It is commonly accepted wisdom among those who don’t like the Star Wars prequels that one of the chief reasons Episodes I, II and III failed is because they didn’t give the fans what they wanted. Sure, detractors often couched their sentiments in other descriptors – the prequels are “confusing,” they’re too dry, they got the tone all wrong – but generally speaking, a complaint that the prequels don’t “feel like Star Wars” is a statement that the original Star Wars trilogy pushed some buttons you enjoyed, and you would like more of that, please.
And, you know, that’s fair enough. I certainly enjoy the original trilogy more than the prequels, and I think “Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” each have their fair share of problems. However, to castigate the last three films of the Lucas era for their lack of fealty to the original product is to miss out on the films’ understated strengths.
George Lucas’s Star Wars films were always ambitious. Some of them were ambitious in their energy, while others were keen on showcasing new technology or underscoring their pulp origins with broader social-political meaning. It is on the last count where the prequels excel, and it’s a shame the films’ metanarrative is so often thrown out with the admitted bathwater of elements like wooden performances and a stilted screenplay.
(I should pause here to note that while I do have some story problems with the prequels – just see my Episode I piece – my primary issues are some very unnatural dialogue and some sullen and/or sedate acting by Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, both of which might have been fixed had Lucas allowed for a little more creative collaboration. The movies’ CGI, an often maligned feature, is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, save for a few unfortunate sequences in Episode III.)
The neatest trick the prequels pull is their narrative reversal of the original films. When “A New Hope” begins, the Empire is already entrenched. In case you were wondering which side to root for, not five minutes in a scary guy who looks like a robot chokes a man to death with one hand. The world in which our characters find themselves is stark and dirty and black and white. Their goals, ultimately, are simple: overthrow the Empire or crush the Rebellion. For the original films, all of this works; it lends their stories immediacy.
By comparison, consider the prequels. Rather than clearly elucidating the conflict or the motivations of its players, “The Phantom Menace” introduces the viewers to a seemingly unrelated conflict. The Trade Federation is seemingly incompetent, uncertain and, most importantly, unrelated to any kind of galactic conflict at large. However, the organization’s invasion of Naboo is a perfect smokescreen for Senator Palpatine to become chancellor without arousing suspicion.
The Star Wars prequels may not always be as exciting as the originals, but they remain interesting and, even with their flaws, watchable. Though some of Lucas’s political commentary is ham-fisted (“Nute Gunray”) or muddled (the scene of Sidious and Yoda battling in Senate is trying to say something, I’m just not sure what), much of it is well-observed. The movies’ opening act shows how those with a thirst for power can manipulate a seemingly small situation to their greater advantage, and throughout the films he spotlights the danger of both the black-and-white view and political pragmatism.
A Sith, Lucas argues, can use both to his advantage and others’ detriment. Just ask the Jedi Council, which grumpily refuses to change its rules about celibacy or age requirements but who agrees to enter a war on the Senate’s behalf and using soldiers who were manufactured for the purpose – reluctantly, to be sure, but all too quickly. In the end, government overreach is greeted with open arms as a weary public paints its support in terms of patriotism and a desire of security. You may disagree with Lucas on his political conclusions, but the parallels he paints are apt, and the films’ epic scope keeps the metaphors from becoming a tedious center for the stories.
However, political metaphor isn’t the prequels’ only strength. Lucas’s sense of homage is still strong, and his visual instincts mesh with Ben Burtt’s sound design for memorable tributes to the Ben Hur chariot sequence and gladiator movies of years past. I agree with many of the films’ detractors that a lack of practical effects hurt the prequels (just as they hurt “The Force Awakens,” which uses CGI much more than its marketing would care to admit), but the negative hue and cry by much of fandom drowns out the fact that computerized chicanery still managed to create some great moments, particularly in the much-maligned Episode II. Go back and tell me that the Kaminoans and Jango Fett’s sonic charges don’t look and sound cool.
I certainly don’t mean to say that the prequels don’t deserve your criticism. Of course they do; there’s a lot to legitimately criticize. I saw Episode I when I was 10, well after I’d already watched the originals a million times, and my relationship with the second trilogy has waxed and waned since then.
All I’m saying is that people shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are some great bits in the prequels – charismatic performances by Ewan McGregor, epic fights like the Duel of the Fates, fantastic music and new themes, and Lucas’s insistence that maybe this galaxy is more gray and complicated than we ever believed it to be. I’d still categorize Episode II as, all in all, a bad movie, and Episode III as not a good one, but all three films are ambitious, if flawed, work, which is why the rush to consign them to the cinematic junk heap in the wake of “The Force Awakens” is so onerous. I wish fandom wasn’t in such a rush to choose between a creator’s imperfect but unfiltered vision and a fun and nostalgic but ultimately empty facsimile of “real” Star Wars, but I can tell you which one I admire more.