Jedi the slip:
OBI-WAN: Well, you lost him.
ANAKIN: I'm deeply sorry, Master.
ANAKIN looks around front and back. He spots something. He seems to start counting to himself as he watches something below approach.
OBI-WAN: Well, this is some kind of shortcut. He went completely the other way!
ANAKIN: ...Excuse me for a moment.
ANAKIN jumps out of the speeder. OBI-WAN looks down and sees Zam's speeder about five stories below them cruising past.
OBI-WAN: I hate it when he does that.
ANAKIN miraculously lands on top of the Bounty Hunter's speeder. The speeder wobbles under the impact. ZAM looks up and realizes what has happened.
That little exchange doesn't quite work, because Obi Wan is reduced to being a terrible grump here. I'd replace it thusly:
Anakin brings the speeder to a sudden halt, hovering in midair in the midst of a bunch of buildings.
OBI WAN: We're stopping? Did you lose him?
OBI WAN: Did he go the other way?
ANAKIN: I don't know yet.
OBI WAN: Well, why are we hovering here, then?
ANAKIN: I'm about to follow your example, Master.
OBI WAN: What?
Anakin grins at Obi Wan and then jumps out of the speeder, plummeting downward through the cityscape to end up landing directly on top of Zam's speeder.
OBI WAN: I hate it when he does that.
Obi Wan takes the controls and continues the pursuit. Meanwhile, Anakin is pulling himself onto the top of Zam's speeder.
The rest of the chase I'd leave as-is, all the way to the bar. One little moment I like is Anakin losing his lightsaber and Obi Wan snatching it out of the air, and the way that Obi Wan gives Anakin the mini-lecture about taking care of his lightsaber. (This, alert readers may recall, actually mirrors a scene from the original script of TPM, which I would have restored to that movie.) There's the nice line of Obi Wan's, "Why do I get the feeling you're going to be the death of me?" After that line, there's another exchange in which Anakin protests that Obi Wan is like a father to him; I'd actually cut that exchange, leaving Obi Wan's line as it is. One problem I've noticed about George Lucas's dialog writing is that it's not so much that he writes bad dialog, but that he tends to overwrite his dialog, so perfectly good lines that would stand out as good lines get obscured because he adds more than he needs to.
(One common objection that always bugs me is the whole "People don't talk like this" objection. Ummm...so what? Nobody talks in iambic pentameter, either, but that doesn't render Shakespeare useless. And no, I'm not comparing Lucas to Shakespeare. I'm just saying that the actor's job is to make it sound like that's the way his or her character would talk. Nobody talks the way the people talk in The Lord of the Rings, either, but nobody complains there, because the illusion is better created of a world where people do talk like that. I've never had the fundamental objection to George Lucas's dialog that many have, though. Even if a lot of it could withstand some fine-tuning.)
OK, now Obi Wan and Anakin are in the bar, looking for an assassin who is a changeling. I love the exchange that comes now:
ANAKIN: I think he's a she... and I think she's a changeling.
OBI-WAN: In that case be extra careful... (nods to the room) Go and find her.
OBI-WAN goes away.
ANAKIN: Where are you going, Master?
OBI-WAN: For a drink.
There's something mischievous in Obi Wan's eye as he goes off for his drink; it's almost like he is sending Anakin to do the dirty work, but instead, he knows that the assassin will likely try to take him out first, since he'd just be standing there, nursing a drink. And that's exactly what happens.
(Oh, the drug pusher that Obi Wan convinces Forcefully to "go home and rethink his life"? That's one of my favorite bits in any one of the Star Wars movies. At the midnight screening on opening night, that bit got a huge laugh. Of course, it also had its detractors; I remember reading somewhere online someone whining that this was George Lucas taking a shot at cigarette smokers. Jeebus. The lengths to which some people will go to take offense at a Star Wars movie amaze me sometimes.)
So, while Obi Wan's having his drink, Anakin is walking through the crowd, looking for the assassin who is in turn stalking Obi Wan. The way Lucas shot this sequence is terrific, especially the Anakin-POV shots of the bar crowd looking at the young Jedi approaching them and moving out of his way. It's all right out of a Western, isn't it? What's really nice here is the way we get a real, solid glimpse into life in the Star Wars universe for people who aren't involved in any kind of war, star war or otherwise. Plus, the whole sequence is full of little visual touches for the fans: one of the big-screen teevees in the bar is showing a pod race; the signage out front has a scrolling marquee of alien faces, one of whom is the triangular-headed guy from the cantina in ANH. And speaking of that cantina, there's nice synchronicity in Obi Wan whipping out his lightsaber and chopping off the right arm of a blaster-wielding assailant in a bar, here in AOTC, which is something he'll do again twenty-plus years later with his partner's son at his side.
Great moment: the swagger in Anakin as he says to the bar patrons, "Jedi business. Go back to your drinks." I do wish there'd been a bit of crowd reaction here; one area that the PT always seems to ignore is the public opinion regarding the Jedi. Are they beloved? Are they a shadowy group no one knows much about? How seriously are they taken? They can't be held in too high a regard, since Palpatine manages to get the entire Galaxy behind the Jedi purge in RotS.
Now Obi Wan and Anakin drag the assassin into the alleyway for a bit of interrogation. There's not much to be said about this scene, except that wow, Jango Fett sure managed to stake himself out on the perfect ledge overlooking this action, didn't he? I don't know, this doesn't bother me much, but it could have been made a bit better perhaps by having a couple of shots throughout the chase of Jango following their progress, and maybe him coming to light upon the ledge as Obi Wan and Anakin come outside. As for the dialogue in this scene itself, I'd only make a small change. The assassin starts to confess after Anakin basically says "Tell us. Tell us now!" It seems a bit quick for her to confess, so I'd make a small change here:
ANAKIN: Who hired you? Tell us.
Zam only looks at him. Suddenly Anakin's eye's flash with anger and he snaps his wrist forward, grabbing firm hold on Zam's neck in a strangle-hold.
ANAKIN: Tell us now!
OBI WAN: Anakin....
ZAM: It was a bounty hunter named agghhhhh....
A hissing sound heralds the arrival of a toxic dart in Zam's neck. Zam dies without saying another word. Obi Wan carefully pulls the dart from Zam's neck.
OBI WAN: Toxic dart, but how--
They hear the firing of thrusters and look up to see an armored man flying away from a ledge above them via a rocket-pack.
ANAKIN: We're no closer to knowing who's after Padme.
He gets up angrily and starts to walk up the alley, but Obi Wan stares at the dart.
OBI WAN: We know more than we did....
One final point here, before I wrap up this installment. One frequently-lauded aspect of the OT was the way everything looked lived-in and used; it wasn't a sterile SFnal environment but instead looked like a real place where people lived and worked and got dirt under their fingernails and all that kind of stuff. The PT, however, made things look a lot shinier and nicer; at least, so went the complaint. I'm not convinced that's totally true, but the environments in the PT do tend to shine more than their OT counterparts, at least for the most part. Tatooine is still a grungy place, of course. But Coruscant always seems so clean, right?
Except for this alleyway outside the bar where not many people go. Here, there's a lot of garbage piled in the corners and the edges of the building; this suggests to me that the ultra-clean environment of Coruscant is something of a misnomer. Things are cleaner than they're going to be in years to come, but they're starting to slide a bit. I like that.
And on that note, we'll wrap it up for this time. Next time we follow Inspector Obi Wan Kenobi as he goes off to do some detecting work, while Anakin plays bodyguard to the Senator. Excelsior!