Agency in Star Wars
I marathoned Star Wars this weekend, probably for the first time since my childhood. I’ve always been a huge Star Wars nerd, and read a huge amount of the expanded universe books- including the ones that were actually good, and some that were not. I know various minutiae about the battle of Coruscant (the second one, post Return of the Jedi) and the political landscape of the galaxy at the time. Knight of the Old Republic 2 is such a great game that I haven’t been able to come up with a good enough blog post to talk about it yet. I love Star Wars.
Spoilers abound, of course, for the one guy who’s never scene it.
First off, we watched them in Machete Order. I would recommend reading through this if you haven’t, because I’m in full agreement that this is the best way to watch Star Wars, if only for the fact that if helps characterize Luke better in Episode Six. The parallels between him and Anakin help show that throughout the movie, Luke is leaning towards the dark side. Which makes his decision to defy the Empire and throw away his lighsaber, rather than strike down his father, all the more meaningful. His Decision- we’ll get to decisions in a minute.
The prequel trilogy sucks. I could get into why it sucks, or you could just watch them- the acting, writing, and characterization is atrocious. Now, the prequel trilogy is cool, if nothing else. Lightsaber battles are exciting, the idea of a war between legions of disposable clones and hoards of disposable robots is definitely interesting, and worth exploring. Galactic civil wars have a lot of cool, interesting things going down, and its definitely a good plot for a lot of dramatic character tension, brother fighting brother, all that. The space battle opening Episode 3 is the most involved capitol ship to capitol ship battle in Star Wars . And we all know how much I love my capital ships.
But the story itself was a mess- it was if they made a setting and spent the last minute throwing together the story. But I think there is another specific reason the prequels fail at stories that isn’t as mentioned and no so talked about explicitly, which is that no characters make any real decisions, at least not on screen. The one exception, of course, is Anakin’s fall to the dark side, but that love story doesn’t really make enough sense for me to think that is a real decision in the first place.
Everyone other character’s arc follows a decision making process of “continue fighting this war that someone else started”/“win this battle the best I can”/“Warn someone not to do something obviously stupid”/ “follow this next clue on the mystery trail because there is no other valid option.” Anakin at least kind of makes choices to do these, but recklessly. However, for everyone else, it seems that anything other than their chosen options lands firmly in the “sit on my ass and don’t participate in the plot at all.” I can’t think of a single instance where a character on either side comes up with a real plan or has two equally valid options before them.
Anakin’s decision is more of a “Do I to fight for the Jedi council who are at least not on the side of causing a massive war for no altruistic reason” or “Should I be a huge asshole?” He kills a bunch of people because he has dreams or something, so I’m not sure we ever see a decision weighing heavily on his mind.
The original trilogy has plenty of decisions characters make. In the climax of Return of the Jedi, Luke decides to try to assassinate the Emperor, then goes apeshit on his father trying to kill him, then makes the decision to throw his lightsaber away. His father chooses to sacrifice himself to save his son. Darth Vader chooses to die and have his mask taken off so he can see his son. Han Solo, in A New Hope, chooses to take a deal that sounds too good to be true and winds up joining the rebellion. He shoots Greedo first, committing a murder. He comes back to save his friends a the end of the movie, at risk to himself, rather than run off with their money. Leia chooses between Luke and Han. Leia decides to return for Luke on Bespin because of her vague force feelings she probably doesn’t have faith in, but believes in. Yoda and Ben argue about the merits of training Luke Skywalker.
Now, many of the choices in the OG Star Wars movies are simple, or needed to move the stories along. But our characters at least still make them. There really isn’t any struggle at all internally, for anyone, in the prequel trilogy. Any interesting decisions are made entirely off screen. This includes the Jedi’s decisions to enter the war, Dooku’s entire character arc, most of the Clone Wars, and Palpatine’s various machinations.
This is, of course, only a small part of why the prequel trilogies are bad. But I think from a storytelling perspective, if you have a character based drama, such as the rise of Darth Vader, it’s a really important factor if you want to explore the relationship between Obi Wan, Vader, the Emperor, and Yoda. This goes for storytelling in general, and I think the decisions characters make helps us empathise them a little.
TLDR; George Lucas is a hack who can’t tell a story.
This guy can though.
PS: I’m super stoked about J J Abrams doing Episode Seven because his Star Trek movies were less about politicics and metaphor than Pew Pew Lazers, so I think he’ll have Star Wars down.