Last year, remember how traffic felt a little lighter on December 16, 2016? Or how there were a few less colleagues in the cubicle next to you crunching away on their Doritos? Or how our nations GDP dipped three points because everyone stayed home.
No, it was not because of the approaching holidays. No, it was not because of the wet winter weather gripping both coasts. It was because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was released in theaters and America took a collective national sick day as the hardcore Star Wars faithful, casual fans of nerd culture, and the allies of geeks everywhere took a day to visit a galaxy far, far away.
Why do I remind you of this? Because on Friday, December 15, 2017 this will all happen again. This time, in response to the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Sci-fi writers and filmmakers, storytellers and adventure seekers; we all love Star Wars. Lucas succeeded in achieving his goal – creating stories to inspire the generations which he feared were growing up without myth. The latest films, created following the post-Disney acquisition, despite their imitativeness and serious flaws, have been met with fanfare and praise. We can expect Star Wars fans to feel the same way about the upcoming Last Jedi film – compete and total praise.
But sometimes, I wonder why? Why are Star Wars fans so quick to praise the sequels to the original trilogy, while simultaneously condemning the prequel trilogy? The very prequel trilogy which directly tie into the original trilogy as envisioned by the creator of Star Wars. Yes, neither series is as good as the original; but both have their shortcomings and successes. Why do Star Wars fans hate the prequel films so much, especially given the gross failures of the most recent films?
Now, before I start dissecting Star Wars, I have to acknowledge the predicament that Lucas found himself in as a storyteller. It must be incredibly difficult telling a story to an audience, when they already know the ending. We all hate sitting through jokes we know the punchlines too, it is the same thing with feature films. So, when moments feel forced – such as the faux romance between Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones – they are indeed forced. We all knew Obi-Wan would fail to train Anakin. We all knew Anakin would succumb to the dark side. We knew Palatine would rise to power and crush the Jedi. With such crucial elements, pre-determined, it is understandable that the prequel trilogy feels so deprived of genuine character choice.
Lucas was also tasked with the impossible task of topping Star Wars; films which changed cinema and truly set the bar for generations of filmmakers. The expectations set by the original trilogy are unmatchable. This was one of the factors which prevented other talent filmmakers from helping Lucas see his vision through (something which substantially aided him in the production of the original trilogy).
I understand that subpar dialogue and an oversaturation of CGI did not help the prequel films win any fans. Yes, of course there is the Jar Jar issue as well. In the defense of Lucas, he has always maintained that Star Wars was for kids – perhaps Jar Jar is evidence of that. I want to mention these things just so they are mentioned, but instead let’s focus on the story components which are the failures of the series.
Now, I personally believe that the prequel trilogy has a number of things that were done right. We got three films full of Jedi mind trick, force powers, and epic lightsaber battles. These are some of our favorite aspects of the original trilogy, and we get the chance to experience these elements further. We experience the history of the Universe; watching the technological evolution of our favorite vehicles. We see some of our favorite Star Wars characters young, spry, and in their primes. We see the Obi-Wan and Anakin fight we have always dreamed of seeing, and we get to see the most infamous battle in the history of the Galaxy, the Clone Wars, something really only alluded to within the original films and Expanded Universe. So why do we hate the prequel saga so much? Personally, I believe it comes down to three major flaws.
1. The character of Anakin Skywalker.
The first of which is Anakin Skywalker, and the character’s short comings are more than just poor casting. Anakin is never the badass we expect him to be based on Obi-Wan’s descriptions of him in A New Hope. Instead, we are presented with a whiney-baby of a hero who bemoans the lack of responsibility he has yet to earn, and never earns. While attempts are made to show the character as a gifted swordsman and pilot, it is unnatural and in every instance, seems to come at the expense of Obi-Wan’s own competence instead of the Anakin’s natural ability. The Clone Wars television series greatly corrects this misstep, by portraying the character in more heroic ways, but it would have been nice to see this in cinema.
We never see that character truly fall from grace. Anakin is presented as the hope of the Jedi Order – the mysterious child with the highest midi-chlorian count ever. Instead of being seduced be the dark side of the force; he seems to simply choose the Sith over his fellow Jedi out of his teenage angst and boredom. To make matters worse, Lucas attempts to reinforce his apparent lack of motivation with some lackluster dialogue line from Anakin where he describes how from his position “the Jedi are evil.”
Nice try George, but we’re not buying it.
An Anakin Skywalker with a little more Michael Corleone to him, where we seem him change into the very things he was never meant to be, could really have done wonders for the trilogy. Or we needed a real Harvey Dent moment where everything he believed in – everything we believed in – is destroyed, and we learn he simply does not have the fortitude we though he had to hold on just a little bit longer. Perhaps if Padme had died earlier in Revenge of the Sith, we could have even seen that. That is what we wanted, and that is what we expected since we first learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back.
The character of Anakin (as presented in film), could have been redeemed in the eyes of fans, had the prequel trilogy ended with an epic Lord Vader scene, something akin to the Vader scene in Rogue One. That scene, with Vader light-sabering-the-crap out of rebel soldiers, would have rounded out the trilogy better than the rigor mortis inflicted Vader bemoaning the death of Padme with his metallic wail.
2. The lack of a B.A.M.F. Villain.
On the subject of Darth Vader, the second major problem, is the lack of a strong antagonist. In storytelling, the best heroes are the foils of powerful, motivated villains. The original Star Wars creates one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema. He is the envy of all other cinema villains. In A New Hope we are introduced to the intimidating and sinister Lord Vader. The physical manifestation of fear. He is powerful, mysterious, with a commanding screen presence. He wears a cape. He chokes people. Total bad-ass. In The Empire Strikes Back, we fully experience his ominous ruthlessness; and the range of his Sith powers. He kills his own officers, blocks blaster fire with his hands, and cuts the hand off his only son. Finally, in The Return of the Jedi, we uncover the missing pieces of Vader’s own past and we get to see the man behind his mask. We learn that his son Luke was correct and that somewhere deep within the evil Darth Vader, goodness still lives.
Yet, the prequel trilogy has no antagonist with Vader’s credibility. For that matter, the prequel trilogy lacks an antagonist with consistency. I believe that the primary flaw is the premature death of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. With his sinister appearance and a meager two lines worth of dialogue, he is a character shrouded in mystery. By the time of his ambiguous death at the end Episode 1, we have not learned much about the character beyond his use of a double-bladed lightsaber. Lucas was well on his way to crafting a character with truly Vader-like-aspirations.
Then we get Darth Tyranus, who leave much to be desired. Darth Maul’s “replacement” in Episode II, he is little more than an old man with a scratchy voice and crooked lightsaber. Lucas attempts to craft a compelling backstory – a few insignificant lines about his past as a Jedi – but as an audience we really find nothing interesting about him. While the character of Darth Maul earns our respects for his chops with a lightsaber when the guy fights two Jedi at once; the fights scenes with Tyranus are lacking, often leading us in disbelief that the old curmudgeon is able to fare as well as he does. In fact, by beating Obi-Wan twice and Yoda once, he does so only the expense of the competencies of the two Jedi Masters, not as a testament to his skill.
While the character of General Grievous is an unexpected turn from the Sith Lords of the other films, he appears too late in the series to garner any serious attachment. His alien race, his rank of general, his collection of lightsabers, and his pneumonic-cough, tease us a potentially interesting character. Yet, too many questions are left unanswered, and he has far too little screen time to actually matter.
I think Lucas really missed the mark here. Darth Maul had the makings of a truly sinister villain, and it would have been wonderful to explore his background further through the prequel trilogy. Had Lucas made Darth Maul returned in Episode II, donning new mechanical legs and a serious grudge against Obi-Wan, we could have had something really captivating.
3. We all love Han Solo.
Finally, the Star Wars prequel trilogy suffers from the lack an independent thinking, a true rogue, someone in the mold of that “scruffy` scoundrel” Han Solo. More importantly, Solo plays an irreplaceable role in the original story. First, in A New Hope, he is really the only unpredictable character in the film. He has no problem playing by his own rules and acting independently and selfishly. If Lucas had followed his original story line and followed through with killing Solo in The Return of the Jedi, the growth of Solo’s character would have been demonstrated his final character arc by sacrificed himself for his friends and their cause.
In the prequel trilogy, all the characters easily seem to fall into a few camps, with few of them truly acting selfish enough to put their own well-being a head of the greater plot objectives. There are few character who are true radicals, playing by their own set of rules. Solo’s brash, cocky, ready-fire-aim attitude is the perfect foil to the calm and calculated behavior of the Jedi; and could have really ratcheted up interpersonal conflict in the films.
Han Solo also grounds the films for the audience; something he does in The Force Awakens as well. He alone, is the one character in the Star Wars trilogy who can smirk at the ridiculousness of everything. He acknowledges the things other characters seem to take for granted – planet sized space stations, the all-powerful force, and how “swords” best blasters in combat. This making the story acceptable and dare I even say – passable – to audiences. Solo shares our confusion and skepticism.
At times, things are almost too heavy for a Star Wars film in the prequel films as the story gets too caught up in the politics of the galactic civil war. A Solo type character could have brought some levity to the prequel’s, as Solo repeatedly does. His wit makes us laugh, and keeps the grand galactic adventure from ever becoming all too serious. With Solo appearing in The Force Awakens, and with Finn poised to become Solo 2.0, the new trilogy seems to have insured itself a way to keep grounding the film in fun.
All these failures of the prequel trilogy may still manifest themselves as failures of the sequel trilogy. The story is not yet complete, character arcs are not finished, and we really have no idea where things will go or how it will end. For all we know, it is possible that in three years we may look back on the entire sequel trilogy with nothing but disgust and disdain?
We need to give Lucas credit where his credit is due. As our favorite character Yoda taught us, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Lucas did finally make the prequel trilogy he alluded to in 1977, that is an admirable fact in its own right. In doing so he took us to new worlds and showed us new characters from the expansive Star Wars Universe we thought we knew so well. Realistically, the prequel trilogy never had a chance of standing up to the original. In the same way, we know that the dozens of Star Wars films to come will never truly capture the sentiments of the original either. The intangibles of the originals; manifested largely through emotional nostalgia, can never be replicated. However, when we try to divorce emotion for the equation, and look at pure story, there is abundant room for improvement.
The older the prequel trilogies get, the more nostalgia may begin to set in. Maybe fans will be more willing to evaluate the films independently, celebrating their merits instead of solely condemning their short comings. The real question which remains is, in the years to come, what feelings will die hard fans hold towards many successive trilogies? I hope that The Last Jedi is a welcomed addition to Star Wars canon, but fear we will have to wait until the final addition to the new trilogy before we can full evaluate the successes and failures of its story.