Why I am a Prequel Apologist
This past Wednesday evening I shamelessly skipped out on fight night and Zoo Bar, and bought an £8.00 film ticket, plus the £1.00 for the glasses, to the 3-D version of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Termed the greatest disappointment of the century (probably), the film was widely criticised for its poor acting, poor writing, poor characterisation, and, obviously, Jar Jar Binks. This week, I’d like to submit to you a defense of it, and the other prequels. I will not argue they are as good as the sequels, to be sure they are not, but I do believe they were necessary stories to tell and they were not told half-bad, either.
Ever since the age of six when my father and uncle took me to see the special edition, in-theatre, release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope I have been a Star Wars fan. I can quote far more lines than I care to remember, I own countless action figures–not dolls–, I have the Lego versions of the rebel Y-Wing and the Imperial Tie Fighter, and I still have a working version of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s blue light saber, having destroyed my Qui-Gon Jin version in a particularly epic saber-battle with a childhood friend. I’ve conquered and reconquered the Star Wars universe in Battlefront II. I know what making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs means, who completed it, and why Han was logically correct to say parsecs, a unit of distance, rather than a unit of time. I know that Han shot first, which planet Chewie is from, and I am uncertain, at least uncomfortable, about the extent to which Luke and Leia got their boogie on. I also know that ET and Star Wars exist in the same universe (pretty cool, right?). In sum, I have spent an unhealthy portion of my life fantasising, re-enacting, quoting, living, breathing, and enjoying the Star Wars franchise, likely sacrificing a lot of sex in the process.
Unsurprisingly, I think Star Wars is the greatest fiction story of the past century. The saga ought to rank as an equal to the works Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, and Twain. This necessarily means the whole saga–not the just the original three films most people care to remember. The themes explored are timeless, the action epic, the music enrapturing, and the characters–most of them–creative. The character evolution of Anakin Skywalker from the round-faced innocent little boy seen in Episode I to Darth Vader and back is nothing short of poetic. Every bit of his story needs to be told, lest it be as incomplete and vulnerable to attack as the second Death Star featured in VI.
At this point I would like to discuss Jar Jar, the bane of any Star Wars fan’s existence. His character was clearly an attempt at comic relief but, unlike ‘the professor’ 3PO, he just was not funny, rather dreadfully annoying. However, as a devout fan I can forgive George Lucas for this grave error. Am I really in a position to accuse the man who created the line of badassery that is Han Solo, Obi Wan, Yoda, Mace Windu, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Jabba, Marion Ravenwood, and countless others of being uncreative? For whatever it is worth I can forgive George Lucas for the slip of Jar Jar. He has brought me far too much joy in other characters for me to remain upset just one was not perfect. Moreover, is Jar Jar really that pivotal of a character? All he is is an unnecessary distraction, and that is all he should be remembered for, if remembered at all. What George Lucas really needs is something like a bark collar to zap him every time he goes a little overboard.
As for the acting, I think the prequels greatest flaw was not in poor acting in general but rather poor acting in what is supposed to be the most important character–Anakin Skywalker, portrayed as a child by Jake Lloyd and then as a young adult by Hayden Christiansen. As for the other characters I found most of them quite convincing. Ewan MacGregor, as ever, nails Obi-Wan, capturing the essence of Alec Guinness. Yoda is an utter badass, as is his right-hand man, Mace Windu superbly portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. Liam Neeson plays a great mentor character, which, given the Eastern-influenced mythology of the force is almost a necessity for any Star Wars film.
Asking why George Lucas miscast Anakin is not a particularly useful question. Yes, Anakin was not even satisfactorily acted but, for all I care, you could have had Nicholas Cage play Anakin Skywalker and the story would still be epic. What all of us fans were dying to know was what corrupted the universe’s most powerful Jedi to the dark side. This was answered in the prequel–he missed his mother, feared for his lover, and, as Yoda’s proverb goes, was led to anger, then hate, then to suffering. As beautiful as it would be, this progression–this fall to evil–does not need to be acted by Meryl Streep (though I am sure she could do it). The questions are answered by two ham ‘actors’ and I can still be deeply drawn into the film.
The final Jedi battle at the end of III is a perfect example of this. Christiansen cheesily delivers his lines, whips out his lightsaber faster than Bill Clinton and a cigar pack and begins fighting Obi Wan. Not for a second do I suspend my disbelief, that is how powerful the story is. I am deeply awed by the fight sequence, crippled emotionally by the music, and truly empathetic to Obi Wan’s devastation at his Padawan’s conversion. At the end of the film I can not help but run counterfactuals in my head, imagining how the story would be different if only one thing or the other had been different, desperately hoping Anakin is saved.
As with any George Lucas film, it is not the details that desperately matter, it is the wider story. Star Wars? A bloody good story it is. May the force be with you.