This is part of an ongoing series, you can read the first part HERE.
Episode 2: What the Prequels are All About
The prequels have struggled, somewhat awkwardly, to maintain this balance. Dazzling action sequences are juxtaposed with awkward philosophical discussions. Lowbrow slapstick and dry political debates are forced together in the same film. In these films, Lucas is trying to simultaneously entertain the audience and put forth a strongly held view of the world. It doesn’t entirely work, but should Lucas be criminalized for making the attempt?
I’ve noticed that film lovers can be divided into what I call 1970s guys and 1980s guys. 1970s guys prefer films that are raw, arty, experimental, and reflect a personal viewpoint, and they are tolerant of rough edges if that personal spark is there. 1980s guys prefer familiar genres such as action, horror and comedy, they take the “rules” of those genres very seriously, and they’re not interested in the storyteller’s personal viewpoint except when it interferes with their enjoyment of the story.
In short, 1970s guys side with the artist against the mass audience, and 1980s guys side with the mass audience against the artist.
I don’t claim to know what fans assumed the prequel films would be like – I’m sure different fans had different ideas and expectations. But once those films came out, the battle lines were clearly drawn. I would argue that Lucas, who fought to get his unfamiliar vision to the screen back when few understood it, is a 1970s guy: “This is my vision, and if some people don’t like it then too bad.” And I would further argue that many nerds, especially Star Wars fans, are 1980s guys: “He doesn’t respect the fans. He should have done XYZ.”
Which brings me back to that scene in the field on Naboo. Many fans seem to define the newer Star Wars films solely in terms of how they relate to the original trilogy. But if you set aside fan expectations and look at the actual story arc that these newer films contain, a psychological profile emerges of Anakin Skywalker as someone who wants his own way all the time, who is possessive, and who can’t cope with change.
One could argue that this embodies the narrow mindset of angry fanboys, and that’s a major reason they didn’t like these films – Anakin, like Wesley Crusher, was an unpleasant reflection of their own flaws. Or, one could argue that Anakin represents Lucas’ own obsessive desire for control and empire-building, even as it left him more and more isolated (an analysis Lucas has confessed to himself).
Either way, the signs are right there starting in Episode I. Fans complained that the young Anakin was too bland and cutesy to be convincing as a future Darth Vader. But from the very beginning, Anakin is a kid who can’t cope with change – even being freed from slavery is unbearable if it means being separated from his mother. Losing her in Episode II only makes him more determined not to ever experience such loss again. By Episode III, his determination to hold onto Padmé drives him to the dark side, and to a need to enforce his own will on the entire galaxy.
So people who make fun of Anakin (and Luke) for being whiny and petulant have missed the point. The whininess of those characters is not an artistic mistake. It is intentional. These characters’ pettiness and impatience is their vulnerability, which the Emperor hopes to exploit. In the Star Wars universe, a person turns to the dark side because he is too weak to resist its allure, and because he lacks the serenity and self-control necessary to be a Jedi.
There’s a theme in the original trilogy that I never grasped, that only became apparent after seeing the prequel trilogy express it more explicitly. This theme is that only caring about the people closest to you is a form of selfishness, even if it seems selfless. Anakin’s need to keep Padmé alive drives him to exterminate the Jedi and kill children. Palpatine is able to tempt him to the dark side by offering him the chance to never have to deal with the loss of a loved one ever again. And this, I finally realize, is why it’s supposed to be a bad thing that Luke was willing to abandon his Jedi training to rescue Han and Leia, and that deserting his duty would do their cause more harm than good. Both Anakin and Luke are led to their respective miseries by a premonition that makes them fear for people they care about (a vision probably planted by the Sith if you ask me), and in both cases they are offered the power of the dark side as a way to end conflict and restore order.
I didn’t think the prequels were at all subtle about these themes. Yet it’s clear that the angrier fan reviews did not pick up on any of this. In fact, they dismiss the prequel trilogy, despite the grim path it charts – from heroism to failure, from hope to despair, from democracy to fascism, from life to death – as being “only for kids.” As if to justify this view, they focus their criticisms mainly on things that are only emphasized in Episode I – the child protagonist, Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, taxes, bathroom humor – as a reason to hate the whole series. Why?
Find out next week as we explore more about What the Prequels Are About….