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Did George Lucas change cinema with ‘Star Wars’ prequels?

GUEST ESSAY

George Lucas should have stopped after three original “Star Wars” films — that’s a common sentiment among Jedi fans of a certain age and disposition, and they passionately point to Jar Jar Binks, an over-reliance on CG effects and numbing dialogue as the unforgivable sins of the second live-action trilogy, which began with “The Phantom Menace” in 1999 and closed out with “Revenge of the Sith” in 2005. But are old-school fans missing the true value and actual innovation represented by the prequel trilogy? Yes, they are, says Kevin McLeod, who has made online games for productions in other media, including those for”A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and the television show “Jericho.” Here, in a guest essay for Hero Complex, he makes a case for the idea that the prequel trilogy was in fact a landmark moment in cinema.

Ewan McGregor and Ray Park as Darth Maul in “The Phantom Menace.” (Lucasfilm)

George Lucas pushed all of film into the 21st century when he made his “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. And like a magician, he used mirrors.

Remember that mirrors do not duplicate images — the way a copier does — they reverse them. Although mirroring has been around for a long time in art, Lucas took it much farther. His most basic mirror, the through-line of the trilogy, simply inverts the power structures of his original trilogy, reversing who discovers the flaws of those in power (in the original trilogy, it is the rebels; in the prequels, the Sith do it).  And why would Lucas do this? Why would he sacrifice much of the excited feeling that audiences had in rooting for the “good” guys? He did it to show you that power does not align with good or evil, or with lightness or darkness, and that power itself can be evil. To shade his stories beyond black-and-white extremes, he uses colors and forms that, under his abilities, transform into patterns.

These patterns tell stories of which you likely are not aware.  By reversing the story and focal points, he engages the audience in a search for patterns they normally would not be looking for and what they mean. And his primary target audiences are always kids and the youthful, whose minds are still flexible and whose brains are malleable and growing. Viewing motion, form and color above and beyond speech is fundamentally linked to cognition.

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. (Lucasfilm)

Welcome to the age of pattern recognition, better called pattern cognition, and it’s an age Lucas has been elemental in creating and reflecting. Still in its infancy, pattern cognition is one of the key tools of future media (including future languages).  Appearing in 1977, “Star Wars” was an evolutionary leap in pattern cognition.  Notably, the first film arrived alongside household Pong and arcade Space Invaders. Video games, like “Star Wars,” are rife with patterns and forms at war with one another. Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Charlie Chaplin,  Stanley Kubrick and a few others have worked at the highest levels of pattern cognition, as have others — some of whom you’d expect and others you wouldn’t: John McTiernan, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron and McG (who all offer pattern cognition with bullets).

Also notably, “The Matrix” (itself an evolutionary step in patterning) appeared the same year as “Phantom Menace.” Like many other viewers, I initially rejected “Menace” as a simplification of “Return of the Jedi”; it seemed childish and chilling. Much later, as I began to consider certain very strange scenes in the new trilogy, I realized that they were all elements of a hidden story, adding up to a precise opposite of the original trilogy. This story is both satiric and visionary. As I mentioned above, for example, there’s an intentional self-assuredness to the heroes’ characters that the original trilogy lacked, which dulls them and subtracts a nuance we’re expecting. Characters you thought you would love you actually hate or dislike. Their sense of discovery too is gone; now it resides with the Sith, aiding their quest to topple the current order — not until later in the original-trilogy Empire’s cold efficiency do they lose this sense. This is what draws Anakin to the Sith: They make him run; they challenge him. I can’t possibly review or analyze the whole story here, but below are three examples of concepts that ingeniously appear solely in the imagery.

Natalie Portman as Amidala. (Lucasfilm)

1) Gesture mirrors: “Star Wars: Episode IV” begins with a Blockade Runner that has obviously just escaped a blockade, and “Phantom Menace” begins with a (too) similar ship approaching a blockade, willingly entering it. Mirroring begins the trilogy. Even basic plot gestures are mirrored. Vader wants her alive; Sidious wants them dead. And subtly there is a doubling of doom; we meet the trilogy’s central conflict: hooded humans who want to kill one another within the film’s opening seconds (the Jedi and Sidious).

2) Character mirrors: “Phantom Menace” is saturated with strangely similar bipeds that are overt mirrors: Jar Jar Binks and the Droid Troopers present living versus mechanical beings that nevertheless have similar coloring, shape and form and are equally awkward; Lucas even introduces them in mirrored framings and movements, and ultimately they go to war with each other on a massive scale. Also, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul (under all the makeup) are dead ringers, as are Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley (also under the makeup), who alternate roles. There are even subtle mirroring devices: Upon meeting Trade Federationists, Portman wears a gemstone that behaves as their third eye. The “phantom menace” of the film is this mirroring — it’s everywhere. Some mirrors we don’t recognize, and some we do (or are shown). The height, of course, is the Sidious-Palpatine “mirror,” which the audience sees but the Jedi do not — they can’t see his mirror simply because they can’t recognize their own.

George Lucas. (Lucasfilm)

3) Location mirrors: In “Attack of the Clones,” the planet Kamino mirrors Bespin of the original trilogy. These planets have opposing color formats (gray versus colorful) yet each possesses an  atmosphere made up primarily of moisture. Both are where the Slave I is encountered, and, as essentially the center of the trilogy, we see the Fetts, father and clone, play mirrored roles, the lure of Skywalker to Bespin and the lure of Obi-Wan to Kamino. And on both planets we have heroes — Luke and Obi-Wan — falling to near peril.  The result of the lures also have similarly mirrored outcomes: Vader tells Luke the truth, and Dooku tells the truth to Obi-Wan. Both trilogies end by revealing what those truths mean.

Consider this: With all these mirrors, a form takes shape — it’s a sphere. It’s a mass that Lucas slowly animates into a behemoth. The prequel trilogy might accurately be called the hidden story of the Death Star since he animates large spheres of all kinds in reference to this weapon: the Federation Droid Control ship (a ring that surrounds a sphere means many of these ring a planet for its control), the Congress of the Republic, Coruscant as the planet that is one city. Consider the vast, curved landing bay of the Droid Control ship and Death Star’s trench as subtle mirrors of each other; Anakin even mirrors Luke’s last battle accomplishment when he destroys the Droid ship. Finally, even more wickedly, we see the water-opera sphere in “Revenge of the Sith,” which appears to be reenacting the last battle of the next film, while Palpatine explains Anakin’s origin without directly telling him. Look carefully and follow the patterns: Overall, there is a transforming flow of identities that take spherical form, a path from nature into the mechanical.

Darth Maul, played by Ray Park. (Lucasfilm)

Now the whole enchilada: Since you have these basic examples, look around and you’ll see hundreds of these patterns between and within the trilogies. Want some more? OK: Two asteroid chases in the middle films, with Obi-Wan imitating the Millennium Falcon’s hiding style in “Empire”; the Jedi’s temple tower resembles the Emperor’s tower; Geonosis, hot and arid, is the exact opposite of Kamino, yet each planet is the source of the war’s troops. Still want more? Notice Luke is suspended upside down both in the beginning and the end in “Empire Strikes Back”; the Lars homestead entrance is a dead-on mirror of Artoo. Luke kneels while he gazes at a loop of Leia kneeling. Watch Luke duel the remote device in “Star Wars” wearing a type of helmet he also wears while destroying the Death Star; he duels both successfully in similar states of limited vision yet at wildly different scales. As Leia’s torture approaches, watch the TIE Fighter’s hexagonal wings wipe frames with the cell block’s hexagonal corridor. Check out the cantina scene in Star Wars: It is carefully rescaled as the holographic game played aboard the Falcon.

Now take a look and see for yourself. Not only are these patterns not random, but they also intentionally and artfully tell a story outside (and inside) the surface drama that unfolds among the protagonists. Lucas’ visual ingenuity is relentless; he offers us a strikingly revolutionary level of storytelling. I agree that no one can make you like films you simply don’t like, but look deeper and go back and watch a film you’ve actually never seen before. Welcome to the future, where George Lucas already is. Take a look around…

— Kevin McLeod

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