Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A couple Star Wars thoughts

I spend too much time thinking about Star Wars. The original movies were my favorites as a child, and while I don't think the franchise has produced much of value in the last three decades, I still have affection for the basic ideas and setting deep within me. Today was one of those days where I was thinking about it, so I decided to write down what was occupying my brain so much. It's basically two observations about the prequels, one positive, and one negative.

It's been repeatedly noted before that the good guys in the original movies have American accents, and the bad guys have British accents. It's mostly true, and plays into the general pop culture stereotype of bad guys being British, presumably because America's first and defining war was against the British. But that oversimplifies it a bit, because Alec Guinness played one of the principal figures for good in the series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he's as British as you can get.

Which leads me into something the prequels did well, which was regionally cast its characters. Obviously there are lots of legitimate problems people have with the specific actors used, but where they all came from helps clarify how accents actually work in Star Wars. Basically: a British-sounding accent is a Coruscant accent, or perhaps more generally a Core World accent. Going back to the bad guys in the original movies: Grand Moff Tarkin and many of the other Imperial officers had British accents, but the Stormtroopers did not. We can guess that since they're basically grunts, the Empire would recruit and train young men from anywhere in the galaxy to be Stormtroopers, and so they wouldn't all sound like they came from Coruscant. But since wealthier and more politically powerful families were more likely to have their sons trained in command and placed highly in the military, they're more likely to come from the central part of the galaxy where all that wealth and power resides, and thus more likely to have that accent. I didn't look too deeply into whether the specific officers with those accents had official backgrounds that reflected this, because I'm not THAT much of a dork.

With all that, if you look at the casting in the prequels, it made sense. Obviously a young Obi-Wan had to be British to fit with the older version of his character, but Liam Neeson, who plays the other major human Jedi, is from North Ireland, which is close enough to British for this purpose. Count Dooku is played by Christopher Lee, also a British actor. Since Jedi were typically brought to Coruscant at a young age, they are likely to pick up the accent even if they didn't start with it. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, and Hayden Christensen are all American or Canadian, and their characters were born and raised away from the center of the galaxy. There are a couple monkey wrenches. Samuel L. Jackson is American despite playing another Jedi likely to have grown up near Coruscant, and more curiously, Sebastian Shaw is a British actor who played the unmasked Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

The biggest gap in this logic is one created by one of the many pointless connections George Lucas drew between the two trilogies, which was the decision to say that a young Anakin built C-3PO, played by Anthony Daniels, who is of course extremely British. This was unnecessary since building his own podracer already demonstrates his technical genius, and it doesn't really make sense that he'd program the robot with an accent that, being from Tatooine, he probably had never even heard before. Maybe he was using a prefabricated electronic voice box programmed on Courscant. But despite a few bumps, the broad strokes help clarify that in Star Wars, people from the Core Worlds sound British, and people from the Outer Rim don't. Which is kind of cool.

The negative thing I was thinking about was the creative failure that was the prequels' depiction of the Clone Wars. Ignoring all the things wrong with the prequels as films, it's still a really terrible idea. In the original movies, the Clone Wars were nothing more than a vague reference to some period in which Anakin proved to be a great fighter. They could have been anything. And I bet that if before the prequels were written, you took 100 successful science fiction writers and told them to come up with what the Clone Wars actually were, every single one would have had a better idea than a meaningless proxy war between robots and clones of Boba Fett.

Would you even call the Clone Wars as shown in the prequels "Clone Wars"? Is that how they would be remembered? I think something like the Civil War or the Separatist Wars would be more likely. Wars are generally named by people after who they were fought against, what they were fought over, or where they were fought. Most of those 100 ideas would have probably involved fighting against clones in some way. A war fought by two armies that no one cared about over locations no one lived in and which seemed to affect the general populace in very little way just isn't very interesting. The generally awful Clone Wars cartoon did a better job of making some of the clones identifiable as people and showing how it affected civilians, although they were usually random aliens who were forgotten as soon as the episode ended. It's a disaster of imagination and execution on a potentially interesting idea, and it's the basis for the whole trilogy.

It reminds me of something I've complained about before, which is the utter waste of time and resources that Palpatine's plan to become Emperor is. It's clear by the end of the trilogy that the entire conflict was his own fabrication in order to acquire and secure power and influence, but the way he goes about it makes no sense. There seem to be three main components to his plan:

1) Recruit Anakin as his Sith apprentice. He does already have Maul and later Dooku, but since his plan takes so long to come to fruition, it's likely he wanted the "chosen one" on his side and was waiting for him to appear and come of age. There's even a suggestion that he actually caused Anakin to be conceived with his powers, so Anakin is definitely a key part of the plan.
2) Gain authoritarian control of the government. What's the point of building an Empire if you aren't an Emperor? He does this by creating the separatist movement and influencing others to put him in charge of the defense against their droid armies.
3) Build an army to enforce his authority. This is why he has the clones created, as a stop-gap fighting force until it can be replaced by normal soldiers once he's in charge.

So... once he has items two and three in hand near the end of Attack of the Clones, why doesn't he immediately execute Order 66 right there? He has his powers and his army. Why does he allow his army to fight and die against the droid army he also secretly controls for three years? Isn't it completely meaningless? The only reason to wait is that at that time, Anakin isn't yet ready to be his apprentice. The three years of battle definitely improved his skills and leadership abilities. But I really don't think the war was needed for this. Anakin was already an incredibly talented Jedi when the war began. The skills he gained were enough to make the difference in a fight against Dooku, but that gap could probably have been made up if he was on the Dark Side before their first battle. The only challenge after the war that would have troubled a Sith-trained Anakin before it was his fight against Obi-Wan, and he ended up losing that fight anyway. So the actual benefit of that on-the-job training is slim to none.

I think Palpatine could have turned Anakin to the Dark Side before the war started at least as easily as he did after. In fact he was probably more susceptible before, when he was still an emotional and rebellious teenager and the Jedi had less reason to be distrustful of Palpatine. Anakin was already in a secret relationship with Padme at that point, she could have still been used to trick him into thinking he needed the Dark Side to protect her. Palpatine could have taken a few months or even a couple years to convert Anakin and train him in the Dark Side, caused the outbreak of the war, gained control of the clone army and been granted emergency powers, and then do everything in the third movie without sitting around while his minions killed each other for three years first. Of course, then Obi-Wan's stories about Luke's dad being a great pilot and fighter for the good guys during the Clone Wars wouldn't make sense. But the point is that Palpatine's plan as constructed made no sense, not that it fits better into established plot points than a version that does. A lot of people have come up with alternate versions of the prequel story that would have been better, and they always are, but they also stick too close to the major beats that Lucas established. Really, I would have liked to have seen one of those 100 ideas instead.

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