Monday, February 4, 2013

In Defense of the "Star Wars" Prequels

There are many Star Wars fans who refuse to accept the prequels (being Episodes I-III) as official Star Wars films because they often feel that these films are not "true" Star Wars and are bad films, and I am here today to defend the honor of the Star Wars prequels, not just proving that they are good films, but that they are true Star Wars films as well.  To prove why each of the Star Wars prequels are good films and are worthy of being included alongside the original Star Wars trilogy, I will go through each of the prequel films, dissecting all of the individual elements that fans nitpicked about the prequel episodes and justifying the reasoning of George Lucas.

Star Wars:  Episode I - The Phantom Menace was easily one of the most anticipated films of all-time when it hit theaters in 1999, however, when it came out, majority of Star Wars fans, in particular, the fans over say 12, were disappointed with the film and derided it.  Common complaints about Episode I were the overuse of CGI instead of practical effects, the casting of Jake Lloyd as a 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the fact that Anakin Skywalker was presented as a whiny kid, and the Gungans, in particular Jar Jar Binks, who some accused of being racist in interpretation.  In all honesty, the primary reason most fans were dissatisfied was because George Lucas had teased the idea of the prequel trilogy since the early 1980s, therefore, when he finally made them nearly two decades later, fans had had enough time to dream in their own minds what the tragic fall of Anakin Skywalker was, and when they finally saw how George Lucas always envisioned it, they were left disappointed.  However, I think the biggest reason most fans hated The Phantom Menace was because they had forgotten what the essence of Star Wars was.

From its very inception, Star Wars was meant to be a throwback to 1930's movie serials, like Flash Gordon, targeted towards children, teaching kids the difference between good and evil.  The Star Wars films were always targeted towards kids, which is why George Lucas was initially disappointed with The Empire Strikes Back because he felt it had gone too adult.  Back in 1983, many of the fans who had seen the original 1977 Star Wars in theaters, were now in their late teens, and hated Return of the Jedi because they thought the Ewoks were too cute and cuddly.  There and again, fans had forgotten that these were children's films and were never made for adults.  Yes, if they happened to cross over and appeal to all ages, that's great, but first and foremost, these films were made for 8-12-year-old boys.

With The Phantom Menace, George took a similar approach, introducing the comic Gungans into the Star Wars Universe, in particular, comedic relief, Jar Jar Binks.  Jar Jar is the character from the prequels that I feel gets the most hatred from fans, and it just ticks me off.  I've always found Jar Jar funny and cute, in the same way I've always loved Wickett the Ewok, and just because an African American man portrayed Jar Jar doesn't mean that George Lucas was being racist.  He could have cast a Caucasian man or woman saying the same lines and they would have come across the same way.  Jar Jar was always meant to be the Jester, the bumbling Village Idiot, a common fixture in Shakespearean tragedy and Greek Mythology, which was where George Lucas drew his inspiration for Star Wars from.  Jar Jar was just another mythological archetype that Lucas employed in his Star Wars universe, and if you think Jar Jar is stupid, go back and read the role of the Jester in King Lear.  Sure, he spoke in Shakespearean tongue, but the similarities are striking.  Of course, the other point of contention from Episode I, and across the whole prequel trilogy, is the representation of Anakin Skywalker.

In Episode I, we find Anakin as a 9-year-old boy with dreams of being a Jedi and seeing the galaxy, however when he is separated from his Mom in order to train to become a Jedi, Anakin is often accused of becoming whiny.  Let me ask this, take any 9-year-old away from his mother, it doesn't matter if they're destined to become big bad guy Darth Vader, they're going to be sad and they're going to cry and miss her, aren't they?  This is the stupidity of the fans regarding the entire prequel trilogy.  They get angry when Anakin expresses human emotion, common of a character his age.  They think he should just be this bad boy all the time who is never fazed by human emotion and is always doing cool things, but that would be negating the humanity that Luke Skywalker brought back to his father at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Of course, further complaints about Anakin in Episode I are the portrayal from Jake Lloyd and the fact that this 9-year-old kid unwittingly saves the day at the end of the film.  On both of these points, I just have to point out, this is a kid's movie.  Jake Lloyd's portrayal is no worse than Daniel Radcliffe's first go-round as Harry Potter.  Asking for a kid to have the emotional maturity to make everything 100% believable is almost impossible.  When you get right down to it, only one out of a thousand child actors are Henry Thomas, and the rest are like Jake Lloyd and Daniel Radcliffe.  On that same token, regarding the similarities between Harry Potter and Anakin Skywalker, we accept that 11-year-old Harry Potter can save the wizarding world, but can't accept that a 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, strong in the force, can't?  That's just bull.

And quite possibly the biggest complaint  of Episode I, came in the form of midi-chlorians, microscopic life forms that exist in people's bodies that allow them to manipulate the living Force.  While the introduction of midi-chlorians in George Lucas's script peeved many fans, it doesn't detract from the idea that the Force is still a magical entity.  I mean, a high white blood cell count doesn't enable you to start lifting objects with your mind.  All the introduction of midi-chlorians did was deliver a logical explanation as to how the Jedi were able to discern which children were worthy of Jedi training and which weren't.  It was a scientific explanation, and in a society so much more advanced than our own, it would have more than likely been a large gap in logic to think that the Jedi hadn't devised some sort of scientific research to discover how some people in the universe had Jedi powers and why others didn't.

Finally, while I do concede that Episode I could have done with less CGI work, because much of the film now looks dated, if you watch the Blu Ray special features, you will realize how much model work actually went into the prequel trilogy, and many things that you thought were CGI, were actually a well constructed model in front of a blue screen, like the original trilogy.  Bottom line though, Star Wars:  Episode I - The Phantom Menace is a true blue Star Wars adventure.  It's fun, entertaining, and emotionally involving.  Not to mention the fact that this film introduced two of the more awesome Star Wars characters in Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as Ewan McGreggor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, and completely reinvented the lightsaber duels and made them more awesome than ever.  I was nine when I first saw the film and was amazed by it then, and I still am to this day.  I think it's a perfect successor to the original trilogy, and obviously the film did something right to appeal to children and create a whole new generation of Star Wars fans.  Now, on to Episode II.

If I'm being honest, Star Wars:  Episode II - The Attack of the Clones is the hardest Star Wars film for me to defend, because I do think it's the weakest of the entire Star Wars saga, but even then, I still feel it's a film that is often not given its due.  The biggest point of hatred is the romance between Anakin and Padme, as well as the performance from Hayden Christensen as a 19-year-old Anakin.  While I do have to admit that I find the romance between Anakin and Padme slightly uncomfortable at first, in particular Anakin's creepy advances that sound more stalkerish than sweet, once they finally both succumb to one another's feelings, their romance harkens back to old-fashioned forbidden romances such as Romeo and Juliet.  Personally, I am a fan of the scene between Anakin and Padme at the dinner table, when he uses his Force powers to show off for Padme.  This scene is charming and sweet, and it honestly makes me believe in the two's relationship, allowing me to have bought their love when Padme finally kisses Anakin before they go into the gladiator arena.  However, as I said above, this is the point that I must concede only halfway worked for the film.

Similarly, Hayden Christensen's portrayal as Anakin Skywalker only halfway works, partly because the script never allows Anakin to be represented as a hero, but rather a brash and impulsive teenager with typical teenage mood swings.  It's hard to like Anakin when he's acting like the bratty show-off teen from high school, luckily Episode III remedies that, but where Christensen's performance shines is in those truly romantic moments with Padme and with the whole subplot where he returns to Tatooine searching for his Mother, finding her held captive by the Sandpeople.  When Anakin slaughters all of the Tusken Raiders and then proceeds to tell Padme what he's done, you see the shades of Darth Vader in Christensen's performance, and it's the first moment out of his portrayal that I believe he is the man destined to become Darth Vader.  Honestly though, in defense of George Lucas's interpretation of Anakin in Attack of the Clones, Anakin is still technically a hormonal teenager who feels a need to prove himself in the eyes of the Jedi and in the eyes of the woman he loves, but by the finale he has, and therefore becomes the heroic, altruistic character that we see in The Clone Wars TV show and in Episode III at the very beginning.

At the end of the day, Episode II is my least favorite of the Star Wars films, but it is unduly criticized for a great many things.  Just think of all the things it got right:  Jango Fett, the intro to the Clone Wars, the introduction of Bobba Fett, Ewan McGreggor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu tearing it up with a lightsaber, Yoda finally showing his true sword skills, the clever and intricate political subplots, and the wonderful presence of Christopher Lee as Sith Lord, Count Dooku.  I honestly feel that Episode II is worth watching, if simply just for the reasons listed above.  Now, on to Episode III.

Star Wars:  Episode III - Revenge of the Sith is quite possibly the most hated Star Wars film of all-time, and yet it's the shining point of the prequels.  The first thirty minutes alone are what makes Revenge of the Sith stand out as a Star Wars film, with Obi-Wan and Anakin's rescue of the Chancellor marking the finest, most heroic sequence of action in a Star Wars film since the original trilogy.  There were just many improvements from Attack of the Clones that made Revenge of the Sith such a more awesome experience.  First and foremost, Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Anakin Skywalker was a lot more likable this go around, with him being represented more so as a charming hero of the Republic at the start of the film, rather than as a whiny, conflicted teenager as he was for most of the previous film.  Then, the romance between Padme and Anakin played far better this second time around as well, partly because Christensen was allowed to be more charming than before.  As well, the whole plot line dealing with Chancellor Palpatine playing on Anakin's fear of losing Padme was a clever touch that actually made his tragic fall to the Dark Side so much more believable on a human level.  This brings us to the perfect place to really start dissecting the problems fans had with this film.

Many fans thought it was weak for Anakin to turn to the Dark Side because he was having visions of his wife dying and he sought the power to keep that from happening, but I argue that shows his vulnerability, and makes his fall all the more tragic.  What were fans wanting?  Were they wanting Anakin to be an uncaring person who you knew from a mile away was going to wind up becoming Darth Vader?  In most Greek Tragedy, love and a journey for power are the two key factors in said tragedy, but what the Greeks knew, was that the audience will not find it gut-wrenchingly tragic unless you make them care first, and to see a man, madly in love, fighting to save his loved one, only to be the impetus that actually brings about her death, is genuinely tragic and emotional.   Another point of contention amongst fans is the poor dialogue written by George Lucas.

In many ways, the dialogue is not the best, but it's always serviceable.  George Lucas's intent with the prequels was to show a more romantic side of the Star Wars Universe before the oppression of the Empire brought about the used future look of the original trilogy.  As such, when you realize that George was in some ways trying to show the medieval days of Star Wars, you realize why the language often seems stilted.  I believe that George's intent was to write dialogue in an elevated sort of language, often speaking plainly as many poems and plays from the medieval times in our own world did.   If you go into the film with this in mind, you realize that the dialogue actually isn't that bad, and as for the two most contested lines from the film:  "Anakin, you're breaking my heart," and, "He killed Younglings," well, I actually have defenses for them.  The, "breaking my heart," line fits into the elevated, more romantic language that I feel Lucas was going for, and as for the, "Younglings," line, if you go on to watch the animated TV show, Star Wars:  The Clone Wars, you'll realize that Younglings are what they call a Jedi before he or she becomes a Padawan learner, so basically, they're the Jedi's in-training that you see from toddler age to about ten or twelves years old.  When you realize the context of that line, you realize Obi-Wan is not simply using a weird word to say Anakin killed children, he's essentially saying, "He killed Jedi."  While Lucas's attempts with the dialogue went over many fan's heads, I actually am not bothered by it any longer.

Ultimately, I feel Episode III gets a lot of the brunt of fan's hatred because it was the installment where Anakin transformed into Darth Vader, and while Hayden Christensen's performance becomes fairly one note once he falls to the Dark Side, it still works for me, because I believed in the tragedy.  While fans complained when Darth Vader yelled, "No," after being told Padme had died, I mean, come on, he just lost the love of his life and has been transformed into this monster because he tried to save her.  Don't you think you'd overreact a little bit?  Besides, there are so many other clever moments in the film, such as the talk about the Dark Side of the Force between Palpatine and Anakin at the opera, as well as the spectacular lightsaber duels that were worth the price of admission alone.  Then, there was the ending, seeing Anakin encased in the Darth Vader armor, and then seeing baby Luke and Leia being separated, setting up A New Hope.  Most importantly though, Episode III was just epic.  While that does keep it from feeling like the other Star Wars films at times, because it is so much more focused on operatic drama than pure adventure, it's what also makes Episode III the best stand alone Star Wars film since Empire.

So there you have it, my defense of the Star Wars prequels.  I know coming out and declaring my love for the prequels may get me some flack, but I honestly don't care.  I never hated the prequels when I first saw them in theaters, and I still don't, I can't help it.  Maybe since I was nine when the first prequel hit theaters, I was in that special position to where I have a love for both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy because I was at the right age to experience both through the Special Edition re-releases of the original trilogy in 1997 and the start of the prequel trilogy in 1999.  Perhaps that explains why midi-chlorians never detracted from my view on Star Wars and the galaxy far, far away.  Even so, I hope that my arguments above will either help a few Star Wars fans to rethink their positions on the prequels, or just help them come to a place of understanding with the prequels so that they will no longer rag on them and just let the prequel lovers, like me, be without criticism of what they love.

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