Can we hope for peace?
“The interesting thing about Star Wars is, and I don’t ever push this very far, there’s a lot going on there that most people haven’t really come to grips with yet. But when they do, they will find it’s a much more intricately made clock than most people would imagine.” – George Lucas
^^That’s in case you think I’m reading too far into these movies. To revisit a point made back in Part I, Lucas knew what he was doing with the Prequels. He knew they were going to be different, he knew a lot of people wouldn’t be onboard, and he knew that they were good enough to make anyway.
So what Lucas wound up creating two seemingly disparate trilogies that, when viewed as a whole, create a densely knit story built on “rhymes”: motifs, dialogue, situations, and visuals that play off each other in a variety of fascinating ways.
More on that in a sec. First I feel like I should address an issue that is ultimately kinda subjective, but enough of a sticking point that I can’t exactly leave it alone. That, of course, would be…
Star Wars, by its nature, rarely houses any sort of dramatically realistic performances. This is fast-paced, highly-stylized mythmaking based around a throwback serial format. Taken for what it is, I think the acting typically ranges from adequate to excellent, especially in the case of standouts like Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee, and Liam Neeson. Much like some of the seasoned vets from the Originals, they grant a lot of believability and conviction to their assorted characters. But I won’t face a ton of dispute there, I don’t think.
Might show off a bit of the ol’ Lucas visual magic in the photos. Anakin faces away from the light…
It seems to me that when people criticize the acting in these movies, they’re most likely talking about the portrayals of Anakin in TPM and AOTC. This is a boy raised by a stern order of people who discourage the presence and display of powerful emotions. When faced with rage, hatred, or infatuation, he doesn’t know how to handle himself or articulate his feelings. This is exactly how Christensen acts in AOTC. He is awkward, particularly early on before he begins to find his footing. And you’ll notice that the other characters regard his outbursts with irritation (Obi-Wan) or hesitation (Padme). Anakin’s not portrayed as a skilled rhetorician.
At the very least, he’s not wooden. If anything, he’s over-emotional — natural, when you consider that he’s been forced to repress his feelings for the past ten years. And boy, when that guy gets mad, he nails it. Even if I didn’t find his portrayal of Anakin legitimate throughout, the scenes on Mustafar would cover a multitude of sins. The exchanges between him and Obi-Wan before and after the final duel are striking, and for some (me) they’re crushing. Even when I was going through my period of doubt with these movies, “I hate you!” kicked me in the gut.
Speaking of scenes with Anakin dangerously close to fire…
Meanwhile, Jake Lloyd does a fine job laying the groundwork for the character in TPM. While some of his one-word outbursts seem a little forced (“Yippee!”), I think he tends to bring a very believable cadence to the character’s speech. Young children often sound a little unpracticed in speech. Lloyd captures this effectively; I really like the way he delivers lines like, “I’m a person and my name is Anakin,” or “I can help! I can fix anything.” As I mentioned last time, there’s more at work in this kid than simple kindness.
I’ll concede that Natalie Portman has some real weak spots, though I think she’s decent for the better part of the first two movies. In ROTS, next to McGregor and Christensen, she comes up a bit short for me.
But in the end, does it really matter? The acting serves the stories just fine. It’s Star Wars, not Harold Pinter. The Originals are played broadly, too. They have a bit more scruffiness — befitting a tale about people on the society’s fringes — but the acting is only intermittently brilliant (Ford in ESB, Hamill in ROTJ, James Earl Jones always). The Prequels aren’t necessarily acting showcases, but the characters are portrayed with clarity and a surprising amount of nuance from time to time.
This scene is one of the best in all of Star Wars.
Lucas self-identifies as “…the king of wooden dialogue.” So no, Star Wars dialogue isn’t defined by its dramatic realism either. Frankly, as with the acting, I don’t see what the big deal is. There’s no one way to write dialogue, and declarative melodrama can be as legitimate a choice as any other. Star Wars certainly has a unique cadence, but if you’re willing to accept it there’s a lot to glean from the onscreen dialogue.
What Lucas’s odd style affords him is the ability to be extremely precise. Within the (to me, often endearingly) clunky declarations his characters make is a treasure trove of wordplay and irony to be uncovered. Some choice excerpts:
“No one can kill a Jedi.” — Spoken by a young boy who one day will murder more Jedi than anyone in history.
“I can’t breathe.” — Says the man who will spend half his life in an iron lung.
“I’d much rather dream about Padme.” — Three years before that very thing sends him into madness.
“It’s an honor to finally meet you in person.” — Says the politician to the Queen’s decoy.
“Chancellor Palpatine, Sith Lords are our speciality.” — Said with smug confidence to the disguised Dark Lord of the Sith.
“They’ll do their job well. I guarantee that.” — Obi-Wan never asks what that job ultimately is, but he definitely finds out in ROTS.
“So love has blinded you?” — No… but it will soon.
“There was no danger at all.” — Seconds before an assassination attempt.
The Jedi Order has begun to fade away.
Along these lines, Lucas often illuminates thematic ideas through seemingly disposable moments:
“There’s always a bigger fish.” — Maul’s death is only the beginning.
“Machines building machines! How perverse.” — So then how perverse is the cloning facility?
“I’m programmed for etiquette, not destruction!” — A protocol-turned-battle droid says on the very day that the peacekeeping Jedi begin fighting as generals of a clone army.
“This weapon is your life.” — Obi-Wan asserts in the movie where people are constantly dropping their lightsabers.
Etcetera. You’ll notice that throughout this series, I’ve constantly reinforced my points with lines from all six movies. If one of the qualities of good dialogue is that it clearly and efficiently communicates the story and subtext of a movie, then the dialogue in the Prequels (and the saga as a whole) works like gangbusters, at least on some level.