Ricky Church with a defence of the Star Wars prequels…
To say that the Star Wars prequels are controversial would be an understatement. Leading up to May 19, 1999 fans young and old alike were very excited for The Phantom Menace only to be disappointed with what director George Lucas had delivered.
As the trilogy continued with Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, fans only got more bitter with Lucas’ direction of the series, not to mention the additional changes he included in the 2004 DVD releases of the Original Trilogy. However, as time has gone on the question must be asked: are the prequels really that bad?
Let me preface by acknowledging that the prequels are not perfect. They are certainly weaker than the original films with some clunky dialogue, cringe-worthy acting and poor attempts at humour. However, I agree with Mark Hamill’s statements about prequels. He said he “couldn’t believe some of the things they wrote about the prequels, you know. I mean really, beyond ‘I didn’t like it’. ‘You ruined my childhood!’”
The level of hatred for the prequels is really misplaced. Like I said, there are problems with them (with Phantom Menace being the weakest thanks to many of the reasons listed above and Jar Jar Binks), but taken as a whole the prequels are a very intriguing exploration into how the Empire came into power and what the Jedi were like. The story and themes of the prequels goes far into how power can be corrupted from even good sources and, I would argue, are more interconnected with each other than the original films are.
For instance, someone doesn’t necessarily need to watch A New Hope to fully understand The Empire Strikes Back. The same goes for Return of the Jedi as well. While it of course fills out the story and viewers get more from having watched all three, it’s somewhat the opposite with the prequels because the Sith’s overall plan stretches all the way back to Phantom Menace. Everything in the prequels build off each other to show just how much the soon-to-be Emperor Palpatine manipulated everyone around him to achieve his victory and destroy the Jedi.
On the subject of the Jedi we were always led to believe that they were pillars of justice and virtue in the galaxy, but the prequels reveal this was far from the case. As much as I hate to say it, the Jedi really had Order 66 coming to them. The Jedi Council is shown to be supremely arrogant and shortsighted in these films, two of the prime examples being Mace Windu and Ki-Adi Mundi. In Phantom Menace, when Qui-Gon informs the Council of his belief that the man he fought was a Sith Windu says “I do not believe the Sith could have returned without us knowing.” Later, in Attack of the Clones, when Padme expresses her belief Count Dooku was behind her assassination attempt Ki-Adi dismisses her, condescendingly telling her “he’s a political idealist, not a murderer” simply because he was once a Jedi.
You see it later too with Jedi librarian Jocosta Nu when she dismissively tells Obi-Wan if something is not in the Jedi Archive, it must not exist. Even Yoda sees this arrogance in the Jedi, telling Obi-Wan “Too sure of themselves they are. Even the older, more experienced ones,” yet Yoda is also too set in his ways to see what’s coming. The films even show most of the Jedi have somewhat drifted away from believing in The Force’s mysticism, opting instead to believe in the science of midi-chlorians as a valid way to see someone’s affinity with The Force. Throughout the Prequel Trilogy, the only Jedi to ever really refer to The Force as the all-powerful force that binds life together in the universe as Obi-Wan did in A New Hope was his old master Qui-Gon Jinn, who repeatedly calls it “the Living Force”.
The character development is also fairly strong in this trilogy. If you can overlook some of the sillier bits of dialogue or cringy scenes, the development is solid, especially in Revenge of the Sith. While it can be argued Anakin’s actual turn to the Dark Side may be a bit rushed, its understandable given how an institution that didn’t even want him has treated him over the years. Palpatine pits Anakin and the Jedi against each other rather splendidly, and this is emphasised even more in The Clone Wars television show (which, those any who have not watch it, offers some fantastic supplemental material).
One moment in Revenge of the Sith that I actually love is an understated and subtle one that shows Anakin’s development (and also Palpatine’s genius). Its when he confronts Mace Windu holding Palpatine at lightsaber point, telling the Jedi master “This isn’t the Jedi way” after hearing Palpatine’s too dangerous to be kept alive. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same exact thing Anakin said after he killed Count Dooku. This is Anakin’s last attempt to be a Jedi as he tries to make up for killing a literally unarmed prisoner instead of taking him back for trial, but instead of walking in on a Jedi Master fighting a Sith Lord, he sees a Jedi Master attempting to assassinate the Supreme Chancellor.
It’s also a moment where Hayden Christensen really delivers Anakin’s turmoil. While he certainly isn’t great in Attack of the Clones, his acting ability grew in Revenge of the Sith as did his chemistry with Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, delivering a much stronger and more believable relationship, particularly with McGregor who was the trilogy’s saving grace. Not to mention the dedication both actors showed to their characters and the massive stuntwork involved. Its a testament to both Christensen and McGregor that their final fight in Revenge of the Sith isn’t sped up at all; that’s actually them. They practiced the scene so much it didn’t need to be sped up, showing not just their own capabilities, but how matched Obi-Wan and Anakin are in skill.
Really though, the biggest take away from the Prequel Trilogy is again the story and themes throughout these films, arguably being more relevant today than they were at the time of release. Lucas built off the histories of other fallen empires, particularly Roman history which literally went from a Republic to Empire, and adapted it rather well to a sci-fi setting. Sure, there’s no getting around the elements in the prequels that simply do not work, like Jar Jar, and some of the acting and dialogue could have been punched up, but at the end of the day still feels like Star Wars and adequately explores a time period we knew nothing about and showed there was way more to it than we realized with the contradictory nature of the Jedi. Are they terrible? No, not really. Are they misunderstood? Yes, I believe they are and are worth re-visiting for reexamination.
After all, as a wise man once said, “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view”.
A version of this article was originally posted in February 2017.