The Star Wars prequels of politics: Why Anakin’s origin is overshadowed by Palpatine’s rise to power

When I was a kid, I remember watching the Star Wars prequels and I was enthralled with them. As far as my young brain was concerned, there was plenty of action-packed scenes to keep me interested but, at the same time, taking no real notice of the dialogue. Most of the time, I wasn’t really sure why most of the fighting occurred but then again, a lot of young fans can’t really explain what’s going on.

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I had grown up being a big fan of the movies and suddenly as I grew up, I heard more and more criticism thrown towards them whether it was by people I knew or by television shows poking fun. This is why I recently decided to re-watch the prequel trilogy just to see what I’d missed as a carefree kid. There were plenty of things that stood out this time around but, in all honesty, my opinion of the films was not thoroughly diminished and I dare say I still enjoyed them.

However, the reason I enjoyed the films this time was because I was now able to appreciate the rise of the Galactic Empire because I started paying attention to the dialogue. The narrative of the first two films isn’t great overall so it’s not so simple to understand people’s actions. When I was a kid, my thought process revolved around the Jedi being good and anybody who attacked them or their friends was evil.

As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of the prequels was to achieve two things; one was to take us through Anakin’s journey from Jedi to Sith and the other was to show the rise of the Sith and the Galactic Empire. I think a lot of fans of the original trilogy were put off by the fact that the prequels were not solely based on Sith versus Jedi. Instead, George Lucas took the direction of having the Sith only just coming back into existence, rather than a fully fledged Sith Council against the Jedi Council.  When you look at Episode I, there are two Sith in existence with Darth Maul and Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious) compared to the Jedi Council who have their own training facility for young Jedi as well as a number of experienced Jedi. You see this in the first prequel with the knowledge that, by Episode IV, the Jedi would supposedly have all been eradicated.

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There are plenty of weaknesses in Anakin’s narrative throughout the prequels whether it is the script or how the character is portrayed. It is only in Episode III that the writing, acting and narrative improve that gives viewers the payoff for Anakin’s story. No matter how he got there, by this point, we just wanted to see Anakin’s move to the dark side complete and the third film was satisfying enough, given what preceded it.

Anakin’s origin is tied into the stories of the Jedi throughout the first two films, having him associated with Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Padme and Jar Jar Binks. The problem for Anakin’s story is that this is where the narrative falls down. The first two films have the Jedi dealing with the likes of the Trade Federation and some droids, for the most part. While some of these interactions are the reasons why fans were disappointed with the films, it is these scenes that played an important role in revealing the biggest story of the prequels, Emperor Palpatine’s rise to power.

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There have been many criticisms of the prequels regarding the focus on politics where it seems as if the Jedi are just doing some kind of government role across the galaxy while plenty of scenes take place at the Senate. It was only after I watched the films again that it all became clear to me,  the Star Wars prequels tell the story of political manipulation for a politician to rise to power as a dictator and this is where the films hold up for me.

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At the start of Episode I, Palpatine is in the Senate looking to make his way up the political ladder to fulfill his desire for power and to give him a platform for the Sith to take control. The Trade Federation is the main focus of the first film and they are the cause of tension and conflict for the Jedi as they look to occupy Naboo with droids. It is revealed very early on that The Trade Federation are taking their instructions from Darth Sidious and fans of the original trilogy can instantly recognise that The Trade Federation are evil.  This tension isn’t caused in order to kill the Jedi, it is simply to undermine peace in the galaxy so that Palpatine can weaken the Chancellor’s strength to give himself a chance of becoming the Chancellor.

The second film doesn’t add too much to the Chancellor’s story and maybe that’s why it’s my least favourite of the three with the focus being placed on the lacklustre story of Anakin and the clones. The third film brings about the culmination of all Palpatine’s political moves with the reveal that he is indeed a Sith. To a lot of people, this wouldn’t have been much of a surprise but the actual reveal helps to make sense of the plot of the first two films. Palpatine is revealed as a master manipulator, he manipulated the Trade Federation to commit acts that would help him to become Chancellor. He manipulates Anakin to join the dark side, offering him a way of saving his wife Padme but only with the help of Sith powers. Anakin’s fate is sealed by his split-second decision to save Palpatine from Mace Windu in the hope of saving his wife. Once he kills a Jedi, he knows there is no going back. He then assumes control of the clones to turn them against the Jedi while turning the citizens against the Jedi with the claim that they tried to kill him to assume full control of the Senate. No longer requiring the services of The Trade Federation, he eliminates them as well.

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All but Yoda and Obi-Wan are eliminated but they are sent into retreat so there is no Jedi council to share power with the Chancellor. Palpatine then uses this fear and distrust for the Jedi to convince citizens that the system no longer worked and that he would form the Galactic Empire in order to have full control as the Emperor. By this point, he has gained complete power and there are no Jedi left so Darth Sidious and Darth Vader can rule the galaxy unopposed.

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That is what I enjoyed about re-watching the Star Wars prequels this time around. The reason for the political drama rather than a ton of space battles and lightsaber fights was simply to highlight one thing, the galaxy was at peace at the start of Episode I. There couldn’t be one ruler at this point because there was a system in place to run the galaxy and the issues they deal with such as taxation and trade are symbolic of how a democratic society is run. Palpatine started with just himself and one apprentice against a number of Jedi and through political machinations alone, he took control of the entire galaxy. He transformed a democratic galaxy, where the most the Jedi had to worry about was droids, to a dictatorship with no Jedi left.

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  • Matthew Martin

    Right on! It doesn’t hurt that Ian McDiarmid just about stole every scene he was in. Watching his rise to power was much more entertaining for me than watching Anakin’s descent into sithfulness. Maybe that’s because it was, between the two of them, the better realized story from a writing perspective.

    Good article!

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