Don’t worry, I’ve not lost my marbles. Just hear me out. It’s a commonly accepted currency that the Star Wars prequels were a bit of a shambles. Marred by questionable writing and an even more questionable choice of actors, seasoned fans of the timeless science fiction classic were left dissatisfied and newcomers were left decidedly confused. But despite its failings the prequel trilogy has one important strength, and that is its function as narrative.
What fans expected, and what George Lucas set out to achieve, was a consistent chronology of events set in the pre-Empire universe that explained Anakin Skywalker’s rise to prominence and gave a significance both to the efforts of the Rebel Alliance and to the endeavours of Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy. Lucas touched on something big with the prequels, and to start with it all comes down to the fundamentals of Star Wars lore.
The Jedi of the prequel period are an oligarchical, militaristic conservative faction with an unshakeable doctrine of beliefs, relatively unchallenged and highly ubiquitous. Their stoic, restrictive code of behaviour demands total devotion to the point of self-ostracism, and they tolerate little or no influence from outside their ranks. The Sith are redoubtably libertarian, accepting neither oppression from above nor social obligation. Their philosophy is introspective and self-centred, with the ultimate objective being personal gain and freedom.
These two apparently antithetical approaches to a philosophy of being are both problematic: such is the nature of extremism. The original trilogy deals with them in a very black and white manner, but the prequel trilogy makes the exciting suggestion, sadly underdeveloped, that the lines are never as clear as they seem.
The main problem lies with the petulance of Anakin’s character, we don’t like him because he is whiny and flat. If he had been written as a man utterly torn between these two equally controversial ways of life, rigid discipline on the one hand and unmarked freedom on the other, how thrilling would it have been to watch the events of the prequels unfold? To see him raised as a Jedi, granted influence (for all his bleating he does enter the highest ranks of the order with his seat on the council) and the power that comes with it, then tempted by Sidious into casting down the Jedi in favour of a freer, more ostensibly egalitarian government. To see him stricken between the two not only because of the effects it may have on him, Padme, and their unborn children, but for the wider society as well. To see him broken down by the weight of that decision, made all the more potent because of his various allegiances (to Obi-Wan, to Padme, to the Republic, to himself, etc), would lend such gravity to the finale and to the original trilogy.
Another crucial thing that the prequels are slightly more successful with (though it could have been made so much more emotive, as we see in the fantastically edited video below) is the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan. The prequel trilogy is as much about the former as it is about the latter, so let’s break down the finite details of it.
Obi-Wan as mentor and Anakin as pupil develop an intense bond that stretches far beyond mere friendship. What makes this relationship one of special significance is Obi-Wan’s obligation to Qui-Gon Jinn not only to train Anakin but to see him flourish as the Chosen One. Their closeness coupled with the weight of the burden placed upon Obi-Wan’s shoulders is what makes Anakin’s betrayal, in a corrected prequel trilogy, so utterly harrowing. Obi-Wan watches as his talented and beloved student murders his comrades in their sanctified temple, twisting himself into a monstrous form dripping with malice and hatred. Further, Obi-Wan is horrified not only by the atrocities Anakin commits but by the fact that he can see the conflict in Anakin, can feel his torment and his knowledge that what he is doing is wrong. That in itself makes stopping him all the more difficult, and their battle on Mustafar becomes an absolute climax of tortured emotion for both parties. Years later, an aged Obi-Wan is haunted by his failings, a shell of a man dogged by lost decisions whose only solace comes in being struck down by his former apprentice who he no longer recognises.
The prequel trilogy done right could have made the Star Wars saga a more mature, nuanced piece of film. There are, of course, numerous permutations that could have been made, endless tweaks and modifications that fans, many far more learned than I am, have suggested over the years. Ultimately we can’t change what has already been committed to cultural memory, but we can wonder and think “what if…”.