20 July 2009

Exposé - Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Having dealt with the legacy of Dracula in the previous review, it seems appropriate that we turn now to another great staple of late-nineteenth century fiction with Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Once again, you may have trouble hunting down a copy of this particular production, but in this case the problem is not the result of marketing division re-branding. Nor is it even a matter of genuine scarcity, although this exacerbates the issue in terms of general public awareness. Rather, the main difficulty lies in attempting to pick out this particular version amidst the bloated catalogue of films bearing an identical title, one of which was released in the same year as the production in question. To clarify, this review is dedicated to the version which features John Hannah in the titular roles, accredited as being released either in 2002 or 2003. As it happens, this frustrating triviality characterises much of the difficulty faced by this, or any other production that aspires to make a faithful adaptation of this particular literary classic. For the most part, however, this treatment manages to address these latent issues with enough skill to maintain interest, whilst also injecting a sufficient degree of originality.

Dr Henry Jekyll ~ Mr Edward Hyde
The greatest impediment to any literal adaptation of R.L. Stevenson's classic novella is that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is essentially a one-trick pony. This is not to impugn its quality, but rather a simple product of its specific form. One must remember that, despite the fact that Jekyll/Hyde has come to rank alongside the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein as the pre-eminent gothic figures in popular culture, there is a great difference in their various original forms. At a mere seventy-odd pages, Strange Case is a product of the vast nineteenth century trade in serialised, inexpensive fiction commonly referred to as 'shilling shockers' or 'penny dreadfuls' – antecedents of the pulp magazines which proliferated during the first half of the twentieth century. The fact that Stevenson managed to distinguished his tale amidst this morass of castaway entertainment is due entirely to the calibre of his writing and the outstanding quality of his central idea. Of these it is the latter, especially, which has seen the tale consistently punch above its diminutive weight, creating a legacy that continues to hold its own beside those of its novel-length peers. Indeed, in one respect the enduring influence of Strange Case is virtually without parallel, and while this affords some unique advantages, it means that any attempt to follow in its wake is also faced with peculiar challenges.

The dark recesses of the human mind
In essence, the one trick at the centre of Strange Case proved to be so captivating as to leave behind all memory of the device through which it was revealed. One need only reflect upon current popular culture in order to gauge the truth of this statement. So firmly entrenched is the central idea of the tale that the mere name Jekyll/Hyde is enough to elicit instant recognition, even from those who have never encountered one of the myriad adaptations, let alone read the original. For a tale so completely geared toward revealing the mysterious connection between the respectable Dr Henry Jekyll and the disreputable Mr Edward Hyde – to the exclusion of any peripheral concerns – the voracity with which the common populace consumed the underlying idea made the narrative itself largely redundant. There are modern equivalents, in films such as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, but never in the history of film or literature has a fictional archetype become so firmly entrenched in the common psyche as that denoted by the term Jekyll/Hyde, nor indeed so completely independent of the work itself. The difficulty which Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde faces is thus dealing with the fact that the story is largely unknown, while the big reveal at its centre is perversely known to all. In effect, how can one faithfully translate a mystery story whose very name instantly dispels its secret? The answer, in this case, is to undertake a subtle realignment in approach.

Hyde surveys his gruesome handiwork
The first nine chapters of Strange Case are primarily concerned with Mr Utterson – a lawyer and friend of Jekyll – as he attempts to uncover the link between the titular personages. This sequence ends with the discovery of Jekyll dead in his laboratory, with the tenth and final chapter consisting of a 'full statement of the case', which covers the same period of time from the doctor's enlightened perspective. It is this transition between the two narratives where Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde begins; the primary drama is construed as a flashback with brief scenes of Utterson reading Jekyll's confession interspersed throughout. This rather innocuous device proves to be the cornerstone of the film's ultimate success, and is all the more inspired for its simplicity. Choosing to embark at this point in the narrative effectively dispenses with the nine chapters of suspense which make up the bulk of the original story, conceding the fact that a modern audience is fully aware of the connection between Jekyll and Hyde. I say dispensing with that narrative, not discarding, because the film does preserve each of the key scenes from the novella, as well as many of the peripheral characters, but always with the focus squarely on Jekyll's perspective. In so doing, the film effectively pushes much of the original story into the background, showing enough respect to permit its existence without becoming slavishly indentured to it. The result is something approximate to the relationship between Shakespeare's Hamlet and Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, whereby each represents the opposing sides of a single stage. This culminates in the final scenes, where a poisoned Hyde tears and devours the pages from a journal, even as the ailing Jekyll alternately continues writing, ingeniously accounting for the discrepancies between the truncated 'full statement' and the expanded territory introduced in the film.

Hyde devours the words of Jekyll
Rather than attempt to recreate the central mystery of the novella, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde wisely opts to re-frame the drama and its attendant issues through a number of substitutions. Operating under the assumption that a modern audience is aware of the Jekyll/Hyde relationship, for instance, the film replaces this original source of suspense with another, revealing Hyde as late and incrementally as possible in order to pique our anticipation. The new territory into which this adaptation expands also allows it to throw in a subdued eleventh-hour surprise, giving us at least a taste of what the original audience must have experienced. By far the greatest value in this film, however, derives from its treatment of Jekyll/Hyde and how it reflects upon the values of nineteenth century society. Whereas the modern idea of Jekyll/Hyde tends toward the universal – an archetype of duality, in which the absolute principles of good and evil struggle for supremacy – Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde confines itself to the very specific context of the era during which it was written. Odd though it may seem, some of the more drastic changes to the original source material actually result in a more faithful translation of its underlying ideas. The decision to forgo any special effects, for instance, and have the transformation into Hyde conveyed purely through John Hannah's very capable acting, does much to restore one of the most neglected and yet vitally important aspects of the original work.

A house with two faces
Jekyll and Hyde are not simple paradigms for good and evil, if you read Strange Case carefully, nor indeed do they represent an equal fifty-fifty dispensation of the whole man. Like all of us, Jekyll represents a mixture of 'high' and 'low' qualities and urges. His attempt to artificially rid himself of this conflict is what inadvertently gives rise to Hyde, who is an anomaly in that he represents only the latter. While Hyde is thus purely 'evil' – in the sense that he possesses no ingrained sense of social mores, and is therefore utterly selfish – Jekyll remains entirely as good and evil as he ever was, still an entire person. The lack of any jarring physical delineation in the film allows this idea to retain its full potential, as we are never quite clear when we are dealing with Jekyll, or if it is actually Hyde. In this respect, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde also manages to address one of the difficulties relating to any adaptation of the original, which is making Hyde sufficiently evil. In the novella, all but a few of his atrocities are left to the imagination, and thus able to remain absolute in our minds. When it comes to film, however, this becomes difficult to adequately portray. It is no great task to imagine some fairly atrocious crimes, but the task of envisioning the most atrocious, befitting the actions of someone who is supposed to be the utmost evil, is something altogether different. In conjunction with the issue of good taste, any portrayal of Hyde faces the real possibility of seeming too paltry and contrived. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, however, takes this potential weakness and uses it as the basis of a scathing indictment of late-nineteenth century society. No matter what depths of depravity Hyde is able to contrive, it seems that someone is waiting to profit from his actions, whether it be via blackmail, organised debauchery, or a mutual concession. The protagonist is thus recast as a paradigm not of duality, but fundamental hypocrisy, with Jekyll using his privileged status as a shield within a society content to abet his crimes.

Not so evil that the cabman will refuse his coin


Screen -
Albert & Allen Hughes

Inspired by the graphic novel by Alan Moore rather than a true adaptation, From Hell is nevertheless a gripping and stylish film dealing with the notorious exploits of Jack the Ripper. While it opts for a more conventional, procedure-based approach than its source material, the rampant hypocrisy at the heart of Victorian society remains a central concern, showing a political focus that balances well with the more domestic appraisal of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. More than a little influence in terms of visual motifs and composition is also evident between the two films.

Script -
R. L. Stevenson (Ed. Robert Mighall)

A milestone insofar as it introduced a powerful and enduring concept to the common milieu, and yet the tale itself is largely neglected. While the original reading experience has long been eradicated, thanks to the popularity of its central idea, the modern reader has the alternative surprise of finding many of their preconceived notions about the story disassembled and replaced by a far more nuanced, qualified examination than the common understanding of a potion-quaffing simian menace. This particular edition has the benefit of some fascinating and insightful articles by Robert Mighall, and also features two of Stevenson's other, more conventional “shilling shockers”.

Oscar Wilde

The only novel-length work of fiction penned by the legendary Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published four years after Stevenson's Strange Case and deals with similar issues, namely the apparent duality of man, the role of society in mediating individual behaviour, and the prospect of leading an existence free of moral consequences. Whereas Strange Case places a heavy focus on the evolutionary implications, with the physical transformation of Jekyll into Hyde, Wilde opts to tackle the issue from a purely philosophical and theological angle: what is man, in terms of the psyche, as opposed to what is man, in terms of physical human being. In many ways The Picture of Dorian Gray is thus something of a companion piece to Strance Case, indicative of the highly topical nature of their core issue during the later nineteenth century.

H. G. Wells

Primarily remembered as a cautionary tale concerned with the potential abuse of medico-scientific advances, The Island of Doctor Moreau also conveys a scathing indictment of the society which is generally thought competent to guide or censure such advancement. The result is a blurring of the lines between man and beast, forcing us to question the validity of so called 'civilised' behaviour, and ultimately the very social mores that typically delineate right from wrong. Like Strange Case, the result is a muddying of both parties in the cyclical relationship between individual and society, questioning how it is possible that society can regulate the activities of immoral specialists, such as Moreau, when the common populace itself is explicitly compared with brutish, unthinking creatures born through his malpractice.

Still -
Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A monumental work of graphic fiction, as attentive to the minutiae of its subject matter as it is sweeping in the grand scale of its concepts and intimations. Dispensing with the typical cat-and-mouse scenario of mainstream crime fiction, From Hell follows the exploits of Jack the Ripper throughout the frenetic killing spree that rocked London during the later months of 1888, vividly and intimately portraying both he and the vast network of individuals concerned directly or indirectly with the events that saw his moniker indelibly etched in modern history. Crucially, this is an exploration that manages to damn the society that spawned the Ripper without diminishing the horror or brutality of the acts for which he is ultimately culpable.

10 July 2009

Exposition - Dystopia Myopia

I have an aversion to buzzwords. This aversion stems from the fact that they take perfectly good, functional terms and debase them to a point where they no longer have any specific meaning. Once they enter popular lexicon it's virtually impossible to check their progress; isolated cases of misapplication rapidly instigate a domino effect, and before you know it the word has lost much of its original value. An earlier article on the recent proliferation of the term 'reboot' covered some of this ground – although that case is unusual in that there seems to have been no consensus on what the word meant in the first place – but I feel an unconquerable urge to return to the subject in relation to misuse of a far more enduring term, which is the word 'dystopia' and its various conjugations. This is an evocative word, and one that people are understandably fond of using, but increasingly I seem to come across instances of application which dilute or misrepresent its rather unique meaning. More than anything else, this article is intended to be a personal rationalisation, explaining what the term dystopia designates to me as an individual, with the hope that it might inspire others to do the same.

Without resorting to an encyclopaedic citation, there is some background information which is essential to this discussion. Briefly, the necessary points to bear in mind are a) that the word 'dystopia' was coined as an antonym of 'utopia', b) that the word 'utopia' was itself not coined until the fifteenth century, in a philosophical work of the same name by Sir Thomas More, and c) that by the time 'dystopia' was coined, the generally accepted meaning of 'utopia' had divurged from its own original meaning. The last of these points is critical only insofar as it negates the viability of looking directly to More in order to define the meaning of 'dystopia'. Otherwise, it is sufficient to acknowledge the fact that there are two definitions of 'utopia', the first relating primarily to its original use, and the second, more commonly accepted and widely applied meaning. Of these two only the latter concerns us here. So what does 'utopia' mean?

Generally, when we use the word 'utopia' it carries connotations of perfection, total fulfilment, or an ideal state. The last is particularly important in regard to its alternative possible meaning: not as a static mode of being, but as 'the State' of proverbial socio-political significance. The word 'utopia' is not synonymous with others like 'paradise', which tend to suggest a simpler way of life, devoid of negative aspects because they forgo complexity. Paradise is certainly what any true utopia would deliver, but the means of reaching that goal relies on perfecting each individual facet in a finely-tuned machine, rather than dismantling it in order to get back to basics. In other words, a utopian world is one in which society works flawlessly for the satisfaction and betterment of its people, at once delivering and being an ideal state. Utopia is thus a means of attaining paradise, but not all paradises are utopian. The paradise of the Bible, for instance, is not utopian simply because it requires more than two individuals to constitute a society. So what does 'dystopia' mean?

First of all, it's worth noting the unusual spelling. The much more common dis- prefix would result in a negating reversal of the term 'utopia', but instead we have the rarer dys-, which carries a much stronger connotation of actual negative traits, rather than simple mirror opposition. 'Dysfunction', for instance, denotes the aberrant operation of a system or machine, not the cessation of function itself. Indeed, regardless of the actual etymology of the term, it would not be improper to treat 'dystopia' as a contraction of 'dysfunctional-utopia', which suggests a much clearer definition without altering the proper meaning. If we define a utopia as a social system which promotes the value and well-being of its citizens, then a dystopia is surely a similar system whose function produces the equivalent negative affect, i.e. the exploitation and devaluation of individual rights for the benefit of the state. Just as there must be a society in order for their to be a utopia, the same is also true of a dystopia. At their heart, each is quintessentially defined through the relationship between individuals and a state or social system of which they are a part, the latter existing for the benefit of the former in a utopia, and the former used to serve the latter in a dystopia. So what are some examples?

A bleak horizon, but is it dystopian?
One of the more frequent misapplications in recent weeks has been in relation to the Terminator franchise. If we use the definition outlined above, however, this error is clear for two reasons, being a) that the pivotal event of Judgement Day obliterated much of human society, and b) that the small numbers who did survive have actually formed a social order in which the value of human life is paramount. While these survivors certainly endure a harsh existence, as part of a martial society necessitated by the threat of annihilation, theirs is nevertheless a system that not only work but also affirms the value of each human being against that of their enemies, the machines. This is representative of by far the most common misapplication of the term dystopia, whereby it is perceived as being synonymous with any post-apocalyptic world. The world of Judge Dredd, by contrast, is a proper example of both, where catastrophic events have resulted in the creation of huge, overpopulated enclaves. The ensuing upsurge in conflict and crime sees the introduction of a harsh system of justice arbitrated without the right of appeal, with the end result being a pronounced decline both in the quality of human life and its perceived value.

A dreadful vision of the future
It's also important to bear in mind that fictional worlds need not be either dystopian or utopian in their entirety, and yet still feature one, the other, or both. The Star Trek series is perhaps the most ready example, for although it depicts a universe in a state of ongoing inter-species conflict, human society on its own has made great advances toward a state of utopia by abolishing money, achieving real equality in terms of race and gender, and embracing a system of utility whereby an individual's role is dictated by their aptitude and abilities. The original Stargate film depicts the reverse, where a team of realistic modern extraction makes contact with a human society utterly bent to the will of a despotic alien overlord whose effort to maintain their oppression includes banning all literacy. The truth is, the amount of dystopian or utopian societies that can exist in any work of fiction is limited only by the number of distinct states or equivalent social orders which feature in it overall.

An exaggeration of the present day
Of course, there is nothing which dictates that a society need be either wholly utopian or dystopian. It is more accurate and far more practical to imagine a delineated scale extending between these two poles, with each example falling more or less to one side or the other. This brings me to what will not doubt prove to be a controversial case, which is the film Blade Runner. In terms of presenting a speculative vision of the near future, this film is almost without equal. Unfortunately I cannot be as resolute about the common perception that this vision is dystopian. What we see of the year 2019 is certainly far from utopian, but so fleeting and restricted is this exposure that we should be hesitant before leaping to the opposite conclusion. It is a world in which morally bankrupt corporations are shown to unleash horrors upon the general populace and their own creations alike, of over-crowded streets bathed in the garish light and incessant noise of mass-advertisement, filled with poverty and greed, injustice and suffering. But is this substantially different from the world we live in today? In fact, one could argue that the core of Blade Runner's success in presenting a captivating, believable future derives from the fact that it merely reflects current society, with all its positive and negative attributes, and magnifies them. The corporations may be bigger, the builders taller, the streets more crowded, but in terms of the underlying dynamics it all feels so intuitively familiar.

1 July 2009

A Too Big/Small Universe - The Star Wars Prequels

In the decade since the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the Star Wars prequels have been the subject of much criticism, derision, and outright castigation. Even the most conscientious defenders have a hard time endorsing some of the more dubious elements, which are now immortalised alongside the acclaimed original trilogy. Indeed, the most prominent of these – the infamous character Jar Jar Binks – has entered the common lexicon as a byword for something defying all notion of good sense or sound reason. Beyond isolated elements such as this, however, there is little consensus among fans as to where and how the prequel trilogy went wrong: suffice to say that if there is no common view as to which elements are wholly detractive, it is still harder to find any agreement on those areas where positive additions were made. This has much to do with the sheer weight of expectation placed upon these three films, and one might be tempted to say that George Lucas set himself an impossible mandate the instant he re-branded the original Star Wars with the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope back in 1981. With almost two decades having passed between this implicit promise and the period when it began to be delivered, it is hard to imagine that any film, no matter how expertly constructed, could ever hope to satisfy the lofty and divergent fantasies that an expectant audience had fostered throughout the interim. Even amidst the current industry climate of interpreting any modest reception as justification for immediately commencing production on a sequel, the Star Wars prequels seem to have erred too much on the opposite side of the equation, delivering too little too late. It is not the intent of this article to merely perpetuate the subjective argument that continues to be waged over these films, however, but rather to approach and critique them from a technical basis, and thereby attain something at least pointing toward an objective appraisal. Nitpicking and disappointment aside, the prequels still represent a deeply flawed and largely unsatisfying narrative, a large part of which stems from a single essential failure: their scope is at once too dissolute and too restricted.

A galaxy in need of scrutiny
It may seem ridiculous to suggest that a series whose opening lines promise visions of a galaxy far, far away could ever be too big in terms of scale. Like his forebears in the world of literature, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert, George Lucas created an entire universe of fictional continuity in the original Star Wars and its two sequels. A term that Lucas himself has used to express this remarkable feat is 'immaculate reality', which essentially boils down to imbuing any fictional setting with intelligible hallmarks that create and maintain a sense that it has an internal logic and implied history all of its own, and thus all the appearance of being in homogeneous existence. Think of the gritty, worn look of the Millenium Falcon and the rebel ships, the off-hand reference to Obiwan's service during the Clone Wars, or the discussion concerning the Emperor's discussion to dissolve the Galactic Senate; none of these contribute to the primary narrative, but what they achieve altogether is the sense of a living, breathing universe in which the central storyline is but an isolated strand. It is this simple attention to detail, rather than lengthy scenes of pure exposition, which creates the illusion that the world we are seeing has an existence beyond the restricted scope of what the main characters experience. Where the prequel trilogy unfortunately departs from this proven formula is in a series of needless expansions and duplications.

Too Big...

Of the myriad examples one could cite, two should be sufficient to illustrate my point. For the first I draw your attention to the picture below, which shows two of the peripheral characters from Return of the Jedi. These curious creatures belong to a race called the Mon Calamari, whose resemblance to a squid reflects their aquatic origins on a world dominated by oceans, and their organic-looking spacecraft make up a significant part of the rebel fleet that attacks the second Deathstar toward the conclusion of the saga. We are given none of this information within the film itself, indeed, all we are provided with is the name of the figure on the right – Admiral Ackbar – and the fact that he is in command of the operation in question. We have no idea when this race may have joined the rebel cause, although they did not appear in either of the preceding films, nor is any explanation given as to why they did so, and this is a good thing. Those members of the audience with an inquiring mind will inevitably leave the film pleasantly engaged in musing about these matters, while casual viewers can simply discard these details without it hampering their enjoyment of the central narrative. Cast your mind forward to Attack of the Clones, the second of the prequel films, and we are introduced to an aquatic planet with another species of humanoid alien, the Kaminoans. In terms of the overall narrative, this planet and its people fulfil a fairly significant role, being the birthplace (so to speak) of the clone army whose prominent role had been implied way back in the original 1977 Star Wars. Unlike the army they produce, however, neither the Kaminoans themselves nor their watery planet are seen or heard of again. In this respect their utterly generic appearance is a perfect reflection of the arbitrary role they play within the saga. Inspiring little wonder, they are discarded as soon as their function in the narrative has been fulfilled, leaving us with the impression of a mental cul-de-sac. The universe has been expanded by an entire planet and people, and yet neither ultimately leave a compelling impression.

Mon Calamari
In the interests of narrative economy, why not simply make the Mon Calamari the originators of the clone army, and thereby flesh-out an element where interest and anticipation already exist? This simple substitution would not involve changing a single thing about this part of the film in order to achieve a vastly more satisfying result. Without any additional information whatsoever, a diligent audience might reasonably infer that their appearance as a significant force in the rebellion might be an act of penance for unwittingly unleashing what proves to be a devastating force throughout the galaxy, resulting in the ascendancy of a despotic regime. Rather than two isolated appearances of different species, neither of which play another notable role within the series, a sense of continuity would thereby be maintained, provoking thought at what precisely the Mon Calamari were doing in the period between episodes II and VI. In so doing the fictional world is allowed to expand without feeling arbitrary or redundant in the process.

A similar case can be made for the introduction of the planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace and its gradually lessening role in the subsequent prequels. Once again, is it necessary to invent another verdant, idyllic setting when one already existed in the form of Alderaan, having been introduced in the original film and fleetingly glimpsed in Revenge of the Sith? The fact that we are already aware of its ultimate fate in A New Hope would also add an emotional dimension, with the audience acutely aware of the fact that we are seeing a paradise destined to be callously eradicated as part of a cynical demonstration against civil disobedience. This simple substitution would also result in an entirely new depth being imbued in the scene where Darth Vader offers his implicit approval for the action, as we wonder how any man could ever been so damaged as to abet the destruction of a planet where his dearly beloved once lived. Either of these examples would have been incredibly easy to implement, and yet the reward in terms of creating pathos and compelling narrative could have been vast. It is one of the cardinal rules of writing that a good author opts to show rather than tell, and while the nature of the film medium means that showing essentially amounts to telling and vice versa, the fact that the prequel trilogy diverges from this practice nevertheless remains true. It is voyeuristic in its relentless pursuit of unnecessary scope, opting to show the audience an entire bland tapestry, whereas the original trilogy took a single strand and merely hinted, tantalisingly, at what lay beyond its fringes.

Too Small...

At the other end of the spectrum, the prequel trilogy is also guilty of committing yet another narrative faux pas. If the setting has expanded to a gratuitous extent, then the limit in terms of central players and plot elements seems to have shrunken commensurately. By this I mean the conspicuous number of recurring characters and other apparent coincidences that stretch or defy any rational belief. What are the odds, for instance, that R2-D2 would have originally been part of the crew on a starship that belonged to Luke's mother, or that his father would have personally constructed C-3PO? Not only does the latter stretch the limits of credulity, but it also leads to the ridiculous situation whereby the comic character of episodes IV through VI was created by none other than its stoic, intimidating antagonist, Darth Vader. As such, we can only scoff at the highly improbable coincidence, bemuse ourselves with this unwelcome new consideration throughout the original trilogy, and ask ourselves what it actually adds to the narrative? Obviously the desire was to capitalise upon the pre-existing attachment to the characters established in the earlier films, but not only does this detract from that original experience, it's simply lazy writing. No-one began watching Star Wars back in 1977 with an ingrained love of R2-D2 and C-3PO, or indeed Luke, Han, Chewbacca, or Princess Leia. That appeal was earned through a combination of compelling narrative and endearing character development. With a whole galaxy of humans, droids, and aliens to choose from, there is simply no reason why figures needed to be retrospectively inserted. The resulting constriction in terms of the key players simply ends up feeling contrived and artificial, detracting from that all-important sense of immaculate reality. In this respect, at least, the intention behind creating a character such as Jar Jar Binks was perfectly sound, and one suspects that perhaps George Lucas acted too reflexively in response to the immediate wave of criticism and derision. It was the execution in that instance, not the underlying idea, which was defective.

Property of Darth Vader
It is worth pointing out that not all of these character revivals were misguided, in fact many of them were absolutely crucial. A prequel trilogy virtually had to include Anakin Skywalker and the mother of his children, likewise Obiwan, Yoda, and the Emperor. Beyond these, any number of the minor cameos, such as Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett, and Chewbacca, are perfectly reasonable and add a necessary degree of familiarity. The latter, in fact, might well have played a far more pronounced role in the prequel films without attending the same disbelief evoked by the presence of R2-D2 or C-3PO, depending, of course, on how the character was woven into the central narrative. Beyond these, too much is dealt with in a fleeting, ultimately meaningless fashion. All told, it speaks either of a committee-based development wherein any slightly good idea was thrown into the mix, or an unusual measure of timidity on part of George Lucas as a writer, with the result being that virtually no enduring character was allowed to develop or grow during the entire duration of the three prequels. Quite simply, the sheer quantity of ideas present in the prequels cannot offset the dearth of quality imagination. This is perhaps most evident in the extent to which these films rely on preconceived stereotypes.

No one could reasonably argue that the original Star Wars trilogy showed a particularly innovative or complex storyline. George Lucas himself has unashamedly acknowledged the extent to which his fictional universe relies upon some of the age-old stories and motifs that recur throughout world literature. The central strand is essentially a quest narrative, following the prodigal but unassuming hero from his humble origins through a journey of increasing magnitude until he eventually rights the myriad wrongs that predate his birth into that world. There are archetypes aplenty to be found, and it is this marriage between ancient narrative and innovative, imaginative presentation that is the root of its success. The aspiring innocent and the worldly rogue, the dark agent and his despotic master, the wise hermit and the threatened princess; we are conditioned from an early age to recognise all these figures, and thus react to them subliminally. While the prequels aren't entirely devoid of any trace of these archetypal characters, there is a definite move toward less polar stereotypes. The conniving politician, for instance, does not inspire the same visceral reaction as the despotic tyrant, nor the frustrated prodigy the same as the aspiring innocent. The polar opposition between freedom and oppression is also much easier to apprehend and transcendent in essence than the deft machinations of even the most straightforward double-cross. The shift from archetype to stereotype is thus at once a diminishing and a complicating one. Also, whereas archetypes tend to encompass things which are absolute in an attempt to make them codified and more easily apprehended, stereotypes tend more toward overt simplification, stripping away individual variation in an effort to demean and debase what they circumscribe.

More caricature than character
The picture above shows three examples of characters that illustrate this point. The one on the top-left is clearly meant to parody the back-and-forth style of live sports commentators, the one on the bottom-left the quintessential burly diner chef, and the one on the right the unscrupulous second-hand car dealer. There is nothing wrong with basing fantasy characters on stereotypes, and we see this practice used to good effect in films such as Men in Black, but insofar as Star Wars is concerned it marks a departure from the imaginative standards set by the original trilogy. In terms of stereotypes, perhaps the closest approximations in Episodes IV to VI would be the fascist overtones of the Imperial officers or the mafioso role played by Jabba the Hutt. Even so, had these figures been designed during the production of the prequels one cannot help but think that Jabba's face would have borne an overt resemblance to Marlon Brando, with Grand Moff Tarkin sporting a decidedly Hitleresque moustache. It sounds patently ridiculous, and that is essentially what the three characters above are equivalent to. Only when one reaches the limits of his imagination is he forced to fall back upon what is already intimately known, and the result is utterly generic figures who fulfil a narrative function rather than exist as fully independent characters.

Perhaps the most succinct measure of when a fantasy narrative has failed is the point where its scale has exceeded the ability of its creator's imagination, beyond which it merely reflects the known and delivers the predictable. Whether due to creative fatigue on the part of George Lucas, or through the diluting influence of excessive input and resources, there is no question that the prequel trilogy failed to emulate the impact felt in response to the original films. Even without resorting to such loaded comparisons, the saga of episodes I through to III is plagued by narrative issues that no amount of financial investment or technical innovation could right. Proof once again, if any were needed, that a good story will overcome the limitations placed upon its telling, while no amount of anticipation will redeem a bad one.