Part 6: What the Prequels are All About
Star Wars is, of course, no stranger to this trope. Lucas has admitted that the Ewok’s guerrilla warfare against the
invading Empire was inspired by the war in Vietnam. His earliest draft of Star Wars had Wookiees filling a similar role, and Episode I’s Gungan battle against the droid army seems similar to the Ewok battle against the Empire’s war machines. And again, the occupation of Naboo in Episode I is not unlike the conflict portrayed in Lucas’ earliest story notes, where he describes an invaded planet by comparing it to North Vietnam. In a 1973 article in the film magazine Chaplin, Lucas describes the still-developing story by saying, “The space aliens are the heroes, and the Homo Sapiens naturally the villains.”
This is not a trope I care for very much, to be honest. I think equating white/Western/American with “human” and nonwhite/non-Western with “imaginary creature” shows an unwillingness to identify with people of another race or culture, despite sympathizing with their plight. Yet I rarely hear anyone accuse the acclaimed film District 9 (which uses this very trope) of being “racist.” Somehow people get that that movie is arguing against, not for, racial prejudice.
Attempting to have racial (or gender) diversity in entertainment can be a minefield. On the one hand, one wishes to avoid negative stereotypes. On the other hand, characters without flaws or complexity are not very interesting. Well-meaning political correctness can lead one to portray members of another race (real or fictional) as bland, undifferentiated, saintly victims – in short, as “noble savages.” This is an area where science fiction in general – not just Star Wars – could do better than it has.
But pigeonholing the Gungans as “primitives” or “noble savages” faces a serious obstacle: These guys aren’t primitives. They have some serious technology – force fields, underwater cities, submarines, and energy grenades. The only real signifier of being “primitive” is that their energy-prod weapons look a bit like spears. I guess some people feel their made-up dialect sounds Caribbean, but why should every species in the Star Wars universe sound exactly the same? The Gungans and Yoda are the only beings in the Star Wars films that speak an unusual variant of standard English (or whatever it’s called in that universe). If anything, it’s surprising we haven’t heard a wider variation of invented accents and speech patterns.
Again, none of this is meant to argue that Episode I’s subplot involving Jar Jar and the Gungans is particularly well-done. The film might indeed be stronger if it was reduced (or cut), since it causes the story to take too long to get off the ground. The final battle between the Gungans and the droids isn’t particularly exciting, despite its scale.
But where many fans prefer to dwell on individual flaws in this movies, I’m more interested in the bigger picture. Lucas may have limitations as an artist, but his most famous achievement has continued to grow more ambitious and elaborate over the years, beyond what most writers or filmmakers can ever hope to accomplish.
Far from being just empty spectacle, the Star Wars prequels tell a difficult story in which the noble path is not obvious, and in which compromising one’s principles may sometimes seem like the only way to win. It is a story in which the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As I write this, it’s fifteen years – almost to the hour – that the long-awaited Episode I was first shown in American movie theaters. The first two Star Wars prequels are older now than Return of the Jedi was when Clerks came out (and Episode III is only a couple years away from that threshold). A lot has happened since then – politically, culturally, economically. Many film critics have accused the clean-cut, crowd-pleasing Star Wars of killing off a golden age of edgy cinema that had troubled protagonists, political commentary, and ambiguous morality. Perhaps ironically, the prequel trilogy has proved even more controversial by presenting exactly those elements to an audience that didn’t necessarily want them.
Who knows what the new Star Wars movies will be about, or what themes they will contain. But if history is any guide, Star Wars will continue to start arguments and provoke discussion, as well as entertain. May it always be thus.