The Emptiness of George Lucas’s Visual Symmetry

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Star Wars Symmetry

LucasFilm

“Again, it’s like poetry, so that they rhyme. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.”

Quick- what’s your reaction to those two sentences? Is it a sudden swelling of inner coolness? Instant revulsion? Do you even know who’s speaking the quote and what this person is referring to? That’s kind of important, so here you go: it’s George Lucas, describing the poetic symmetry between his Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy.

It makes me sound like a hater, but so be it- I’m firmly entrenched in the “instant revulsion” category. I’m biased forever. I watched (and re-watched, and re-re-watched) RedLetterMedia pick apart the Star Wars prequels way back when, and those RedLetterMedia videos dredge up “it’s like poetry” on a regular and unflinchingly negative basis.

But that was then. There’s a new video out now, and it casts “it’s like poetry” with as much affection as RedLetterMedia did bile. It’s called “Star Wars Poetry,” it’s a shot-by-shot comparison of the visual symmetry between the two sets of Star Wars movies (Vader cuts off Luke’s hand? Count Dooku cuts off Anakin’s- that kind of thing), and it’s embedded below (found via SlashFilm):

Entirely without context, side-by-side with the original films and with some spiffy dramatic background music (Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience”), I’ve never enjoyed the Star Wars prequels more. Now have another: the vid’s creator Pablo Fernandez put up a second piece- Indiana Jones 4 and the Echoes of the Past” once the Star Wars one blew up this week.

Some of it’s not so impressive (obviously, if we’re returning to the Hangar 51 warehouse, it’s going to be a perfect match for Raiders of the Lost Ark), but some of it’s astounding. Like the twin shots of Indy’s college Dean (Denholm Elliot in the first three, Jim Broadbent in Crystal Skull) peering into Indy’s classroom along with the camera (at the 0:35 mark). It’s an unobtrusive shot, yet Lucas and Steven Spielberg put in the effort to recreate it near-perfectly.

The coolness is undeniable. But beyond coolness, there’s a question that needs an answer: does the presence of this visual poetry stuff actually add anything to a film?

I asked myself that, and got an instant brain-snap response- “Yes. Now the new movies look like the old movies. Duh.” Besides that, I’m honestly not sure if I can come up with any other benefits to seeing two identical “Dean looks at Indy’s teaching skills with admiration” shots in two separate Indiana Jones films. Taken one at a time- say, the old-timey Paramount logo dissolving into some Paramount logo-shaped structure- it’s a neat recurring motif. A sly wink to the crowd. But if (wink) you (wink) keep (wink) winking every (wink) few seconds, it (wink) kinda drains the (wink) fun (wink) away. I’ll stop that now, I promise.

Take Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. Same actors throughout, same genre movie satire (until the third act hardens into a more genuine zombie/action/alien invasion thriller), same jumping through the fencepost thing:

You’re watching three flavors (flavours?); unique films with common ties. Not films that replicate the exact arc and structure of the ones that came before.

Others have argued in favor of visual symmetry. By far, the most extensive is the Star Wars Ring Theory. Have you read it? If you’re into this stuff at all, it’s absolutely fascinating. Mike Klimo unpacks every minute facet of the Star Wars prequels to prove they follow a “ring composition” form, a storytelling structure often used in ancient myths. The easily-explainable example Klimo uses is “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”- an idea that plays forward, hits a midpoint and follows through to the end by repeating everything you just read in reverse. Episodes I, II and III are the forward, and IV, V and VI are the reverse. The Phantom Menace concludes with a celebration among cutesy cartoon Gungans? Return of the Jedi concludes with a celebration among cutesy cartoon Ewoks. It’s like poetry, so that they rhyme.

Without the power to read minds (or at least the power to sit down with Lucas and ask), we can’t know for certain that he designed the prequels to be the starting rings of a centuries-old mythological framing device. Although I’d say that Klimo proves it about as well as anyone can. But if it’s true… are the Star Wars prequels better films because of it?

Taken in a three and a half minute dose, I’d say “no,” but I’ve never watched all six in sequence. Maybe that changes things.

I keep harping back to the same idea, that this kind of homage is a neat concept but ultimately hollow if done without purpose. At least, without a purpose beyond “now sequel number two looks like sequel number one.” Once you add context, however, it’s the coolest thing in existence. Here’s Quentin Tarantino’s own visual poetry highlight reel:

I know the exact purpose behind these snippets and stanzas. Tarantino’s a movie geek; that geekiness overflows and his films become a breathless string of hidden tributes to all the underground movies he loves. Ditto for The Simpsons and classic film (and also because a parody’s always funnier the closer it hews to the source material).

Courtesy of Actualidad Simpson

Courtesy of Actualidad Simpson

The motives (and the artistic merit) get muddy when the filmmaker you praise via the sincerest form of flattery is yourself. Last year, Christopher Campbell slotted Hollywood films into ten levels of originality/unoriginality. Where do these Lucas films lie? Would you count them under “Loose Remake?” (that’d be fourth from the top, with the top of the scale being “Most Original”). “Formulaic Sequel?” “Faithful Remake?” Those are closer to the bottom. Is Lucas more or less creative than Michael Haneke when he remade his own Funny Games?

My vote goes to “less creative,” for sure. But then, I’m probably biased.