As living proof of my lack of pretension per this article’s title, “A Pseudo-Intellectual Defense of the Star Wars Prequel(s)”, I’ve penned these words (and made a video) about the second most-lucrative film franchise of all time: Star Wars. Specifically, a Star Wars prequel. If you’re already slathering your computer keyboard with extra virgin olive oil, allowing your fingers to glide across the buttons as they spew forth a vitriolic reaction to the mere title of this piece — you might be suffering from exposure to:
⎸received opinion, noun, rəˈsēvd əˈpinyən 1: the parroting of pithy ideas
on art and politics that failed to originate in one’s own brain
Mass transmission of units of information as a field of study is known as memetics. First described in the ‘70s by famed atheist Richard Dawkins before skyrocketing into the mainstream through the pulsing networked systems of the Internet, this viral style of replication can produce a range of results: from widely-circulated pictures of incisions performed on fruit to social-justice sloganeering that becomes disconnected from the words themselves.
I don’t say all this to be pedantic about an element of culture we’re exposed to dozens of times daily. It’s useful to have a working definition of the terms at the center of any linguistic discussion — a non-negligible number of people likely believe that “meme” is simply another word for “funny image” or “silly picture” or “Minions-related content.”
Exaggerated hatred of the Star Wars prequels is a meme. There is plenty to dislike — the writing is notably lackluster, heroes and villains supplying dry exposition or speaking precisely what’s on their hearts and minds as imagined by a lovesick 11-year-old boy — but at this late stage, 17 years after the release of Episode III, the reputation of the thing has eclipsed the thing itself. Parallel examples in other mediums, borne from the wasteland of online discourse, include high volumes of complaints about art-rock-heads or lit-bros who mention even a mild interest in groups like Radiohead or authors like David Foster Wallace.
Spare me the critique about midichlorians, Jar Jar Binks (both Episode I), plastic romantic leads, or slapped-together factory setpieces (both Episode II); the thesis of my argument is that the third film in the prequel triptych, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, is the most magnificent entry in the entire franchise — 12 canonical films, four canonical television shows, and counting.
George Lucas always treated Star Wars as his own personal Imaginarium. Thanks in large part to technological development that allowed for additional animation and pre-visualization of complex sequences and cavernous faux-locations, as well as a budget increase from around $10 million to over $100 million, Lucas collared a vast canvas to splatter with his galaxy brain, crafting the most fully-realized version of his sprawling vision.
A far cry from the too-convincing, uncanny-valley-inducing visual effects that would become both boring and ubiquitous, Revenge of the Sith is a treatise on digital excess, deformed and out of control and significantly more interesting because of its imperfections. With seemingly no member of the cast, crew, or above-the-line producing team daring to tell him no, Lucas the maximalist replaced as much of the filmmaking process as possible with CGI, from props to environments to entire species.
The outcome was a beast of early computer-generated imagery on an immense scale, abandoning all pretense of traditional perspective and framing as understood by cinematic theory. Take as an illustrative demonstration the sequence that opens the film, a 64-second illusion of an unbroken shot that defies all the physical logic constraining director-dreamers for the previous century, a “camera” flying through time and space with unprecedented splendor.
Where the original trilogy mined simplistic notions of good and evil for its moral compass, navigating the binary between black and white by referring to opposing pseudo-spiritual factions as the dark side and the light side, Revenge of the Sith added shades of gray through power-hungry yet understandable motivations for its schemers. Darth Vader is a monolithic force of black leather and dramatic exhalation; Anakin Skywalker, the man behind the mask, is but a boy, swept away from his enslaved mother to join an order of sometimes wise, sometimes arrogant celibates who tell him to suppress his natural passions. By the time we reach the scorching climax, these repressed feelings are rendered as expressionistic in a final battle that takes place on a planet literally forged from fire.
Enter Darth Sidious, masquerading as Senator Palpatine, the Geppetto to Anakin’s young, impressionable Pinocchio. The corruption of our central character is inevitable, not just because this is a prequel to one of the most recognizable pieces of entertainment of the 20th century, but because the tragedy is Shakespearean in scope. There is no plot twist for the audience to guess or gasp at; “The Fall” is telegraphed early. Most of all, compared to the interconnected web of world-building that defines something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where each individual piece is borderline-impenetrable to a casual viewer, Revenge of the Sith wields a story that can stand on its own.
The diplomatic machinations of this fictional universe also benefit from further flesh on the narrative bones. Viewers don’t need bald-eagle-eyes to notice the similarities between the themes — consolidation of executive strength, the misleading of an entire body politic, and the death of liberty soundtracked by thunderous applause — and America’s warmongering in Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Cambodia, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan (to name a few).
I’m going to step back and throw credit where it’s due. Most of these observations arose, on a hazy day after a sleepless night, during a viewing of both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith: nine hours spent watching four hours of films — The ADHD Strikes Back. A friend stayed with me through it all, riffing and discussing the films and coming to a joint conclusion that Lucas’ last directorial achievement is not merely adequate, but superior to the kid-gloves approach found among the dregs of this multimedia empire.
Though many see mediocrity in the 140 minutes it takes to journey from opening crawl to closing credits, there is another staunch defender of the excellence in Episode III, providing unneeded but satisfying validity and a legion of potential pull quotes. Controversial cultural critic Camille Paglia extensively praised George Lucas’ magnum opus in her 2013 book of art history and criticism, Glittering Images. Paglia goes above and beyond my hot take, referring to the film as “the greatest work of art in recent memory” and explaining her position on its final moments:
“…more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes – people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off. Episode III epitomizes the modern digital art movement, more so than any other piece from the last thirty years.”– Camille Paglia
In light of the corporate hellscape of the mid-2010s sequel trilogy, a lifeless and grotesque abomination designed to sell our nostalgia back to us, sacrificing any inkling of a fresh idea at the unholy sepulcher of fan service and annoyingly-winky easter eggs, Revenge of the Sith has aged better than ever. It is the last bastion of idiosyncratic, major-studio filmmaking, permitted to be earnest and offbeat rather than paved over by rewrites, reshoots, re-edits, and the rest of the re- words associated with a gang of artless executives creating content by committee.
With the goal of understanding the phenomenon of nostalgia as it relates to the Star Wars franchise, in particular the entry point of the new trinity of trash, The Force Awakens, I collaborated with The Nostalgia Expert to create the below explanatory video. It almost seems like destiny that this and Revenge of the Sith were released in succession, albeit ten and a half years apart.