Revisiting the Star Wars Prequels
Anthony Parisi | On May 19, 2015
In Fall 2014, Joshua Sikora led a Media Studies class examining the cinematic work of George Lucas, from his experimental student shorts to his groundbreaking six-film Star Wars series. This article, written by independent filmmaker Anthony Parisi for the tenth anniversary of Revenge of the Sith, sets the stage for a series of student essays looking back on George Lucas’ cinematic career. Sikora’s own analysis can be explored at lucascinema.com.
Ten years ago today, the Galactic Republic transformed into the evil Empire, the Jedi Order was destroyed by the Sith, and young Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) was the long-awaited end of George Lucas’ six-film magnum opus. It completed both the prequel trilogy that Lucas began writing in 1994 and the larger story he had been telling since 1977. It was a monumental moment for a 90’s kid like me who grew up immersed in the saga.
I love all six episodes and have grown to appreciate the mosaic they create even more as an adult. They are remarkably layered and interesting, forming a dazzling piece of pop art that’s as thoughtful and sincere as it is entertaining. Lucas is an immensely talented visualist and his command of the cinematic language brings thrilling set pieces and images imbued with symbolic meaning. Lucas took inspiration from the Flash Gordon space serials he enjoyed growing up but set out to tell good stories that would be enriching for children. He drew from ancient mythology, medieval literature, Japanese cinema, and American westerns, creating a modern myth in the form of a sci-fi fairy tale.
Despite massive popularity, the series and Lucas himself have frequently faced derision from film critics. He has been accused of infantilizing cinema and said to have squashed the 70’s “New Hollywood” counterculture breaking ground in realism at the time. Even in positive reviews, the original episodes were lamented for their comic book plots, wooden dialogue, and stilted acting. They were lauded for their fun and special effects but often dismissed as mere escapism. Sixteen years later, when the prequels began in 1999, this dissonance hit a fever pitch. Like the first trilogy, reviews were mixed, but the media hype and classic status of the older films guaranteed a mounting backlash. No longer children, older viewers soon began to turn on Lucas. It wasn’t just Pauline Kael sneering anymore, fans themselves had become savage critics.
The strangeness of Star Wars and the nostalgia of its fans have made it difficult for Lucas to be understood as an artist. His name is now a vicious punchline in many corners of the internet. A lazy narrative of decline has been popularized which casts him as a once-great director now obsessed with technology over story. Snark reigns online, much of it toxic and mean-spirited. Substantive, charitable analysis of his filmmaking is out there, but it’s a rare find. The Dark Side clouds everything.
Some of this may be inevitable. The saga is built on contradiction and is a quirky blend of high and low art. It was made in the style of schlocky, Saturday matinee serials from the 1930’s yet treated with earnest weight and dignity. Each entry is equal parts light-hearted and dramatic, corny and epic, banal and genius. They are “B” films made for children but crafted with so much skill and enthusiasm adults find them infectious too. Uniquely produced with Lucas’ hard-won independence from the Hollywood studio system, they are quite weird and display all the strengths and weaknesses of their creator.
The weaknesses are of course, well known. But while the infamous dialogue is an easy target, it’s one that is made far too much of and even somewhat misunderstood. Lucas was well aware of his literary shortcomings and pursued a specific tone where old-fashioned, campy dialogue is arguably part of the charm. The influence of the 1930’s is the basis for everything from the floating text of the opening crawl to the melodramatic acting style. Like old fables or Bible stories, Star Wars is simple but not simplistic, lending the saga an appealing innocence. The didactic language is intended for elementary-age children. Even when there are questionable executions of this approach (see the romance in Attack of the Clones), they’re relatively minor in the telling of the myth. It is no surprise that the films play so well internationally, where language issues disappear and the impact rests with the cinema itself.
The six films form one larger epic that is constructed like a piece of music. The narratives are light on plot and characterization, instead built on archetypal themes and psychological motifs that reverberate throughout the six episodes. Lucas often talks of approaching Star Wars like a silent film where the sound and the effects “are just a part of the musical composition to tell the story visually rather than through a lot of heavy dialogue.” This becomes more refined in his work on the prequels, where everything from mirrored plot points to spaceship designs are carefully placed to echo and build into the original trilogy. Lucas is a firm believer in “pure cinema.” His story is in the images and every image tells a story.
Looking back is helpful in understanding his work. Lucas started out in the 1960’s as an experimental filmmaker heavily influenced by the avant-garde films of the San Francisco art scene. Initially interested in painting, he became an editor and visualist who made abstract tone poems. His first feature, THX 1138 (1971) was an experimental science fiction film that presented a surreal, underground world where a dictatorial state controls a docile population using drugs. Love and sex are outlawed, procreation is controlled through machines, and human beings shuffle meaninglessly around the system.
This “future” world was actually a parable of modernity as he saw it. Reduced to mere materialism and an endless cycle of consumerism, our secularizing age is seen as dehumanizing and empty. In the cold world of THX (and later in Star Wars), institutional religion is compromised and has lost its transcendent power. A recurring image of Christ in an automated, pseudo-confessional has the church functioning as just another therapeutic arm of the state.
The film is bold and interesting, but as the social and political turmoil of the 1970’s grew worse, Lucas became convinced that the downbeat films he and his contemporaries like Martin Scorsese were making only fueled the cynicism of the time. He felt that artists had a responsibility to do more than just mirror society’s problems. Young people in America needed to believe in something and find a new way to embrace the wisdom of the past. With Star Wars, says Lucas, “All I was trying to say in a very simple and straightforward way is that there is a God and there is a good and bad side.”
The saga has religious sensibilities that stand in marked contrast to the secular moods of science fiction. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek followed an Enlightenment view of history where religion is left behind as humanity arrives at a benevolent utopia. Luke Skywalker’s journey is precisely the opposite, where the hero must reach back to recover the spiritual traditions of the past and save the galaxy. He turns away from technology in his run on the Death Star and seeks a higher power. Han Solo is the modern cynic who doesn’t believe in “the Force,” sarcastically quipping that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a blaster by your side.” He is proven wrong by the end of the story, where redemption comes through self-sacrifice and the return of the Jedi.
After the onslaught of mega-blockbusters we’ve seen these past ten years, the moral drama at the heart of these six films has proven to be quite exceptional. The story is entirely centered around the fall and redemption of the human soul. All of the exterior conflict reflects inner peril. The space battles and lightsaber duels are never mindless spectacle. Each piece of action is illustrative of spiritual realities and the violence always carries moral weight. Lucas’ direction achieves a rare balance of both whimsical fun and emotional sincerity, a key combination that has made it so resonant.
The prequel trilogy is the backstory to the “Dark Times” of the older films. The industrial-styled X-Wings and TIE Fighters vanish and new worlds reveal “a more civilized age.” The environments are rich in detail and history, retaining the realistic “used future” approach of the original trilogy but showing a universe in its prime. The lush planet of Naboo showcases a high point of beauty and human artistry. The design draws from the medieval period and the Renaissance, showing that this past is our past, a lost world set in contrast to the mechanized gray of the Empire. Naboo symbolizes an Edenic paradise with lush gardens and waterfalls, where the culture is in harmony with nature. The Republic is an intergalactic democracy with the peacekeeping Jedi Council at the center of society.
The opening story of Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) illustrates how peace and “balance” can be secured, with “life forms living together for mutual advantage.” In contrast to the “greedy” villains of the Trade Federation and squabbling politicians, victory comes through selfless care for the other. Young Anakin wins a podrace for his new friends and Queen Amidala must humble herself before the race of Gungans her people look down on. The saga’s themes are carefully established here, primed to pay off as the story unfolds. The Battle of Naboo prefigures the final resolution on Endor five films later, where the primitive Ewoks join the Rebels to defeat the Empire. The unloved Jar Jar Binks and little Ani show that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the Force is strong with these lowly outcasts.
An air of playful innocence is one of the things I love most about the film. It feels fifty years behind the times, like a bright, Cecil B. DeMille Bible movie, blissfully unaware of modern styles. It’s the historical costume drama to the original trilogy, immaculately designed and popping with color. Genre films trended darker through the 90’s and 00’s, a zeitgeist embodied in 1999’s much trendier sci-fi, The Matrix. Everything from Superman to James Bond is now gray and gritty, with PG-rated family adventures a disappearing art. In contrast, Lucas kept Star Wars confidently old-fashioned and gentle in tone.
In a time where massive studio corporations now pander to fans and vie for box-office glory, one can’t help but admire Lucas for having the guts to introduce Darth Vader as a nine-year-old boy yelling “Yippee!” He told a story he felt was important rather than making an easy cash-in. The film is about childhood and there’s an infectious gee-whiz quality to these adventures with sea monsters and droid armies. It bursts at the seams with imagination; new creatures and ships zipping around in pulpy bliss.
One of the highlights has Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fighting the horned Darth Maul, a striking image of the devil, on Naboo. Not only a terrific set piece, this ‘Duel of the Fates’ is an icon that sets up the battle between good and evil that will unfold inside Anakin as the story goes on. Translated in English, the choral chant sings of “a fight most dread, and another raging, behind, in the head.” It is significant that Maul chases Anakin the moment the boy leaves home. Like the next two villains, Count Dooku (a fallen Jedi) and General Grievous (a living creature encased in robotic armor), this figure hints of the dark potentiality shadowing his life. As he grows up he will face these threats both within and without.
The prequels nuance the struggle of good and evil so black and white in the original films, showing how we are all internally engaged in a battle of the soul. The hero becomes the villain and the Jedi are shown as aggressors in the Clone Wars, fighting alongside proto-stormtroopers in a fun (and telling) reversal of imagery. In this tragic tale, the ultimate enemy is the future Emperor Palpatine, pulling all the strings, corrupting both Anakin and the Republic from within. Even during moments of apparent victory, darkness is taking hold. In one nice touch at Menace’s finale, Williams pitches the Emperor’s musical theme higher to transform it into celebratory music. A children’s choir happily sings the melody of the “phantom menace” himself. The scores on these films are masterpieces unto themselves.
Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) opens with Coruscant shrouded in fog. Everyone is blind to the true danger around them, nothing is what it seems, and a twist on the opening pan takes us literally upside down. “I guess there was no danger at all,” says Captain Typho, seconds before an explosion erupts. Images of blindness and masked figures are everywhere. While narratively the weakest of the series, Clones is exceptionally layered and subversive. The ambitious expanse of the arena climax is filled with Ray Harryhausen-like pleasures even as the events propel the downfall of the Republic.
This film is about the messiness of adolescence. Anakin needs the attentive father-figure that Qui-Gon would have been, but Obi-Wan never seems to believe in his potential and deals with him harshly. Anakin’s story parallels that of the clones, an army brought to maturity via “growth acceleration.” For every subplot, power lures as a way to escape natural life’s challenges, whether in cloning, politics, or human finitude itself. The loss of Anakin’s mother leaves him deeply vulnerable and he is unable to let go and deal with death. He wants control over everything. His love for Padme is sincere but all-consuming, their forbidden attachment doomed. Near a fireplace, he expresses his feelings to her but the mood is ominous. The shape of Padme’s dress hints at a hand gripping her throat.
Although understandably grating, I’ve come to appreciate how Anakin’s teenage years are portrayed. Lucas deliberately shows him as unlikeable and petulant, exposing the banality of self-centeredness and maintaining moral clarity on what’s happening. Fans wanted Vader to wipe out the Jedi in high style, but instead Lucas points to the pathetic nature of evil. The Dark Side here is exposed as whiny and weak, another contrast to our culture that often glamorizes it. Great thought is taken on the psychological impact of these stories on children. Anakin is a model for kids to avoid rather than emulate. A moody blend of James Dean and Darth Vader, Hayden Christensen’s performance is very underrated, hitting a challenging range of emotion that erupts in Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).
The third chapter is Lucas at the top of his game. It’s a stunning, visceral finale that brings the story to its darkest hour. Filled to the brim with pathos, the film manages to combine the swashbuckling fun of the series with operatic doom. Anakin fears he will lose Padme in childbirth and is tortured by visions of her death. The immortal powers Palpatine tempts him with are surprisingly human and relatable: a way to hold on to the person you love. “Good is a point of view” instructs the dark lord, urging him past the “dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi.” But even while Anakin tries to justify himself with this relativistic thinking, he knows he has made a deal with the devil. As the violence escalates, we see him in tears under a crimson sky.
Here is a warning to modernity again taking shape. The Jedi Temple is in flames and the Senate chamber is literally torn apart. As evil triumphs over good, religion and democracy are in ruin. The rise of Vader is the rise of the Empire, a dictatorial state stripped of spiritual life. In an emotional ballet of swordplay, Obi-Wan confronts Anakin as they descend into hell on the volcanic world of Mustafar. Anakin’s eyes glow red as Darth Maul’s once did. The innocence established in Episode I’s cheerful world pays off richly here. At Padme’s funeral, there is a devastating transition from a hand-carved pendant (which nine-year-old Anakin made) to the first Imperial Star Destroyer.
The mythic poetry of these final moments is classic Lucas, powerfully evocative and handled with gentility and grace. Anakin is destroyed in both body and soul, left to die and rise again as a mechanical monster. He takes his first masked breath as Padme takes her last. It’s a beautiful montage of visuals and music, culminating with baby Luke and Leia taken to their adoptive families. The final scene is a Tatooine sunset as we look to a redemption to come. The new generation takes over and the cycle begins again.
At the eventual conclusion, the son’s love will redeem the father. Anakin’s prophetic fulfillment as “the Chosen One” will occur in Episode VI, where Palpatine is cast down into a reactor core just as Maul plummeted at the start. Everything comes back into balance and peace is restored in the galaxy.
The two trilogies are ingeniously reverse-engineered, now able to be played backward and forward in harmony. They are cleverly mirrored and full of interesting allusions. Perhaps seeing the repetition with which kids now experience films on home video, Lucas layered these final chapters with great care and they impressively solidify his myth. Time and again, I’ve seen the young fans who pore over them much more in tune with the work than film reviewers and their cursory reactions. Looking back at my own youth, Star Wars functioned as a kind of early art school. It’s unfortunate that the hyperbolic echo chamber of the internet has done so much damage in thwarting this kind of thing. For ten years now, these six films have been available to analyze as a unified whole but they remain largely unstudied.
Until his recent retirement, George Lucas also oversaw the production of a terrific animated television series, The Clone Wars (2008-2013) that further deepened the prequel era and is now beloved by a whole new generation of kids. Disney is doing themselves a disservice by distancing themselves from all this and catering to the snark that pervades the internet. The prequel generation is now coming of age and I’m encouraged to see new voices defend the films every year and tell their stories.
In a world of generic, cookie-cutter blockbusters, Lucas’ work stands out as singular and weighty. There is a lot to enjoy and admire in the prequel trilogy and it deserves a much closer look. The classic six now form the complete statement from one of our greatest artists, who pushed the boundaries of cinema and inspired children all over the world.
Anthony Parisi (@AnthonyParisi) is an independent filmmaker, photographer, and writer. He also has a prolific background in documentaries, contributing to many National Park films seen across the country. His debut feature film, “Manifest Destiny – The Lewis & Clark Musical Adventure” will be released next year. Visit him online at www.anthonyparisifilm.com