Okay. I’m beginning to write the first of several extended spiritual reflections on the Star Wars saga. In those, I’m just going to concentrate on symbolism and meaning, not criticism . . .
So I better get this off my chest now. As I look at the arc of the six stories as a whole, my feeling about the prequel trilogy has changed from disappointment to dismay. I’m going to take back some of the nice things I wrote about Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Sith just isn’t good enough to do its subject justice. The problem is that the three prequel movies are utterly different in character from the original trilogy. Considering the series as a whole, these three feel like an effects maniac trying to imitate the guy who brought us the stories of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Although Lucas states that he originally wanted the screen crawl of Stars Wars in 1977 to say Episode IV (implying that he already had something of three prequel stories already in mind), 28 years later, the finished product feels like a rushed job.
Although technically ROTS (think about that acronym for a second) is better than the other two prequels, I must confess that I actually enjoyed he Phantom Menace better, Jar-Jar Binks and all (yes, I’m crazy, I know). Menace at least had a planet with some variety in its habitats and sentient races, a sense of adventure, beauty, and discovery, and a rich color palette. Its problem was that it contributed little to the story of Anakin’s fall. What do we learn to help us understand his fall? Why, that he was an amazingly well-adjusted and gifted kid growing up in oppressive circumstances! And it learning that Amidala and her decoy can change costumes and wigs faster than a pit crew can change tires wasn’t that exciting, either. (The whole “decoy” gimmick was not impressive. Worse still, its reprise in Clones)!
Attack of the Clones was far worse. Its CGI-mania went off the chart, with overly-long and ugly battle sequences. Obi-Wan was so condescending that I wanted to smack him, and Anakin sounded like a petulant brat much younger than his 19 years, instead of a precocious genius of the Jedi arts. And it was very disappointing to learn that Jedi education in political science appears to consist of the one line “don’t trust politicians” (though that’s not bad advice, actually). I don’t need to say anything about the flatness of Anakin’s and Padmé’s romance, so I won’t.
Sith has better dialogue, and its fast pace helps, but it continues and magnifies the problems of the preceding movies. Shocking, the blindness of the Jedi Council is. (Drab, too, their furniture is!) In their regular meetings with Senator/Chancellor Palpatine over the years, none of them can sense the galaxy-shaking darkness on the other side of the desk. Even in the depths of their meditation and communion with the Force, none of them get direction on what is going wrong, apart from a vague sense that vagueness is being vaguely disturbed. In short, they seem less like spiritual warriors than dupes who are gifted fighters. Certainy this is not what Lucas intended, but it is the result.
Even worse, the entire purpose of the prequel trilogy—the fall of Anakin Skywalker, just doesn’t wash. The pivotal scene of the trilogy, wherein Anakin and Palpatine kill Windu, shows him going from “What have I done?!” to “I will do whatever you command, Master,” in less than 30 seconds!
We’re supposed to believe the answer lies in the mind-blowing power of Darth Sidious/Palpatine. But not one scene shows him having irresistable power to corrupt or blind; we see no one bent to his will after resisting with all their strength, and it must take more than some psychokenetic tossing of objects to bring willful Anakin under his spell, and further, deceive the entire Jedi order.
So why does Anakin go bad? There’s some effort to show his emotional attachments as the cause of his downfall, but there’s nothing unusual about either his love for his mother or Padmé. When something finally does seem off (his insistence that he be strong enough to stop people from dying), nothing explains how he developed a severe emotional dependency on them. Furthermore, nothing in the movies explains the difference between the subtle trap of attachment and freedom of love.
There’s babbling about about him being parthenogenetically conceived by Sidious’ manipulation of midichlorians, but how is that a factor? We know that it enhances his mastery of the Force, but if it warped his character, wouldn’t we have seen something amiss in Menace? Why does Anakin almost instantaneous metamorphose into a child-slicing monster? All Sith gives us is that he spent a couple of days oubting the Jedi Order’s integrity. Sorry. It’s not enough. The trilogy must be about the causes for Anakin’s fall, but there’s almost no reason to be seen. The inexplicable 30-second switch still remains.
Ultimately, the prequel trilogy’s attempts for nuanced, subtle plot fails. It emphasizes details, both on the visual level of digitized special effects as well as in monotonous dialogue about complex layers of deceit and manipulation. The prequel trilogy loses the big brush and broad strokes of characters, plot and action which made the original series so archetypal. Instead of being the story of Anakin’s tragic downfall, it’s more the story of Palpatine’s tragic rise, and it raises more questions than it answers. Huge plot holes remain:
- Why does Padmé die in childbirth when Leia says she remembered her real mother dying when she was very young?
- Why isn’t Yoda Obi-Wan’s teacher?
- Why is General Grievous flammable?
- Why can’t Padmé do anything but sit around the condo in ROTS?
- Why doesn’t Obi-Wan try to put Anakin out of his misery?
- Why doesn’t lava radiate heat?
Viewed without preconceptions, these aren’t bad movies. They’re entertaining melodramas and cutting-edge displays of effects. But they come to us after decades of anticipation, promising to bring even more to the most influential sci-fi story of all time. They needed to please adults as well as kids, and they were supposed to help us understand Darth Vader, not to be more confused by his improbable blundering into evil.
Hold fast to the center.
It’s important to keep the big picture—that’s Jedi life in the real world!