Thoughts on the ‘Star Wars’ prequels, occasioned by the intergalactic success of the latest film in the franchise.
The hate for the latter-day Star Wars movies understood I never have. That the force was beginning to weaken in George Lucas was evident right from The Return of the Jedi, whose Ewoks, those toy-store-ready furballs, hinted at a creator who’d forsaken filmmaking for the dark side of merchandising. And The Phantom Menace was a bookish bore, overestimating the audience’s interest in the history of galactic lightsabre-rattling… and Jar Jar Binks. And yet, even in the much-maligned prequels, there was always something for Jedi-hard fans. Like this line: So this how liberty dies… With thunderous applause. Even Hayden Christensen’s adolescent petulance has grown on me. I still don’t care much for the performance, but the character was right to be in a perpetual sulk, pulled this way and that by his high midichlorian count the way a teenager might be tortured by hormones. And which fan could resist the operatic rapture of Anakin Skywalker’s death as his twins were born, even as the prequels’ demise took us right back to the birth of the franchise, to the very first Star Wars movie?
Say what you want about the prequels, they’re not lazy cash-in attempts. Of course, Lucas was still making films with an eye on the box office – and beyond. The Yoda costumes for Halloween. The videogames for Christmas. The quote-emblazoned T-shirts for the rest of the year. Forget the now-legendary John Williams score; the real music in the Star Wars series is the ticket counters going ka-ching. But had money been the only concern, Lucas could have done what the directors of the Bond adventures keep doing. He could have kept making the same movie all over again. The Stormtrooper Who Loved Me… Or, On The Emperor’s Secret Service. Instead, Lucas decided to fashion an origin story long before origin stories became fashionable. Only, this wasn’t about a single character, a superhero. It was an origin story for a galaxy.
If Star Wars, in 1977, felt like nothing anyone had seen before, the prequels were equally unique. The first three films were essentially good-versus-evil stories, the narrative stakes clearly set up by the opening crawl. In A New Hope, “It is a period of civil war… Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR… Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people…” In The Empire Strikes Back, “It is a dark time for the Rebellion… A group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth…” In The Return of the Jedi, “Luke Skywalker has returned to Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt… Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station…” Simple expositions that lay out the problem and make us sit up for the solution.
In contrast, this is what The Phantom Menace offered up in its opening crawl: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights to settle the conflict….” It was like reaching for the comics section in the newspaper and discovering an editorial on Syria. No popular filmmaker had attempted anything like this. But, in a tragedy that rivals the fate of Anakin Skywalker, Lucas’s storytelling skills did not equal his imagination. The prequels were cold, disconnected, filled with CGI characters no one cared about – Lucas became the architect who designed dazzling structures no human could inhabit. As with Darth Vader, we had to peer through the machine-like exteriors to catch glimpses of humanity.
The Force Awakens doesn’t make that mistake. It is exactly what the prequels weren’t – low on imagination but the storytelling is rock-solid. All Star Wars films stick to a template – from start (opening crawl, stars, planet, glimpse of spaceship) to finish (battle sequences that keep cutting between various places and people) – but director JJ Abrams goes further. The plot is essentially A New Hope shaken and stirred – so indebted to Luke Skywalker’s trajectory is the film that it could be called From Tatooine With Love. Plus, there are cultish nods to the Vader-like figure, the daddy issues, even the gladiatorial chessboard on the Millennium Falcon. Abrams, who is 49, knows the mind of his generation, the first generation of Star Wars fans. He knows that they crave not galactic politics but familiar faces – he brings back Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill. For now, that proves to be enough. The final scene in The Force Awakens centres on a cloak, a hand, a face – there are no lines, none are needed. The real narrative is the one playing out in the memories of the viewers who grew up with these movies.
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