Structure Does Not Trump Content

The author of an extensive post, titled Star Wars Ring Theory: The Hidden Artistry of the Prequels, Mike Klimo, was featured on Unjustly Maligned not too long ago. He makes a strong case for a previously unnoticed complicated interlocking narrative structure for the 6 Star Wars movies. Lucas’ own words in past interviews and Star Wars supplementary materials support the theory also.

But, using such a framework doesn’t absolve Lucas from the multiple technical, storytelling, characterization, and dialog failures in the prequels, as discussed in the RedLetterMedia video reviews, which are directly referenced by Klimo. (If you haven’t seen these yet, you really should. The only weak points are the bizarre “real life” insertions of the Plinkett character, and even those are entertaining in their twisted way.)

If you were to show all of the Star Wars movies to someone who had no prior knowledge of them, any of the original three would be judged as being superior movies to the prequels in nearly any metric you’d care to define. The Empire Strikes Back is obviously the standout even among that group. It seems that Lucas benefitted both from the strictures of studio production and the stronger influence of the directors of the earlier movies. Without those balancing forces, his vision ran unchecked.

Poetry forms like sonnets are a similar confining structure for writing, albeit on a much smaller scale than classical chiasmus which is meant to provide links between entire passages or scenes in a large narrative. For every gem by a Shakespeare or Keats, there are hundreds of thousands of sonnets by poets who dutifully followed the demands of the form, but which are utter failures as poems, however well they conform to the structure of a sonnet.

Literary structures are best used as scaffolding to aid creativity. There are few things more terrifying or paralyzing to a creative person than an utterly blank space with no limitations. By confining yourself to a particular form, or material, or subject, you can spark ideas that may never coalesce without some limiting factor. One of the most famous quotations of Michelangelo, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” reflects how in working around the limitations of his tools and the flaws in a natural material like marble, an artist has to see the possibilities. Without some limits to force the artist to use ingenuity, banality might be the rule and genius the exception.

Competently done, the parallels and echoes in the Prequels would have been evocative and thrilling. Instead they felt ham-handed, trite, and formulaic. Episodes 1–3 are occasionally beautiful-looking films, but the visuals don’t make up for the lacks. Even worse, while at the time the CGI was cutting-edge, it often doesn’t hold up as well as the seat-of-their-pants practical effects that Lucas’ fledgling studio were essentially forced to create a generation earlier in order to get the original Star Wars movie made.

The first Star Wars movies were an alchemic blend of Lucas’ ideas and the talents of the directors and artists who worked on them. Lucas on his own couldn’t recreate that magic resulting from synergy, and his predominance as the director, producer, and financier gave him essentially unchecked power in making the prequels, resulting in an intricately-crafted structure reflecting both Lucas’ obsessions and his weaknesses as a movie maker. His arguable genius in structuring his masterpiece as a classical ring composition apparently could not also encompass effective characterization, dialog, plotting, or pacing.