Star Wars: In Defense of the Prequels

Greg Ehrhardt

There are three types of movies that suck me in no matter what the concept is:

1)     Any movie starring Jean Claude Van Damme.

2)     Haunted House movies (as long as they are not laughably bad).

3)     Time travel movies (especially starring Jean Claude Van Damme).

I’m fascinated by the prospect of time travel. It would be the single most dangerous invention that would ever happen if made into a reality (unless you subscribe to the Michael Crichton theory that time traveling into the past never impacts the current reality you live in. His book Timeline, is, by far, the best story you’ll read dealing with time travel). But outside of global ramifications of time travel, I’m fascinated by what average citizens would do with it. Would you go back and relive nostalgic moments? Would you tell your younger self advice to avoid potential pitfalls? Would you just try and make yourself a billionaire?

There are some interesting ethical questions attached to all of those dilemmas, none of which I’ll get into here (you’re welcome). But one thing I know I would do with time travel; tell my younger self to not hate on the Star Wars Prequels as much as I did when I was a lad.

Why you ask? Weren’t the prequels god-awful, almost murdering the entire franchise in the name of stroking George Lucas’ ego??

I don’t hate the prequels anymore because I saw what happened when they listened to the fanboys, put JJ Abrams in charge, and did everything possible to get a high score on Rotten Tomatoes. They made Episode VII, “The Force Awakens”, which is basically a 2-hour long trip down member berry lane without really any of the elements that make a Star Wars movie unique and colorful.

Now, the point of this column is not to throw shade at The Force Awakens. It does the job it was intended to do, with Rey and Finn being strong new characters that I am anticipating seeing more in Episode VIII and IX. I’ve watched it three times. Its fine. JJ Abrams doesn’t make bad movies. It overcomes a very “grizzled” performance from Harrison Ford and a pretty wooden performance from Carrie Fisher (And I don’t mean just her jaw. Look, may she rest in peace, she was a badass in Episodes IV-VI, but sorry, I’m just telling it like it is. Don’t @ me! (Actually, do @ me, @Grege333 on twitter. You like the parentheses within parentheses? We’re getting close to Inception style writing here)).

Let’s get back on the rails here. The Force Awakens was, in comparison to both the original trilogy and the prequels, a Star Wars cookie cutter experience, made to the standards of 21stcentury action movies. It was a little darker, both thematically, and visually. And the visuals here was the element I thought made the Star Wars Prequels fun and truly cinematic.

We’ll dive into that in a second. Let’s tackle the frequent objections to why the Prequels were a cinematic abomination:

1)      Jar Jar Binks prominence in Phantom Menace

a.       There’s not much to rebut this argument. It was an extremely curious decision to give that much screen time in Phantom Menace to a character whose dialogue was that annoying, combined with a probably racist voice. There’s a reason the key hero sidekicks in Episode IV-VI just made beeping sounds and wookie roars.  Let’s move along before this spurs another white-washing column from Chris Peterson.

2)      The Anakin played by Jake Lloyd was almost as annoying as Jar Jar Binks.

a.       This is more unfair. Having re-watched this recently, I think I know what they were trying to do. They tried to cast the sweetest, naivest, innocent boy they could find as Young Anakin, and basically tell him to act like himself. Besides the prequels telling Chancellor Palpatine’s rise to power, the prequels tell the story of how a good boy turns into the ultimate evil. You sell that by getting the most innocent looking boy you can find, so that his turn into Darth Vader is that much more chilling. It may have had more an effect on me this time around now that I’m a dad and uncle now to young kids, but I watch Phantom Menace now, and all of his annoying dialogue just makes me sad that someone like that can be corrupted for evil. And that’s the point. It’s strange to say, but you don’t get this effect with a better kid actor.

3)      The dialogue is horribly, atrociously, inconceivably written.

a.       There’s no denying this. Moving right along…

4)      Hayden Christiansen is a bad bad bad bad actor

a.       This is also unfair. Let’s remember, the prequels, especially The Clone Wars, made Oscar winning actress Natalie Portman act like she’s in a bad 5th grade dramatization of “The Cat In The Hat”. Samuel L. Jackson, one of the more colorful actors we still have, was made to give a mostly rote, black and white performance. So let’s not just pile on Hayden Christiansen here, who, when told not to act like a robot jedi, wasn’t half bad.

And let’s not forget, there weren’t exactly acting clinics going on during the original trilogy either. Have we watched Mark Hamill in Episode IV? It wasn’t like he was giving performances like this for three movies.

5) This Scene, to which I remind everybody that this movie was always geared towards 13 year olds and not gunning for an Oscar.

There are other critiques of course: The Pod Race in Phantom Menace was so friggin long, I won a bet against EIC Chris Peterson and made him watch the pod-race on loop for an hour, making him bulge his own eyeballs out. There’s also some racism at play in the prequels, particularly in Phantom Menace, and there’s a whole lot of scenes talking about stuff, especially about politics and trade negotiations, and not a whole lot of doing stuff.

But, these weaknesses have been discussed ad nauseum amongst the fans; there are precisely 324,000 reddit threads, angry blog posts, and youtube videos detailing why the prequels suck.  However, lest we forget, there are positives of the prequels, and the positives are strong:

1)      When they actually are doing stuff in the prequels, it is really first rate. The Light Saber fight scenes are first rate. The stand out scenes are:

a.        Darth Maul vs Kenobi/Qui Gon

b.      Obi Wan/Anakin/Yoda vs Count Dooku Round 1

c.       Obi Wan Kenobi vs Anakin Skywalker.

All three of these battles, are, far and away, the best light saber duels in all of the movies, including The Force Awakens. (Speaking of, can we talk about why Rey held her light saber as if she was playing with those nerf fencing swords?)

2)      Ewan McGregor. He’s the only one who walked away from these prequels a winner (well besides George Lucas and his yachts full of cash). His version of Ben Kenobi was tough, thoughtful, and gently charismatic. His final scene with Anakin was a work of art, where you could feel his heartache (even though as it played out in the script, it wasn’t 100% deserved). He was likable through the entire prequel movies, small feat considering how hated these movies are. He was so good in this that fans want him to reprise his character in an upcoming star wars movie.

3)      The rich landscapes. This is an underscored point which I want to take time here. The trilogy had limited special effects, but, from Cloud City to the Endor, the movies took you to vastly different and colorful lands to underscore the richness of life of these galaxies. The prequels, especially Phantom Menace, really emphasize this aspect and make this feel like a Star Wars movie. And as mentioned before, that’s where The Force Awakens failed the most.

a.       Kathleen Kennedy said during the shooting of Rogue One that the movie had to feel like a Star Wars movie, but I don’t feel like it was accomplished for TFA. Think about the settings we saw: Jakku (a big sand planet, not much to it), Takodana (which looks like a run of the mill US forest area), Starkiller base, which looks like Maine in January, and Ahch-To, which has a big ocean and some unspectactular islands. With the slight exception of Jakku, they all felt like places on Earth. (“Probably because they were, jackass” is a common refrain from all of you I gather)

The prequels, however, really unleashed the imagination to vividly show these colorful planets, and, perhaps equally important, showed life as it could be a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Don’t believe me? Watch this and count how many times the prequels show up

4)      I don’t hear Palpatine discussed much when the prequels come up, but he was really quite effective in these movies. I think people get stuck on him because we know he’s the villain from the jump in Phantom Menace, but if you go in cold (which, TECHNICALLY, you are supposed to do), then you get to appreciate him slowly, and subtly, increasing his villainy throughout the prequels until he finally reveals his intentions to Anakin while they are spinning in circles and of course, his full villain reveal during his bad ass murder of Mace Windu?. 

a.       It needs to be noted how Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher lost several steps in reprising their character in Force Awakens, Ian McDiarmid didn’t lose an inch, even if just looking at his scenes where he wears the black robe.

All of this is a long way of saying: what I appreciate about the Star Wars Prequels 20 years later is that, as flawed as they are (and they are FLAWED), they FELT like they belonged in the Star Wars universe, with very minimal use of member berries, while The Force Awakens, despite all of the member berries, never felt in the same universe as episodes I-VI.

We’ll see if The Last Jedi suffers the same fate.

May the force be with it.