It’s taken me to episode five of this blog series to finally figure out why I was so disappointed by the Star Wars prequels. Well, I have untied the knots! The hyperdrive has been repaired in the nick of time! I feel the Force flowing through me once again…
So, I re-watched the prequels, from my own couch. (They were previously banned from entering my house.) My mind was eager. My heart was open.
First of all—standing ovation to the artists and technicians of all kinds who made these movies. As a filmmaker, I know something of the epic audio and visual jigsaw puzzle that is moviemaking—and this is moviemaking on a mighty scale. The visual effects of course pushed the craft forward, establishing the state-of-the-art in many instances and in some moments created truly breathtaking visuals. I personally prefer a few more physical sets and practical effects, but the ambition and skill of these people is amazing. The movie credits should be watched and applauded. From the cinematography to the sound design to the imperial army of oft-overlooked but essential facilitators and bean counters—these movies are an extraordinary achievement.
And of course, kudos to George Lucas for being such a pioneering, iconic force in a storytelling medium I love. May I recommend this hilarious tribute to Lucas by another starfaring legend:
Here’s the video link for those of you viewing in an email: https://youtu.be/SLoua3Ge3iY
Now for my “review”:
2 out of 5 stars for the prequels.
Many consider Empire to be the best of the series… but it might have a bigger plot hole than any of them…
This is the storytelling I’m talking about, not the artistic or technical achievement. And I’m looking at Episodes 1-3 as single entity. (For reference, IV gets a 4.5, V gets a 4.9, VI gets a 4.) There were many interesting, exciting, or otherwise well-wrought scenes (podrace, duel with Darth Maul, Jango vs. Obi-wan, duel on Mustafar, and others). But for me, everything else fell flat.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who loves the prequels! If they inspire you to make the world a better place–high five! Let’s jig together to Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes.
Many prequel-haters spend their time nitpicking the various plot inconsistencies, when actually the biggest hole is in my favorite Star Wars movie. (I’m sure you’ve noticed the massive time differential problem in The Empire Strikes Back.) It’s true, there’s no excuse for obvious plot problems, especially when you have access to the best storytelling talent in the world. But these are so many B1 battle droids compared to the imploding Star Destroyers of the three central stories…
Amazing posters illustrated by Drew Struzan.
For me, the prequels boil down to these intertwined tales:
1) A love story.
Anakin and Padme. It’s a love story strong enough to bring down a civilization.
2) A coming-of-age / buddy story.
Anakin and Obi-Wan. Anakin grows up, is trained, and must deal with huge changes/decisions thrust upon him before he’s ready—including to follow or reject his friend/mentor/father figure Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan is tragically forced to fight his pupil to the death…
3) A fall-redemption story.
Anakin and Vader. The hero Anakin rises, falls, becomes Vader, and is ultimately redeemed—thanks the to the spark of goodness/love in him finally actuated by his son Luke. (Obviously this is wrapped up in Return of the Jedi, but we spend most of our time with Anakin in the prequels.)
In a nutshell, for me, the prequels simply failed to tell any of these in a believable, impacting way.
Story #2 (Anakin and Obi-Wan) was somewhat redeemed by the heart-wrenching, beautifully rendered duel on Mustafar, given an extra special dose of mojo by Ewan McGregor.
My kids, watching alongside me, had the same impression. Most of the time, I found myself wondering: “Wait– Wha– Huh? Why is he doing that? Why would anyone do that?” These were roads paved by completely unconvincing setups and payoffs. It seemed like George Lucas dreamed up a bunch of really cool scenes, and then yanked the characters on and off the stage to string the story together with wooden exposition.
But even the not-so-awesomely told stories aren’t enough to justify my negative feelings toward the prequels. And I’m not here to bash them anyway. On the contrary, I’m here to “let go of my hate.”
Finally, I had the sense to ask myself: “Tom, if you don’t know what these feelings ARE, then what are they LIKE?”
“Good question, Tom,” I responded to myself. “Basically, I feel like I lost a best friend.”
I was on to something. For so many years before the prequels, Star Wars was my pal. Yeah yeah, they’re just movies, but go with me here for a second. Think of a movie or book or piece of art or piece of pecan pie that you really really love—something that connects or comforts or inspires you.
Like a good friend, Star Wars accepted, reflected, and celebrated so much of what was in my kid-to-teenage heart. We had a lot in common—sense of adventure, sense of humor, love of spaceships, politics, spirituality, imagination, ideas about what made a hero and what redemption was about, the certainty that an obscure kid could grow up and save the galaxy, a love for all things lightsabery. And it was all made “real” by characters and events who existed in a consistent—if fantastical—universe that really existed as long as my frayed Beta tapes existed. More than that, because everyone else seemed to love Star Wars, it was a bridge to the rest of humanity. Here was a non-threatening set of values, art, characters, stories, and sundry coolness that I had in common with millions of other people around the world! I could unabashedly parade around using the Force without getting made fun of, because it was dang cool.
I trusted Star Wars to always be there for me.
(Is this getting too weird?)
For that great gift, thank you George Lucas.
But with the prequels seemed to disavow so much profundity (midi-chlorians, etc.), mangle the basic mechanics of human relations (epic love story based on whining, etc.), and confuse manic depressive paranoid schizophrenia with a character development (pretty much anything Anakin does in relation to the emperor and Padme). (I know, I know, there are prequel defenders ready to bury me in tomes of expanded universe explanations!)
Star Wars—my friend—had suddenly turned its back on me.
Do I have a right to feel betrayed so melodramatically? Only a little. I think the give and take with Star Wars was consistent enough for a legitimate expectation. It was my job to watch and re-watch Star Wars and buy lightsabers, and it was Star Wars’ job to provide an entertaining, inspiring, spacefaring duel between good and evil. Over and over again it told me what those opening titles meant, and then it suddenly changed its mind.
But in reality, this is Lucas’ baby. This is his art.
And I exuberantly thank him for what he and his cohorts have brought to life in the original trilogy. I have no right to demand anything. The mega-fans who explain away the weaknesses of the prequel movies actually LESS dysfunctional than I.
Yes, the movies were lame in my opinion. Yes, they trampled some things I felt were special. I can and should express my disappointment.
But I have allowed myself to be personally affronted and let down. Maybe Star Wars was a bad friend, but so was I.
Ok, this is so crazily silly and sappy!!! But true!!!
My bad vibes about the prequels were not about the prequels, they were about me. A good friend (assuming they are not whitewashing abusive behavior in a codependent relationship) forgives the weaknesses of a pal and celebrates the strengths.
Now, to be clear, I don’t believe in watching garbage media and just trying to ignore it by focusing on the good stuff. If you are hanging out in Jabba’s palace and he happens to be poisining you, and you just ignored, well, you still get poisoned. The prequels are neither garbage nor poison, but I probably won’t be watching them again any time soon. And they will not be readily available to my kids…
But, the veil of the dark side has been lifted. So, Star Wars, ‘ol buddy, let’s forgive each other and move on.
I already have my tickets for Episode VIII, and I am dressing up. Clone Wars is on my Netflix queue.
And TONIGHT (November 19th at 7pm MST) I will be a guest on the STAR WARS SPECTACULAR at Dungeon Crawlers Radio — a fabulous geek podcast — to debate all things Star Wars!
Here’s a fun final video link for those of you viewing in an email: https://youtu.be/ZbV5hn_ET0U