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Friday, February 22, 2019

February 22, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: Prequel Trilogies

[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]
On two fundamental flaws with prequels revealed by the Star Wars and Hobbit prequel trilogies.
I know this could be said by many people, especially those of a certain age and/or of a certain level of science fiction/fantasy fandom, but it feels on the surface like the Star Wars and Hobbit prequel films were more or less engineered to appeal to this AmericanStudier. I’ve loved the Star Wars films since I saw Empire in theaters at the age of four, and the films (past and present) have become a central multi-generational through-line for me, my parents, and my sons over the last few years (so much so that we really missed having a new Star Wars movie this past holiday season). The Hobbit was one of the first books my Dad and I read together when I was old enough to take part, the Lord of the Rings trilogy some of the first big books I read to myself and some of the first of that type I shared with my sons, and I count Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films among my very favorite movies ever made. If that’s not enough, I’ll add that I mean the Extended Editions of the LOTR films, which are the only editions I own and want to watch, and the only ones I’ve shared with my sons. Think that establishes my cred sufficiently!
So it pains me to say it, but both the Star Wars and Hobbit prequel films are among my greatest disappointments (and I say this based on the experience of having watched both trilogies multiple times, as my sons when they were young were, let’s say, not as discerning). Moreover, I think each reveals with particular clarity a central problem of prequels more generally. While there are many (many) problems with the Star Wars prequels, I would say that one of the most glaring is a tendency to over-explain (or really feel the need to explain at all) elements from the original Star Wars trilogy. By far the worst example of this is the Force—I can’t imagine there are very many viewers of the original films who felt that they needed a great deal more explanation of what the Force is and where it comes from, as we get just enough explanation from Jedi characters like Obi-wan and Yoda without making this mystical concept too mundane. And then George Lucas came up with the brilliant idea of midichlorians—I’ll admit that every time Liam Neeson’s Qui-gon starts talking to young Anakin Skywalker about these tiny organisms that inhabit us all and can give us the Force if they start doing who the hell knows what, my eyes glaze over; and I submit to you that the Force is one of those pure storytelling elements that should never make our eyes glaze over. I might be able to forgive the prequels Jar Jar, but never that.
The Hobbit films don’t suffer from quite that problem, but among their many flaws is another one common to prequels: the need to resemble the movie(s) to which they serve as a prequel too closely. Anyone who has read The Hobbit knows that it is a very different book from the Lord of the Rings novels, and those differences can be boiled down most succinctly to tone: The Hobbit is a light-hearted children’s adventure, full of mystery and darkness to be sure but filtered through that tonal lens; while it does get more complex and fraught in its final chapters, even there it maintains a tone quite distinct from what we find in most of LOTR. But because Peter Jackson had made LOTR first (and because he ended up directing the Hobbit films as well, although he had not intended to), it seems that he felt obligated to make the Hobbit films very similar in tone to LOTR. And so we get all kinds of giant battle sequences, Sauron and his minions as major villains, recurring characters like Legolas and Saruman shoe-horned in, and many other choices that (among other problems) make the Hobbit films so bloated that three of them were required to tell the story Jackson wanted to tell. I’m not saying it’s impossible for prequels to work—Daniel Craig’s James Bond films are in many ways prequels, and they’re among my favorite Bonds—but they have to navigate these and other problems if they’re gonna do so.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?

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