Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 1 of 2)

Let’s do this.

One character is conspicuously missing from this collage, but I wouldn’t say anyone’s actually *missing* him.

Ah, the Star Wars prequels. They get more hate than they deserve, but the hate they do deserve is more than enough. That animosity out of the way, let’s go ahead and take things as they come.

(Housekeeping note: I tried to do the whole prequel trilogy in one big post, but the verbiage kept spilling out from me. After hitting the three thousand work mark before I was halfway done and seeing that Revenge of the Sith has FIVE fight scenes all on its own, I decided to split this in two, with Episodes ! & II in this post and the next post dedicated to the third. Nobody wants to read a 10,000 word blog post, after all.)

1) Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Maul

“We’ll handle this.”

(Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

The Fighters:

  • Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • Darth Maul, played by Ray Park. Voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, but he says nothing in this fight.

The Fight: Epic.

It’s hard not to view this fight in the context of its time. Prior to 1999, audiences hadn’t witnessed an on-screen lightsaber fight in about 16 years, and in the intervening time the standards of action film choreography had changed quite a bit– mainstream Western audiences were getting more exposed to hyper-complicated Hong Kong action ballets, for one thing. Plus, as we were reminded endlessly, the Jedi in the prequels would be from a mystical warrior culture in its prime, whereas in the original trilogy the only Force-users were a few over-the-hill remnants and one inexperienced newcomer. For this showdown, Lucas & co had to come out swinging, in more ways than one. (Not the sexy way. Mostly.)

So while it may not have ultimately been the best move to replace Bob Anderson with Nick Gillard as the sword master, it was certainly understandable. Gillard fused together multiple styles of fencing (and other types of swinging movements such as tree-chopping) to create a unique style of Jedi-fighting that was highly energetic and complex. His Jedi are more acrobatic ninjas than they are stately knights.

Speaking of complex, the nature of this fight adds several new wrinkles that hadn’t yet been seen in any main Star Wars media by this point: it involved more than two combatants, it traversed an enormous amount of real estate, and most obviously it introduced (to the screen, anyway) that long-drooled-after bit of fanboy lore, the double-bladed lightsaber. Wouldn’t it have been great if they’d not spoiled that in the trailers and been able to keep it secret until opening night? Ah, a fanboy can dream.

From a narrative standpoint it’s also distinctive for being the first Star Wars duel in which the protagonist(s) and antagonist have zero emotional/dramatic connection, at least not until near the end. This is not old friends or payback or familial redemption; Maul is a bad guy, they’re the good guys, and they’re in each other’s way. Maul doesn’t even talk— he’s a silent assassin, a blunt instrument.

Anyway, as to the fight itself, though time & repetition (I personally must have watched this close to a hundred times, including eight screenings in the theater. Yes, eight. You wanna make something of it?) have worn away some of its initial impact and revealed some of its flaws, it’s still a very entertaining & dynamic battle. And it’s still easy to see why it came off as enough concentrated awesome so as to mitigate the disappointment and head-scratchings of much of the preceding 100-some minutes.

The performers really do some excellent work executing Gillard’s hyper-detailed choreography. Liam Neeson (a GFS Hall of Famer for Rob Roy alone) is huge and powerful, while McGregor’s Kenobi is all wiry speed. But Ray Park’s Darth Maul is unquestionably the star here– the fact that he didn’t went on to be an actual movie star after this film and has rarely been put to good use since is something I’ll never forgive Hollywood for. Seriously, is it THAT hard to think up 90 minutes’ worth of scenarios for Ray Park to kick ass in? “Well, you know, he’s not a very good actor.” Oh, but Steven Seagal was?

Ahem. Point is, absent that aforementioned dramatic resonance, this fight had to succeed all the more on a purely kinetic level, and it’s Darth Maul who sells the scale of the threat here. Maul is fast, strong, and lithe like a snake. His overall design is a pointed contrast to everyone’s favorite Sith Lord, much more animalistic and primal (he’s got a painted face and freaking horns, for crying out loud) instead of Vader’s effortless, streamlined menace. And as portrayed by Park he is, while still tactically smart, a guy who wears his fury & aggression on his sleeve. The dude is a big scary bully and he fights angry.

Another key ingredient is the famous Duel of the Fates, John Williams’ specially composed orchestra/choir piece for the film– itself another unusual take for Star Wars. It was heavily promoted at the time and was run into the ground by Lucas afterwards, but like the rest of the much-revisited fight it still retains an elemental power that helps sell the scale of the conflict here, even cut up & re-arranged as it is.

The scene’s real problems come from its staging and plot contrivances. It begins in a hangar deck and Maul soon takes the initiative to move it (in a nice detail many don’t see the first time around, he Force-grabs a battle droid’s arm and uses it to activate a door switch) to more restricted quarters since presumably the open environment offers him little advantage against two opponents. All fine. But as soon as the combatants move through the door they’re in this enormous chamber, maybe 30 stories or more deep, with at least three levels of catwalks and some sort of giant towering reactors. Why are these enormous reactors sharing space with the fighter bay? Is it really safe to collocate your energy reactors with your military assets? (Fortunately for the people of Naboo, the Trade Federation had a similar design philosophy: their ships had their “shoot here to blow up the whole ship” power core about a hundred feet from the docking bay.) The climactic duel of Empire took place in a similarly cavernous installation, but that more or less made sense because Cloud City was established as a mining colony and its structures were designed to harvest the abundant gas below– the fight even took place in an industrial area because that’s where the freezing equipment Vader needed was. Here the audience has no sense of what this place is. It doesn’t flow organically out of the story, it’s merely there because it needs to be there.

Even more egregious is the bizarre contrivance in the latter portion of the fight, the hallway full of force fields that turn off & on at set intervals. These force fields serve no apparent practical function; as a young fanboy I tried to convince myself that they were for slowly venting gases out at staggered times, whereas Terry Brooks’ crappy novelization mentioned that they served a security purpose, which makes even less sense (wouldn’t they just stay on constantly in that case?). They exist purely as a plot device to get Qui-Gon killed– specifically, to get him killed in such a way that it happens while he’s separated from Obi-Wan and the apprentice must look on, able-bodied but helpless to stop it. It’s frankly like something a child would make up.

The way it finally resolves is pretty dumb, too. It’s a cool idea to try to have Kenobi win by using his brain rather than simply getting in a lucky blow in the middle of normal combat, but it’s inexcusable the way Maul stands there like a dumbass for as long as Obi-Wan takes many long seconds to lift himself out of the pit he’s trapped in, then land, and THEN slice him in half. *I* wouldn’t have that slow of a reaction time, and I’m not a mystical psychic space ninja monster.

Contrivances aside, the action itself is, despite all its frenetic complexity, seriously flawed when given close examination. How bothersome that is I’ll leave up to you; it’s not like the Star Wars movies were known for their accuracy in fencing technique before this. And this one is spliced up even worse than worse than ROTJ, because between the duel, the Gungan ground war, Padme infiltrating the palace, and the space battle, this movie has a four-front climax. Let it never be said that George Lucas is unambitious, but the Jedi fight is unquestionably far more interesting than anything else happening simultaneously, so cutting away from it is rarely helpful.

Also, there are three (3) separate occasions where Maul kicks Kenobi right in the face. He’s probably got the manufacturer’s logo tattooed in his brain by now.

Grade: B+

2) Obi-Wan and Anakin vs Count Dooku

“Surely you can do better!”

“Yes I can and don’t call me Shirley”

(Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by acting legend Christopher Lee.

Come to think of it, no first name for Dooku is ever given, and you have to wonder exactly what kind of royalty he is considering that Force-sensitive babies are taken by the Jedi Order at birth. I really wish he went by his Sith moniker “Tyranus” more, because (and this is running theme) “Count Dooku” sounds like a name a child made up. Though not as much as “Dexter Jettster” does.

(You’ll notice I skipped all the chaos in the arena, because the monster stuff is a very weird type of “fight” and after all the reinforcements arrive it becomes more of a war sequence than anything. I also skipped the pretty good confrontation with Jango Fett on Kamino because come on, do you want to be here all day?)

Is it just me or does Hayden have freakily long arms? And shouldn’t he be WAY taller than Kenobi?

The Fight: It’s really less Obi-Wan and Anakin vs Dooku than it is Obi-Wan then Anakin vs Dooku, since little orphan Annie rushes in out the outset like a moron and gets zapped by a healthy dose of Force lightning, taking him out of commission for a few minutes. Kenobi is left alone to face Dooku, his master’s master, alone. Tyranus tries the same zap attack on Obi-Wan, but the latter casually blocks it just by holding his lightsaber in the way. This scene was only the second time we’d seen Force lightning on screen in the Star Wars universe, so it was something of a surprise to find it could be deflected so easily, and somewhat disappointing, too.

Obi-Wan’s time with Dooku is characterized by a series of short, intense clashes, and even though blow-for-blow Kenobi seems to doing well until the end, McGregor’s performance show that he’s struggling just to keep up. Dooku relishes it, too, leering at him evilly as he encourages the younger man to “do better.” And sure enough, it’s not long before he’s able to dart in and give Kenobi a couple incapacitating (but non-maiming, curiously; he just scoops out a chunk of flesh from two limbs) wounds.

He gets stopped at the last second by the intervention of a revived Anakin. Their short exchange is one of the few examples of genuinely successful, snappy dialogue in the entire film, if not the whole prequel trilogy:

DOOKU: “Brave of you, boy. But I would have thought you had learned your lesson.”

ANAKIN: “I am a slow learner.”

Nothing major, but a nice little smartass retort, and it works extra because it plays off the resentment the audience has built for Anakin’s impulsive, stubborn characterization over the course of the past 2 hours. Curiously, the shooting script simply has the slightly but significantly different line “I’m a slow learner”– with that contraction, any emphasis on the sentence would have to go to a different word, which I don’t think would work as well. It’s entirely possible that the ad lib was made by Christensen, who I think gets a bad rap; he’s a good actor in the right role, and the problems with Anakin’s characterization are due more to the script than to him. Ever see Shattered Glass? It’s pretty awesome for a movie with zero fight scenes.

Sorry, back to business. Kenobi throws his padawan (I trust I’m not the only one who never cared for that word) his own lightsaber, and for a few brief seconds Anakin is able to push Dooku back with the extra blade. But his green saber gets destroyed almost as soon as he gets it, so it’s back down to one. Not sure why two swords would always be better than one, anyway; it’s an entirely different fighting discipline altogether (“it’s an entirely different fighting discipline”) and even if two were always better than one, wouldn’t every Jedi carry two?

“I’ll shatter YOUR glass, old man!”
“… what?”

Anyway, Anakin seems to conduct himself even better than his master did, having several long and fluid exchanges with the Sith Lord. The filmmaking gets a bit fancy here, too, after Anakin cuts open a grounded power cable, sparks start flying intermittently out of the ground and lower the light level in the pair’s portion of the hangar. A good chunk of the two’s fight is then shot in an alternating close-ups of their faces, lit only by their swirling blades. It’s really cool-looking, and a very artistic way to work around Christopher Lee’s advanced age (79 at the time).

But even the Chosen One is no match for Gandalf’s boss, who he darts in with a swipe that cuts off Anakin’s hand, and Force-punches him into a heap on top of Kenobi. Lee’s performance after doing so is… interesting. He sags his shoulders and drops his face, looking not so much tired from effort as he does resigned and disappointed. Is he sad about being forced to kill two promising young folks, or bummed that the challenging combat he seems to relish is over so soon, or is he planning on letting them live and trying to look conflicted for the heroes’ benefit so as to better build on the doubts he planted in Kenobi’s mind earlier? If that’s the latter one, that makes no sense, because it’s pretty clear he’s down with the dark side rather than being a well-meaning political dissenter; I mean, even Jefferson Davis didn’t have a red lightsaber and throw out Force lightning.

An enigmatic decision on the actor’s part, or confused direction from Lucas? We may never know. Regardless, Dooku doesn’t have long alone with his thoughts, because a certain little green man ambles into the room shortly after.

This is all very likable, all those nagging issues aside. It’s a great contrast to TPM’s climactic fight– a battle that doesn’t betray the new type of Jedi aesthetic established for the new trilogy but still gives a different type of experience. This is no epic duel of the fates, just a quick & dirty domination by a classy villain. Even though he’s body-doubled a lot (most of the more demanding physical work is done in very wide shots to hide this), Christopher Lee is a welcome addition to the world of Star Wars: it’s a world that is patently ridiculous and is quite often stiffly-written, so “naturalistic” acting is rarely comfortable there. Old-school hams with a sense of the absurd and the theatrical, such as Lee &  his old Hammer compatriot Peter Cushing back in ’77, are a much better fit. He also makes a nice halfway point between Maul and Vader.

Grade: B+

3) Yoda vs Count Dooku

“Much to learn, you still have.”

(Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

The Fighters:

  • Yoda, played by CGI and voiced by Frank Oz, may he live forever.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by Christopher Lee.

“Cut a bitch, Yoda will have to.”

The Fight: Yoda hobbles in and Darth Tyranus wastes no time picking up pieces of the scenery– machinery off the walls and large chunks of ceiling– and throwing them at the funny old master. Yoda calmly deflects it all, not even attempting to counter. When Dooku upgrades to Force lightning, the great warrior (even though wars do not make one great) returns that to sender just as easily, and finishes off by apparently absorbing the rest of it. Neat trick, but it loses some of its oomph now that we’ve seen just how easy it is to defeat that lightning if you have a lightsaber.

“Showing off, I am.”

Still, Lucas manages to sell the gravity of this showdown, and the titanic power of the two foes. It had been more than 20 years since the diminutive sage had first burst on the scene and impressed audiences with only hints of his once-great power– so much so that we inevitably wondered just what the little green muppet had been capable of back in his heyday. And this is basically what many of us would have guessed it would look like: Yoda coolly standing his ground and unleashing a cosmic whoopass with simple humility.

Lee’s aforementioned ability to navigate his way through ridiculousness comes in handy when he says the line that switches the nature of the fight: “It is obvious that this contest cannot be settled by our knowledge of the Force… but by our skills with a lightsaber.” Egads, seriously? That may be one of the most clunky and awkward lines ever written. It reads like the Jedi-fied version of something you’d hear in a B-list high school comedy from the ’80s, spoken by a snooty English-lit teacher who uses twenty big words when five short words would suffice. Granted, Count Dooku isn’t as flippant as John McClane but surely there could have been a quicker & better way to say this– something like “It seems we’ll have to settle this the old-fashioned way.”

But again, it’s a testament to Lee’s skill that he doesn’t come off like a total goon saying it. And the subsequent slow-pan around Yoda as he draws his own lightsaber is SO awesome. As much flack as Lucas gets for not understanding what his fans want, there are times he definitely knows how to play to the crowd.

Because as droolworthy an idea as Yoda engaging in a massive Force-struggle is, Yoda whipping out a lightsaber and swinging away was always a mind-blower. We wondered how would that even work, given the character’s aloof persona, frailty, and tiny size. The solution chosen by Lucas and co was ballsy, reckless, or some combination of the two: Yoda’s fighting style turned out to be a completely unexpected method involving blinding speed and hyperactive acrobatics, much of it using his small size as an asset.

“A butterfly, I float like.”

The result certainly blew everyone away at first (the opening screenings I went to were filled with delighted gasps and shouts of joy), but as with the then-mind-blowing duel capping off TPM, time may not have been kind to it since. Some have unfavorably compared Yoda’s constant flipping to Sonic the Hedgehog’s arcing jumps, and it’s hard not to see that. Still, it was certainly a daring and unexpected choice. Though I would have liked to see more actual fencing and less flipping.

Just as the fight winds down and we get the revelation that Yoda was Dooku’s old master, the latter decides to cut and run by dropping a huge pillar on Obi-Wan & Anakin, which Yoda has to stay behind and push off. A disappointing end to a shocking and epic fight.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: We find out why Revenge of the Sith makes for a fitting acronym.

Shhhhhh, it’s okay, Natalie. Just make out with Mila and people will forget.

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2 comments on “Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 1 of 2)

  1. Ken H says:

    As clunky as Lee’s line to Yoda was Christiansen waxing about how much he hated sand.

    I really disliked the acrobatic Yoda. Seriously, the dude is 900 years old and frail in Empire & Jedi which is only 20 years after this installment. I’d rather he wield an insanely long saber using The Force to augment his control than this insane whirling fiasco. Then again I thought everything went downhill fast after Empire with Ewoks leading the procession into hell.

    • Yoda is still old & frail even in the prequels– he hobbles into his fight on a cane, and he hobbles back out on it afterward. The crazy physical stuff he can do is all from the Force.

      Still seems odd that a mere two decades of swamp-living later even the Force couldn’t animate him any longer, of course.

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