Attack of the Clones,  Prequel Trilogy,  Revenge of the Sith

Screen Rant: “The Star Wars Prequels Need To Be Understood, Not Fixed”

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From Screen Rant:

“As Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker quickly approaches to usher in the end of the Skywalker saga and fans are still locked in heated debates over Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it’s time to look back, once again, to another controversial Star Wars debate, the prequels.

Now that we’re 20 years separated from the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the debate over whether or not the prequels are good or bad is beyond tiring, but regardless of the actual cinematic quality of the prequels, their importance to the franchise can’t be overstated.

With numerous books and cartoons bringing additional clarity to the prequels in recent years, many people have said Lucasfilm is “fixing” the prequels, and while it’s true this additional canon material has helped fans come to a better understanding of the story of the prequels, saying it “fixes” the prequels suggests they were fundamentally broken in the first place, which just isn’t true.

THE PREQUELS WERE MISUNDERSTOOD

Since the prequels have come and gone, Star Wars fans have already gone through another cycle of the highs and lows of a Star Wars franchise revival. The Phantom Menace was coming after over a decade and a half without Star Wars movies to tell the story of how the galaxy got to where we find it at the start of Episode IV, Star Wars: A New Hope.

What everyone expected at the time was a return to the Star Wars that they loved, but George Lucas did something entirely different. When Star Wars: A New Hope (or, just Star Wars at the time) was released, it was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa, Flash Gordon serials, and John Ford westerns all wrapped up in a lived-in futuristic post-Word War II aesthetic, but the prequels struck a very different look and feel.

Taking place 3 decades before the events of the original trilogy, yet created a decade and a half after Star Wars: Return of the JediStar Wars: The Phantom Menace not only takes place in a galaxy entirely untouched by the turmoil that led to the rise of the Empire and the world we are introduced to in the Star Wars original trilogy, but also derives different story and design inspirations.

While the Kurosawa and John Ford inspiration doesn’t vanish, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and the other prequels leaned way more into the Flash Gordon inspiration, also getting heavy influence from works like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, and fittingly leans into Shakespearean drama to tell the story of the collapse of the Republic. Almost everything in the original trilogy was old and lived-in, but the prequels roll the clocks back a few decades to introduce designs that also take influence from a few decades earlier in the real world, while also including a less worn-down version of many of the trappings of the original trilogy.

The movies looked and felt different, but that was because the universe actually was different. It wasn’t yet savaged by the conflict of the Clone Wars, the Republic hadn’t been taken over by a Sith Lord and turned into the Galactic Empire, and the Rebel Alliance hadn’t yet started a Galactic Civil War against the Empire. The characters that inhabited that world were also far less cynical, even naive, particularly the Jedi, as a result.

The phrase “special something” or “magic” are thrown around to describe what made Star Wars so special, and many people claimed the prequel trilogy lacked that, and while discussions could be had (and have, for 20 years now) about the dialogue and acting and the quality of the VFX, it really comes down to expectations. The dialogue, acting, and VFX in the original trilogy are also imperfect many times, and it didn’t all age perfectly, either. The difference is the prequels were saddled with expectations before anyone had even seen a single frame of the movie.

We’re still suffering the fallout of the initial prequel reaction, as Lucasfilm and Disney constantly emphasize the use of real sets and practical effects on the sequel trilogy, but the prequels also had an abundance of practical sets and effects (even more than the original trilogy, in fact), and while detractors have picked apart low points in the VFX of the prequels in the decades since their release, much of the prequels’ use of CGI goes entirely unnoticed because of how well it’s stood up.

The prequel backlash, therefore, is rooted way more in expectations derived from a nostalgic view of the original trilogy, as well as a misunderstanding of what Lucas was even going for in Episodes IV, V, and VI in the first place (more on that later). […]

THE STAR WARS PREQUELS NEVER NEEDED FIXING TO BE UNDERSTOOD

Looking at the abundance of new stories that help contextualize and explain what was happening in the prequels often leads many fans to say the extra canon material “fixed” the prequels, but that makes the assumption that this level of nuance wasn’t already present in the films themselves, when, in fact, the stories aren’t already presented in the prequels, but the subversive nature of the story is even set-up in the original trilogy.

Anakin was rejected by the Jedi from his first appearances in front of the Jedi council. After examining him and confirming his abilities, the council pushed back against Qui-Gon’s desire to train him, and Anakin never forgot that. Getting off on that wrong foot led to him mistrusting the Jedi’s stance on many things, including their views on love and attachment.

When he’s falling in love with Padme and having nightmares about his mother, the council isn’t helpful, simply telling him he needs to be willing to let go of the things he’s afraid of losing. And through it all, the only person, other than Obi-Wan Kenobi, who praises Anakin’s powers, trusts his judgment, or offers aid is Supreme Chancellor Sheev Palpatine. So, when matters ultimately force Obi-Wan to side with the Jedi, that leaves a Sith Master as the only person who has been empathetic or expressed a desire to help Anakin in his struggles.

This is a major failing of the Jedi, and it’s not something that comes out of left field. Obi-Wan Kenobi may have declared that the Jedi were guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy for a thousand generations, but that doesn’t mean the Jedi were right in the prequels. In fact, the original trilogy is a condemnation of the old Jedi, Obi-Wan and Yoda, who tell Luke the only path to victory is to kill Darth Vader.

Luke ultimately rejects the ideology the previous generation of Jedi at the end of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the same ideology that led to the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Sith, and it’s through his refusal to kill Vader that ultimately serves as the demonstration of love Anakin Skywalker needed all along, bringing him back from the dark side to (apparently temporarily) defeat Palpatine and overthrow the Empire.

Unfortunately, this kind of reflection wasn’t in high demand when George Lucas made the prequel trilogy, so it wasn’t until years later when other material pointed out the nuance that already existed in the storytelling of the prequels that they finally started to gain mainstream acceptance, and now we live in a day and age, 20 years after the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, where the prequels have never been more highly regarded. […]”

0 Comments

    • archdukeofnaboo

      It’s a good piece for sure: the PT needs no fixing. The author raises many valid points, which of course one will find in even greater detail in many of the past discussions on Naboo News 😉

  • bj

    Glad to see them finally publishing stuff like this, but then the recommended articles are the bullshit “Definitive Star Wars Ranking” with all of the prequels (and solo) as low as possible…

  • Alexrd

    But the writer clearly shows that he hasn’t understood:

    “even naive, particularly the Jedi,”

    The Jedi were not naive.

    “council pushed back against Qui-Gon’s desire to train him, and Anakin never forgot that.”

    Anakin didn’t hold any visible resentement for the initial rejection, precisely because they explained very well why he was being rejected. And the reason was a fact that Anakin was well aware.

    “Getting off on that wrong foot led to him mistrusting the Jedi’s stance on many things, including their views on love and attachment.”

    Anakin understood very well the Jedi’s views on love and attachment. That’s made explicit during the scene on the freighter with Padmé.

    “When he’s falling in love with Padme and having nightmares about his mother, the council isn’t helpful, simply telling him he needs to be willing to let go of the things he’s afraid of losing.”

    Wrong. That is helpful. That is what Anakin needs to do, it’s what he should do. But it’s not what he wants to hear. And clearly the same is true for this “writer”.

    “This is a major failing of the Jedi, and it’s not something that comes out of left field. Obi-Wan Kenobi may have declared that the Jedi were guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy for a thousand generations, but that doesn’t mean the Jedi were right in the prequels. In fact, the original trilogy is a condemnation of the old Jedi, Obi-Wan and Yoda, who tell Luke the only path to victory is to kill Darth Vader.”

    There’s so many things wrong here… Not pandering to Anakin’s fears and whims is not a failure. Showing Anakin the good path is not a failure. The Jedi were right in the prequels. Their ways are what leads to salvation, not just of those who follow them but those around them. Those who ignore and reject their ways and advice end up bringing misery to themselves and others. They are the villains of the saga.

    “Luke ultimately rejects the ideology the previous generation of Jedi at the end of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the same ideology that led to the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Sith”

    Another flat out lie. Luke doesn’t reject the ideology of the Jedi. He embraces it fully. It was by following their ways that he succedes and saves Anakin. And this is made explicit not just through his actions, but also in his ultimate claim: “I’m a Jedi, like my father before me.”

  • Moose

    Well said as to why some folks did not like the Prequels. He may be overstating just how much disaffection there was. As for what is helping to increase the stature of the Prequels now, I would think the disappointing nature of the Disney movies themselves is the biggest reason. At least that is what brought me back to the Prequels.

    • archdukeofnaboo

      Yeah, the narrative on TLJ has been that it “divided fans”, while with the prequels the more mean-spirited message of “fans despised them” was attached. Given this, one should take analogies between the trilogies with a pinch of salt.

      Only in the last few years has it dawned on geek media that there might have been a large cohort of (silenced) fans who adored Lucas’s 2nd trilogy. And it is no recent phenomenon either: one need only turn towards the “Star Wars Prequel Appreciation Society” for evidence.

      While the backlash to TLJ has contributed, I would argue the prequel generation entering their 20s and finding a voice on the internet is a much bigger factor in the PT stature. But as we should know from ESB, films being reassessed is nothing new either.

  • Cryogenic

    Anyone else notice the author’s name? Stephen Colbert. But not the Stephen Colbert of late night television who just hosted the Episode IX/The Rise Of Skywalker panel at this year’s Celebration. Nope. Younger guy. But he does look a little like a more “millennial” version of him. Anyway, being perfectly honest, I’m not a huge fan of these sorts of apologetic, “take another look, why don’t you?” articles, even if this one appears to be written with sincere intentions. Screen Rant is only one of a multitude of sources that spent plenty of time hammering the prequels in the past. Or maybe my memory has become fogged. All those sites tend to blur into each other after a while. It’s still part of the geek-media complex, and that’s enough to damn the site, for me. The article has a nice headline, though, and it offers a reasonable — if basic — defence. Screen Rant is also where that recent article pointing out the prequels’ earlier (and higher) Rotten Tomatoes ratings comes from. So I’m not hating on them. Just expressing my own personal malaise.

    To add a few thoughts of my own here:

    Not only did people go into the prequels with a heavy set of expectations, but they were arguably too attached to the old formula. You know? Two robots, a wise old Jedi hermit, some fortune-cookie-spouting swamp creature, a dark-witted, deep-voiced helmet-wearing guy in black, a few funky, frontier-like environments, and a trio of young, loveable scamps: princess, smuggler, and up-and-coming Jedi hero, modelled on relatively simple cinematic and comic-book archetypes. The whole thing, of course, went off like “Dambusters” — or, indeed, “American Graffiti” in space. How could Lucas really lose if he employed the same ingredients again?

    But, of course, he had no intention of doing that.

    The teaser poster to Episode I (we all remember that one, don’t we?) was a “warning flare” in that regard; and if people had been paying close enough attention to the Death Star conference scene in “A New Hope” (as well as Obi-Wan’s speech to Luke in his hovel), and not just waiting for Vader to choke a belittling bureaucrat, they would have noticed Lucas explicitly telling them that the Empire arose from the Republic, that the Republic was a markedly different era, and that some degree of “political dialogue” and parlour-room intrigue was likely going to be a conspicuous feature of the backstory. The prequels beautifully exemplify the opening line to L.P. Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

    But hey, the easy thrills of the original trilogy are so palpable, and the paradigm so elemental and comprehensible and quintessentially “American” (outgunned but plucky rebels versus a formidable, oppressive government), almost every frame of the originals is filled with “win”; while anything that departed from that paradigm, much less anything that represented a sort of philosophical challenge to the hegemonic, folksy appeal of said paradigm, was probably always going to have an uphill battle at finding widespread affection. Post-prequel, and while disappointing, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Disney gamed the fanbase with promises of the Star Wars — or the Republic — that once was.

    Because the prequels represent a very big, deliberate shake-up to the tried-and-tested formula of the originals; having an entirely new focus, structure, and texture. Episode I is especially bold and open on these levels. Just look at the assemblage of characters. For the first time in the franchise, the main heroes were a mix of old and young. No ailing Obi-Wan, but a middle-aged ronin in the form of Liam Neeson’s mystical and embattled Qui-Gon. No young farmhand dreaming of adventure and kicking around in the dirt, but a sassy slave kid who loves his mother. No wisecracking princess, but an opulently-attired teenage geisha queen with an inscrutable vocal tone and a strange decoy ritual. Not bickering robots, but a shunned, “annoying” gangly creature, half-emu, half-frog, brought to life with digital effects. Not a clearly-identifiable and hiss-worthy antagonist, but several creeps in some sinister, shadowy alliance, trying to accomplish some abstract goal. And so on.

    Add in all the other switch-ups, from the scenery, to the tone, to the style of acting, and the entire setting, where nothing is quite as it seems, and it’s little wonder people were a bit discombobulated. Then, as if all those elements weren’t enough, it felt like Lucas delivered a kind of samurai-like slaying of the concept of the Jedi in their supposed prime. Instead of warm, avuncular ascetics, he revealed a remote religious order, more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of it; and notably unsympathetic to Anakin being a “late entry” (notice the echo with the podrace). Of course, this is the beauty of Qui-Gon’s character — more in-tune with the basic ideals of the Jedi than the Council itself, which we learn, via Obi-Wan, has apparently rebuked him and denied him a seat because he steadfastly sticks to his own ideals, choosing principles over playing ball. But it also says a little something for the Council, I think, that they tolerate Qui-Gon in the way they do.

    So, in short: complexity, y’all.

    Obviously, blockbusters aren’t meant to be “complex”, and it’s the rare tent-pole film that scoops up a handsome box office and makes it through relatively unscathed, from critics, fans, and casual moviegoers alike. In fact, on this level, it’s truly hard to place the prequels. They were never hated and shunned. Gallup polling in the summer of 1999 suggested people mostly enjoyed TPM. ROTS was originally rated 83% on Rotten Tomatoes; and TPM and AOTC also had fresh ratings on release. Some people felt that AOTC, even though they later trashed it, was a considerable improvement on Episode I. And all three prequels combined still netted around $2.5 billion on original release. Toys, comics, games mostly sold like hot cakes. The prequels smashed home video sales and cable television viewing figures. Even if most of the discussion was negative, people talked about them relentlessly online. And now meme-ing the prequels has become a huge thing, while people are starting to talk about them in a more positive and even-handed way. They were even acknowledged more fully at this year’s Celebration — at long last.

    It’s very difficult to talk about more subtle features and qualities the prequels possess or exude. They’re there, but it’s pretty subjective. And the one thing all the negative chatter did (seemingly, at times, quite deliberately) was to drown out the possibility of deeper, more fine-grained discussion. If the prequels have peculiar and extraordinary things within their strange interstices, it would only have been fair to let fans talk about them. But no. They had to be shouted down, smeared as idiots or Lucasfilm mouthpieces (the irony when you look at the situation today), and when those tactics didn’t work, prequel fans could always be accused of hating the original films, and therefore not being “true” Star Wars fans, and somehow manifesting bigotry/hostility to those fans that had “made Lucas rich” and “been there from the beginning”; not to mention enemies of “quality filmmaking” and “good storytelling” (as everyone hostile to the prequels apparently all deemed themselves university-degree-wielding experts on). It has been a bumpy ride.

    Anyway, it’s pretty clear that the prequels actually do tell a multi-layered, engrossing story, where both the personal and the political are inextricably bound, and in a strange cinematic register that is both whimsical and silly, yet operatic and profound. And the architecture of the storytelling is so particular and elliptical that the precise manner of the construction of the movies — the syntax, the rhythms of the piece — is a source of immense fascination for me.

    I was actually just discussing the prequels on Facebook a few hours ago. Here is what I said:

    I feel you have to find something to love about the prequels, or a few things, and then hang on in and become like an explorer, feeling your way around with confidence, intrigue, and determination. The complete artwork both challenges and counsels one to be open-minded from the start: “Be mindful of the Living Force”. Something living is something difficult to classify, with emergent characteristics. But people lack patience and imagination.

    When something new is brought into a cultural space, there’s normally some form of ruckus; people generally have a hard time dealing with it. It’s another form of the Overton window. They reach for existing tools based on what they’re already familiar with, and when those fail, engagement ceases and reduces to simply using those tools to destroy what they can’t understand and have become frustrated with.

    Lucas once cited an old Japanese saying with regard to Jar Jar: “The nail that stands out is pounded down.” Or as Abraham Maslow said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

    Do the prequels deserve better?

    I certainly think they do.

  • Slicer 87

    I strongly disagree with the notion that spinoff material helped improve or better explain the PT. I do agree with the author that the PT never needed fixing. However, much like with the old EU in regard to the OT, the old PT EU and especially nu canon material muddles more than clarify. Years ago Lucasfilm used to say that the films themselves are the clearest windows to the GFFA. Anything else are murkey windows at best. Also some of the spinoff material such as TCW CGI series contains elements so radically different from the films, it is impossible to reconcile it as being the same continuity with the live action PT films.

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