The problem with the Star Wars prequels was never that the movies were bad, but that they were not good. Disappointment has a much stronger emotional effect than mere failure. The larger the existing bias, the more painful its reversal, which is to say that being a narrative run-up to the most successful adventure series in film history, the prequels had a lot to live up to. But their failure was deeper than unmet expectations. What one took from the Star Wars prequels upon first viewing was not so much irritation at some bad movies but sadness at what might have been. And we knew what might have been, because we saw the original Star Wars trilogy five times in the theatrical re-release. But what about now? Removed from the hype, how would the prequels come off? Was their poor reception merely a case of misplaced, fanboyish angst?
Short answer: No. In the final analysis, the Star Wars prequels are a lovingly created, intricately woven story which attempts to sidle up to its predecessor by affecting a lightness that comes off more haphazard than whimsical. Careful planning and creative stall are both evident in the finished product. A lopsidedness pervades the films’ tones, a richness of preproduction terminating in a series of uninspired shoots; the films themselves seem unsatisfied with the creative process from which they sprang. Years later one comes away still confused about what kind of yahoo could so painstakingly construct a story that not only enfolds but expands upon the epic Star Wars films but dresses this noble effort in dopey dialogue, jumped-up special effects, and cheap-looking set pieces?
This is not to say the prequels are all bad. Some areas where the original trilogy excelled are similarly excellent in Episodes I-III. Story, world-creation, the marriage of myth and pop, these are all expertly done. (And please, understand that I mean “narrative” and “story” as two very different things.) The Jedi are much more fully realized here than in the original trilogy; the fleshing out of the Sith is perhaps the prequels’ best contribution to the Star Wars universe. And while no one could possibly summit the towering evil of Darth Vader, Darths Maul and Sidious are extraordinary villains, by turns silent and smugly chatty, each wielding great stores of menace.
Anakin’s story arc, while rife with narrative cul de sacs, also breathes deep of old myth. The mystery shrouding Vader’s looming presence in Episodes IV-VI is elaborated upon but not fully answered for, which widens the margins of his mystery without killing it. We watch the slave, Anakin, develop into an increasingly ambitious young Jedi whose downfall is articulated psychologically as a fear of losing those whom he loves, not inherent evil. Vader’s enigma has always been how his moral ambiguity seems so indelibly connected to his power, and thus through unanswered questions concerning this power—Is he the chosen one? What does that actually mean?—the audience comes away wondering if Anakin was less evil than merely a victim of circumstance. Through the prequels, moviegoers better understand the Jedi and are more sympathetic to Anakin’s seemingly inevitable fate.
Still, this expansion of the Star Wars mythos could have just as well been achieved in a series of good films. While the prequels are mythologically enriching, their development of the original trilogy’s story is by no means the stuff of great, or even interesting, cinema. So upon re-examination, it seems the poor reception of the prequels’s original releases had little to do with hype. Summing up of the films’ post-hype effect only confirms what people have said all along. For the Star Wars initiated, here are the usual suspects:
Dialogue: Fans have railed against the prequels’ dialogue more than any other aspect, but dialogue problems are usually more a symptom of a director’s inability to frame beats or actors’ lack of talent to make the written page come alive than an actually poor script. Don’t get me wrong the script is bad, just maybe not as bad as all that. Mind-jarring moments like the infamous “sand line” from Episode II—“I don’t like sand… It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”—certainly stand out in memory.
The most egregious of the prequels’ dialogue happens between Anakin and Padme, when the action slows, presumably, to make the audience observe their burgeoning relationship and, thus, associate Anakin’s insecure lashings out with his fear of abandonment. But the original trilogy had a love story too, that between Han Solo and Leia, one much more believable and without all the hemming and hawing about sand. Most indicative of the unimportance of words to establish character motivation is the succinct “I love you/I know” exchanges between Han and Leia in Episodes V and VI. Both are spoken in moments of peril, and only five words are actually said in each pass, but they hint at longer Tracy/Hepburn-style, domestic scenes occurring offstage. The audience believes Han and Leia are a couple because of the way they are together, not because of what they say.
Narrative Elements: Episodes IV-VI are about a ragtag band of rebels rising against overwhelming odds for supremacy of the galaxy. The prequels are about a creeping political conspiracy shrouded in anonymity until the final moment, not exactly the stuff of high adventure. Anakin’s story arc could have been much more exciting, if his downfall had been more transparently connected to the subtle machinations of the Sith’s shadow government. Had the films offered more from Sidious’s perspective, or if the audience was made to understand the importance of Anakin’s complicity to Sidious’s plan for overthrow of the Galactic Senate and were granted inroads from a teenager’s hormonal outbursts to the Emperor’s plans for world domination, young Anakin’s development might have figured better into the films’ central conflict. As it is, Anakin’s coming of age and his romance with Padme seem to have little to do with the growing influence of Sidious over the Republic, that is until Sidious actually explicates that connection in the Episode III. This is an overestimation of the power of foreshadowing in a genre that does not thrive in subtlety.
Acting: George Lucas is notoriously stand-offish toward his actors. Allow him 20 years of sweaty nervousness over a project, during which time he directed not one film, and just see if a spirit of collaboration springs up on set. Add an overuse of green screen and a script that reads like a writer’s description of a story, and voila! Props must be given to Ian McDiarmid, however, who rose above all setbacks to create a harrowing Sidious.
Special Effects/Art Direction: The overuse of digital imagery is perhaps the prequels’ worst failure. Where the settings of the original series teemed with life, even places like Tattooine and Hoth, meant to represent all that was dead and barren, the prequels’ showy special effects and the alternating clumsiness and blandness of art direction never really establish any sense of place. Creating a tension between the real and the unreal, as such things pertain to the world of film production rather than filmic depiction, draws audiences out of the moviegoing experience; the less the audience has to think about what’s behind the curtain, the better. And sometimes “good” effects can create this breach much worse than “bad” effects. Images that approach reality, but not so much as to go unnoticed, are the worst offenders of all.
In contrast to the CGI orgies of the prequels, the rubber masks and make-up of Episode IV’s Mos Eisley scene are a perfectly believable illusory technique. With the original trilogy special effects visualize their object as actors do to their characters. But in the prequels, distracting CGI calls into question artistic medium, the film itself, rather than the object of that medium, and thus ruin suspended disbelief. Clumsily imposed digital images shift focus from what is seen to how it is seen, and this is a card trick that should be done imperceptibly, if at all. The Star Wars prequels by no means achieve this sleight of hand, and this failure draws all other failures into stark relief.
To be caught up in an adventure movie is to believe that the grappling hook won’t break as the hero swings over a bottomless chasm from one precipice to the next. The Star Wars prequels fail, because, instead of instructing their audience to imagine an infallible grappling hook, they try to traverse an uncanny valley by slowly, carefully building a bridge. And who wants to watch that?