Happy May the Fourth! I‘m what you might call a reformed Star Wars Nerd, so in honor of Star Wars Day, I thought I’d present my official entry in the “TEH PREQUELS = SUXORZ” genre. I’m not generally one to gripe about the way the series ended up, I’ve made me peace. But I thought I’d offer my perspective.
As a kid, I was so into Star Wars I devoured dozens of Extended Universe novels. I flew my make-believe X-Wing in hundreds of Death Star runs. Every note of the score to Star Tours is burned into my brain, and I can quote Captain Rex verbatim (“I know this is probably your first flight and it’s… mine, too, ha ha).
There are a few reason why I still really love the original films, but there are two big reasons why I fell out of fandom and into the sobering reality that is being a critical reader/viewer.
The first is found in the EU. I read everything from The Truce at Bakura to the Thrawn trilogy (Timothy Zahn FTW) and well beyond, though my favorite as a kid was the Jedi Academy trilogy (had a thing for Daala, Kyp Durron, and the Sun Crusher). But somewhere in the bowels of the epic cluster of character-obliterating goofiness that was the New Jedi Order series, I had an epiphany. These books, all of them, were completely ridiculous.
I know, quelle surprise. But it’s an important step to take if you’re a young scifi fan. The realization of the disparity in quality from these novels and say, Dune or Clarke’s Space Odyssey, both of which I read around the same time as NJO, was one of the biggest steps I took towards being a writer. Knowing not just what is good and bad, but why something is good or bad, is huge. It took a while longer for me to ponder out the reasons why I kept coming back to those Star Wars novels in the first place. (More on that below.)
The second moment that Star Wars really lost me came in 2005. I know, you were expecting me to say The Phantom Menace, but neither that nor Attack of the Clones slew my inner Jedi. I wasn’t happy with either, but I wasn’t yet cognizant of why they were such colossal failures. There was enough to distract me (space battles, lightsaber battles, Duel of the Fates, Natalie Portman) that I could simply sink back into the books and carry on.
No, the most egregious moment of the entire saga was the very last scene of Revenge of the Sith.
The Republic has fallen, the Jedi have been slaughtered, Anakin is now Vader, and Obi-Wan and Yoda are now in exile. Obi-Wan flies to Tatooine to deliver the infant Luke to his only living relations, “Uncle” Owen and “Aunt” Beru. (Side note: Why the hell would you hide Luke in what amounts to Anakin’s home town? You don’t suppose that sometime in 17 years, Vader might swing by? That he might catch wind of some kid with the name Skywalker and not put two and two together? Really??) When Obi-Wan arrives at the Lars homestead, Owen ignores him and stares at the binary sunset, and after taking the baby, his wife joins him. Cue Force Theme, iris wipe, credits, and my naive, narrative heart shattering.
I’ve heard that scene described as the best thing about the prequel trilogy. I can understand why people would be fooled into thinking that is true. The reason they do, I suspect, is because the scene directly references what might be the best scene in the original trilogy. In case you need a refresher, its embedded below.
To understand why the last shot of RotS is so awful to me, I have to explain why I think the above is the best thing in Star Wars. Indeed, I have identified that scene there as the reason why this silly science fantasy had such a hold on my younger self, and in many ways, my current self.
The Hero before the Journey
We see Luke’s emotions (important: see, not hear via dialogue). He is alone, trapped somewhere he doesn’t want to be, little hope for the future, longing for something bigger and grander. Luke is us, the audience. There isn’t a single person who hasn’t felt something like that in their lives. The scene transcends genre – Luke could just as easily be looking at a single sun setting over a desert on Earth.
And thinking in Hero’s Journey terms, this moment comes at the same time as Luke refusing the call. He’s just heard a life changing message and dismissed the task to deliver it as beyond his power. How many of us have been presented with an opportunity that we’ve had to turn down because of the weight of responsibilities? All of that is crammed into this character’s head, and all of it shows through.
The Sound of Destiny
George Lucas owes John Williams big. I’m talking, half of that $4 billion Disney dished out big. Because without John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra. The Binary Sunset theme, also called the Force Theme, among other names, is one of the most memorable musical pieces in any movie. It does the leg work in this scene, filling the gap where dialogue is absent. You can find a great analysis of this simple, but by no means simpleminded, theme here.
The real crux of the franchise, what drew me in and sustained deep interest for decades now, is the Force. It’s this unknown, magic Thing, mysterious and powerful. This scene, and specifically the music that accompanies it, reverberates throughout the rest of the film and the trilogy. The Force is what’s behind the plot, the pull of fate that drags Luke into the story and changes him from farm boy to Jedi Knight and hero. The music recurs when Obi-Wan tells Luke about the Force, during the Battle of Yavin, and afterwards in the victory celebration on Yavin IV. It reappears with Yoda on Dagoba, and even in Episodes I and II, and several points in III.
And it is the reason I hate the last scene in Episode III so much.
Why? There are certainly worse scenes in the prequels. Hell, there are worse things in Return of the Jedi than this one scene. Why does it bother me? Because it’s the culmination of all that went wrong with Star Wars. The prequels established a story around Anakin Skywalker (who didn’t appear until the second act of the Episode I… because the story is about him I guess?), making the entire saga about Anakin/Vader. Okay, fine, I think that was a mistake, but a ‘saga’ is typically centered around families, so the term is apt here.
The greatest thing about Star Wars isn’t Vader’s story, however. It’s the intangibility of the Force, the mystery behind it, and how its machinations led to a thrilling Hero’s Journey, an elemental struggle of good and evil. The Binary Sun Redux isn’t about any of that. The characters with the most face time are two of the least important players – within 10 minutes of their death Luke is over it, and they are never mentioned again. Does Owen’s wistful look at the setting suns portend this destiny? It echoes a moment with great meaning, and derives its importance from that reference, not the preceding seven or eight hours of story. It hinges on our feelings of Episode IV, and especially on that piece of music.
But the content of the scene, and the content of most of the trilogy, relates to the events of the Better Trilogy only through a couple of character names and our collective nostalgia. More than anything, it helps to show that Lucas did not understand why the originals were so impactful. We didn’t need to know where the Force comes from, we didn’t really care about Vader’s childhood, or the baffling details of the Clone Wars. They thought we did, apparently, because that is the movie we got. But we don’t care about those things, because they aren’t what made the original story interesting.
You know who else didn’t really care about those things? George Lucas.
Here’s how the prequels were written. George sat down at the computer and wrote a list of all the things in the original trilogy that would have been around twenty years earlier in the timeline. He then wrote down any questions or details left unanswered or untold. This list then formed the basic framework of the prequel’s story. Anakin as a kid? Check. Obi-Wan as his Jedi Master? Check. Someone to give birth to Luke and Leia? Check. Kill off all the Jedi and make Palpatine Emperor? Check. Insert a few random new characters to get dead, some settings and set pieces to ‘dazzle’ the audience, and wham bang there’s a cool couple billion.
All of it, the whole enterprise, comes down to how much people care about what’s happening on the screen. When Luke looked up at the sunset and the music swelled, I cared. When Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru did, I didn’t.
Have you had a similar fandom-crushing moment? Or is there something that keeps you coming back no matter what? Comment below!