Defending the Prequels: Paul F. McDonald’s “The Star Wars Heresies”

This idea of the Star Wars prequels being soulless, mechanical, uninspired messes that forever tarnished the legacy of George Lucas’ original trilogy has become so prevalent among fandom that most people just take it as fact. An extremely vocal area of fandom has decreed them objectively bad films, and most people have basically complied without question. Under this reasoning, there is no point in attempting to examine them any more deeply or to even determine the exact reasons why one might have trouble accepting their contributions to Star Wars canon in the first place; again, they simply suck. Case closed.

Which is what makes Paul F. McDonald’s The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols and Philosophies of Episodes I, II and III feel so revolutionary. Disregarding popular opinion–as Mark Twain once wrote, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”–McDonald boldly charges forth with his thesis that not only are these extremely good, even masterful films, but that much of what makes them great actually went over the heads of many viewers–both professional critics and average audience members alike–often due to their refusal to engage with them on anything more than a surface level of their B-movie space opera trappings, one of McDonald’s most audacious and intriguing arguments being that the reason so many fans cried afoul that the prequels “ruined their childhoods” (the more uncouth among them said “raped”) was that, in a manner of speaking, the films were designeto do so, or at least to deliberately subvert the more simplistic, mostly black-and-white universe of the original trilogy. People weren’t prepared for an Old Republic and Jedi Knighthood that largely, unknowingly destroyed themselves, their internal rot being exacerbated and helped along by but not fully derived from a Sith Lord’s machinations. In direct opposition to the Rebels vs. Empire of the original films, it becomes awfully complicated knowing who to root for when one sees proto-stormtroopers fighting alongside Yoda.

And while many people pay lip service to the Joseph Campbellian overtones in Lucas’ writing, McDonald convincingly argues that these links aren’t just set dressing but intrinsic to the makeup of the entire saga, as well as crucial to fully understanding the prequels and their narrative purpose. Handling each film one at a time, and lucidly walking the reader through each character arc one by one, he constructs a rock-solid reading of the films, drawing on his own vast knowledge of various world mythologies, Eastern philosophies, fairy tales, the Arthurian Legend, and more, revealing a saga worked out with such meticulous thematic, symbolic, and mythological consistency, presenting his argument with such clarity, and making so much sense in the process, that one almost forgets, while reading, that the films he’s discussing are such hotly contested ones.

McDonald tackles all of the prequels’ most controversial subjects, from Anakin and Padme’s romance–which might at times seem stilted compared to the sort of screen romances we are used to but which, as he demonstrates, is extremely representative of the classic courtly romance tradition from which it derives–to Jar Jar Binks, whose–to many–irritating qualities are in keeping with the mythological role of the Fool and/or Trickster, to–perhaps best of all–the midichlorians, which he believes are likely the most misunderstood aspect of the entire saga. What makes his midichlorian defense so blazingly brilliant is how he proves that all of the evidence is right there in the film itself, if one pays close attention to the script’s exact wording, and furthermore, how he then goes on to show how a proper reading of the midichlorians’ literal and symbolic significance is crucial to understanding not only how the Force functions both literally and symbolically, but arguably how the entire Star Wars saga works. Many interpret the blending of science and mysticism to somehow strip the Force of its wonder, when it actually can make it more awe-inspiring, if looked at the right way.

And although primarily a book about the prequels, McDonald doesn’t view these films in a vacuum but will often discuss the deliberate parallels between both trilogies, as well as view each character arc in the context of the entire series. Additionally, his exploration of the links between the assorted themes and symbols within the prequels themselves is impeccable:

Early on [in Episode I], Anakin remarks that his worth as a slave is dependent on his ability to “fix anything,” an attitude that will ultimately push him into trying to fix the entire galaxy. He confidently tells Qui-Gon that “no one can kill a Jedi,” only to eventually hunt them down himself. He dreams of freeing slaves, but years later he becomes another one himself to the Sith. He promises Padme that the japor snippet he carved for her will bring “good fortune,” even as she clutches it in death. Perhaps most importantly, his mother Shmi tells him he must ‘learn to let go,’ a lesson he doesn’t grasp until the end of his tragic life.

The saga of Anakin Skywalker is, first and foremost, a classical tragedy, and McDonald analyzes it as such, examining how Lucas begins his story as a Hero’s Journey, albeit a hero who will eventually fall into the depths of villainy and the roots of whose undoing are apparent from the start in as simple a thing as his inability to not look back, but at the same time a villain the roots of whose ultimate reformation are also laid the very moment he turns to the Dark Side seemingly for good. Meanwhile, he also shows how metaphorically, Anakin and the entire Republic at large are going through the same process over the course of the Star Wars saga, the micro a reflection of the macro, and vice versa. As in the “rotten…state of” Denmark of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, corruption at the heart of the “kingdom”‘s rulers has both literally and figuratively rippled outwards, affecting everyone. The Republic had lost its way long before Palpatine took advantage of its weakness, as had the Jedi themselves.

Scholarly sound and just plain immensely entertaining to read, The Star Wars Heresies might be the greatest defense the prequels have ever received as works of art, as well as George Lucas as an artist. I have seen no anti-prequels argument composed with anything approaching the same level of intelligence, wit, generosity, knowledge of the entire Star Wars film series as it actually is and not as it’s often perceived to be, patience in handling the opposing viewpoint, and awareness that at the end of the day, Star Wars is meant to be enjoyed. McDonald’s enthusiasm for the series exudes off the page, and is truly refreshing, given modern online fandom’s penchant for the pessimistic and the combative.

I could even imagine this book, if not fully converting the more open-minded among the naysayers, at least inspiring them to reevaluate their opinion or conceding that there might indeed be more to the prequels than they initially admitted or realized. For any “heretical” fan who loves the prequels but either has had trouble articulating why or lacks the patience or breadth of knowledge to convincingly go toe-to-toe with the majority of knee-jerk fandom opinion, look no further than this book, a phenomenal, expertly researched work of film and literary criticism from someone who truly, passionately cares about and whose whole life has been influenced by Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.

[P.S. Full disclosure: Paul's been a friend of mine for years, but I'd feel the same way about this book if I happened to just pick it up on the shelf. It's honestly that brilliant.]

Purchase The Star Wars Heresies

Author: Robert Berg

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6 Comments

  1. It's all very well to say that people don't "get it", but many of these arguments I understand. A lot of people complain about the Galactic Senate stuff, but I actually think that was a smart way for Lucas to go – and to tell the tale of the Fall of the Republic. Some of these elements that Paul writes about are the reasons I have – in the past – tried to defend the films as "not as bad as you remember".

    But the problem is that while all those parallels are in there – most assuredly, that doesn't necessarily make them "good films" – whether in comparison to the original films or (somehow) taken by themselves. Yes, they are a classical tragedy – but using the tropes of a tragedy (especially in the context of a prequel) doesn't forgiven them poor dialogue, wooden performances and a reliance on CGI for everything – not least of which, to change actors' performances!

    I'm happy to listen to arguments over re-evaluating these films, but if "Star Wars is meant to be enjoyed", I'm not sure these films live up to that promise. And I don't think that a well-written academic study of what the prequels were trying to do or what Paul thinks thinks the symbols are supposed to represent fixes the fundamental problem that these films are bloated and messy, overriding the loftier goals that George Lucas was trying for.

    Post a Reply
    • The dialogue and acting are the same caliber as the previous films – it's a style that lends itself to massive amounts of cheese and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on the taste of the person consuming it.

      And while CGI was used liberally, it wasn't used as much as you think. A great many things in the films were good old-fashioned practical effects. Even when shot against a blue-screen the actors were more likely to end up superimposed against a model than a digital environment.

      I'm not saying I-III are flawless, but neither are IV-VI. In fact, much of it is the same style. If you can forgive IV-VI or see through the veneer to the depth within, then why not I-III?

      Post a Reply
    • Nah, you’re just a troll and a sheep (and actually part of the loud and vocal PT hating minority as various stats and data have shown (and I’m not just talking box office figures but also Rotten Tomatoes scores and IMDB user scores which you’ll see are more of the mixed-to-positive-reactions variety) despite what you haters like to think) that engages in negative sheeple/groupthink/echo chamber mentality and parroting and regurgitating the same unoriginal, tiring, “not as a big deal/bad as haters make them out to be” talking points.

      And honestly, what it really comes down to, is haters hating simply because the PT did not turn out to be the movies they had made up in their minds; also because the PT wasn’t like the OT in terms of look and style despite being told beforehand that they were going to be different (we were also told that the PT would be made with a new, younger generation in mind. How it is that people look you ignored this message and the former one is beyond me). And the fact that you keep complaining about them 11+ years after they came out, despite knowing that these movies are here to stay, tells me that you’re leading a sad and pathetic life full of hate, and essentially not much of a life at all as you seem gazed in spewing PT hate all over the Internet any chance you can get non-stop without having anything better to do other than to spew ignorance. Just drop it, get over it, let it go and move on as you should’ve a long time ago (and stop acting like a child that throws temper tantrums just because you didn’t get your way; better yet, stop acting like like a scorned lover who can’t get over their ex despite breaking up with them years ago).

      Maybe you would be spending your time more productively in trying to better understand why something is made the way it is instead of being wrapped up and fixated in your own egotistical world filled with a stubborn attitude and a sense of self-entitlement (where you continue to complain and keep thinking on how things “should’ve been” like some cinephile armchair filmmaker who acts like they’re an expert but are really posers).

      Always remember, art is subjective, never objective. Don’t take Star Wars too seriously (just STFU and force yourself to enjoy the ride and don’t try to apply real-world logic 100% everywhere and think that things need to be realistic all the time (after all SW is sci-fi/fantasy); otherwise, SW probably isn’t for you after all), nothing is 100% perfect nor flawless (and that includes the OT; after all, I don’t recall anyone in the OT winning Oscars for performances and SW isn’t really known for Oscar-level performances of high levels of thespian caliber. This goes as far back as the OT so yeah, stop expecting this to be like some Oscar-bait drama). Also, quit trying to assert your opinion as being “right” and “fact” and drop the ad hominem attacks.

      Post a Reply
  2. Oke, this is one of those cases where someone foolishly argues that something bad, is actually a special kind of good. The writer of the thesis actually fails to grasp that, whatever the grand underlying philosophy of these prequels, they failed to engage the audience on an emotional level pure and simple. The reasons for this have been iterated countless times: convoluted story lines, bad dialogue, bad direction, too much CGI, tone deafness, etc, etc. To say that the actual greatness of these films went over their heads, is pretty rediculous. What the author is basically saying, is that if you didn’t like this movie, it was probably a case of mass hypnosis, because it was actually good. If someone enjoyed them, good for them, but why not simply accept, that most people thought these films were at best mediocre. I have seen these films multiple times, and to me they’ve become steadily worse with each viewing. I agree with most of the critiques leveled at these films, not because I want to be part of some group of haters, but because I just think they’re pretty bad films on multiple levels. Just deal with that fact, and get on with your life.

    Post a Reply
    • Dr Dre, who sees a movie that they hate multiple times? Im sorry to inform you of this, but the movies are at their core no different from the originals. It is the same acting, the same level of emotion, and the same dialogue. I didnt think the prequels were going to be any good. I went into The Phantom Menace ready to take the film to the woodshed. But then the opening crawl appeared and described a “taxation of trades routes being disputed” , and I was charmed. If you use the same standard to judge this trilogy that you used for the previous trilogy, you must logically come to the conclusion that they are solid movies. By the way, how many movies dont become steadily worse with each viewing?

      Post a Reply
    • Nah, you’re just a troll and a sheep (and actually part of the loud and vocal PT hating minority as various stats and data have shown (and I’m not just talking box office figures but also Rotten Tomatoes scores and IMDB user scores which you’ll see are more of the mixed-to-positive-reactions variety) despite what you haters like to think) that engages in negative sheeple/groupthink/echo chamber mentality and parroting and regurgitating the same unoriginal, tiring, “not as a big deal/bad as haters make them out to be” talking points.

      And honestly, what it really comes down to, is haters hating simply because the PT did not turn out to be the movies they had made up in their minds; also because the PT wasn’t like the OT in terms of look and style despite being told beforehand that they were going to be different (we were also told that the PT would be made with a new, younger generation in mind. How it is that people look you ignored this message and the former one is beyond me). And the fact that you keep complaining about them 11+ years after they came out, despite knowing that these movies are here to stay, tells me that you’re leading a sad and pathetic life full of hate, and essentially not much of a life at all as you seem gazed in spewing PT hate all over the Internet any chance you can get non-stop without having anything better to do other than to spew ignorance. Just drop it, get over it, let it go and move on as you should’ve a long time ago (and stop acting like a child that throws temper tantrums just because you didn’t get your way; better yet, stop acting like like a scorned lover who can’t get over their ex despite breaking up with them years ago).

      Maybe you would be spending your time more productively in trying to better understand why something is made the way it is instead of being wrapped up and fixated in your own egotistical world filled with a stubborn attitude and a sense of self-entitlement (where you continue to complain and keep thinking on how things “should’ve been” like some cinephile armchair filmmaker who acts like they’re an expert but are really posers).

      Always remember, art is subjective, never objective. Don’t take Star Wars too seriously (just STFU and force yourself to enjoy the ride and don’t try to apply real-world logic 100% everywhere and think that things need to be realistic all the time (after all SW is sci-fi/fantasy); otherwise, SW probably isn’t for you after all), nothing is 100% perfect nor flawless (and that includes the OT; after all, I don’t recall anyone in the OT winning Oscars for performances and SW isn’t really known for Oscar-level performances of high levels of thespian caliber. This goes as far back as the OT so yeah, stop expecting this to be like some Oscar-bait drama). Also, quit trying to assert your opinion as being “right” and “fact” and drop the ad hominem attacks.

      Post a Reply

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