War! The Republic is Crumbling…
There is a popular saying among Star Wars fans on the internet: “Nobody hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans.” Despite the beloved franchise being one of the most commercially successful intellectual properties (IPs) in the world, the fandom has shed its once monolithic love for relatively uncivil factions. But this is not a phenomenon that arose with the Disney era. No, the herald of this venomous hostility was the Star Wars Prequels.
The Star Wars Prequels were once considered to be blasphemous creations that only served to accomplish George Lucas’s bloodlust for merchandising opportunities. The established fandom was overcome with a wave of disappointment that they interpreted as a personal afront of their senses and childhood dreams. It got so bad that they even made an entire movie about it!
In contrast, I, and many millennials alike, love the Prequels. To us, this is Star Wars. Now, a new wave of Star Wars disdain has spawned in the stratified fandom: hating the Disney Sequels. I have already expressed my thoughts on these films in previous blogs and reviews, so I will not beat a dead space horse there. But, in the spirit of intellectual honesty, I feel it is only right if I take a critical eye to the Prequels. Am I being unfair to the Sequels? Has nostalgia blinded me from being objective to the Prequels? Let’s take a look.
We need to eat our vegetables before we can move forward. The films in the Prequels are littered with unforced errors and questionable artistic choices. Many of the common criticisms dished out to these films include “the politics are boring”, “too much CGI”, “stiff, lifeless acting by everyone not named Ewan McGregor or Ian McDermid”, and “Jar Jar Binks” amongst others. If these issues ring true to your opinions, then they are real enough to consider. I am aiming to be as objective as possible, but I understand that if a subjective criticism is widespread enough, it can’t be ignored.
George Lucas has created this enticing universe for people to escape to. His ability to create and think with a “big picture” vision is unmatched. However, his skill as an actual director is still questionable at best. It is well-documented how the original Star Wars from 1977 was a mess that was re-stitched together in editing because the original cut was incoherent and poorly paced. Unfortunately, in the 22 years from the original to the creation of the prequels, Lucas never outgrew this issue and these films suffer heavily from it.
All three of the films have some pacing issues, with “Attack of the Clones” (AOTC) standing out as the most egregious violator. It takes over an hour and 10 minutes to finally be introduced to the main antagonist, Count Dooku. Meanwhile, the story meanders on Naboo while Anakin and Padme are awkwardly being forced into love, and we only really have fun with Obi-Wan.
Speaking of Obi-Wan, he is completely sidelined for a third of “The Phantom Menace” (TPM) when he is inexplicably forced to stay on the ship for the entire sequence on Tatooine. He is one of the three main characters of the prequels and is weirdly not present (even though he very much was able to be) when the other two meet each other and spend significant time getting to know each other. It could have added some much-needed depth to the relationship all three characters share. I happen to actually like the time we spend on Tatooine in TPM, but there is plenty George could have done to make those scenes add more to the story and while still making sense in the context of the film.
This pacing issue extends to “Revenge of the Sith” (ROTS). The original cut of that film was around four and a half hours. While the prospect of that much content in a Star Wars film undoubtedly intrigues me, no film should ever NEED to be that long to be complete (I’m looking at you “Justice League”). These are only three examples of this issue but if you look closer, you’ll see ample opportunities to sure up the pacing in the entire trilogy that many have accused of being slow and boring.
This is just a general overview of the issue, and with more time, we could dive into the details on a micro-level. But even in this lens, the overarching issue is still apparent.
This feels like something that wouldn’t be objective (because it really isn’t), but I’m including it because this is a special case. No one in the world believes that these scripts have natural-sounding dialogue in them. Yes, these characters exist in a different galaxy with different customs and social norms than we have. I can use my imagination to accept that to a degree. But there is a happy medium, and these films do not meet us there. “I don’t like sand” has become a meme at this point, but it is far from the only weird line of verbal communication that characters say.
I will concede that the vast majority of the criticisms of dialogue still come down to personal taste, and one could make an argument that bad acting is to blame. Did bad acting make these lines sound less human than they are, or did these weird lines sabotage capable acting? Maybe we will never know. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. Either way, we need to acknowledge that these areas are almost universally identified as lacking and having ample room for improvement.
Weird Choices and Missed Opportunities
We have to acknowledge that there were some just odd choices made in the Prequels that certainly rubbed people the wrong way. Jar Jar Binks being one of the main characters was an odd choice, but I understand his role as a child-friendly comic relief character. Perhaps his antics could have been dialed down a bit, but we should also realize that not everything is created with you specifically in mind. I am sure some children love him, and for that, he works in TPM. But his role becomes less visible yet somehow more important in AOTC until he is relegated to a non-speaking role in ROTS. Instead of trying to improve the character, they decided to just bury him, which is a shame.
I think the strangest choice was making Anakin as young as he was in TPM. At that time, he was 9, and his eventual love interest, Padme was 14. Padme being a 14-year-old, yet also being the Democratically elected executive of an entire planet is weird as is, but it had to be done to keep her relatively close in age to Anakin so their love wouldn’t be that unreasonable. Unfortunately, the film relies heavily on the acting ability of a child actor, which isn’t fair to them. If he, Padme, and Obi-Wan were all young adults when they were introduced, their relationships with each other are given more room to exist without feeling so awkward.
Like with the last criticism, this isn’t an all-encompassing look at the problem. Even in this general bird’s eye view, we see that these issues are all self-created and could easily have been fixed with very few changes needing to be made to the subsequent films to make work. It is a shame because the alternatives feel like the better options, and we were given the lesser versions.
Relying on The Clone Wars Show
Undoubtedly, the biggest flaw of the Prequel Trilogy is that there is simply too much content for the three films to tell us by themselves, a trait that is shared with the Disney Sequels. Within the films, the Clone Wars was an idea that was more akin to a plot device than an actual aspect of the story. We don’t understand the threat of the separatists, who General Grievous is, or why the conflict matters at all. This is where the animated show “The Clone Wars” comes in. This show fills in all the gaps and adds so much more to the half-baked ideas that the films introduced but didn’t have enough time to flesh out on their own.
To a viewer who watches nothing but the films, Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, as well as his relationships with Obi-Wan and Padme, seem rushed and incomplete. The movies make it seem like Anakin was prone to getting angry, then he had a bad dream and got passed over for a promotion, so he decided to become a genocidal maniac. Ok, that might be an oversimplification, but it’s not too far from the truth. We really only get half of a film of Anakin and Obi-Wan looking like they could have appreciated each other’s company, and a few scenes of Anakin and Padme weirdly expressing love for each other they struggle to show in any other capacity.
The Clone Wars show makes us care about the clones, transforming them from limitless CGI renderings into individuals with varying viewpoints and moralities who end up being tragic pawns rather than unthinking peons. The show shows us the flaws of the Jedi Order, how they manipulate Anakin and force him into situations that make him question their morality. We understand that his fall was not sudden, but gradual and almost understandable. We see the separatists be a faction with legitimate qualms against a truly corrupt Republic. We see idealist Senators try to overcome the ever-increasing influence of a growing military state. Each aspect that comes up short in the films is expanded on satisfyingly. But, as great as this makes the overall story, it only emphasizes how incomplete the films are on their own.
Becoming More than a Trilogy
While that might make it seem as if the Prequels are a mess, nothing is fatal. The saving grace of the Prequels is that the story, despite not being fleshed out enough, is a coherent narrative. The skeletal structure of the trilogy is consistent and never loses its message (something the Sequels fail at). That is why the additions “The Clone Wars” show supplement them with work so well. But all that means is that the trilogy has hit the bare minimum of acceptability. That would hardly constitute them as good films. So, do the Prequels do enough, if anything, to overcome their obvious issues? To me, the answer is a resounding yes!
The Prequels tell a story that is far larger than either of its companion trilogies attempt to tell. As far as storytelling goes, these films focus on the macro, using the micro-stories to supplement the big picture. The priority in these stories is to tell the story of the Star Wars galaxy knowing that all of these characters play roles in executing the story. In this capacity, we can view the story itself as the main character, and every other character as serving a supporting role. We still get to learn about these individuals, but they have a responsibility to the plot first-and-foremost. This contrasts with the Original Trilogy and the Sequel Trilogy. In those films, the only reason we care about the grand conflicts is that we are invested in the individual characters.
The difference between the two styles can be jarring, and in retrospect, it is likely why many people said the Prequels didn’t “feel like Star Wars” upon their release. But the result of this is that we are introduced to a far larger universe than we got in either of those trilogies. We are exposed to worlds and biomes, hosting a variety of species and cultures. It is in the Prequels that Star Wars grew from relatively insular, to expansive. For many fans, our imaginations were supercharged with the introductions of new worlds, Jedi at their physical peaks, and weird aliens that weren’t bound to the limits of the practical effects of the time.
We should acknowledge that this type of storytelling is incredibly difficult to pull off. Most entities aren’t allotted the patience to be so big-picture-focused. The Prequels needed the Original Trilogy to establish the base that it rests on. I fully understand that despite being later stories chronologically, the Original Trilogy is essential for getting us invested in the world and allowing the story a chance to expand. Now, conflicts encompass multiple planets at once and our main characters do not need to all be sharing the same cockpit to be involved in important actions. They all can be at different places in the galaxy impacting events from multiple angles. For the first time in Star Wars, it feels like there are more than five or so people who matter.
To add on this, the visual effects, especially in ROTS, are so detailed and filled out and the world building becomes more intricate as a result. The advancements of technology for the time allowed for these films to truly push the boundaries of what a film could look like. And, while this might be controversial, I also think the music of the Prequels is easily the best of any era. Obviously, we can all disagree, but John Williams, to me, created his best work in these films. I will always associate the choir he incorporates with what Star Wars means on a visceral level. The final product is a scopious change to the Star Wars story, mythos, and feel.
You can be the judge if you think this is fair or not, but the Prequels set the bones in place for a larger, total story within the Prequels era. While the incomplete nature of the Prequels as films is inescapable, so is too the expansive foundation they established. “The Clone Wars” show is not one of these films, but with its addition, turns these films from ambitious ideas with insufficient execution to a vast era of cohesive and deep stories. To many fans, myself included, you cannot judge the Prequels alone. The story is not finished with the films and there is far more to say.
But let’s be fair. I did say that if a story needs four and a half hours to be told correctly, something is wrong with it. The Prequels are not exempt from this criticism. They have plenty of room for improvement in this matter. But the content is all there, it just needs to be reorganized a bit.
Many of the most moving elements in all of Star Wars are present exclusively in the Prequels. Order 66, Duel of the Fates, Anakin versus Obi-Wan, the clone army on Kamino, the Battle of Geonosis… We have none of these moments that have momentous implications on the grand story without the Prequels.
My beloved Prequels were afforded their chances at redemption and their legacy has been dramatically improved because of it, and I hope the Sequels are allotted their opportunity as well. For the many flaws those films have, if they make even one person feel as passionately about Star Wars as the Prequels did to me, then I consider them successful. It is my hope that in time the flaws of those films are not forgotten, but that the work is put into fix them, the way “The Clone Wars” filled in the Prequels.
And so, this is the legacy of the Prequels. They are three films that shepherd the narrative in ambitious directions, even if they need some outside help along the way. To many, these are the most invigorating movies of the saga, pushing our imagination far beyond what came before it. They aimed very high, and even if they never quite reached their own lofty expectations, they ultimately laid the groundwork for Star Wars to continue to grow in more creative ways.