On the one hand, I’m not crazy enough to say that the “Star Wars” prequels are good. There’s some rough sailing there, for a variety of reasons: Lucas hadn’t directed a film in a long time, his scripts were less polished due to a lack of a strong editor…and the less said about Jar-Jar, the better. But there’s a very strong theme that tends to get lost or misinterpreted, and it’s actually pretty impressively clever–but it requires letting go of one of the big assumptions the classic trilogy gave us. You have to be willing to understand that while the Sith are the villains of the series, the Jedi are the other villains of the series.
Lots of people complained when the prequels came out that Lucas’ vision of the Jedi philosophy was sterile, emotionless, inconsistent and creepy. But this is not a bug; it’s a feature. Lucas didn’t accidentally make a Jedi code that made his heroes seem unpleasant, he deliberately made the Jedi just as absolutist and unsympathetic as the Sith, only from the other direction. The Jedi’s commitment to detachment and an impersonal “greater good” is as dangerous in its own way as the Sith’s unrestrained and unbridled passion.
Look at “The Phantom Menace”. Everyone jokes about Yoda’s decision that a nine-year-old Anakin is “too old” to begin the Jedi training. First Luke was too old, now Anakin…how young do you have to be to train as a Jedi, anyway? But the throw-away line has a terrifying implication. Anakin’s too old because he’s already had time to live life as a non-Jedi, to form attachments to other human beings. His love of his mother is seen by Yoda as a major strike against him, because if you love someone, you might be afraid to lose them, and fear is a Bad Thing under the Jedi code. One can imagine a maternity ward where the Jedi test newborns for their strength in the Force, taking away the potentially powerful forever to be raised in the Jedi temple (and possibly wiping the minds of the parents with their Jedi powers. After all, they’re “compassionate”, aren’t they?)
In Yoda’s world, love is bad. Hate is bad. Fear is bad. Anger is bad. The only emotions allowed are a sort of vague compassion and commitment to the “greater good”. The Jedi are basically raising an army of ruthless sociopaths, and calling it a positive thing–because supposedly, the only alternative is to be a violent psychopath. Even getting a little bit angry, even if it’s righteous anger against the Sith on behalf of someone you love, is the first step on the road to becoming pure evil. This is the equivalent of claiming that outrage over the Holocaust will make you a Nazi.
Anakin is torn apart–emotionally, ethically, and finally physically–by this false dichotomy. Yoda, his mentor, guru, teacher and spiritual leader, tells him that caring about the people he loves is evil and the only way to stop himself from falling to the Dark Side is to give up on Padme. On the other side, Palpatine tells him that the only way to save his wife is to give in completely to the Dark Side and become a child-slaughtering Sith Lord. There is no in-between, no give from either side, and Anakin is betrayed just as surely by the Jedi as by the Sith. Both sides insist he has to make a choice, when the correct choice is “none of the above.” When Obi-Wan says, “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes,” everyone pointed to the irony, but not many people spotted that it was intentional.
That’s what the prophecy of “bringing balance to the Force” is about, even if Lucas never bothers explicating it properly. (Hey, I did say it was a half-hearted defense. For that matter, he never explains very well who the Sith are and what they’re getting revenge for…) In the end, Luke is being shaped by the Jedi as a weapon against the Sith, not trained as a heroic warrior. Yoda and Ben don’t tell Luke that he’s about to go kill his own father because they think it might make it harder for him to do what has to be done for the greater good, and because he’s “too old” to properly learn that it shouldn’t really matter if he’s gutting his dad like a fish. When he finds out, they view it more as an inconvenience than anything else. If that doesn’t strike you as insanely fucking creepy, why not?
When Luke announces that he thinks Vader can be redeemed, Yoda’s basic reaction is, “Well, we’re fucked.” In twenty-plus years, he never once thought of trying to reach out to Anakin with even the tiniest shred of human kindness, both because it’s antithetical to the Jedi philosophy to care about your friends (and oh, the symbolism of “you have to let your friends die in Vader’s trap” in light of the prequels) and because he just never saw the point, really. There’s no redemption in Yoda’s Manichean philosophy, so why bother trying?
Luke’s final battle against Vader and the Emperor is the culmination of all six movies. When we only saw it in the light of the classic trilogy, it seemed as though Luke was on the verge of falling to the Dark Side and only barely managed to redeem himself by remembering Yoda’s teachings; seen as part of the complete picture, it’s a total repudiation of Yoda’s philosophy. Luke gets angry at his enemy, uses his attachments to his friends as a source of determination, and uses the Force for attack–everything Yoda says will drive him permanently and irrevocably to the Dark Side. (And “once you start down the path of the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny.” There are no in-betweens, remember?)
The Emperor, who’s bought into this black-and-white bullshit just as much as Yoda, says, “Now, strike him down and take his place at my side.” And Luke…doesn’t. He’s a Jedi. More importantly, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” The line is striking, in light of the full picture we see. Luke isn’t just saying that he’s not a Sith, he’s saying his father wasn’t either. Before Anakin Skywalker failed the Jedi, the Jedi failed Anakin Skywalker. It couldn’t be any clearer if he’d said, “Oh, and fuck you, you dried-up green bastard.”
Seen like that, the prequels actually have a lot of meat on them for Star Wars fans. They’re still not perfect, or even necessarily all that good, but they can be seen as “interesting failures”, perhaps even “flawed successes,” instead of the incoherent examples of excess that they seemed to be on first viewing.
Of course, there’s still no excuse for Jar Jar.