Star Wars: The Prequels Strike Back

The wait is finally over. A decade after the release of Revenge of the Sith  and after years of the future of the franchise being ‘limited’ to the Star Wars Expanded Univwhierse, we’re getting Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens this Christmas, with a glorious final trailer seemingly assuaging any fears of the franchise not being in the right hands. This is quite a feat considering the last time we were in this situation fans got The Phantom Menace and one disappointment after another they would all rather forget.

The distaste of hardcore Star Wars fans of the prequels has actually become legendary in and of itself, transcending the franchise’s fan-base and making its way into popular culture. The same year that Marvel Comics was acquired by Disney – three years before Lucasfilm itself met the same fate – one of Deadpool’s most famous moments was published, outing him as a stereotypical Original Trilogy fan when he went into space in Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth #5.

With Force Awakens set to continue where Return of the Jedi left off, the consensus is that most fans are happy to wash the bad taste left by the prequels from their mouths. This does, however, raise a good question: why the bad taste in the first place? Were the prequels that bad? Personally, I wouldn’t think so. Before anyone gets out their virtual pitchforks and torches, I do agree that the directing leaves a lot to be desired, that there is too much a lack of practical effects, that Jar Jar Binks is an abomination, that Anakin Skywalker tends to come off as whining too much and that the central love story between him and Padmé Amidala is severely hampered by their lack of on-screen chemistry and some questionable writing. I do, however, also believe that the prequel trilogy has quite a few good points that should be celebrated and that it should not be hated and shunned from fans’ memory of the franchise.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

Those Rose-Tinted Glasses

While this article does cover the good points of the prequels, I felt I couldn’t really make a fair assessment without tackling the major obstacle they face in fans’ collective memory: nostalgia for the original trilogy. The original trilogy was a greatly entertaining trend-setter and a classic to be sure, but the fact is that fans have put in on an untouchable pedestal. The disappointment with The Phantom Menace is understandable, but in bashing the prequels most fans tend to overlook the flaws of the original trilogy.

Firstly, the original trilogy has a number of strange character developments. The Luke-Han-Leia love triangle is only resolved out of fear of incest (which makes the moment Luke and Leia kiss in the first film rather uncomfortable to watch in retrospect). Luke also becomes different between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes darker and Han becomes a pushover without much explanation. Despite the fact that Boba Fett boasts a good design and remains a fan-favourite, looking back at what actually happens in the original trilogy, it becomes clear he doesn’t talk or do much and exits in a ridiculous way. Even The Empire Strikes Back, the best of the original trilogy to many, suffers from a wonky timeline. Luke’s training with Yoda on Dagobah seems to take weeks while Han and Leia’s seem to take days, despite the fact that the editing of the scenes strongly suggests that they should be happening concurrently.

Darth Vader alone represents one of the best villains of all time, but the fact is that the Empire he works for is too utterly incompetent to pose a real threat. Building a second Death Star with the same faults of the first defies all logic. The inability of villains and their grunts to shoot down protagonists has been named the Stormtrooper Effect after the ineptitude Empire’s elite forces (some of the most precise, according to Obi-Wan) when confronted with any of our heroes. Finally, let us not forget the climax of the trilogy in which the forces of the Empire with enough potential firepower to destroy a planet are defeated by a tribe of small woodland creatures. Hate him all you want, but the seeds for anything that Jar Jar Binks represents to the fans were already being planted with the Ewoks.

For all the problems the prequels have, the fact is that they haven’t really sullied the franchise to the extent a number of fans would have the rest of us believe. Now that the playing field is a bit more level, let’s move on to the prequels’ strengths.

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

Casting and Characters

Even of the prequels don’t have much opportunity to bring in classics like Luke, Han and Leia, an effort was still made in bringing in performers to reprise their classic roles such as Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). Even James Earl Jones briefly returns to voice Darth Vader for the critical moment of the character’s inception. The most notable returning actor is, of course, Ian McDiarmid prominently playing Palpatine throughout the three prequels. In a great bit of serendipity, the same McDiarmid who had to wear makeup in 1983 to play the older and decaying Palpatine was only in his mid-fifties when The Phantom Menace was released, making him the perfect age to return as his own character’s younger self. Moreover, when the character finally reveals himself in Revenge of the Sith, you can just tell he just has all the fun he can with the role, which is just enjoyable to watch.

There are also a couple of standout casting choices and characters new to the prequels as well. Let me start with what is surely the most controversial of my choices: Anakin as portrayed by Hayden Christensen. Christensen’s acting is wooden and the script does him no favours, but the actor’s other work does seem to put the blame on the direction rather than the actor. Moreover, apart from the at-times excessive whining – possibly a Skywalker family trait – I actually like Anakin’s characterisation. Make no mistake, the character is not really likable, but is imbued with subtle Vader-like qualities in being shown to be selfish, possessive and misguidedly power-hungry. From a narrative stand-point, it makes for a much smoother transition to the Vader we all know and love from the original trilogy than the pure hero he is sometimes made out to have been.

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

More undeniable praise can be given to Ewan McGregor, who plays a fantastic Obi-Wan and looks uncannily like a younger version of the character played by Alec Guinness by the time of Revenge of the Sith. McGregor imbues the character with enough valour, honour and wisdom to make him the most genuinely likable protagonist of the prequels and the franchise.

The original trilogy admittedly has the luxury of having the same duo of villains throughout all three films (with the possible exception of Tarkin), with the prequels only having Palpatine as the overarching antagonist along with a new apprentice or ally every film. This may not leave much room for their development, but the fact remains that they boast some creative and memorable designs. Darth Maul makes quite an impression in The Phantom Menace, such that it really is a shame that he doesn’t make it beyond the film. His subsequent in-canon appearances outside the films, however, added much to his character, giving him nuance and even further menace to our heroes on a personal level. Grevious is also a cool addition to the Star Wars mythos and an excuse for some impressive lightsaber moves. Needless to say, the inclusion of Count Dooku introduced the great Sir Christopher Lee into the Star Wars universe, with his character easily being the best in a way that only Sir Christopher could ensure.

(Copyright Dark Horse Comics, Lucasfilm Ltd)

(Copyright Dark Horse Comics, Lucasfilm Ltd)

New Worlds

As much as I retain a love for practical effects as exemplified by the original Star Wars and its sequels one can’t deny the fact that most of the supposedly alien worlds never really stray away from the swamps, deserts and forests of Earth. When put to good use, the prequels use the advances in technology since the production of the originals to bring to life a greater diversity of alien worlds. The endless city-scape of Corcusant, above- and underwater Naboo, the lush and vibrant jungles of Felucia, the Wookie homeworld Kashykk, the endless torrents over the seas of Kamino and the fiery landscape of Mustafar and even a brief peek at Alderaan were only possible thanks to the prequels.

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

The Politics

The prequels are a rather simplistic tale of good versus evil, a big bad Empire bearing down upon a collection of rebels fighting for the galaxy’s freedom. In showing the formation of the Empire, the prequels take a cue from real-life history and political maneuvering. Palpatine’s Grand Plan isn’t that far off from Otto von Bismarck’s infamous formation of the German Empire through “blood and iron”, mobilising nationalistic forces through warfare for the sake of security through unity. The prequel Palpatine is also shown to be a charming politician who doesn’t lose his magnetism even when he could otherwise have a problem with his image (in no small part thanks to McDiarmid’s performance). One political scientist, Csaba Toth, uses his manipulation of the Republic in the prequels as an example of a “classical Hitler-style road from democracy to dictatorship”.

The Phantom Menace is often derided for using a trade dispute and a blockade as the trigger for the action that follows, but I would actually applaud it for mentioning something so seemingly mundane. This could admittedly be the international relations/politics/history student in me talking, but people tend to forget that in the height of revolution sweeping across the European continent, Napoleon’s plan to defeat the British Empire wasn’t just limited to using gunpowder and cannon, but also involved a Continental System meant to choke its economy through a continent-wide blockade. This all could be a bit boring to some, but I can hardly fault George Lucas for being a bit more realistic in his Empire-building.

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

The Lightsaber Battles

Both Jedi and Sith are described as formidable warriors in the original trilogy, but the fact is that the description never really fits in with anything we saw on screen. It wasn’t until the epic showdown between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace that we really got to see what mastery of the Force and a lightsaber could really do in battle. That battle in particular arguably remains the best in the franchise so far, but the power and excitement linked to watching the Jedi in action in all three films makes Obi-Wan’s comparatively frail state in the original trilogy a sad sight to behold.

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

(Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd)

The Music

At eighty-three years of age,  composer John Williams has one heck of a repertoire which covers some of the most quintessential films in history (and most of our childhoods), including Jaws, E.T., Saving Private Ryan, Superman, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and, of course, Star Wars. Even after having returning to the franchise after sixteen years, an area in which the prequels and originals remain on par is the quality of music retained and expanded upon. The music of the prequels has become iconic enough to warrant Williams weaving it in to his newer compositions to make the two trilogies a more cohesive whole (which will also count for The Force Awakens). He does this in welcome and subtle ways at times, bringing in hints of The Imperial March in Anakin’s Theme and Augie’s Great Municipal Band being a festive re-arrangement of The Emperor’s Theme.

Not only do Williams’s scores for the prequels bring back the greatest hits from the originals, but they stand very well on their own. Duel of the Fates easily stands among the top tracks of the franchise next to the main theme and The Imperial March. Across the Stars is simply a beautiful and emotional track, epic in scale and effectively bittersweet (and also strangely evocative of Williams’s score for Hook). Battle of the Heroes is also suitably epic as an overall thematic base for the third prequel, although I tend to prefer Anakin’s Betrayal for a better emotional effect. It’s all still great music either way and worthy of Star Wars.

Allow to also share a bit of a personal anecdote here from my trip to London this summer, just a couple of weeks after the first Force Awakens merchandise became available. Firstly, walking into a Disney Store and being greeted by The Imperial March possibly remains one of the most surreal moments of my geek life so far. More importantly, the medley playing at the store also included the main Star Wars theme, Across the Stars and other new and classic compositions. Hearing them all together really brought home how much the music from across the films gels well together and can be equally evocative. Thank God Williams has returned to the franchise to score The Force Awakens.

Star Wars Orchestra

The Clone Wars

This could be a bit of a cheat, but the fact remains that the brilliant series The Clone Wars also owes its existence to the prequels. Bridging the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the series revisits a number of elements from the prequels and even finds some time to address some important issues in the Star Wars mythos. The Mortis arc addresses the prophecy of the Chosen One and Anakin while The Lost Missions reveal the truth behind the mystery of Sifo-Diyas, the exact nature of Order 66 and the clones’ say in it. The latter episodes also manage to successfully reconcile the midi-chlorians from the prequels with the strictly spiritual vision of the Force from the originals while retaining its mystical elements all at the same time.

By focussing on a variety of characters across the galaxy, The Clone Wars also shows how the mechanics of the Clone Wars have changed people and the systems that govern them, most often for the worse. The Republic becomes increasingly militarised while more and more power becomes centralised around the person of the Supreme Chancellor as Palpatine takes on more emergency powers, even galactic finances. By the time of Revenge of the Sith, a very compromised democracy is shown to have become such a part of daily life it’s no wonder people cheer for the formation of the Empire. The Jedi Order also becomes so focussed on winning the war that it becomes blind to the truth in front of them, despite having enough evidence to piece it all together.

Other than adding to the Star Wars mythos, the true success of The Clone Wars lies in its characters. Peripheral characters like the members of the Jedi Order are given their time to shine, while the Herculean task of giving clones personalities is achieved with brilliance; one of stand-out characters actually becomes clone Captain Rex of the 501st Legion. Previously prominent characters like Count Dooku and Obi-Wan are also given more time and development. Anakin’s turn to the dark side is expanded upon, as we see him increasingly ready to justify the means by the ends and his sometimes possessive relationship with his wife developed. The series also manages to pull off bringing back Darth Maul without feeling like a gimmick, giving him much more personality and great moments with Obi-Wan and his former master Darth Sidious.

The greatest achievement of The Clones Wars, however, is undoubtedly Ashoka Tano. With her complete absence from the live-action films and initial introduction in The Clone Wars film, I admit I was initially put off by the idea of giving Anakin a Padawan who would probably be killed off for drama. By the end of the series, not only is this pulled off, but Ashoka becomes one of the most well-written and engaging characters in the entire franchise. Her eventual exit not only closes her arc in a truly masterful and genuinely emotional way but also fuels Anakin’s development towards the character we see in Revenge of the Sith, disillusioned with the Jedi Order and primed to shift to the dark side.

By the end of the last episode, the third film of the trilogy naturally feels like its closing chapter. While this goes against the final prequel working as a film on its own, The Clone Wars is such a great showcase of what the prequels could be at their best that I’m ready to forgive that particular sin.

Conclusion: Star Wars at Disney – A New Leaf?

While the prequels do not exactly match the ability of the original trilogy to hide its flaws better thanks to sheer entertainment value and fond memories, they still do have a number of good points that deserve recognition There are moments of great casting and character, more fully-realised worlds, some intriguing politics, better battles, an amazing musical character that lives up to the original and an excellent TV series to boot.

With quite a lot of good material to work with from the prequels, it’s immensely gratifying to see Disney and Lusafilm not only acknowledging the prequels – probably to the chagrin of a number of ‘hardcore’ fans – but actually revisiting them in interesting ways. Star Wars Rebels is steeped in the world of the original trilogy, but also refers to the prequels and their aftermath, bringing back fan-favourite characters from The Clone Wars like Captain Rex and Ashoka Tano in particular. The comic miniseries Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire intertwines the two trilogies as Leia not only visits the same hanger seen in the climax of The Phantom Menace, but gets a hint of her burgeoning command of the Force when she feels a cold echo of Darth Maul’s previous presence there. In her own miniseries, Leia also gets a vision of her birth mother, also from the prequels. Marvel Comics has also announced an Obi-Wan and Anakin mini-series bridging the gap between Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The future of Star Wars looks bright, and the prequels definitely have a place in it.

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One response to “Star Wars: The Prequels Strike Back

  1. Pingback: A Few Thoughts on the Live-Action ‘Ghost in the Shell’ | The Maltese Geek·

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