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Beauty and form

October 19, 2015

The Star Wars prequels are bad. Everyone knows this. Will it change our minds to hear this argument that they are not?

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The argument: most people assume the prequels are bad because they “have a tendency to come across as lesser, more commercially-minded rip-offs of the original trilogy.” But the similarities between the originals and the prequels are not a result of laziness, but are a part of the design: as George Lucas says in an interview, “I create themes…and I repeat those themes, in different chords and different arrangements.” For example, “Instead of destroying the Death Star [like Luke], [Anakin] destroys the ship that controls the robots. It’s like poetry. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.” When we recognize that the prequels are not rip-offs but rhymes, we can see them not as selling out, but as creating a larger and more complex work of art.

Does this convince us? Why or why not? It’s easy to say “I don’t buy it” (and I don’t), but more difficult to say why. Aesthetic arguments are funny this way. What sounds to one person like a knock-down argument will seem to another to be, not wrong, but irrelevant. We might respond: “So what that George Lucas intended the parallels between IV/V/VI and I/II/III? It doesn’t change the fact that the prequels are bad, and that the connections between them and the originals does more to sully the originals than it does to redeem the prequels.” It can be difficult to see where the argument can go from here. Still, it seems worth trying.

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One option would be to ask why increasing the length and complexity of the story should be seen as desirable. The pro-prequel argument assumes that this is the case; without this assumption, the argument may convince us not to think that Lucas “sold out” (at least not consciously), but it cannot convince us that what he did actually made the Star Wars series better.

Surely increasing the length are complexity are not inherently good; if they are good, it is only under certain conditions. Aristotle agrees that the greater the magnitude, the greater the work, but he has this to say about to what extent (in Chapter VII of his Poetics):

As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock—as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Undoubtedly, six is greater than three. But that’s good only “Provided that the whole be perspicuous.” How can we judge whether the “whole” of the Star Wars saga, Episodes I through VI, is perspicuous? It certainly doesn’t accord with the Aristotelian unities, but then neither do most film series. What, then, can we use as criteria for the presence of a perspicuous whole? Well, the series does deal with the whole of Anakin Skywalker’s life, from his childhood to his death. Aristotle discourages us from thinking that a life constitutes a whole, but we often think differently than the Greeks about such things; biographies can have a certain unity, though they are not guaranteed to do so.

We wind up, then, with the question: is Anakin’s life a strong enough thread to bind the entire saga together? I tend to think not, in part because it’s far from obvious, watching the original series, that it’s about Anakin’s life at all; it seems to be about Luke’s. The focus on Anakin in the prequels makes a sort of sense, but the way that focus shifts the meaning of the entire series makes it seem like a bait-and-switch.

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Another option would be to pursue the question from the other side: why have we judged in the first place that the prequels were bad? Even if we decide that the saga has no coherent unity, the claim that George Lucas clearly intended for it to “rhyme” might be taken to defuse the “rip-off” argument; we can leave the author’s intention behind, and just look at the work. There’s plenty to detest: bad acting, bad dialogue, Jar Jar, the Gungans, CGI Yoda.

Bad acting, bad dialogue, and Jar Jar are indisputably bad; if we all acknowledge this, there remains only the task of determining how much this detracts from the works as a whole. A difficult task, since some readers like great dialogue with a plot that makes little sense; other can stand some bad dialogue if the whole is good enough. Can we offer coherent arguments between prioritizing the surface of the work and prioritizing the overarching structure? I don’t know.

The Gungans and CGI Yoda give us more to work with. Both affect our enjoyment of the original series, but in different ways. CGI Yoda bothers us because we already like puppet Yoda, and don’t like how he’s turned into something fake and shiny and manic. The Gungans bother us, conversely, because they remind of us the Ewoks, which we didn’t like but could overlook. They make an annoying (and somewhat racist) motif more central to the saga than it had been before.

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These seem to me the sort of counter-arguments one could offer to the claim that the rhyming prequels improve the saga rather than detract from it.

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