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.
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.
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.
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”
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.