Saturday, December 5, 2015

Top 11 Things The Star Wars Prequels Got Right

Before the mob arrives at my doorstep ready to string me up, let me just clear the air here for a second. I am not a prequel apologist, in fact I absolutely loath Episode 1 aside from a few moments here and there, find Episode 2 to only be tolerable whenever Obi Wan is on screen and actually enjoyed large parts of Episode 3. However, as a whole it is impossible to not see the prequels as anything but a complete and total failure...or were they? That is the subject of this list, putting aside the laundry list of problems and our injured fandom for a second, let's focus on those few things the prequels actually got right.

While there are others out there who have compiled their own lists detailing the few good things in the prequels, they more often than not focus squarely on what was "cool" about them such as their favorite scenes and characters. While there will no doubt be some of that included here, this list goes beyond just a single scene or character and looks at how Star Wars as a whole was either expanded upon or given new insight that actually contributed to the other films and the Star Wars mythology in new and positive ways as opposed to the hundreds of negatives they bestowed upon us.

So with a brand new Star Wars film being released all too soon in Episode 7: The Force Awakens with what will hopefully be a whole new beginning for the franchise it felt like the right time to look back at the prequels in a different light. With a new hope comes a new outlook and its time to not necessarily forgive and forget, but more like make amends and move forward. To help everyone with the move to new horizons this list comprises of the top moments, events, characters and/or insights into the Star Wars mythology that the prequels gave to us amidst a sea of critical flaws and failures. It's not much but looking at the prequels for these few nuggets of inspiration may help those of us who were horribly scarred by their ineptitude find some sort of closure on the matter. Alright, let the hate mail flood in...

When it comes to Anakin Skywalker there isn't a whole lot one can say that would make anyone forgive the atrocity he was as the supposed main protagonist of the prequels which was due to a mixture of horrible casting, a horrible script and horrible direction. But there were two things Lucas got right, one of which will appear further down this list. The first and most overlooked positive point to Anakin's portrayal in the prequels is the simple fact that the mysteries surrounding Shmi's immaculate conception of Anakin was thankfully never explained (for the most part anyway).

While some would be quick to point out the conversation between Palpatine and Anakin as more than a simple allusion to Anakin's origins and the whole idea of immaculate conception is kind of silly in the first place, the fact still remains it was never outright explained. The reason this is so important is because whenever Lucas felt like explaining something (Midiclorians anybody?) it usually ends in disaster. So it is some sort of miracle that this fell through the cracks and never got put under the microscope leaving fans to stew over the many unknowns that surround his existence and as an added bonus helps propel his status as an anomaly.

It seems silly to think that one simple throwaway line of dialog in the Episode 4 would some day become the basis for the entire prequels but that is exactly what happened. When Grand Moff Tarkin said, "The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I've just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.", nobody at the time realized or even gave a second thought to what exactly that meant. We would later of course see the Senate in action for ourselves in what are arguably the worst and most boring scenes in the prequel films.

Regardless though it is still kind of cool that when we hear that line spoken again we now have a frame of reference for what the hell he is talking about. Plus we can consider it a bonus that the Emperor spares us the agony of ever having to sit through another Senate meeting again, something he likely loathed just as much as we did. This also becomes the moment when the Emperor's control over the Republic becomes complete and in many ways concludes the plot he began way back in Episode 1. I don't care what you think of the prequels, that is pretty awesome. What do you think the chances are that Jar Jar was dissolved with the Senate? One can only wish it were true.

While the prequels were imagined more as an origin story for Darth Vader there were plenty of side stories that surprised fans by being much more in depth and told far more competently than the central storyline. The first of these side stories that most didn't even realize they were interested in until it happened was no doubt the formation of what would later be known as the Galactic Empire. From discovering the origins of the infamous storm troopers to witnessing the systematic nullification of the senate itself, the prequels outlined one of the most under appreciated story arcs of the entire Star Wars saga.

As we all know every single scene dealing with the senate and politicians made us want to gouge our eyeballs out, however that does not take away from the fact that the Emperor's plot was kind of genius, if not a bit over complicated and too reliant on chance (how he became Chancellor is a glaring plothole). Still, seeing the building blocks for what would later become the Galactic Empire was one of the few things we can take away from the prequels and not feel as though it has tarnished the original trilogy while also adding some interesting insights.

Let's just get one thing straight out the gate here, this is by no means an argument against the horrible dialog and acting spouted out by Hayden Christensen. This is about the actual EVENTS that led up to his turn to the dark side. Now we all know that Anakin's turn wasn't exactly subtle as it was telegraphed by his constant angry demeanor, wardrobe decisions and ill temperament. What they got right however were those few moments where we see the Emperor courting Anakin ever so slightly into his next apprentice. Every scene with Palpatine and Anakin (especially in Episode 3) was on point for the most part. While I am trying my best to avoid narrowing this list down to one particular scene (and with these movies it makes it real hard), this is the one exception to the rule.

Most might be surprised to learn that the best single scene in the entire prequel trilogy is not filled with lightsabers, space battles or any action whatsoever, but instead is comprised of the one thing these films have been relentlessly chastised for, two people simply talking. Yes, we are of course talking about the Opera scene where Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis which he subtlety uses to seduce poor Anakin over to his way of thinking. The haunting atmosphere of the Opera house combined with Ian McDiarmid's cold and calculated performance set the stage for Anakin's final push to the dark side. What he does after he turns is a whole other ball of wax (did he have to slaughter a bunch of kids...really?), but the path to that point was what we all signed up for when these prequels started and that part at least delivered.

Ever since Luke Skywalker spoke of the Clone Wars there has been a morbid curiosity by all Star Wars fans when it came to the lore surrounding the conflict which appeared to be the birthing place of the Galactic Empire. The prequels were sold to us as Anakin's story (which once again was a total disaster) and that meant we were going to finally see the fabled Clone War in action. This is likely the most controversial addition on this list because it is debatable as to whether or not the prequels actually delivered on the promise of the epic war fans had been speculating about for decades.

For my money this is one of the few highlights of the prequels simply because it was fairly straightforward and once again did not really tarnish the original trilogy. In many ways it gives us some great insight into the fact that this galaxy far far away has been riddled with uprisings and actual star-wars well before the conflict between the rebellion and the empire. For that reason alone the Clone Wars stands out as a highlight but given that it was also one of the better executed parts of the prequels it gets a top nod for simply not sucking. Just about the only thing wrong with the depiction of the Clone War was that all the clones were CGI creations (not a single one was an actual living, breathing human in a suit on the actual green screen set), but that is more a failing of Lucas as a filmmaker than anything else.

Before the prequels general audiences only knew a Jedi as either Obi Wan, Yoda or Luke Skywalker (and Darth Vader if we are counting fallen Jedi). Yes there were plenty of books, videogames and fan fiction out there that provided more background on who the Jedi were, but the prequels gave us our very first real look at the galaxy's keepers of the peace on a grand scale. While most will immediately jump at the chance to criticize the unnecessary complications Lucas added with the whole Jedi not allowed to love nonsense, if you can look past that there are some interesting revelations about the Jedi Order.

First of all we get to see the Jedi in a position of power finally and how much fear they instill around the galaxy despite their stance on "not getting involved". That also leads us to yet another discovery which is that the Jedi are not the saints most expected them to be. They have faults and failings just like everyone else and often times make incorrect or ill advised decisions based on their interpretation of what the force tells them. The Jedi Order is just like any other institution, it means well but by no means is it free from the corruption and villainy it so valiantly tries to abolish. Knowing who the Jedi were before they were exterminated gives us a new perspective on how important the Jedi were to the galaxy and how dangerous they could be as now we have seen for ourselves what the galaxy was like before the Empire took over.

Notice that this one is not entitled "The character of Obi Wan". The reason for that is despite how great Ewan McGregor was in the role, the writing, dialog and overall representation of Obi-Wan was a bit off the mark especially pertaining to the many inconsistencies between what he says and does in the prequels versus what he says and does in the original trilogy. The legend of Obi Wan however not only remains firmly intact but now when we see him come to Luke's rescue in episode 4 and those Sand people get the hell out of dodge simply due to his presence we know why. It's because Obi Wan is a fully fledged bad ass and is arguably the most powerful Jedi we have ever seen.

He takes out Darth Maul almost single handedly, he takes out General Grievous single handedly and he takes out Darth Vader (mostly) single handedly. I know what you are thinking, if he is such a bad ass why couldn't he take out Dooku in either of the two encounters he had with him? Well let me respond with this, Yoda also failed to take out Dooku as well as the Emperor so does that make him weak? The prequels don't cement Obi Wan into the Jedi hall of fame though, as his final action in episode 4 where he allows Vader to take his life is probably the most bad ass thing he ever did. Knowing his time was at an end he allowed Vader to send him to a plain of existence where he could still mentor Luke and provide him with the tools he needed to prevail. Only someone of Obi Wan's caliber could become more powerful AFTER he died and after seeing him in action in the prequels we have definitive proof that he is without a doubt a legendary Jedi master.

If we are talking characters though, without a doubt the single best character of the entire prequel trilogy is the one character no one was expecting much from, the Emperor. While Darth Vader may have been turned into a big softy with his wailing for Padme and his screams of horror when transformed from man into machine (Nooooooo!), the Emperor was the complete opposite. As far as villains go, the Emperor is at the top tier with his constant behind the scenes manipulations and the sheer joy he gets from being so dam evil, this is the type of guy you love to hate. In the original trilogy he was a much more passive antagonist who didn't show up until the final act of the final film, but here he was given a wide berth to shine and shine he did.

We aren't talking about his lightsaber battles neither, we are talking about his sinister nature and the fact that he was shown to be the main architect behind the destruction of the Jedi which was punctuated later by his destruction of the Senate in Episode 4 as mentioned before. This is the guy responsible for all the pain and turmoil in all 6 episodes and as a result, for better or worse (most would say worse), he has been revealed to be the true villain of both the prequels and the original trilogy. That would be bad if he weren't so deliciously evil but as it turns out his path to glory along with is eventual downfall is one of the single most satisfactory things you are likely to find in these films.

Here is the one single moment everyone had been waiting for ever since the prequels were announced, the death and destruction of the Jedi Order. Yes, it would have had more impact if we actually cared about all the Jedi we saw get massacred and it would have been nice had we seen more than just Obi Wan and Yoda (the only 2 Jedi we knew survived from the get go) survive the purge, but there is no denying the impact it had when we actually got to see the Emperor's long gestating plan take shape.

What really cut deep though was the idea that the Jedi were not killed (initially) by the Sith, the dirty work was done by the very same clone troopers they had been working side by side with during the entire war. This sort of coup d'etat was both sad and shocking as the Jedi weren't taken down in a glorious battle to the finish, they were defeated by their inability to see the evil that was staring them right in the face and paid the ultimate price. This made their demise a little less heroic and more of a pathetic end which may sound a bit harsh but considering how powerful they were at the outset of the prequels, getting shot in the back is kind of a lousy way to go.

The Jedi prophecy of the chosen one who will bring balance to the force could quite possibly be one of the most redeeming qualities of the prequel trilogy. Think about it for a second, the entire trilogy hinged on this idea of Anakin being the chosen one which the Jedi believed would restore peace to the galaxy and they were right, just not about the way this balance would be achieved nor who the actual chosen one was (which it turned out to be Anakin's son Luke). Nobody stopped to think that perhaps the chosen one wasn't entirely a good thing for them. In fact when you break down the statement about bringing balance to the force the writing is on the wall. The force is out of balance only because the Jedi reign supreme with no counter balance to their influence. So what exactly did they believe that statement to mean?

Anakin does indeed help fulfill that prophecy by the end of the trilogy (one of the only consistent story arcs in the prequel trilogy as a matter of fact) and it is both tragic and humbling to realize that his role in all of this wasn't simply to turn into Darth Vader but was instead always destined to be the root cause of the Jedi purge. Say what you will about the prequels failure to make Anakin into a sympathetic fallen hero, his role as the chosen one was pulled off to near perfection. This theme is actually carried over to the original trilogy as well when he eventually betrays and kills the Emperor leaving only Luke as the sole keeper of the ways of the force. Only when neither side exists is there a true balance and that is exactly what happened.

The Sith's portrayal was one of the more interesting aspects of the prequel trilogy and arguably its most successful. Not simply based on how well it was executed but also by its mostly positive impact on the original trilogy. Having prior knowledge of the Sith isn't what I would call pertinent information though, it is not needed to fully enjoy the original trilogy. Yet if you do watch the original trilogy with knowledge about the Sith it enhances the already engaging story which is exactly what the prequels were meant to do. This is one of those very rare instances where getting some backstory on previously established characters actually proved to be a good thing.

It's funny to think that not one time is the Sith ever mentioned in the original trilogy. Not a single time, but we knew who the Jedi were from the get go. This is one of the biggest oversights in the entire original trilogy if there ever were one. We knew of the darkside of the force but not of those who practiced its dark arts which just seems kind of strange in hindsight. After the prequel trilogy concluded I felt as if I had a better grasp on what a Sith lord was and their connection with the darkside which in turn gave more weight to the original trilogy. Luke wasn't just up against the Empire anymore, he was up against the two Sith lords who exterminated the entire Jedi order.

By far the biggest plus to introducing the Sith in the prequels is that we now have an established foe for the Jedi. The Emperor, Darth Vader and the Empire in general were and still are excellent villains but they are no longer the end all be all. Conquering one or all of them means nothing in the grand scheme of things anymore (which will be explored much further in the new trilogy). Some may say that all of this diminishes Luke's accomplishments by the end of the original trilogy but that couldn't be further from the truth. Luke was and still is instrumental in taking down both of the Sith lords responsible for the death of the Jedi order (something neither Yoda or Obi Wan were able to do) and that not only strengthens the argument for how important he was in the grand scheme but also gives much more weight to the act itself.

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