For a purely affectionate visual tribute to the films, please visit The Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which will be posted an hour after this essay.
I grew up with Star Wars, like many others in my generation, and went through a period of obsession with the original trilogy, about four years before the prequels were unveiled. Aside from the entertainment value, and aside from the verve and imagination of the films themselves, I was fascinated by both the mythic scale of the storytelling and the devotion to detail that George Lucas displayed. In the latter case, I loved the sense of place and character cultivated by Lucas, so that an entire world seemed to continue offscreen. I also enjoyed tracking down the various backstories in the spin-off media, or else imagining these backstories on my own. As for the mythology, this was the powerful framework within which the films and the spin-offs could doodle: the Star Wars saga ignited my imagination by uniting both large-scale and small-scale storytelling. It was at once larger than life and filled with a sense of the lived-in.
The borrowed and cobbled mythology of the trilogy drew on numerous sources of course, but in referencing Greek tragedy, Roman history, and Eastern theology the saga was not just playing "me too", it was tapping into the rich stream of resonance, using these inspirations to get at the core experiences and ideas to which we eternally respond. For all the lavish special effects and straightforward drama, there remained a sense of the "offscreen" in the Star Wars films, a sense on which they thrived. This existed not just in the Hero's Journey archetypes which could be read into the work, but in terms of the work itself: the fact that the trilogy occurred in a declining era, on the margins of a vast universe. Its chronology ("Episode IV - VI") unfolded in the aftermath of a golden age, and its action often took us to the hidden nooks and crannies of the galaxy, the ice- or desert-world margins of a vast universe.
Eventually, with Return of the Jedi, the action was no longer so marginal: we saw the evil Emperor up close, and the buried Oedipal strains came rearing to the forefront in epic lightsaber battles. The climactic outcome was no less than the destruction of a galactic order and the redemption of that order's most evil enforcer. Still, if there was no longer so much "offscreen" there remained the rich, mythic, hidden history of everything we see: what Darth Vader was before he had become a black-clad supervillain, how the galaxy functioned before the Empire subjected it, what exactly the Clone Wars consisted of. This melancholy sense of nostalgia, infusing especially the original film, was best cultivated when all these mysteries remained hidden, yet of course one always hungers to kill the goose for its golden eggs.
In 1999, Lucas did just that. With his prequel trilogy he laid out in (often excessive) detail who Anakin Skywalker was, what the Old Republic looked like, and just how exactly the Clone Wars came about. With these revelations, it was inevitable that some of the magic was to be lost, but we can't just pin the widespread disappointment on inevitability. Lucas' particular presentation also frustrated many viewers - what had once seemed archetypal now seemed pedantic, what had seemed larger-than-life now embarrassingly overblown, what had seemed suggestive and creative now excessive and literal. I saw The Phantom Menace numerous times in the theaters (it didn't hurt that I had a crush on Natalie Portman) but never bought it on video and couldn't shake the sense of not quite getting what I was looking for, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise. By the time the next couple movies came out, I went to the movies, found myself increasingly satisfied with each episode, and promptly forgot about them. In this, I was like many other people for whom, after all the hype, the prequels landed like duds, only making us appreciate the originals all the more, longing for our lost sense of wonder in the process.
Yet there's still something there, and if I can't count myself a fan of the prequels, or even an especially unqualified admirer of the third and most successful of them, they are worth re-examining. The notes which follow are cursory and fragmentary, a couple paragraphs on each film, based on my reflections after watching all six films close together. This exercise, which I had eagerly anticipated when the prequels were announced, was something I lost interest in once I realized how uneasily the two trilogies sit side-by-side, in terms of storytelling, style, and spirit. Yet I finally set up a viewing of the whole saga over a few days, several months ago. My inspiration was Bob Clark's in-depth, enthusiastic review of Attack of the Clones (he has already written a piece on The Phantom Menace, and one on Revenge of the Sith is supposedly in the wings). If you want a real meaty examination of these movies, please visit Bob's work. My musings here are brief, and their primary purpose is to serve as a more skeptical, analytical flipside to the bit of mythologizing I am indulging in with "The Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker." While the tragedy of the fallen Jedi shines through in individual images, it doesn't quite play for me watching the movies themselves. Here's why (among other observations):
The Phantom Menace
I have seen no Star Wars film - indeed, no film period - more times on the big screen and yet The Phantom Menace remains my least favorite Star Wars film. It reduces the grand mythology of the saga to petty bureaucratic squabbles, renders the characterizations (already broadly drawn) in near-cartoon form, and in numerous ways effaces the sense of a vast, intricate, universe in favor of a CGI-cluttered merry-go-round spinning to the tune of "it's a small world after all." It has the boy who grows up to be Darth Vader building C-3PO and meeting R2-D2, as if we're playing an incestuous round of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which everyone can be connected in multiple ways in a few steps. The whole fun of the first Star Wars was in the way this ragtag hodgepodge of characters wound up together - but Phantom Menace renders this excitement moot by linking them all from the get-go. Prequels are already going to suffer from a sense of the inevitable, but Lucas exacerbates this here. He even places little Anakin Skywalker on the same isolated desert planet that his restless son will yearn to escape years later - apparently in Star Wars, all roads lead back to Tatooine.
What's tiresome about all this is that it makes the prequel, rather than its own entity, a limp puppet of the original movies. But when the film tries to cut its strings, it fares no better. Its story, about a trade dispute, is without interest, its comic relief tiresome, its attempts at fresh mythology labored and resolutely un-magical. The Phantom Menace finds itself at once too dependent upon the original trilogy and too dim an echo of their charms. One senses that this chapter in the saga was not very necessary, that perhaps it should have served as prologue to Episode I rather than its entirety; and that Lucas and his collaborators were mostly interested in experimenting with new effects and setting the stage for their later adventures. Perhaps this is why the digital effects, groundbreaking for the time, now seem so aggressively artificial. The final battle, between two armies entirely composed of animated creatures, plays like an extended and not-very-interesting video game, in which the viewer has no control and must passively watch the synthetic graphics cascade across the screen. The result seems to be essentially test footage disguised as a feature film.
The Phantom Menace, if approached without any knowledge of or interest in the Star Wars saga, can perhaps be enjoyed as a mildly engaging swashbuckler, though even then Jar-Jar Binks, muddled political intrigue, and excessive computer animation often intrude on the entertainment. Perhaps its best defense is as the calm before the storm, the deceptively lightweight intro which plants the seeds for the richer melodrama to unfold. Rather than view the past as a golden age, it sees it as a comfortably mundane reality, later romanticized and idealized in an era which actually contained a stronger pathos and energy. Seen in this light, Phantom Menace is the obligatory small beginning from which great things can emerge. That said, "obligatory" is hardly a sterling commendation.
Attack of the Clones
Some hold this to be the worst of all Star Wars films, but in many ways it's an improvement on Episode I. For one thing, George Lucas has improved as a director. He had not stood behind the camera for over twenty years prior to The Phantom Menace; in which time the intensely cinematic auteur of THX 1138 had been reduced to rather unimaginatively staging long sequences of dialogue with sundry whirligigs hovering about the frame in vain attempts to import life to the proceedings. But Clones, shot digitally, is less blocky than Menace, and its first few scenes hum along with a verve and energy Episode I could never summon. It also helps that we're entering a darker, richer world along with our protagonist. Most of the action takes place on the city-world of Coruscant, the only planet to emerge in the prequels with any real force of personality (perhaps because, in films which mostly eschew natural settings for digital ones, Coruscant is the only one which is supposed to be manmade).
There's also some enticing intrigue, with a few overt nods to noir. Here the movie, with its dabbling on the dark side and premonitions of political chaos, has a chance to fashion an intriguing narrative that can stand on its own two feet even while engaging with the three pre-existing myths of the prequel universe: the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, and the Fall of the Jedi. Yet, like Phantom Menace, Clones falls prey to irrelevant and uninteresting storylines - the first half is absorbing, but the movie grinds to a halt when about a dozen successive climaxes convulse and demolish its initially intricate development. Even more unfortunately, the film drops the ball on the only storyline that really matters - Anakin's slow march to the dark side and that black suit. Hayden Christensen's performance is monotonous and embarrassing, and Lucas' dialogue is as sorry as his direction of actors. The romance with Padme is destroyed by terrible lines, wooden delivery, and Hallmark-y mise en scene. The aborted reunion with his mother and subsequent vengeful indulgence play more effectively, but we've already been so distanced from the characters that its effect is somewhat muted.
The problem here is that lingering sense of the "obligatory." Both Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are haunted by necessity, and constantly strive to prove themselves in a way the original trilogy never had to. Lucas doesn't seem up to the dramatic challenge, and so romance dissolves into cheap cliches, foreshadowing appears rote, and digressions come off more like evasions.
Revenge of the Sith
By far the best of the prequels, and the only one that feels necessary to the myth. Indeed, of all six Star Wars films, this is the one most reliant upon the central thread (Anakin's trajectory from Jedi to Dark Knight and eventually to redeemed, weakened old man). This proves both its strength and its weakness. On the one hand, this devotion to the grand tragedy gives the movie a sense of purpose sorely lacking in Episodes I or II (which, in the interest of effective storytelling, should have been either eliminated or reduced to an introduction for Episode III). The action has a centrality and weight non-existent in any other Star Wars movie, and the film is surprisingly up to the challenge in most regards.
Just as Lucas the director of Attack of the Clones was light years ahead of Lucas the director of Phantom Menace, so Revenge of the Sith glows with a rich palette and crackles with a narrative economy that Lucas seems to have finally re-discovered. The movie is not plodding at all, and six years after The Phantom Menace, that's a major accomplishment. What's more, particularly in silent, purely visual passages where clunky dialogue is not expected to convey all of his ideas, Lucas manages to summon up the emotional catharsis and turmoil we've been starved for so long. Ironically, this occurs not so much in the literally explosive battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor the final transformation into Vader, however iconic. It is embedded earlier in the movie, when the shift towards evil is entirely interior; all the more reason to applaud it. Finally, the saga seems ready to assume the mythological mantle it has been eyeing for three films.
On the other hand, if the film suffers from this burden, it's because it can't exist without the mythology. In this way, it is the reverse of the next film, the original Star Wars, which spawned the mythology but exists as a masterpiece entirely on its own terms. There's simply no way to approach Revenge of the Sith on its own; even taken as the fall of an arrogant, troubled young man it needs the knowledge of what comes later (the cool malevolence of Vader, the similar restlessness of his son) to give it power. And, as with all the other prequels, the film is hindered whenever it opens its mouth - in particular, constant references to "younglings" completely mitigates the powerful shock greeting our hero's murder of children, and a climactic "Nooooooooooo!" is an embarrassing introduction to Darth Vader, no matter how one tries to spin it. Ultimately, whatever its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the linchpin of the saga's mythology: its reputation must rise or fall on the importance of that mythology.
A New Hope
Ironically, it is the fourth "episode," the first film in the whole series, which makes me question that very importance. After all, there is no tormented father-son relationship in Star Wars, the good/evil divide is simplistically binary (unlike in Revenge of the Sith, where it is rich and provocative), and the movie's predominant mood is not serious mythologizing but infectious, boyishly enthusiastic good cheer. That the movie works so marvellously, and is in many ways more satisfying than any other in the saga, makes one wonder if the mythology isn't more of a burden than a gift. One loves Star Wars not because of its place in the overall story (Vader is, for all intents and purposes, a supporting character) but for reasons entirely irrelevant to this.
Watching the movie as the fourth episode in a six-part saga only reinforced this impression. Immediately I was taken out of the "bigger picture" (which had just been amplified to the nth degree in Revenge of the Sith) and thrust into a simpler, purer pleasure. This may be due in part to the film's reputation, and my own experience with it, so that it becomes impossible to see simply as a chapter in an ongoing tale. But I think the film itself entails this response, so that even a viewer unfamiliar with the context of its release (say, a child experiencing all six films for the first time) would feel something is out of place here, that somehow Episode IV does not logically flow from Episode III.
The difference is not only in tone and narrative focus, but in style. In some ways, this is justifiable. Both the time period and the subject matter of the prequels entail a different approach than Star Wars'. The prequels take place in the center of the action, at a time of unity, however crumbling, and peace, however precarious (the Clone Wars occur mostly offscreen, between Episodes II and III). As such, it seems natural to indulge sweeping, fast-paced visuals and an aesthetic focused on centrality rather than ephemera and diversion. And yet - the world of Star Wars is so stark in comparison to the prequels, its scenes at once less bustling and more lived-in, that the transition comes as a complete shock. The slick digital effects and fast cuts of Episodes I-III simply don't exist in the same universe as the sturdier models and mattes, the more classical shooting style of the original and best Star Wars.
That said, the Special Editions (which I'm not fond of in most respects) do make the original trilogy seem more of a piece with the prequels - particularly in the case of the first movie, which received the most extensive reworking (and which probably needed it the most to look "up-to-date"). In addition to the cosmetic changes which make the trilogy seem sleeker and more digital, there are dramatic insertions which tie the old films into the new. Among them...
The Empire Strikes Back
...The replacement of Clive Revill with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor in Episode V. Revill's performance was more imperious and restrained than McDiarmid's cackling, hammy turn, which made its debut in Return of the Jedi and was reprised in the prequels. Still, in terms of tying Vader's obsession with Luke Skywalker to Vader's own fall from grace years earlier, McDiarmid-as-Emperor works wonders. Indeed, overall Empire Strikes Back is a return to the Star Wars mythology, and well it should be as it basically invented said mythology. It did so at the risk of taking itself too seriously, and thus losing the joyous, reckless sense of carefree gusto which powered the previous film - but it's hard to see any other path a sequel to Star Wars could have taken. No follow-up could ever re-capture the magic, best then to invent a mythology.
What we have here is a refocus on the essential drama of Anakin/Vader as opposed to the adventurous charms of our universe (in Star Wars, the story essentially serves as an engine to explore this wonderful world Lucas has crafted, whereas in Empire the story is clearly and emphatically in the foreground). Ultimately, because in 1980 Lucas (or at least Lucas and his screenwriting collaborators Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, whose input is questionable) was a more adult writer than in 2005, and because he was not constrained by obligations to a 25-year-old scenario, Empire Strikes Back is the most comfortably mature Star Wars film. Irvin Kirshner's direction may also contribute a great deal to this maturity - certainly the actors are more comfortable with him than any other Wars director. He also seems less interested in paying constant tribute to favorite films and stories than Lucas; Kirshner allows the story to unfold more or less on its own terms.
My opinion and impression of this film have fluctuated over the years. Initially, when I was a kid, it seemed a bit cold and grey - I preferred Return of the Jedi with its nonstop action and Wagnerian climactic confrontation. Later I warmed up to Empire's impressively dark atmosphere; it's probably the Star Wars film most suited to adolescents, with moody visuals and a feverishly haunted worldview. Eventually, clothing the Star Wars universe in self-serious adult garb seemed to me a slightly foolhardy gesture, and my affection returned to the more lighthearted spirit of the enterprise, now best conveyed to me in the original Star Wars. And yet recently returning to the film to grab screen-captures, I was impressed anew with its gorgeous visual palette and the genuine drama it manages to wring from its space opera. The duel between Vader and Luke, capped with one of the most famous revelations in cinema history, still has the power to awe and intimidate its audience - The Empire Strikes Back certainly can't be discounted.
Return of the Jedi
Next to Revenge of the Sith, to which title it bears a not-even-slightly coincidental resemblance, Return of the Jedi is the most essential keystone in the Star Wars mythology. Like Sith, Jedi thrives on an acquaintance with the bigger story. I first saw it at a summer camp when I was about eight years old. Never having seen the other Star Wars films, I was left out in the cold by the movie's self-assured, waste-no-time intro and as the kids around me cheered the arrival of each familiar character onscreen, I began to despise the movie. Later, after familiarizing myself with its universe, it was for a time my favorite.
In most aspects of its story, Jedi is rather weak. Jabba's palace is good, decadent, Orientalist fun. But the rescue of Han is still a bit smug (maybe it's the lingering aftereffects of that camp viewing), the Ewoks are as silly if hardly as bothersome as their reputation suggests, and all the space battles have a been-there, done-that feel. Richard Marquand does not impress us with a unique outlook on the universe as Kirshner did; he's there to deliver the goods, and it's impossible to imagine how David Lynch - Lucas' first choice - would have squeezed himself into the paradigms the screenplay permits. Yoda, whose comic presence livened up Empire after a shaky start, is here reduced to a brief cameo; meanwhile, the reveal that Leia is Luke's sister begins the trend of tying up every loose end, a trend which would climax with Anakin inhabiting Luke's home planet and building C-3PO from scratch.
And yet, I like Jedi, and find it a satisfying conclusion to the saga because the father-son drama pays off and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the most important part of the mythology next to his fall, manages - through some miracle - to work. (I can't explain why it's possible to read conflicting emotions into a frozen black mask which physically looks no different in the last scene than in any other, but it is. Perhaps it's the lighting, the cutting, or the composition - or perhaps David Prowse, who inhabited the cumbersome costume, was a better actor than ever given credit for, imbuing each slight movement with a calculation and gravity.) Watching this sequence, in which McDiarmid's wickedly over-the-top performance is both a campy delight and a dramatically effective touchstone, I'm always brought back to the Wang Center in Boston, 1993.
That spring my father took me to see all three films on the big screen (the prequels still existing only in some never-never-land of fevered Star Wars fans' fervent wishes). It was a few years before Star Wars' great revival in the mass media, and half a decade before the Special Editions would make theatrical screenings of the saga de rigeur. As such, this was a special occasion - and it was treated as such by everyone in the audience, greeting each character's first appearance with the appropriate applause or booing. (I've only had one audience experience as memorable as this in a movie theater: attending the 20th anniversary re-release of Scarface in Times Square, a very different audience greeted the film with standing ovations, playful calls-and-responses, and throaty cheers when Pacino capped particularly egregious foes.)
As the third and final film reached its conclusion, with Vader looking back and forth between his son and his master, finally breaking out of the role he's played resolutely for three films, the whole theater broke out into thunderous acclamation. This was a moment of supreme catharsis, enabled by the cultivation of a mythos, an identification with the characters onscreen, and a hidden history. It was with this moment in mind that I always hoped to view the entire saga as one singular piece, a monumental work documenting the epic rise, fall, and redemption of an antihero, unfolding across detailed worlds, amongst intricate subplots, over decades of transformation, and against the backdrop of a galactic conflagration. As I found myself disappointed with the late entries in the grand mythology, and perhaps as I grew up in general and began to suspect that Star Wars was perhaps not the best vessel after all for this sort of epic tragedy, I drew away from this desire.
Yet it never disappeared completely. And if, after my recent viewings, I can't say I achieved this ambition entirely, I did come closer to it. While I don't think the six films can ever play as one complete story - partly because of the prequels' limitations and compromises, partly because creating history after the fact was always bound to be a doomed gesture - I'm glad I took the opportunity to approach that synthesis. In the end, the full saga will continue to play out in the only place it ever could, well offscreen: in our imaginations.
Postscript: I see that, while at least fleetingly mentioning almost every other Star Wars character, I inadvertently ignored Chewbacca. Well, what do you want me to do, give him a goddamn medal??