It’s easy to list all the ways that the Star Wars prequel trilogy weakens or otherwise damages that venerable saga’s overarching narrative – stilted performances, painfully cheesy dialogue and, of course, Jar Jar Binks, possibly the most annoying pop culture creation of all time.
But hardly anyone ever mentions – or, perhaps, even stops to consider the fact – that George Lucas’s films also manage to improve upon the story of that galaxy far, far away in certain specific ways. From reinforcing key concepts or characters or significantly expanding the original trilogy’s narrative dynamics, there is actually a lot at work, even if it’s not readily apparent. Most of the footwork may be subtle and no, it may not compensate for all of the deficiencies, but it is still worth stopping and taking stock of, even if only to play devil’s advocate with nearly the whole of the fandom’s consensus.
Here, then, are the 10 Ways the Star Wars Prequels Improve the Series.
They put the “wars” in Star Wars
When the story opens in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, peace is the order of the day, thanks to the Old Republic’s 1,000-year reign. That fragile tranquility is broken, however, with the outbreak of the Battle of Naboo, but it is only a brief, contained conflict that is easily remedied.
Such a scenario might make for a limited plot – where’s the tension and inherent drama of, say, Princess Leia running for her life in a semi-permanent civil war? – but, in the grand scheme of things, it makes for an arc that is as elegant as it is simplistic. Starting with one specific battle and then slowly drawing the focus out to encapsulate a conflict that engulfs most of the galaxy (thanks to Episode II: Attack of the Clones’s advent of the Clone Wars) is a nice precursor to the state of total war that is the original trilogy’s Galactic Civil War.
Of course, the icing on the martial cake is that the Skywalker family is also revealed to be intrinsically tied to the growing interstellar strife, thanks to Anakin’s participation in the Clone Wars and Luke’s skillful efforts at toppling Emperor Palpatine and his New Order. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor, therefore, takes on a far bigger significance when Episodes I through III are taken into consideration.
They Contextualize the aesthetics of ‘A New Hope’
The brilliant designs of the original trilogy – from the look of R2D2 to the dingy cities of Tatooine to the worn-down starfighters – were always sublime, regardless of the cinematic or narrative context they were put in. It just so happens, however, that the prequels’ art design creates a frame of reference that only serves to make them more impressive: the cold, angular shapes of the Star Destroyers and X-wing fighters are rendered all the more viscerally powerful once audiences get the chance to see the organic, colorful designs that preceded them and understand what has been lost in the Galaxy
It should also be noted that the new films’ designs, while they don’t hold up to their predecessors, are something of an achievement in and of themselves (particularly the beautifully exotic planets and all their myriad denizens). The sensibility they create is simultaneously different yet fundamentally “Star Warsian,” taking a risk that most franchises – particularly those in the sci-fi genre – would easily shy away from. A quick look at everything from Battlestar Galactica to Halo, endlessly recycling the same aesthetics (and archetypes), bears this out.
They Create the universe in which ‘A New Hope’ lives and breathes
Here’s where the developments of Episodes I, II, and III really start to stand out.
Nearly every single element in Episode IV: A New Hope is somehow introduced or otherwise touched upon in the “previous” three films. The opening of the movie is the strongest example of this – the Tantive IV, Star Destroyers, the Imperial Stormtroopers, Leia, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Darth Vader, Tatooine, Jawas, Luke Skywalker, Uncle Ben and Aunt Beru, and Ben Kenobi all have a presence in the prequels – but the rest of the picture continues the trend, including Chewbacca, the Death Star, the Imperial Senate, and, even, the Millennium Falcon herself.
What’s the narrative value to such a move? Easy – the same momentum that Marvel Studios garnered by introducing each of its Avengers individually in their own films before unleashing them in the team-up extravaganza that is The Avengers. (The analogy stands, given that Lucas approached the creation of the new trilogy with the mindset that, henceforth, this would be the de facto way audiences would experience his saga.) With all the heavy lifting of exposition taken care of, A New Hope and its sequels are granted an even bigger burst of speed in their barreling down the storytelling highway – the very point of a prequel, after all.
The expansiveness of the galaxy gives depth to the original trilogy
Each of the original films contains three or four major locations that the story unfolds within. While Phantom Menace continues this trend, Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith blow it wide open, with the latter containing a whopping 12 planets – a deliberate attempt by Lucas to show as much of the galaxy as possible so that when the story hits the brakes and forces viewers to be confined on Tatooine, a planet with which they’re already well acquainted, they really start to feel the pain of Luke Skywalker’s isolation and loneliness.
Then there’s the exoticness of each planet depicted in the new movies; the visual density of Coruscant, the never-ending chasms of Utapau, and the alien beauty of Felucia stand in stark contrast to the more (conceptually and visually) simplistic, straightforward locations of Hoth, Dagobah, and Endor. It’s a nice aesthetic counterpoint to the greyer world of the prequels, where evil is bubbling just underneath the surface, and the black-and-white nature of the originals – thematically, not cinematographically – where the entire galaxy is engaged in a battle of life and death.
a better history of The Clone Wars
Star Wars fans have had many opportunities to learn the possible history of the much-fabled Clone Wars over the decades, thanks to the hypotheses floated by the likes of Marvel Comics and novelist Timothy Zahn. None, it turns out, were quite as sophisticated or narratively suave as the canonical explanation provided in Attack of the Clones: a rival political organization emerges for the first time in the Old Republic’s history, threatening to splinter most of the Republic star systems with it. With no armed forces to call its own – another intriguing touch, and another hugely divergent point from the original Expanded Universe – the Galactic Senate and its defenders, the Jedi, are forced to adopt a huge army of clone troopers… which, it just so happens, is exactly as the Dark Lords of the Sith wanted it, providing them with the very means to eradicate the Light Side of the Force.
The substitution of cartoony, super-powered Mandalorian warriors with political (and metaphysical) manipulation was a welcome one, and it provides a lesson for the new batch of Star Wars films: sometimes taking the unexpected, non-fan-sanctioned route is the superior storytelling move.
They’re more sci-fi political drama than action-adventure
Famed showrunner J. Michael Straczynski once described the fundamental difference between Babylon 5 and its spinoff, Crusade, this way: the former is a political drama with action/adventure undertones, while the latter is an action/adventure story with political and dramatic undertones.
There is actually no better way to sum up the first two Star Wars trilogies. The originals are, obviously, an adventure story first and foremost, thrust literally right in the middle of a war that leaves little in the way for political subtleties. The prequels, meanwhile, are primarily concerned with the steady degradation of the Republic into the Empire, with action and adventure only popping up in specific instances (invading Naboo, say, or starting the Clone Wars). One may be infinitely more enjoyable to watch for summer movie-going crowds, but both are necessary to not only create character and theme, but also to move the plot forward.
In this way, what is essentially a throw-away line when A New Hope was originally released – Grand Moff Tarkin’s utterance that the Imperial Senate has finally been dissolved – is now able to tap into a deep vein that is essentially a sub-genre within the saga. Rather than an offhand remark, it now references a plate that has already been spinning while all the others are still being set up.
They Give Depth to The Dark Lords of the Sith
It’s one thing to formally introduce a character or planet before he gets his chance to shine in the twin suns – it’s another to fundamentally change the nature of the story’s dynamics.
When Phantom Menace unveiled, at long last, the identity and composition of the Dark Lords of the Sith, it threw nearly everything audiences knew about Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine out the window and started over from scratch. What was once an ambiguous and amorphous relationship is now crystal-clear, which, in turn, affects all their behaviors in the films, including their attempts to out-maneuver one another, using poor Luke as the centerpiece of their efforts. It’s not just personal ambition or “Evil” that motivates these characters – it’s the very essence of their order.
And that essence, in turn, opens up a whole new can of historical revelation and political commentary. It wasn’t just the Jedi rising up and slaughtering the Sith that ended their reign of power before the creation of the Old Republic – it was the very nature of their methodology of governance, which is centered upon deception, betrayal, and murder. The true nature of the Dark Side, Lucas is telling us, is shortsightedness; it’s only by taking the long view, of helping others in order to help ourselves, that a stable government and society can flourish.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is given motivation for his actions
Going hand-in-hand with the reforging of Darth Vader’s identity as a Sith Lord is, of course, the reforging of Anakin Skywalker’s identity as an individual. Rather than being essentially an empty vessel, Vader is now a living, breathing person, with a history and character strengths and great potential for happiness along with the intense anger, inhumanity, and casual brutality. Yes, young Skywalker’s turn to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith was handled clumsily, but it nonetheless still helps to conveys Lucas’s message of the true nature of evil: not the deliberate, conscious effort to maim and destroy, but the self-centered focus of our existences that inadvertently causes harm to those around us, sometimes in quite profound ways (which can lead to the desire to deliberately maim and destroy, as is certainly the case with Anakin).
It’s extremely telling that, right in the middle of the prequels’ releases, a poster on a rather large film forum commented that, until Phantom Menace, he had never cried at the end of Return of the Jedi, when Anakin redeems himself and becomes one with the Force alongside his former comrades.
anakin becomes the hero of the trilogy
The toppling of the Galactic Empire, the death of Emperor Palpatine, and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker makes for an appropriately climatic ending to the original trilogy already, but now, thanks to the later releases, there is an extra twist coupled with all that: the resolution of the Chosen One prophecy.
It really does make for quite a mythic story arc, which is fitting, given Lucas’s influence by Joseph Campbell and his studies of ancient mythologies. Anakin is believed to be destined to destroy the Sith and restore balance to the Force, but the first half of the saga (for now, at least) ends with his being corrupted and subverted by the very evil he is supposed to vanquish. His wayward son, Luke – an individual who shouldn’t even have been born, given the tenets of the Jedi Order – then appears on the scene and becomes the last hope of the Light Side, with both Ben Kenobi and Yoda thinking that the prophecy might have been misinterpreted and will instead be realized by the former moisture farmer (or, hey, even by Leia). By the end, of course, it is revealed that Anakin was, indeed, the prophesied figure, with Luke only having to help him end his metaphysical detour.
The Dark Lords of the Sith – the main antagonists of the entire Star Wars saga to date – are destroyed once and for all, the Force is back in balance, and the Jedi can safely be reborn.
the force is accounted for
This is easily the most controversial of all the prequel trilogy’s narrative flourishes, but it’s also one that, given the strict confines of the originals movies’ storyline, makes a great deal of sense and, indeed, helps to shore up the narrative edifice that was already there.
Midichlorians are the logical extension of the biological heredity that is present in the Skywalker family, the embellished plot device that allows Anakin, Luke, and Leia – and, now, the third generation of Skywalkers that will be present in the sequel trilogy – to all crackle with sheer Force potentiality. It may not be popular, but it does provide a more in-depth look at the very entity that powers the overarching story, once again fulfilling the narrative demands of a prequel.
And that in-depth examination provides more surprising additions. There’s also the revelation that the energy field that binds the galaxy together is divided into the Living and Unifying Force (as practiced by Jedi Masters Qui-Gon Jinn and Yoda, respectively), and that its current balance between Light and Dark Sides can affect practitioners’ ability to sense or otherwise manipulate it. While not possessing anywhere near as direct a bearing on the original trilogy, they still go a long ways to addressing their developments – and, once again, painting that famous ending in a more exuberant light.
We’re aware that some of these claims might be controversial, given how people feel about the prequel trilogy, but we still feel as though there should be some room to say what went right with these films. Do you disagree? Do you think we missed anything? Let us know in the comments below!