Set Conditions to “Uphill.”

anakinLike 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.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Set Conditions to “Uphill.” — 5 Comments

  1. Yeah, in so many ways the last two especially are lessons in how not to write a screenplay, and how not to direct or edit. There was a certain amount of velocity carried by the visuals and the music, but at so many points the dialogue, the direction lumbered and bumbled away from tight pacing and dramatic interest.

  2. I seem to remember some member of the cast noting that Lucas specifically told them not to “act”–which is to say, don’t make it real. If this is true, I don’t know if it was part of the “we’re not building characters, we’re building archetypes” thing, but it certainly did them no favor.

  3. What struck me about the three ‘prequel’ movies was how joyless and un-funny they were. The original trilogy was full of snappy wisecrackery and bits of humor (remember the gigantic asteriod beastie that almost ate the Millennium Falcon?). There was absolutely none of that in the prequels.

    • I am convinced that Lucas, having heard for years that there was all sorts of important thematic content in the first three years, thought he had to get serious. Jar Jar Binks may have been his concession to Funny, but he wasn’t.

  4. Campbell’s theories have ruined a good many fantasy books, too. The trouble with archetypes is, they never change. 🙂