AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in December, 2015 shortly before the theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The individual discussed, whom I refer to as “Karol” is my friend Paul Vollmer, whose opinions and statements I have shared on this blog before, albeit on a different subject.
This is not an argument that the Prequels are secretly good movies.
When it comes to Star Wars, I don’t think we know what constitutes a “good” movie. Star Wars is an omnipresent phenomenon wired into our social DNA, a wellspring of imagination and empowerment for generations. “Good vs. Bad” just doesn’t capture our universal adoration for the Originals and castigation of the Prequels.
I contend here only that in our all-or-nothing reception to media, we forget that a film does not have to be “good” to be valuable.
But what if the Prequels, with all of their flaws, can evoke that unabashed love for all of the same things?
As it turns out, my best friend – we will call him Karol – is an avid, shamelessly stubborn champion of the Prequels. They are, to him, as much a wonderful and worthy part of the Star Wars majesty as the Originals. Despite his unwillingness to publish himself, Karol is an astute and articulate critic in a league of his own, but he gets no shortage of flak for this position, the harshest of which in the past probably came from me.
So I’m going to make Karol’s case to you. Then I’m going to tell you why he’s wrong, and then why he’s right.
Karol does not dispute the plain complaints about the harebrained dialogue, Hayden Christensen (and Jake Lloyd)’s horrific performance, or the relentless irritation of Jar Jar Binks (though Jar Jar was a breakthrough for integrating CGI characters with live-action actors; you may prefer puppets for Yoda and E.T. but that technology also brought us Gollum, King Kong, Davy Jones, and Rocket Raccoon).
It’s the big stuff that’s worth discussing. Star Wars is and has always been more visceral than cerebral. It is unparalleled in its ability to inspire awe, even (especially) at its most bombastically over-the-top display of bravado. That display allowed the Originals to get away with their original lack of originality, and it’s baked into the Prequels too. Their look, sound, and atmosphere of a bustling advanced society are every bit as Star Wars as the isolated space frontier of the Originals.
In fact, that bustling urban sprawl was something the Originals didn’t have enough of. The best taste of it you got was Bespin’s Cloud City. We’ve seen dystopian civilizations in Blade Runner, Metropolis, and Verhoeven’s work, but those are critiques of their kind. The Prequels have a wonderment to their worlds – the Star Wars kind.
But beyond that, the Prequels bring to the surface and then invert the mythological elements of the Originals. The Originals are about the journey to heroism. The Prequels are about the fall of a hero, and with it a civilization. They are dualistic narratives; each relies at least somewhat on the other for clarity and effect, creating a tangible coherence.
Karol might say that the real order of Star Wars is 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, and then 4, 5, & 6 again. You need the Originals first for that raw allure, but the Prequels aim to mature them, namely in the character complexity of Anakin Skywalker. He is a starry-eyed, thrill-seeking dreamer with promise and potential, but displaced in time and without a father.
Anakin struggles with love, family, loyalty, knighthood, politics, war, and the demands of the Jedi Order in a complex galaxy. He has the same black/white view of good and evil he passed to his son, but no clear foe to focus his energies against, and his views (even his view of love) often clash with reality. He is told that the dark side is evil but the dark side is a phantom menace. And he hadn’t been a blank enough slate for the Jedi to mold into the best of their own, yet he also spends too much time with them. You’d think that was a luxury.
Consider his obsession with fixing things. Machines make it easy for him; tighten some screws, do some reprogramming, and all’s well. The realities of civilizations and the mortality of man are beyond him. His desire for power is to control that which he cannot to save those he cannot. And he grapples with the guilt of his failure.
All that and more fuel a thumos in his heart, that burning rage of indignity accompanying a desire to be recognized as someone struck by lightning. It drives him to frenzy against the Sand People and the Jedi. They keep him from his mother, even when he senses her danger. They forbid his love for Padme and demand that he detach himself from those he fears to lose, to censor his natural emotions. Anakin can do the impossible but he cannot do that. This may all be worth it if they can help him find peace, but they cannot. Their advice is cold and they hold him back at every turn, rewarding him with empty gestures like placement on the Counsel without the conveyance of master status, while making increasingly immoral demands of him. He even gets annoyed when his Padawan-hood comes up in conversation.
So of course he turns to a lifelong friend, mentor, and father figure, someone who has meanwhile maneuvered the political scene like a cross between Julius Caesar and Francis Urquhart. Palpatine has been manipulating planetary factions to war, secretly engineering the armies to fight it, accumulating emergency executive power, and stretching the remaining resources of the Republic too far and too thin for its continuation. Count Dooku lies to Obi-Wan by telling him the horrible truth. If the Prequels allegorize the Weimar Republic’s fall and Adolf Hitler’s rise, Anakin Skywalker personifies the quintessential Hitler Youth.
This then puts into context the struggle that Luke Skywalker goes through in the Originals. Luke benefited from not having what Anakin had – the lack of formal training – and by having one thing Anakin never had – the immediate presence of a real enemy. His conflicts did not come from his past, and circumstance was a secret friend to him, making his actions and accomplishments (1) his own, and (2) all the more impressive. He was the real hero of the story, as opposed to the impossible and fantastical hero the Jedi falsely prophesize Anakin to be.
To Karol, you cannot truly isolate the narratives of either Star Wars trilogy. He faults those who do with not only overlooking the shared problems in the Originals (a blindsiding love triangle, bad acting, bad dialogue, timing holes, and the stocky nature of every single character from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Jabba the Hut), but for hyping the Prequels to a level that no film, no matter how good, could ever reach, and then turning on them with a vengeance when they proved mortal, just like the Originals are too. Karol sees beauty and loves them anyway.
And yet, despite their teeming with all of that and more, the Prequels still cannot be defended on their movie merits. Yes, you can’t just fall back on the purity of the Originals because an objective look will confirm how right Karol is about them having so many of the same exact flaws the Prequels take the heat for. Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Clerks, and others have all extracted and beaten them to death. But something is still amiss.
Let’s indulge Karol for one more moment and consider the following image from the Originals.
Mark Hamill was one of the most perfect casting decisions the Originals had. Yet this is one of the worst performances perhaps ever, reciting awful and repetitive dialogue right at the apex of the Originals. It is embarrassing and indefensibly bad.
How does it not neuter the gravity of Darth Vader’s anvil-drop?
How does it not reduce one of the most “WHOA!” moments in the history of cinema to a parody of itself?
Why is it so utterly impossible to care?
The Prequels are complex, but they still overcomplicate things; not just the story, but the methods of narration. The Prequels are about layering. They pass time leisurely, but they are flabby and static. The Originals moved with urgency, even at their most segmented stages. The locations were as trite as the characters, but their purpose is so palpable they didn’t need to be all that well acted, not even in the romance. The murkiest the Originals ever got was at Jabba’s palace, but they transitioned better. When things slowed down, their focus sharpened. Such is not the case with the Prequels.
The action is another problem. Sometimes it’s awesome, but mostly it is unclear, unfocused, and uninvolving. They have never settled on a tone. The rules of Jedi combat shift for no reason. The four simultaneous battles on Naboo bounce about with no cohesion, save for the score. After Darth Maul kills Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan looks like he’s about turn savage, but instead they just continue the happy saber dance. Count Dooku fights Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Yoda like he’s stalling, which makes no sense. The Geonosis battle makes even less sense; the Jedi intentionally let the battle droids surround them in an arena. Revenge of the Sith gets the action mostly right, though at no point is it ever clear why Yoda feels like he just has to give up and go into exile.
You get the point. The Prequels can’t square even their simplest moving parts and get from A to B. The flaws may be similar, but the theme of each trilogy makes them negligible in one and crippling in the other. The Originals had a basic narration function that powered the engine of their genius. The Prequels make you work to see theirs; and even then, all you do is see it. It doesn’t boil in your bones; you don’t connect with its magic the way you’re supposed to.
But part of the problem is also us, the audience. Star Wars cemented geeks and fanboys as a new moneyed niche for the Hollywood blockbuster and kept an entire generation from growing up. They felt like a calling, even to those who didn’t stand in line to witness the Originals in theaters. We wanted the Prequels to do it again for us. Not only was that not possible, it wasn’t what they were about to begin with.
For the Prequels do not tell the classical hero’s story. They document an ironic human and political tragedy.
And that’s what makes them still valuable – the irony of it all. Not in the “turn your brain off and wink yourself into fandom” way; you need your brain at full capacity to appreciate what’s going on here. The irony isn’t just part of the story. It is the story.
Only one major film in history has a narrative bearing resemblance to the Prequels. That movie is Citizen Kane.
Mr. Plinkett brought that up here to contrast cinematic language. His criticisms there are excellent but he misses how deliberate that was. Plinkett suggests redeeming the Prequels by making Anakin into Forrest Gump (a cute, simple man admirably bumbling his way through life as events that “Start the Fire” and shatter the innocence of his generation pass by). That might be interesting in a remake, but the Kane comparison and folly of the Chosen One Prophecy are essential to what little function the Prequels actually have.
Anakin Skywalker, like Charles Foster Kane, is removed from a terrible childhood environment at an age where he is young enough to start life over but old enough to have a piece of his soul that forever belongs there. A reckless idealist in his youth with enough talents to be dangerous, he strives for power that can effectuate meaningful change and keep those that he cares for safe and present. It drives him to greatness but it also consumes him. In the end, Anakin, like Kane, is so alien and unrecognizable even to those who loved and believed in him the most that they become unreliable narrators about it.
Tragic in both cases, of course, but there’s one essential difference. Kane built his island and empire himself to fill a vacuum in his life. His attitudes kept him always out of reach from his goal of happiness. Anakin is subjected to nearly all of the turmoil in his life by the Jedi Order as part of a nebulous prophecy and grand design they have for him.
It fails miserably, and that’s the point. The Prequels critique the institution of established religion, and the platitudinous use of destiny in modern storytelling.
The Originals exercised modern mythmaking. They appropriated the style of the oral tradition. They worked so well in large part because Darth Vader, intriguing and vulnerable as he is, convinced so effortlessly as the face of indisputable evil. The second shot of Vader was that of him hoisting a helpless rebel in the air by the neck with one arm like a bully shoving a boy into a locker. He then pointlessly interrogated him, crushed his windpipe, and tossed him aside like a slab of meat. The intent was clear; Vader was darkness in the incarnate form of the Goliath.
By contrast, the Prequels, with the use of that prophecy, present a futile exercise in artificial mythmaking. The Virgin-Mary story behind Anakin’s birth is so apparently compelling that the Jedi Order (eventually) ignores its better judgment and welcomes him in, no matter how clear the warning signs are. So determined are they to mold this vulnerable being into the great savior some legend somewhere foretold, the Jedi bestow upon him the weight of worlds, and without even keeping an eye on him. Yet they condescend to him all the same.
Lest you think this is just more careless storytelling, consider how equally negligently the Jedi act in politics. Imagine a Supreme Court justice micromanaging the front lines at the Battle of Verdun. You’d have to wonder how the hell he got there to begin with. Like sheep to their own slaughter, they play straight into Palpatine’s hands, starting the Clone Wars without once questioning its purpose. They just assume that the Separatists must be stopped because a Sith Lord leads them, and they go along with that, turning a blind eye to the demolition of republican principles at home, as well as the one behind it all.
The Jedi are so conceited, devoid of memory, politically compromised, and out of touch with the needs of their own members that they can neither identify the problem nor help the person they think is the solution.
Anakin Skywalker is the victim to this great irony. So many characteristics of heroism came as naturally to him as breathing. Yet instead of becoming the heroic legend the Jedi deluded themselves into believing was his “destiny,” he becomes the instrument of their downfall and slave to the tyrant that set it all in motion to begin with.
Now, I understand that George Lucas didn’t help his own case here, given the ineptly staged filmmaking and subsequent interviews explaining how made the Prequels to correct the poster-boy image of one-dimensional villainy that Darth Vader had become. It is technically true that Anakin never stopped being the Chosen One, even when he was Vader. But just because he’s the Chosen One doesn’t mean he has to be the hero we cheer for.
Ultimately that was the central conceit of Star Wars to begin with – uplifting us all with folkloric, heroic virtue in a shared cultural language. You can talk about the flaws of each film until you’re blue in the face, but these aren’t just films with flaws, are they? It has been ten years since Revenge of the Sith and sixteen since The Phantom Menace, yet Star Wars is primed to dominate the world once again.
Whether it turns out to be “good” is, as I said at the start of this, beside the point, and it’s the same reason why I won’t be reviewing it. But the Prequels, though undeniably marred bloody by their own misshapen and malfunctioning engines, have been just as much a part of this unique and fascinating conversation as the Originals, even if we didn’t appreciate that at the time.
But Karol did. And the only difference between you and him is that for all his faults, he had the courage, when few others did, to boldly state what we all should by now hold to be a universal, cheerful truth about the Prequels…
It wouldn’t be Star Wars without them.