The Star Wars prequels are objectively, irredeemably terrible, a blight not just on the beloved franchise but on narrative storytelling itself. This is not an opinion, but a fact that I hope you will comprehend by the time I am finished here. Sadly, there is a misguided evolution in the thinking of some otherwise rational adults, a tendency to view the prequels in a more forgiving light in the post-Disney era of Star Wars.
You must resist. Do not be tempted by the Dark Side.
It’s true that many of you were children around the turn of the 21st century and had your first exposure to Star Wars via the prequels. You have fond childhood memories wrapped up in the prequels, and you think older fans, those of us who cut our teeth on the Original Trilogy, are just being mean when we mock your love of the prequels. Actually, we’re being cruel to be kind, to save you from yourselves. You will thank us later.
There are many things that I loved as a child that I later had to admit were not as good as I remembered, some I would now be embarrassed to admit. Just because something is wrapped in the warm haze of nostalgia does not make it good, and nostalgia is no defense for loving something undeserving of your love.
Hopefully, by the time I am finished, you will understand why your love of the Star Wars prequels is misguided, as misguided as the toxic hatred toward The Last Jedi, and why you must leave it behind if you are to grow as a fan of the franchise.
The Acting and Directing
These two elements are indelibly intertwined in the prequels. The two Anakins, Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christiansen, get most of the blame here, but that is not deserved. It’s true that neither actor seems comfortable in his role, and their line readings are often cringeworthy. But, to be fair to them, none of the more experienced actors in these films, not Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, nor Natalie Portman, give performances in these films worthy of their career highlight reels. Neither do Ewan MacGregor and Ian McDiarmid, whose performances are far and away the best in the all three films. Ewan comes off best, although he’d probably finish second to McDiarmid if it weren’t for the last act of Revenge of the Sith. For two and a half films, McDiarmid’s performance as Palpatine is a master class in subtlety and manipulation, only to go completely off the rails at the end.
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So, we have to cut Hayden Christiansen and Jake Lloyd some slack if none of the more experienced actors were at the top of their games, either. All performances in the prequels, for better or for worse, mostly worse, have one thing in common: working under George Lucas as their director.
Prior to The Phantom Menace, Lucas had directed only three films. The last one, the original Star Wars, was more than twenty years earlier. It would be understandable if there were a little rust on his directorial toolbox during the first of the prequels, but nothing really gets better over the course of the next two films. The problem must go deeper than that.
His first film, THX-1138, was an art house science fiction movie that didn’t require a lot of emoting from its cast. According to Marc Maron’s podcast interview with Ron Howard, Lucas did not work closely with the cast while shooting his classic American Graffiti, leaving the actors to function like an improv group and mostly direct themselves. Fortunately, this turned out to be a stroke of genius which worked brilliantly.
Significantly, according to another rumor, the person who worked closest with the cast during the shooting of the original Star Wars in 1976 was the film’s producer Gary Kurtz, and not George Lucas. Apparently, this was to appease Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness, as the veteran actors were exasperated by Lucas’ standoffishness.
Whatever Lucas’ merits as a technological and narrative visionary, and they are many, his limited filmography as a director doesn’t paint a picture of an “actor’s director.”
This is most important in the cases of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christiansen. If you are going to hang responsibility for your blockbuster epic on the shoulders of two young, very inexperienced actors, the director needs to be there for those actors in a close Master/Padewan relationship. Leaving neophyte actors to sink or swim on their own in films of this scale is unforgivable directorial malpractice.
I personally think that, if ever there was a Star Wars film that Steven Spielberg should have directed, it was The Phantom Menace. Spielberg is the best in the business when it comes to working with child actors, and with him at the helm, Jake Lloyd would have been in much better hands.
It’s also possible that Lloyd and Christiansen were just wrong for the role. Famously, Lucas cast both actors himself, without the usual exhaustive search that a production would normally do for such an important role. It’s impossible to know if, had Lucas allowed the roles to be cast in the more traditional way, the results would have been any different.
This isn’t to suggest that Jake or Hayden were necessarily bad actors. It’s possible to be a perfectly good actor, but completely wrong for the role. Hayden’s work in Shattered Glass suggests that, with the right script and competent direction, the kid had chops. Sadly, the prequels seem to have irreparably derailed his career, so we may never know.
Even more sadly, his experience in the prequels appear to derailed Jake Lloyd’s life, and not just his career.
It would have been worth seeing what these actors could have done with a director who had the right skills for working with his cast.
Failing that, it would have been instructive to see what happened after a more exhaustive search to cast the role of Anakin in the three prequels.
You could say the big meta-problem with the prequels is that the executive producer made lousy choices when it came to picking the director and the screenwriter, both of those also being George Lucas, and you would not be wrong, but George was not the only producer on the prequels to fail miserably at his job.
Rick McCallum was George’s Number Two at LucasFilm at the time of the prequels. In that role, it would his job to counsel his boss away from bad decisions, because he would be the one person at LucasFilm who could safely speak truth to power.
“George, this Jar-Jar character might be seen by some as racist.”
“George, maybe we could try a less racist accent for the Trade Federation guys.”
“George, maybe we could run your script past a couple more screenwriters. I think we need to tighten the dialog.”
“Gosh, George, maybe we should let the casting department do their job and find us the best Anakin out there.”
It’s possible that, behind closed doors, McCallum did speak truth to power, and Lucas simply didn’t listen. However, the documentary features on the prequel DVDs paint a picture of McCallum as a shameless yes-man with his lips surgically attached to George Lucas’ ass. It’s hard to imagine the person we see on screen standing up to his boss in private.
Of course, if Lucas hired McCallum because he was a yes-man, then that failure is also on Lucas as much as it is on McCallum.
Again, if the DVD documentaries (and other stories) are to be believed, George Lucas shot the prequels largely from his first draft. He sat down, hand wrote the script on a legal pad, had someone type it out, and shot what he had written.
As a writer, I can say with both confidence and authority, you never do this. Writing is rewriting. Lucas’ failure to rewrite himself or let another screenwriter take a pass at the script shows in the creaky dialog and “tell, not show” storytelling. This is why Star Wars fans the world over get a case of the giggles anytime anyone mentions the word “sand.”
It didn’t have to be that way. Mark Hamill, everyone’s favorite Luke Skywalker, likes to tell the story of his screen test for the first film, even reciting some of the dialog from memory. That dialog is terrible, too, and it sounds just like dialog from the prequels. Of course, the dialog we hear in the first film is much tighter than it is in the prequels, presumably due to the script taking some extra trips through the typewriter. Since George Lucas gets sole writing credit on the original Star Wars, we are left to conclude that, when he does rewrite himself, he is perfectly capable of writing good dialog.
Lucas’ failure to do any rewriting on the prequels is either down to arrogance, thinking himself too brilliant to need rewriting, or laziness. Neither is forgivable in filmmaking on this scale.
At this point, I have not parted company with most Star Wars fans who, even if they find things to enjoy about the prequels, are willing to admit their many flaws. To them, these films are great stories, badly told.
Where I disagree with my fellow fans is that I believe the underlying story that Lucas was telling in the prequels was also irredeemably bad. Strip away the bad dialog, dodgy acting, and other flaws, and you are still left with a bad story, badly told.
According to the prequels, the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall and turn to the Dark Side happened because a lovesick young man had a bad dream and was worried about his girlfriend.
Give me a break. What should have been epic is reduced to the level of Grade-Z Young Adult romance, and any self-respecting YA publisher would have seen this nonsense back to George Lucas with a polite rejection form letter.
More importantly, the cause of Anakin’s downfall, and his story in general, feels disconnected from the larger story of the prequels.
I believe this central flaw is why, at the end of prequels, it still felt like there was much less at stake than in the Original Trilogy, that the story was ultimately inconsequential.
Ironically, a man named Dave Filoni told a much better story over the course of an animated television series. For those who don’t know, Filoni oversees animated television over at LucasFilm. His first series, Clone Wars, told the story of Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi between episodes 2 and 3. It ran for six seasons in the 2000s and, in my opinion, did a lot to reinvigorate interest in Star Wars after the disappointment of the prequels. I can’t be sure, but I also think Clone Wars might have helped foster the more charitable view of the prequels we see these days, so it has that to answer for.
His second series, Rebels, told the story of a ragtag band fighting the Empire in the years before the original trilogy. One of the rebels is a young man named Ezra Bridger, who aspires to be a Jedi. Over the course of the series, Ezra seeks to become more powerful in the Force so he can ultimately defeat the Sith once and for all. In seeking this power, he is tempted by the Dark Side.
Now, substitute Anakin’s name for Ezra’s and make that the overall story arc of the prequels. Anakin seeks to become the most powerful Jedi ever to defeat the Sith once and for all. In seeking this power, he becomes the very thing he sought to destroy.
Tell me that’s not a thousand times more tragic, and a million times more epic, than the story we got in the prequels.
It should be no surprise that many Star Wars fans, and probably many at LucasFilm, view Dave Filoni as the creative successor to George Lucas. Kathleen Kennedy may be in charge, but she appears to have little interest in guiding the creative direction of Star Wars. Elevating Filoni to have ultimate responsibility over those decisions for Star Wars across all media would be a genius move. I think it would go a long way towards curing the minor disarray the franchise finds itself in these days.
If only Filoni had been in position to whisper in George Lucas’ ear back when he was originally mapping out the prequel trilogy. Maybe the results would have been very different.
But we have what we have, and with the same basic story in place, even with better directing, better acting, and better writing, the Star Wars prequels would still have been a missed opportunity and a massive creative failure.