The Star Wars Prequels Debate, with Special Guest 'Plan
If you're familiar with even one fifth of the worldwide pop culture lexicon, then you've heard of a little thing known as Star Wars. Since 1977, when George Lucas' defining piece of work entered into cinemas, Star Wars has become bigger than almost anything else in any form of art. Forget about just cinema; Star Wars (and Lucas by default) have crossed over into everything, whether it be toys, comics, books, video games; pretty much everything you can think of, Star Wars is involved with (except perhaps pizza. But hell, that's probably coming any day now). In the words of Ron Burgandy, it's kind of a big deal.
Which brings us to today, a mere few days before the newest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens (the first Star Wars motion picture not to feature Lucas in any shape or form), hits theaters. Excitement is through the roof, but there's also a sense of worry, and I'm not just talking about the review embargo being kept till the last minute. Still fresh in everyone Star Wars fans mind is the last three films from the series, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Known as the prequel trilogy, those films are, what's the nice way of putting it...loathed by Star Wars fans and film critics, considered to be greatly inferior to the original trilogy in almost every imaginable way. Why do I bring all of this up? Because today, I'm going to take a look back at the prequels and see if maybe, just maybe, we've been a tad too hard on them. With that in mind, I've brought a long a good friend of mine and a fellow lover of cinema (and Star Wars) to help me out. He's a top notch wrestling writer for Lords of Pain and an author, whose book 101 WWE Matches to See Before You Die has spawned my spin off series 201 Non WWE Matches to See Before You Die. War boys and girls of all ages, I give you 'Plan. 'Plan, give a nice message to the people before we start.
'Plan:...may the Force be with you? No, wait. It’s a trap! Actually, forget both. Let’s go with the fabled classic: I hate sand.
Cult: It does get everywhere! Alright my friend, let’s get to it. I assume you want to start off the round of insults aimed at the prequels!
Plan: Wooden acting. Awful dialogue. Clunky love story. Formulaic battles. Melodrama trying desperately to be pathos. Mountains of awkward exposition. Dull political scenes. I know; all sounds familiar, right? Of course it does. I am, naturally, writing about the Original Trilogy. Those famous, fabled movies we all know and love, but that are actually as weak a set of movies as the Prequel Trilogy. There are only two differences. The first: by virtue and luck of timing, those Originals changed cinema. The second: they benefit from that omnipresent bane of my critical existence the world calls...nostalgia.
Cult, take those nostalgia goggles off and you might be confronted with the horrifying reality of the situation. I said the Originals are as weak as the Prequels. What I really mean, though, is that the Prequels are comfortably as good as the Originals.
Cult:...so let me get this straight ‘Plan; you’re telling me that not only are the Prequels not that bad, a borderline blasphemous statement in its own right, you’re saying they’re just as good as the Originals are? I reckon I need to sit back and grab a cold one while you explain this here.
Plan: Before you do that, let me ask you a question. Simple enough, too. Are you a fan of Star Wars?
Cult: I’m not what you would call a mega fan, but I do enjoy A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back a great deal (though Return on the Jedi depends on the day).
Plan: Excellent news! I am, naturally. I first saw A New Hope as a kid. Probably five or six years old. I saw the others then too. The result was me somehow owning a copy of A New Hope on video; a tape watched so many times my babysitters banned it because they got sick of seeing it. My childhood connection to those films was immense. Still is. But I’m a rare breed. I’m the kid that fell in love with Star Wars and stayed in love with Star Wars.
When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, how old do you think those kids who gawped wide-eyed as the Star Destroyer rumbled overhead in pursuit of Princess Leia’s Tantive IV Blockade Runner had gotten? You’re talking a gap of twenty years there, so certainly old enough to be adults. I, who like them fell in love with this tremendous space opera at a young age, was 9.
Let that sink in. It’s important. I was 9 years old. And I loved it! Every second of it! Even everyone’s favourite Gungan, Jar Jar Binks. When Attack of the Clones came out, those adults were now older still. I was 12. And I loved it! Everyone second of it! Especially seeing 200 freaking Jedi Knights light up their sabres and go toe to toe with a teeming army of relentless machines. When Revenge of the Sith came out, those adults continued to grow old. I was 15. And...well, you know the rest now.
Before I go further, another question for you buddy. You ever seen any documentaries about the making of the original movie back in 1976?
Cult: If I have, it was awhile ago, and was likely a mini doc that was featured on the Star Wars DVD set.
Plan: Fair enough. I ask because it’s well known that when that original film was being compiled, people thought it was doomed for failure. They didn’t get it. I don’t need to extol the virtues of film-makers like Coppola to you, but it was visionaries like him that made up a private screening who told Lucas his opus was going to flop badly. A ridiculous space movie with great big hairy giants and cyborg men fighting pensioners with laser swords?! Please! Only Spielberg got it. Little consolation when Lucas’ own movie crew thought this film was dumb. I needn’t relate the contempt evident in the views of some of the actors too, like the great Harrison Ford. And what did all these people have in common?
They were adults at the time the Originals were made.
I’m not going to tell you Star Wars is a kids franchise, because it isn’t. But it is a universe reliant on a wide-eyed approach and when the cynicism of adulthood dominates your life, you’re unlikely to love what you see. Combine that with mitigating nostalgia - the kind of skewed view we always have of our past - and the result is inevitable. “The Prequels suck.” “Lucas has ruined my movies.” “There are no redeeming qualities.” All nonsense. Stop being grown up. If you don’t watch A New Hope and come away grumbling about lines like “If there’s a bright centre to the universe you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from,” then don’t watch Attack of the Clones and come away grumbling about lines like “I hate sand.” A quote, interestingly enough, people only deride in its abridged form considering that its context betrays the kind of character moment bleeding through the Prequels rather quite heavily.
At its heart, Star Wars is about a certain kind of magic. Of innocence, even. When I hear people tell me the Prequels are awful because Hayden Christensen can’t act, I sigh. Not (only) out of irritation, but because those same people have missed the point. Don’t watch Hayden Christensen act. Watch Anakin Skywalker’s steadily, irrepressibly growing self-loathing culminate in one of the darkest, most tragic movies I’ve ever seen.
And I ain’t talking about Empire; I’m talking about Sith.
Cult: Wow. You almost changed my mind completely there; keyword being almost. First off, funny you bring up the Coppola line, because he came out a few days ago and said he still thought Star Wars was a terrible idea. Nearly forty years and all that money later and Coppola still hasn’t forgiven Lucas! Then again, maybe he’s just depressed over the fact that Lucas got all that money and Coppola ended up getting lost in weird indie films, that terrible Godfather Part III film and something called The Cotton Club.
Secondly, I don’t entirely disagree with you on the Originals. Are they viewed more positively with nostalgia glasses? You best believe it. A New Hope is full of lines that are mediocre at best and laughable at worst (Alec Guinness, one of the best actors ever and the man who essayed Obi-Wan during the Originals, famously stated that the script was terrible back when they were filming), while Return of the Jedi is at times so silly you think it was a comedy. And that doesn’t even cover the acting, which isn’t exactly great on any level aside from Guinness (who could give a great performance with the worst script ever. Don’t believe me, watch Dr. Zhivago!). There is no doubt that the Originals are flawed in many aspects, and anyone trying to deny that is either a massive fanboy or is drowning in the depths of a nostalgic ocean.
Having said all of that, the Originals are still better than the Prequels by a massive gulf. Remember how I said the acting sucked in the Originals? It’s worse in the Prequels. You bring up Anakin and his arc and how we’re supposed to focus on that more than Hayden “Jumper” Christensen. The problem is that he’s so wooden, so over the top and just plain bad at the role that you lose sight of Anakin’s journey and pretty much just come to view him as the whiny five year old at the family Christmas party who never shuts up about his toy car being taken away and ruins everything. It’s not just Christensen either. Natalie Portman, a really good actress mind you, is barely a lifeless corpse in all three films. Ewan McGregor actually does a solid job (funny how Obi-Wan always seems to escape terrible performances), but he’s got some low points too (“I have seen holographic images of him...KILLING YOUNGLINGS!”). The rest of the cast is either awful or left such a small impression on me that I can barely remember them. And don’t even get me started on Jar Jar; he’s an abomination so bad that he makes Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin look good.
And it goes even further than that. Perhaps it’s because of the time it was made, but the Original films just feel more real than the Prequels, both from a filmmaking standpoint and a story standpoint. When you watch the Originals, even after several times, there’s an authenticity to them. It wasn’t just about awe; it was about the story of a young man fulfilling his destiny and saving his father’s soul, which was easy to latch onto even if the performers weren’t that good. You were invested, you wanted to know what happened and there were actually twists and turns. The Prequels? You don’t have that. You have a lot of ideas that are started upon (Jedi’s being more monk-ish than originally thought, midichlorians, political intrigue, falls from grace, ect.), but much like the recently released Jurassic World, they don’t really go anywhere. They don’t end up being completed. Certainly the original films had that issue too, but not to the same extent.
In the end, at least for me, that’s the difference maker. Are the Original films flawed? Absolutely, and compared to such films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other sci-fi films from another age, they’re not as great as one remembers them. But just because they weren’t great doesn’t mean the Prequels suddenly are; if anything, one of them is overrated and one of them is properly rated in my book. Whereas the Originals had some shock value, awe mixed with enough grounded story and characters you were invested in, the Prequels were too effect heavy, too over the top (even by the standards of the Originals), too incomplete and frankly, just too annoying.
Cult: The effects; the ideas; the acting; familiar arguments driving home exactly my point. But let’s look at the other side of the coin for a second. That illusive side nobody sees because their obsession with “hating” on the Prequels stifles their vision.
Jar Jar - irritating character aimed at kids, absolutely, and one kids often love (my 9 year old self a case in point!). But also a pioneering deployment of the motion capture technique we now take for granted, preceding the likes of Lords of the Rings’ iconic Gollumn and Caeser from the tremendous Planet of the Apes reboot franchise. Everyone talks about The Matrix as being a pioneering effects movie that very same year, but how often do we see mo-cap these days compared to bullet time?
Still, if you’d rather tell me there’s too much CGI, feel free.
You mention the acting being awful at its worst, and truly it is. But what about the subtle moments of character people always miss, or forget about (perhaps willfully I wonder)? For every proclamation about Younglings there is a haunting and chilling recognition that Anakin is the father of Padmé’s children. McGregor’s delivery of, “Anakin’s the father isn’t he?”, reacted to in sublime silence by Portman, leading to “I’m so sorry” chills me every single time. And while we’re on Younglings, while people mock the line they fail to recognise the violently and disturbingly dark intimation of Anakin Skywalker murdering children in hot blooded and unnecessary rage simply for being what they are indoctrinated to be. Anakin; a soon to be father. Anakin; an innocent, hopeful child himself once, who dressed not too dissimilarly. That entire aspect is a tremendous metaphor! That’s the truth Obi-Wan mentions in his home on Tattooine to a curious Luke when he claims Darth Vader betrayed...and murdered...Anakin. It is a moment that represents his final amputation of humanity, in turn leading him to so unhesitatingly choking his own love, pregnant with his own children. So screw Hayden’s acting! I would love that idea if it was a broomstick on the screen!
The Original Trilogy may be, as you say, “the story of a young man fulfilling his destiny and saving his father’s soul,” but the Prequels are the story of a young man failing to meet his destiny, failing to save his mother and ultimately losing his soul to become more machine than man.
Still, if you’d rather tell me Hayden Christensen is a bad actor, feel free.
Then there’s the music. Oh man, the music. The real genius behind the Saga, I think we might both end up agreeing, is John Williams, and boy is that man on form throughout Episodes I - III. Duel of the Fates; Across the Stars; Battle of the Heroes; all three anthemic tunes express the emotional core of their respective movies with remarkable accuracy and artistry both. The way the Imperial March is deployed repeatedly to emphasise Anakin’s darkest moments is so precisely, successfully judged it never stops giving me goosebumps. It is in John Williams’ genius that the Prequels often find their strongest and most poignant call backs - or is that predictions? - of the Original Trilogy, linking visually disparate characters together to be instantly recognizable.
Still, if you’d rather tell me “midichlorians” was a silly idea, feel free.
This even without mentioning the supreme character development elsewhere. You bring up Natalie Portman. Sure, her acting (again) ain’t great, but her character arc is far superior to Leia’s. Leia starts off in the Original Trilogy as a powerful, headstrong, wilful and independant woman who takes charge and proves herself a full fledged match for her male counterparts. She ends it weeping in Han’s arms because she’s just been given some bad news, after spending the entirety of Empire haplessly developing a schoolgirl crush on a...ahem…”scoundrel”...without even getting an “I love you” back for her troubles. Leia is steadily deconstructed throughout her three movies to a point where she needs a total refurb in the coming The Force Awakens. Padmé - first a Queen, then a Senator, then the Mother of the Future - wouldn’t have waited for Lando to get her out of cuffs on Cloud City; she’d simply expect Lando to keep up.
Which brings me to the Fetts! Who doesn’t love Boba Fett, the baddest man in the galaxy...who has around two minutes of action before getting killed. By accident. When he can’t control his own jet pack. The Prequels? They give you Jango, who not only takes it to Obi-Wan Kenobi - one of the most skilled Jedi in the galaxy - but almost kills him. After sassing him like a boss in his home no less. There’s your baddest man in the galaxy.
Well, except for Mace Windu. And Palpatine. And Yoda. And Dooku. And Maul. And Grevious. And any other member of the Prequels’ far superior supporting cast of characters.
My point is simple: people are so blinded by their hate they neglect the plethora of awesome things the Prequels give you, from podraces to the longest uninterrupted sword fight in cinematic history (at the time) to Darth Maul and beyond. But if you’d rather tell me the Prequels suck, feel free. I’d say it isn’t me that’s missing out…
...only it sort of is. The Prequels were my generation’s Star Wars movies, as magical to some of us as the Originals were to the children of the 80s. And now, there’s a third trilogy for a third generation of fans. Why on earth does anyone want to castrate anyone of something as bright as that kind of a childhood attachment in a world that’s already colder than the ice wastes of Hoth?
But I’m just not allowed to enjoy them, because Jar Jar or something.
Cult: I agree...John Williams is the GOAT of the Star Wars franchise. Then again, other than Ennico Morricone, he might just be the GOAT of all film composers.
Here’s the thing ‘Plan; you bring up a lot of good points, whether it be Lucas using the motion capturing technique with Jar Jar, the character development that was put into the characters in the Prequels, the exciting action sequences, ect. I don’t disagree that those films have elements of it. That being said, those things don’t matter if everything that’s supposed to be working with those elements isn’t that good. Jar Jar may have been created with a revolutionary filmmaking technique, but it got squandered because the character was super annoying and poorly written. You brought up Gollum; why is it that we remember him and not Jar Jar? Because Gollum was a full, three dimensional character, whereas I’m not even sure Jar Jar had half a dimension (despite the importance he does play).
The same goes for the character development and the acting. Like I said, the right beats are there for what would’ve made a compelling story. But again, it’s only compelling if the people performing the material make it compelling, and they don’t. Portman, as I said earlier, is lifeless most of the time, and when she’s not, she’s over the top. Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu is pretty much just a Jedi Samuel L. Jackson, which is fine, but not exactly grade A material. Christensen is a stiff as a board. The Jedi come across as oppressive, hardliner religious fanatics, which works great if they’re the villains, not for a group that’s supposed to be good (perhaps Lucas was looking to make that a more grey area esq thing, but if that’s the case, he didn’t do it in my eyes). You’ve really only got McGregor and Ian McDarmid as Palpatine giving solid performance work, and even then, McDarmid is the only one not undercut by the script. And that’s the problem. For every “Anakin is the father” and every imagine that envokes the horror of what he’s become, there’s then a line or an acting choice that follows it up that just completely undercuts it or forces you to not take it seriously.
It’s the same thing with our other mutual love wrestling in a lot of ways. You can have a wrestling promotion, put together the best talent in the world and create a story that on paper is compelling and hits all the right notes. But if the talent then goes out and messes it up or does something to take the audience out of it, it doesn’t matter anymore; you don’t see the beats they were supposed to hit, you only see the silliness. That’s the problem with the Prequels. The ideas are there, the effects are there (and make no mistake, they’re amazing, even if there is more emphasis on them in my opinion than the important stuff) and the right way to tell the story is there. They just don’t end up working because a) Lucas undercut it with his terrible dialog (always his weakest skill as a filmmaker, and I think you’ll agree) and b) the acting (which you yourself admit is poor) just wasn’t all around good enough to make the ideas stick.
Now again, that’s not an exclusive problem to just the Prequels. The Originals had that problem with things too (although more so A New Hope and Return of the Jedi than Empire, which was guided by the really underrated writer Lawrence Kasdan writing the script), and I would argue that Mark Hamill is at times just as bad, if not worse, than Christensen. But that doesn’t absolve the Prequels of their sins; if anything, it just means maybe Star Wars as a whole needs to be looked at with a more critical eye.
'Plan: Absolutely not. That’s exactly the problem. Looking at Star Wars with a critical eye is why people can’t allow themselves to enjoy the Prequels as much as they could if they wanted to look past the bad acting; if they wanted to look past the annoying characters; if they wanted to look past all the flaws I laid the groundwork for you to revisit! (Spoiler: it’s a trap!)
Look, I never set out to absolve the Prequels of their sins. They are imperfect movies. I started out freely admitting that. As a matter of fact, I started out preaching that the Originals are imperfect movies too. But what I want - desperately, desperately want - is for people to realise that it doesn’t matter they’re imperfect. You don’t love Star Wars because it doesn’t have flaws. You love Star Wars despite its flaws. But in the end, you love Star Wars. If I want to watch awesome acting, I’ll go elsewhere. If I want a tangible world, I certainly won’t turn to a space opera. But if I want magic; if I want tragedy; if I want a human experience; an emotional experience; an at times borderline spiritual experience; if I want an experience then I will visit a galaxy far, far away. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Anakin Skywalker slaughtering Tuskens or the second Death Star being destroyed in the same way the first one was; it doesn’t matter if it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul going hell for leather in the bowels of the Royal Palace in Theed or Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader creaking their way around in the halls of the first Death Star; it doesn’t matter if it’s an irritating CGI Jar Jar Binks or an irritating loud-mouthed C-3PO because there are Jedi and X-Wing Fighters and Rebellions and Empires and Republics and Battle Droids and falls from grace and the fulfillment of destiny; because there’s a time long ago where I can visit and be optimistic again.
The Prequels are about the loss of innocence, whether that be Anakin’s fate, Shmi’s death, fans realising the Jedi, like all good religions, were unbending and subscriptive borderline fascists, or whether it simply be the realisation that the nostalgia that allows you to ignore the very same flaws in the very same franchise from a bunch of different movies thirty years ago is exactly that - just nostalgia. There’s art to be had in the Prequels. And there’s fun too, if you want to see it.
Aye, there’s the rub. You say this is similar to how we view wrestling. As I watched you type it, I was already thinking it. You can see the worst in it if you want to - focus on the why of it, look at it as a film. Or you can see the best in it instead - focus on the what of it, look at it as a story. There’s nothing stopping you.
I’m not going to tell you that how I feel is the way everyone has to feel. Nobody is interested in my opinion that Empire is just two hours of relentless exposition, most of which makes no sense, or that Revenge of the Sith is bested in quality only by Return of the Jedi. But I am going to tell you that the way I feel is awesome. And it’s simple: whether it’s an Original, a Prequel, or indeed now a Sequel, I will love it because I love Star Wars. And believe it or not, there really is as much to love about the Prequels as there is any other.
And if you’re still not convinced...try the Machete Order. It really does work!
Cult: People keep telling me about that Machete Order thing. I am probably going to have to try it.
I think we’ve found the fundamental difference here that forms the basis for both of our arguments. You love Star Wars ‘Plan; there is no question about it. For me, I think I just merely like them; as I stated earlier, A New Hope and Empire are the only ones I really enjoy, while the rest of the films either leave me feeling indifferent, annoyed or laughing for all the wrong reasons. And hell, even the two I enjoy aren’t films I would consider to be in my top 50 favorite films ever. I think a large part of that has to do with the fact that I do look at all of the films (Originals, Prequels) with a critical eye, and I come away from all of them thinking they have some great qualities and awe inspiring moments, but are too flawed in several aspects to be great or good. I just happen to think that the Prequels are a tad more flawed than the Originals (obviously).
This brings me to something we haven’t touched on yet; why I’m so excited for The Force Awakens. We’ve barely brought the film up (and maybe haven’t at all) during this discussion, but I can honestly say that this is the most excited I’ve ever been to see a Star Wars film. Hard for me to just judge something on a trailer, but man, this film feels different. It feels like this will be a film that not only inspires awe, looks great and features all the things you see in the films, but will also have strong performances (from the new crop of actors if nothing else), a stronger based story and an even bigger feel than the previous films. I didn’t think I was watching a Star Wars trailer when The Force Awakens released its trailer a few months ago; I thought I was watching an epic.
And I suppose that’s my problem with the rest. Like you, I would never tell anyone that my opinion is the be all, end all or anything like that, and I’m well aware that one man’s piece of crap is another man’s pile of gold. But for me, the Star Wars movies as a whole just don’t do it for me the same way a film like Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in the West, Kill Bill’s I and II and others do. The only difference between the Originals and the Prequels is that, to me, the Originals do more right (albeit not a ton more) than the Prequels. Perhaps that’s all the fault of looking at it more critically, but at least you can’t blame it on nostalgia. Judging things on that and not on quality is something that I will agree wholeheartedly does no service to any work of art.
'Plan: There’s every reason to be excited for the first of a new trilogy, as a third generation gets their own trilogy too. I hope, unlike for me, that trilogy isn’t met with such needless, self-perpetuating hostility they are denied the chance to enjoy it at every turn. I hope theirs isn’t treated like a leper or contemptuously derided for its inevitable imperfections.
It might just be, of course. Like Mark Gatiss once said, I’m with the Elizabethans who thought of nostalgia as a disease, and I can’t ever be convinced any argument that concludes the Originals are superior to the Prequels is one not unduly affected, directly or otherwise, to some degree great or small, by nostalgia.That same nostalgia may yet come to damage the incoming Sequel Trilogy.
But Cult my friend, none of that matters, because, though hesa Jar Jar Binks, though Ani hates sand and though Greedo shot first, I’ll never stop loving Star Wars; in any of its forms. And The Force Awakens is going to be TREMENDOUS!
Cult: I’m inclined to agree on that last point ‘Plan. I hope it’s received well, if not for me for the billions of people out there who are huge fans. Not to bring it back to wrestling, but I look at a lot like how I look at WWE. You know better than anyone that Vince McMahon’s baby isn’t for me anymore, and probably won’t be again. But it does make me happy for the people who do support it when they seem to be getting stuff right. Same goes for Star Wars here. If I happen to enjoy it just as much and it maybe gets me to re-evaluate the rest, that’s just a bonus!
'Plan: Well, only a Sith deals in absolutes Cult, so I hope you do. (Psst, that’s a line from the Prequels, FYI.)
Cult: Yes, I remember everything that happens after Obi-Wans’ cape toss. Alright, well ‘Plan, I think we’ve covered pretty much everything. I guess in the end, we’ll agree to disagree about the quality of the Prequels (and maybe Star Wars as a whole), but we’ll also agree that we’re hopeful that The Force Awakens is an excellent film that will a) take the bad taste out of the mouths of Star Wars fans that don’t enjoy the Prequels and b) be a great start for the franchise as it looks to star its next chapter. Anything else you would like to add or plug before you head back to schooling Mazza and the boys on Right Side of the Pond?
Well, we agree we’re hopeful The Force Awakens is an excellent film...but that’s about it I think…. Still, may the Force be with you. I’m off to go die-but-not-die in a moment never really explained that made no sense until the Prequels made it made sense. You know; like Obi-Wan in A New Hope.
You sneaky bastard you! Alright, time to wrap up. Special thanks to ‘Plan for being such a great debate partner and for not owning me too much! I’ll be back later on with...something. Who knows? Till then, you may fire when ready. See ‘Plan, I can end stuff with a Star Wars quote too!
'Plan: I find your lack of wit disturbing….