The “Star Wars” prequels are a shameful chapter in any fan’s history. They almost work as instructional films for what not to do in a movie. When I first watched the prequels, I was much younger and far less versed in the intricacies of filmmaking than I am today. Even then, I recognized them for the mindless, ineffective schlock that they are. But, I was unable to put my finger on the core of why they didn’t work. This article sets out to take a closer look at the prequels, break them down, and figure out why they were such a monumental failure.
Episode I: The Phantom Menace
“The Phantom Menace” is arguably the most easily criticized of the prequels. But, the typical criticism of the film doesn’t go deep enough. Most people simply point to the obvious, easy-to-find flaws, like reliance on a child actor or mixing complex bureaucracy with poop jokes. Sure, these are all legitimate concerns, but the movie failed because of something much more basic; it violated the basic tenets of storytelling. The most obvious of these is characterization.
“The Phantom Menace” lacks any real characterization or even clear motivation. None of the characters are notable. The best illustration of this that I’ve seen is also one of the most basic: try describing the characters of the original “Star Wars” trilogy without using superficial details like appearance, job or title. This is reasonably easy to do, even for someone who has only seen the movies once. Luke is idealistic and somewhat naive. Han is cocky, sometimes to the point of arrogance, but also charming and suave in his own roguish way. Leia is self-assured and headstrong, but also kind and sympathetic. The list goes on. Now, try to do this with the characters in “The Phantom Menace.” Go on, I can wait.
These characters aren’t even really characters, just vehicles for the plot, which is funny as the movie lacks any real clear protagonist.
Having a clear protagonist is another basic tenet of storytelling George Lucas ignored in making this film.
The protagonist usually serves as a connection to the audience, getting them to care about the story by being relatable and having clearly defined goals or motivations. This is especially necessary in a science fiction movie, where a variety of foreign concepts are introduced to the audience. As the protagonist learns about the world, so does the audience. And, as the protagonist begins to care about things, so does the audience.
“The Phantom Menace” lacks any clear protagonist. It wasn’t really about the Jedi, as they had no vested interest in what much of the movie was about. Not to mention, their characters lacked any clear depth or motivation apart from that assigned to them by their superiors. It wasn’t Amidala, as she was more of a plot device. She didn’t grow or change. The closest thing to a protagonist the film had was Anakin, but he wasn’t introduced until 45 minutes in, and once he finally appeared, the audience couldn’t relate to him very well. He didn’t even seem to understand much of what was happening to him, which means all drama or tension was entirely removed from his character.
There are many other basic problems with the film, like it lacking a clear tone or theme, or a clear antagonist. Nothing that happened in the movie made much sense at all.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
On the surface, “Attack of the Clones” seems to fix many of the problems with its predecessor. It now has a clear protagonist: Anakin Skywalker. Of course, Anakin utterly fails as a protagonist, because he is completely unlikeable–in no small part because of the whole murdering children thing. The characters are also stronger. Anakin is brash and headstrong, whereas Obi Wan is wise and reserved. Except, their actions don’t really follow this characterization.
For example, early in the film after an assassination attempt, Obi Wan recklessly leaps from a building to catch a fleeing robot. This is just a complete failure in characterization. This is a brash, headstrong move, but instead of being done by the character that is supposed to behave in this manner, it’s done by the one that explicitly is not supposed to do these sorts of things. George Lucas blatantly fails to follow storytelling basics and as a result fails to tell a half-decent story.
Further illustrating Lucas’ ignorance of human behavior, we have one of the worst romance subplots in cinema. It takes up a large portion of the movie and is inherently flawed. The characters of Anakin and Padme have nothing in common, and there is no reason for them to be interested in one another. Lucas just puts two attractive people in romantic settings. I guess in his mind that’s how romance works.
There are so many problems with this movie that it’s hard to list them all. Samuel L. Jackson has no business being in this movie. He’s cast in a role that fails to acknowledge his strengths as an actor (getting really mad) and seems like just a cheap ploy to attempt to appeal to what Hollywood calls “the urban demographic” which is how Hollywood says “black people” without seeming racist.
The plot is as convoluted as ever, and even the climactic final battle falls flat. It’s a battle between robots and clones, two groups we as the audience have very little sympathy for.
Which brings us to Yoda. Yoda has no business using a lightsaber. His character is all about overcoming physical limitations. He is a great Jedi master despite being a small green puppet. He illustrates how the force overcomes the boundaries of the physical world. Having all of this stripped from him and turning him into just another guy with a laser sword runs counter to everything his character was about.
There are many, many more issues with this film, but most of them are systemic issues that run throughout all of the films.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
The title “Revenge of the Sith” recalls the original title of the last film in the original trilogy, which was set to be “Revenge of the Jedi.” This sets the tone for the film, which is filled to the brim with references to the original trilogy. Sure, so were the first two prequels, but this one for the most part just stops trying to innovate anything new and simply reuses characters and set pieces from the original movies. The few new innovations, like the hilariously-named General Grievous, are instantly forgettable.
This speaks somewhat to an underlying sense that you get throughout all three movies, the sense that Lucas doesn’t really understand why the original “Star Wars” trilogy worked. He doesn’t understand that the lightsaber duels in the originals were so interesting not because of the choreography, but because of the relationships between the characters that shone through and developed as they fought. He doesn’t understand that giving every sith the ability to shoot lightning lessens the impact of the emperor doing it. For that matter, he doesn’t understand why it’s a bad idea to have the emperor fighting with a lightsaber to begin with. He doesn’t understand that turning Anakin Skywalker into some kind of space-Jesus completely misunderstands his role in the original trilogy. Vader was an enforcer, a powerful and threatening figure used to instill fear in others. That’s all. How he fell to the dark side isn’t as interesting or important as how he redeems himself. But Lucas tries and fails horribly to make the story all about him.
These films sort of highlight the various ways the original trilogy was saved by other people. It’s somewhat common knowledge that the original cut of “Star Wars” was a complete disaster, and it was saved in the editing room by Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew, and Marcia Lucas. That’s why they won an academy award for the editing. The prequels give us a terrifying glimpse of what the original movie would have been like without that editing.
Every single bit of character interaction that isn’t an action scene is either two people walking down a hallway, or two people sitting on a couch. Sometimes one of those people will stand up and look out the window. On some rare occasions, three people will walk down a hallway. The editing is incredibly boring and dull, it’s just a two-shot conversation every single time, standard for soap operas but with no place on the big screen. This interaction and editing is so boring that it’s maddening at times.
It’s unclear whether Lucas simply doesn’t understand how to shoot interesting dialogue, or if he’s lazy. Personally, I think it’s the latter. Making dialogue scenes more interesting would require difficult things, like moving the camera, or having actual sets for the characters to interact with or play off of instead of just taking care of everything with special effects.
This is at the heart of why the movies don’t work. Lucas has clearly lost his passion, and it shows. The original trilogy was filled to the brim with interesting characters that the audience cared about. We loved with them, lost with them, mourned with them, and overcame adversity with them. The prequels just feel mechanical and dull, with no real life or soul to them. They don’t feel like movies that needed to be made, just attempts to cash in on brand name recognition. They are a complete and utter disappointment on almost every level, and it’s difficult to imagine a more blatant attempt at cashing in on the popularity of “Star Wars.”
The Star Wars Holiday Special
Of course, we don’t have to imagine such a thing, as it already exists–something so awful that even George Lucas doesn’t want to be associated with it. The special was aired only once, on November 17, 1978. It was a laughably terrible attempt to make money off the “Star Wars” brand at the height of its popularity. Many of the details of its production are veiled in secrecy, a veil maintained by even George Lucas himself, who said: “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
I obtained a copy of this special and watched it, a feat which I now firmly believe no sane human being should ever attempt.
Saying the special is bad is a significant understatement. It’s a monstrosity, an abomination, something that at times has the chance to be so bad it’s good, but most of the time it is so bad that it crushes your very soul. It features a 12 minute segment starring Bea Arthur singing to a cantina full of aliens, alluding to the cantina scene from the original “Star Wars.” It also includes appearances by Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, all of whom look like they are appearing at gunpoint. They’re filled with resentment and loathing for what they’re doing, and it’s clear to everyone watching.
The special follows Chewbacca’s family, Lumpy (his son), Malla (his wife), and Itchy (his father) as they prepare for “life day” which seems to basically be space Christmas. Of course, none of these characters can speak, as they’re wookiees, and the costumes used are so rudimentary that they can’t really emote either. So, you can probably understand why it was a bad idea to base an entire two-hour variety show around these characters.
While there are myriad things wrong with the holiday special, most of them are the same. The special guest segments are poorly shoehorned in and just flat out bizarre, to the point of being almost frightening at times. So is the main plot of the special. Nothing makes sense; everything feels cheap; and there’s no compelling reason for the special to have ever been made.
So, in that sense, it has a lot in common with the prequels.