I frequently forget that there are tons of Star Wars fans who saw the prequels not as the embittered adult I was, but as kids, who were primed for Naboo and pod races to be their formative experiences just like the Tatooine and trench runs were formative for me.
Even when I’ve been able to acknowledge that, though, it hasn’t made me actually like the movies any more. I’ve been stuck with the least charitable interpretation possible: they’re the product of someone who is an indisputable genius at world-building, and at re-interpreting and building on film genres so that they don’t feel like simple homages or re-hashes1The film noir influences on Attack of the Clones are still about the only thing I genuinely like from that movie, and of course at assembling teams of the most talented filmmakers in the industry — but was either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the scripts and pacing were undermining all that work and turning it into a mess. As a result, all three of the movies have some standout moments (the pod races and the Duel of the Fates in The Phantom Menace in particular) that never coalesce into something that resonates.
But! This video from Ben Chinapen (frequent editor of the Mr Sunday Movies videos) is the first defense of The Phantom Menace that’s convinced me to reconsider it at all.
In particular: I was one of the big, angry, adult nerds who was extremely put out by the whole business about midichlorians2And Anakin’s virgin birth story, for that matter, which is somehow even less tonally appropriate, but somehow didn’t generate nearly as much nerd rage. To me, it seemed to violate everything that makes Star Wars what it is: it offers a pseudo-scientific explanation for something that not only needs no scientific explanation, but is actively undermined by one. It retroactively undermines the universality of the first trilogy, reminding you that it wasn’t actually a story of plucky underdogs overcoming powerful fascists, but a story about princesses and heroes who inherited their places in the story. (Which is something Rian Johnson tried to counteract in The Last Jedi, before that got stamped out in The Rise of Skywalker).
Even worse, it added a creepy layer of eugenics on top of that, suggesting that it wasn’t just fate that was calling these heroes into action, but actual biological differences that made them better suited to be heroes than commoners like you and me.
Again with the least charitable interpretation: Star Wars seemed to say that even a young person who was really into cars and spaceships from an out-of-the-way place like Modesto I mean Tatooine could answer a call to adventure and be capable of great things. The Phantom Menace seemed to retcon that into saying that that young person was predisposed to greatness all along. It felt like another case of a talented person achieving success and then making art to assert that their success was no accident, or even the product of hard work, but the result of their being “born better.”
But what if I were overthinking it, and being unfairly uncharitable? One thing that only became clear after years of nerd rage was that George Lucas doesn’t take Star Wars as seriously as fans claim to.3I admit I’ve also been gullible enough to take Harrison Ford’s “grouchy old man who hates Star Wars” character seriously, instead of recognizing that he’s basically doing a bit. What if Lucas wasn’t as obsessed with building onto the universe as I’d assumed, and was instead more interested in using this set of movies to explore a different set of ideas? Not just exploring new methods of making movies with 21st-century technology — which was always evident in the prequels, even to the angriest fans and the people least impressed with all the CGI and green screens — but in using this framework of fantasy science fiction based on old movie serials to present a different set of parables about universal themes of good, evil, and responsibility?
If you’re not as fussed about “canon” as the people making fan pages and wikis — in other words, if you don’t care as much about how Star Wars “works” as you do about what it “means” — then the midichlorians can exist almost purely as metaphor. Then, as Chinapen suggests, the entire first movie is about interconnectedness and interdependence. It actually becomes the opposite of my initial interpretation. It is, unexpectedly and more than a little confusingly, a story about a “chosen one” destined to change the nature of the entire universe, that rejects the whole notion of a chosen one. It asserts that we’re all influenced by each other, and that we all rely on each other.
I still don’t think the movies are all that deep, and I honestly can’t say that I like them that much more now than I did before. But I am starting to suspect that I was coming into the prequels with arrogance, and so much of what I found to be muddled and “anti-Star Wars” in them — why are they talking about interdependence in one scene, and then in the next scene asserting that our heroes are heroes because of cell parasites that let them do magic? — isn’t necessarily the result of poor storytelling, but my own assumptions about what these movies are supposed to be.
And I mean, that’s on me, because Lucas warned us all way back in 1980 that Anakin’s story was going to be a tragedy. But now it seems less like “a bunch of random and occasionally contradictory things that happen and then end badly, all because the conclusion of the story was already written 20 years previously,” and more like a consistent through-line. The key moments that turn Anakin into — spoiler! — Darth Vader are the result of everyone around him telling him that he can do anything.
Palpatine’s whole scheme of corruption works, not just on Anakin but the entire Republic, not simply because he’s secretly an evil wizard, but because he knows how to manipulate people’s desire to do the right thing, and their desire to have control over things outside of their control. Meanwhile, the Jedi are telling Anakin that he alone has a special gift as prophesied by the ancients, and also that personal attachments are a weakness that can be manipulated, instead of a strength. Maybe if he hadn’t spent his whole life getting such bad advice, he wouldn’t have become convinced that he alone is the arbiter of right and wrong, and he wouldn’t have flipped out and murdered a bunch of Tusken Raiders and children. Who’s to say, really?
Again, none of this was ever hidden in the movies; it just never made sense to expect that level of dramatic irony in a series so dependent on farting and slobbering aliens. That’s why I appreciate Ben Chinapen’s video so much: it hasn’t turned me into a fan of the prequels, but it is a good counter to the whole notion of “Star Wars is just for kids, stop taking it so seriously,” which is too often used both as a condemnation and a defense. (And has been since 1977). Like it or not, the whole series has become one of the most ubiquitous and most accessible set of stories there is. Even people who don’t take it seriously, or even like it, still have it as a cultural touchstone. That’s why it’s worth interpreting and re-interpreting.
That’s also why it’s reassuring that such a ubiquitous cultural touchstone that’s so important to so many people can be interpreted to have a more positive and consistent philosophy. It’s not just a story about genetically gifted space wizards fated to save the universe, that also gives occasional lip service to the “interconnectedness of all things.” It’s a set of parables about the nature of good and evil and our responsibility to be agents of good, not only by answering a call to adventure, but also by recognizing that no matter what our talents are, we’re all a small part of something greater.
- 1The film noir influences on Attack of the Clones are still about the only thing I genuinely like from that movie
- 2And Anakin’s virgin birth story, for that matter, which is somehow even less tonally appropriate, but somehow didn’t generate nearly as much nerd rage
- 3I admit I’ve also been gullible enough to take Harrison Ford’s “grouchy old man who hates Star Wars” character seriously, instead of recognizing that he’s basically doing a bit.