It’s funny. I don’t think I have to explain to people what “The Prequels” means. It means Star Wars. After one of the most successful movie trilogies in the history of film, it’s only natural that more films might be made in the franchise, and Lucas had been talking about sequels that would go back and tell the story of the events prior to his original film.
Unfortunately the films did not live up to the expectations of many fans. Even though the films have been dissected ad infinitum, I still find many of the criticisms not touching on points that caused me problems on first watching them.
So what did go wrong with a series of films that meant so much to me as a kid?
Let’s look at the list.
1. All the hooks to the original feel superficial
Tying the prequels to the originals was important, and it’s something that fans were looking for. If these were the events that shaped the experiences of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia then surely we would recognize some of those influences. But the hooks we got were superficial ones. Jango/Bobba Fett is cloned to make every storm trooper we saw in the orignial films? So Jango/Bobba, an empty minor character with no discernible personality, is a weak minded, poor marksman and generally worthless in a fight? Anakin grew up on Tatooine? Why? This part of the story could have been told anywhere in the galaxy. Why choose the most boring, backwater place and make it into the Grand Central station of every major figure in the Star War universe? Chewbacca knew Yoda. Does that say anything about either character? Does that add anything to the story other than a big flashing sign saying “Look! This is something from the original trilogy!”
2. Two great actors wasted in the first film
Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are arguable two of the best actors there are. Hit the IMDB links I just gave you and take a look. Tell me you don’t see at least five great film performances from each of them. I dare. you. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that great actors always have great performances. If the script is weak and the characters don’t pop off the page, no amount of great acting will save it.
Qui-Gon Jinnis an admirable character, but not terrible interesting. He does little more than calmly deal with situations. He’s someone you would want with you in a crisis, but not someone you can imagine talking to at a dinner party without having to stifle yawns. Here is an actor who has played heroes, villains, normal everyday people, and the character has no more depth than a nice mounted police officer who helps you out of a jam but doesn’t seem to care about anything but his job.
All the Jedi are like this. It’s as though Lucas hated the idea of Jedi having any flaws except the occasional hubris when they look in the mirror and realize how “awesometastic” they are. Rob Roy, Les Miserable… do I really need to go on. Just glance at the list of some of the things Liam has done and tell me he wasn’t wasted in “Phantom Menace”. And poor Ewan McGregor. Look at films like Trainspotting or Velvet Goldmine and tell me that Ewan doesn’t have the chops to play great characters -Which leads me to my next point.
3. Obi Wan – Total Zero as a character
Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi from the original trilogy is one of the most important characters. He is a link to the past, a teacher, a friend and a man who made a great sacrifice just to teach his student a lesson about living for something greater than himself. As a mentor, he was all a student could ask for.
In the prequels, he is little more than a speed-bump of a character. He does almost nothing in the first film. In the second he is clearly a very competent, even admirable Jedi, but who is he? In the third film he is somewhat troubled. We know this because Lucas let him furrow his brow on occasion. But that’s about it. The character has no real arc. He doesn’t seem like a younger version of the man who would one day regret training Darth Vader.
If the original version of the character (played by Sir Alec Guinness) was a bit flat, it is because he wasn’t designed to be a primary character. He was a teacher, and a brilliant one at that. But as a character there isn’t really much for him to do in the prequels.
There was talk of a possible love triangle storyline with Anakin Skywalker, Padme and Obi Wan that might have created more motivation for the hatred seen in the final duel in Star Wars, but nothing came of it. Whether it was a fan inventions or Lucus’ idea that he later discarded is anyone’s guess, but would it have really hurt the prequels to have some emotional depth – or at least a stab at it? Maybe it would have…
4. Emotional Constipation
If you make Jedi the main characters of your films give them some depth. Heroic characters don’t have to be perfect and totally admirable. Great heroes can have great flaws. We admire characters that keep fighting in tough situations, but even more so when they have character flaws that remind us our own flawed nature.
Liam Neeson tells a story of wanting to put his arm around Anakin’s mother during a scene in The Phantom Menace, and Lucas not wanting him to do this. Neeson finally said something to the effect Lucas “had to give him something…” Neeson was looking to create a role, not just be a stone-faced avatar of the force.
Unfortunately for us when emotion does come we almost wish that they would go back to being emotionless. Lucas, who seemed in touch with his audience’s tastes and reactions in some films, seems sterile and unwilling to feel as he directs the prequels.
5. Didn’t start from the originals tonally
This one is a little hard to explain, but the prequels dont’ “feel” like the original Star Wars films. They seem grafted on. I always felt as though Lucas and his team should have gone back and watched the original trilogy and used those films as touchstones to make the new ones. For example, we know what Ben Kenobi looks like. As an audience we even know what Alec Guinness looked and sounded like – not just as an older man, but as a young actor.
As much as I love Ewan McGregor… could no one be found that resembled or could act like Alec Guinness? Even a poorly conceived character can at least manage to appear to be the same person in the prequels, and it would have been a great hook back to the original trilogy – one that would have meant a great deal to the fans.
And what about the ships and the technology? Why would everything looks more advanced in the past? Yes, I understand that explanations can be found (The Empire spreading money too thin, etc), but really… does it feel right to you? Part of film making is knowing the gut impact things will have on the audience. It can be explained away, but the fact that it exists to be explained away in the first place is a big part of the problem.
6. Visual masturbation
Much of what we see on screen in the prequels seems completely at odds to the story that is being told. We see fireworks on the screen when we’d rather see them in the emotions, actions and emotions going on in the character’s hearts.
Lucas seems to prefer spending $40,000 on a shot when only $4,000 is needed. We might appreciate all this visual artistry if it was in service to a story that moved us. But as it stands, it feels more like Lucas wanting to flex his ILM muscles and show off. Perhaps he could have saved us all a lot of heartache and made the prequels as late night infomercials for ILM… you know, drum up business.
7. All those great moments promised us, gone
Finally, one of the biggest disappointments is that all of the great moments we knew were coming just felt flat. Obi Wan and Anakin meeting for the first time – a total dud. Here Obi Wan, shake hands with this wooden-acting little kid. He’ll be the albatross around your neck for the next two films. Anakin’s turn to the dark side? It wasn’t believable. I understand that the story of a character filled with hopelessness and desperation can be a tough one to tell, but that’s the challenge you set up.
It doesn’t come across emotionally. We don’t really emotionally understand Anakin’s plight. It seems obvious to us that he can have so much, but he just keep screwing it up. That’s completely different from really getting across the utter mindless, animal desperation people sometimes feel before they do awful things, and make irrevocable choices.
Nowhere in the film did I ever sense Anakin becoming Darth Vader. That moment that Alec Guinness talks about when Anakin ceased to be Anakin and became Darth Vader just didn’t happen for me. A black leather suit and mask are no replacement for a deep understanding of what motivates the characters. And the final confrontation that we’d heard so much about between Anakin/Vader and Obi Wan ended up feeling like a video game jumping sequence. Even the final scene as Obi Wan leaves his friend to die feels forced and unworthy of the promise made by the original films.
In the end (he said, forced to conclude his article and find some meaning in all this mess) my nerd rage and disappointment will pass. It comes not from hating Lucas, or a lack of appreciation for all the things he’s done for the industry (on the technical side or the storytelling side). It comes from a strong connection to the original characters.
They deserved better.
We deserved better.
The Hero’s Journey is fraught with many perils. Bad plots. Poorly conceived characters. Overdone special effects. I’m forced to conclude that the real story of the start of the Star Wars universe has yet to be told. There will be a redoing of this, sooner of later (if their hasn’t been already by some fan with a word processor) that will satisfy me.
Maybe in the realm of comics or the written word there will be an epic beginning to this saga truly worth of it’s great heritage. In the end, I love storytelling. And if the beginning of the tale is not as strong as the “middle part” I will focus on that middle part. I’ve no choice.