I have a confession to make, one not easy to admit to, especially on the internet, but here it goes: I like the Star Wars prequels…I mean I really like the Star Wars prequels. Right now I can only begin to imagine reader reactions; the spluttering of coffee, the slamming of keyboards in angered frustration or perhaps just an overwhelming pity for my clear lack of taste. Hating the prequels is almost a tacitly agreed internet consensus, a basic presupposition, with some displaying their hatred of the films with a frankly unhealthy level of vitriol. Before you send the lynch mob, however, hear me out. These films will always go down in cinema history as bitterly disappointing movies but I wish to argue these films are grotesquely underrated, victims of massive over-expectation and the tyranny of the majority (or at least at first glance; more on this later.) These films, I believe, are much more satisfying, ambitious and fulfilling than people give them credit for.
Let me begin with a few caveats however. Firstly, I’m not arguing that these films even come close to the original trilogy; the originals were as much a cultural phenomenon as they were good movies and surely, therefore, the prequels were always going to pale in comparison. Secondly, I concede further that the prequels are horribly flawed productions; the pacing is often dubious, the insistence on returning characters makes the universe smaller and more insular, there is an overuse of CGI, the characters are often too thinly written and Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have as much chemistry as two tins of baked beans standing in an unplugged microwave. Equally, if you have the time and desire to watch internet videos of old men spending hours selectively picking apart the films, more flaws and plot holes will become apparent (of course this is true of most popular films; the recent movie ‘Looper’ may be intelligent and gripping, but it’d take no more than twenty-minutes examination to demonstrate its internal logic is completely lacking.) Finally, although there are things which are often conceded even by prequel haters such as the lightsaber fights are better choreographed or the battle sequences look more spectacular, all products of the prequels being made decades after the originals, I wish to argue that the prequels redeem themselves in ways beyond the purely aesthetical. With these concessions in place, let’s begin.
The thing I love the most about the prequels is probably the very same thing that causes many of their flaws to become apparent; the prequel trilogy is telling a very ambitious story. Rather than the good guys vs bad guys of the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy is much greyer and more morally complex, more about the forces of good and evil themselves, and how these two forces are at battle not only in the individual but also within the established order. Further still the prequel trilogy is doing what few films dare, rather than showing the hero’s journey it is showing his fall; instead of showing an overwhelming evil beaten by a small but indestructible good, we are shown how the already established democratic republic is slowly corrupted and transformed into a tyrannical empire. The prequel trilogy plays out as something of an operatic tragedy both on a personal and galactic scale. The portrayal of these transformations in the prequels works to varying levels of success, but needless to say these are far weightier issues than the original movies ever had to contend with.
When people criticise the prequels for wooden dialogue and poor acting it’s easy to see that the quality isn’t vastly different from the original series which is hardly renowned for its tremendous acting performances or its exquisite dialogue (in fact the only time the franchise has come close to well flowing human dialogue is in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and even that had its fair share of clunkers; ‘laser brain’ case in point.) Instead it seems, given the issues that the prequels are dealing with (namely the transformation of someone essentially good who, through his suffering, through his love and through his fear of loss, ultimately ends up as someone evil), it required a more nuanced and human script, as well as better performances to make believable those deep internal transformations. So in many ways the prequels stumble not, as some suggest, because of lazy and uninspired scripts but because it is too ambitious for its own good; a much fairer critique that does far more justice to Lucas’ vision.
Equally for all its flaws the tragedy in the prequels ultimately ends up largely well handled. Anakin’s fall is a far more interesting story than what a lesser, more ‘Hollywood’, mind could have conjured as through out the trilogy Lucas laid increasingly significant reasons for why this hero may fall; the loss of his mother, his inability to conform to the Jedi way of life, his friendship to the corrupting Palpatine, his increasing suspicion of the Jedi Council, the duality of both his love and resentment for Obi Wan, his marriage to Padme and his fear of her death. Unfortunately the moment of his transformation, after saving Palpatine from Windu, is a little rushed and it was not good writing to have his first act after his baptism as Darth Vader be the slaughter of Jedi younglings, particularly given it was primarily his love of Padme, who would have been rightly horrified at his actions, that lead to this moment (though I’m sure in a few releases Lucas will correct this and make the youngling strike first!) However the groundwork is all there for the transformation and provided a much richer, though certainly not as well told, story than the original series.
The fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, on the other hand, is almost perfectly executed. Though many were dissatisfied with the focus on politics in Episode 1, I personally found these scenes thoroughly enjoyable because they were setting up the long game; it was satisfying watching how something as seemingly small as a trade dispute would be the trigger that would lay the groundwork for the rise of the Empire. Indeed Palpatine’s rise to power is probably my favourite aspect of the prequel trilogy, invoking the coming to power of roman emperors and indeed more recent dictators such as Hitler and Stalin. Ian McDiarmid is perfect as the calculating Palpatine, easily alternating from being fatherly to devil like. Through his political manoeuvring, not made explicit for most of the trilogy, he ends up doing what few cinema villains have ever done; winning. It is this scale of story telling, rarely emulated in even the largest of blockbusters, I find most compelling about the prequels; the ambition is virtually unparalleled in recent cinema.
Deeper still, though Lucas may not write the smoothest of dialogue, his broad strokes throughout the franchise demonstrate a much more intelligent core to the trilogy than is often acknowledged; namely his move from the clear moral divides of the original series to a much murkier morality in the prequels. This can be seen in many interesting ways, not least in the way that the corrupted Republic itself provides the matrix from which the Empire grows out of, or how it is the separatists, in the end, who have more in common with the rebel heroes of the original trilogy than the once democratic Republic. Perhaps most murky of all, however, is the portrayal of the Jedi. Whilst many may have written off the Jedi characters as one note and unlikable, in fact it seems Lucas is writing them as intentionally flawed. The flaws are manifest in a variety of ways but most prominently as arrogance, whether it be their refusal to believe in Episode 1 that the Sith could have returned without their knowledge or the certainly of the librarian in Episode 2 that the Jedi data records were infallible. Their treatment of Anakin is often cold and insensitive, perhaps contributing to his turn to the dark side; it would be interesting to ponder what would have happened had Anakin been free to confide in the council about his premonitions of his wife’s death.
Interestingly Yoda’s advice, namely that he must let go of everything he fears to lose, is not only unsatisfactory to the deeply human Skywalker, but is some what at odds with Luke’s actions in Episode 6 where he refuses to give up on his father, which ultimately lead to the death of the Emperor and his father’s redemption. I do wonder if this moral complexity associated with the Jedi stems out of Lucas’ views on religion; he has often made statements in interviews akin to religious pluralism, and whilst the force in the original series is vague enough to not get down to specifics, it’s possible that on writing the Jedi in the prequel trilogy he found they were a lot closer to the dogma of an organised religion than he had anticipated; just a thought. It would certainly explain why Qui-Gon, the least comfortable with the Jedi Council’s authority, was the first one to learn the path to immortality. In any event, the portrayal of this heroic religion as flawed, perhaps terminally so, is an interesting narrative move away from the old trilogies simplicity.
Equally critics rarely give attention to one of the finest attributes of all the Star Wars movies, its imagery. After the release of the very first Star Wars back in 1977 everyone was talking about the images of screen, particularly the opening shot of the small rebel ship followed by a huge Star Destroyer, which not only gave the audience a visual treat but also perfectly set up the story; a small group of rebels with just enough information to be dangerous followed by the vastly bigger and more lethal Empire. Then of course there was the first appearance of Vader, dressed in black, an image that seared itself into the minds of the audience and left no-one in doubt who the villain was.
The prequels have continued this trend of brilliant images which almost tell the story, in its broadest strokes of course, in themselves. There’s the innocent, peaceful and tranquil Naboo, soaked in romance, standing in the background as Anakin and Padme fall in love. There’s the stormy confusion of Kamino as Obi-Wan attempts to unravel the mystery of the clones. There’s the Hell-like depiction of Mustafar which serves as the place of Obi-Wan and Anakin’s climatic dual; a planet of chaos and anger, it perfectly reflects Anakin’s inner turmoil. The imagery used by Lucas throughout his series is as much a storytelling device as the dialogue and the actors, a fact so often overlooked, and it certainly is very powerful throughout the prequels.
The most interesting fact however, I think, is the way these movies are portrayed as universally hated not only by fans but by critics and general film goers. The truth, however, is slightly different. Of course no majority consensus on a film can truly do justice to the dynamic and varied reaction of a diverse audience, for example I’ve had friends who would swear blind that the Transformers movies are examples of good film making (needless to say they’re not my friends anymore), and my sister is a huge fan of the Twilight series (I’m working on getting her disowned.) Growing up as the prequels were released it certainly wasn’t just me who loved every minute of them, plenty of my school chums did as well. Deeper than this, though, is the flaw in the belief that the prequels were largely hated. One need only search Rotten Tomatoes to show that this simply never was the case; Episode 1, 2 and 3 received consensus ratings of 57%, 67% and 80% respectively.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Rotten Tomatoes is an infallible representation of critic’s opinions, clearly reaction to a movie can’t be reduced to a numerical value, however it gives a rough guide to the obvious truth; there was no universal hate towards these movies, by all accounts 80% is a really good score. Certainly they weren’t perceived as great movies, or even particularly good ones, but they weren’t scorned in the way so many truly bad movies released these days are. It seems it became fashionable to hate on the prequels until eventually we were all deceived into thinking that these movies really were awful (in support of this it’s interesting that critics were much harder on ‘The Phantom Menace’ this year when it was released in 3D, bringing down the average score of the film.) Ultimately I think there was a mixed reaction to the prequels at worst, far from the uniform hatred manifested on the internet.
So all things considered, the prequels really do deserve to leave a slightly better legacy than the one they will inevitably leave. They were flawed, yes, but they also were ambitious, with rich imagery and a much more adult morality. Furthermore they never were as hated as the internet may lead you to believe; so, if you’re a closet prequel lover like I was, don’t despair, there’s probably a lot more of us out there than you’d think.
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