The good, the bad, and the Force: Re-evaluating Star Wars – The Prequel Trilogy
AS WE PREPARE to step off from the much-maligned prequel trilogy of Star Wars and into the glorious shimmering magnificence (OR IS IT) of the original trilogy, Harry Brewis suggests that the prequels might well be much better than most people give them credit for.
Harry Brewis: I think a lot of folks hate the prequels for the sheer reason that they are, objectively, Not Star Wars. They aren’t shot like the originals were, they don’t have characters like the originals did, and their philosophy questions the one raised by the originals. But here’s the kicker: ‘Star Wars’ does not exist.
I’m not simply saying they’re works of fiction. The thing people refer to as ‘what Star Wars used to be’ is a fiction that doesn’t live up to the reality of the original films. I rewatched the originals for the purpose of writing this article just to make sure and was surprised to discover I was right. Star Wars is supposed to be about lightsabers and the Jedi, right? Then where are they all?!
The modern notion of Star Wars is as a big, objective ‘Expanded Universe’, with a literal story and a sense of objectivity. The Force is a real thing, every character in every film has a story and it’s all rigidly documented on Wookiepedia and in an infinitely long series of books, comics, and additional media. But the original films are the opposite of objective. They break the very rules the fans made up to justify not liking the prequels. In a film supposedly about space adventures and glorifying the lightsaber, there’s an acid-trippy slow-mo sequence in a cave where Luke discovers he’s fighting himself; the one and only lightsaber fight in A New Hope is a slapfight between two tired old men.
In a series ostensibly about Empires and Heroes and technology – you know, science fiction – the films willingly ignore all notions of a plot that can cohere to mere logic and embrace all kinds of crazy symbolic awesomeness, stuff you could never simply explain on a wiki. The Empire Strikes Back is the least Star Wars-y film I’ve ever seen in my life. So when people tell me the prequels aren’t like real Star Wars, I think: Good! There IS NO real Star Wars!
The prequels are a shockingly biting criticism of not only the Jedi Order that kept getting hyped up in the original stories, but also the entire modern ‘Wookiepedia’ attitude to storytelling. This is why there’s a sequence in Clones where a librarian flatly insists that, if a planet is not in their records, it simply does not exist. It’s making fun of everything Star Wars had become, and it’s awesome. If you want to know what George Lucas thinks of Star Wars’s fanbase, watch that scene.
Fans wanted a story in which the Jedi were smart, good people who were capable of winning the day. But these are prequels. They are inherently the story of failure, and how and why this failure came about. In Episode I, a Jedi discovers that a slave is the Chosen One, and endeavours to bring him into the fold – but why is there slavery? I thought the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice? The Jedi, way back in Episode I, had already failed long ago, and their world was already collapsing. Audiences in love with the romanticised idea of the Jedi sensed this, and cried foul. Anakin swears he will one day free all slaves – but his training indoctrinates him, and he forgets all about it. The Jedi fail him and ultimately turn him into the man that will destroy them all.
Folks criticise Hayden Christensen’s acting in Episode II, but let’s keep in mind that he is playing a crazy person. This is a child who was told he was the Chosen One and raised by a bunch of creepy religious fundamentalists who also have a hand in politics and are apparently completely unelected. He is awkward around women and screams about how powerful he wants to become – in retrospect, he sounds a lot like Elliot Rodger. Folks apparently thought Anakin being a crazy weirdo was a plot hole, or bad writing. But it’s brilliant.
Lucas, after years of living under the shadow of his fans, people too invested in the literal plot of Star Wars to engage with its philosophical notions about how technology and media affect people, successfully made an audience hate Darth Vader. And he did it by making him into a whiny awkward nerd – the internet has apparently never noticed the irony in whining about him for the last decade. The relationship between Anakin and Padme is a relationship between a weird upper-class colonialist and a narcissistic space-christian, and I love it. These are broken people trying to find love in the last days of a collapsing society. Of course they’re bad at it, and of course it’s unsatisfying.
The films are also just so much more interesting than people seem to remember. Phantom Menace has a long sequence referencing Ben Hur’s chariot race just for the fun of it, and to deliberately invert that film’s Christ imagery, and Attack of the Clones has an elongated sequence in a ridiculously over-the-top, nightmarish droid factory that feels like something out of German Expressionism. Anakin barely escapes being ‘turned into a machine’, only to discover the Jedi have already turned him into one with their indoctrination – the same hand that gets trapped in the machine later gets cut off when his training fails him.
The prequel trilogy constantly criticises the false, unsatisfying society the Jedi have constructed by making everything ‘good’ feel fake, too perfect and too pretty. Remember how, in the original trilogy, the Empire were all about everything being clean and shiny and mechanistic? Lucas made the Jedi like that in the prequels. He didn’t do that by accident. He did it because the Republic turned into an Empire under the Jedi’s ‘benevolent’ watch, and it did so because they were bad at their jobs.
I could talk for hours and hours about how many cool things are in all six Star Wars films, but centrally I just find it amazing how little the fans seem to think of them. Every single one of the films is capital-A Art made by an artist with a cohesive vision (inspired by the writing of philosopher Marshall McLuhan). They were willing to do all kinds of weird stuff that not many even dared to try. People loved the films because of how different they were – but fell in love with them so much that when Lucas lived up to their spirit and tried something different, everyone got defensive. The fans have become the Empire, Wookiepedia its Death Star – and the prequels are the new rebels.