Much like how I revisited the original Star Wars trilogy in anticipation of The Force Awakens, I found myself revisiting the prequel trilogy in anticipation of The Last Jedi. And jeez, has there ever been a pop culture property as picked over and obsessed about as the prequel trilogy? You could probably pen a thesis arguing that the movies act as a sort of Girardian scapegoat for the geek community, redirecting anger and aggression towards itself to take the heat off of the mimetic desires of nerd-dom.
At the very least, the amount of hand-wringing over it only makes sense in a context where Star Wars has been put on an impossibly high pedestal, and where the return of Star Wars provokes unimaginable levels of hype. It’s a failure, to be sure, but it’s more importantly an interesting failure. In particular, I think that Revenge of the Sith is my favourite movie out of the entire franchise.
I don’t need to remind you about the horrible miscalculations of Jar Jar Binks, or kiddie Darth Vader, or how placing your human actors in a 99% CG environment is a recipe for disaster, or all the structural jankiness in terms of plot and characterization that plague the story, or the lightsaber ballet – you already know about this, and there’s no point in rehearsing the details.
A lot of the writing issues with the prequels were already present in the originals: they were just amplified in that the Flash Gordon style pulp heroics of those movies were switched out in favour of a Dune-style blend of political intrigue, mysticism and deconstruction, with a fair amount of Asimov’s Foundation novels sprinkled in. Which is admittedly a bold move for a franchise which, like My Little Pony or Transformers, is as much a glorified toy commercial as it is an actual story (the original movie was a passion project, but let’s not kid ourselves about how important the merch and branding quickly became for this juggernaut). But George Lucas’ writing buckles under the Shakespearian gravitas and deft plotting that this sort of story requires.
Anyway, the prequel movies are ostensibly about how Anakin Skywalker becomes the famous movie villain Darth Vader, and how the evil galactic empire the characters are fighting against in the original came to be. This is simultaneously the worst and the best structural point about them – the worst because plot developments tend to happen more out of canonical necessity than of organic storytelling, and the best because…well I’ll get to that in a moment.
At any rate, Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a movie I have a lot of goodwill towards. It’s a weird blend of kid-friendly saturday morning shenanigans and political intrigue, which isn’t something I find as intrinsically objectionable as everyone else seems to do, even if it is a little baffling – the 2008 Speed Racer movie showed you can make genuinely great popcorn cinema with that kind of formula. has a lot of cringe-inducingly bad elements held up against some genuinely great spectacle, sometimes oscillating between them at extremely rapid rates (see: the climax).
Episode II: Attack of the Clones never gets as bad as The Phantom Menace does, but it never gets as good, either. It’s a plodding movie that never gets off the ground, being held down by a famously bad romance. Somehow it manages to completely waste Christopher Lee as a villain, and the action is at a nadir of “dangling shiny things in front of the audience.”
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, however, is something special. It isn’t the best third movie in a trilogy, but it’s the best conclusion to a movie trilogy in the sense that its the only one I’m aware of which just goes full-on Gotterdammerung in a way that no other movie trilogy does (and not without some degree of self awareness: the tracklisting to John Williams’ soundtrack explicitly references Wagner’s opera). I generally find movie trilogies to be an artistically ill-advised idea. For one, it’s often difficult for the final movie to successfully deal with all the hype and accumulated narrative weight, but, more importantly: a trilogy promises a Super. Definitive. Ending. With. Extreme. Emphasis. Which studios are not often willing to completely commit to for fear of preventing the possibility of future movies.
Revenge of the Sith has no such compunctions. This is as much a matter of necessity as it is artistic choice: the requirement that everything tie back into the original movie means that everything needs to spectacularly go up in flames at this point, and the fact that the previous two movies haven’t put much effort towards setting things up means that all the “good stuff,” so to speak, has been left to the finale.
The result is that it’s even more of a narrative mess than the previous entries; Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader is like someone suddenly flipped an Evil switch on the electrical board of his character’s personality, and all sorts of leaps need to be made to ensure that all the pieces are where the original movie needs them. But it throws itself to its task with such abandon that it’s impossible for me not to get sucked in. It’s the only Star Wars movie that feels genuinely operatic in the sense that pyrotechnic emotions, spectacle and high melodrama matter more than the baseline narrative. Even the overly choreographed lightsaber duels come into their own here: like the impossibly long duets of Wagnerian opera, the protracted fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan is less about realism and narrative drive than it is about a kind of sustained emotion.
The technical one-upmanship that dominates the prequels also pays off here, where even if the action often feels like you’re watching highly overpowered RPG characters mowing down randomly generated mooks, there’s often enough conceptual heft behind it that it wraps around to becoming exciting again (see also: the recent Valerian movie).
So it’s exactly my kind of space opera trash.
As a little postscript, in my previous thoughts on the original movies, I found the Jedi to be kinda philosophically abhorrent:
Anyway, Empire is where we meet Yoda and I begin to start liking the Jedi a whole lot less. We find out that the Jedi follow a kind of asceticism that is contemptuous towards human nature and its attendant attachments and loves. And we also learn that it is a severe philosophy where there is no room for redemption or forgiveness: “Once you start down the dark path,” Yoda says, “forever will it dominate your destiny!” Ghost!Obi-Wan in Return seems rather disappointed that Luke feels some conflict over killing his father.
To their credit, the films don’t actually seem to believe in this: Luke’s love for his father ultimately saves him from temptation, and Darth Vader repents of his evil. But this is a weird philosophical inconsistency in them, since the Jedi – and Obi-Wan and Yoda in particular – are always presented to us as admirable figures.
In this regard, I do appreciate how the prequel movies portray the Jedi in a more critical light. They come across as rigid and complacent, blind to the crisis developing around them. Actually, viewed in the light of the above paragraphs, Anakin’s sudden turn to evil in Revenge of the Sith makes a lot more sense: if you’ve been taught that there’s no hope of redemption for you if you broke under temptation, why wouldn’t you just keep going once you’ve reached that point? None of this is deftly handled, but I do find myself agreeing with the reading that sees Lucas attempting to drive a stake into the heart of his own pop mysticism here.
Which makes The Last Jedi rather intriguing to me, as the trailers suggest something similar happening there – and perhaps the birth of a new, more noble order of knights?
(Rogue One was ok I guess)