Our good friend David recently wrote up an apology for the prequel trilogy. When he offered it to us as a blog post, we couldn’t resist!
The original Star Wars trilogy, in my opinion, is not truly science fiction. Yes, there are spaceships and aliens and planet-destroying weapons, but these elements alone do not a sci-fi story make. Science fiction is a genre that asks us “what if?” It takes an aspect or set of ideas from our world and twists it, challenging our interpretations of our own surroundings in the process.
The original trilogy does not do this, because it is primarily a fantasy story. The content of the films is much more akin to a the King Arthur legend or a Greek myth than Blade Runner. In Star Wars, the farmboy hero finds an old wizard, who gives him a magical sword and helps him invade a castle to save the princess. In Empire, he descends into the pits of the underworld (ironically found in a castle in the sky), coming face to face with pure evil. In Jedi, he fulfills his destiny by achieving harmony on the spiritual plane of the story, finally destroying the evil overlord who has for so long ruled with an iron fist.
Heck, the first line of the first movie is essentially “Once upon a time…”
How is this getting to a defense of the prequels? Because the prequels ARE science fiction. Sure, there are farmboys, star-crossed lovers, and deals with the devil, but don’t be fooled. Their aim is not to portray a universal struggle between good and evil, where a young boy finds his purpose and defeats the empire. The prequels show what happens to that story when the “real world” gets involved, when the man of pure heart is manipulated by politicians and disillusioned with the very idea he is destined to save.
Speaking of disillusionment, it is fascinating what Lucas does with the Jedi order. In the original trilogy, they were a myth unto themselves. The only remnant of their order are two old men, one who can lift things twenty times his size and another who seemingly cannot be killed. Wow, I just wonder what the order must have been like in its prime! Well, sadly the legend of the Jedi is about as true as the notion that Darth Vader killed Anakin Skywalker. Sure, in the prequels they show their unparalleled skill with tactics and combat, but they lack the wisdom their reputation infers.
Once the guardians of peace in the galaxy, the Jedi have gotten too big for their robes. Arrogance and elitism cloud their judgement. It is repeatedly stated that a Sith could not have infiltrated the Senate without the Jedi feeling his presence, yet this is obviously and devastatingly untrue. The Jedi were infallible until they started to believe it. Meanwhile, the Sith take advantage of the confusion in the Jedi order by exploiting every contradiction they can find in the eyes of Anakin. Sure, the dialog is awkward, but remember the conversation in Attack of the Clones about love? Are the Jedi allowed to love or aren’t they? Sometimes it seems hard to pin down what is truly valuable for a Jedi and what is merely structure and tradition.
In this way, the prequel trilogy takes the foundation of the originals and turns it on its head. It is a Star Wars for the present day, where even those we trust may be misguided.
Notice how Obi-Wan and Yoda break all of the Jedi rules when Luke finally comes of age? Anakin’s fall was the product of a broken system. The Force, a powerful and organic presence, was being taught in a rigidly structural fashion that ultimately prevented the Chosen One from being able to reach his potential. They see the mistakes of their order, and choose to instruct the pure-hearted Luke to draw on his feelings. When faced with the same temptation his father found in the Emperor, Luke resists: “You have failed, your honor. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
Goodness becomes something found with guidance and faith, not force (small “f”). Far from neutering the magic of the classic trilogy, the prequels show that its simplicity is what the galaxy truly needs.
Now, obviously the prequels have their problems. In particular, I think Clones suffers from an underdeveloped Anakin, and Menace has a pacing problem in its middle. However, I urge you to look past these surface flaws and find the core of what Lucas was going for. While perhaps not the best with actors, the man is brilliant at story construction and worldbulding. He wrote Star Wars, for cryin’ out loud.