Grab your intergalactic passport and join Michael O’Connor as he investigates the prequel trilogy worlds and environmental storytelling.
By Michael O’Connor // I can’t count the number of times I’ve daydreamed about the worlds of Star Wars. Imagine climbing the ruins of Yavin 4; snorkeling around Otah Gunga on Naboo; swinging from the treetops of Endor; or relaxing with an adult beverage on Bespin. These worlds continually capture our imaginations and immerse us in the escapist entertainment that is Star Wars. But that’s only the tip of the Hoth iceberg. These settings are far more than just a pretty background; rather, they have plenty to say. And like midichlorians, if you listen, you’ll hear them talking to you.
When you look at George Lucas’ filmography, even prior to his Star Wars films, you’ll notice a pattern. One of his signature talents as a filmmaker is his ability to make environment crucial to the filmgoing experience. If the location and setting aren’t the point of the story, they are at least reflective of–or commenting on–the story.
Let me give you a pre-Star Wars example. In THX-1138, we witness THX moving through a series of claustrophobic spaces. His work space, his small home, the booth where he expresses doubts and is instructed to buy more useless nicknacks; it’s like life in prison. But ironically when he is convicted of crimes, he’s thrown into an enormous white room that stretches as far as the eye can see. There are no borders, no division between floor, wall, and ceiling. It’s one of my favorite visual ideas in any film, this desert of white; a cunning sci-fi twist on the familiar imagery of solitary confinement. And it’s such a potent image because up to this point in the film we’ve been psychologically “cramped.”
When we experience the effect of this visual imagery, we don’t usually notice it consciously. Rather, we internalize our response, subconsciously connecting ourselves to the characters onscreen. Watching THX trapped in the white room provokes an empathetic response that further immerses us into the film. We are disturbed and agitated; THX’s pain and distress becomes our own.
And that’s really the advantage of using environment to spin a cinematic narrative. Moving images and their illusion of continuity are, by definition, the one thing that differentiates film from any other art form. Technically a film can exist without a script or actors but it can’t exist without this artful illusion. Great filmmakers don’t just think of the simplest way to tell a story; they use the language of film to provoke their audiences and imbue added meaning to every scene.
For George Lucas, the relationship between the environment and whatever theme, narrative or tone he’s attempting to invoke is as crucial–and sometimes more crucial–than expositional dialogue or an actor’s performance. Lucas is often judged on this account, but he’s clearly a filmmaker less interested in recording plays and performances than he is in embracing the purest form of cinema. Great films have images and scenes that stick with you; and I think it’s fair to say that Lucas’ films–love ’em or hate ’em–have a knack for loitering around our minds.
Environment as Metaphor
With the Star Wars films, George Lucas turned a corner as filmmaker in his use of cinematic language. The decision to cast an entire planet as not just a space for action to transpire, but as an idea and commentary on that action and the characters involved is one of the most creatively satisfying elements of Lucas’ six-film saga. And for my money, it’s a key difference between what Lucas brings to the table and where other filmmakers dabbling in sci-fi or space opera fall short.
In the original trilogy, Lucas was limited by terrestrial settings and sets that could double as alien worlds. But even so, he chose locations that served dual purposes. They had to be both “alien” in appearance to most audience-goers and also metaphorically relevant to the story.
The deserts of Tatooine, for instance, were the perfect space to evoke loneliness and restlessness. Similarly, the planet of Bespin is a literal dream turned into a nightmare, a utopian vision of perfection hiding a sinister heart at its center. And Endor is the naturalistic counterpoint to the Imperial’s militarized artificiality and an expression of nature’s inherent superiority over technology. I could go on and fill an entire article about the ideas presented with each of the worlds of the original films. But instead I want to cover the prequel trilogy worlds, because those films were really the culmination of Lucas’ efforts to use environment to convey emotion and meaning.
Mustafar: Go To Hell
Armed with an incredible crew of artists specializing in both the practical and computer generated realms, Lucas was able to capture worlds that had never been visualized outside comic books or the wordy descriptions of old pulp sci-fi novels. But that was only half the battle. Where he was truly innovative was in his meticulous tailoring of these environments to create whatever reality best reflected what occurred onscreen. While the original trilogy locations had to make broader thematic associations, the prequel trilogy worlds could speak to individual moments or to certain characters’ emotions before shifting settings to evoke something altogether different.
The most obvious example of planet-as-metaphor is probably Mustafar, a volcanic setting spewing fire and lava, volatile and unstable. It is an exact mirror of Anakin’s own emotions after he turns to the Dark Side. There is something removed and empty about Anakin as he murders the younglings and masters in the Jedi Temple, but by Mustafar the anguish and revulsion has caught up with him. Note his tears in the aftermath of murdering the Separatists leaders; as he looks out at the churning, heaving chaos of the planet before him, he is provoked to emotion. Wrapped tightly in his cloak, Anakin appears to shiver despite his fiery surroundings.
A scene or two later, he discovers Obi-Wan aboard Padme’s ship. His reaction is volcanic. “Liar!” he screams as he crushes Padme’s windpipe with the Force. He stops and simmers, like a volcano seeping lava, and then explodes again at Obi-Wan as he brandishes his weapon. The fight continues in this manner, in fits and starts like mini-eruptions and their aftershocks. Master and apprentice leap and swing, dodge and dangle across the treacherous landscape, fighting through a Hell that is both literal and figurative.
It all culminates in Anakin being at his lowest point while Obi-Wan reaches the high ground, again both literally AND figuratively. It’s a key example of how environment so emphatically informs and reflects theme, emotion and narrative.
Kamino: Mystery & Anxiety
Consider the planet Kamino and its moody clouded grey skies, roiling waves and constant downpour. Amidst a maze of conspiracies, secret armies and a missing planet, Lucas evokes a film noir mystery’s visual language. As in those films, dark skies and rainfall signify something sinister creeping behind the margins of normal, everyday life. Chaos and uncertainty is on the rise and the natural order has been disrupted.
Noir films use a combination of environment, dramatic lighting, and unconventional camera angles to evoke mood and subconscious unease. Lucas adopts some of these more dramatic techniques throughout Attack of the Clones. Murky grays greet Obi-Wan’s arrival on Kamino, mirroring our hero’s confusion and suspicion; and the incessant rain and turbulent seas foreshadow the turmoil that Kenobi’s investigations will instigate.
From a gray, soggy outside to a blindingly bright, dry inside, Obi-Wan’s journey into Tipoca City shifts the audience’s mood between two different gears of unease. There is something unexpectedly creepy and unsettling about Tipoca City, its interiors evoking a futuristic hospital. With its oversaturated artificial lighting and sterile rooms, the Kaminoan home is functional but clinical, eschewing human warmth or character; in other words, it’s the perfect home for an army of photocopied humans lacking in anything resembling humanity.
The juxtaposition of these Kamino locations against each other is especially effective at making us feel as Obi-Wan does: off-kilter, anxious, and mystified.
Naboo: Paradise Lost
From Kamino’s depressing, unsettling, and artificially sterile environment to Naboo’s sun drenched paradise, an audience might experience whiplash. Naboo is absurdly pretty, melding Old World architecture with a perfectly tended garden’s pristine natural beauty. There are no weeds on this planet, no seasons in which the flowers wilt and fall away. If there’s a Heaven in the Star Wars universe, when Padme Amidala reached it, she must have been disappointed; it can’t possibly measure up to Naboo.
The obvious association between the Naboo meadow scene in Attack of the Clones and the characters of Anakin and Padme is one of warmth, passion and frivolity. It’s a searing contrast with prior scenes of colorless Kaminoans, expressionless clones, and their antiseptic home. And like a page from a dime store romance novel, the scene evokes that most common visual representation of romance: a warm day spent outside with your partner isolated from the rest of the world, with natural beauty as far as the eye can see. But that obvious association aside, there are parallels between the meadow scenes, the scenes that suffix it, and the allegorical Garden of Eden.
In this case the snake and the apple temptation metaphors play out with Anakin in the role of the Id-like snake, trying to convince Padme to let go of her inhibitions and join him in a hidden, forbidden romance. There’s even a clever visual cue of Anakin using the Force to play with a piece of fruit, noting if Obi-Wan could see him now, he’d be, like the Old Testament God, “very grumpy.”
The undercurrent of potential tragedy contrasts with the preceding colorful scenes, and the environment adjusts accordingly. Padme had unrestricted freedom of space and movement outside, running through the meadow gaily; but as the scenes progress, the rooms get smaller, and Anakin gets closer. Darkness creeps in and heavy Noir-ish shadows immerse both characters.
At the risk of digressing into costume commentary, it’s worth noting even Padme’s change in wardrobe visually reflects the constricting, claustrophobic progression; in the meadow, she wears a loose flowing dress of gold accented by small bursts of color, like flowers illuminated in a sunbeam; but inside, she’s being squeezed by a black, leather outfit that subtly evokes Anakin’s future garb as Darth Vader; there’s even a black scarf wrapped around her neck like a noose, a chilling foreshadowing of her fate at Anakin’s (Force) grip.
Coruscant: Build Up to Tear Down
Speaking of foreshadowing tragedies, Lucas spends substantial effort building everything up only to tear it all down by trilogy’s end. And nowhere is this effect felt more dramatically than the planet Corsucant.
When we first visit Coruscant in The Phantom Menace, it’s a gleaming metropolis, shiny, silver and ornate. Like an exaggerated Manhattan comprised of endless Chrysler Buildings, Freedom Towers, and Empire State Buildings, there’s a sense of immense, exaggerated scale. Unlike Naboo’s more naturalistic beauty, Coruscant is a futuristic urban fantasy of unencumbered vertical progress.
The two buildings that best represent our experience of Coruscant are the Jedi Temple and the Galactic Senate. The Temple reaches to the heavens with a circular spire at its peak where the Jedi Council meets. From this vantage point, the Jedi look out over the world and by extension the galaxy. But they’re also looking down on it from up high. It’s a visual affirmation of Yoda’s assertion the Jedi have become “arrogant”; and so it makes their comeuppance by the Sith operating right beneath their haughty noses all the more fitting. Those who have reached the top, after all, have the farthest to fall, and when the Jedi Temple burns by the end of Revenge of the Sith, it evokes an Ozymandias-level reaction of irony and melancholy.
The Galactic Senate is similarly impressive the first time we see it in The Phantom Menace. An enormous beehive of activity, the chamber demonstrates both the spectacle of the Republic’s bureaucracy and its chaotic impracticality. Thousands of delegates fight for the attention of the Chancellor at the center spire, like tiny sperm trying to reach the unfertilized egg first. If that sexual metaphor seems unnecessarily vulgar, it shouldn’t. As we’ve seen in our own politics, sex and power often go hand-in-hand… or hand-in-something else. The point is this: our first exposure to the Senate affirms that power and prestige–rather than the needs of the people–reside at the heart of this government.
So it’s with significantly less regret that we witness Darth Sidious and Yoda rip the Senate apart. That battle between the two Masters truly couldn’t take place anywhere more appropriate or evocative. This last bastion of democracy, imperfect as it’s been, is on its way to the figurative scrapheap after Palpatine proclaims himself Emperor; how fitting it’s headed to the literal scrapheap too after Yoda and Palps tear it down.
The Worlds of ‘Wars’
If you were to watch the Star Wars films without sound, surely you’d be missing out. Why deny yourself the incredible SFX or powerful score, not to mention the occasional clever line of dialogue? And yet, you might be surprised. With only the arresting visuals to focus on, you’d notice the extent to which environments serve as commentary to actions. Viewing these films without auditory assistance would actually tell you everything you needed to know.
Far from being disposable backgrounds with no inherent value outside of diversion, the environments of George Lucas’ films not only drive home the messages and ideas of the story; they also successfully immerse us in the world (or worlds) of the narrative. And in the case of the prequels in particular, they rigorously pace along with the narrative. In doing so, they add multiple layers to scenes already rich with meaning.
The next time you travel to the Star Wars galaxy, slow down to take in the sights. Indulge your inner tourist. You’ll see all kinds of things you’ve never seen before.
About Power to the Prequels
Power to the Prequels is an ongoing column that aims to critique and analyze the Star Wars prequels and demonstrate their worth as individual films and also as components of a larger saga. The goal is neither to blindly praise these films nor condemn them. Rather, the aim is to specifically and respectfully consider the artistic decisions made by director George Lucas and draw conclusions that may differ from the mainstream consensus.
Power to the Prequels: The Prequel Trilogy Worlds of Star Wars