With the anticipation of yet another Star Wars film hitting a fever pitch well before its release this December, 30-somethings and those older might recall a similar time almost 16 years ago. The excitement surrounding the release of The Phantom Menace was unparalleled in the history of popular cinema, and to this day, after visits to Middle-Earth, Gotham City and Pandora, nothing comes close to matching the build up of joy and wonder of the premiere of the first “new” Star Wars film. Of course, for some in the audience, the camp-outs, midnight screenings, toy releases and the like might seem more enjoyable than the finished film, or the subsequent releases in the Star Wars prequel series.
Star Wars backlash, then and now
The Phantom Menace, after an initial embrace by an audience desperate for another Star Wars adventure, also received unparalleled backlash from fans who called it everything from juvenile to racist to a cynical money grab for toy merchandising. The following sequels were not quite so reviled, but didn’t silence the moans of fans who felt betrayed by series creator George Lucas, or let down by a perceived overuse of special effects or underwritten story.
To make assumptions about Lucas’s character or focus only on the shortcomings of the films oversimplifies their true strengths and failures. In a way, Lucas didn’t even afford himself the leeway that Disney-Lucasfilm and their deputes now enjoy leading up to The Force Awakens. Selecting prequel stories about fallen hero Darth Vader almost doomed the series. To really evaluate the prequel trilogy in a greater context of Star Wars and of cinema, we must examine the nature of their stories, the obstacles they faced in making it to the screen, the audience that awaited them, and where they succeed, even if their triumphs continue to get overlooked by fans. Only then can we understand the problem, and the legacy, of the prequels.
The inherent problem of prequels
Michael Kaminski, in his excellent series of essays The Secret History of Star Wars raised one of the key issues often overlooked in discussion of the series: prequels are simply sequels set in an earlier chronology.Though nobody in the media seemed to anticipate a problem in the 1990s as the prequel series readied for production, the choice to produce prequels might have damned the whole series from the very beginning. Sequels, you see, by nature need to match or top everything we’ve seen in previous entries, lest they feel like a cheat or underwhelming.
Events in a prequel though, must conform to an existing chronology and dynamic with a preordained conclusion. Therefore, the lightsaber duels, for example, needed to out-thrill everythingin the original trilogy, not to mention the countless subsequent imitators. Viewed in context of the story, however, this creates a problem: how can duels so ridiculous seem to organically culminate in the modest skirmish between Obi-Wan and Vader in the original film? Kaminski also uses the example of the Force lightning: the audience first saw it in Return of the Jedi, wielded by Emperor Palpatine at the penultimate climax of the series. Logically, Palpatine would have always had such power, at least from the time he became a Sith lord. Therefore, perhaps it comes as no surprise that he taught apprentice Count Dooku the same trick in Attack of the Clones. But that creates a problem for the audience again: though pivotal, Dooku’s role in the overall series is small, and while the impact of Force lightning is great in Return of the Jedi, it feels diminished to see another character use it. Even when Palpatine uses the power in Revenge of the Sith, something about it seems less than spectacular when compared with his scenes in Return of the Jedi. This odd paradox of audience continuity, this bell curve of spectacle, creates an impossible problem–go too small with the effects, and they pale in comparison to what’s come before, and it never seems like characters are using their full potential. Go bigger, and the audience faces a disorienting question: why didn’t he just use those powers/moves/skills before?
How to avoid predictability and build suspense
The forgone conclusions in the prequels pose an even bigger problem. For those of us who had seen the original Star Wars film, we knew Obi-Wan and Yoda would survive, Anakin would turn to the dark side, and Palpatine would ascend to supreme power. Padme would ultimately have to die, as would the other Jedi. With such a precise destination in mind, how could Lucas or anyone else create any suspense in the films?
Other films do manage to create suspense by telling the story out of order–Pulp Fiction comes to mind–but Star Wars with its episodic format and mythic hero’s journey doesn’t really lend itself to that. The most Lucas could have hoped for is achieving a fun, if unsurprising ride for the audience which would result in an entertaining, if forgettable film. Moreover, part of what gave the original trilogy so much impact was the cliffhanger nature of its first two films. In Star Wars, Vader survives the destruction of the Death Star to fight another day. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han gets kidnapped by Boba Fett, leaving the audience to wonder if he lives or dies. Any kind of cliffhanger ending in the prequel trilogy would ring hollow–Lucas arguably even tried it with the end of Attack of the Clones by having Dooku escape as the Clone Wars begin. Yet because we know the original story, we know Dooku will ultimately die and the Clone Wars will devastate the galaxy. Without the element of suspense to utilize in the prequel trilogy, the audience just couldn’t invest itself in the story the same way.
The problem with Anakin
Some of the lack of suspense comes from the selection of Anakin Skywalker as protagonist. While fans once cheered seeing the hero fall from grace, watching it happen makes for an impossible task. If Anakin comes off too heroic, his turn to mass murderer won’t ring true. If he seems plagued by demons from the beginning, we can’t buy him as a hero, his friendship with Obi-Wan, or his love affair with Padme. Lucas tries to split the difference by showing us the innocent, abused child Anakin in The Phantom Menace, however using a child as a protagonist alienated the largely male, adult audience that made Star Wars a phenomenon in the first place.
By the time the recast, teenage Anakin appears in Attack of the Clones, the character has become unstable, arrogant and insecure–less than attractive qualities in a hero. If the audience couldn’t find love for Anakin as a protagonist then, how could they ever invest in his love affair with Padme? How could a woman so attractive, tough and intelligent ever fall in love with a borderline personality? The story demands they fall in love, but the characters don’t have much chemistry. Lucas tries to strike a balance by focusing on the romance in Attack of the Clones and Anakin’s desperate quest to save Padme’s life in Revenge of the Sith, and while the latter does work to some degree, Star Wars is at its best as a swashbuckling morality tale, not an overripe love story.
Therefore, the relationship becomes more than problematic, it becomes obnoxious, especially to an audience hoping for space opera action. Perhaps selecting a different character as the focus for the prequel films–Obi-Wan for example–and keeping Anakin in the background might have avoided some of these issues, but then, Star Wars, for better or worse, was, in the original trilogy, the story of the Skywalker family–of Luke and Leia rising to lead, and of Vader’s redemption. Even then, to say Vader redeemed himself for genocide, war and torture just by saving his son and killing the Emperor is a bit of a stretch. It works in Return of the Jedi because the climax focuses more on the rebels destroying the Death Star and celebrating after the battle than on Luke or Leia pondering their Father’s true nature. In the context of the prequels, the issue is unavoidable–the stories needed to have Anakin and his fall as key elements, but making him believable as both hero, love interest and villain is just too much.George Lucas might have avoided the problem of Anakin as hero and villain by focusing on a different time in his life and making Obi-Wan the chief protagonist of the prequel trilogy: the story opens with an already-married Anakin made ruthless by the Clone Wars, he impregnates Padme just before he turns to evil, and then declares war on the Jedi before being defeated by Obi-Wan. Such an approach would allow for more suited-up Darth Vader on screen, but doing so might have diminished the character, not unlike the bell curve of spectacle, not to mention made the films much, much darker.
Geoage Lucas and his perception of Star Wars as a “Disney” family film
George Lucas always intended Star Wars as a “Disney” family film (his word, not mine), and embracing Wachowski or Cameron-style ultraviolence would go against the nature of the series. Lucas made the original trilogy as a young man, a cinematic revolutionary of the New Hollywood landscape alongside close friends like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and John Milius, not to mention his brilliant editor-wife Marsha. Is it any surprise that the original trilogy teems with youthful rebellion, loving if combative relationships and pure fun? More than twenty years had passed between the release of Star Wars in 1977 and The Phantom Menace in 1999, and time had mellowed Mr. Lucas. He’d become a divorced businessman, shied away from public life, and become a father along the way. If he viewed the literal Rebellion, spearheaded by Han, Luke & Leia, as a manifestation of his own youthful rebelliousness, the days of the Republic in the prequel trilogy come after Lucas had become the establishment, forced to meander from meeting to meeting to maintain his company.
Anakin and Padme are less a reflection of his own life than of that as a father dressing up his children: opulent gowns for the girl, athletic toys for the boy. No wonder, then, that Yoda and Palpatine steal the show–they’re older, wiser characters with wisdom and experience to impart. The same effect presents itself in examination of the actors’ performances. Lucas, by his own admission, was shy around actors, not really knowing how to approach them.
In 1977, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were his contemporaries–behind the scenes footage of Star Wars shows the actors laughing and teasing Lucas on set. But how does a shy man in his 50s and 60s approach young actors? How does he relate to them? Time had also changed the audience: whereas fans of the original film would see each subsequent sequel as a new entry, and contrast the style and plot points with what had come before, by 1999 two whole generations had grow up watching the full trilogy on video. Those two generations would see the original trilogy as a single story and accept tonal shifts as part of the story progression.
After so many years, why Lucas?
Angry fans insistent that Lucas should have given control of the series to a different director should bare in mind two facts: in 1999, nobody else had made a Star Wars film other than Lucas, and Lucas actually did try to hire other directors. Lucas offered Sir David Hare the chance to co-write and co-direct, but Hare declined, uninterested in the series. Though Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand both directed the original trilogy sequels, Lucas had remained very involved, directing second unit and special effects sequences himself. Besides, by the 1990s Star Wars had become so legendary and had such a legacy to continue, it should come as no surprise that nobody would touch the films, fearing the ire of an unhappy audience who perceived the new installments as a let down. While George Lucas bore the brunt of negative criticism in regards to the prequel trilogy, in the context of the time, his return to directing came as a mandate with the advent of more Star Wars adventures.
Why the Star Wars prequels still matter
Did George Lucas achieve anything great with his latter-day trilogy? I’m reminded of something film critic John Powers once said of The Exorcist II: “It’s the Citizen Kane of rubbish.” Nothing in the prequel series approaches the hideous and incomprehensible stupidity of The Exorcist II, but he could well have said the same of the prequel trilogy–they are great films in their own way, though not necessarily anything the audience would want to sit through. Lucas always said that he’d held off on making more Star Wars films because the special effects technology still couldn’t suit his vision. Fitting, then, that the prequels (much like the original trilogy), should get criticized for overuse of effects. I find it ironic that Star Wars aficionados should slam the prequels for too many ships taking off and landing, or not enough practical effects–anamatronics, physical sets, etc. Recall that the most spiritual scene in The Empire Strikes Back concerns Yoda using the Force to raise Luke’s X-Wing from the swamp…in essence, a long scene of a ship taking off and landing. Both Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace were criticized (and continue to be) for too many puppets, and both utilized practical sets heavily augmented with CGI. In 1999, CGI seemed like an answer to everything following Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park.
The outcry over Lucas opting to have Yoda once again embodied by a puppet was extreme and following The Phantom Menace seems hypocritical now. If the criticism of Star Wars has always been the same, though amplified by the rise of the internet during the concurrent release of the prequel trilogy, at least the effects did continue to break new ground. Jar-Jar, irritating though he is, paved the way for the digital Yoda, to say nothing of the motion capture wonder of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the current lot of superheroes occupying theatres at the moment. YouTube and inexpensive, digital cameras revolutionized film making, and owe a great deal to Lucas’s insistence at shooting Attack of the Clones on digital media. Likewise, few web or television series–indeed, even few films–could accomplish their inexpensive scope without the green screen innovation of Revenge of the Sith. The prequel films may not have seemed to alter the pop culture landscape, but they have, though not in the same way as the original trilogy. The fruit of the prequels is almost exclusive to technology. Thus, instead of countless space opera imitators, most of the American public watches, subscribes to, or carries around the wake of the prequels in their pockets.
Nor is the narrative of the prequels without merit. The films introduce some compelling and intriguing elements: Anakin’s virgin birth, the corruption of the Republic to the Empire, the Jedi council, the hidden legacy of the Sith, all lavishly realized with beautiful costumes and art direction, and a host of alien worlds, the likes of which had never been seen on film. Ewan McGregor delivers dependable and at times outstanding work as Obi-Wan, as does the late Christopher Lee as Dooku. Darth Maul creates the same kind of mystique as Boba Fett in the original trilogy, the action sequences are remarkable, and the movies are stolen by Ian McDermid, as Palpatine & Frank Oz as Yoda. Both actors deliver complex, nuanced performances–Oz with only his voice–destined to be remembered as the standout virtue of the prequels. Maybe the prequels could have revolved around Palpatine and Yoda, and avoided the pitfalls of Anakin’s story too: Palpatine manipulating his pawns, Yoda training his Jedi in hopes of bringing balance to the Force. Perhaps Disney, in their rush to exploit the Star Wars brand, one day will augment the prequel films with “sidequals,” focusing on the two Force masters. Either way, the new studio-home of Star Wars will need to address the events, planets and characters of the prequel trilogy and find an interesting way to fold them into the ongoing saga. A deft storyteller can weed out the offending elements and allow the interesting kernels to germinate and flower in the re-conceived universe.
Star Wars will remain a cultural touchstone long after George Lucas, its cast and crew, or the angst-ridden Generation X that made it so popular have passed into memory. What other film series can claim such great adventure, or so exhilarating an effect? Perhaps someone will one day make a trilogy on par with the original Star Wars trilogy–though I wouldn’t bet on it. Perhaps one day someone will make a film that succeeds as a pop-culture event in the same way release of The Phantom Menace did, though I wouldn’t bet on it either. The days of cultural cataclysms at the movies are coming to an end with the open-ended, ongoing series of films like those offered by Marvel Studios; for proof look no further than the trailers for The Force Awakens, which spend no time marketing the story, but extend every effort to advertise nostalgia and the title. Regardless of what comes after, or of the prequels and their problems, the original trilogy will always reign supreme. Everything that follows just reminds us of that first time we were transported a long time ago, to a galaxy far, far away.