It verges on treason to suggest that the Star Wars prequel is in any way superior to the original trilogy. Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve been accused of treason. I do consider Star Wars episodes I through III to be the better trilogy, with the caveat that Attack of the Clones is without question the worst Star Wars movie of all. But taken as a story arc, the first three episodes in the saga of Anakin Skywalker are deeper, better structured and more politically astute than the original. That is also a pretty decent explanation for why the original trilogy is so much more popular.
It is probably not incidental that the Star Wars trilogy that people have embraced is the one that presents a far less complex universe. Episodes IV, V and VI reflect the Cold War milieu in which they were created, offering up a comforting us-versus-them story told in bold strokes. That isn’t to say that times have changed much; with the exception of the The Phantom Menace, the second and third installments of the prequel were released to an America that has embraced absolute views even more so than the original trilogy. The difference being that the original trilogy was a reflection of the simplistic moral perspective of the Age of Reagan, whereas the prequel trilogy stands in defiant counterpoint to the even more simplistic moral absolutism of the Age of Bush. There will come a time when it will be as difficult to find an American willing to admit to having voted twice for George W. Bush as it was to find an American willing to admit to having voted twice for Richard Nixon; the voting tallies tell a far different story. Grandchildren will hear stories about the ballot box denial of the simple comforting lies of Bush that simply aren’t true.
Another reason why the original Star Wars trilogy holds a special place in the bosom of American moviegoers that escapes the prequel has to do with the fact that we could view ourselves comfortably in place of the rebels. Americans like to view themselves as the rebels, constantly at war against an easily identified and unquestionably evil empire. So the reason most Americans love the original trilogy has much to do with placement of ourselves in the role of the inheritors of the mantle of the Jedi.
The problem is that we also find ourselves identifying with the Jedi in the prequel trilogy as well and we don’t like the face we see in the mirror. Let’s face it, the Jedi don’t exactly come off too swell in the prequel. This time around they are the guys in charge and it is painful to watch them screw it up, especially when the way they are handing over the keys to the empire is so eerily familiar. Just in case you didn’t notice in your rush to castigate Jar-Jar Binks and complain about the wooden dialogue of the prequel, the peaceful galactic republic in place at the beginning of The Phantom Menace doesn’t turn into the dark empire in place at the beginning of A New Hope due to an invasion by a foreign element. The galactic republic falls as result of due democratic process; albeit due democratic process that is manipulated through lies and deception. Again, sound familiar?
Watching the Stars Wars prequel is like a lesson in civics, specifically how even a republic peopled by representative leaders with the best of intentions can make decisions that result in disastrous policies that in turn result in devastation and the crumbling of great ideas. Yoda’s observations about anger, hate, fear and suffering are not said lightly; they may be the most prescient words spoken by a movie character in the last decade. Not much less important is another quote associated with The Phantom Menace, a quote that hasn’t proven anywhere near as memorable as Yoda’s, but nonetheless plays a huge part in the events that will follow. Chances are you don’t even remember these words of Darth Maul: “Fear is my ally.”
Nowhere in the original Star Wars trilogy is there any sequence of events nearly as profound in their application to real life as the manipulation of Palpatine as he orchestrates the separatist movement “headed” by Count Dooku, which allows him to go before the senate and ask for special “emergency powers” to deal with the growing threat facing the peace of the republic. Perhaps if America had embraced the prequel in the way they did the original Star Wars trilogy they would recognize the danger when an elected member of a representative republic asks for “emergency powers” to combat a threat.
Palpatine’s actions in the prequel are positively Machiavellian and his evil in those first three movies is far more chilling than his appearances as the emperor in the original trilogy. In those movies, Palpatine is so far removed from us we can only approach him from the perspective of a Hitler. But we must always remember that Hitler didn’t ascend to dictator by using tanks, but rather by using the ballot box. And just as Palpatine is far more chilling as a politician abusing the system than he is as an emperor, so is Anakin Skywalker far more chilling as a powerless pawn than he is as powerful Darth Vader. There is no scarier scene in the entire Star Wars canon than the one that takes place in Attack of the Clones between Anakin and Amidala when they are having a discussion about the politics of the republic, and Anakin suggests that the system is broken and needs to be replaced with something where one person in charge has the power to enforce laws he feels is for the good of the people. To which Amidala replies, rightfully, that what Anakin is talking about sounds like a dictatorship. And then these all-too-familiar words from Anakin: “Well, if it works.”
Anakin’s justification has been repeated-is being repeated-by Americans today. Too many Anakin Skywalkers exist in this country who are far too eager to give up hard-earned rights for the illusion of security. And it is the very fact that one can write about Anakin without calling him either evil or good that elevates the prequel above the original. There is absolutely element or character in the original trilogy that isn’t delineated in stark black and white terms. Episodes IV through VI tell a much happier story, one that is consistent with the birth of the American democracy through acts of rebellion by a ragtag group of people who held the moral high ground. Episodes I through III, by contrast, tell a much less happy story about how a democracy can come to an end not at the hands of foreign interlopers, but directly through the democratic process itself. More people may prefer the original Star Wars trilogy, but there is no question that the prequel is a superior work of art.