Why I kind of like the Star Wars prequels

A couple of nights ago, I got into a loud and vociferous debate with a friend over the Star Wars franchise; specifically our respective orders of the movies from best to worst. Fortunately the subject died before we came to fisticuffs, though not before this friend mentioned his WordPress website in which he rants about movies and television. I was inspired, so I signed up for a WordPress account and started writing. What follows are my incoherent and disorganized thoughts on the Star Wars franchise.

Disclaimer: please understand that I am neither an expert on film, nor on the Star Wars movies. If I get something wrong, please forgive me. If you disagree with my opinion, leave a comment and be nice.

I’m one of those weirdos who never watched Star Wars as a kid; mine is more of a Star Trek family. In fact, I only just finished watching all six movies at the end of my freshman year of college. There are both pros and cons to this childhood deprivation I suffered. The con is that I began my viewing experience already knowing what everyone knows: Luke and Leia are twinsies and Darth Vader is their father. Fortunately, this did not ruin the experience too much. The pro is that, with Star Wars absent from my upbringing, I feel like my viewing experience was a bit more objective. I didn’t have a huge emotional attachment to Star Wars, and thus was able to view them more critically than I think I would have otherwise.

And I did love them, for the most part. The score is easily my favorite part of the series, and the special effects of the original trilogy were breathtaking too. But nothing I can say on either of these topics will be original, having been said countless times before, so I’ll skip over them to other stuff.

Here is one of the things that I simply cannot understand about Star Wars that everyone else seems to get: the plot. It’s treated like it’s this groundbreaking story that changed film forever. And while that is kind of true–it had an enormous impact on both the sci-fi genre and cinema as a whole– it’s also a pretty unoriginal plot. In fact, it’s the perfect example of something called a monomyth, or a “Hero’s Journey.” I have read in more places than one that George Lucas referred to the monomyth idea when he was writing the first Star Wars film, so he literally did create it from a formula.

The Hero is that protagonist who is called to action from his small, boring hometown and embarks on a most exciting adventure aided by his most likely wizened mentor. He usually faces some personal struggle/temptation and emerges from it the victorious Hero. Luke Skywalker fits this archetype to a T, and so, to a lesser extent, does Anakin. We see this story everywhere. An obvious post-Star Wars example is Harry Potter. Another, much shittier example is Transformers. But this idea existed long before George Lucas learned about it. J.R.R. Tolkein and Ursula K. Le Guin both wrote books of the Hero’s Journey nature. Also, an awful lot of people from Greek myths, like Perseus and Theseus. Also, Jesus.  

heros journey

The Hero’s Journey story is a comforting sort of plotline, because we know that our Hero is going to overcome all the obstacles temptations thrown at him. We can also trust that the people we care about are probably not going to die, and that the Hero’s side– our side– will be victorious. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, there’s action, and overall it’s a satisfying experience. But at its most formulaic (which I would argue the original Star Wars trilogy is), it doesn’t challenge us. We’re not worried for our heroes when they go into battle. We’re not faced with tough questions or asked to think more deeply about anything. When Luke withstands the temptation of the Dark Side, he does so in a way that perfectly fulfills the Hero’s Journey formula. I feel that, despite its God awful execution, Anakin’s story is still more interesting because at least there’s more tension and uncertainty than there is in Luke’s.

Luke Skywalker is the Bella Swan of the franchise. He’s a good guy who thirsts for adventure, and there really isn’t a lot more to him than that. This makes him the perfect Hero/protagonist, because the audience can step into his shoes with little to no effort. Now they are the ones making the choice between good and evil and choosing good. Now they are the ones saving the day. Han and Leia are more richly characterized, but that also makes them less relatable and therefore not Hero material. Meanwhile Anakin is the character we don’t want to relate to, and not merely because of his questionable writing and portrayal. We don’t want to think about whether we would be seduced by the Dark Side, and Anakin, unlike Luke, makes us doubt whether we really would be able to resist the lure of the Sith Lords.

I don’t mean to speak ill of Star Wars by saying all this– I love the Hero’s Journey storyline, and you can add a lot to it to make it more interesting, as Star Wars does. The beauty of the monomyth is that it transcends time period or culture, which why it’s called the monomyth, the one myth. A single myth translatable across time and space, which Star Wars, being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, fits into perfectly. I just think that the series is not as perfect as everyone seems to think it is. (And by that, I mean the original trilogy. People seem to have quite a bit of criticism for the prequels.)

The original trilogy was objectively better. In almost every way. But I do think it needs the prequels, more so than a lot of people would care to admit. Without the prequels, the originals feel to me like a formulaic film about a formulaic man and his formulaic journey. The prequels add another layer to the story (I’m a fan of the “machete” viewing order, by the way: IV, V, II, III, VI, and just toss I), and we get to see both Luke’s and Anakin’s arcs come to a solid conclusion in Episode VI. Their interwoven stories make for a bittersweet, rather than outright happy, ending that I just don’t think would be the same if we didn’t get to see Anakin’s rise and fall.

Don’t get me wrong, the prequels do mess up certain parts of the originals– midichlorians, anyone?– and to be completely honest part of my arguing all this comes from what I imagine the prequels could have been at their highest potential, of which the actual execution is a pale and confused ghost. So, let that be the grain of salt with which you read my order.

From best to worst (not counting Rogue One or The Force Awakens because it’s still hard for me to rank them alongside what I see as the original six):

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: This is just objectively the best movie and I think most people won’t dispute that too much. The sets and scenery (Hoth is gorgeous), the special effects, the music. Some of my favorite scenes in the series are in this film. Anything that features Leia and Han’s extreme sexual tension. Luke’s training with Yoda back before he was ruined by every movie in the prequel trilogy. Luke’s confrontation with Vader and the Big Reveal. Empire Strikes Back is wonderfully grand and operatic. It accomplishes what most second parts of a trilogy fail to do and succeeds as its own movie, rather than just as a build-up to the final one.

Episode IV: A New Hope: This one is really more tied for first with Episode V for because it’s my personal favorite, even if I acknowledge that the former is objectively better. It’s the one I’ve rewatched the most; it’s the one that for whatever reason stirs up the deep emotions for me. That stunning shot of Luke watching the binary sunset while the Force Theme plays is my favorite part of the whole saga. I also love Obi-Wan in both incarnations, and the final battle of him and Darth Vader always brings a tear to my eye.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: This one is probably a surprise. Yes, I preferred Revenge of the Sith over Return of the Jedi. This is partly because my expectations were absurdly high for Return of the Jedi  and absurdly low for Revenge of the Sith. I do recognize that Return of the Jedi is in most ways a better film, but that was overshadowed by just how much more I enjoyed watching Revenge of the Sith. I really loved Obi-Wan and Anakin’s bromance and banter in this one; hell, I didn’t even mind Hayden’s acting that much. The final battles of Yoda/Sidious and Anakin/Obi-Wan were fun to watch because of their drama, if not because of their execution. And like I said before, Anakin’s story provides a lot more dramatic tension than Luke’s does. We may already know what will happen to the characters, but how they get there is just as interesting. Anakin finally succumbing to the Dark Side wasn’t a happy moment, and neither was when all the Jedi are killed off. Those were sad moments. I felt sad. Which is really not an emotion that I felt watching the original trilogy, except at Obi-Wan’s death. Revenge of the Sith was a good movie in many ways. For me, watching Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader was in many ways more interesting and entertaining than most anything Luke did, although part of that entertainment value does come from how sloppy/cheesy the former was in its execution. (and I will say that Luke’s stupid “no” beats out Vader’s much, much stupider “no.”)

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi: I really don’t like watching long battle scenes, It’s just not my thing. Especially when I A) know the characters aren’t going to die or B) don’t care. This is a big problem for me watching Lord of the Rings, and it’s a big problem for a lot of the Star Wars films as well. Return of the Jedi features some of the most prolonged, boring starship battles I have ever zoned out to. I was never worried for anyone’s life except for maybe Lando Calrissian for obvious token race-related reasons. It’s stupidly unrealistic that everyone you care about would come out the other side of a massive, decisive battle unscathed. A lot of other parts this movie felt prolonged and pointless to me, such as the scene at Jabba’s lair and anything having to do with the Ewoks. Nevertheless, it is not without its awesome bits: Luke’s final battle with Vader and Palpatine, followed by Luke and Vader’s one father/son moment. Also Leia is always perfect and I love her and I want to be her. Return of the Jedi, I would say, beats Revenge of the Sith on a lot of points: acting, dialogue, effects. But Revenge of the Sith wins on storyline and entertainment value, and that’s why I put it first.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones: There’s not a whole lot to say about these final two movies that hasn’t already been said before. To me, Attack of the Clones is good-bad: It is a bad movie, and entertaining in its badness. Not unlike Sharknado. I laughed out loud quite a few times during the Anakin/Padmé scenes. I’d probably watch it again if I were heavily under the influence of something.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Jar-Jar. Little Anakin. Excruciatingly long pod races. Padmé’s weird doppelganger. Qui-Gon. Phantom Menace is bad-bad: it is a bad movie, and not at all entertaining in its badness. Not unlike The Last Airbender. I hate this movie.

Why I kind of like the Star Wars prequels