When “Star Wars” was released in 1977, it became an instant cultural phenomenon that swept the nation. Never had such a story or special effects been seen. It changed the way movies are made and what people expect from them. No one questions this and few question the success of the two sequels it spawned, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
The questions started with 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” and the two following films that create the prequel trilogy. Many feel these films lack the fun and characters of the original trilogy. They contest they were only a stunt to make money through theater attendance and the gold mine of merchandising involved with such anticipated films.
Let it be clear, I will not defend the inexplicable existence of Jar Jar Binks or the unbelievably poor casting of Jake Lloyd as a nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker. However, the prequel trilogy, I think, was met with generally negative reception due to unrealistic expectations caused by the success of the original trilogy and the cultural impact it had. Still, these films, had they been looked at in the appropriate manner and taken for what they are—a fleshing out of a beloved story and characters—could have been more fairly received.
Critics praised “Star Wars” for being one of the greatest adventures of all time, and for the simplicity of its good-versus-evil plot. It was the ultimate in escapist entertainment. As Roger Ebert wrote that the original “Star Wars” was “a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions” (Ebert 1977). The film, in other words, took elements from famous stories and put them together for the purpose of pure entertainment. Ebert also notes there is no complexity, as it is “pure narrative” in which “the characters…are so strongly and simply drawn” (Ebert 1977). George Lucas wasn’t trying to do anything extravagant or to add characters that were difficult to relate with. He took a story and threw in archetypical characters and let it play out. That the story, in fact, is so simple has lead Victor Canby to note that the “story of ‘Star Wars’ could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for the Bible” (Canby 1977). The entire film is captured by TIME Magazine which noted that its “only purpose was to give pleasure” (TIME).
As the sequels and prequels came out, however, it seems people forgot Lucas’ simple purpose. Though the sequels were generally well-received, the criticisms were already evident, as some people who saw the original for what it was failed to understand the sequel. Canby wrote of “The Empire Strikes Back” that it’s “a big, expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation” (Canby 1980). Three years earlier he noted of the original that the “way definitely not to approach ‘Star Wars,’ though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny” (Canby 1977). Tellingly, it only took three years for him to forget the point of “Star Wars” and expect too much from it.
It is no surprise that, after 16 years, many forgot the point of the series. Kenneth Turan sums it up best in his review of “Attack of the Clones” when he wrote that during the production of the original “Star Wars.”
“It meant less than zero to say you were part of ‘Star Wars’; the eyes of the world were not on the production, to say the least” (Turan 2002).
As Turan’s account suggests, expectations are almost impossible to fulfill, and at some point everyone’s expectations for these films were set too high. The change happened at different times but, as very few looked at the new films fairly, it clearly happened.
A chief criticism of the new films has to do with their dialogue. Ebert points this out in his review of “The Phantom Menace,” arguing that the “dialogue is pretty flat and straightforward … but dialogue isn’t the point, anyway: These movies are about new things to look at” (Ebert 1999). Clearly, there were some horrible lines throughout the prequel trilogy, but as Ebert said, it does not matter. Audiences don’t buy a ticket to a “Star Wars” film to listen to Shakespeare; they go for the simple story, action, and special effects.
Of Lucas’ dialogue in the original film, Harrison Ford even admitted there “were times when I issued a threat to tie George up and make him repeat his own dialogue” (TIME). The actors knew the dialogue was weak even in the original film.
At no point is weak dialogue more obvious than in the climactic scene of “The Empire Strikes Back” when Princess Leia comes out with possibly the worst line in film history. As the Millennium Falcon makes a desperate attempt to escape from Cloud City, our heroes come across a Star Destroyer, a massive ship that could tear them to shreds which is impossible not to see, and she utters this gem while pointing at it, “Star Destroyer” (The Empire Strikes Back). That is really bad; however, it goes unnoticed for one simple reason: People saw this film for the fun it was. Even the sequel to “Star Wars” was more fairly received then any of the prequels. Again, it took only three years for people to expect greatness, but still not the greatest movie of all time like they did with the “The Phantom Menace.”
The acting of the prequel trilogy also suffered harsh reviews, though some reviewers granted a reprieve to the actors due to the weak dialogue. Nonetheless, Turan notes the “stiff lines are matched by line readings so uniformly impassive that even such lively performers as Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman can’t animate them” (Turan 2002).
In the new movies, the apparently poor acting is a problem that brings everything down. It is something that cannot be overcome, so the movies are difficult to enjoy. But wait. Looking back at the originals, wasn’t the acting pretty stiff as well? In fact, based on what TIME had to say of the original “Star Wars,” which they declared to be “The Year’s Best Movie,” “the actors – the live actors, that is – sometimes felt like robots themselves” (TIME). No expectations and ground breaking technology allowed people to look past the poor acting in the original and sequels but not in the prequels because people forgot they were watching for the fun not the acting.
No actor, perhaps, has suffered more criticism in a role then Hayden Christensen for his portrayal of Anakin in “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith.” Criticized for being wooden and just showing “sullen teen rebellion,” nearly every aspect of his performance was analyzed and attacked (Turan 2002). The criticism, like much of the criticism of the prequels, is unfair and comes because people do not consider who Anakin is. He is a child, taken from his mother at the age of nine and told he is the most powerful Jedi ever. He is told, in fact, that he is the only one who can save everyone and restore balance by destroying the Sith. A person like this would likely be stiff, unemotional, and very, very arrogant. That is exactly the character Christensen plays, and it works because someone who is the prophesized to be the chosen one would believe they could do no wrong and, thus, show no feeling in their decisions or relationships.
The storylines of the prequels are also maligned by critics. Turan defines the plot of “Attack of the Clones” as “standard” (Turan 2002), while Ebert says that “The Phantom Menace” has “a plot that is little more complex than the stories I grew up on in science-fiction magazines” (Ebert 1999). Interestingly, the same criticism was made of “The Empire Strikes Back” by Canby, who wrote that it “isn’t even a complete narrative. It has no beginning or end” (Canby 1980). But again, it is not the point of these movies to immerse the audience in a smart, complex storyline. The point is to distract us from our problems if only for a few hours and show us a new, fantastic galaxy and the people who inhabit it.
Those people who inhabit this galaxy far, far away are a huge problem for critics as well. One criticized character is Qui-Gon Jinn, who Turan describes as having a “grim persona…[that] weigh[s] heavily on the current film” (Turan 1999). What Turan fails to see, though, is that Qui-Gon is supposed to be grim, as he is matter of fact about the events that are occurring. He sees deeper meaning and foreboding in the seemingly benign problems in the film. He is also used as a foil for Obi-Wan since Qui-Gon is his master and keeps a detached relationship with his apprentice. This shows, too, why Obi-Wan is keen to be close with Anakin (something that ultimately plays into his downfall) because he felt slighted by Qui-Gon for their distance. Finally, Qui-Gon’s straightforward approach was necessary for getting Anakin off of Tatooine and to the Jedi. Were he less steadfast in his beliefs, he would not have challenged Yoda and the council in their decision that Anakin was too old to be trained. As for the other characters, who recur not only in the prequels but also the originals, Ebert defends their apparent weakness in “The Phantom Menace” when he writes that “some of the characters are less than compelling, perhaps that’s inevitable: This is the first story in the chronology and has to set up characters who (we already know) will become more interesting with the passage of time” (Ebert 1999). He points out, for instance, that a character like Obi-Wan, who was portrayed in the originals as a wise old man who had gone through a hellacious war, lost his apprentice and best friend to the dark side and had been forced into hiding, might not be as interesting before all of these things happen.
In the end, the prequel trilogy was never given a fair chance because critics failed to look at them objectively. From the moment in the original when Obi-Wan tells Luke about fighting in the Clone Wars, the prequels were inevitable as an entirely different story was painted. This sense of anticipation, of course, gestures toward the real value of the prequel trilogy. It is impossible to watch the original trilogy now, after seeing the prequels, and not have an even greater feeling of the emotion of the story, for we now know who Anakin was and what happened to him.
Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan is given more depth since we have seen what the younger version experienced. In fact, every aspect of the story and every character with ties to the prequels are given more layers by the new films, as we know how and why they got to where they were when we first met them in 1977.
The original “Star Wars,” however, was a game changing movie, and since it came out, there have been so many imitations that by 1999 movie-goers had become “accustomed to wonders” (Ebert 1999). Ebert puts it best when he writes that if “it were the first ‘Star Wars’ movie, ‘The Phantom Menace’ would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough. But it is the fourth movie of the famous series, and we think we know the territory” (Ebert 1999). It is not unique anymore, and in expecting it to be as much, critics and audiences failed to watch it for what it is.
Turan truthfully claims that “we’ll never see another ‘Star Wars'” (Turan 2002). That is because we can never have the feeling of awe audiences had in 1977 and every movie wants to be “Star Wars” now and every film fails, even its prequels. But they do not so much fail as movies as they do fail at revolutionizing the industry. The original already accomplished that.
Canby, Vincent. “‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Strikes a Bland Note.” Rev. of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. New York Times 15 June 1980: n. pag.
– – -. “‘Star Wars’–A Trip to a Far Galaxy That’s Fun and Funny…” Rev. of Star Wars. New York Times 26 May 1977: n. pag.
“Cinema: STAR WARS The Year’s Best Movie.” Rev. of Star Wars. TIME 30 May 1977: n. pag. Print.
Corliss, Richard. “Dark Side Rising.” Rev. of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. TIME 1 May 2005: n. pag. Print.
Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Chicago Sun-Tribune 17 May 1999: n. pag.
– – -. Rev. of Star Wars. Chicago Sun-Times 1 Jan. 1977: n. pag.
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Turan, Kenneth. “‘Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones.'” Rev. of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Los Angeles Times 13 May 2002: n. pag.
– – -. “Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace.” Rev. of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Los Angeles Times 18 May 1999: n. pag.