In Defence of the Star Wars Prequels
Notes before we begin:
1. Some people are not going to agree with me.
2. There is absolutely no attempt at objectivity.
3. If you haven’t seen the Star Wars Prequels yet, beware, there are major SPOILERS ahead.
With the release of the most recent Star Wars prequel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it is inevitable that people try to rank it using some personal and subjective method. This will equally inevitably lead to discussions regarding George Lucas’ prequels – The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones & Revenge of the Sith.
It is no secret that these prequels are not the most loved movies of all time, even amongst Star Wars aficionados. In fact, they are generally not only criticised but roundly condemned as blockbuster filmmaking at it’s worse especially when compared to the original and much loved trilogy. They are, we are informed, badly written, badly directed and badly acted and I, to some extent, agree with this assessment.
And yet, I have a lot of love for these films.
Fellow Cultjer writer, Skye Wingfield, recently implored me to look at these films objectively and recognise them for what they are and I admit that, when viewed dispassionately, Skye is absolutely correct, they are filled with countless flaws, some pretty terrible dialogue and some clunky exposition. But, as Star Wars means as much to me as it does, I find it very difficult to view them with anything other than passion; passion enough, it seems, to overlook these flaws, to look beyond these problems and find a magical something that makes these films great.
So, anyway, I beg of you to put your reservations aside and look at these wonderful additions to the Star Wars universe as the epic, operatic marvels that they are.
To start let’s go back to 1999 as we sat in the cinema for the first time to watch The Phantom Menace. The trailer was pretty good, the tone was mysterious with strange creatures appearing from some mist, the desolate landscape of Tatooine, the opulent beauty of Naboo, Then the Star Wars theme blasts out of the speakers and we are reintroduced to Obi Wan Kanobi, to Master Yoda, we see Samuel L. Jackson (Yes, Samuel L. Jackson!!!!) and get our first glimpse of Darth Maul and his utterly cool double-sided light sabre. We were pumped!
The lights of the cinema are down, we see the Lucasfilm logo followed by those immortal words ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy far, far away…’
Then STAR WARS accompanied by the rousing John Williams Theme we all love. Remember, we hadn’t seen this logo for 16 years! It’s not like now when we have seven other versions of that iconic opening sprawl. This is what we were waiting for. Were you not excited?
Then the film begins. Okay, this is where I start losing people but let’s look at the definite highlights of this film.
Firstly, we are introduced to Naboo, another world in the Star Wars galaxy, and it is truly beautiful. Immediately we are being told that this is a different story to the previous trilogy. This is not grim scrapyard of a galaxy we have been used to. In the previous films everyone and everywhere was suffering from under-investment, from the heavy totalitarian hand of the Empire but here we see the beauty and opulence that was allowed to exist before the wars stripped peace away from the galaxy. Later we will go to Coruscant itself, the capital and administrative centre of the galaxy and it too looks tremendous. The buildings really are skyscrapers; their lights shine in the darkness like stars in the galaxy. This Blade Runner/Metropolis-inspired cityscape is a wonder to behold. This is something we have heard hints of in the original trilogy and it looks amazing.
Of course, not all the galaxy is this rich and abundant. Tatooine, Luke Skywalkers home at the very beginning of Star Wars is still the poorer neighbour but Lucas still presents us with a version of the planet in which many still thrived, again a far cry from the Tatooine we were originally introduced to. We catch a glimpse of how people lived, the hierarchies that existed and the tensions that permeated every conversation and interaction.
The highlight of these early scenes is the Podrace, a brilliantly filmed contest of speed, cunning, cheating and dexterity, through the deserts and canyons of this planet. The visuals are amazing but what always impresses me is the sound. Each time I watch this scene – with the surround sound on or off – I can’t help but love the ferocity of the Podracers engines. I long to be back in the cinema watching this on a forty-foot screen.
But the best moment of The Phantom Menace is the final battle between Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi and the menacingly cool Darth Maul.
One bugbear I do have with The Phantom Menace is how Anakin Skywalker and Ja Ja Binks both win their battles by default, relying on accident and happenstance but inserted within these two fights is the glory of the Duel of the Fates.
The fighting is outstanding, the swordplay is mesmerising. I’ve no idea what the red force fields are for in that long corridor but, from the point of view of drama, they are a great idea and perfectly reveal the three protagonist’s characters – The young Obi Wan anxious and a little impatient, Qui-Gon closing his eyes and mediating and Maul’s prowling like a wild cat in a zoo, occasionally testing its enclosure. The music stands out even in John Williams’ illustrious career. At the end of this battle was there anyone who didn’t feel the tendrils of grief overwhelming them as Qui-Gon Jinn lay dying on the floor in Kenobi’s arms?
I do think that Attack of the Clones is the weakest of the three films but even this one starts with a bang as Senator Amidala’s ship is blown up on the landing pad. Clones also introduces us to another planet, this time in the form of the very wet and wonderful Kamino where we find the production of the clones taking place. And who are the clones based on? The father of the great Boba Fett himself! Not only are we being introduced to Darth Vader’s backstory but we have the added extra of one of the most popular and mysterious villains of the Star Wars universe.
This is what Star Wars is about – new planets that stretch our imagination and take us on a journey where the mundane is wonderful. This is one of the reasons I struggled to accept The Force Awakens as it made little effort to take us anywhere we hadn’t been before.
Hayden Christiansen often gets some bad press for his performance but the truth is he plays the part of awkward, troubled teenager wonderfully. If you find his performance is a bit stilted it’s because that’s what teenagers are like. He’s not a cool teenager, just an ordinary one battling emotions greater than we could ever imagine. We also get a glimpse into the anger that boils within. Despite his power, despite his growing control over the force, Anakin cannot save his mother and, when confronted with her demise, he slaughters the Sandpeople responsible. This is a foreshadow of the slaughter of the younglings in Revenge of the Sith, perhaps the most moving and brutal moment in the whole saga!
To me Sith is the third best film of the entire series, trailing only Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. It is dark, certainly the darkest episode before Rogue One, yet it is filled with highlights that make it a quite brilliant movie. The opening battle has more special effects, more chaos and more action than the previous two films together and it ends with another powerful moment and one that further sends Anakin down the spiral to the Dark Side – Palpatine orders him to decapitate Count Dooku and he does so with a flourish. If Anakin was troubled in Clones, here he stands on the edge of a cliff and, slowly but ever so surely, he is pushed over the edge by the lies and manipulation of Darth Sidious (what a great name!).
The film is drama and tension throughout and ends in the fire of a volcano, a succinct representation of the turmoil raging inside the man who has now been given the moniker Darth Vader. For all the accusations of bad direction, the second half of the movie is a tour de force. Order 66, the slaughter of the children, the fight in the volcano and the makings of the Vader we know. Yes, the giant yawp, the cry of ‘Noooooooo!’ is a misstep but everything that surrounds it more than makes up for it.
I have seen Revenge of the Sith possibly as many as ten times now and each time I find it a fresh experience. George Lucas may not have been the greatest of directors but I think if he had done one more film then he would have certainly found is feet and revealed the talent he really is.
I know the prequels have a shaky reputation but they are much better that this reputation allows. They are filled with great moments, a sweeping arch and show an ambition I found lacking in The Force Awakens. I have always contended that, whilst you can argue that they might not be the greatest of films, they certainly are great Star Wars films.
I also appreciate that these views many not win universal approval. I don’t care. Ultimately what I want and what I get from the prequels is a chance to peer into this galaxy from a long time ago and far, far away, and this is what I get. Each viewing of these and the original trilogy fills me with an excitement which is more biological and psychological than intellectual. I can’t be dispassionate or objective, just emotional and, possibly, a little childish. I contend that you can love silent movies, French Nouvelle Vague, Italian Neo-realism, the great American Cinema of the 70s and the blockbusters of the 80s and still find time and a place in your heart for something that fulfills the inner child. For me the Star Wars Prequels are amongst those films which are not great art but fill me with this most particular of joys.