A Failure of Story: The Star Wars Prequels

Yeah...so, I watched the Star Wars prequels again.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me why.  It’s not because I like to torture myself…it’s just that I felt like I should rewatch Episodes IV, V and VI before The Force Awakens comes out and since my OCD addled brain makes me a completionist, I had to include the prequels.

I haven’t watched them in a long, long time.  The last time I saw The Phantom Menace was in 2012.  It’s been at least ten years since I’d watched Attack of the Clones and I only ever saw Revenge of the Sith once…in the theater in 2005.  Plus, I’d never watched them all in a row in a relatively short span of time…viewed the trilogy as the complete story it’s intended to be.

I’ll admit, a part of me was hoping they weren’t as bad as I remembered.  Unfortunately, they were worse.

This isn’t another Lucas hate, bash the prequels, fanboy anger fest…I think the internet already has that covered.  What I really want to talk about is why I think the prequels are so flawed and why the original trilogy still resonates with audiences today.

The main difference is the clarity of the story being told.

(Spoilers from this point on…seriously though, the last movie came out in 2005…get your life together.)

Take a look at the opening of the two trilogies.  In A New Hope, the opening crawl gives us everything we need to know.  Rebels are fighting an evil Empire.  The bad guys have an ultimate weapon.  The good guys stole the plans and are trying to escape so they can use them to save the galaxy.  Straight and to the point…by the time we see the Star Destroyer pursuing Princess Leia’s ship, we’re already invested.  We’re already routing for Leia to escape and save the galaxy.

Now let’s look at The Phantom Menace opening crawl.  I’ll go ahead and paste it below:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.  Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.  While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict...

Ok, so there’s turmoil in the Galactic Republic, so far so good.  Then there’s some issue because trade routes are being taxed?  I guess that makes the Republic the bad guys?  No, wait, it says the Trade Federation is greedy so I guess they’re the bad guys?  Maybe?  Looks like they’re blockading a planet to stop the taxation?  (How does that fix anything?)  Wait, Jedi are on the way so I guess whoever attacks them first will be the bad guy.

It’s a convoluted mess and it only gets worse from there.

In the original trilogy things are very clear…Empire bad, wants to enslave the galaxy…Rebels good, want to bring freedom to the galaxy.  In the prequels things are murkier…the Trade Federation is the big villain in Episode I and they want…less taxes?  Count Dooku and the Separatists are the bad guys in Episode II, they’re evil because…I guess because they don’t want to be in the Republic?  Does that make them bad?  I guess?  Of course, Emperor Palpatine is truly behind everything and trying to take over the galaxy.  Fair enough, but man did it take a long time to lay that out and I’m still not 100% sure what his actual plan was.

Now I’m not saying all stories need to be simple, I love a complex plot I get to spend time chewing on, but you do need to know the story you’re telling and do so clearly.  The original trilogy was the classic heroes journey; Luke goes from a farmer to a hero with great power who then defeats evil and saves the galaxy.  The prequels try to tell that same story but with a tragic ending…Luke’s father goes from being a slave to a hero with great power that succumbs to evil and dooms the galaxy.  The problem is that the prequels are so wrapped up in this mess of galactic politics that we usually lose track of Anakin and his journey. 

How important is it to Anakin’s story that I know a queen from a Republic world can call for a vote of no confidence in the Supreme Chancellor?  Time wasn’t wasted with that kind of detail in the original trilogy…all we needed was an offhanded line about the Emperor disbanding the Senate.  Boom.  Great, the bad guy is in control and now we can go back to the hero who is trying to stop him.  This isn’t Palpatine’s story…if it was then the intricacies of galactic politics would be key to the narrative.

So what is the prequel trilogy’s big failure?  Not too much CG (though I’d say there is), not terrible dialogue (to be fair the original trilogy can be a bit clunky), not even bad acting (that one I lay squarely on Lucas).  The issue is that the prequels don’t prioritize the story they’re trying to tell.

This is a huge problem a lot of creatives suffer from…it’s great that an author knows the complete history of an indigenous tribe that the protagonist runs into but does the reader need to know?  Does it affect the protagonist’s story?  Does it play a part in his arc?  Maybe…if it turns out he’s a descendant of that tribe and their culture will affect future decisions he needs to make.  Mostly likely though, it doesn’t matter.

Clarity and focus on the core narrative, the Big Idea, is key to any type of storytelling.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, movie, comic, physical space or company brand.  When you’re telling your stories constantly ask yourself, “does this tie back to the core of the narrative I’m telling?”  If it does, keep it.  If not, you’re better off dropping it.

May the force be with us all on December 18th.