Deconstructing the multitudinous problems in the Star Wars Prequels became a cottage industry online for much of the late 2000s. 21 years later, I still hear grown men whining about how Jar Jar Binks ruined The Phantom Menace. In truth, I’ve mostly gotten bored with this dialog. Maybe it’s a symptom of the fact that I didn’t watch the prequels when I was an adult but I never hated them. Growing up, my two favorite Star Wars films were Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi.
I can tell you I’ve definitely gone on a journey with those films as an adult…
Watching the Prequels as an adult is a different experience than as a child. They’re slower, more pondering and clunkier than I recall. My overriding nostalgia for the trilogy only does so much to keep my critical side in check in regards to their quality.
Even so, I’m still somewhat reluctant to totally abandon them. Much actual discussion remains to be had on what the Prequels were going for as artistic creations. Most people just look at them as these deformed boring slogs and don’t question the intent that was under the surface. That might not matter to most viewers who just want effectively made action movies but these movies do have a great deal of vision and meaning behind them at the conceptual level. There is a reason many younger Star Wars fans have pointed to the Prequels as examples of uncompromised Star Wars films as Disney has fumbled with several of their new films.
While it’s easy to look at these kids and dismiss the reexamination at its surface, I do think the effort is worth it. A deeper inspection of the Prequels, in conjunction with Lucas’ own interviews, shows that there was a real set of ideas and intentions behind their structure and execution. In interviews, Lucas has described the story as a morality play about how Democracies fall into tyranny.
“How do you turn over democracy to a tyrant with applause? Not with a coup, but with applause? That is the story of Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler.”– George Lucas
Politics is a major part of the prequel trilogy and it’s an aspect that’s widely disposed by the fanbase. It’s so hated that JJ Abrams and The Force Awakens went so far in it’s story as to completely ignore the worldbuilding that might inform the setting of the film and pushing aside the motivations of the heroes and villains alike just to avoid the politics of the story.
In regards to the Prequels, they’re an essential part of the core philosophical theme of Emperor Palpatine’s backstory. He only gains power by slowly manipulating his way into authority by way of the Naboo trade crisis, the Clone Wars and the subsequent assassination attempt by the Jedi. He twists the narratives surrounding these events so deeply that the galaxy praises his rise to power and Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side.
Many people would contest why this would be the foundational story for a trilogy of action movies for kids and that’s fair. The movies are intensely slow movies that make strange decisions. That said, the intention behind these creative decisions and storytelling risks points to a singular point. Interestingly enough, I think the Prequels were Lucas’ attempt to make Star Wars smarter.
Bold claim I know.
Keep in mind, George Lucas’ contribution to the original trilogy has always been a lie of history. He only directed the first film and had to have to edit ripped away from him by his editor (and wife) Marcia Lucas, Ben Burt and John Williams before the film was effectively saved in editing. The second and third film were rewritten by different screenwriters and directed by Irvin Kirshner and Richard Marquand. Lucas’ subsequent reputation in the 1980s was as a mega-producer with his name behind films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Labyrinth, Willow, Tucker: A Man and his Dream and Howard the Duck.
As will become clear, I think Lucas had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and wanted to prove to himself he could make something better than the silly action movie he originally directed. With his new trilogy, he would decide to go bigger and bolder than ever before.
When he directed The Phantom Menace, it was his first time behind the camera in 22 years. He was out of practice and didn’t want to work in the same arduous working conditions that plagued the original film while shooting in the desert. Additionally the production was burdened by the fact that he wanted to use the new trilogy to forge ahead new visual effects and digital cinematography. By the standards modern visual effects, the films looks awful. The effects are fluid and cartoonish looking with characters floating in a void of visual goo. Actors don’t know what they’re interacting with so they’re staring into walls and reacting blankly to what’s happening on screen.
That said, Lucas did do a good job forging the path that all future filmmakers would use going forward. People hated digital cameras and blue screen backgrounds at the time but now they’re integrated seamlessly because directors know how to make the actors interact with their CGI more realistically. The airport scene in Captain America: Civil War was shot entirely on a blue screen in Atlanta and you probably didn’t notice. Same with the live action remake of The Jungle Book. Those films wouldn’t exist without Lucas.
The technical benefits don’t excuse the story failures though. Rough special effects could’ve been looked over if the film’s story had been more compelling. When you get right down to it, 90% of the problems with these films come down to failures of story execution: setup and payoff, character motivation, nuances of performance, world-building errors, etc.
This is why RedLetterMedia was able to milk six hours of film criticism nitpicking these movies. You can use these films as a jumping off point for dozens of discussions about basic screenwriting and visual storytelling.
That said, intent is important. Understanding how George Lucas failed is less interesting than understanding what he wanted to say in the first place. Given all I’ve presented above about his place within the creation of his legacy and his role in founding his media empire, I think it’s fair to say he had something of an inferiority complex. He was pouring a lot of effort into The Phantom Menace took the negative reception extremely hard. These movies clearly had a specific meaning to him. He clearly wanted to overcome his doubts.
Most filmmakers have them. Most filmmakers realize they’re always in the presence of greater artists and creations than they’ll ever make. It’s likely worse for Lucas because his artistic soul was always as the weird experimental filmmaker who wanted to make art movies with his friends. He would go on to become the most commercially successful filmmaker in his generation while his friends Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola went on to become great artists with much less financially lucrative careers. From an artist perspective, I can see why that would be unsettling. I’m sure Lucas would’ve loved to be the director who made Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List or Raging Bull but instead he directed the first Star Wars film and nothing after that…
Just imagine being George Lucas in that situation. Martin Scorsese doesn’t like Marvel Movies so imagine what he and Coppola think of their friend George’s weird Ultra-capitalist pet project. Worst of all for Lucas, he wasn’t the sole visionary behind his creation. The movies got better the less he was involved in the process. Lucas had an incentive to want to create his masterpiece with the Star Wars Prequels. He wanted to make something more challenging than the light hearted space romp of the first film.
I think he looked at his three Star Wars films and said something like “I’ve made these three wonderful movies I love but they’re flawed, uneven and somewhat unserious.” Seeing that, Lucas went back to the well of his influences and decided to rush out his masterpiece: a massive nine act tragedy detailing the rise and fall of the most important villain in his original trilogy.
Keep in mind, when I say classical tragedy I don’t mean to say that the Prequels are qualitatively on par with the old tragedies of antiquity. I got in trouble on twitter a few months ago for making this point and it’s an important distinction. I just mean to say that he’s borrowing the same well of human drama and sorrow that informs those stories and character studies. The prequels even draw upon some of the elements of high melodrama, regality and swooning romance that define the works of Shakespeare. Put aside the obvious leaps in quality and prose and just consider the motifs, structures and themes.
Think about how characters are explored in classical tragic stories. Othello kills his wife because he’s been tricked into a fit of rage and jealousy by a jealous subordinate who hates him. Hamlet’s indecision and anxiety keeps him from delivering Justice to the court of Denmark and gets him and everyone he cares about killed. MacBeth is tempted with power at the cost of Murder and continues to lose his soul in the park to securing his power until he’s literally left an empty shell of a man awaiting a meaningless death. Oedipus falls into his fated prophecy and marries his mother.
Each of these stories, captures within it the space between human frailty and meaningful intentions. Character’s hubris destroys them slowly and destroys everything good in the world. In the end, these characters are marked for death by crossing a proverbial threshold from which they’re doomed to stumble and fall into their fallen natures until their consumed by them. They’re dark stories but they’re gratifying. From an audience perspective, such stories can be uplifting because the faults in these characters are obvious to us. We’re given the perspective they lack to realize where the problem was in hindsight. In the failures of these characters, we find hope and example to each ourselves the lessons that are too horrific for us to learn ourselves.
As Edmund Burke put it, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”
You see this same kind of arc in the heart of Anakin Skywalker’s journey from an innocent child to a corrupted Sith Lord. The core of his journey is the realization that Anakin never thought he was doing the wrong thing. Palpatine’s great trick on the film was to take his misgivings about the Jedi and turning them into outright villainization to the point where he could be convinced to massacre children to prevent the Jedi from taking over the Republic.
He loved peace, democracy and his immediate loved ones so much that he was willing to kill everyone else to save those things when push came to shove. Even after he’s massacred hundreds of Jedi and put an end to the Separatist leadership, he’s still staring at the torn skyline of a churning broiling lava world in tears. His soul is in tatters and the last vestige of his goodness is clinging to his hope that his evil actions can preserve peace and love. It’s only when he discovers that Padme is completely disgusted by his moral transformation that he is finally and totally lost to the dark side and crosses the line into becoming Darth Vader. The good man who was Anakin is destroyed by his own actions.
This is what Obi-Wan means by the idea that Darth Vader’s creation destroyed Anakin. Darth Vader is symbolically the dead body of Anakin Skywalker that’s been converted into a machine of evil and hatred. That which WAS Anakin is dead.
This character arc reflects the classical tragedy in structure and ambition. The execution is lacking. For one, the direction of the Prequels makes it clear that Anakin was a moody unstable psychopath from his late-teens forward. The innocence of the childhood Anakin we meet in The Phantom Menace is quickly lost as he’s faced with losing his mother twice and possibly losing the love of his life. Palpatine only needs to tighten a few screws for this guy to go FULL Hitler.
On paper though, this kind of story arc matches the tragedy format. Anakin is the good man consumed by sin into damnation. As with those classical tragedies, you can see the real life parallels that Lucas was trying to make with the story. At the time of the films release, the War on Terror was in full effect and several lines of dialog in Revenge of the Sith draw immediate parallels between the Patriot Act/Military Industrial Complex and the fear that the conflicts in the middle east were a Trojan horse to cease tyrannical power.
The metaphor though is more applicable though. For Lucas, the tragic fall of a great Jedi is clearly a story that could happen to anyone. To be a Jedi is to be trapped in a series of arbitrary moral traditions and rigid structures that oppress the soul and repress it. The Jedi’s forced celibacy rules seem to invoke real life religious rules like the Catholic vow of celibacy. Anakin only exists in his tradition because he was taken by the Jedi at a young age when he couldn’t have decided for himself and then forced into a painful and lonely life apart from the woman he’s loved since childhood.
This is why The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are vital to setting up the story of Anakin’s fall. We need to see the young innocent child turn into the confused teenager and the conflicted warrior. We need to see his attachments and why he’s willing to break the rules of his puritanical religion for love. We need to understand, when Darth Vader finally rises on the operating table, why he is so grieved for the loss of his wife.
This isn’t the end of the story of course. The classical tragedy doesn’t end on a note of pain and empty nihilism. We already know how this story ends in Darth Vader’s redemption. The audience needs to see how his failure though spawns the creation of goodness in the wake of tyranny and death. While the center of power in the galaxy is reset, the seeds of hope are planted in the farthest regions of the universe. Anakin’s two children are hidden with two families who can protect them until they’re ready to change the fate of the Galaxy forever. The ending to Revenge of the Sith thus takes on greater importance than it might’ve otherwise had. The classical tragedy needs to reward it’s audience with a sense of what went wrong and a cathartic sense of hope that the evils that created this delve into depravity can be transcended. By seeing baby Luke held up by his aunt and uncle against the twin suns, we see the seed of hope being planted.
The ending also rhymes with the core question of the original trilogy: just how deeply inclined is Luke Skywalker going to be to fall into the dark side like his father? This is a weakness that he ends up passing down to his son and grandson. Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo both end up struggling with their own temptations and the innate fear that their actions could cause the doom of everything they love. As Lucas said in some of his later interviews, Star Wars is the tale of fathers and sons and their complex relationships. If Anakin Skywalker’s story is a classical tragedy, then the subsequent two trilogies are about the ramifications of tragedy and how future generations learn to live with or heal it.
With the Original Trilogy, we come to see just how the son is able to redeem the sins of the father and bring the long arc of history to a close. Like Aeneas or Pinocchio before him, Luke would need to descend into the metaphorical den of evil to confront his father.
It’s interesting then that Anakin’s journey directly mirror’s Luke’s journey in Empire Strikes Back. Luke is told in that film that if goes against the orders of the Jedi and enters the metaphorical underworld to save his friends that he’ll be lost to the dark side or killed. Luke journeys into the wilderness like Anakin does in Attack of the Clones where he has a confrontation with the dark side that foreshadows his possibility for failure.
Eventually he confronts his father and learns the most compromising secret he could’ve learned: Darth Vader is his father. The implications of this are clear. He is made aware that his very father fell and that he came close to falling too. While he does survive their duel, he does come out with a greater understanding and fear of how close he is to falling to the Dark side like his father was. He’s deeply shaken by the truth he learns.
Thus in Return of the Jedi, there is something of a reversal. Luke doesn’t go to that metaphorical place again to defeat his symbolic father but to save him. He returns an older man who has mastered his skills. He symbolically is wearing a black suit to symbolize his position as a Jedi that is nearing the precipice of his temptation. He even force chokes the guards at Jabba’s temple for good measure.
In his approach to the Emperor’s chambers, Luke is placed in his most compromised position with the likelihood of death hovering over him. In putting his life on the line, he ends up drawing Anakin’s arc full circle and drawing out the good man who couldn’t bare to see his loved ones hurt one more time. In the heart of evil, he maintains his integrity and choses the path of the Jedi.
It is only in this moment where the good has prevailed in the heart of evil where Anakin Skywalker is reborn. The last vestiges of his adopted identity fade away in the realization that the man before him is his son who believes against hope that he can be redeemed. For one brief moment, Anakin Skywalker returns and reunites with his son in his final moments as the man he was always supposed to be. In the end, the chosen one fulfills the prophecy he was fated to all along and destroys the two remaining Sith.
In that sense, the prequels actually do add content to the series that thematically strengthens the series as a whole. There are entire schools of thought contesting all of these creative decisions of course. I don’t blame them for doing so. The films are deeply compromised works of art. That said, they are attempts at creating lasting works of epic storytelling. As always, George Lucas reached back into the well of human mythopoetic storytelling that inspired him as a young man and found a new way to expand his story into something larger and more ambitious.
Keep in mind, the Star Wars Prequels were projects that he personally produced on his own time. The guy invested $343 million into the films and developed them at his own private studio as high-budget independent films. These films were a personal risk for Lucas and he put in every dollar he could to make sure his vision was uncompromised. The only people who suffered because of these movies are the people who didn’t like them. I ultimately can’t help but think the films are admirable.
For Lucas, understanding the pain and loss that creates tyranny was important and it gave him the chance to risk his money and create something only he could create. He reframed his most enduring artistic accomplishment as the resolution to a circle of violence and tragedy that is all too real in our world.
If the prequels are a classical tragedy then the more traditional hero’s journey of the original trilogy is something of an antidote to that tragedy. A loving man’s selfish failures are redeemed by his loving son. The eternal story of mankind’s fall and redemption shrunk down to the smallest moments of failure and grace.
It’s a shame the films didn’t fully form into the modern masterpiece that Lucas desperately wanted to make. In hindsight though, I’m inclined to be more forgiving with an understanding of the kind of story he wanted to tell.
The circle is now complete!
2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker: The Star Wars Prequels as Classical Tragedy”
As a kid, I loved these prequels. All the silly things that hard core Star Wars fans hate were my favorite things growing up. My sister and I used to talk like JarJar so much it drove my mom crazy.
Watching the movies as an adult, my initial reaction was “You’re telling me we get Darth Vader simply because the Jedi don’t know how to teach a teenage boy how to deal with hormones?” But I do see the point you’re trying to make. The story line does seem to be influenced by classical tragedies, but it’s just done so poorly.
I can’t even watch the prequels as an adult. They really are bad, but I can respect the attempt that was made.
To be fair, Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ story arc was pretty much what Lucas was going on. Evidently, he had an idea the became Star Wars. I didn’t realise that making it happen was more of a challenge than I would have thought.