It verges on cinematic treason to suggest that the Star War prequel trilogy is in any way superior to the original trilogy. However, history has proved that treasonous behavior is just as often necessary to stimulate progressive revolution as it is to endow malevolent forces with unrestricted authority necessary to obstruct basic human
rights. So here goes: the first three episodes in the saga of Anakin Skywalker are deeper, better structured, and more politically astute than the final three. Not only is that why the prequel is superior, it is also a pretty decent elucidation of the original trilogy’s greater popularity.
That the Star Wars trilogy embraced by American moviegoers is the one that presents a far less complex universe is not incidental to the rabid rebuke of the prequel. “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” reflect the Cold War milieu in which they were created, offering up a comforting us-vs.-them story told in bold strokes lacking nuance, complexity, or intellectual ambiguity. That isn’t to say that times have changed much; with the exception of “The Phantom Menace,” the second and third installments of the prequel were released to an America that had embraced absolute views even more so than the original trilogy.
The difference is that the original trilogy appealed directly to the simplistic moral perspective of an America above reproach and always on the side of right in global geopolitics, whereas the much more subversive prequel trilogy stands in defiant counterpoint to the much more dangerously simplistic moral absolutism of the Age of Bush.
The original trilogy holds a special place in the bosom of American moviegoers precisely because we view ourselves comfortably in place of the Rebels. Americans revel in their historical construct as rebellious underdogs constantly at war against an easily identified and unquestionably evil empire. Hence, the reason most Americans love the original trilogy has much to do with placement of ourselves in the role of the inheritors of the mantle of the Jedi.
The problem is that the post-9/11 world meant Americans also were forced to identify themselves with the Jedi in the prequel trilogy as well, and we don’t like the face we see in the mirror. Let’s face it, the Jedi don’t exactly come off too swell in the prequel. This time around they are the guys in charge, and it is painful to watch them screw it up, especially when the way they hand over the keys to the Empire is so eerily familiar to a historical era defined by words like “signing statements” and “Patriot Act.”
Just in case you didn’t notice in your rush to castigate Jar-Jar Binks and complain about the wooden dialogue of the prequel, the peaceful Galactic Republic in place at the beginning of “The Phantom Menace” doesn’t turn into the dark empire in place at the beginning of “A New Hope” due to an invasion by a foreign element. The Republic falls as a result of due democratic process, albeit due democratic process that is manipulated through lies and deception. Again, sound familiar?
Watching the “Stars Wars” prequel trilogy is like the most entertaining lesson in civics ever given — specifically the way it reveals how even a republic peopled by representative leaders with the best of intentions can make decisions that result in disastrous policies, accompanied by devastation and the crumbling of great ideas. Yoda’s observations about anger, hate, fear, and suffering are not said lightly; they may be the most prescient words spoken by a movie character in recent memory.
Not much less important is another quote associated with “The Phantom Menace,” a quote that hasn’t proved anywhere near as memorable as Yoda’s but nonetheless plays a huge part in the events that will follow. Chances are you don’t even remember these words of Darth Maul: “Fear is my ally.” It was spoken in trailers, but cut from the film. Nevertheless, one can well imagine that slogan scrawled across the office walls of men from Scooter Libby to Donald Trump.
Nowhere in the original “Star Wars” trilogy is there any sequence of events nearly as profound in their application to real life as Palpatine’s manipulative orchestration of the separatist movement “headed” by Count Dooku. Palpatine’s nefarious scripting of events allows him to go before the senate and ask for special “emergency powers” to deal with the growing threat facing the peace of the republic. Perhaps if Americans had embraced the prequel in the way they did the original “Star Wars” trilogy, they would recognize the danger when an elected member of a representative republic asks for “emergency powers” to combat a threat.
Palpatine’s actions in the prequel are positively Machiavellian, and his evil in those first three movies is far more chilling than his appearances as the emperor in the original trilogy. In those movies, Palpatine is so far removed from us we can only approach him from the perspective of a Hitler. We must always remember that Hitler didn’t ascend to dictator by using tanks, but the ballot box.
Just as Palpatine is far more chilling as a politician abusing the system than he is as an emperor in comprehensively malevolent control, so is Anakin Skywalker far more chilling as a powerless pawn than he is as powerful Darth Vader. No more alarming scene exists in the entire “Star Wars” canon than the political conversation that takes place in “Attack of the Clones” between Anakin and Amidala when the boy-who-would-be Vader suggests the system is broken and needs to be replaced with something where one person in charge has the power to enforce laws he feels are for the good of the people. Amidala replies, rightfully, that what Anakin is talking about sounds like a dictatorship. And then these all-too-familiar words from Anakin: “Well, if it works.”
Anakin’s justification that if authoritarian control works in keeping us safe was being repeated on a daily basis by those in charge at the very time the scene was being projected onto multiplex screens around the world. Too many Anakin Skywalkers existed then and, amazingly, exist right now in this country who are far too eager to give up hard-earned civil rights for the illusion of security. And it is the very fact that one can write about Anakin without calling him either evil or good that elevates the prequel above the original. Try naming a single character in the original trilogy that can attain such an authentic level of ambiguity.
There is absolutely no element or character in the original trilogy that isn’t delineated in stark black and white terms. Episodes IV through VI tell a much happier story, one that is consistent with the birth of the American democracy through acts of rebellion by a ragtag group of people who held the moral high ground. Episodes I through III, by contrast, tell a much less happy story about how a democracy can come to an end — not at the hands of foreign interlopers, but directly through the democratic process itself. More people may prefer the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but there is no question that the prequel is a more challenging, illuminating, and superior work of art.