An apologia for the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 8/17/18 2:05am

In last week’s review for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” I described “Star Wars” as the behemoth that towered over the “cinematic psyche” of my childhood. I wasn’t exaggerating. Even now, few films elicit a Pavlovian nostalgic reaction as effectively as a “Star Wars” film does.

Of course, with last year’s release of “Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” (and others) and the impending release of “Episode IX” (and others), we now seem to be living through the most polarizing period in the franchise’s history. Op-eds clutter the annals of the internet desperate to proclaim the current state of “Star Wars” as either the Salvation or Apocalypse of Cinema. So I think it’s about time that I throw my hat into the ring, don the cone of shame and add my own misguided and ill-informed opinion to the cacophony.

The “Star Wars” prequels … I kind of love them.

Just to be clear, I don’t think they’re “good.” While I’d be willing to mount a spirited defense for the merits of “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” I admit that “Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” and especially “Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” leave a lot to be desired. I hear every criticism lobbed at these three films. I’m here to refute none of them.

My hope is simply to foster a greater sense of acceptance for this trilogy. Because as bad as they might be, I think a lot of the hate directed at them has been misplaced. While I adore the original trilogy, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge the films’ innumerable flaws. Even “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” arguably the longest-standing resident on my list of all-time favorite films, is imperfect. I don’t want to create a false equivalence here; the faults of the originals don’t justify the greater faults of the prequels. Rather, realizing that all of “Star Wars” is flawed makes it easier to be less dogmatic in one’s evaluation of those films that aren’t the originals.

Through this process, one might realize that the prequels were never really as bad as we made them out to be. All the actors, for instance, are making the most about getting the chance to be in a “Star Wars” film. In particular, Ian McDiarmid is having way too much fun playing the duplicitous Emperor Palpatine. I’ll even make a defense for the much-maligned Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen — they’re honestly doing their best in spite of writer/director George Lucas’s most insufferable dialogue. In fact, all the departments working on these films were clearly doing their best. Most of the designs may be shrouded in layers of mediocre CGI, but they’re still pretty spectacular. The choreography results in some thrilling action set pieces. John Williams’s score is suitably rousing. Even the stories crafted by Lucas demonstrate a particular devotion. They may be chaotic, but his passion for the material is always evident.

Furthermore, the prequels were so anticipated that it’s no wonder they disappointed most fans. Any deviation from decades of expectations was bound to be labeled sacrilege. Yet many of those deviations are retrospectively the most interesting moments in the films. For instance, fans may never have wanted to see trade debates in the Galactic Senate. Nevertheless, the political subtext about the willingness of democracies to accept fascism in the face of chaos is both fascinating and surprisingly relevant. Likewise, most fans were quick to reject the idea that the Force communicates through microbes called midi-chlorians. Once again, if you take a step back and accept the conceit on its own terms, it’s kind of intriguing and also reinforces major themes about symbiosis and duality.

Moreover, “Star Wars” has always been kind of an anomaly. As a franchise, it aims to be accessible across lines of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. It’s a giant, sprawling, intergenerational space fantasy about a battle between good and evil, equal parts mythological and ridiculous. It may have become the epitome of mainstream fare, but it also takes pride in its bizarreness. So it’s no wonder that not every iteration of something so unusual and ungainly works for every person, every time.

None of this, though, negates the fundamental flaws at the heart of these films. Despite all that is genuinely good about them, the overall story they try to tell is still a mess. Objectively speaking, the prequels are less than the sums of their parts. Which is a shame, because of the three trilogies in the main “Star Wars” saga, the prequels ostensibly have the most interesting central conflict. It’s a classic fall from grace tale: the story of the man who would be the messiah yet became the wretch. The fact that Lucas fundamentally failed to deliver the epic tragedy he promised is, understandably, a breaking point for many. If the core conceit is botched, it really doesn’t matter how many extraneous elements are praiseworthy.

So why do I still love these films? Well, this is ultimately where things get personal. I grew up with the prequels alongside the originals; they are inseparable for me. Indeed, I had already fallen in love with the prequels before I even thought to critically question their relationship to the originals. Of course, for some time, I did buy into the aura of animosity surrounding the prequels. The fact that they were garbage was often presented as fact, not opinion. So why bother to contest it? But eventually, I had to accept that deep down, I still loved them. Does that make them good? Perhaps not. I’m the first to admit, for instance, that “Rogue One” and “Solo” are much better films purely on the level of craftsmanship. But if given the choice, I’d prefer to watch the prequels every time. What does that ultimately say about them? I think it suggest that this good/bad binary is a little reductive, and that perhaps we might benefit a little from allowing ourselves to unabashedly love what we love.

To quote the great film critic Pauline Kael, “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” They may not be “good,” but I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge the importance of the prequels in my growth as a lover of cinema. Like the entirety of “Star Wars,” they transported me to another world and engaged me in a story that I still love, Jar-Jar Binks and all. In that way, they are emblematic of everything I love about the medium. The prequels may be trash, but they are great trash.