Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

How I Learned to Appreciate the Star Wars Prequels

Yoda in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (LucasFilm/IMDb)

Not every deeply held moral conviction can survive a pestilence. “You may not like who you’re about to become,” my New York Times colleague David Brooks warned at the outset of the 2020 pandemic, and I can report that he was right. Three months into the coronavirus, trapped in a house with three children and a newborn, I abandoned a pledge I had made to myself long before any of them were born: I let my kids watch the Star Wars prequels.

For years my official posture toward the prequels was that, while I acknowledged having watched them, to the point of having certain awful lines of dialogue seared into my brain, as Star Wars movies they did not exist. Only the original trilogy actually counted as Star Wars, only the original trilogy deserved to be handed on to the next generation, and nothing — I thought — could desecrate adolescent memory as effectively as George Lucas had desecrated his own work.

But then I watched the Disney sequels, culminating in last winter’s The Rise of Skywalker, and I realized there are many kinds of desecration. For all their terrible screenwriting and wooden acting, the Lucas prequels were at least trying to extend the original trilogy, to expand its story and its universe, to tell a new story that meshed organically with the old one. They had an artistic purpose, even if their artist’s capacities fell woefully short of what his plan required.

Whereas the new movies were technically better but spiritually worse: better dialogue, better performances, but all for the sake of something crass and awful, the space-opera equivalent of the sterile, buckraking live-action remakes of Disney animated classics — except at least The Lion King and Aladdin have the decency to acknowledge their identity as copies, clones.

This realization changed me, and it primed me to buckle, finally, under my offspring’s importuning and give over our living room to screenings of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith. And I came out of them more changed still, with a feeling of something almost like . . . appreciation for films I had long considered some of the most disastrous ever made.

My appreciation doesn’t add up to an affirmative case for the prequels: I’m not about to join the annoying contrarians who like to claim that Sith is the equal of Return of the Jedi. But here are three revisionist thoughts on Lucas’s movies, offered by a disappointed fanboy who has aged into a somewhat less invested dad.

First, something people said about them 20 years ago, to my immense annoyance — that they’re for kids, what do you expect? — feels a little bit different now that I actually have children and I can see the movies through their eyes. Even if kids deserve better than what Lucas put on screen, his prequels do have a mixture of qualities that suit children particularly well — a combination of violence with slapstick, purple melodrama with goofball nonsense, plus an eww, gross dose of gore. There were a lot of movies like this in the ’80s — The Goonies and Willow and Who Framed Roger Rabbit all spring readily to mind — and there are somewhat fewer nowadays. And the combination of droid slapstick and the flaming, mutilated body of Anakin Skywalker hits some sort of preteen sweet spot that I had forgotten existed before my own kids came along.

Second, the three prequels aren’t all created equal, and you don’t have to be an adult to notice it. My kids are eager to rewatch The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith. Attack of the Clones, with its impenetrable detective story and turgid love scenes? Not so much.

Third, if you filter out the worst of the second movie you can begin to see the great pop art that might have been. A wise critic once advised watching the prequels as silent movies, but even the screenplay as it exists offers an outline of a better, richer story. The portrayal of the Jedi as arrogant New Age snobs, cut off from basic human emotions in ways that make them vulnerable to the passion-stoking power of the Dark Side, is genuinely interesting. Lucas’s dialogue is deathly when it isn’t comic, but the themes he’s waving at with his sledgehammer — elite arrogance, political decay — are the right ones for a story like this, and in a few performances (Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid above all, Ewan McGregor sometimes, Hayden Christensen in a few flashes) you can see the gaudy tragedy that he set out to make.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Jar Jar Binks — the locus of so much fan hatred, the reason people despise The Phantom Menace more than it otherwise deserves. That’s because I’ve done the worst thing a critic can do: I’ve semi-embraced a very online fan theory, which holds that Lucas intended the ridiculous Gungan to be eventually revealed as a Sith, a dark force-wielder — the equivalent of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, whose pratfalls and nonsense were just a disguise for his true purposes and powers.

This theory is probably false, but it actually does fit with a lot of weirdness in the first movie, and if you assume that Darth Jar Jar was meant to be a big reveal and then Lucas, stung by fan backlash, chickened out — well, then you’re one step closer to the prequel trilogy that my teenage self expected, the Star Wars story of so many unrequited hopes, whose ghostly presence in the prequels almost justifies acknowledging that they exist.

This article appears as “Star Wars Revisionism” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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