I’ve written before about my hesitancy to get excited about the upcoming Star Wars movies. I had come to terms with it, in part after the release of Revenge of the Sith, and ultimately with the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney. Before Lucas sold the franchise, I held out a fool’s hope in the back of my mind, that maybe one day–long after George had shuffled off this mortal coil–someone would come along and reimagine the whole thing.
It’s no secret, despite Lucas’ protestations, that the six-part “Star Wars saga” was a work in progress, constantly being revised. Darth Vader was not Luke’s dad until a late-drafting of The Empire Strikes Back. The idea that Luke and Leia were siblings didn’t come along until Lucas grew tired of making the Star Wars films and opted to end the series with the third movie, Return of the Jedi. Yoda’s declaration that “there is another” was just a loose thread in The Empire Strikes Back, left intentionally vague so that anyone or anything could be thought up later. The series was supposed to end on Coruscant, in part nine of the series, in the Emperor’s throne room, and not on a rebuilt Death Star in part six. And so on.
So in the years between the “completion” of the series, with Revenge of the Sith, and the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, I had dreamed that someone would come along and–having the whole story now told–re-tell the saga in a tidier, better-acted way. It’s always easier to re-tell a story once you know how it’s supposed to go, than it is to make it up as you go along and hope it all turns out okay.
But with Disney now in control, that dream is over. The Walt Disney Company is the biggest “franchise” maker and sustainer on the planet. They are the single biggest reason why copyright expiration laws have been extended into near-infinity. Originally, in the United States, copyright was supposed to be held by the creator of an original property for fourteen years, with the option to renew for another fourteen years. Over the centuries this has been expanded to seventy five years after, and again up to one-hundred and twenty years after creation. Whenever there is a copyright battle on Capital Hill, Disney is usually at the frontline arguing and using its massive lobbying muscle to push for copyright extensions. The company is terrified to see Mickey Mouse enter public domain. Once they acquired Star Wars, you can be sure the same legal zeal was applied to Luke Skywalker and friends as well.
That means the core six movies as we know them are locked in and will forever be “Star Wars.” Someone may come along and release a big budget adaptation of The Wizard of Oz to be more in line with the source material, in a few decades a new Lord of the Rings saga might be commissioned with state of the art visual effects behind it, maybe some day soon the BBC will release a seven-year-series adaptation of Harry Potter, doing justice to some of the mistakes and omissions found in the latter films, but Star Wars will never change. It will be as untouchable as Mickey Mouse.
In some ways, that’s a good thing. Goodness knows we have enough reboots and remakes in cinema today. But when it comes to the prequels, you can hate the acting, the over-reliance on green screen settings, and the convoluted screenplays all you want, but you have to come to terms with it: They’re never going away. They’re never getting remade, they’re never getting retconned.
Let’s come to terms with it.
When Episode I came out it took a few months, maybe even a year, for the general consensus to settle in that the film was subpar. Once the whole trilogy was completed, it came to be viewed as the most technically superior film of the three, but artistically the weakest. Episode II meanwhile was generally thought of as the least-technically impressive (bad editing, lighting, the poorest soundtrack) and the least artistically impressive (wooden acting, weak screenplay). By default, Episode III wins the prize as the best of the three.
In reality, Episode III is a movie that is just good enough to make us think it’s actually good. It does this by running through a checklist of fan-pleasing scenes, ramping up the parts that fans seemed to like in the first two films while also cutting back on the parts that made Episodes I and II so grating. It’s only by a combination of smoke and mirrors and willful self-delusion that fans look back fondly on the film.
After half a decade of disappointment, I stood in line for Episode III’s premier at midnight, telling myself that this one would be good. I didn’t need “great” or “thrilling” or “amazing” or even “as wonderful as the original films.” I had been beaten down so thoroughly by the first two prequels that the only adjective I was hoping to use to describe it was “competent.” I just wanted a well made movie. I needed Star Wars to be good enough again to justify a near-lifetime of fandom. I had glanced at newspaper reviews in the days leading up to it. There were a lot of “A” ratings, “4 stars” here, and “Star Wars is Back!” headlines there. It was all very promising. But I remember that Roger Ebert gave The Phantom Menace a glowing review, so I refused to get my hopes up. All I needed was for it to justify its existence.
And, watching it on opening night, it felt like it had.
I wanted to see the fight between Anakin and Obi Wan, and the movie delivered. I wanted to see the fall of Anakin and the hunting down of the Jedi, and the movie delivered. I wanted to see the culmination of Palpatine’s elaborate, shadowy plan leading to the establishment of the Empire, and the movie delivered. When it was over, I walked out of the Memphis Paradiso Theater content that the Star Wars prequels had finally lived up to their purpose.
Then I went back to see it again…and the feeling had dissipated.
Once I got past the thrill of seeing those isolated moments that I’d dreamed about since childhood, I realized the tissue that connected those moments was thin and riddled with flaws. Like so many, I grew up wondering how exactly Anakin turned to the darkside. When I finally saw it, I enjoyed the spectacle of it, the sight and sound of his assisting Palpatine in killing Mace Windu and pledging himself to the Sith in order to save his presumed-endangered wife. But once you see the moment, and you enjoy seeing the moment, your brain pipes in and ruins the moment by asking questions.
Tell me, in the context of the movie, and only the movie (not decades of fan surmising, expanded-universe writing, and general consensus) why did Anakin go dark, REAL dark? I mean he went from trying to talk Windu into just not killing Palpatine (so he could stand trial), to, literally five minutes later, slaughtering young Jedi babies in the name of Sith Supremacy. He would later tell Obi Wan that “from [his] point of view the Jedi are evil.” But what in-movie reason is there for him to think that?
What’s so frustrating is how many obvious answers there are to that question, but the movie never touches on any of them.
Anakin’s very first experience with Jedi comes from Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi. The former is the only one to give half a crap about him as a youngster, and once he’s gone, Anakin is stuck with Obi Wan, who only agreed to train him as a promise to his dying master and who earlier had ran down the notion of Qui Gon training him. Yoda, Mace Windu and the rest of the council summarily rejected his being trained, with Windu in particular showing disdain that this “too-old boy” was being brought before them.
Ten years later, Anakin is a Jedi pupil, hen-pecked by his master and forced to bury his personal feelings in the name of Jedi relative-altruism. When his mother is in jeopardy he clearly wants to go and help but he is a slave to his rigid training that demands he watch his only living relative die while he meditate.
Later he becomes a Jedi Knight and is requested by the Chancellor of the whole intergalactic government to serve him on the Jedi council. Instead of granting him the title of “Jedi Master”–even as a formality–the Council responds like petty children and deny him a momentary bit of happiness after a miserable decade+ of life.
He then comes to find out his wife might die, much like his mother, and much like with his mother, the advice he gets is basically “clear your mind of attachments.” So by the time Palpatine offers him a way to save his wife’s life, why wouldn’t he be tempted. And when the Jedi try to stop Palpatine, why wouldn’t he side with the “bad guy” and go after the selfish Jedi trying to stop him from saving his wife’s life.
So yeah: Anakin had plenty of reasons (in his mind) to join the Sith and betray the Jedi. But did the movie actually address any of those reasons? Were any logical connections made to show Anakin’s thought process? Nope. He just went from “I pledge myself to your teachings” to “time to kill some younglings!” No rhyme or reason whatsoever. He just switched teams like Kentucky basketball fans who suddenly become Tennessee fans once college football season starts.
Remember this? Remember Nunu?
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This is Anakin in Revenge of the Sith.
And that’s just Anakin. We can hop over to the other big moment in the movie: Why did Yoda suddenly stop a fight with the Emperor when he was AT LEAST going toe-for-toe with him (and at times clearly had the upper hand)? Why did he suddenly up and just walk away, handing the galaxy over to “Hitler with a butt-forehead” and go into exile?
Of course we know the answer: The answer is because Yoda was in exile during the Original Trilogy, so he had to go into exile during the prequels. The answer is because George Lucas piddled around for four and a half hours in Episodes I and II and then had to cram the entire Original Trilogy backstory into one half of one movie. Think about it, all the clues we get about the events leading up to Episode IV are answered in the final hour and a half of Revenge of the Sith. There’s nothing about Trade Federations, Droid Armies, Separatist Movements or Sith uprisings at all in Episodes IV-VI. But those elements comprise three-quarters of the Prequel Trilogy. All the Original Series discussed was Anakin and Obi Wan fighting together in the Clone Wars as Jedi Knights. The way Obi Wan tells it to Luke, the Clone Wars were a kind of Crusade and the good guys were intergalactic Knights of Charlemagne (I’m aware Charlemagne never led any Crusades; go with it). Vader was a good guy turned bad, who helped the bad guys kill the knights and conquer the galaxy. We then come to find out Luke’s dad was Vader and was seduced by the promise of easy power through his pent up anger, fear and aggression. Instead of three movies about that, we got a half-movie about it, and two and a half meandering movies about nothing in particular leading up to it.
To be fair to George, it’s not that I blame him for not having the entire saga mapped out the moment he first started writing “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller” (even though he has all but claimed such). I blame him for sitting down in the mid-90’s to sketch out the Prequels, knowing where the story would end up, and still bungling it. That I blame him for.
And now that they are in Disney’s litigious hands, the prequels will forever be what they are:
Less than what they could have been.