Retrospective: The Star Wars Prequels – A Defense

“I don’t want things to change.”

“But you can’t stop the change, not anymore than you can stop the suns from setting.”

In the history of cinema, there has been no series of films that has matched the power of Star Wars. Begun in 1977, George Lucas’ space fantasy made a lasting impact on not only the popular culture, but also on the way in which films are made. Lucas took influences from an abundance of sources, from Joseph Campbell, Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa and many others, and created a vision that was uniquely his own. It is perhaps the most widely beloved cinematic series in history, and with the forthcoming release this December of the seventh film, The Force Awakens, anticipation has almost never been higher.

That “almost” is in reference to 1999, when Star Wars made its last cinematic comeback after a sixteen year absence from theaters. The dawn of Lucas’ long awaited prequel trilogy was rife with breathless excitement, which quickly fizzled into disappointment and even hate once the films were finally released. Suffice to say, what George Lucas delivered in his prequel trilogy was not aligned with fan expectations. The conventional wisdom a decade on is that the prequels are best ignored, seen as failed stories that tampered with fans’ childhood dreams.

Pardon me then if I take a reverse Marc Anthony, for I come to praise the Star Wars prequels, not to bury them. Indeed, there has been plenty of vocal commentary advocating the latter. Of course, I should preface by conceding that the prequels are in no way perfect, each burdened with various problems which I will gladly discuss. However, I do not view these flaws to be as fatal as many detractors would attest. The original trilogy of A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi will always be superior. However, look with an open mind at The Phantom MenaceAttack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, and an abundance of treasures will reveal themselves. Though there are blemishes aplenty, the Star Wars prequels expand upon and enrich a modern cinematic mythology.

The core strength of the prequels lies in their overarching narrative, and how that story informs the original trilogy. Keep in mind, George Lucas envisioned one story spread out over a series of chapters, much like the swashbuckling Saturday morning serials he grew up watching. The first Star Wars film is very much of that mold, but once the original trilogy reaches its final act, it’s no longer a basic tale of a young man out to save the galaxy. By Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker is determined to redeem his father, who happens to be the very man he is saving the galaxy from. That transformation of narrative from simplicity to complexity is what makes Lucas a brilliant storyteller.

Now, there is one vital critique to mention before going any further: George Lucas has never been a strong writer of dialogue. He has showcased some decent back and forth witticisms, but dialogue in most scenes of the prequels is perfunctory at best. Even Lucas’ dialogue in A New Hope doesn’t inspire awe, but that film had so many other novel elements that could distract from any perceived weaknesses in writing. In retrospect, it would have been a great boost to have a screenwriter such as Lawrence Kasdan to polish the prequels, much like Lucas recruited him for Empire and Jedi. Alas, the dialogue remains the most uniformly bland element of these films, and was a major deal breaker for many fans. However, the argument could also be made that dialogue is the least important weapon in this particular director’s arsenal. George Lucas is above all a visual storyteller, and he relies on imagery to convey the narrative.

So, if Lucas is expanding upon his original trilogy and is intent on utilizing a visual vocabulary to convey that story, then what story is he telling? Long before The Phantom Menace was released in May of 1999, Lucas made it very clear what the broad strokes of the prequels would entail. This new trilogy was to focus on Anakin Skywalker, how he met his master Obi-Wan Kenobi, his subsequent marriage and involvement in the legendary Clone Wars, and most vitally, how he fell from grace to become Darth Vader. With all of those major narrative beats in place, there would be no mystery as to what would happen, but rather how and why. The reason the prequels are essential to the narrative scope of the saga comes down to their investigation of the following question: Why does a good person become evil?

The answer that Lucas provides is not an easy one, and it’s a far more ambitious and layered story than that of the original trilogy, one that makes the prequels ripe for exploration. When Anakin Skywalker is introduced in The Phantom Menace, he is a sharp, inquisitive nine year old boy, a far cry from the tyrant who would destroy the lives of millions in just a couple short decades. This was one of the fundamental disagreements many fans had with The Phantom Menace. Few were interested in seeing Darth Vader as an innocent child, especially one who scarcely had a shade of darkness or edge to him. However, this is precisely what makes his descent so fascinating. If Anakin is dark from the start, then there is no drama to his arc as a character. Further, there were critiques flung at Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of Anakin, and while I won’t argue that it’s one of the great child actor performances, I don’t find it to be by any means awful. Lloyd’s mannerisms are pretty much in line with how most kids of that age behave, ultimately neither a highlight nor a detriment to The Phantom Menace.

At under a decade of age, Anakin may not yet have an understanding of the galaxy, but he has developed some talents and has one vital emotional connection in his life: his mother. When a group of strangers led by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn suddenly show up, he is more than willing to help them in any way he can. This is the core attribute to Anakin that ironically leads to his own downfall: selflessness. He cares deeply for those that matter most to him, but in years to come, Anakin will be manipulated, succumbing to fear and greed. That manipulation comes from multiple sources, both direct and indirect.

The first beats of Anakin’s journey commence after his thrilling pod race victory, when he learns he has unwittingly won his own freedom. For Anakin, it’s a bittersweet ramification. To become a Jedi has always been his highest ambition, but the price of following through on that dream is leaving behind his mother, his only source of emotional stability. Anakin’s separation from her sets up the inner conflict that will plague him for the remainder of the trilogy: his inability to let go of those who he loves most. He does have a potential father figure at his side in Qui-Gon, who stands up for him when the Jedi Council initially denies his entry into the Order. However, when Qui-Gon is killed at the hands of Darth Maul, Anakin is once again robbed of a reliable paternal influence. He is thus inherited by Jinn’s apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who, despite his own reservations, willfully takes on training the boy at the behest of his former master. By the end of The Phantom Menace, Anakin is on his way to becoming a Jedi, but the two people who had full confidence in him are now gone. The only other source of emotional comfort to him is young Queen Padme Amidala, who he won’t see for another decade.

Ten years on in Attack of the Clones, Anakin has grown into a highly talented but equally stubborn Jedi apprentice. His relationship with Obi-Wan is solid, yet it also is not without conflict. It is important to note that while Anakin claims Kenobi as the closest thing he has to a father, their connection is actual closer to being fraternal, which is a different kind of influence, one more prone to friction. Skywalker knows he has high potential, and is therefore frustrated by his master’s attempts to keep him grounded. So now, the test for Anakin is how he reacts when he is entrusted with his first solo mission, in which he must protect Padme, a woman he now has genuine feelings for. As a Jedi, he is forbidden to have attachments, since that would threaten to compromise his emotional stability while on assignment. Anakin clearly has a knack for bending the rules, and seeing Padme for the first time in ten years throws him into emotional turmoil. Compounded upon this are his recent nightmares in which he sees his mother in terrible pain.

This brings me to my second acknowledgement of a flaw in the prequels, especially specific to Clones: the execution of the romantic subplot is mostly lackluster. Part of this stems from the aforementioned dialogue coming from Lucas, as well as the inconsistent chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. However, it’s also illuminating to keep in mind what Lucas envisioned for this romance and how it differs from our contemporary definition of it. Lucas conceived of Anakin and Padme’s romance to be in the tradition of sweeping epics of Old Hollywood. Since the original Star Wars is reflective of filmmaking in 1970’s, then Lucas wanted to emulate romances of the 1950’s. Indeed, in a different era, one could see Anakin being played by James Dean and Padme played by Audrey Hepburn. That ambition is present, but Lucas’ indifference towards dialogue and giving good direction to his leads led to an important piece of his saga having an undercooked impact. Conceptually, Anakin and Padme falling in love still makes sense for the narrative. Both of them are still quite young and have both taken on careers that keep them from having healthy social lives. Anakin especially responds to Padme because she is one of the few people who has known him since childhood, but his attempts to woo her are flat and awkward.

It is at the midway point of Clones where Anakin reaches his true fork in the road. Increasingly haunted by visions of his mother in agony, he decides to return to Tatooine and find her. The question is whether this act is selfless or selfish. On the one hand, saving his mother’s life is unquestionably the right thing to do, but he is also directly abandoning his mandate to protect Padme. When he discovers that she was kidnapped by tusken raiders, he stands on the precipice of starting down the dark path. Anakin stands outside the homestead where his son will later gaze at the setting suns in hopes of a brighter future, but instead, he rides off in the opposite direction and into the night. In the end, his search for his mother only ends in tragedy as he finds her in her final dying moments. Consumed by sorrow and rage, Anakin snaps and slaughters the entire village of tusken raiders. Now with his mother truly gone, he only has Padme to genuinely care for as they both commit vows of marriage at the film’s end. As Anakin braces for a long intergalactic war, he has already begun to lose his humanity. For his rash and impulsive decisions and cold blooded murders, he symbolically pays by losing his right forearm in battle with Sith lord Count Dooku.

As the Clone Wars come to a close in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s Jedi abilities are reaching their peak. Along with Obi-Wan, he rescues Chancellor Palpatine from the Separatists and kills Count Dooku, an inverse mirror of the battle that Vader will have with Luke before the Emperor in Jedi. For all of his skills, Anakin’s personal failing become increasingly magnified. Padme’s news of pregnancy is an overwhelmingly happy development, yet it is tinged with fear and uncertainty when he begins having visions of her death. Determined not to lose her like he did his mother, he seeks any avenue possible to keep her from dying. He turns to Chancellor Palpatine, who fills the void of mentor that Obi-Wan never quite could, and promises him power beyond that of the Jedi. At the same time, the Jedi Council needs Anakin to spy on Palpatine as they grow suspicious of the Chancellor’s political intentions. Both sides manipulate and further isolate Anakin, coming to a head when Palpatine reveals himself to be Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord in disguise. Jedi master Mace Windu attempts to arrest Palpatine, but following a duel in which Windu gains the upper hand, Anakin is forced into making a decision that not only changes his own fate, but that of the entire galaxy.

Of course, you know the rest. With Anakin’s help, Sidious kills Windu, and Skywalker becomes his Sith apprentice, Darth Vader. The two Sith commence a purge of the Jedi Order that had been planned for centuries, and thus, the Clone Wars come to a brutal close. Anakin pays dearly for transgressions by losing a highly emotional duel against Obi-Wan and burning near the shores of a river of lava, doomed to be encased in a macabre suit. The irony is that Anakin’s desire for the power to save Padme’s life becomes futile. His own greed and self deception results in her death, and in the painful fracturing of his friendship with Obi-Wan. Thus, in his despair, Anakin buries his former self deep down, embracing the persona of Vader, a man who rules the galaxy and yet has lost everything.

So, who is ultimately responsible for Anakin’s descent to the dark side? Is it the obvious answer, Anakin himself, whose difficulty controlling his emotions led to his undoing? Is it Palpatine, whose serpentine manipulation of Anakin set him up for making terrible choices? Is it Obi-Wan, who was unable to properly rein in his apprentice despite his obvious talents? Is it Padme, who fell in love with Anakin despite her professional obligations and thus enabled him to compromise his emotions? Is it the Jedi Order, whose strict codes kept Anakin from realizing his full potential? Is it possibly even Qui-Gon’s failing, whose insistence on Anakin’s training put him down the dark path unwittingly? Perhaps if Qui-Gon had lived and served as Anakin’s master, everything could have been avoided. Alas, this is but a fairy tale, and the truth remains that all these factors played into Anakin Skywalker’s downfall.

Here is the profoundly vital thematic throughline between the two trilogies: Anakin spent his entire life enslaved. He was a literal slave as a boy, as a Jedi he was beholden to the dogmatic, outdated policies of the Order, and as a Sith he was encased in an iron lung and subservient to his master. He spent the first half of his life trying to save those he cared about, and failed, up until the very end. In Return of the Jedi, he finally succeeded by taking the opportunity to save his own son, and his escape from slavery was his own death. That is the silver lining to the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. Luke Skywalker may have saved the galaxy, but he could not have done it without his father.

If there is an overriding theme to the prequels it is failure, not only on behalf of Anakin, but by many individuals and organizations. Obi-Wan fails his apprentice, and the Jedi Order and Galactic Senate fail to identify the scheming Sith in their midst until it’s too late. If there is anyone having success in these films, it’s Palpatine, and boy does he have a great time when the party gets going. His ascendancy to power and the Republic’s transformation into an Empire is the great secondary narrative of the prequels, working in concert with Anakin’s own downfall. Critiques about a trade war in The Phantom Menace being too petty for Star Wars are partially correct, but it’s meant to feel minor because it serves as a diversion to catalyze Palpatine’s larger, Machiavellian plans. His orchestration of the Battle of Naboo from both sides in Phantom as Darth Sidious and Senator Palpatine is a dress rehearsal for his manipulation of both sides in the Clone Wars. Ultimately, both conflicts propel him to a higher office, from Senator to Chancellor and finally, Emperor.

Another of the thematic concerns in the prequels is how our perception of concepts established in the original trilogy changes. The quick critique of this is midi-chlorians, which I can agree are a somewhat convoluted representation of the Force. However, a balance between the spiritual and biological in the universe is conceivable too. The more surprising reversal the prequels provide is the view of the Jedi Order itself. The Jedi have pure intentions as peacekeepers in galaxy, but their Order had become complacent and dogmatic, and as a result, their methods became stale. The barring of emotional attachments speaks to the Jedi desire for individual transcendence (to become “one with the Force”), but Order’s quelling of Anakin’s hotheaded personality and obvious talents consequently led to their undoing. It is only when they are decimated in their numbers at the end of this trilogy that survivors Obi-Wan and Yoda are forced to return to a more simplified and pure view of the Force in the original trilogy. All in all, this broader view of the Jedi Order is quite a profound commentary by George Lucas on how genuine spirituality can become corrupted by the excessive constructs and doctrines of organized religion.

There is so much going on in the narrative infrastructure of the prequels that we are only now arriving to discuss the cinematic elements involved in telling that story. To start with casting is to acknowledge Lucas’ startling indifference towards directing his actors, which has been a flaw from the beginning of his career. “Faster and more intense” are the well documented, repeated directions he would give his lead trio on the set of the original Star Wars. As a result, most of the cast are left to their own devices when creating their performances, and the more experienced an actor is, the less dependent they are on Lucas to guide them. However, there are no roles in the prequels that were completely miscast. Veterans like Liam Neeson, Pernilla August, and Christopher Lee provide their own gravitas to their characters, and actors from the original trilogy like Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz and especially Ian McDiarmid slip right into their roles effortlessly.

Meanwhile, the newcomers take time to come into their own, especially the new trio that the prequels are centered on. Ewan McGregor is best among them as Obi-Wan Kenobi, taking the character from a brash and cocky student, to a poised, wisecracking teacher. He is very much an ideal emulation of a young Alec Guinness, developing his own rapport with Anakin, yet also susceptible to impatience. McGregor also provides the prequels’ best comic relief, injecting sly commentary in tense situations without ever being an annoyance (“Not to worry, we are still flying half a ship!”). He also really brings it home in the second half of Sith, having to tell Padme that her husband has fallen from grace, and heartbroken at the betrayal of a friend as close to him as brother.

Natalie Portman takes the baton of the key female lead of the prequels as Padme, and while her performance is far from perfect, she grows nicely with each successive film. It’s clear that the big budget filmmaking of The Phantom Menace was new territory for her and she had difficulty adjusting to that environment. Her largely stiff performance in that film can certainly be read as excessively formal for the purposes of her royal stature. Also, she freely changes from British to American accents depending on the situation, much like Carrie Fisher did in her first outing as Princess Leia. By Attack of the Clones, Padme is much more self assured and as wonderfully proactive as her daughter would be in the original trilogy. In Revenge of the Sith, she’s relegated as a spectator because of her character’s pregnancy, but fully rounds out Padme emotionally when she no longer recognizes the husband she once loved.

Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin in the latter two prequels is another of the most heavily critiqued elements of the films, and it’s not undeserving. However, I would not qualify Christensen as a bad actor, merely as inexperienced with big budget filmmaking as Portman was (Look to Shattered Glass for a terrific Christensen performance). Christensen’s inconsistencies once again stem from Lucas’ inability to effectively communicate with actors. Nevertheless, there are still moments where a spark is absolutely present. A facial expression can communicate more than entire pages of dialogue, and the tempests raging inside of Anakin can be read on Christensen at important junctures. His confession to Padme of his slaughter of the entire Tusken village is a terrific example, or during his hard fought battle against Obi-Wan. These are the moments where Christensen truly becomes the visual embodiment of a young Darth Vader.

Surrounding our trio is a cast even more diverse and fantastical than what was offered in the original trilogy. From new key heroes like Qui-Gon Jinn and Mace Windu, to diabolical new villains like Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and Jango Fett, Lucas continued to expand his ensemble with each film. Implementing the latest advances in CGI also allowed Lucas to also incorporate a wide range of computer generated, and highly divisive characters. The best of these was Yoda’s makeover from puppetry to CGI in order to make him a more active player in the prequels, and by most accounts, that transition was welcomed. Naturally, the most derided of the new characters is Jar Jar Binks, whose role was mercifully reduced in Clones and Sith. While he is largely immature and meant for the youngest of Star Wars audiences, it is worth noting Jar Jar’s relevance to the plot of The Phantom Menace, acting as the catalyst of uniting the Gungans and humans to battle the Trade Federation. Among all of the new CGI characters, I must admit a fondess for the crotchety junk dealer Watto, who adds some comical flavor to the second act of Phantom.

This brings us into looking at all of the craftsmanship that went into creating the prequels, so yes, if there is anything to discuss upfront it is the use of CGI. Each successive film contains more CGI than the last, but let us examine what Lucas wanted to achieve. He specifically waited nearly two decades in order to allow technology to catch up with the story he envisioned. From a philosophical perspective, Lucas wanted to allow cinema to arrive at the same imaginative level as literature, in which anything conceived for the screen would be just as possible as putting pen to paper. Lucas is a producer who invested his own money in making the prequels, and in certain cases, CGI is the more time saving and cost effective technique. Frankly, a great deal of the CGI in the prequels remains impressive, whether in the creation of entirely new worlds or characters. It is also worth mentioning the abundance of physical sets and practical effects that were used in bringing the prequels to the screen. A multitude of exteriors ranging from the Jedi Temple, the Geonosian arena, the city of Theed on Naboo, and even the lava waterfall on Mustafar were realized through the use of models. Having those elements shot in camera serves as a baseline for the quality of all of the other computer generated elements.

Every technical facet of cinema is maximized in a Star Wars film, and the production design of the prequels is at the very least is of equal stature to the work done on the original trilogy. By setting his prequels 20-30 years prior to the events of A New Hope, George Lucas made a concerted effort to make the design choices uniquely specific to that time period. These are not the days where the iron fisted rule of the Empire reflected a drab and monochromatic aesthetic. The visual sheen of planets like Coruscant and Naboo are intentioned to portray all that was lost in the fall of the Republic. Meanwhile, other planets like the noirish, watery world of Kamino, or the fiery volcanic chasms of Mustafar are highly individualized and narratively symbolic. These design elements also extend down to the vehicles, vessels, and costumes of the prequels, where every element has a specific association with a given character.

If there is one key feature that every Star Wars film is known for, it is the action scene, and not merely one single type either. The prequels unquestionably increased the action quotient, and more than a few examples stand as highlights. The Phantom Menace boasts the white knuckle podrace (Lucas’ homage to Ben-Hur) and the instantly iconic duel of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan against Darth Maul. Attack of the Clones flaunts Obi-Wan and Anakin’s eye popping speeder chase through Coruscant, and the awe inspiring arena battle that escalates into the Clone War. Revenge of the Sith is best of them all, commencing with the superb twenty minute opening space battle above Coruscant where Anakin and Obi-Wan rescue the captive Palpatine and run into one damn thing after another (for my money, almost on par with the Death Star prison escape from A New Hope). Then, the film’s midway point gives way to Order 66 and the extermination of the Jedi, a startlingly sorrowful montage. Finally, there are the exceptionally crosscut, downright mythic duels between Obi-Wan against Anakin, and Yoda against Palpatine. The entire second half of Sith is the very definition of space opera at its grandest, culminating in its climax with literal representations of the destruction of democracy and a descent into Hell.

All of these sequences and others are terrific because of Lucas’ clear eye for composition and editorial clarity, a talent evident on the original trilogy. He and director of photography David Tattersall keep everything cleanly framed so that the eye can easily follow the movement of subjects through each cut with ease. The more comprehensible the action, the more enjoyable it becomes, rather than trying to decipher who is doing what. It’s also worth mentioning the superb use of cross cutting that comes into play in Revenge of the Sith, not only in the brilliant Order 66 scene, but also in Palpatine’s christening of the Empire before the Senate as Vader kills the remaining Separatist leaders on Mustafar (an homage by Lucas to The Godfather). The most transcendently haunting use of montage comes at the film’s very end with the birth of the twins and death of Padme cross cut with the birth of Vader in his suit. In an instant, a family becomes permanently fractured. Imagery like this on display in the prequels frankly deserves to be as iconic as those from the original trilogy.

All of the terrific sequences in the prequels are raised to even greater importance when factoring in an aural landscape. The popular adage in filmmaking is that sound is half the picture. What your eyes see must be supported by what your ears hear, and nowhere is this more true than in a Star Wars film. The sound design of these films is among the very best of all time, and a great deal of credit in the prequels goes to sound engineers Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood. From the roar of pod racer engines and screams of strange new creatures, to the laser blasts of destroyer droids and building aural environments out of nothing, the sound design goes a long way to giving the prequels their own distinct personality. The speeder chase in Attack of the Clones is a particular highlight, communicating the story with utterly unique contributions. Without question, the level of aural detail in these films is every bit as impressive and vital as the efforts on the original trilogy.

Last but oh so certainly not least is one man whose work very nearly equals Lucas’ own on the entire saga: John Williams. The man’s scores for the original trilogy are, of course, legendary, and have embedded themselves into the collective culture for decades. Since the beginning, Williams has been the best weapon at conveying emotion in George Lucas’ arsenal. Here is a great example: At the end of the second act of Clones, Anakin and Padme are about to be drawn out to the Geonosian arena for execution. Padme finally confesses her love to a bewildered Anakin, but because neither of them believe they will survive, they give in to their emotions and kiss just as they are being led out. Lucas’ dialogue is unimaginative, and the actors can’t do much to enhance it. However, Lucas chooses to frame from behind, so as they’re drawn out and their kiss concludes, they come out into the light, and the camera pans out to the roaring crowd. It’s a visually simple but astonishing shot, brought to full life by John Williams’ swelling love theme. This is but one instance amongst so many where Williams’ score enhances the storytelling exponentially. His new themes for the trilogy are as rich and complex, while also hinting at things to come in the original trilogy, Finally, as a matter of personal opinion, Duel of the Fates, effectively the musical theme of all three prequel films, is entirely as iconic as the Imperial March.

Strip away the weapons and lightsabers, the vehicles and starships, the planets, aliens, and creatures, and what are we left with when we talk about Star Wars? On a macro level, we see the fall of a democracy and the rise of an empire, one to be eventually overthrown by a budding rebellion. On a micro level, it is a story of family. A talented but flawed man falls from grace, and is ultimately redeemed by the compassion and love of his own son. The surface elements of Star Wars will always be fascinating, but the deeper ideas that George Lucas wanted to communicate are the reason the saga endures. There is simply no other film series like it, and with specific regard to the prequels, few other film trilogies as bold as to chart a tragedy, especially those with blockbuster budgets. Though flawed, the core themes of the prequels are deeply profound. In some respects, George Lucas’ imagination may have exceeded his capacity to give this trilogy its full intended impact. Nevertheless, these films remain endlessly compelling and technically brilliant, essential to completing one of the great sagas in cinematic history. Star Wars is simply half as interesting without them.


~ by romancinema on September 13, 2015.

3 Responses to “Retrospective: The Star Wars Prequels – A Defense”

  1. Excellent!

  2. A terrific commentary! Well done….

  3. Reblogged this on The Damnedest Thing You Ever Saw.

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