Like most children of the 1980s, I grew up surrounded by Star Wars. Star Wars lunch pales were the rage at school. Star Wars toys, books and magazines littered my room. And the Darth Vader outfit was the Holy Grail of Halloween costumes.
Yet the most admired of all things Star Wars were the movies themselves. Amongst my peers it was agreed that these films were the pinnacle of cinematic greatness. They were spoken of with reverence and awe. And the bearded, benevolent toy maker – George Lucas – was viewed with the same enchanted wonder as Santa Claus.
Over a decade later my generation packed the theaters again, this time to see a long-anticipated prequel, The Phantom Menace. I was there opening weekend, and still recall the palpable anticipation amongst the crowd. I remember the costumes, the plastic light sabers and the thrill that our childhood dreams were returning. When the film ended, the theater broke into spontaneous applause.
Today The Phantom Menace is widely reviled. But on opening weekend it was beloved by most fans. For whatever shortcomings it possessed, this film was the beginning of something we all longed to see – the tragic saga of Darth Vader.
And that’s where the prequels failed miserably.
What Went Wrong?
To be sure, they were not terrible films. I actually enjoyed them on the level of popular entertainment. If they were stand alone space fantasies, they would have been fine. The problem is that they grievously undermine what made the original trilogy so great, which is the mythos.
The original trilogy, taken as a whole, was about the redemption of Darth Vader. Rarely has a villain penetrated public consciousness to such an extent. Beyond the costume and booming voice, what elevated Vader to mythological heights was his backstory. Darth Vader was once a great man, who experienced a tragic fall into darkness. What remained was a disfigured fusion of man and machine, entirely consumed by evil. This is the stuff of legends.
So when the prequels were announced, this is what we expected to see: the fall of a great man. The first prequel was disappointing in this regard, but we were able to forgive it. It set up the story, leaving room for two films full of the great man and his fall. And so we waited.
But the great man never came.
Instead, we were treated to the tale of a whiny, arrogant brat who continuously defied his teachers and thumbed his nose at tradition. We were expecting a wise and powerful Jedi master. Instead, we were given a one-dimensional caricature of Maverick from Top Gun, minus the coolness.
Anakin Skywalker, as depicted in the prequels, can best be summarized with one word: annoying. He is self-centered, self-serving and ultimately trivial. We just want him to go away.
But alas, he sticks in our minds, making it hard to view the real Star Wars trilogy with the same reverence. The fact that annoying Anakin was superimposed into the final scene of Return of the Jedi only added insult to injury.
What Could Have Been
George Lucas is an artist, and as such it’s his prerogative to tell the story as he sees fit. So be it. I’m reticent to tell another artist how he should have approached his craft. But in this case the error was so egregious because of what Lucas set up in the original films.
What George Lucas should have done was delivered on what he promised: the story of a great man and his fall into darkness. In doing this, he could have skipped the Phantom Menace in it’s entirety, for it served little purpose in the greater narrative. He could have centered the first two films on an intelligent, thoughtful Jedi master who was lured to the Dark Side. The third film would have then chronicled the crusade of a tortured, badass Darth Vader who traversed the galaxy hunting down Jedi. That would have been epic.
But instead George Lucas gave us something very different: the adventures of an annoying hot-shot kid who somehow inexplicably morphed into Darth Vader. When you consider what could have been, one cannot help but feel letdown.