There’s little that hasn’t already been said about the Star Wars prequels. It’s been sixteen years since the beginning of the trilogy, the same amount of time that passed between the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and The Phantom Menace in 1999. Fans have complained ceaselessly about inconsistencies with the original films (Midi-chlorians) and dodgy dialogue (“It’s over Anakin, I have the high ground!”). But the truth is that these issues were already a part of the Star Wars saga since its inception in 1977. The reason the Star Wars prequels fail so spectacularly, both as Star Wars films and science fiction cinema, is a total lack of humanity. The prequels are a cold, joyless experience, spawned by the uninhibited mania of George Lucas and his mob of adoring yes-men.
Throughout the prequels, there is a feeling of immense lifelessness. The characters inhabit a dull, sexless world, leaving the central romance of the series between Anakin and Padme feeling, at best, a bit creepy. The Jedi are inexplicably forbidden from marriage and spend most of their time standing around in massive robes, spouting philosophical gibberish like “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Everything around them is built on a computer, and none of it resembles anything vaguely real. The best example of this is probably the climactic battle in Attack of the Clones. It’s a mass of expendable droids fighting a horde of nameless clones, in a war over trade regulations, and it quickly becomes impossible to care about what’s happening on screen, because none of it matters and no one involved seems to care either.
The Star Wars prequels are an excellent example of what happens when a cult of personality develops around a single filmmaker
This sense of coldness extends to both the action and the character development. The lightsaber fights and space battles look impressive, but they inevitably devolve into a series of impossible, computer generated stunts; it’s tension-less and lacks any connection between the audience and what is happening on screen. A number of excellent actors are wasted in the prequels; Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi is probably their greatest saving grace, but like the rest of the cast, he doesn’t have much to work with. Anakin Skywalker, who grows into the badass of the galaxy as Darth Vader, is turned into a whiney teenager who starts killing kids because the script tells him to. Likewise, Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala is an emotionless shadow of a character, falling in love and then dying because she has to for the next three films to take place. There’s no reason to care or understand why all this happens, it just does.
The Star Wars prequels are an excellent example of what happens when a cult of personality develops around a single filmmaker, much like the disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The original Star Wars films were never great because of George Lucas, but because of the army of creative artists who contributed to make the first three films a ground breaking, seminal experience. They were never perfectly directed or even intelligently written, but there was a sense of joy and physicality to them that the prequels are entirely lacking. Their characters and events have weight and significance, and they feel real. With luck, JJ Abrams can bring back some of that old magic with The Force Awakens this year, but in a post-prequel world it’ll take something really special to surprise us like 1977.