Episode I: What the Prequels Are About
Some time ago, my friend Doc Palindrome (no relation to Sarah or Michael) asked me if I would write a defense of the Star Wars prequels for this here website. I was only mildly interested in doing so – I’d rather write my own stories than comment on the stories written by others. Besides, so much has already been written (much of it hostile) about the Star Wars prequels, and I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted throw more wood on that fire.
But the idea has festered in the back of my mind since then. And since this year is the 15th anniversary of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, I figure I should write something to mark the occasion. Since the prequels are such an over-flogged topic, I want to keep this as short and simple as I can. I’ll try not to get into complex analysis of the importance of this or that story thread, since DFAT’s own Col. Robert Graff seems to be on top of that. And I won’t list the specific elements that are good or great in isolation (the action sequences, the music, etc), since the Nostalgia Critic’s “Top 11 Good Things from the Star Wars Prequels” video has already done that.
Basically, I’m going to briefly explain what I think the Star Wars prequels are trying to do and say, despite some flaws in execution. And I will argue why I feel some of the fan criticism of these films has been excessive.
To begin, let’s start with a particular scene in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. It’s the scene where Anakin and Padme are lounging around in a field on Naboo somewhere, discussing politics:
Anakin: We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the best interest of all the people, and then do it.
Anakin: Well, then they should be made to.
Padmé: By whom? Who’s gonna make them? Anakin: I don’t know. Someone. Padmé: You?
Anakin: Of course not me.
Padmé: But someone?
Anakin: Someone wise.
Padmé: Sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.
Anakin: Well, if it works … [/box_light]
On one level, this is the kind of awkward, preachy dialogue that people point to when criticizing the prequels. And either George Lucas or his actors seem uncertain how to make this kind of speech seem natural. But set aside the issues with execution, and look at what’s actually being communicated here.
Anakin is basically admitting that he’s impatient with the process, and the results, of democracy. He also thinks that life would be simpler if someone just decided how things would be. (He claims not to want that role for himself, though of course Episode III would prove otherwise.)
If you’ve spent any time on the Internet, you’ve probably noticed how mad people get whenever they are exposed to beliefs or viewpoints that differ from their own. (I don’t watch Fox News, but my Facebook friends seem to watch it all day just so they can angrily keep everyone constantly updated as to what new outrage has been broadcast on that channel.) Both liberals and conservatives seem to believe that if only absolutely everyone saw things as they do, there would finally be democracy. But of course, the opposite is true: if there was only one party, one viewpoint, there would be dictatorship. In a democracy, there is disagreement and dissent. Which raises a moral issue: How much dissent can a society endure, and still function?
It’s an issue that George Lucas is certainly aware of. It’s been pointed out many times that the original Star Wars came out when the wounds of Watergate and the Vietnam War were still fresh. Lucas has stated that President Nixon’s attempt to stay in power for a third term, with the support of the military, was an inspiration for the Emperor’s rise to power.
One of the earliest versions of the Star Wars storyline, from 1973 (as published in J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars), centers around a planet that has been threatened, Naboo-like, by enemies aided by the Empire. Lucas’ notes explicitly compare the planet to North Vietnam and the Empire to America. A Sith knight who turns to good by the end of the story is described as “like Green Beret who realizes wrong of Empire”.
Yet some of Lucas’ political views are more conservative. In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, he acknowledges how society has changed since the Vietnam war: “The system has not worked as efficiently as it used to. A culture operates totally on faith: if you can get a large group of people to believe something, then it works. If you can’t, then it won’t work. The Sixties shot the hell out of any shared vision we had for this place.” Lucas has often said that Star Wars – and his previous film, American Graffiti – were his attempt to offer 1970s youth a more hopeful and less cynical vision of what life could be about. It’s been argued that the massive appeal of the original Star Wars, when it came out in 1977, was that it helped to heal those wounds. After decades of social conflict between young and old, left and right, here was something that everyone could enjoy together.
This is also a reason why boomer critics regarded Star Wars warily: after years of cinematic innovation and edginess, here was a simple story of good against evil, where conflict is resolved through war and violence. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison gave the original Star Wars one of its most damning criticisms – he felt that its black-and-white morality, its shallow characters, and its determination to give audiences what they want (by having sound effects in the vacuum of space) were evidence that the movie was keeping people stupid and ignorant.
Lucas may have wanted to provide hope and optimism, but for the next generation, those alleged lessons did not really take hold. Generation X embraced the very cynicism that the original film attempted to banish. For millions of X-er fanboys, The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest Star Wars film, precisely because it upends all the comforts of the original film. Luke learns a horrifying fact about his father, Obi-wan turns out to have been a liar, and the heroes endure difficult defeats. So, even since the days of the original trilogy, Star Wars has had a paradoxical appeal: as something that provides escapist pandering to audience expectations, and as something that acknowledges the difficulty and complexity of real life.
That’s it for part one, Stay Tuned for Part two of What the Prequels are About, next week here at DFAT!