Opera is an art form that comes with a certain amount of prestige attached, to the point that we often forget that, amid all those gorgeous arias, the plots to most operas are silly beyond belief. The Star Wars prequels seem to have suffered the opposite fate. They’re only known for how silly they were, and anything beautiful about them has been lost to memory. This is all a long way of saying that the Star Wars prequels, space operas that they are, might deserve a little more credit than they generally get.
No, the prequels aren’t as good as the original trilogy. Part of the disparity is due to issues of quality and coherence, but it’s just as much a symptom of the fact that they just aren’t comparable stories. If the original trilogy is a space opera, the prequels blow that framing up to biblical proportions. They’re on entirely different scales. That level of ambition, of course, is part of the problem, as there’s only so much that can be packed into three movies. The degree to which the story had to be pared down leaves behind a narrative that’s relatively slipshod, but what remains is fascinating, akin to the way skyscrapers seem to stretch on endlessly as they disappear into a heavy fog. The prequels were meant to be epics on that kind of grand scale; the idea will likely horrify, but perhaps they would have fared better in the style of old Hollywood epics, as large and as lush as possible with an intermission thrown in.
I love the Trade Federation plotline. I love everything with the Galactic Senate. I love podracing. Some of my affection for the prequels can probably be attributed to my age at the time—there was very little that I didn’t find entrancing, and podracing in particular was an absolute thrill—but the denser material of the story is something that I’ve only become more fascinated with as time has passed. I can recognize the relative failure in execution, but for me, it’s outweighed by the sheer ambition of it all.
John Williams’ score is perhaps the best metric by which to assess what was meant to be. The music for the prequels borrows bits and pieces from the original trilogy (“He Is The Chosen One,” in The Phantom Menace, features a variation on Darth Vader’s theme to foreshadow what happens to Anakin Skywalker), but it also veers in a decidedly different direction. “Duel of the Fates,” easily the most famous cue across the three prequels, is more akin to classical music than it is to classical film scores. In composing for the prequels, Williams said that he intended to create something “more mysterious and mystical and less military” than what he had composed for the prequels, and “Duel of the Fates” is the pinnacle of that effort.
The story driving the prequels—the fall of a democratic republic and the political machinations, big and small, that caused and allowed it to happen, plus a combination of Faust, the fall of Lucifer, and The Last Temptation—is the sort of thing that operas and other such epics have been written about. “Duel of the Fates” is the blood of it. Just try listening to it and, say, Verdi’s Messa de Requiem or Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana back to back. They’re all cut from a similar cloth.
The prequels were always going to be a little strange. (And, yes, this is extending clemency even to Attack of the Clones.) “Space opera” is a genre term that we’ve come to accept by this point, but even a moment’s consideration makes it difficult to ignore just how incongruous those terms are. To wit, all space operas are, to put it kindly, a little crazy. The Fifth Element, which features an actual alien opera singer, and Valerian are among the wildest films in recent memory. Granted, Star Wars isn’t going for exactly that level of lunacy—it’s a little more serious, overall—but that framing may make Lucas’ acrobatics make a little more sense.
Again, this isn’t to say that it all works perfectly. There are essentially two prongs guiding the prequels, and one ultimately wins out instead of allowing for a balance (somewhat ironically, given the raging battle between dark and light that carries throughout the series). Those prongs are the larger political story, and the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. A need for focus on the latter ultimately crippled the entire affair—Padme once played a much larger role, which makes sense given the emphasis that was placed on her political status throughout the series—and there are too many star-wipes and too much bad dialogue to be able to completely ignore what’s gone wrong. But how often do you see a project so ambitious?
To that end—and at the risk of heresy—the prequels are more interesting than at least two of their current counterparts, The Force Awakens and Rogue One. They’re not necessarily better movies, as The Phantom Menace in particular suffers from regressive racial politics and stumbles as it attempts to remain kid-friendly (Jar Jar Binks does not bear mentioning), but they’re attempting something new. Admittedly, I’m using the same, somewhat incompatible metrics by which I compared the original trilogy to the prequels, but speaking as broadly as possible, the degree to which the prequels have been maligned seems unfair. 2017 has been a graveyard of failed reboots and remakes, but for all that the prequels suffered through a critical and popular lens, they can’t be lumped in with the rest of the failed franchise entries. They’re not a rehash of what’s come before, and they’re arguably the closest we’ve come to what a “space opera” should be.