The Force Could Have Been With Him
by Turtle Jones
When each of the prequels came out, I enjoyed them (my review of Episode III is here). Of course, any male born between about 1965 and 1975 was hard-wired to embrace the prequels, given how much the original trilogy dominated popular culture in our childhoods and preteen years. It took a lot to alienate us Star Wars fanatics; although George Lucas nonetheless succeeded in alienating a good number, most everyone who loved the first three could find something to like in these - the Phantom Menace, for example, had all sorts of problems as a film, but the lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan was the best lightsaber fight of the whole Star Wars series; likewise you would need a heart of stone not to get excited about finally seeing Yoda square off in combat at the end of Attack of the Clones.
Looking back, Lucas produced two uneven films (Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones), each of which had a bunch of fun scenes but also with plenty of cringe-inducing scenes and neither of which hung together that well as a complete film, and one good movie (Revenge of the Sith) which could and should have been a great movie but for a few potholes along the way.
If Lucas' goals were simply to complete his story arc his own way, make a bucketload of money from films, books, games and other merchandise, and play around with modern special effects, then he succeeded. But there was no reason to set his sights that low. The prequels could have been genuinely outstanding films.
The particular errors that Lucas made are well-worn ground by now - Jar Jar was a bad joke told for far too long, the midichlorians unnecessarily de-mystified the Force, the fish-faced Neimoidians with the Charlie Chan accents were silly and off-putting at best, racist caricatures at worst, and the handful of efforts at contemporary political commentary were distracting and incoherent.I'm more interested in not just the excising of particular mistakes but rethinking how the films could have been better, even within the parameters of the basic prequel storylines and characters as they have been laid out in the films, novels and the animated Clone Wars microseries.
Lucas started the films with two related and significant disadvantages - first, a lack of suspense, since everyone knew that the prequels had to end with Anakin turning into Vader, Obi-Wan headed to Tattooine, Yoda to Dagobah, Palpatine becoming the Emperor, etc. And second, limited ability to get creative with the storyline for the same reason - his endpoints were already set in stone.
But the films also started with tremendous advantages that most filmmakers would kill for: (1) an emotionally powerful, built-in double dramatic arc of downfall and betrayal, both Anakin's and that of the Republic; (2) a stable of pre-existing characters with known and in some cases reasonably vivid personalities, who require little further introduction, combined with a pre-existing fictional universe free from current realities of human existence; (3) employment of the best special-effects teams and the best film composer of our times; (4) a huge, built-in audience; (5) complete creative independence and an essentially unlimited budget, given Lucas' wealth and the justifiably high box office expectations; and (6) the combination of pop culture cache (especially for male performers of roughly my generation) with the prior two factors, making it child's play to attract the best talent in Hollywood to work on the films.
Bearing those in mind, here's four things Lucas should have done differently:
1. Don't Go It Alone. I'm hardly the first to make this point, but it was the original error that spawned so many of the others. Lucas is a man of considerable gifts, and some of these are still evident in the prequels - his imagination, his talent with special effects, his gift for the pacing of action sequences. But he has always had weaknesses as a filmmaker - he has no talent for directing actors, his dramatic and especially romantic dialogue can be horrendous - and one thing he did well in the original trilogy (well-timed wisecracks and one-liners) seems to have ossified in the intervening years as he went from quirky and ambitious film buff to merchandising tycoon.
All of that would have mattered a lot less if Lucas had made the decision to bring in the best help he could get from talented directors and writers to work over the films and make them wonderful and realistic and human. It's not as if Lucas would have had to worry about losing creative control, since he owns the place, and it's not as if fans and reviewers would have forgotten that this was a George Lucas production (how many besides Star Wars fanatics can name the directors of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?). The use of a revolving door of directors has worked quite well for the Harry Potter films, for example. If Lucas had only been willing to get the input of some other people, he could have worked with better dialogue, better performances, and people to point out huge mistakes before they hit the screen.
2. Combine the First Two Films. Since the original Star Wars ("A New Hope") billed itself as "Episode IV," the prequels had to be three films. But they didn't have to be these three. In fact, I think most Star Wars fans expected the first of the three films to introduce Anakin, the second to cover the Clone Wars, and the third to bring Anakin over fully to the Dark Side.
Had Lucas stuck with that order, a huge number of the narrative problems and omissions in the prequel trilogy would have fallen away. First, Lucas himself has admitted that he had to pad out Phantom Menace to get to a full-length film. Making an Episode I that covered Phantom Menace's storyline in 45 minutes before jumping ahead 10 years to pick up the Attack of the Clones storyline would have immediately removed or drastically shortened a lot of the filler and the redundant plotlines - the Gungans (Jar Jar even would not have been so bad with five minutes of screen time), the storyline where Anakin accidentally destroys the Death Star-lite, the fun but overlong pod race, the repetitive fight scenes at Padme's palace. As a corollary, instead of being off in a star fighter Anakin should have been present for the final battle with Darth Maul. That would have presented several opportunities - have him witness the death of his first mentor, intensifying his emotional scars. Have him play some role, through a not-entirely-intentional use of the Dark Side of the Force (perhaps even a Force-choke on Darth Maul that isn't noticed by Obi-Wan) that saves Obi-Wan and lets him kill Darth Maul, thus (1) establishing Anakin's unusual precocity without the need for a midichlorian blood sample and (2) serving as a sort of original sin in his relationship with Obi-Wan. Personally, I would also have laid out near the beginning the death of Sifo Dyas, whose critical role in ordering the clone army is never explained onscreen.
Granted, Attack of the Clones covers a lot of plot, some of which would get submerged if you combined the two, but with a full Clone Wars film to work with, the reworked first episode could have cut a lot of the romantic scenes with Padme, to be developed during the war. Some of the more video-game-y scenes could have been dropped (i.e., the conveyer belt scene). Certainly there was a half hour's worth of fat to be cut, and the films could have run close to three hours without exhausting audience patience if done right.
The resulting space cleared for a full-length film treatment of the Clone Wars would have given the trilogy much-needed epic scope (we see far too little of how the main characters' dramas affect the wider galaxy) and dramatic depth, as well as giving us a lot more insight into the character development and growth to manhood of Anakin, a little backstory to make cartoonish villains like Dooku and Grievous less incomprehensible, and perhaps space to let Sam Jackson take Mace Windu out to play more. Certainly the novels and the microseries offered numerous examples of the kinds of storylines available during the war - seiges, hostage situations, the deaths of Jedi in battle, intrigue among the villains, opportunities for Anakin to learn how to command, the whole whodunit story of the Jedi pursuing Sidious (leading to Palpatine needing to get off Coruscant to dry up the trail and thus motivating him to stage his own abduction). A full Clone Wars film could also have given us a live-action Asajj Ventress, a character who is vividly drawn in the novels, and who is naturally theatrical, with her shaved tattooed head, taut, leather-clad figure, double lightsabers and depthless rage; in fact, she could well have been a sort of Boba Fett crossed with Princess Leia in terms of combination geek factor and weird sex appeal. She would also have given us a chance for either Anakin and Obi-Wan combined, or perhaps Yoda or Mace, to get another lightsaber kill.
3. Rethink and Recast Anakin: Hayden Christensen took a lot of grief for his performances, but in Attack of the Clones I thought some of the criticisms unfair - he was asked to play a whining, petulant, self-important teenage boy, and he gave a very realistic portrayal of one. In Revenge of the Sith he was asked to do more as an actor, with decidedly mixed results - he stuck one key scene perfectly (the final showdown with Obi-Wan), gave a weak performance in the other (his conversion to the Dark Side), and proved incompetent at any scenes with Padme.
The core problem, though, wasn't so much Christensen himself as Lucas' failure to grasp Anakin's full potential as a character and cast him accordingly. While Obi-Wan is important to the plot, Anakin's personal drama is, after all, the center of the prequel trilogy. And the Anakin we could have expected from watching Vader in action and hearing about his youth had enormous potential as a classic film role: a young man who is cocky, ambitous, and supremely talented, but also rash, reckless, impatient, and subject to passions and rages he can't control and that ultimately consume him. Any screenwriter worth his salt would kill to write that character, any actor to play him. He could have been the ultimate bad boy anti-hero, James Dean with a lightsaber, the guy every teenage guy admires and every teen girl wants (indeed, ask Peter Jackson how it helps the box office to have teen girls swoon over your male lead). The role could have launched the next Brando, if written and cast properly - more swagger, more smirking, more volcanic temper, less whimpering and speechifying. Leo DiCaprio would have been perfect for the role if he was a foot taller.
4. Find A Han Solo: One of the critical elements of the original trilogy was the balance between the whiny, self-centered Luke and the wisecracking, free-wheeling Han. Throughout the films, Han (and his relationships with the other characters) kept the movies light-hearted, deflated some of the pretensions of even Obi-Wan and Leia, and generally injected the same retro 1940s charm that Harrison Ford would later bring to Lucas' Indiana Jones films. Han was at all times the movies' sense of humor about the absurdity of its own cosmology.
Obviously, neither Han nor Harrison Ford could appear in the original trilogy, but some character could and should have been given a Han-like personality to lighten the mood. There's no reason it couldn't have been a Jedi (the first two Jedi we meet are the mischievous Yoda and the dryly witty Obi-Wan, so there was no rule that says Jedi have to be somber and dull to be self-controlled), maybe even Mace Windu, but regardless, somewhere in the films we needed a foil for the overly serious tone. As discussed above, a better Anakin would have provided a little of this mood-lightener in the re-imagined second film in particular, and in fact a whole film focused on the Clone Wars would have created more room for a gun-wielding character who helps command the Clone Troopers.
Dan has just trumped Michele as the biggest Star Wars geek to appear on FTTW.