The Prequels Strike Back won’t change opinions about the prequel trilogy, but it makes for a fascinating deconstruction of the movies.
The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan’s Journey is a documentary that chronicles Star Wars fan Bradley Weatherholt’s quest to fully understand the maligned prequel trilogy and George Lucas’ approach to making The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. With Lucasfilm’s Disney era set to get underway with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, Weatherholt thought it would be interesting to examine the saga’s past before its future becomes the dominant point of discussion. Encountering several fans and film scholars along the way, Weatherholt must “unlearn what he has learned” as he tries to look at the franchise like never before.
The perceived shortcomings of the prequels have been well-documented by this point, but in recent years more light has been shined on their various merits. Starting with the question “where does Star Wars begin?” Weatherholt attempts to illustrate why the entire series (and not just the original trilogy) has value, showing his audience how the prequels relate to old filmmaking techniques, take cues from writings on ancient mythology, and revolutionized the industry for the greater good. His goal is to view the prequels from a different point of view and see why people feel the way they do about them.
Being a documentary, The Prequels Strike Back will appeal to a specific audience (Star Wars fans), but given the subject matter, it should have a wide appeal. Weatherholt is smart about the way he handles his film, never pushing an agenda (i.e. “this is why you’re wrong about hating the prequels”) and instead taking the role of curious observer, talking to several people about the divisive films. The Prequels Strike Back won’t change opinions about the prequel trilogy, but it makes for a fascinating deconstruction of the movies. Those who approach it with an open mind will find enjoyment in Weatherholt’s odyssey.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the comparison to the reaction of the prequels with the initial critical reception of the original trilogy. Today, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are seen as great films, but at the time of their release, they were ridiculed by some professional pundits who saw them as nothing more than kids’ movies. Even today, the 1977 original barely registers on the BFI’s list of the greatest films of all-time. Nobody makes the case that the prequels’ reputation will change in a handful of years, but the anecdotes are amusing to hear. The only difference, of course, is that by the time the prequels came around, fans of a certain age shared the opinions of the critics. It’s pointed out numerous times that those who saw the prequels as kids tend to view them positively, posing the tricky query of who the intended target audience of Star Wars is.
As one would expect, much time is also spent on George Lucas and some of the most common complaints about the prequels (namely, the writing and the acting). Using Lucas’ claim that he is the “king of wooden dialogue,” as a launching point, several interview subjects explain how his directorial style prioritizes the audio and visuals over the dialogue. Lucas was heavily influenced by the works of silent filmmakers, and used those methods as a template for Star Wars. There’s an interesting juxtaposition where some of Jar-Jar Binks’ hijinks during the climactic Battle of Naboo in Episode I are revealed as homages to classic slapstick comedies. The problem there, obviously, is that the sensibilities and tastes of modern audiences have changed since then, but Lucas was never trying to update his approach for the current age. From the beginning, he was trying to bring the older techniques to his audience. Even the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia bears resemblance to the witty bickering of 1930s on-screen couples.
Again, nobody in the documentary is accusing those who didn’t like the prequels of “not getting it,” these are simply the perspectives of cinephiles and film scholars analyzing Lucas as a filmmaker. Lucas’ fondness of mythology is also covered to great extent, which includes the now-famous ring theory proposition, in which the various parallels between the films (everything from visual cues to musical tracks) are detailed. Some detractors will remain skeptical that this was indeed Lucas’ intention going in, but it’s hard to deny that there are big coincidences showcased. Whether or not this encourages the viewer to think of Lucas as a storytelling genius is up for individual interpretation, but like most things in The Prequels Strike Back, it makes for a neat discussion.
One of the more overlooked elements of the prequel trilogy is how it advanced moviemaking technology, and Prequels Strike Back makes sure to give this topic its just due. Attack of the Clones was the first major feature film to be shot entirely on digital, and it popularized that format to the point where it became very cost-effective. In fact, Weatherholt was able to make his documentary because of Lucas’ efforts to promote digital video production. Other parts of Lucas’ legacy, such as his creation of companies like THX and ILM, and his pioneering of nonlinear editing are also touched upon, underlining just how important a figure he was in this industry. He opened the door for so many aspiring filmmakers, and there is a sense of appreciation for what he’s done present in the documentary.
In the end, The Prequels Strike Back is a great watch for Star Wars fans and serves as a refreshing discussion on the prequels. Though Weatherholt leans more to the positive side of the spectrum when it comes to the three films, he doesn’t outright take a side in the debate. The documentary understands why some people disliked the movies, while also explaining why others love them. It finds a happy medium between the two, and shows that even if the prequels may not have been the best executed works in the 21st century, there was a certain method to Lucas’ madness and he was toying with some neat concepts. The soundbites here may not give “the haters” the nudge they need to give Episode I another try, but no matter how you feel about the prequel trilogy, it’s worth checking out this documentary.
The Prequels Strike Back will be available digitally on September 14, 2016 on VHX, Amazon, and YouTube.