Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Giving Machete Order the chop

Original Australian daybills

A week or two ago my interest was grabbed by an alternative order of watching the Star Wars films, called the “Machete Order”. Not being a person who is content to let things remain theoretical, I suggested to Mrs G that we try it out over the Australia Day weekend. The results, I’m sorry to say, were not good.

Mrs G and I are both Star Wars tragics – we both grew up with the original films and toys. However, where I could happily watch any of the original trilogy any number of times, Mrs G can't, preferring to leave her childhood memories the way they are. She reckons she got her money’s worth out of Episode I just by seeing “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” on a cinema screen again, but was so turned off by the content of the film that she didn’t bother with the other prequels. I only saw the others once they went to DVD, and only once each at that.  However, I’m pretty familiar with the stories, having played through the LEGO Star Wars “Complete Saga” console game. In short, we’re original trilogy adherents with little or no time for the prequels.

These toys are now "vintage"!
It was therefore with some interest that I read this article on The Vine, which reported on blogger Rob Hilton’s solution to the dilemma faced by a Star Wars fan when introducing the films to someone who’d never seen them before. Do you watch them in release order or episode order? Episode order risks people losing interest before getting to the bits we grew up with and loved, and spoils the Empire Strikes Back reveal; release order is an exercise in pointlessness – I mean, Episodes I to III are, narratively speaking, little more than back-story for the original trilogy. Where’s the tension? We know what will happen, and we've already seen the Empire crumble in Return of the Jedi. For the newcomer the full series is unsatisfying in either order.

Hilton had heard of watching the films in order IV, V, I, II, III, VI, something referred to in uber-geek circles as “Ernst Rister order". Hilton modified this, reasoning that Episode I can be left out entirely – it’s not a good film, it contains a lot of confusing detail, and there’s very little in it that you need to know in order to understand what follows.  Further, of the things you do need to know, most are reiterated in Episode II. The advantage of watching the films in this order is that you start with Luke’s story arc, you get to the cliffhanger at the end of Empire, then you get a two-movie flashback to illustrate how Darth Vader got to where he is, plus the political back-story for the rebellion – and then you finish with the original story climax, with the bonus that you know Luke and Leia are twins, but they don’t! The name “Machete Order” comes from Hilton’s blog, “Absolutely No Machete Juggling”. (The full justification for the superiority of watching the films in this order is here.)

Mrs G and I thought that this was a reasonable basis on which to give Episodes II and III a try. We would hold a Star Wars movie marathon over several days, following the Machete Order.

Never again.

I know many electrons have been sacrificed exchanging online opinions on Star Wars movies, and I don’t wish to add much more. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but please don’t ever make me sit down and watch those films again.

As much as my childhood sense of wonder and delight was kindled by the original trilogy, watching those prequels was like having that sense dulled, beaten senseless and then run over by a fat, bearded man carelessly whistling a faintly familiar tune.

There was one good thing about this experience, and that was discovering the high definition "despecialised" versions of the original trilogy. A bloke in the Czech Republic by the nickname of "Harmy" has painstakingly reconstructed the original trilogy as they appeared in their first theatrical releases. This is a fan response to George Lucas ignoring the pleas for official releases of the films in this format. Harmy has used consumer grade computing to digitally remove pretty much all the "Special Edition" CGI elements and additional scenes, apparently only stopping short of restoring matte lines everywhere. It was wonderful to see the "Star Wars" (Episdode IV) opening crawl without the "Episode IV - A New Hope" title, and to see Han Solo summarily kill Greedo with no exchange of fire. However, once we got to the end of "The Empire Strikes Back", things went downhill with the movie marathon.

Being faithful to the Machete Order we skipped Episode I, but watching Episode II was very, very testing. It is laboured and awful. There’s so little plot progression in it that the third time the story switches back between Anakin and Padme’s Naboo idyll and Obi-Wan’s mission to find the clones, we were rolling our eyes with tedium. Okay, against her better judgement she falls for moody-whiney-boy, and Obi-Wan is a very smart cookie: points made, move on! But moving on would mean moving too quickly towards the point at which the original trilogy picks up the story, a pace which couldn’t possibly sustain three films. And so it is stodgy and repetitive. A semblance of pace is provided from time to time by eye-popping action sequences, but few of them advance the story.  Mostly they simply place the heroes in peril from which they emerge either unscathed or with the requisite limbs missing to be consistent with later (but earlier!) films. And the sound effects in the action sequences are very loud. We found ourselves having to constantly turn down the sound during action scenes, and then dialling it up again so we could hear dialog.

Episode III is better, but not by much. The story moves a bit more quickly, but you find yourself mentally checking off the plot points that have to occur in order to have everything in the right place for Star Wars to begin. There are also too many locations in this film. I recall someone on a commentary somewhere revealing that the original trilogy had confined itself to no more than three major world locations per film, just so that the audience could keep up. Now, I'm not saying I couldn't keep up with Episode III, but I think it was unnecessarily complex. And there are some woeful performances. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it seemed obvious that a lot of attention was being paid to effects and not so much to the actors surrounded by them.

Look, it’s not as if the performances in the original trilogy are flawless, but they are mostly even, and the actors treat the material as the easily consumable fluff that it is. In the prequels, you get the impression that the actors were constantly worried that they weren't delivering the required gravitas.

It could all have been so much better. Mrs G has observed on several occasions that George Lucas had to revise and revise again, compromise and negotiate just to get the original film made. We have a copy of the first draft Star Wars screenplay, and it is awful.

Star Wars 1st draft, July 1974 (L), Empire Strikes Back Shooting Script 4th Draft (R)
Having to convince someone else to spend money on his ideas resulted in a much better film than if he’d had full artistic control. With the prequels, he had that control, and it shows. They are full of “first ideas” instead of “best ideas”. Mrs G is on the money here. The quality of the prequel writing is on a par with the first draft Star Wars screenplay.

Admittedly, being familiar with the original trilogy, we are not the target audience for the Machete Order. But the vastly underwhelming experience of recently watching two of the three prequels has left me unable to recommend any order of watching Star Wars movies other than "original trilogy, despecialised, in order".

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