Star Wars The Phantom Menace: 15 years on

Will Amor 28 May 2014

Both The Cambridge Student and the Star Wars prequels celebrate their fifteenth anniversary in 2014. While the former is forever reaching new heights of journalistic majesty, the latter has been widely panned by critics for all but destroying the franchise, reducing Darth Vader to a whiney kid and the Force to a genetically inherited number of midichlorians. Just what have we learnt about Star Wars and George Lucas over the past fifteen years, and how will this impact on the sequel trilogy for better, for worse?

The main criticisms of the prequel trilogy are that it is devoid of artistic merit, has bland characterisations, undermines aspects of the original trilogy and serves more as a shameless money making device rather than adding anything worthwhile to the Star Wars canon. These failings of the films are explored well in reviews such as The People vs George Lucas and those produced by Red Letter Media.

These reviews are particularly valuable because they give an insight into the Star Wars franchise before the release of the Special Editions (on VHS in 1997) with which most of us will be familiar. The original films, as they aired between 1977 and 1983, are notoriously difficult to view as Lucas wished to ‘enhance’ them with CGI, by rewriting and adding scenes (most notably Greedo shooting first) and connecting them more closely with the prequels, such as by changing the spectral Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi to Hayden Christensen, who played the character in the prequels. These edits make understanding the Star Wars films difficult as stylistically the prequels are closer to the Special Editions, so recognising the disjunct, which is so clear to fans of the original trilogy, that bit harder.

The anticipointment of the prequel trilogy may have trashed the franchise and Lucas’s reputation, but what good can be extracted from the films? Obviously, there are some positive benefits from the formal qualities of the film, such as the advancement of computer animation technology and the John Williams score. However, the real lesson to be learned from the prequel trilogy is a more critical approach to popular cinema. Directors are usually lauded above any other member of the filmmaking progress: no doubt you can name many directors such as Spielberg and Cameron, but equally important are the screenwriters, editors and other production staff, whose names are largely left unknown.

This is one of the causes of the prequel trilogy’s failure: George Lucas was revered as a genius auteur who could do no wrong, so his ‘creative vision’ was not challenged, unlike in the earlier films. Moreover, while in 1977 he was dependent on the studios who would insist on creative changes, by 1999 Lucas was the billionaire owner of his own studio, modestly named Lucasfilm, so there was no longer any external pressure. While the Barthesian principle of the death of the author might be widespread in academic critical theory, it is not as widespread in the public consciousness. 

Francis Ford Coppola, who pioneered the Godfather films, has stated that the success of the original Star Wars trilogy robbed American cinema of a director who could have produced many more artistically innovative films by making him a business manager to oversee the profits of the Star Wars franchise: ironically turning Lucas into the Emperor of a corporate Death Star that he railed against in A New Hope.

Contemporary popular cinema relies heavily on franchises, such as The Avengers and Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, because they are safe and easy for studios to greenlight. However, what the Star Wars prequels have shown is that fanboys do care more about the artistic content of a film than its mere production, something which Abrams will no doubt bear in mind when directing the sequel trilogy of Star Wars.