First Steps into a Larger World: What the Prequels Taught Me about Life, Politics and Myself

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The release of The Force Awakens in December saw, predictably, a wave of reflections on the Star Wars prequel trilogy: from brief, usually dismissive asides in reviews of JJ Abrams’s sequel, to a range of works defending the prequels’ artistic value. The most well known are Mike Klimo’s ambitious Ring Theory and the documentary The Prequels Strike Back, though I would also recommend these three articles as particularly eloquent and interesting perspectives on the first three episodes.

Beyond the critical response, the assumption is often that the prequels were generally received negatively by the fan community. After all, the most prominent voices in fandom had long been those of the original trilogy generation, where the response was indeed mixed, as the younger generation has taken time to grow into adulthood and find its voice. But as Abrams says:

“…if you ask someone around the age I was when the original trilogy came out, “Whats your favorite Star Wars movie?” they will tell you one of the original trilogy. If you ask someone around that age when the prequels came out, they will say one of the prequels. And it’s scientifically proven and undeniable.”

Well, I grew up with the prequels, and they are indeed as precious to me as the original trilogy is to that first generation. They were the significant films of my teenage years. I am not going to make the critical case for the prequels’ artistic merits. Instead I am going to tell the story of how they became a fundamental part of the way I see Star Wars, and even helped me to understand my own life a little better. As a new trilogy begins, bringing with it another new generation of fans, I think it is a story worth telling.

A New Fan

I first saw the original trilogy on VHS in 1998, when I was thirteen. My cousin gave me an old copy of the original cut of A New Hope, and from the moment Luke Skywalker watched the twin suns set on Tatooine, I was hooked. I watched my Special Edition box-set many times, and dipped into a few of the Expanded Universe novels, though I found they didn’t quite recapture the spirit of the films that had drawn me in.

I knew from the beginning that a new Star Wars trilogy was approaching. I didn’t have years to build up a mental image of what those prequel films would be – they were already in production, and a few months later the first trailer for The Phantom Menace appeared. I went into TPM not wanting to relive my childhood, but excited to see the world of Star Wars expanded, and, for the first time, to see it on the big screen.

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It was the most transformative cinema experience of my life. I was pulled through the screen and into a galaxy that was bigger and richer and open to more possibilities than I could have imagined. From the renaissance beauty of Naboo to the towers and skyscrapers of Coruscant, it was true cinematic magic.

It also fulfilled my desire to know more. There was the Republic and the Senate that I had heard of, and the Sith – a name I had read but had never seen defined. Most of all, there were the Jedi at the height of their powers. The speed, athleticism and ferocity of the duel between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul took my breath away, and it still does so today. It fired my imagination, and I spent many hours daydreaming about being a part of that world. The gloomy foreshadowing of Anakin’s eventual fall to the dark side assured me that this was just the beginning of a spectacular journey.

Back then, a film would take a year to be released on VHS, so I relived TPM in every way I could: poring over the Visual Dictionary, and listening to the Terry Brooks audiobook and John Williams’s soundtrack on heavy rotation. It was as central to my understanding of Star Wars as any of the original trilogy films. Those VHS tapes had introduced me to this world, but TPM cemented my love for it.

The Dark Side Clouds Everything

I was 17 when Attack of the Clones was released, and it coincided with my becoming more aware of global politics. In the post-9/11 world of war in Afghanistan and the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the world seemed to me to have suddenly become a more complicated place. The motives of our own politicians were under scrutiny, and my certainties about the way things worked were being stripped away. At the same time, my favourite film series was beginning to reflect this.

Shadowy armies, corporations profiteering from war, a leader engineering a conflict to consolidate his power … AotC reflected my concerns at the time. The politics of Star Wars is dealt with in broad strokes, and is not specifically satirical or allegorical. It has instead what Tolkien described as “applicability” – the viewer has the freedom to interpret, and can apply it to a range of contemporary or historical events. Perhaps this is why fans of so many political persuasions find something in Star Wars to latch onto. I was also fascinated with history at the time, and was studying Napoleon and Hitler, the echoes of whom can be seen in Palpatine’s rise to power and the fall of the Republic. It was exciting to me that, rather than telling a simplistic story of good against evil, Star Wars was reflecting my new confusion about the world. Unpicking the intricacies of Palpatine’s plan, the way he used the greed and corruption of others to his own ends, became one of the great joys of the trilogy. It was as if Star Wars was growing up alongside me, and speaking to me on a profound new level.

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AotC has aged the least well for me, but each time I revisit it I am surprised by how much I enjoy it. Yes, the romance is cheesy and formal, but as a seventeen-year-old boy, all romantic dialogue in films sounded that way to me anyway. Besides, I fancied Natalie Portman so much that I wasn’t really focusing on the words. And I still remember the thrill of seeing the Clone Wars begin, the hologram of the Death Star, and hearing the Imperial March as Anakin confessed his murder of the Tusken Raiders.

Fear is the Path to the Dark Side

Revenge of the Sith was released at the end of my second year at university. As the final Star Wars film (or so it seemed), it was a huge event, and it lived up to my every expectation. The first viewing was as heart-wrenching an experience as any film I have seen, and its last hour is, I still believe, the point at which Star Wars achieved its full potential, becoming something truly mythic and operatic. In a summer in which Doctor Who made a triumphant return and a new Harry Potter book was published, Star Wars was still the main event, and I saw it thirteen times. I effectively donated my student loan to George Lucas.

There was something deeper going on, though, that I didn’t appreciate at the time, but which I have recently started to understand. The film worked for me because I empathized with Anakin’s plight, and something about it rang true on a personal level, though I wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t until years later that I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which in my case manifests itself by driving me to worry obsessively about future events – rational or irrational. These thoughts will consume my mind. I will try to work out every probability, and convince myself it will all be okay, but I will never succeed. I require a certainty that the real world cannot provide. My mind is so occupied with these fears that I am often unable to appreciate or enjoy the world around me.

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As I started to understand what my mind was doing, my sympathy for Anakin began to make sense. “Fear is the path to the dark side,” Yoda says in TPM, but Anakin is not afraid of the bad guy; instead it is a fear of future events that he will be unable to control, of uncertainty and chaos. When he sees a vision of Padmé dying in childbirth, it dominates his thoughts. Yoda’s advice – to learn to let go – is quite right, but when you are consumed by fear, this is not as easy as it sounds. Believe me, I know. Anakin needs certainty and control, and it is this what Palpatine and the dark side offer him. Anakin’s fear drives his loved ones away, he fails to appreciate his life in the present moment, and he ends the film trapped, seeing the world through a cold, metal mask. In my lowest moments, when my anxiety has tipped into episodes of depression, I have found that this is a perfect metaphor.

As the years have passed, and I have found help for my condition, RotS has been a comfort to me. As with all good stories, it has helped me to understand my own life a little better. It reminds me of the dangers of dwelling on my fears, and the importance of letting go and enjoying the present moment. It is the Star Wars film I return to more than any other, and of all the characters in the saga, it is Anakin that I most identify with.

My “Phantom Menace Moment”

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My love for the prequels has strengthened over the years. Not only have they helped me to understand something important about myself, they are also central to my view of what Star Wars is, and what it can be: their scale and invention, their mythic and operatic qualities and, yes, their politics.

This is why I struggled with The Force Awakens at first. The pace was too frantic; I found it lacking in worldbuilding and imagination; the politics were passed over so swiftly that I found the conflict lacking in context; the landscapes were the same deserts and snow planets we had seen before, and the use of X-wings and TIE fighters after thirty years felt like little more than fan service. That first viewing was, in many respects, my “Phantom Menace moment.”

Since then, I have come to appreciate TFA for what it is. I love its spirit of adventure, its characters and performances, and the subtle groundwork it lays for the rest of the trilogy. Yet I can’t help but hope that Episodes VIII and IX will expand the world a little more, show us strange new cities and cultures, and give us a little more political context.

I would never argue that the prequel trilogy is without flaws. Neither is the original trilogy, or indeed TFA. Sometimes, though, stories just speak to you, and you should never have to defend or justify that. I understand the original trilogy generation’s deep attachment to their Star Wars, because that is how I feel about the prequels. In years to come, a new generation will feel the same way about the sequel trilogy. This is essential if Star Wars is to continue to thrive, and should be welcomed and encouraged.

It has been predicted, by Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo among others, that as the prequel generation gains a louder voice in the media and online geek culture, a shift in perspective will take place. I think we are seeing the beginnings of that now. I see many on Twitter and on blogs who will passionately defend their love for these films, and I feel an instant kinship with them. Because wherever else the saga takes us, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith will always be my Star Wars.

15 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    Well written and well said!

    While 4 and 5 are my great loves, I think the prequels probably rank above Jedi – certainly AotC and RotS. And from the perspective of a OT fellow (born in ’77) whose childhood was shaped by Star Wars toys, each of the prequels had wonderful moments of joy and wonderment. I’ve never heard a bigger inhalation of breath than in the theater in AotC when Yoda summons his lightsaber to his hand – it was wondrous!

    I was in college when the prequels started to come out – I had just finished Seminary when RotS came out. I think too many folks my age and older saw them for how they weren’t the OT and missed the wonders that they were.

    I hope things like Rogue One will help with this – because it will be neither OT or PT or the New Trilogy, yet it will be Star Wars in a wondrous way.

  2. Stephen Miskimins says:

    Great article! I grew up with the prequels as well and feel in much the same way as you, though I’m a few years younger and didn’t (at the time) read into the politics of the films being a reflection of current events.
    I recognize that the original trilogy are in many ways better films, and am able to groan at the prequel’s flaws, but they will always hold a special place in my heart for expanding and illuminating a universe I love so much. I still consider that era to be my favorite in the Star Wars saga, hopefully we see more stories from that time period going forward.

  3. Hallie says:

    Great article! Even when I do not agree on many of the points you mention, I praise how you acknowledge the importance of the Star Wars prequels. At the end of the day, they are part of the Star Wars universe either we like them or not. For sure both PT and OT have their flaws, as the ST might have them, but what is very important for all of us to realize is what wise Obi-Wan said: “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

  4. I agree whole-heartedly! Jar-Jar was my favorite character as a 7 year old. I remember coming back to the fandom and thinking “Why do people rag on these films so much?!” They definitely have their flaws, but they were essential to my imagination, play, and adolescence.

  5. […] Thirty Eight.com has an essay I think many of you here will enjoy.  The author is a fan who got into Star Wars through the […]

  6. Thanks for sharing this well-written reflection on what Star Wars and in particular the prequels mean to you! As someone who grew up on the original trilogy (born in 1976) and then went on to cherish the prequel trilogy (even more so), it warms my heart to see more and more people voicing their appreciation for them. Like yourself, I was initially disappointed with The Force Awakens after savoring the richness of the prequels, but upon further viewings I have made peace with it and enjoy its charms as well and am excited for what Rian Johnson has in store for us with Episode VIII.

    “Sometimes, though, stories just speak to you, and you should never have to defend or justify that.”

    Truth!

  7. ctrent29 says:

    I first saw the Original Trilogy movies when I was in my early to mid teens. For some reason, I had a hard time accepting the 1977 and 1980 movies. I think it had to do with the fact that the STAR WARS movies were something really new to me and a little mind blowing. By the release of “Return of the Jedi”, I managed to open my mind to the entire three-movie saga.

    I was in my early to mid thirties when I first saw the Prequel Trilogy movies. Unlike the 1977-83 films, I really had no problems with embracing them. I especially enjoyed (and still do to this day) enjoyed “Attack of the Clones”. Like “The Empire Strikes Back”, it had an epic quality that appeals to me, even to this day.

    I must be one of the few people who grew up with the Original Trilogy, but had no problems with embracing the Prequel Trilogy as well.

  8. Haytham says:

    Being in the right place at the right time really changes everything.

    By the time I got into Star Wars (relatively late in my childhood), TPM was already out and AotC was in production, so I was never able to detach the prequels from the OT, to look at them as a “secondary” addition to the Star Wars mythos or generally consider them lesser. They were all a part of one cohesive picture. Coruscant, Kamino and Mustafar are just as close to my heart as Yavin, Hoth and Endor. When people say “Obi-Wan Kenobi”, the first face that comes to my mind is Ewan McGregor’s, not Alec Guiness’s. Mace Windu and Darth Maul were the go-to ultimate badasses in our social circle.

    That being said, I already have a hunch that the ST will probably resonate with me even more. For all the OT nostalgia, TFA still felt like its own, very distinct thing to me and I expect that feeling to grow even stronger as the ST sheds plot points and OT aesthetics in the next two movies. And again, I think the age has a lot to do with it. This is the first completely new SW movie I’ve seen as an adult, with a different mindset and different tastes. The protagonists, Rey and Finn, are my age now and I’ve already identified with them on a level that I honestly never did with the previous heroes. The movie has the same cultural and political imprint of the contemporary world that the prequels had of the post-9/11 age they were produced in.

    So, it’s kind of baffling to me, on a purely subjective level, to see so many people put the PT and TFA as complete antitheses. Was TFA a reaction to the PT? Yes, of course. But they aren’t incompatible. I can enjoy both, no matter how different they might be and they both had things to say to me. The PT is both my childhood and my adolescence, as the Clone Wars era stories followed me through the years and now the ST came in, with a story and a galaxy I find just as enthralling and exciting.

    I feel very lucky and grateful to have both stories as vital parts of different stages of my life.

    • I think TFA just took a moment of adjustment for me, because as you say, it has its own feel. There’s a certain style that I think I-VI all share which is very Lucas, and which I saw as being “the Star Wars style”, and the pacing and kinetic “modern” camera of TFA is a bit of a departure from that. To me, the first time I saw it, it didn’t feel like a Star Wars film, which is funny because I know that’s the reaction many had to TPM.

      On second viewing I liked it a lot more, and every time I’ve seen it since (must be about 10 times now?) it’s improved. It just took me some time to adjust to the style, and to this post-Lucas Star Wars. I feel like I “get it” now, though – I love the story and the characters, and I think a lot of the criticism of it being a retreat of ANH is actually misplaced.

  9. jonedney124 says:

    Well done on a great article, it’s so heartening to see you particularly discuss how you empathise with Anakin, as that is a criticism that we see all too often and I always think is unjustified. I’ve always been able to empathise with his desire for control of the future and that scene in the Jedi temple where he is conflicted is a particularly powerful scene: at the heart of this busy world, as the sun is setting on the Republic as it was for the last time, a young man makes a choice that will shape the future of the galaxy. Even though I had seen the OT as a kid, it was Phantom Menace that got me into Star Wars and Star Wars is probably only second to Lord of the Rings as a franchise that I am in tune with and unconditionally love. I also struggled with Force Awakens with my first two viewings at the cinema, most of all because I could tell that it was not made by George Lucas (whereas for example with The Hobbit, I could instantly just sink back into that world because it felt right, as it was done by the same people). Star Wars has a classical feel in the dialogue, the acting and the imagery and while FA was replicating the OT feel, it didn’t break a great deal of new ground, which frustrated many. Hopefully, VIII will do that, Adam Driver compares it to Empire in how it will expand the mythology and provide ‘nuance and ‘ambiguity’. I feel like telling him that the prequels already did that but there you go, hopefully he’s right about that…and hopefully VIII will not just copy Empire’s basic plot outline the way FA did.

  10. Palizinha says:

    I’m from a somewhat newer generation, and I got into SW through TCW. I don’t think I’ll ever love the movies the way the cartoon captured my 11 year old heart, but I watched AotC first due to it seeming the closest to the SW moment I was used to, and I adored it. I haven’t seen it in a while, but the Prequels, mostly due to the characters, are what I usually go back to if I want to see any live-action Star Wars. Though TFA was my first live action SW movie experience live, and it’s now special to me as well.

  11. Jason says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Anakin’s psychology connecting to your own. By the time of “Revenge of the Sith” I was a college drop out who had inexplicable mood swings and had an almost psychotic and self destructive mind. Hurt a lot of people including myself. I really empathized with Anakin just as when I was a boy I admired his son Luke growing up watching the original trilogy. Anyways it turned out I suffered from Bipolar I Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. Seeing how Vader is tragic figure was relatable then especially since Hayden Christensen is just a little bit younger then me. Knowing Vader went through all that stress and self doubt to become the robot man made the saga all the more memorable to me.

  12. Indiana Jim says:

    Beautiful piece. I was 22 when Phantom Menace came out, and for my generation, what happened was that so many of us convinced ourselves that George Lucas was this mythical genius, and that the Star Wars Trilogy were these MASTERPIECES that were unassailable. Alas, we forgot that George was human, and that the Star Wars Trilogy were just movies. There had been so much criticism and analysis written about Star Wars, that we couldn’t help but begin to see them as the opus of our times!

    I can tell you this much: When I saw them in the theater the first time, each one blew me away. The only real disappointment I had during any of those films was some of the delivery from Portman and Christensen, and maybe the weird CGI Dooku. Other than that, I fully embraced them as Star Wars, and even liked Jar-Jar Binks. I thought he was hilarious.

    It was only later, when those whose expectations of GENIUS and MASTERPIECE were dashed, and they took to the internet to say so, that the luster began to fall off for me. I started to see more and more those negative aspects.

    I try to remind myself to view the Prequel films the way I did the first time I saw them. In fact, I view The Phantom Menace as the better of those movies because it lacks some of the more grievous plot choices or errors (see what I did there). The Phantom Menace has more heart to the story, more warmth in the characters, more whimsy in the telling than the following two. Most of that is Liam Neeson and John Williams’ score, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. And Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan was simply too much of a revelation not to love.

    Anyway thanks for writing this!

  13. […] Imagine how young boys would have felt coming out of the prequels if the only character they had to identify with was […]

  14. drush76 says:

    I do love all of the six STAR WARS movies made by George Lucas. It is ironic that although I first saw the Original Trilogy when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, I didn’t really warm up to them until after the 1983 movie. And yet, I didn’t have any trouble embracing the Prequel Trilogy films. I just find that ironic.

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