Like everyone in the known universe, I saw That Movie last week (my husband works for an outpost of Lucasfilm, so we saw it under optimum conditions, including free popcorn and all the audience engagement you can imagine) and while there are nits one could pick, I walked out delighted and pleased and unwilling at that moment to pick any of them. I will spoil nothing here, except to say that I had a great sense of coming home (where home, for the purposes of this post, is a beloved fictional universe).
But all this made me think of “Episodes 1, 2, and 3” (I’m sorry. I will always think of A New Hope as the real episode 1). Specifically, it made me think of how George Lucas set his sights, as it were, on the maximum difficulty in story telling: dragging the audience with you toward a foregone conclusion. The audience knew, going in to The Phantom Menace, that the trilogy was bent toward explaining Darth Vader’s backstory. Perhaps it would have been better served if the story had been told in one film. But the expectation was: trilogy, so Lucas was sort of stuck with it. He was also dealing with the inflated expectations that a decade of textual analysis and nattering about Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey created. Rather than the space-opera-with-surprising-depth-and-resonance that the first three movies gave us, Episodes 1-3 tried to give us archetypes and Grand Opera.
Everyone knew where the story was going in Episodes 1, 2, and 3. There were no surprises, no point at which I really believed that a moment’s indecision, or a trick of fate, might have changed things. (Every time I see Romeo and Juliet I root for the Friar coming from Verona to head off Romeo and make the story end differently. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet, but I have hope.)
Look: there are a bunch of successful movies where, even on first viewing, the audience knows going what the ending will be. In Apollo 13 the audience (well, most of us) know that Apollo 13 and its three astronauts will return to Earth, after improvising the shit (to borrow a phrase from a more recent film) out of things. What makes the urgency of the film work is that everyone in the movie believes in the life-or-death stakes, and the characters and situation are built well enough that we care. In the same way, you may not love Jack or Rose, but by the time the Titanic finally starts its long, slow slide into the sea, it’s hard not to be moved by the panic of the passengers and the sheer magnitude of the death. Yeah, you know it’s coming, but it matters.
Setting up the prequels with only one goal–explaining how Anakin became Vader–is working with the storytelling difficulty setting ratcheted to Uphill. With characters who were meagerly sketched out, there is nothing to support the story and create that sense of urgency that makes the audience care.
Somewhere in an alternate universe, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were made with better-drawn characters, and a sense that at any point one decision could change the fate we already know is written. I’d really like to see those movies.