A closer look at where everything went wrong in the Star Wars CGI universe…
We Star Wars fans are a fickle bunch.
We care passionately about the subject matter that many of us grew up watching and will defend it to the bitter end should anyone attack our beloved galaxy far, far away. And yet, when Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace arrived upon our screens in 1999, many of us found ourselves questioning the direction the saga was taking under the guidance of the founder of the Force George Lucas.
Not only did The Phantom Menace fail to live up to the expectation set by the original trilogy, but the inclusion of computer generated imagery (or CGI for short) did little to appease the fans. When Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park arrived in 1993, it revolutionised the special effects industry with its incredibly impressive and realistic dinosaurs crafted by the majestic genius’ at industrial Light and Magic. For the first time in cinematic history, real life dinosaurs were stalking our screens and terrifying audiences across the globe which opened the door to a sandbox of opportunity for the brightest stars in Hollywood to play in.
In the aftermath of its unprecedented success, many a director made the pilgrimage to the Lucasfilm founded special effects giant all desperate to have similar effects in their movies, and soon afterwards, the sky was the limit for any studio willing to pay for the privilege.
So, when The Phantom Menace was announced to the world…the fans went wild with delirium. The prospect of having a Star Wars movie that boasted the best effects in the business was an exciting prospect but the special edition releases of the original trilogy split opinions. The 1997 re-releases all returned to the screen with CGI enhancements which were designed to add an all-new level of brilliance to proceedings, but were hit and miss amongst the fan base. Some were hailed for their brilliance…others were completely detested and the unexpected changes to many of our favourite scenes caused outrage.
This backlash however, would not be enough to dissuade George Lucas from writing and directing the prequel trilogy, a trio of films detailing the events leading up to the original Star Wars: A New Hope…the first of which was The Phantom Menace. The special effects in the film were…in a word, impressive. But, the creation of an entirely computer-generated character was a bold step and boasted the mantle of having never been tried before.
The character of Jar Jar Binks was born.
The humanoid Gungan creature would accompany Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan learner Obi-Wan Kenobi on their journey throughout the movie and would interact with them as if he were a real character. Actor Ahmed Best, not only provided the vocals for the character but also made his presence felt on set for the other actors to use as a reference point. From a technical perspective, the character was a triumph, a marvel of ingenuity but his irksome antics proved to be a step too far for a majority of the fan base.
Now, to be clear…Jar Jar had his supporters and still does to this very day, but in light of the overwhelming hatred of the character George Lucas reduced his role dramatically for the two remaining sequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Probably a good idea in the grander scheme of things!
For me, this is where George Lucas’ over reliance on CGI came into play.
In 2002, the fans were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Attack of the Clones, the next chapter in the prequel series. The movie was set to reveal the commencement of The Clone Wars and detail the birth of the Stormtrooper army that would eventually evolve into the soldier force of the dreaded Empire. The inclusion of a CGI version of Jedi Master Yoda was an exciting prospect and was only accentuated further when it was revealed that fan favourite character, Boba Fett would be involved alongside his father Jango.
Attack of the Clones had everything going for it. But when the movie arrived to grace our screens, some bizarre CGI additions had been included to baffle the fans in their millions. Many memorable moments had been compromised by this disorder culminating with a CGI version of Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi using the Force to regain possession of his lightsaber whilst locked in a duel with Jango Fett. Instead of allowing the actor to stand on set and mimic his use of the Force to retrieve his weapon, Lucas took the unprecedented step to computer animate the sequence. All McGregor had to do was stand still and extend his arms…and yet it was decided to utilise the CGI polish.
In the same duel, in a moment where a jet pack flying Jango Fett was seen crash landing onto the landing platform, a CGI version of the character was used instead of a stunt double. Moments later, he was kicked from the same platform and again, a CGI version was used instead of a real-life stunt performer.
This disturbing trait continued throughout the movie with trivial actions like jumping and falling all computer generated, when a stunt double would have traditionally been employed. But this paled in comparison to the ultimate display of lunacy that was set to come.
During a dinner sequence with Padme Amidala, Anakin Skywalker uses the Force to retrieve a piece of fruit from her dinner plate. Once resting upon his own plate, he used his knife to cut the fruit before using his power of levitation once again to return the segment to Padme’s fork, ready for her to consume. She then stabs the utensil into the fruit before taking a bite.
Or so we thought. In fact, the entire sequence was computer generated. The fruit had been manufactured via computer and its presence was lacking in the finished film, a point that was highlighted when Padme went to take her bite “of nothing”! Natalie Portman took an imaginary bite of fruit which was then digitally super imposed into her mouth for her to chew. In the ultimate display of method acting, Natalie Portman performed her task to perfection but the CGI rendering left a lot to be desired. The fruity segment passed her lips in the most inorganic of fashions and looked even more ridiculous when she made to chew the imaginary food.
It speaks volumes when even taking a bite of a piece of fruit is computer generated.
The simplest of human actions being replicated via computer seems utterly nonsensical, and is all the more staggering when the financial forfeiture is taken into consideration. And unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. Both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are littered with these questionable CGI enhancements which went on to serve as the foundation for the fans objections with the prequel trilogy. In fact, in the aftermath of the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney the studio heads made an advertising slogan out of their intention to use REAL SET’S and not rely upon CGI technology whilst making their first sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Star Wars legends Mark Hamill and Peter Mayhew, both went on record to share their delight with getting back to “the old way of doing things” and yet, The Force Awakens boasts just as many CGI shots as the prequels. They were just utilised in the right way and were restrained from spiralling out of control like when George Lucas was at the helm. For what they are, the prequels are fantastic entries into the Star Wars saga, in fact many of the most defining moments of the entire saga take place amongst their narratives. But, that cannot hide the fact that the maestro himself became over reliant on the usage of CGI.
Rick McCallum, his executive producer at the time should have been on hand to remind him that just because he had the technology at his fingertips did not necessarily mean he had to use it. The CGI revolution in the Star Wars universe essentially boils down to George Lucas falling in love with the technology and obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what it could do…went where no man has gone before and let it outshine good old-fashioned story-telling, the fundamental bedrock of the original trilogy.
Sadly, this over-reliance on CGI would ultimately blight the reputation of the prequel trilogy which have endured more than their fair share of critical abuse which has overshadowed what brilliant movies they are. In a time where George Lucas was breaking ground with new technologies, many a fan found themselves reluctant to embrace them because of these failings but in the aftermath of the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, they have now been accepted for what they are. George Lucas was unfairly attacked for trying to change the formula of the saga, whilst staying true to the original source material. A tall order given the devotion of the fan base.
Director Rian Johnson, finds himself in a similar position this year with the upcoming sequel Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the aftermath of The Force Awakens, which many attacked for its similarity with Star Wars: A New Hope, the fans have called for a dramatic formula change that even the godfather of the saga himself has failed to achieve with any degree of success. The Last Jedi may not be over reliant on CGI effects but can it really win over the fickle fans of a galaxy far, far away?
Only time will tell.
I recently took a closer look at of this dilemma. Check it out here:
Until it arrives upon our screens, I’d recommend re-watching the prequel trilogy and gather your own opinion on the CGI debate. All things aside, all three movies are thoroughly enjoyable entries into the franchise. Mixed amongst the CGI overload is an abundance of tragedy, religious debate, life lessons and above all else…fantastical fantasy action. The very bedrock of what cinema was made for.