I’ve never had a spot on the anti-Star Wars prequels bandwagon. When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I was 14 and a huge Star Wars fan. I was too young at the time to go to a midnight showing, so I had to wait all day to see the film that evening, and I could not sit still. By the time the 20th Century Fox fanfare started playing, I was in tears, and stayed that way through most of the film. I remember everyone in the theater enjoying it immensely, laughing and cheering throughout, and I saw it again two days later. Needless to say, I’m a Star Wars fanboy, and while my 28 viewings of the Star Wars saga films in the theater are not anything close to a record, it’s safe to say that I was in no way disappointed by the prequels.
With the announcement that Disney and Lucasfilm will be making (at minimum) Episodes VII-IX, many people have found themselves revisiting that last Star Wars films that were released, giving the internet new justification for one of its favorite pastimes: prequel bashing. Many of these have been presented as “Lessons J.J. Abrams Can Learn from the Prequels” containing a list of grievances against the film. IGN recently featured an article of this type, and I want to address some of its complaints. I’m going to do my best to set aside my fanboyism because I truly feel that Episodes I-III are great films, and have been unfairly maligned in the last 14 years.
I’ll concede some of the article’s points with very only very small objections. It’s very true that some of the acting is stiff and some of the dialogue is seriously awful. Anakin’s “I don’t like sand” speech in Attack of the Clones is the epitome of the trilogy’s failings in this area. Hayden Christensen is the worst offender, who seems to have no range of expression and very little in the way of acting ability. Natalie Portman, who in fact is a fantastic actress, doesn’t often come across much better. I will freely admit that casting and writing are areas where VII-IX can improve on I-III.
However, I will say that the style of the writing and acting are very much intentional on the part of George Lucas, even if the execution is lacking. The prequels, and Attack of the Clones in particular, are styled after a particular period of Hollywood classics, which is easy to see from the visuals, the production design and the costumes. It recalls historic epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire from 1964, which featured gorgeous design, thoughtful political discussions and generally passionless performances. When you see Lucas’s inspirations it’s easier to understand his stylistic choices, even if you may not agree with them (see also: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). It doesn’t excuse poorly written dialogue or bad acting, but it might help soften opinions a bit.
I’m not going to debate Jar Jar, because that’s been done to death. I understand that he rubs people the wrong way, and people’s reaction to him is much a matter of personal taste. I do think that the claims of racism have gone extremely overboard, however. I’ve never seen anything to lead me to believe that there’s a racist bone in Lucas’s body, and I think that the people who call the character itself racist are stretching racism to the breaking point. Jar Jar is actually another character inspired by early Hollywood (Lucas is a student of film history, filling his films with homages to everything from Ben-Hur to early Looney Toons), the oddball native. While there are certainly racist examples of that character type in Hollywood history, I don’t feel that Lucas’s alien can really be considered to be racist.
That aside, many people just can’t stand Jar Jar and think he’s the most annoying character ever created. That’s personal opinion and I can’t argue with that, but I sat next to people who laughed loudly at his hijinks in the theater who later became his most vocal critics, which I find hard to understand. All humor dulls as it’s repeated, and perhaps Jar Jar was just run into the ground for some people upon repeat viewings. He doesn’t bother me, even though I wouldn’t consider myself a fan, and my mother still says, “How rude,” in the same way as Jar Jar.
The argument that the prequels have no humor (point #2 on IGN’s list) is both an incorrect and a misguided one, however. There are some wickedly funny moments, including much of the first part of Attack of the Clones, including Anakin and Obi-Wan’s banter as they chase the assassin and Obi-Wan’s encounter with the “death sticks” salesperson. The search for humor in the prequels hints at my larger response that I’ll get into in a minute, but it boils down to the fact that the prequels are not intended to be a comparable story type to the original trilogy, so the humor is intended to be considerably less (and why some of it feels forced).
The statement (#4) that all the acting is wooden is also not true. Yes, Anakin certainly is and Padme can be at times, but largely the truth of that statement ends there. Ewan McGregor gives Obi-Wan more life and character than he was ever allowed in the original trilogy, taking the foundation expertly laid by the late Sir Alec Guinness and expanding and growing Obi-Wan into a rich character. IGN particularly complains about the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi instead of some kind of badass smuggler, which is an absurd statement to make because Lucas didn’t have a role for a badass smuggler. I’ll never agree to the contention that a writer should conform his stories to the wishes of the masses (see the bigger argument below), and Jackson’s performance as Mace Windu is fun and badass while still fitting in the role of the character. Mace Windu holding his unique purple lightsaber to Jango Fett’s throat and saying “This party’s over!” is something that only Samuel L. Jackson could pull off.
There’s not much to say about IGN’s third point complaining about the use of CGI instead of practical effects. CGI is the way visual effects are done these days, and that’s not likely to change. In fact, many effects were practical, particularly in The Phantom Menace, including C-3PO without his outer shell and the Yoda puppet. In fact, the Yoda puppet got so many complaints from fans that they switched to CGI for the sequels, and painted over the puppet with CGI for the Blu-ray release of Episode I.
That takes care of IGN points #2, 3, 4, and 8. Point #5 is just stupid. (Lucas keeps the use of the force consistent through the series, if he’d brought out tons of new force powers the fans would have complained that he was changing things too much. Dealing with fans is generally a lose-lose scenario.) I would love to write off the animosity and criticism as merely excessive hype and false expectations, and while both of those were contributing factors it’s an oversimplification of the issue.
The Phantom Menace did arrive with an unprecedented amount of hype, but also something more unique. Never before had there been an additional film in a series with that long of a break (16 years since Return of the Jedi and 22 years since Star Wars) between. The Star Wars trilogy was and is arguably the most popular film series of all time, basically created the modern film trilogy, and revolutionized Hollywood and fandom. These factors all contributed to the trilogy having a unique place in people’s opinions.
People felt a deep ownership of Star Wars. Between the books, toys, comics, cartoons and endless rewatching of the films, the fans feel a sense of entitlement where Star Wars is concerned. Many people would argue that that is only fair; they’re the ones who are responsible for the franchise’s success and therefore the filmmakers and George Lucas should be answerable to them. This attitude is one of my biggest pet peeves with regards to fandoms. I remember when the prequels were announced and people began speculating on what they might contain, and on many counts they were correct: Anakin’s turn to the dark side, huge Jedi battles, Palpatine’s rise to power, explanations on where the force comes from, etc.
The problem comes from a misunderstanding of the films they loved so much. If Lucas had given us more of the same, he would have been ripped apart for failing to innovate. Instead he gave us something very different and was trashed for it. IGN’s first point in their article complains about his inclusion of “boring” things like the taxation of trade routes. This plot point is actually brilliance on George Lucas’s part, intentionally undermining expectations. Most of what people had assumed about the backstory to Star Wars came from Obi-Wan’s description of the time. It included a pupil who turned to evil, a “clone war” and Vader hunting down and murdering the Jedi. The prequels are, of course, all about a pupil who turned to evil, but Lucas intentionally never shows the Clone War or Vader’s time as Palpatine’s henchman.
Instead, Lucas gives us a story of political maneuvering, of manipulated relationships, and of tangential action. He didn’t give us this under the impression it was what we wanted, but instead he presented it as the story he wanted to tell. Since we already knew the outcome, he chose to show us what we didn’t know and couldn’t predict. The idea that big things have small beginnings is nothing new, but to begin a seven billion dollar franchise’s story with the taxation of trade routes is a bold and fascinating choice. Dictators don’t come to power in democracies by standing in the square with a megaphone and shouting, “I’m now the Emperor!” Ian McDiarmid said, “My conclusion as the result of all that is not just that George is a good filmmaker and a great storyteller, but he is a pretty astute analyst of the politics of power.”
As Lucas, himself, describes it: “This idea of a democracy being given up and in many cases being given up in a time of crisis, you see it throughout history whether it’s Julius Caesar, or Napoleon, or Adolf Hitler, you see these democracies under a lot of pressure, in a crisis situation, who end up giving up a lot of the freedoms they have and a lot of the checks and balances to somebody with a strong authority to help get them through the crisis. It’s not the first time a politician has created a war to try to stay in office.”
I personally love the fact that instead of a new version of the monomyth adventure, Lucas chose instead to give us a tale of political power and corruption, and the complexity of the scheming involved in Palpatine’s rise to power. Padme’s line, “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause,” is one of the defining moments of the prequel trilogy. I read a quote (which I unfortunately can’t find) from Lucas saying that he had originally envisioned a more action-oriented rise to power for Palpatine, but as he aged and matured he realized that his first vision was unrealistic and changed the story to the one he filmed.
George Lucas gave the fans what they wanted (epic lightsaber duels, giant creatures, space battles) but they still felt like he hadn’t, because they story wasn’t what they expected or wanted to see. My response to that is: too damn bad. He is not obligated to tell the story that people want to hear, but instead to be true to the story he wants to tell. (See my article, Argo and Filmmaking Responsibility.) And, despite the outrage, people seem to have enjoyed it, based on the box office take, the toy sales, and the continued success of the Clone Wars animated series.
Lucas’s decision to tell that story also answers IGN’s complaint #7, which is ludicrous. IGN complains that the villains in Episodes I-III weren’t “badass” enough. The obvious response is that being badass doesn’t automatically make for a good villain, followed by the observation that both Darth Maul and General Grievous both fit the traditional definition of badass. IGN complains about the villains being “elderly English gentlemen” instead of 7-foot warriors. This strikes me as incredibly juvenile. Palpatine is the villain, both in this trilogy and the original, and the fact that he is both a political mastermind and a force-wielding powerhouse makes him all the more terrifying. Many of my favorite moments in the original trilogy were his scenes in Return of the Jedi, where his menacing presence was the true definition of evil. That Ian McDiarmid portrayed Palpatine in both trilogies makes it even more perfect.
The other side of the story coin belongs, of course, to Anakin, and is admittedly damaged somewhat by less-than-perfect execution, despite the best of intentions. The story itself is fascinating and every bit as interesting as promised, even if the characterizations leave something to be desired. This relates to argument 6 in IGN’s list, about the lack of heroes to root for and get invested in. However, they confuse the idea of a hero with the protagonist of the story. Anakin is the protagonist of the story (along with Obi-Wan), but he’s not always the hero.
Lucas sets the trilogy up to do something that is both daring and difficult. He has to make us root for the villains for two and a half movies. Anakin, Palpatine and the Clone Army start out as the heroes, fighting against rebellious corporations and federations trying to strongarm the political system. The entire Clone Wars TV series is based on this premise, with the Jedi and the Clones as the heroes. However, the whole time we know how this will end, and that the idealistic young boy/grown man we’re rooting for will one day do unspeakable evil (and eventually be redeemed). The fact that the supposedly flawless Jedi prove to be easily manipulated and deceived was horribly frustrating to some, but is fascinating and complex to me. The “problem” with the prequels is that in the end there are no heroes, and those that are closest to it don’t have happy endings. Padme dies heartbroken, Qui-Gon is murdered, Obi-Wan is forced to brutally disfigure his closest friend, Yoda is defeated and in the end the bad guys win. How often can you say that about a blockbuster film trilogy? Sauron doesn’t get the ring back at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
The prequels, as a result, are not escapist films, but are instead a political/social examination of power and its uses and misuses. It’s telling that the films’ best scene might be one containing nothing but dialogue, when Palpatine talks to Anakin about power, planting the seeds of his plot into the young man. Many hardcore fans of the original trilogy find the prequels “boring,” with too much dialogue and plot and not enough action and fun. What’s interesting is that many of the people I’ve talked to who did not grow up watching the movies, and saw all 6 films as an adult, actually prefer the prequels, finding them to be the more interesting story.
In the end, I’m not trying to say you (or anyone) has to like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith, because everyone has a right to like and dislike whatever they want. But I feel like the prequel trilogy has been unfairly maligned, with the real reason behind the attacks not being a genuine lack of quality but instead because the films weren’t what the attackers wanted. With that in mind, and with the prospect of new, upcoming films, I think now is the perfect time for people to revisit the prequels, particularly if it’s been some time since they were last watched. There’s a lot to admire in the prequels, despite some of their more obvious flaws, even if they’re not exactly your cup of tea.
I agree with IGN that J.J. Abrams, Disney and Lucasfilm could learn many lessons from the prequels, but using them as examples to follow, instead of an illustration of what not to do:
1) Be True to What’s Come Before
Many people would claim that this was exactly the problem with the prequels, that they weren’t true to what came before. I don’t mean that the new films should try to duplicate what we already have, but they should remain true to the spirit of Star Wars, and to the history that exists. Lucas took great pains to ensure that the prequels did not contradict what we’d been told in the original trilogy, so that someone could watch all six films in story order without encountering continuity problems. He kept an internal consistency to the universe and the characters. The rumored casting of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford go a long way in this regard, just as Lucas used McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels and Frank Oz in the prequels. John Williams should return to score the films, if at all possible (even though I think Michael Giacchino is brilliant).
2) Be Bold
Don’t be afraid to do something different. There will be people who will hate the movies no matter what the filmmakers do, just as there will be those who love them no matter what. I don’t think we have anything to fear from Abrams on this account, seeing as how he rewrote history for Star Trek (a decision I’m personally not a fan of, because it’s not what I wanted). I don’t have a list of things I need from a Star Wars film; it doesn’t have to have 2 lightsaber duels, 1 blaster shootout and a finale featuring a giant space battle. Some people might, but those things are secondary to what Star Wars truly is. Give us great characters, interesting stories and keep it fresh. History will eventually view these films as a 9 part whole, and making them feel different, as Lucas did with the prequels, will help the richness of the saga in the long run.
3) Follow George Lucas’s Vision
With Lucas selling Lucasfilm to Disney, there has been a lot of worry that his master plan for the saga will be ignored. Everyone claims that Lucas provided an “extensive story treatment” for the sequels, and it’s assumed that Lucas will be involved with the films in some capacity. There have been conflicting stories through the years about whether Lucas really knows what happens next, and he has even given different answers in interviews. Regardless, the Star Wars story is his story, and his tale is the one that should be told. I don’t have any problem with someone else telling his story (see The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) but they still have to stay true to it.
George Lucas said that, “If the first trilogy is social and political and talks about how society evolves, Star Wars is more about personal growth and self realization, and the third deals with moral and philosophical problems.” I hope the new films can follow up on that promise with as much success as the prequels.