Why the Star Wars Prequels Should Have Been Better than the Original Trilogy

Wednesday, 09 September 2015 - 12:44PM
Star Wars
Wednesday, 09 September 2015 - 12:44PM
Why the Star Wars Prequels Should Have Been Better than the Original Trilogy
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There's little argument to be made that the Star Wars prequels are better, or even comparable to, the originals. Their flaws have been analyzed (and mocked) time and time again, from the mildly racist and criminally unfunny Jar Jar Binks to the embarrassingly stilted dialogue to the mythology-ruining midichlorians. But while the prequels may be undeniably less successful films, their subject matter is actually more interesting and complex. There's an argument to be made that if the execution hadn't been so horribly bungled, the prequels would have been superior to the original trilogy.

The original Star Wars films represent action adventure at its simplest and finest; it's a story of good versus evil, and nothing more. Luke Skywalker is a morally pure, earnest, and guileless hero figure, Princess Leia is a somewhat feisty version of the damsel-in-distress, and Han Solo is the prototypical swashbuckling Western gunslinger. The notion of a "Dark Side" and a "Light Side" already tells you that there's no moral ambiguity to speak of; there's never really a question that Luke will resist the temptation of the Dark Side, nor is there any real sympathy towards the villains. Han Solo's tendency towards self-interest is probably the closest thing to moral ambiguity in the original trilogy, but even he always does the right thing in the end. 

It's also telling that Han Solo has become arguably the most popular character from the Star Wars franchise, partially as a result of Harrison Ford's charisma, but also because he's just more interesting than Luke. Although the writing is generally cartoonish, Han comes closer to approximating a real human being, because he's the most flawed of the good guys and has the most distinct character arc. It's more compelling to watch Han overcome his flaws than to watch Luke vaguely wonder if he has flaws, and then reaffirm that he doesn't.

In this respect, the prequel trilogy should have been a more sophisticated and complex narrative; where the original trilogy was the archetypal hero's journey, the prequel trilogy positioned itself to be the archetypal fall from grace. The bare bones of the prequel trilogy is a character study of a potentially fascinating character: a well-intentioned young man who desperately wants to be a hero but is unable to overcome his tragic flaws. He is not inherently evil necessarily, merely proud and lacking in courage; he is seduced by the Dark Side as a result of his hubris and his fear of death and loss, just like pretty much every other morally ambiguous villain in literary/cinematic history. There's a reason critics forget about Milton's God but revere his portrayal of Satan; it's much more relatable, and interesting, to explore the struggles of the fallen angel than the coldly righteous moral authority. 

This narrative is in the prequel trilogy somewhere, but unfortunately, it's buried under the truly terrible execution. Hayden Christensen, while a fine actor in other movies, was unable to make his character appear morally conflicted or tortured; his hubris came off as mere petulance. The love story between him and Padme fell completely flat as a result of both the writing and the acting, and is also just a much more trite motivation than deep-seated character flaws. And it would have been fascinating to portray the Jedi as a morally problematic organization (as The Clone Wars television show touched upon a bit), especially since it would have made Anakin's motivations more sympathetic. But the films barely explore that angle, leaving us with an unequivocal Good side, a clear-cut villain in Palpatine, and an impressionable brat in Anakin. 

But still, and I know this is an unpopular opinion, I would rather re-watch the prequel trilogy than the originals. You can always fast-forward through Jar Jar scenes, but more importantly, the prequel trilogy is much more ambitious. Where the originals are indisputably successful in what they were attempting to accomplish- simple, exhilarating blockbuster entertainment with a healthy dose of worldbuilding- the prequels are fascinating failures, and the movies they were trying to be were much more tragic and complex than anything the original trilogy had to offer.
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