The Star Wars prequels, reassessed

by Tom Grundy

The Star Wars prequels, reassessed
May 25, 2020 Tom Grundy

Accepted wisdom among fans is that the ‘original trilogy’ of Star Wars films is near-perfect, the prequel trilogy is awful, and the Disney trilogy is patchy. In the wake of The Rise of Skywalker, a revision may be in order.

 

Since mid-December, this writer and some friends have been on a Star Wars rampage — watching the whole saga in chronological order. Having just finished The Return of the Jedi, he now feels that he’s spent quite a lot of time in a galaxy far, far away. 

This isn’t going to be another article ranking the whole lot, because that isn’t the point, and it’s very subjective. But there is a consensus among fans that the prequel trilogy — comprising The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) — shouldn’t have been made. The use of CGI over puppets and claymation, particular casting decisions, and the scope and tone of the plot have all been listed as ways in which George Lucas strayed from the formula that earned Star Wars its cultural standing alongside The Lord of the Rings

A friend described it the most usefully: the original trilogy focused on adventure told through personal stories, while the prequels deal with political drama and a macro story of civilisation change. Tonally, they are apparently very different. 

The appalling fan response to the prequel trilogy ruined the careers (and, in cases, lives) of several members of the cast and permanently soured George Lucas on his own franchise. They are at least a part of the reason Lucas sold the brand to Disney in 2012 and The Phantom Menace, in particular, has been pinpointed as the moment at which ‘fan entitlement’ emerged as a powerful force in Western entertainment. 

I (I won’t say ‘we’, as I certainly don’t speak for the rest of the Parallel Worlds team) believe this view of the prequel trilogy is overdue a revision. 

There is a reason for arguing this now, and that is The Rise of Skywalker, released last year. The Disney trilogy as a whole has made this question more pressing; we now know what happens when ‘the fans’ get what they want, and the answer is endless montages of screaming TIE fighters and yawning Wookies, superficial highlights-reels referencing films gone by, devoid of coherency or heart. 

The Force Awakens (2015) was a shocking success, both critically and commercially. It delivered over $2bn in box office revenues and sparked cautious optimism for the stewardship of Disney. The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, went in a different direction — critically successful (it holds a 91% ‘fresh’ critical rating on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes) but divisive. The Rise of Skywalker struck this writer as a firm and cynical response to that dichotomy. “Fine then, basement-dwellers”, it seemed to say. “If all you want are endless call-backs to The Empire Strikes Back, that’s what you’ll bloody get.” Director J. J. Abrams had seemingly decided that there was no point bothering with nonsense like character development or original, consistent plot — the only way to keep the gargling masses happy was with mindless, nostalgic spectacle.

Some have thoughtfully pointed out that the main faults with the Disney trilogy can be traced to the fact that there was not one clear narrative ‘hand on the tiller’ throughout, with the different directors seemingly able to do what they wished, plot-wise (J. J. Abrams bookended the trilogy with Johnson directing the middle one). The original three films each had a different director, too — but they manage to broadly tell a consistent story. The key difference is that George Lucas was there to make sure that all the bits lined up. 

This is why opinions of the prequel trilogy are due a revision. While the change in tone isn’t for everyone, the story it tells — the tragic tale of Anakin Skywalker and the subsumption of the Galactic Republic into the evil Empire — is a consistent, densely-plotted space opera in three acts. The high politics it focuses on might not be for everyone — the Senate chamber becomes a very familiar sight by The Revenge of the Sith — and it’s undoubtedly a change in direction, but is that a terrible thing? This writer enjoyed seeing the little-by-little way democracy can be traduced, and George Lucas can be forgiven for assuming that at least some of his fans were interested in the world he created, and wanted more to chew on.

The dialogue and script come into the crosshairs, too. And here the prequels are more difficult to defend; but is that so anomalous for Star Wars? Watch A New Hope and tell me the script is better (Leia’s awkward “I knew you weren’t just about the money,” as she hugs Han Solo after the destruction of the Death Star, is a classic example of awkward characterisation shoehorned in where it isn’t needed). The ceaseless “old buddy”, ‘we’re such good friends, honest’ between Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in The Return of the Jedi feels painfully forced, too. 

The characters in the prequels, too, are a mixed bag. Hayden Christensen as Anakin seems more petulant than tragic or threatening, and I have yet to meet a single person who didn’t hate Jar Jar Binks (though groupthink could explain that). But Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn is undoubtedly one of the franchise’s best Jedi and Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine is skin-crawlingly watchable. 

It’s true that the CGI of the prequels has aged poorly; with hindsight, they’re emblematic of the awkward adolescence of the technology rather than its maturity. But they undoubtedly allowed Lucas to tell a bigger story than he had been able to previously and contain some spectacular vistas.

Another consistent criticism is the unbelievability of Anakin’s fall from grace. Here I think the arrows strike closer to the mark; he isn’t tempted by the dark side so much as tricked into thinking it can save his wife, which means that when it doesn’t save her, his “oh well, guess I’m a Sith now” feels less coherent. But is this any sillier or less believable than the rest of the series? Palpatine goading Rey to kill him in The Rise of Skywalker in order to become a Sith is at least as nonsensical, not least because she does exactly that with no ill effect seconds later.

In short, it’s time we reassessed. The prequel trilogies were not the unmitigated dumpster fires they’re remembered as — for viewers who care about such fripperies as plot, they have a lot to give. And the rest of the franchise is far from flawless or consistent. For my money, The Empire Strikes Back is easily the best, with good twists, interesting characters, and a quirky romance. But the final hour of The Revenge of the Sith isn’t far behind, as the dominoes fall with heart-wrenching finality one by one, as we know they must. 

Personal preference is everything with art, as films undoubtedly are, so an objective assessment of whether something is ‘good’ or not is impossible and facile — the closest we can come is a sort of consensus of preference. But fashion and ‘sense of the time’ (the German word ‘zeitgeist’) play a part, too. In the 80s, binary good versus evil was king; think The Dark Crystal’s cherubic Gelflings and the pantomime evil of the Skeksis. The original Star Wars trilogy epitomises this — in fact, the cuddly Ewoks, mild peril, and Han Solo’s awkward humour in The Return of the Jedi put that film closer in tone to a family caper like Gremlins or The Goonies, in my view, than a toothsome epic like The Empire Strikes Back. For at least a dozen or so years, this style of storytelling has been out in Western cinema; these days, it’s all about tortured backstories, morally-ambivalent antiheroes, and dark themes. 

In this light, it’s possible to view the ongoing debate of the future of Star Wars as a discussion of whether or not the franchise should be updated to reflect today’s trends. The more thoughtful examination of ends versus means in Rogue One shows that this can work, but there is virtue to the argument that not everything should follow the whims of fashion.

John Carpenter’s The Thing received universal opprobrium when it was first released in 1982 — a critical and commercial reaction that shaped the director’s career. However, in the last 20 years or so, audiences’ and critics’ opinions have been revised, and The Thing is now considered one of the best horror films of all time. Audiences and critics can be wrong, and opinions can mellow. I urge you to go back and watch The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and The Revenge of the Sith

And if that doesn’t convince you, watch The Rise of Skywalker