Star Wars, episodes one, two, and three. The prequels. Oh man. I mean, every joke that could be made about them has already been made, right? At this point, all you have to do is say “Star Wars prequels” to get a smirk out of most people.
But what would you say if I offered up the view that, really, the prequels weren’t so bad? And what would you say if I volunteered the idea that, actually, they were completely equal to the original three Star Wars movies? Well, I know what you’d say. You’d probably come around to my house and blow up my mail box with a shotgun, that’s what. Fortunately, I don’t have a mail box outside my house, so we can talk about the matter a little further…
The complaints against the Star Wars prequels – The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith for those of you just coming out of a bomb shelter and having no idea what I’m talking about – are numerous. Sometimes, they’re cynical and sardonic and funny. Sometimes, they’re honestly angry and hurt and offended. Sometimes, they’re just dismissive. A few times, I’ve heard some rationalizations. I’d like to offer a defense of the prequels. And I hope you’ll bear with me.
All the varied complaints come down to this: they aren’t as good as the original ones. That’s the core of the problem in so many ways, and that’s where we’ll start.
When the original Star Wars movies came out, they were a pretty big deal. They were things that the world had never quite seen before. It wasn’t that they were necessarily the first movies to use the sort of technology and graphics that they used…it was that they were the first movies to apply these technologies functionally. That is to say, the technologies in the original trilogy served the movies and the progression, rather than running away with the film. (A fatal example of this can be seen in the first Star Trek movie which is, leave us face it, “Captain Kirk & Co. Watch Windows Screensavers”). In Star Wars, the ships zoomed, the lightsabers crackled and flashed, the robots moved and talked and were terribly good fun. Stations exploded. It looked damn pretty.
It seems like such a dumb thing to say, but before the Star Wars movies came around, it was a world that existed without Star Wars. Obviously, right? It’s easy to forget, in that we’ve spent quite a lot of years living in a post-Star Wars world, and in that world, a lot has changed. One might argue that the measure of great art is not necessarily the internal literary merits of the piece, but the affect it has on the rest of the world and the time that follows; it is not necessarily the beauty of the stone, but how big a boulder it is and how much it diverts the stream. Star Wars was a pretty good-sized chunk of rock.
And as the world moved on, Star Wars only built. Not because more movies were made, but because generations that had seen it grew up with visions of X-Wings and TIE Fighters dancing in their heads. If you were eleven years old when Star Wars came out, then you had picked a pretty astonishing time to be eleven years old. No matter your age, if these movies worked for you, then everything they contained grew and expanded in your mind. The AT-AT Walkers, big as a movie screen, took up residence in the back of your head and soon they were hundreds of feet tall, lumbering with great thudding steps across a vast and frigid Hoth, all of it existing only in the imagination. In the places were super-heroes soar, there are creatures under the bed too terrible to imagine, and true love conquers all. The deep places, the places where mythologies are born and grow into great and amazing things. The place of true stories, if you like.
And then, a whole bunch of years later, hell, it seems like a lifetime and a whole world later…there are new Star Wars movies coming. A new trilogy of them, set before the original ones. And they’re going to be bigger and flashier and more action-packed. You are going to see Jedi Knights striding the galaxy, and great armies, and the Clone Wars. You are going to see the fall of Anikan Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader. You are going to see all of the background to those original movies, and it’s going to play out using the amazing effects and terrific movie-making feats of today!
So what happens?
What happens is that the new movies, the prequels, are no longer competing to be as-good-as (or better-than) the original trilogy. No, what they are now competing with are those towering and impossibly-scaled images and moments filling up the back of your head, in a hyper-kinetic drawer of your imagination hastily labeled Star Wars. It’s a powerful spot in your mind, and it has perhaps made you turn on a flashlight in a dark room and go Vrrrum, Wummm, vrummm. The new movies are competing against that place: not against other films, but against a golden idol.
And of course they don’t measure up.
The odds are stacked against them. They are coming into a world that is post-Star Wars. Before, nothing like this had ever been seen before! But now? Well, we saw that, years back. It isn’t jaw-dropping now. And somehow, it’s all only movie-screen-sized.
To put it another way…it’s the same thing as coming back to the town you grew up in and moved away from. You come back with your wife and kids, and you take them to see the towering haunted house on the corner, surrounded by fortress walls of dark and knotted trees, the house the more fearsome thing ever, and everyone knew someone had died in there and never been taken away…and then you go there, all grown up, and find that actually, it’s just a tatty older house, not that big, with one overgrown oak tree in the yard. And a nice old lady out front, calling for her cat. Put still another way: it’s going back to your childhood house and wondering why everything seems to have gotten shorter now.
Therefore, one must examine the prequels and the original movies entirely separate from the golden idol in one’s mind. And that is not to say that you should tear down the Star Wars idol that lives in your mind. You shouldn’t empty the drawer and light the contents on fire. Far from it. But you should merely examine for a little bit.
Let’s look closer at the prequels themselves.
If we take the prequel movies and break them down into their components, we actually find more to like about them than to dislike.
- The environments: In the prequel Star Wars movies, building atop the originals in this regard, and wholly unlike quite a lot of science fiction film work in the past few decades, there was a wealth of beautiful, unique, and well-thought-out environments. And I’m not just talking about beautiful set-pieces, such as any of the locations for the lightsaber duels. What I’m talking about is the widely-varied planets which we visit. Look how very different Naboo is from Geonosis. Look how amazing Courascant is, and furthermore, look at all the different areas of Courascant which we get to see (from the upper levels of the Senate, to the Jedi Temple, to the lower reaches where Dex’s diner is, to the far-out desolate areas were Dooku and Sidious meet). Compare Kashyyk to Tatooine. And on all of those planets, we see variations of weather and landscapes. This is uncommon. And is an amazing attention to detail. The planets are all logical and work well with the races that live on them.
- The sound effects: it’s not exactly a surprise, when you’ve got the full power of not only Skywalker Sound but THX as well, but if you go through the prequel movies and really pay attention to all of the sound effects, the variety and depth is astonishing. And sometimes, it’s the most astonishing thing in the scene. Consider the fascinating sounds that the creatures made, in the arena, in the second prequel. Consider the sound of Jango Fett’s pistols, that strange hollow-tube sound. Or, my personal favorite (and how many movies do you have personal-favorite sound effects in?) that really astonishing sound you get when those seismic charges explode in the asteroid field. The moment of absolute silence, and then the guitar-overdrive-like noise.
- The alien species: Even just on the Jedi Council, there is a huge diversity of looks to the aliens. And more than was ever possible in the original trilogy, we see a huge range of alien creatures that go far, far beyond the typical science fiction joke of all the aliens just having styrofoam on their foreheads. Alien species diversity was always an amazing hallmark of the Star Wars movies, and it only expanded and grew more impressive in the prequel trilogy. It is a well-populated galaxy. And all of the alien races act in different fashions. Moreover, they rarely speak the same languages (and if they do, they speak in broken dialects, rather than perfect English).
- The soundtrack: I consider this completely different from the above-mentioned sound effects, and of course you do too. As famous as THX is, John Williams is a whole other level of amazing. Any movie theme that you can whistle, he probably wrote. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Superman, Harry Potter, thank you, good night. The man is astonishing. And if you sit down and listen to the prequel soundtracks, they are gorgeous pieces of music that take all the greatness of the original trilogy’s breathtaking music and build atop it. Duel of the Fates, from the first prequel, is awe-inspiring music, even without a movie playing along with it. In the second prequel, the haunting and fragile Across the Stars was another one that was just a gorgeous piece of work. But the whole soundtracks were amazing. And subtle. There were so many places where John Williams quietly played something that was close to, but not exactly like, Darth Vader’s theme. Or the Imperial March. Subtle little touches for you to notice. And then, in the second prequel, when we see the full clone army boarding ships at the very end and the Imperial March plays (in a new rendition, no less), it is still spine-tingling.
- The fight scenes: I think that anyone who grew up post-Star-Wars probably lined up his toy soldiers at some point and decided that instead of little green united states army men, they were actually stormtroopers. Big fight scenes sprawl out in the back of my mind, certainly, from the original Star Wars movies. And mostly, they didn’t exist. I enjoyed them no end, in the prequels. In the second and third prequels, we saw some fantastic fight scenes. The huge battle between the Droid Army and the Clone Army, in the second prequel…well, it was beautiful. Big and epic and violent and it was, in some ways, leading us to awe-inspiring scenes in other films, like the fight scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies, all of the subsequent copy-catters we got after that.
- The graphics: Although I can see some of the argument, on this point, about how the prequels were too computer generated…I would pointed out, humbly, that they merely take full advantage of the technology of their time. Just as the original Star Wars movies did. And if even those effects weren’t as pervasive in the original Star Wars films, I would argue that those films had something which the prequels did not: budget constraints. Lucasfilm was not yet printing money. And since we’re talking graphics, I suppose I should deal with one big point people brought up about the wretchedness of the prequels, which was Jar Jar Binks. And in reply, I say only: Ewoks. All right?
In the next article, I want to either apologize for, or defend, some of the actual lousy points of the prequels. Because I figure if I’m going to dig myself a hole, it may as well be the full six feet down. (And probably have a stone up top with the words Star Wars Apologist etched into it.)