There’s no denying that Star Wars is one of the most distinctive and recognisable franchises to ever reach the big screen. It’s been ingrained and at the forefront of fan’s minds even before Disney acquired the rights and set out to release a new one every year. It is beloved by the fanbase, and this is in spite of an enormous amount of hate for three of the movies (well, at least three). The three prequels: The Phantom Menace, The Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith – have been the subject of much scrutiny and hate. However in recent years there has been something of a reversal. While the loudest voice in the room is still anti-prequels, there has been something of a movement trying to paint the trilogy in a different light. Most notable is Mike Klimo’s ‘Ring Theory’ and an upcoming fan documentary “The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan’s Journey”, set for digital release later this week.
Let me make this perfectly clear before going ahead. If you like or even prefer the Prequels that is perfectly fine. At the end of the day art is subjective and what we grow up with absolutely influences our opinions and preferences when it comes to media (and well, life in general). People shouldn’t be ridiculed for enjoying a movie, but that’s the internet for you.
That being said, while stuff like the “Ring Theory” might help me appreciate what George Lucas was aiming for – it doesn’t change my opinion that the Prequel trilogy is a messy experience at its absolutely best, and a challenging watch for someone who has been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember.
The Ring theory is a long and rather complex look into the execution and nuances of the Prequel movies in relation to it’s older brothers. The theory itself is far too detailed and long to break down here, but if you’re curious you can read the full analysis here or check out one of the numerous Youtube videos on the topic. At it’s barest level the Ring Theory sets out to display that the Prequels mirror and align with the Original Trilogy in ways that many people may not have noticed or initially appreciated. This goes beyond grand sweeping parallels that are fairly surface level – many of the examples Kilmo presents is stunning in their intricacy, such as the parallel timing between two movies of a hologram appearing or tiny details that connect aspects of the Prequels and OT. The main point – that the common argument that Lucas’ prequels lacked ‘vision’ is false and blind to the bigger picture. The connections Kilmo makes are too precise for coincidence (or Sand People), but instead had to be deliberate and planned by George Lucas in the writing of the Prequel Trilogy.
Having read through the theory it definitely does make me appreciate what George Lucas was trying to achieve with Phantom, Attack and Revenge. These three movies were always meant to be watched in connection with the Originals and this kind of film-making proves that. I also certainly don’t envy him for having to follow up on a trilogy that had been nearly worshipped for twenty years. But the problem with the Prequel Trilogy is far more simple than how it connects to and reflects the first three movies.
The problem has always been at its core. Where these three movies fall down is in their basic storytelling, their writing and the characterisation from top to bottom. There are other issues too, the “everything is cgi” is always a popular one, but I think people could have easily looked past these aspects if other areas had been nailed (though it is worth stating, the special effects in the Prequel Trilogy look incredibly dated to rewatch now, far more than even the Original Trilogy when you consider the time differential). It doesn’t really matter how detailed and interconnected a set of movies might be if the story itself is just poorly told.
I actually like the base story that is laid out in the three movies. And despite the political nature of ‘Phantom’ getting a lot of hate, there’s potential for a fascinating overarching story utilising the political scheming of Palpatine. The problem isn’t in the theory here, but the execution. Stilted writing and bad pacing kill the storytelling of the first even before you factor in disappointing acting performances from strong actors like Neeson and Portman. Red Letter Media’s (LINK) in depth review presents this perhaps better than anyone. The characters have little definition outside of what they look like and what they do (compared to the clearly defined characters throughout the originals), and for a story that is ultimately about Anakin, it takes forty-five minutes for us to even meet him.
And it’s a trend that continues throughout the trilogy. Attack Of the Clones is even worse when it comes to these issues, though at least it settles into Anakin as a lead protagonist and Ewan McGreggor’s Obi Wan is far more interesting from ‘Attack’. The romantic subplot is botched, plotholes appear like flies in summer and side stories jump in and out of relevance with reckless abandon to the main story. Revenge of the Sith rights the ship somewhat, but it is still heavily flawed.
That’s not to say there aren’t issues abound with the ‘Holy Trilogy’ either, no film is perfect. But the originals get the basics right. The story is simple enough to follow but contains a surprising amount of depth as you get into it. Luke’s journey is clear and impactful. The characters may be archetypal, but they’re fun to follow and carry personality, and the world that gets built draws you in without overloading you with unnecessary information or visuals that takes away from the narrative.
The direction that The Force Awakens took is clearly influenced by the failures of the Prequels. It ended up playing it safe in order to win the longterm fans over, and while it does end up being more of a homage to A New Hope than a completely new story, ‘Awakens’ works because it nails the same aspects the original did. Simple but interesting characters on an easy to follow but fascinating story path. Throw in a near unhealthy dose of callbacks and of course it’s going to win over people like me, as well as secure the next generation of Star Wars fans in the process.
Were the expectations set too high in 1999 at the release of The Phantom Menace? Absolutely they were. But if that was the reason for the Prequel hate I think people would have come around to them by now. Hell the initial reaction wasn’t that bad – many fans left cinemas saying it was ‘good’, only to change their mind when they watched it free of the hype. And yes some people may have become ‘haters’ because of the influence of a very vocal majority. But deep down I think people wanted to like these movies – which is why they go out of their way to come up with convoluted fan theories such as ‘Jar Jar Binks is a Sith’ to try and make the movies more logical and compelling.
If less time had been spent nailing what is represented in The Ring Theory, and more time spent on crafting a compelling and well executed narrative instead – then the Prequels may not have suffered the way it did. The fact that ‘The Machete Order’ can exist, which completely removes one of the movies, and improves the storytelling present across the six movies is baffling. But the truth is very little is lost when Phantom Menace is taken out of the equation.
In spite of my issues with the Prequels, I don’t hate them. I struggle to watch ‘Phantom’ and ‘Clones’ when I periodically marathon through the series (a prospect that’s getting very scary with all the new movies inbound), but they bring enough to the table that I can’t dismiss the three movies completely. And for as much hate as George Lucas receives, I do think he should be applauded for taking certain risks with the movies (and The Ring Theory perhaps grants him some leniency), but in his grand vision for a near biblical form of storytelling, he made critical errors in some of the basic elements of story – the kind of errors a better support team could have made clear to him rather than blinding agreeing to everything he said with some kind of fervent reverence.
Will “ The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan’s Journey” change my mind? Probably not. I’ve seen many attempts to defend the Prequels and while it’s great they enjoyed them, it doesn’t hide the issues that – for me – prevent them from being ‘good’ movies. But it’s important to understand why the Prequels work for some people and don’t for others. A little understanding never hurt anyone.