As the new Star Wars sequel trilogy's premiere draws closer and closer, it's natural to take a look at the previous films and see what lessons can be learned. There have been plenty of articles about why the original trilogy was great and what J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm should utilize from it. There have also been innumerable articles written about what the Star Wars prequels did wrong. I'm not here to talk about either of those two subjects. I'm here to talk about what the prequels did right.
Yeah, that's right. The prequels didn't do everything wrong. They're not a complete and unmitigated disaster, not in my book anyway. I'm not saying they're the equal of the original trilogy or even necessarily good films, but they're not completely irredeemable either. And so I think it's worth taking a look not just at how they failed but also how, on the rare occasion, they succeeded (or came close to success).
Bear in mind that these are all, of course, somewhat subjective. Some things that I like about the prequels are undoubtedly things that other people loathed (I can think of a few such items right off the top of my head). Likewise, there may be some things that other people liked about the prequels that I won't mention. This is an invitation to discuss and consider the merits of the prequels, not an authoritative declaration of ultimate truth. Feel free to agree or disagree. I'm interested in hearing what others think.
With that said, let's get on with the list.
This is a bit of a soft ball; few would disagree that the prequel trilogy, at the very least, looks interesting. From the wetlands of Naboo to the city spires of Coruscant to the sinkholes of Utapau, it's difficult to argue Lucas or ILM were starved of visual imagination. Even discounting the advances in special effects made between 1977 and 1999, The Phantom Menace is arguably a lot more spectacular than A New Hope. The creature design is wonderful and varied, the technology looks sophisticated, and the set pieces are breathtaking in both their scope and their diversity.
Naboo and Coruscant feel like real places and Tatooine's used future aesthetic is actually even more convincing this time around when compared against their splendor. The later prequels aren't any different either. Kamino and Geonosis are memorable set pieces, as is Utapau. The only real letdown in this regard is Mustafar, which feels a little bit too much like a generic lava world and doesn't really have a personality all of its own.
Character design is also spot on. There's a reason why Darth Maul and General Grievous are well-loved by the fandom despite their short shifting by the plot and minimal screen time: both look really cool. The clone soldiers also look great and make a convincing link between the Mandalorian armor of Jango Fett and the stormtrooper armor of the original trilogy. Even the droid army of the Trade Federation and Confederacy is visually interesting.
This isn't to say Lucas and ILM don't slip up from time to time or make any mistakes. As many have pointed out, a lot of the battle sequences in the prequels are overcrowded. But for the most part they did their job well in this department.
2) New Worlds (and Worldbuilding Generally)
One of the things the prequels did really well is introduce us to new settings. This is arguably tied up somewhat in the above point but I listed it separately because I'm talking about both the visuals and the writing here. Indeed, writing is probably the more fundamental of the two in this case.
Although we were already familiar with the Star Wars universe after watching the original trilogy, the prequels still had a pretty monumental task ahead of them in reintroducing us to it, decades earlier, before the rise of the Empire. The Galactic Republic, mentioned only vaguely and briefly in the original trilogy, is at its apex here and the Jedi Order, utterly diminished by the time of A New Hope, is still a significant presence in the galaxy. Not to mention the new adversaries the prequels introduced us, none of whom were even alluded to at all.
All of these the prequels gave us with a reasonable degree of verisimilitude, establishing firmly in our heads a convincing image of what the Star Wars universe was like before Luke ever met up with a couple of used droids on Tatooine. The Republic comes alive as a prosperous and yet corruptible entity, just a few steps away from dictatorship. The Jedi are appropriately drawn as idealistic monks, well-intentioned but withdrawn from the lives of those around them, making them both aloof and somewhat blind to the political machinations at work (note how frequently they're blindsided by political developments). And the Confederacy, while never really receiving the full detailing it deserves, provides a solid ideological opponent to the Republic and even an argument for strengthening the Chancellor's power: to reign in private monopolies like the Trade Federation or the Banking Clan.
It's easy to see how the world of the prequels transitions into the world of the original trilogy, easier for example, than it is to see how First Class or Days of Future Past become the world of X-Men or Prometheus becomes the world of Alien. Whether or not we like the story Lucas chose to tell in the prequels, it's pretty easy to reconcile with the original trilogy we all know and love, which may be one of the reasons fans rebel against the prequels so much - they blend too easily with what we originally loved, so that it's difficult to separate the two entirely.
Yep, I'm going to argue politics are one of the good things about the prequels. I told you some of these were bound to be contentious.
Here's the thing: the prequels were always going to be political, there's basically no two ways around it. They're movies about the fall of the Republic - a democratic if corrupt system - and its replacement by the Empire, a totalitarian regime based on a principle of might makes right. Unless Lucas was going to ignore what was happening in the Republic altogether, the prequels were going to have to deal with politics.
Now, the prequels' handling of politics isn't perfect. For one thing, Lucas has a somewhat naive view of political systems in my mind, that supposes perhaps more collaboration between private business, the political elite, and the military bureaucracy than is actually accurate (all three have competing interests in certain areas of government). And the idea that one man like Palpatine could really mastermind everything from behind the scenes is a stretch (even if it's arguably one of the most entertaining things about the prequels). While Hitler, Napoleon, and Caesar are all supposed to be inspirations for the future Emperor, they were three very different individuals who came to their power by subtly but crucially different means.
That being said, I buy the story Lucas is trying to sell. The idea that a Republic which as ruled most of the galaxy for a thousand years without any significant challenge falling into decadence is fairly believable. The idea that this Republic, which relies upon local militias and a religious order to police itself, might experience difficulty holding on to its political legitimacy after a significant security crisis (like the Trade Federation's blockade of Naboo) is also believable. And the idea then that a corrupt and inept Senate would turn to a savvy and ambitious politician like Palpatine to save them from their regime's collapse, even granting him dictatorial powers to curb an ongoing rebellion, is pretty convincing indeed. And that he'd be reluctant to give up those powers when the rebellion was crushed? Well, that almost goes without saying.
If there's one major problem with the way Palpatine's takeover of the Republic is portrayed it's probably that he should have been more of an opportunist and less of a Machiavellian chessmaster. Politics is such a volatile, unpredictable endeavor at times that it's hard to imagine one person masterminding a ten-year long plan to rise from the senator of a regional backwater to dictator-for-life. But the individual steps along the way? Utterly convincing.
4) The Jedi and the Sith
It's important to remember that, before the prequels came out, we had virtually no idea of who or what the Jedi were. The best we had were vague murmurings of their role as the "protectors of peace and justice" and the idea that they were a religious order of some kind. But we didn't know how they were organized, what their duties were comprised of, or what their relationship to the galaxy at large was. And we literally had no idea of who the Sith were - they're never even named in the original trilogy. All we really had was the indistinct idea that Jedi could "fall to the dark side" and that the Emperor was an impressively powerful Force-sensitive who opposed the Jedi. But what the Sith stood for, besides fighting Jedi? No clue.
The prequels changed that. We now have a solid image of both the Jedi and Sith, one that is unlikely to ever be fully revised. The Jedi are (or were) a monastic order, based on the principles of emotional detachment and preserving social harmony in the galaxy. The latter means they'll fight on the side of good more often than not, but it also means they're at times vulnerable to becoming pawns of a more sophisticated evil, such as Palpatine during the Clone Wars. They also, like many real ascetic orders, believe love is a temptation to possessiveness, which itself removes oneself from the bigger picture and makes you concerned with temporary and ephemeral things. Of course, this means they're kind of inept at dealing with hormonal young adults with lightsabers.
Likewise, the Sith have a pretty clear ideology now: might makes right and one's passions are a source of strength, not weakness. Don't waste your time preserving some imagined "natural order:" do what you want because you want to do it. What's ironic of course, is that Palpatine sets up a Galactic Empire that embodies pretty much the opposite message - "do what you're told" - but it's important to remember the Empire's purpose from Palpatine's perspective seems to largely be about eliminating the Jedi and any other threats to the Sith, rather than any specific political agenda. The Empire, like so many other things in Palpatine's employ, is just a tool.
We also see that neither order is completely monolithic; there are disagreements and opposing viewpoints within both organizations. Qui-Gon Jinn has a pretty strong independent streak that clashes with the Jedi Order's more conventional way of doing things and which causes him to do such things as pull a young boy out of slavery on a world outside the Republic's jurisdiction on the belief that he may be the prophesied Chosen One. Likewise, each of Palpatine's Sith apprentices are pretty different from one another. Whereas Maul is a zealous assassin dedicated to the Jedi's elimination, Dooku's more politically motivated and sees himself as someone bridging the gap between Jedi and Sith rather than an enemy of one or the other. And Vader, of course, has almost entirely personal motives.
Whichever way you cut it, midichlorians or not, the Jedi and the Sith are both richer for the prequels' existence.
5) The Chosen One
And lastly, we come to the Prophecy of the One Who Shall Bring Balance to the Force. I know what you're probably think: chosen one stories are overdone, they're all over the place, and are usually boring parables about destiny. Yes, generally, you're correct. I agree that in most cases, messianic prophecies are overblown and frequently shortchange proper character motivations for vague ideas about destiny. But that's not the case in the Star Wars prequels.
For one thing, Chosen One stories were a lot rarer in 1999, when The Phantom Menace was released. It's rather a bizarre coincidence that The Matrix, which also featured a messianic prophecy, came out the same year, thereby prompting several copycat narratives over the next decade or so. And the idea of a Chosen One was nowhere in the original trilogy, beyond the vague idea that Luke (or Leia) were the last hopes for the Jedi Order's resurrection and the defeat of the Sith (but that seemed more happenstance than fate).
Secondly, the Chosen One story of the prequels doesn't follow most of the usual rules. Most of the Jedi Council are never fully convinced he is the Chosen One. His training is even considered questionable, considering his emotional sensitivity and relatively old age. The fact that he's even allowed to be trained at all is mostly a concession to the late Qui-Gon Jinn's emphatic belief in Anakin, which the Order only really gives into upon Jinn's death and the revelation that the Sith are still active in the galaxy.
Not only that, but Anakin's far from a saint. He's selfish, brash, impetuous, and pretty damn arrogant. And he fails most of the tests messiahs are typically confronted with in myths: he gives into the temptations of both lust and rage, forsaking his Jedi vows of chastity and slaughtering the Sand People who killed his mother, against the moral teachings of the Order. He also forms a thoroughly unprofessional friendship with the Chancellor, despite the Jedi's withdrawn philosophy in respect to politics.
And, of course, he falls to the dark side. It's hard to think of another case where a messianic prophecy goes so wrong; other examples exist I'm sure, but it's a rare choice in storytelling. The fact of the matter is that Anakin is a failed Chosen One, he was chosen by the Force, but he rejected his destiny, with disastrous results. And that's actually kind of poignant, in a way that most messianic stories aren't. It shows that we ultimately do have some control over our destiny, which means we also have responsibility for it.
Ultimately, it is Luke, not Anakin, who saves the Jedi and destroys the Sith. And how does he do it? With the power of love and compassion, the same things Anakin pursued but was ultimately corrupted by. And there's a really interesting symmetry to that.
Anyhow, what do you all think? Am I just crazy? Or do I have a point or two? Anything you thought the prequels did well that I didn't mention?