Well readers, today you're in for a special treat. Welcome to part one of a special three-part series about Star Wars.
Okay, half of you may have just stopped reading (in which case come back in a few weeks), but the other half of you are likely pretty excited. I'll take that tradeoff on this one. Given the recent news that Disney has bought Lucas Film (and basically all the other things that have 'Lucas' or 'Skywalker' in the name), I couldn't help but put together a post about the Star Wars franchise to try to give Disney a little heads up about what not to screw up in a new trilogy. Please Disney, pay attention here.
If you've ever talked to anyone that's kind of in to Star Wars you might have picked up on the notion that the newer prequel trilogy (episodes I-III) is viewed as a much weaker series of movies than the original trilogy (episodes IV-VI). It is certainly reflected partially in the company that I keep, but I don't think I've ever met a person that considered the prequel trilogy better than - or even equal to - the original trilogy.
So what's so bad about it? Well, there's a lot of people out there that have done a decent amount of work highlighting some really solid things that are bad in the prequels (might I suggest that you start here [NSFW]: http://redlettermedia.com/plinkett/star-wars/ ). There are a lot of great points out there (like the lack of a protagonist), but there's not much - if anything - that you can point to as quantitative and measurable.
If you can't measure it, you don't understand it.
With that in mind I started to think of some of the ways that I could measure things about the Star Wars Movies. One of the things that came to mind was how needlessly complex the prequels were made, and how little time was devoted to character development. The lack of character development is something that a lot of critics touch on (there's a good example of it in the series of videos linked above), especially compared to the original trilogy where characters become a lot more developed.
What's the difference then? After thinking about it a bit, I realized that the problem was likely one of breadth over depth - that the prequels contain more characters than the original trilogy. This would be something that also then plays into the increasing complexity and lack of development for any given character. So, I decided to try to quantify this by figuring out some numbers relating to characters in each trilogy.
When I started working on things I realized that this was something I
couldn't do in just one week, partly due to the fact that I would need to watch and code each movie in turn. I therefore decided that splitting it into three
parts made a lot more sense. Today will be the first installment of each trilogy (episodes IV & I), next week will be the second (episodes V & II), and two weeks from now will be the close of each trilogy (episodes VI & III).
Now, there's an easy comparison to be made if you simply look at the number of credited characters in each movie. The Phantom Menace (Episode I) has a lot more credited characters than A New Hope (Episode IV). Part of this is likely because George Lucas wrote more parts for friends and family (e.g. Amanda Lucas as 'Diva Funquita'). For fairness, I'm not going to count characters of this caliber. On the other side of the coin there are also characters that are present but not credited, like Jabba the Hutt in Phantom Menace. Since he was CGI there was no need to credit an actor, though his character was still mentioned and presented as at least semi-important.
My base, then, is going to be the list of credited characters. I will exclude some characters in Phantom Menace that are clearly unimportant to the story (which should only make the effect I'm looking for smaller), but will also include those uncredited characters that do seem important. I will do the same for A New Hope, though there's less work to be done.
There's something to be said about how many characters there are in the movie, but that's not the entire story. There's also something to be said about how characters are introduced, and how many loose ends are left running around. What do I mean by that?
Well, when you meet a new character in a movie they either just show up, or someone talked about them beforehand. Having characters talked about but not present works to either fill out other characters' backstories or motivation (e.g. talking about the emperor in A New Hope), or works to create a background for that character when the eventually appear (e.g. Yoda in The Phantom Menace).
Characters also either stay in the main focus, wander off, or are killed. Killing off characters reduces the number of characters that you have to worry about (e.g. most of Red Squadron in A New Hope), and allows you to focus more on the remaining characters.
With that in mind I sat down and watched The Phantom Menace and A New Hope (theatrical editions of each), coding them both. Read that again, by the way - I watched The Phantom Menace for you guys, and I watched it hard.
What did I code? Well, I took note of the minute into the film that every character of note was either first mentioned, first presented, or first killed. Usually they were only killed once, but that's neither here nor there.
There were some tricky points, like how to treat storm troopers, or battle droids, or things of that nature. Basically, I only counted these characters if they were unique from the generic group (e.g. TK-421 in A New Hope), as this seemed to balance out fairly well in both movies. I wasn't going to count every Gungan or battle droid the same as I wasn't going to count every generic rebel or storm trooper.
That data can be graphed by time to give us a picture of how characters are introduced (and removed) in each of the movies. Let's start with A New Hope:
For the most part, characters are introduced fairly slowly, and somewhat steadily. There are two main peaks where characters are introduced somewhat in bulk. The first is around 15 minutes, and it's where we meet a number of characters, including Luke. The other larger peak is around 100 minutes, and it's the start of the death star run where we meet the pilots of red and gold squadrons.
There's a decent number of characters who exist only in reference, at least for a while. Downturns in the overall character number (blue line) mean that characters are being killed. Downturns in the 'mentioned' (orange line) mean that a character that has been mentioned has now shown up. An example of this takes place at that same spike around 100 minutes. It's the first appearance of Biggs, who Luke mentioned nearly an hour and a half earlier (and who is killed only minutes later). It makes Biggs' death more impactful - you know him the whole movie as one of Luke's close friends only to finally meet him and shortly thereafter watch him killed.
Overall, things seem fairly balanced in A New Hope. There's a reasonable number of off-screen characters used for reference, backstory, and foreshadowing, and plenty of people are killed (as would be expected given the situation).
Let's move on, then, to the Phantom Menace:
Well, there you go. Before you say anything, yes these graphs are on different scales. The reason is that The Phantom Menace wouldn't fit on the same scale we just used for A New Hope. Here's what A New Hope looks like if we put it on the same scale as The Phantom Menace, for fair comparison.
The picture is pretty clear, there are more characters. It's also the case that even with all these characters, very few are spoken of off-screen (some of the rare exceptions are characters like Yoda and Chancellor Valorum). No characters of note make it to the end of the movie having been mentioned but not revealed.
There's an interesting additional point here - for clarification I watched the theatrical cut of A New Hope, not the special edition. What does the special edition add? This kind of over-presentation of everything that seems to be plaguing the prequels - a good example being the character of Jabba the Hutt moving from the 'talked about as back story and development' to 'a guy who shows up and you can look at'.
I also have to say, the world of The Phantom Menace must be a whole lot safer than that of A New Hope, because very few important (or even just named) individuals are killed. In A New Hope there are fewer characters alive at the end of the movie than characters killed. In Phantom Menace?
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT - In The Phantom Menace Qui-Gon and Darth Maul both die, as well as one fighter pilot from Naboo (a much lower fatality rate than red or gold squadrons in A New Hope which faced almost TPK). Four named but uncredited CGI/puppet pod race competitors are also killed, making a podrace event more deadly than a three-man Jedi-Sith lightsaber duel and an assault on a heavily shielded command cruiser, combined. Two pod races (if they were similar to the one in The Phantom Menace) would be nearly as deadly as assaulting the death star with a small rebel force. Three would be more deadly. Read that again, please. Let it sink in. Let it really sink in.
A quick aside - which do you think was longer, the pod race in The Phantom Menace, or the death star run in A New Hope? I swear that I've always thought that the pod race was like a half hour long. I would have easily put money on it being over 20 minutes. It is only 10 minutes and 31 seconds. The death star run? 11:56.
Back to characters killed. Sure, battle droids 'die' in The Phantom Menace, but I'm not counting generic deaths. I'm not counting all the stormtroopers and rebels that die in A New Hope, because it would skew the numbers pretty hard (let alone if I were to include the deaths following the first demonstration of the death star on Alderaan, or the stormtrooper deaths following the destruction of the death star). More people die on the death star than Gungans and battle droids 'die' fighting anyway.
The deaths that are seen in the A New Hope graph are people like Biggs, Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru, and Grand Moff Tarkin. I already talked about the power of Biggs' death - you see Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru's charred skeletons. Even Grand Moff Tarkin's death makes a strong point - he believes the death star, and himself by proxy, to be so invincible that he scoffs at the thought of any possible threat or his own demise. It makes the hope for the rebels seem that much more minimal, and makes it that much more powerful when they eventually do beat the odds.
To be totally fair I'm not even including in those killed the characters like General Taggi or General Motti (both credited characters with reasonable speaking roles), as I can't verify that they were on the death star when it was destroyed. It's possible they were simply there for a conference or something. Stopping in for lunch, you know? Trade a few jabs with Vader and head home somewhere.
Noteworthy are the spikes in the number of characters in The Phantom Menace. That huge jump right before the hour and a half mark is when the Jedi arrive back on Coruscant (the stable area right before that is the end of the podrace and trip to Coruscant). The third act is hardly the time to be increasing the character count by 30-40%. More than that, almost none of these characters had been mentioned earlier in the movie (again, the exceptions are Yoda and Chancellor Valorum).
It's hard to really tell the difference having these on separate graphs, so let's take a look at how things play out just looking at the difference in characters overall.
Again, no surprises. There are simply more characters, this just looks at the data in a way to make a good comparison. This is the number of live characters at any given point, though, so what happens when we look at killed characters?
So there's a part right around the hour mark where Phantom Menace almost has the same number of killed characters, but not quite. When you look at it this way you can really see how deadly the death star run is, and - in comparison - how non-lethal the end of Phantom Menace is. You thought storm troopers were inaccurate with blasters - it's like the Trade Federation was using foam bats or something.
I'm not even being as mean as I could be - this graph could be normed to number of characters in the movie.
The fact that one movie is winning on live characters and one is winning on dead characters makes me wonder what would happen if we just talked about characters that have been introduced into the story. Well, that's this graph:
Is this point becoming clear enough that it can be explained to someone at Disney yet? Hold on, I've got one more way to look at this.
My original thought was that The Phantom Menace is sacrificing character depth for character breadth, while A New Hope is not. This should be manifest in how much time in focus is available for each character - that is, an average character's share of the running time for any given minute. The more characters are fighting for the same screen time the less you can give to any particular character. So, here's a graph of the minute by minute share of screen time that each average character would get in a fair split:
If a movie only had one character this graph would be a straight line neither upward nor downward, as each new minute is a minute devoted only to that character. When new characters are introduced the line heads down, as each character is receiving a reduced share of screen time.
While A New Hope spends time developing the characters they have (with that main dip again being the death star run), The Phantom Menace is constantly devoting time not to developing old characters, but simply introducing new ones. As the minutes tick on each character has to fight for a diminishing share of screen time. If you look at things split between minutes up to that point, things look like this:
I'm starting to feel like I've been beating a dead horse for a while now, so I think that's going to be the last graph for today. All said and done I think it was the first two that really packed the real punch. There is a little left to wrap up, though.
Characters weren't the only thing I looked at, mind you. I also tried to code groups or races of people (like rebels, jedi knights, the galactic senate), and it was working for a while. The hardest part of A New Hope by far was the cantina scene, where there's about a half dozen races introduced all at once. That wasn't too bad, as it's easily the densest part of A New Hope. I tried to do the same for The Phantom Menace, and Tatooine was like a mock United Nations. Every other character is a completely unique race. I thought that was bad, and then the gang arrived on Coruscant. Game over, man.
Anyway, a simple lack of characters does not a good movie make - you can still make a pretty bad movie with a pretty small cast. I won't list examples because you can probably come up with dozens on your own. The point here is that it's a lot harder to make a good movie if you have too many characters. When I think of movies that are well executed with large casts of characters the first two things that come to mind are Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series.
There's a reason that the LOTR movies are so long and that the Harry Potter series is 8 movies, and it's because of the number of characters at play and the time spent developing those characters. The extended editions of LOTR are over 12 hours long, for three movies. That's only a little more than an hour less than all six Star Wars movies.
The LOTR extended editions are actually a great comparison to close this out. Peter Jackson's extended editions use that extra time to better flesh out the characters already in play, to great effect. Think of the time spent developing even the (relatively) minor characters of Merry and Pippin. George Lucas' extended editions (the special editions) use that extra time to introduce things like dewback lizards and random CGI elements like cars, buildings, and crowds.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out next week in the next two parts of the series, especially considering the fact that I get to watch Empire. I have a few ideas for other things I can look for in those two movies, but if you have suggestions feel free to let me know - I probably won't sit down to code things until the weekend.
If you're still reading, though, you deserve a treat - this one got long. For you, then, I have a special bonus for this week's post.
After only a short bit of The Phantom Menace I couldn't help but start writing down questions I had as they came up. Some of them were things I'd noticed before, or seen online before, but some are things I've never noticed until I was really watching the movie with an intent to code it. Without further ado, then, here are some unanswered questions I have regarding The Phantom Menace, in full fan-boy fury:
Deep breath, push nerd glasses up nose. Here we go.
- What is the “Congress of the Republic” (look it up, it's in there) from the opening crawl? The Galactic Senate? Is there another body of the Congress that hears other matters? Is there a House that also has members and might have been able to listen to the matters at hand? Did a typo like this that happens in the first minute of the movie really slip by? Is that how few people read this script? Did Lucas forget the crawl and write it day of?
- Why does the Trade Federation stop firing on the ship after the shields are fixed? Why don’t they send even a single fighter in pursuit? It’s not like they have to scramble the pilots, their ships have no pilots. They're just ships.
- If the Queen’s ship doesn’t have enough power to go to hyperdrive, how is it that the Trade Federation had no means to track or follow it? How close is Tatooine? Do they have a cloak?
- Why doesn’t Qui-Gon try out a larger dealer after Watoo says he’s the only one who has the part? Qui-Gon noted that Watoo was one of the smaller dealers, and from the looks of the city in the distance as they approach we are talking about a major starport.
- Why doesn’t Qui-Gon go to a bank, or a currency exchange? Take a hit on the exchange rate, sure, but SOMEONE must care about republic credits. He’s also not opposed to casual theft and con acts, so why not just go steal some money?
- Why does Watto say he’s lost everything? He has lost one part for a ship, which sounded expensive but couldn’t have been the main bulk of his stock, especially given how rare of a part it was (since no one else carried it). He lost Anakin, and Qui-Gon kept the pod racer (which was never Watto’s anyway). Qui-Gon made a secondary bet about Anakin, but let the original premise of splitting the winnings at 50-50. That means that Watto took in half the winner’s purse of a podracing event, but lost one ship part and one slave. The purse would have to be at least reasonable in a race with something close to a 50% fatality rate.
- Watto is willing to take a bet of the pod racer vs one of the slaves (Anakin or Shmi). He says that no ship is worth two slaves, but is willing to take the bet for one on a roll, meaning that the average of Anakin of Shmi is equal or less in value. He seems angry when it turns out to be Anakin, suggesting that Anakin is the more valuable of the two. He is thus more than willing to take a bet of the pod racer in exchange for Shmi (or he wouldn’t have rolled for it), suggesting that she is worth near or less than the pod racer. Later, Qui-Gon sells the podracer (its value hopefully increased by the fact that it just won a major race), and gives the money to Shmi. Why doesn’t she use it to buy her freedom? What else could she possibly do with this money? If Watto has just 'lost everything' wouldn't he be pretty happy to have some cash?
- The Senate seemed super happy to vote in no confidence. Like, same enthusiasm as the end of Return of the Jedi. There is almost unanimous open cheering after it’s mentioned. I cannot express how excited the Senate seemed. The second it is mentioned, the Chancellor sits down in defeat, as if he knows that his ejection is now all but a certainty. If it’s as easy as just suggesting it, and everyone totally hated the Chancellor, why wouldn't someone else have done it by that point? Did everyone forget it was an option?
- Why doesn’t the trade federation just invest in more droid destroyers? They can’t cost more than an entire ship of regular droids, and they are dramatically more effective, standing up to everything short of a Naboo fighter ship. When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are fighting two of them at the start of the film Qui-Gon admits it is a draw between them. That means that these droids are potentially as effective as Jedi - and presumably a lot easier to make. The regular battle droids are useless, but 20 destroyers probably could have easily wiped out every last Gungan on the planet. 1,000 might have single-handedly won the clone wars.
- Big picture here, how does the occupation of Naboo help ease the taxation of trade routes? Was the Republic planning to build a toll booth on Naboo or something? I really looked for subtext to explain this one, and there's just nothing. NOTHING. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.
- Why do the Gungans have weapons that are designed for exclusively fighting synthetics when the main group on their world that they might get in conflict with are human? There are no droids larger than an R2 unit shown among the population of Naboo. Zero. What is this stockpile of weapons for? And why aren't they dropped from orbit during the Clone Wars? What are these weapons, anyway, and why are they never seen again?
- Okay, I’ve seen this elsewhere, but it’s just so ridiculous - child-sized fighter pilot helmets?
- Why did the trade federation need dozens of ships for the initial blockade, when there was no fighting going on, but only one to hold the planet against an organized attack, and after the Senate had been told of the invasion? Where did the rest of the Trade Federation ships go? Was there something more important going on?
- Anakin’s auto-pilot (he doesn’t turn off his auto-pilot until a decent amount of the battle has already passed) is able to outmaneuver several trade federation fighters (odds against him) as well as the main guns of the only ship needed to hold the entire planet, all of which are - by definition - themselves automated-pilots. Why is it that the Naboo can build a better auto-pilot than a race of robots, or a race that built a race of robots?
- What is lightsaber battle room powering, exactly? The planet? Perhaps it generates a magnetic field for the planet to protect against cosmic rays, charged particles, and solar flares due to the fact that - since Naboo’s core is liquid water - Naboo would have no natural magnetic field? ZING.
- Why would the control room of the battle droid ship (which Anakin flies past when going through the ship) have battle droids sitting in front of traditional computer monitors? There is no evidence whatsoever of any organic life needed to run these ships, and visual transmission seems like the least effective way for two computers to interact with each other. Are the USB ports all full?
- Why is it not addressed that there is a female member of Yoda’s race on the Jedi council? Is the name of his race Jedi, given that 100% of them seem to become Jedi?
- This one was actually pretty mind-blowing for me. How many of the Queen’s scenes is the Queen played by Natalie Portman? Watching it again it’s really hard to tell when it’s Portman and when it’s Kiera Knightley, but it seems like they do deliver lines differently. With the knowledge that there are two actresses in the roll - and making sure to really watch for when Portman is also on screen as Padme - it seems that Knightley is more responsible for some of the really flat and boring delivery, and Portman actually did a pretty decent job, both as Queen and as Padme. Seriously, go back and check it out.
- What does the Queen give Boss Nass at the end of the movie? It looks a lot like the weapons they were throwing at the battle droids - is it some sort of naturally occuring anti-droid weapon that’s specific to Naboo? Is that why the Trade Federation was concerned with this planet? Maybe Naboo was the one source of this material and they provided it through trade to those who made anti-droid weapons, threatening the power of the Trade Federation and their army of droids? That would also explain why the Trade Federation switched from just capturing the Queen to trying to take control of the entire planet? Can we just retcon that one in there?
Special bonus crossover question:
- In New Hope Han Solo says it will cost them 10,000 credits for the journey, and Luke balks at it, saying that “we could almost buy our own ship for that”; Han does not debate the point but says, yeah, but who would fly it? Obi-Wan comes back with an offer of 2,000 now, 15,000 on arrival, and Han is pretty happy with the sum, even in what would seem to be Republic credits, on Tatooine. Sure, Han is a smuggler and travels to a lot of different worlds, but Mos Eisley is a spaceport, and it seems like it wouldn’t have been too hard for Qui-Gon to just find someone like him to take his 20,000 credits. He also could have made the EXACT SAME DEAL that Obi-Wan later did, finding a pilot to give them transport for 20,000 and a slightly broken ship now and all the money on Naboo on arrival.
Anyway, see you next week!