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Commentary TV and Movies

The New Star Wars trilogy is worse than the prequels

Commentary: Four lessons Disney failed to learn from George Lucas at his worst.

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Lucasfilm

"I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and... it gets everywhere." It's one of the most painful lines in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and it's only made worse by Anakin's halting delivery and awkward hand-stroking of Padmé.

It's no wonder, after so many terrible creative decisions in that prequel trilogy, that so many fans were excited when Disney tapped the rock steady J.J. Abrams to take the lead on the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. Unlike George Lucas, Abrams can write dialogue that isn't excruciating, and more importantly, he's proved himself a gifted guide for large franchises with untapped potential (Mission: Impossible, Star Trek and Cloverfield). And yet...

As the Disney Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, I find myself genuinely longing for the days of the prequels. What I'm feeling isn't nostalgia. And it isn't ironic "love" for schlocky cinema that animates prequel-memeing Redditors either.

What I miss is the daring. Nobody can say George didn't swing for the fences with the prequels. After all, the same experimentalism that gave us Binks and the "sand" dialogue also gave us the iconic Darth Maul duel, the best opening sequence in any Star Wars movie, and so much more.

At the end of Return of the Jedi, Yoda tells Luke to "Pass on what [he's] learned." Here are four pieces of wisdom that made the prequels better than the Disney trilogy.

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Lucasfilm

'Size matters not' - Yoda

From the start, Star Wars has been about the set pieces -- elaborate action scenes that leave our hands sweaty and white-knuckled on armrests. Sure, the original trilogy is a mythic story starring a charismatic cast, but everyone remembers the Death Star run, Luke hobbling those AT-AT's and Boba Fett plummeting into the Sarlacc Pit.

Lucas has always pushed the boundaries of VFX, both practical and digital. Despite his ambition, he understood that the best set pieces aren't always the biggest ones. Where Lucas packed his movies, prequels included, with small-yet-boundary-pushing moments, Disney has opted for much more standard, derivative-if-competently-staged action fare.

Compare, for instance, the space chase involving Obi-Wan and Jango Fett in The Attack of the Clones with the first flight of the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens. Nearly 20 years separates these two scenes, and the acting in Abrams' installment is uniformly stronger. 

That said, Lucas crafts something more than a slick chase scene with tight maneuvering and flashy quick-zooms. He plays with sound design, giving different ships and weapons different identities; he turns predator into prey halfway through the scene; he gives each side of the chase stakes, putting a child in one ship and a Jedi in the other. Disney's Star Wars movies just don't innovate.

If you want more examples, look at the planets themselves. The new Star Wars: Episodes VII and VIII both recycle planets willy-nilly from earlier Star Wars movies: Desert planet? Check. Forest, snow and city planets? Check, check and check.

Lucas excelled at creating a visual vernacular for each planet within minutes of arriving -- Tatooine in particular shone with its ecosystem of Tusken Raiders, Jawas, farmers and the uncomfortable colonial presence of Banta-riding Stormtroopers. The Last Jedi's planets were more visually inventive than those from The Force Awakens, but even the Vegas-like Canto Bight was absent the small cultural touches that made Jabba's den or Coruscant feel so lived-in. 

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, the same year as The Matrix, critic Roger Ebert called it "an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking," and filmmaker Kevin Smith said, "I'm sure in about a week, it's going to become quite fashionable to bash this flick -- hard. But I'd like to go on record as saying I dug it. It's a good movie with great moments."

The new movies' set pieces have been solid -- even occasionally good -- but they've never been great.

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Lucasfilm

'Your focus determines your reality' - Qui-Gon Jinn

OK, so I can't argue the moment-to-moment writing of the prequels is better than the Disney trilogy's -- it's not. That said, the character and plot arcs are so much more focused in Lucas' trilogies. In the prequels, Anakin's trek from gifted child-slave to Sith Lord, and Obi-Wan's growth from optimistic Padawan to tempered Jedi Master both work.

By contrast, the new films drag characters to and fro, more concerned with self-consciously echoing or subverting character moments from the original trilogy (Rey sneaking around the Starkiller base and studying under an aging master, Kylo killing his father, beheading Snoke and asking Rey to "join me") than forcing them to confront truly challenging dilemmas (Qui-Gon Jinn ignoring the council to teach Anakin, Anakin avenging his mother).

Not only are the individual arcs less focused, but the cast of characters is overstuffed as well, with the central three of the original trilogy (Luke, Han, Leia), the new three (Rey, Finn, Poe), three villains (Snoke, Kylo, Hux), and a host of supporting characters and cameos. There's a reason every random contributing character in Lucas' trilogies wasn't played by an "it" celebrity like Justin Theroux, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Lupita Nyong'o and so on. Having fans in the theater gasp every five minutes because of a new cameo (or because that Stormtrooper was Daniel Craig!) distracts from the central characters and narrative.

Lucas, by contrast, formed a supporting cast of talented actors whose names people probably didn't know (with the exception of Samuel L. Jackson). Of Christopher Lee, Jimmy Smits and the handful of other supporting actors with successful careers outside Star Wars, none felt like they'd been shoehorned into a Galaxy Far, Far Away simply because they were friends of the director or fans of the franchise.

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Lucasfilm

'Show no mercy' - Darth Sidious

Yes, I want to talk about plot armor. Plot armor is the tongue-in-cheek name for when important or likable characters are protected from realistic consequences because the story needs them. Think of every movie where the single Good Guy guns down a million Bad Guys while every bullet fired at him seems to miss by inches.

The effect of plot armor is that, over time, the whole movie begins to appear increasingly artificial: The audience doesn't feel the characters are at risk, and the characters never have to make difficult decisions, since the consequences don't truly matter.

Celebrated writer Kurt Vonnegut put it simply in his advice to other writers: "Be a sadist." And George Lucas is -- in a good way. Anakin's master, Qui-Gon Jinn gets killed in The Phantom Menace, and Darth Maul, the coolest bad guy around, gets bisected. Anakin's mother gets tortured, and Anakin responds by killing every man, woman and child in a Tusken Raider encampment. Anakin loses limbs, Padmé dies in childbirth, and Jedis are exterminated (even the Younglings!).

The prequel trilogy is a bloodbath, and that gives the movies real tension. In fact, the only characters we know will survive are Anakin (albeit in an unrecognizable form), Obi-Wan, the Emperor and Yoda.

The few meaningful deaths in the Disney trilogy feel intentionally parceled out for the maximum emotional heft: One of the original three cast members is killed off at the climax of each movie so far, and no-one of much substance gets offed besides.

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Some fans might point to Snoke's death as a significant effort to surprise viewers, but most of the meaning of that scene emerges only in the context of the Vader/Palpatine relationship that it's so clearly playing against. At the end of the day, we never knew anything of note about Snoke. Ditto Captain Phasma (another example of needless celebrity casting), who stands around looking cool and then gets killed with no development in between.

This pattern might change when the final movie rolls around, but I would be deeply surprised to see any of the most likable characters die. Will Abrams dare to shed young blood or leave a significant villain like Kylo Ren in power? Of course not.

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Lucasfilm

'The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.' -Yoda

Perhaps what everything boils down to is this: Like any studio, Disney fears losing money. Though I'm not privy to the inner workings of the studio, money seemed the clearest motivator for shutting down the Star Wars Anthology movies after Solo's poor returns. And it's likely why Solo was plagued with top-down micromanagement in the first place, including giving the ax to the talented directors to hire Ron Howard, a solidly paint-by-numbers studio director ever since A Beautiful Mind won the Oscar.

Where George Lucas famously had an "If people don't like [my vision], they don't have to see it" mentality, Disney and Abrams seem to fear sullying a beloved franchise with precisely what made it beloved in the first place: experimentation and boundary-testing.

Even Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, which fans largely excoriated for tearing down Star Wars conventions, missed the point. Johnson fought to subvert Star Wars lore, not to make a particularly innovative movie. So many scenes felt fuller of winking references than crucial plot or character moments: His dialogue leaned more toward Joss Whedon's Marvel humor than Star Wars' tension-building (did a $250 million dollar production just begin with a three-minute lead-up to a "your mama" joke?) and his plot revelations felt more like manipulative twists achieved by withholding information from the audience and characters than opportunities for character development. 

Poe's ill-advised mutiny killed an untold number of innocents, for instance, but his decision stemmed from Vice Admiral Holdo's inexplicable opacity -- was the lesson really to blindly submit to Chain of Command?

In a way, Johnson's Disney entry was more ambitious than Abrams'. But neither tried to swing for a home run in the way Lucas did with all his movies. If The Force Awakens is a ground ball, then The Last Jedi is a bunt -- a little cheekier, sure, but still aimed squarely at well-trod dirt.

Disney's cautiousness has led to good-but-never-great Star Wars movies. And that's why I will always take the bad dialogue and incredible moments of the prequels over a Star Wars trilogy that has neither.