Debate Club - Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith vs. The Force Awakens

[Editor's Note: March kicks off a season of big-time showdowns, grudge matches and maybe a few team-ups. Infamous as the month when Brutus betrayed Caesar, March will get even more epic because Batman will take on Superman on the big screen, Daredevil will get company in Hell's Kitchen in the form of The Punisher on Netflix, and The Flash shall race on over to CBS to meet Supergirl. And, of course, just a few weeks after this kickoff, we'll see a breakdown in the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel's Civil War movie. Because we love seeing a good battle between titans, we've dedicated March to versus. Over the next four weeks, check this space for stories on title fights in superhero stories, horror, science and more!]

Now that a few months have passed since Star Wars returned to our movie screens, it's possible to get a bit of perspective. Sure, The Force Awakens grossed over $2 billion worldwide, but is it really good Star Wars?

Moreover, this is the perfect time to re-examine the much-maligned prequel trilogy, especially The Revenge of the Sith, which many fans already feel is superior to Return of the Jedi.

Given that, our own Carol Pinchefsky has taken the stance not only that Revenge of the Sith is a great Star Wars movie, but that it's far superior to J.J. Abrams' first foray into a galaxy far, far away. And, taking the counterpoint, we have Dany Roth, whose fiery hatred for all things prequel is only limited in the sense that our universe is also, technically, limited.

The Plot

Carol: I wanted to love The Force Awakens with all of my geek heart, I really did. But boy, was it derivative. Stolen plans hidden within a droid. A smuggler with debts. A technological terror constructed to destroy planets. A desert planet. A cantina filled with disreputable types. A hero who lays in suspended animation at the end of the film, his fate unknown. It is obvious Disney wanted to bring a new generation into the fold. But even so, The Force Awakens hews so close to its own source material it’s a reboot in all but name. We had seen it before.

Revenge of the Sith, however, presents an actual original plot and tells us things we actually wanted to know, most particularly how exactly Palpatine manipulates people and events to bring his schemes to horrifying fruition. We knew Anakin would turn to the Dark Side, but even so, watching him slaughter younglings managed to shock. Throughout The Force Awakens, I was never surprised...not even when Han Solo was killed as people who loved him watched from afar, unable to prevent his death. Because I had seen even that moment before.

Revenge of the Sith’s biggest challenge is that it’s the third film in a trilogy that opened with The Phantom Menace. Episode I has a tedious story that had very little to do with the main narrative arc, to the point that Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith become stronger films for ignoring it entirely, as the Machete Order recommends. Had Attack of the Clones been Episode 1, Revenge of the Sith would have had totally different expectations, and this would be a different debate.

Dany: The Revenge of the Sith is a mess built on an the already poor foundation of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. That Anakin Skywalker would fall from grace to become Darth Vader was already known, thanks to the original trilogy. It was a story that didn't need telling in the first place. The way it was told is only shocking in exactly how badly it was told. Why does Anakin turn against Obi-Wan? Zero explanation is provided. Why does Anakin bend to Palpatine, a man who factually and by design is responsible for the suffering and deaths of his comrades? Because of a dream. And what does Padme die of? A broken heart. I mean, I could go on, but I think you get it.

J.J. Abrams, meanwhile, was very aware that, due to the overwhelming disappointment in the prequel trilogy, most fans were still angry and didn't trust that Star Wars could ever be good again. That's why he doused the proverbial fandom flames with the one thing he knew would put them out -- the familiar. 

Is The Force Awakens similar in tone and style to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back? Sure. But it had to be. After three films that tried and utterly failed to weave a needlessly complex story about intergalactic politics, it was time to get back to basics.

But I deny the allegation that The Force Awakens is derivative. The story beats may be similar, but the characters are totally different. Rey, Finn, Poe -- they have no true counterparts from the original trilogy. None of them is "the Luke," "the Han," or "the Leia." Rey may be from a desert planet, but while Luke hung around with his aunt and uncle, whining about power converters, Rey is a stoic loner, salvaging what she can to survive. Luke gets dragged into events after the death Owen and Beru, but Rey runs headlong into doing what's right. Their similarities are surface. 

And where's your good-guy stormtrooper in the original trilogy? They don't exist. Finn isn't like anyone. And Poe isn't like anyone else either. He's a heroic fighter pilot, through and through. Where was that In A New Hope? Nowhere.

Just to round this out -- Kylo Ren. Sure, he may be a self-ascribed acolyte of Vader, but as men they are nothing alike. Whereas Vader is largely confident and self-assured in Episode IV, Kylo Ren is the Anakin we should have gotten in The Revenge of the Sith -- insecure, afraid, and dangerous. To equate Han's death with Obi-Wan's is downright insulting. Vader is merely tying up loose ends; Kylo Ren is, despite his own obvious conflict, murdering his own father. The difference is enormous.

So, is The Force Awakens similar in plot to the original trilogy? Yes, but I think only in the most superficial ways.


The Background

Carol: One of the reasons a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away was so real to so many people is the fact that it’s a rich and coherent setting, ripe for storytelling. The Star Wars universe has been explored in countless books, video games and other media outside the small sliver of the films. Even though Disney has kicked the entire Extended Universe out of continuity, it’s obvious the scale of Star Wars is part of why fans love it so much.

In Star Wars, we learned that the last of the Old Republic had been swept away: Clearly, some serious political crises had happened, and we’re witnessing the aftermath of a coup. Revenge of the Sith filled in the pieces we’ve speculated about for decades. It also revealed the true consequences of the Clone Wars.

The Republic also gets its moment to shine, albeit only so we can see its light extinguished. 

The Republic had a senate and a system with checks and balances. The Empire was a dictatorship run by an Emperor who has given regional governors the ability to maintain control.  And as for the New Republic and the First Order....the galactic context of The Force Awakens was incoherent to me.
 
After the Empire fell, the overarching political restructure became the New Republic. But none of that appears in the film, so its existence is entirely established in exposition, except for the 10 seconds it takes the Death Star — sorry, Starkiller Base — to destroy its capital and a balcony of people, none of whom we know.  It is the Alderaan of the sequel trilogy, except I can’t even remember what the planet is called.

How did the First Order build itself an army, or even yet another Death Star, without being stopped by the Republic? If there’s a Republic, what is the Resistance trying to resist? How is Leia a general in the Resistance to the Republic when she helped establish the Republic? If the First Order is its own government, shouldn’t the Republic be at war with it? Who even are any of these people? So many questions, so few answers. It just makes the universe that much more opaque, and I’m less able to embrace it. 

Worst of all, by repeating the plot and explaining next to nothing of the new galactic order, The Force Awakens makes the Star Wars universe feel smaller. And that’s criminal.

Dany: The original trilogy established the ease of building an expanded universe just by letting weird characters get a line in, or even simply by having some crazy-looking aliens walk by. Bam! Make those characters into some Kenner figures, and let the expanded adventuring begin!

One of the fundamental mistakes of the prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith included, is the focus on too many characters, and more importantly, on political machinations. How does Palpatine manage to turn the galactic senate into an evil empire? Here's a better question -- who cares? The prequels waffle between spending either too much time or not enough in explaining the hows and why fors of the universe.

To me, again, Star Wars is about characters, not what makes the Force exist or how a chancellor can suspend the privileges of the senate in a time of intergalactic war. So, all these things you want to see explained in The Force Awakens -- they just aren't necessary! We don't need to know exactly who funds the First Order! It's unnecessary to see the Imperial Senate back in action.

The Force Awakens is focused on questions of character -- Is Finn a hero or a coward, will Rey accept her connection to the force, and can Ben Solo still be redeemed? These are the questions that matter when you're weaving an adventure story with the heart of the hero's journey. That's what the core Star Wars is!

I'm not saying there's no room for politics, but leave it out of your two-hour main movie. There are spin-offs, cartoons, comics, books -- plenty of places to examine all the nonessentials.  


The Dark Side

Carol: We don’t know much about The Force Awakens villain Supreme Leader Snoke, other than his name is less Star Wars, more Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy. It is clear he’s the ultimate baddie, mostly because The Force Awakens more or less tells us. But it never shows us. In The Force Awakens, Snoke sat in a chair and issued orders, nothing more. His presence was all but inconsequential. Yet despite that, he had too much screen time: The original trilogy was smart enough to keep the Emperor out of sight entirely in Star Wars and show him in one scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Palpatine is everything Snoke — seriously? Snoke? — wants to be but isn’t.

Snoke’s size (and seriously, anyone can make themselves look bigger in a projection. If anything, it looks like he’s compensating) and his accompanying dark music made him evil, not his actions. Meanwhile, in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine befuddled the entire Jedi Order before he had them all killed. That’s some evil right there.

In Revenge of the Sith, we knew Palpatine was pure, unadulterated badness, because Ian McDiarmid — who gave a flesh-crawling performance that was the strongest acting in all of the Star Wars movies combined — brought his evil A-game. Revenge of the Sith’s best moments stem from the presence of McDiarmid: the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise. Killing Master Windu while begging for Anakin’s help. Physically dismantling the senate (metaphor!) and tossing pieces at Yoda while cackling gleefully. Revenge of the Sith wins almost based on McDiarmid, alone.

In fact, I’m holding out for Palpatine coming back from the dead to kill Snoke in Episode VIII. After all, the Jedi can return, and on the assumption Palpatine was Plageius’ apprentice, he does in fact know how to cheat death. Insert cackling here.

Dany: To say that I thought Ian McDiarmid's performance as Emperor Palpatine was cringe-worthy would be an intergalactic understatment. All that "ABSOLUTE POWER" stuff just sent me into a fit of giggles. He's not scary -- he's a silly willy!

And I just ain't fussed about Snoke right now.The Force Awakens is just the first movie! The only thing Snoke really needed to do was set up the rivalry between Kylo Ren and General Hux, and he does that just fine.

Maybe Snoke will wind up being a real bore in the long-term, but in the short term, he's inconsequential at the absolute worst.


 

The Visuals

Carol: I recognize that the prequel trilogy wasn’t the strongest film series ever created. But the visuals were deeply impressive, and the scenery was gorgeous enough to make you want to bathe in it. Every dress, every object on screen, was a feast for the eyes. Revenge of the Sith’s look was very much of the galaxy that George built, but a darker, colder version — or one that’s on fire with rage.

The first scene in The Force Awakens, the one where Poe Dameron meets Kylo Ren and an entire village is slaughtered? I found the scenery so flat and lifeless that it looked like it was filmed on a soundstage. The same goes for other scenes, such as the cantina interior or General Leia’s command station. Instead of being immersed in a galaxy far, far away, I knew at those moments I was watching a production. Most movies are filmed on soundstages and manage to look like the movie world. Yet this multimillion-dollar movie at times looked like something fans produce in their backyards. There’s a reason Mad Max: Fury Road won Oscars for visual effects this year.

Revenge of the Sith (and the other prequels) give us Coruscant, a credibly thriving mega-metropolis the size of a planet. The Force Awakens gives us a planet killer we’ve seen before and a rebel base we’ve also seen before. Without plot originality, the visuals needed to do overtime to give us a fresh experience. They simply don’t come close. 

Dany: Other than Padme's costumes (which are great, btw), I just can't get into the overly busy wizz bang style of Revenge of the Sith. It is just such a CGI bombardment that, in a lot of the bigger sequences, I don't know where my eye should be focusing.

Visual narrative is important, and I think that's where The Force Awakens' simplicity really thrives. I think the opening sequence is full of simple but really artful and striking visual moments. The stormtroopers packed like sardines, Kylo Ren stepping off his ship for the first time, the bloody handprint across the stormtrooper helmet, the frozen laser bolt -- these simple images tell us an exciting story without uttering a word. All the CGI explosions and busy lightsaber battles in Revenge of the Sith seem to be focused on is the "wow" and not the "why." 

And I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Maz's cantina. Not to get all inside baseball, but I have a friend who worked on The Force Awakens, and he and his wife got to visit that cantina set. They both told me that walking into that bar was like finding out that, to paraphrase Han Solo, Star Wars was real -- all of it. And watching The Force Awakens for the first time, that's exactly how I felt -- like somewhere in a galay just out of reach, these people really existed. Yes, its focus on practical effects over a CGI-dominated landscape is more minimalistic, but I think that actually serves the story rather than distracts from it. 

In conclusion: So there you have it -- a debate between two Star Wars fans, both equally passionate and both equally convinced of their "certain point of view." But what did you think about it? Did these arguments convince you either way? Do you have a favorite? Or do you like/dislike both films equally? Let us know in the comments.