These days, with nowhere to go and no-one to see, movie-watching is as good a way as any to pass the time: suddenly a film with a two hour plus runtime doesn’t seem so bad. This isolation period also provides a chance to consider movies independent of the opinions of others, to sit quietly and critically reflect in new ways. It could mean revisiting old classics that we haven’t watched in a while.
But for me, this took the form of revisiting the Star Wars prequels.
These days, liking the prequels isn’t the controversial crime it once was. In fact, many people admit to enjoying and even respecting what they bring to the saga. But in general, and historically, they have received their fair share of animosity. I wasn’t introduced to Star Wars by my parents, so I avoided the fate of being raised with a prequel-hating mentality. I’ve always had a soft spot for Revenge of the Sith in particular, perhaps because I’d been so invested in Darth Vader’s character in the original trilogy. This would be my first time revisiting the prequels after the release of The Rise of Skywalker last year, which I enjoyed to the extent I did mostly due to the instant liking I took to Kylo Ren. But in revisiting the prequels, I was reminded that it was Anakin Skywalker who was really the origin of such a complex and emotionally fraught character.
Anakin exhibits tragic flaws found in the best of Shakespeare’s heroes: ambition, pride, arrogance and obsessive love. The prequels trilogy also depicts the classic tragic fall from happiness to misery, with a sense of fatalistic inevitability characteristic of the best tragedies; all the more so when the audience experiences the original trilogy beforehand. Anakin’s fall to the dark side is a foregone conclusion, simply because these are prequels.
But whilst admiring the narrative maturity, fault can still admittedly be found with the execution. Overused and outdated special effects, moments of stale acting and a pod race scene in The Phantom Menace that seems to last a lifetime all help to justify the hate that the prequels receive. Even I can admit that they get better as they progress.
Despite some faults however, I do find cinematic credibility in these films. The death of Anakin’s mother in Attack of the Clones is genuinely moving, more so because it catalyses Anakin’s journey down an irreversible and tragic path of violence that leads him to the dark side. It also serves as a reminder that the Star Wars films succeed when they’re about family – a universal theme that grounds and defines the fantasy.
Across all three movies I always love the way Darth Vader’s recognisable anthem creeps into the soundtrack as Anakin moves progressively closer to the dark side. This often marks moments of poignant foreboding, beginning with prophetic mentions of Anakin’s great power, and the potential danger he could pose to the Jedi. It is largely accepted that the trilogy improves as it develops, with Revenge of the Sith redeeming much of the damage done by the previous two instalments. It contains some of the best lines, and the climactic moments of Anakin’s tragic fall.
When Anakin and Obi Wan fight Count Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and Anakin claims his powers have doubled since they last met, to which the Count responds: “Twice the pride, double the fall”. Such a line echoes Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Anakin resembles the prideful Satan, with a fall from grace to match.
The political uncertainty that has been brewing over the preceding two movies finally reaches a tipping point in Episode III. Every moment of Palpatine’s rise to power is a lesson in the pernicious danger of dictatorships and the fragility of democracy. As Padmé watches Palpatine create the Empire, she comments: “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause”. Such a line is cutting, and endlessly topical.
But it’s not all politics and tragedy – after all the Star Wars films are meant to be fun. And the prequels are fun, featuring arguably some of the best lightsaber battles of the saga, the usual droid antics, and the humorous dynamic between Anakin and the long-suffering Obi Wan. All of this serves to lighten the mood within the wider tragic arc of the narrative.
Concluding with the re-homing of Luke and Leia with their new adoptive parents, Episode III succinctly harkens back to the original trilogy – a filling in of the gaps replicated with similar effectiveness in Rogue One. With the final shot of Tatooine’s sunset, we feel safe in the knowledge that the Jedi will return.
So if not quite a masterpiece, I find the prequel trilogy to be a moving and poignant addition to the saga – and well worth a fresh viewing for those who aren’t too quick to dismiss them.