In Defense of the Prequel Trilogy
This year, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is celebrating its 20th Anniversary so I wanted to talk a little about The Prequel Trilogy. Prior to The Last Jedi, these were the most divisive movies in the Star Wars line up. Most Star Wars fans either love them or hate them. For the ones that hate them, I understand why. My feelings on them have evolved through time. In the beginning, I loved each one, but as I look back on that time, I think I just wanted to love them because they were Star Wars. As I got older and my experiences and philosophies have changed, I also grew to hate them with every fiber of my being. Then I began to take my storytelling as an aspiring filmmaker more seriously, and as I wouldn’t want to have my work dismissed without really seeing what I was trying to do, I also had to re-look at the Prequels in a different way… from another point of view.
It’s in looking at these films from this different point of view that I found the merit in them. Say what you will about the execution of the films, at their core, they are really quite a genius move by George Lucas. You have to look past the surface layer and dig deep to see where these movies shine in their place in the Skywalker Saga and the Star Wars Universe as a whole. Once you peel back these layers of CG and “questionable” dialogue choice… you can see just what George was trying to accomplish and how what a lot of fans are hating about the sequel trilogy has roots in the Prequels and George’s vision for his playground.
Sure, it’s easy to dismiss the prequels because of the overuse of CGI and the very “cartoony” look of them, but then you would be remiss of all the nuance involved in the story. George could have easily made more money and incurred less ire from the fanbase if he chose to “recreate” the magic of the Original Trilogy (OT). That would have been the safe bet. Anakin would have been just like Luke. We would have seen the same kind of heroics and, instead of Anakin winning the day, at the end of the trilogy, like Luke, we would see some sort of great fall from grace. Instead we got a political story in a far grander scope. I imagine, most audiences weren’t expecting that. As a creator, for George to not remake the Original Trilogy was a bold, if not obvious choice.
Artists rarely want to repeat past work. Most prefer to change, evolve and take risks. Art is an expression, not a product. This is where the lines are blurred for most movie-going audiences. Some feel like movies should be more about what “they” want and what “they” want to see up on the screen. After all, they paid to watch. Like a pair of shoes or some carrots, people who buy a product shoud expect the product to be what they wanted. The problem is, art isn’t quite as black and white.
I suffer from that same inability to separate. I am a fan of another fandom and lately I have seen the current interpretations less than spectacular. I have voiced my own negative feelings towards them and while I feel justified in my opinions, I sometimes have to sit back and really look at my expectations vs the reality of the situation. I’ve come to the conclusion that these movies simply aren’t what I would like to have seen, and I can only hope one day someone is able to put up on screen something closer to the version I would like.
It’s in that realization that we should also apply to Star Wars. It may not be what you wanted to see, but it doesn’t mean that the universe is dead. If you immediately dismiss something for not being the vision in your head, you will miss out on the possibility of other great stories that maybe you didn’t realize you would also enjoy.
The Prequels are like that. Once I shed the notion that they didn’t conform to the story in my head, I began to see the beauty of the movies and how they expanded the Star Wars Universe in ways that are still being explored today in all forms of media.
So what is it about these movies that make them good? It’s that they were NOT the Original Trilogy. It’s that it wasn’t the same journey with a “twist” that we saw in the previous films. We were able to see a galaxy at odds with its identity. We saw a legendary group of warriors get so complacent in their ways that they were blinded by the very things within their dogma that caused their downfall. We saw someone who manipulated fears into something he could use to gain power and we saw how our hero was able to be seduced by being fed solutions to his fears. It’s almost prophetic… quite something to think about considering the emphasis on Anakin being the “Chosen One” in a legendary prophecy which was followed so willingly and blindly. This was very different from the Original Trilogy. These movies expanded our knowledge of the universe. We saw that everything wasn’t simply good vs evil. There were clearly horrible traits in the “good guys”. They were blind. They were closed minded. They refused to evolve and they were easily manipulated.
The OT had a scary “boogieman” as it’s antagonist, but, in the Prequels, we were given a truly evil genius. Palpatine was a master manipulator. He gave our hero his motivations without admitting his motivations. He out maneuvered everyone and gave us a true force to reckon with... something that has spilled onto the animated series, games and novels. Palpatine’s legacy can still be felt in the Sequel Trilogy as well. The Skywalkers were torn apart by this Grand Master Sith Lord, which we still see the effects of in the new movies. This makes Palpatine one of the greatest villains ever.
The Prequels also gave a deeper look into the galaxy as a whole. Before the Empire, it was ripe for takeover. The Senate was bogged down in political infighting which cause inaction. The Jedi may have been peacekeepers at some time, but were merely glorified negotiators. They wouldn’t even step in to right injustices they were privy to like slavery. Yet they were somehow coerced into becoming leaders of an army.
We were given the history of the Star Wars Universe. I think what may have caused fans to turn away was that it wasn’t the romanticized history we all wanted to see. We wanted to see the Jedi as legendary heroes. We wanted to see Obi-wan and Anakin as grand warriors. We wanted to see the epic battles of the Clone Wars. What we got was all of that, but in a more realistic manner. What set Star Wars aside from other science fiction at the time is that he delivered a lived in universe, not a sterile pristine galaxy where everything was shiny and new. It was down and dirty. The Prequels were no different. He gave us a galaxy that had flaws, and its in those flaws that the story of the Original Trilogy was born out of. Of course the Jedi and republic were weak. Of course Anakin was flawed and awkward. Of course his romance with Padme was built on almost nothing but misguided passion. Because we got the Original Trilogy, how else would the Jedi have been all but extinct? How else would Vader have risen if not for flawed teachers? How else would a republic fall?
I do have my issues with the Prequels. Those lie mostly in the execution of the ideas George had. I do wish that, like the Original Trilogy, he relinquished the direction to others and collaborate more with other writers. He has a vision and he is a true visionary, but he also seems to be concerned more in the ideas than the minutiae of acting and scripts. That aside, storytelling is where the strength is. Look at what he gave the universe vs what you think the story should have been. His story ties more than seeing a glorified version we all dreamed of. We expected a glory filled look into the romance of war. He gave us the lived in version instead.
If you are one of the many who don't like the Prequels, I suggest you review them with these observations in mind. Yes, there will be specific parts you may still not like, or characters you don't care for, but look past that to how much good they gave us, maybe you too will see the value in them. Oh, extra credit activity for you. Watch Episode ! and II then The Clone Wars animated series, and then finish with Episode III and soak in the stories and characters. You may find viewing the WHOLE story quite something. May the force be with you... always.