Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels

The denigration of the Star Wars prequels – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – has been tediously ubiquitous ever since their release. What has been most striking is not the attacks coming from the expected quarters – those who have always been critical of the series, as with those dubious about the story's mythological underpinnings – but the hardcore fans who cherish the original movies most.

More than most, I tend to find prequels an exercise in the pursuit of diminishing returns, prone to depend excessively on the good will earned by previous works, mining less interesting parts of the tale than what we saw before for what riches remain, and often diminishing the whole in its failure to recapture the magic of the originals. And certainly episodes I-III had their flaws – weaknesses in the acting and dialogue, bits of story which seemed muddled or flat, inconsistencies with the original trilogy. Yet the criticism has long seemed to me excessive to the point of neurosis – and for good reason. Its expression has been so frequent and loud and strident that geek antipathy to those movies has become a pop culture cliché, casually referenced not just in genre-oriented films and shows like Spaced and Stargate: Universe, but more mainstream fare as well. (In the romantic comedy Failure to Launch, for instance, Patton Oswalt's character is identified as not just a fan of Star Wars, but one specifically devoted to the original trilogy, of course.1)

It seems to me that much of the reaction has really been about the audience itself. Between the special place the original trilogy holds in many a heart, the sixteen years that passed between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, and the predictably massive hype preceding the theatrical release of Episode I, expectations rose impossibly high – so that any conceivable movie would have been a letdown for many. And of course, much of the audience had changed during the wait. Those who saw the initial theatrical release of the trilogy as children were adults now – and in many cases, more sophisticated, more critical viewers who compared what they saw then with the earlier films as they recalled them through the rose-colored glasses of cherished childhood memory. (They were certainly less forgiving of weaknesses in acting or dialogue, which were hardly absent in Episodes IV-VI.)

But part of it is also the ways in which the prequels differed from the originals. In place of the clarity and simplicity of episodes IV-VI, there was a comparatively sprawling story with more complex plotting and world-building, and rather more politics along with the mythology. The originals had underdog good guys taking head-on, and beating, an evil empire – while the prequels have the guardians of order fighting an enemy that strikes at them from the shadows in what is ultimately a tale of tragedy rather than triumph. And in place of the youthful Luke, Phantom Menace put an eight year old Anakin at the center of events, while in Clones and Revenge the character was a really difficult adolescent. There is also no question that the lavish use of CGI gave the films a different look.

These are not, as such, bad things. Nor were they necessarily surprises. It was unreasonable for anyone to expect the prequels to simply be more of the same, for a tale of the Republic's fall to be the same in structure and tone and sense as the tale of its restoration, for the story of Anakin to be the same as Luke's, for the look of the films to be identical after nearly two decades of FX wizards upping the ante – the obvious appreciated by surprisingly, dismayingly, few viewers (among them, Scott Mendelson and Timothy Sexton, whose pieces I strongly recommend as a corrective).

Of course, one can still reply that these differences resulted in a less appealing, less compelling product. (The more complex world-building and plotting is a lot easier to do in a novel, or a TV series, than a two-hour movie, for instance, while the premise and the central character of the prequels do not lend themselves so easily to crowd-pleasing stories.) And that there are ways in which the new approach did not wholly succeed. (There is plenty of room for criticism of the films' handling of the Old Republic's politics, for instance.) But all the same, a more sophisticated, nuanced judgment was called for, and I, for one, found much to enjoy in the films beyond their indisputable appeal as spectacle. One thing the narrative cannot be faulted for is a lack of ambition or scope, and the plot did get more engaging as it developed, especially where it concerned Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader, and the slide of the Republic toward disaster. (Indeed, Episode III was justly the best-reviewed of the three films, quite well-received by a good many critics.) In fact, I will go further and say that, like no other Hollywood films since the originals, the prequels gave the big screen an epic science fiction tale (helped by that much-derided CGI, which afforded a much broader view of Lucas's galaxy) which lived up to the romanticism and scale the term "space opera" is supposed to denote.

For all their shortcomings, a general reappraisal is long, long overdue.

1. The relevant bit of dialogue is in an exceptionally stupid and patronizing scene in this exceptionally stupid and patronizing film. Ordinarily this fact wouldn't merit a footnote, but I wouldn't have felt right not clarifying that point, lest this mention be mistaken for an endorsement of this example of awful writing and (where the leads are concerned) really bad casting.


Robert Martin said...

I am a middle aged scifi fanatic who reads as much hard scifi as I watch mainstream scifi. I am a huge supporter of the prequels and Jar Jar Binks. The backlash against the prequels exists mainly because it became hip to do so back in 1999. Classic generation fans were basically angry that Lucas had kicked over their sandcastle by trying to inject some level of scifi world building and political intrigue not contained at the same level in the classics unless one read the tie-in novels to fill in the gaps. I could go on for pages regarding detailed analysis of why this is but I am sure it has been done elsewhere . Classic Star Wars was groundbreaking for its time so anything coming after it would be considered derivative. At its basic level however is a simplistic fairy tale with as much wooden acting and dialogue as the prequels, Sir Alec Guiness aside, only Harrison Ford has had a successful career while the prequels have produced Natalie Portman, Ewan McGreggor, (Liam Neilson , Samuel Jackson) . Jar Jar became a media punching bag that haters could really dig to find fault with as the scapegoat to launch the hater's revolution. Jar jar is essentially no sillier than Chewbacca or an Ewok aimed at a children's toy market. live with it. The prequels work better as a trilogy unto the,selves than the classics. One moment Leia and Luke are kissing then they are brother and sister...lets just wing it while the Dewey eyed world looks on in nostalgia. There are campaign efforts out there for Disney to dump CGI in favor of stop motion puppetry, which while the best that could be done for its time, is no more realistic looking than a current day Gollum or Caesar. Just because we may enjoy the quaintness of a Model T doesn't mean we all need to drive PT cruisers. Lucas could do no right other than stop after episode 6. His prequels could have been Citizen Kane and the masses would have complained about a cgi rosebud. Take a better look at the prequels. There is a lot more there under the cgi surface than meets the candy eye.

Nader said...

Thanks for writing. As you already know, I'm in nearly full agreement.
And though I didn't mention that particular point, I'm agreed about the exaggerated reaction to Jar Jar Binks, and the way it played into making the series a media punching bag - and the astonishing bandwagoning that followed.

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