The Accidental Masterpiece

In several days, the newest Star Wars film will hit cinemas across America. Quite naturally they will be interpreted primarily from the perspective of those refighting the culture wars surrounding the last Star Wars sequel film, The Last Jedi. I do not write to discuss TLJ however. Instead, I am here to speak about the prequels. On social media I have been incrementally assembling a fan theory – “headcanon” – that the prequels are in fact an accidentally subversive masterpiece. “Accidental” because they succeed in spite of George Lucas’ direction and screenwriting rather than because of it. “Masterpiece” because they end up being unexpectedly relevant to our times as black farce rather than tragedy. I will attempt to explain what Lucas tried to do, how he failed, and why his failure was unintentionally a work of staggering genius. Lucas set out with a monumental task: explain the fall of the Jedi-led Republic and the rise of the Sith-dominated Empire. To do so, Lucas made Anakin Skywalker – later to become Darth Vader – central to the story.

It seemed like an obvious choice. Anakin, a bright star seemingly destined for greatness, could symbolize in his decay and corruption the manner in which the old order fell. Lucas drew from historical sources as diverse as old Rome and Weimar Germany, and also as time went on sought to make the prequels relevant to contemporary post-9/11 debates about security and foreign policy. The stage was seemingly set for an epic saga as culturally iconic as the original trilogy. Fans eagerly awaited it. To be fair, this would have been a challenge for even the most brilliant cinematic auteur. But by the late 90s Lucas had lost much of what had allowed him to make crowd-pleasing and critically acclaimed epics. I could elaborate but the most important thing he lost was constraints. Rich, powerful, and no longer hobbled by studio overseers, Lucas’ worst instincts found no check. He had more than enough rope to hang himself.

The result was utterly farcial. The first prequel movie, the Phantom Menace, shocked Star Wars fans by presenting them with a mishmash of podracing, trade policy, Jar Jar Binks, and “midi-chlorians.” But Lucas was just getting started. Over the next two films, fans painfully discovered that Lucas’ ambition far exceeded his grasp. The end result was something much too ridiculous to be taken seriously. The immense and often bizarre flaws of the prequels – such as the idea of a fantasy universe with sentient robots but primitive at best understanding of human female reproduction – became objects of mirth rather than tragedy. Campy lines like Palpatine’s “its treason then” and “I am the Senate” were transformed into the Star Wars equivalent of poorly translated Japanese videogames. The Expanded Universe could make the Clone Wars (the period the prequels depicted) meaningful in ways the prequels could not, but they did not and could not redeem the prequels themselves.

Some prequel fans, perhaps like Russian cynics, can only relate to the prequels ironically. Their utter campiness and crappinness is a badge of pride. And Prequel Memes – which remixes out of context quotes and images from the series – are the most culturally influential way fans interact with the prequels today on the Internet. To enjoy the prequels as a part of the Prequel Memes community, one must make the prequels material for ironic memes rather than enjoy it at object level. And in doing so, Prequel Memes made possible a different reading of the prequels themselves as accidentally subversive and brilliant rather than abject failures. That reading makes the prequels akin to Burn After Reading with lightsabers, a place populated by pompous and inept people that believe they are taking part in a grand struggle rather than a hysterical, knee-slapping boondoggle. People who are unable to hear the audience laughing in the background as they confidently recite Lucas’ atrocious dialogue and schlep through Death Star-sized absurdities and plot holes.

In other words, the characters of the prequels are like Lucas himself, striving for greatness but actually settling on incompetence of biblical proportions. This is, of course, actually much more powerful than what Lucas originally intended. Because instead of seeing a great civilization descend into darkness, we instead glimpse something far more shocking. A decaying social order that is faced with a mortal threat to its survival and can only summon weaklings, sycophants, and fools in its defense. As I will note later, there is unexpected relevance to this indignity today. The Jedi are bumblers that can barely keep track of little things like purchases of clone armies (a social media correspondent compared their reaction to that of a parent trying to account for suspicious iTunes bills on the family credit card). Everyone talks about sex like little boys waxing poetic about how to avoid cooties. Discussions of more serious topics are scarcely different.

The failed aesthetics of the film, like its narrative, unintentionally provide fuel for the subversive reading. The special effects of the original series once commanded awe. Now, in watching scenes like a computer-generated Yoda hopping around like a rabbit injected with lethal quantities of ADHD medication and crack cocaine, their degenerative quality compels laughter. Epic battle sequences were once impressive in the original series. In the prequels they resemble in their anarchy, confusion, and herky-jerkiness an underpowered PC stuttering through a Skyrim game with too many mods loaded. Lucas, always somewhat prone to campy characters intended to amuse children and sell toys, reaches new lows with the design and mannerisms of Jar Jar Binks. But yes, let’s talk about Anakin. How does Lucas handle him and his critical romance with Senator Padme Amidala – later the mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker? You will not be surprised to observe that he botches it in every way imaginable, but that he does so in a manner that allows the prequels to grasp at the sublime.

Anakin is a whiny brat with hilariously dumb political views (his answer to conflicting preferences is to force people to agree), bizarre hang-ups (ask him about sand), and a habit of throwing amusing temper tantrums (“it’s outrageous! it’s unfair!”). Padme Amidala is a beautiful airhead who listens to Anakin confessing to murdering an entire tribe of sand people and then marries him. Only to be shocked, shocked when she learns later that he massacred Jedi children (at least several people have remarked to me about the rather obvious real-world parallels this evokes). Moreover, due to unfortunate contradictions between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (Natalie Portman was in her late teens in Phantom Menace and Jake Lloyd – replaced by Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones – was a preteen even if their characters were 14 and 9 respectively) as well as unintentionally creepy dialogue (“I’ll always think of you as the little boy I met on Tattoine”) their relationship has…problems. Perhaps Senator Amidala should be banned from the Theed Mall.

Throughout the entire prequel arc the major characters remain oblivious to the inherent insanity and inanity of the mess they are in, repeating pompous platitudes as the situation spirals out of control. The only person who sees the damn silly thing clearly is none other than Senator Palpatine – aka Darth Sidious. Ian McDiarmid is virtually alone in the prequels cast in rejecting a “straight” reading of Lucas’ script and instead aggressively hams up every scene. His now infamous “Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise” monologue is the closest thing Star Wars has to a Richard III moment (“now is the winter of our discontent”) in which the villain speaks directly to the audience about his diabolical scheme. When he discusses how the titular Sith lord could “save others from death but not himself” McDiarmid can barely restrain his arrogant smirk and turns what might be a chilling story into instant meme material. The climax of the prequels is therefore the moment in Revenge of the Sith when Palpatine reveals himself as Darth Sidious and forces Anakin to choose between the dark side and the light side. Appropriately, it is a moment that Lucas intended to be era-defining but lapses into raw farce in spite of his intentions.

Having received word of Palpatine’s true nature, Mace Windu and a squad of Jedi arrive to arrest Palpatine for treason. Windu briefly exchanges words with Palpatine before the latter lets out a bizarre screeching noise, does a ninja jump attack, and slices up Windu’s Jedi escort. Windu and Palpatine fight, with Windu gaining the upper hand by reversing Palpatine’s force lightning. Palpatine shrieks out in pain, though in a way more reminsicent of Rick James after being kicked by Charlie Murphy than a dying supervillain. In comes Anakin, who sees Windu and Palpatine struggling. Both call on Anakin to help them. Windu tells Anakin to extrajudicially execute Palpatine (“he’s too dangerous to be left alive!”) in order to, somehow, restore the rule of law and order. Palpatine promises Anakin that he can help save Anakin’s pregnant wife – which he has taken in defiance of Jedi protocol (people in this universe are scared of sex) and fears will die in childbirth (as I said, people in this universe really have problems with sex). So Anakin aids Palpatine in murdering Windu. Later, Palpatine fights Yoda, cackling “I HAVE WAITED A LONG TIME FOR THIS…MY LITTLE…GREEN…FRIEND.” Did you expect him to have anything more serious? He’s about to open a can of whoop-ass on a super-empowered gremlin.

For the rest of the movie, the prequels drive clumsily to their logical conclusion. Anakin physically attacks Padme after Obi-Wan Kenobi secretly follows her to his location. It is unclear whether he suspects that she cheated on him with Kenobi or Kenobi cheated on him with Padme (the bromance is strong). Obi-Wan Kenobi infamously warns Anakin that he has the high ground and Anakin should not try to attack him. Anakin, in the opposite of what was a good-faith attempt to sound menacing, whines “YOU UNDERESTIMATE MY POWER” and then leaps at Kenobi. He totally fails, gets sliced up, and then is fried in all of the dubious glory of late-Lucas special effects. Finally Padme dies in childbirth and the medical robot – the pinnacle of in-universe science and technology, can muster a diagnosis no more sophisticated than “for reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.” Very advanced technology here, right? This series of events, which occur in rapid succession, demonstrate the entirely unintentional genius of Star Wars as black farce. And it would be impossible without the gap between the kind of story Lucas wanted to tell and the only kind of story he was capable of telling.

Everyone is incompetent. Any attempt at establishing dramatic presence or emotional stakes is ruthlessly undermined by sheer campiness and a level of absurdity that requires repeated readings of French existentialism to even remotely appreciate. No one except the bad guy gets how ridiculous and stupid it all is. And this is what gives him power, because he is unburdened by the idea that the Republic, the Jedi, or anything else really is capable of arresting the decline and fall of a stagnant and corrupt political order ruled by the Peter Principle and “functional stupidity” rather than the Light Side of the Force. At the end of this journey, it is easy to see how the Sith could triumph over the Jedi. Frankly anyone with a pulse could! The entire structure is a recursively scaffolding collection of jenga towers, each stacked on top of the other and teetering on the edge of collapse. Here we see how Lucas accidentally captured the zeitgeist. The world of the prequels is our own, though perhaps we could not see it back then as clearly as we do at the end of 2019. Its absurdities are our absurdities, and in laughing at it we really laugh at ourselves.

Like the world of the prequels, our institutions are in a state of terminal decline and decay. They no longer command deference, instead they inspire mockery and resentment. Every day on television, news, and social media we see a similar cast of bumbling, feckless, and faithless characters as we did in the prequels. They too are unable to hear the laugh track in the background, and their utterances are consumed and reproduced as material for ironic memes. Ironic consumption – a community of people “in on the joke” – is necessary due to the frightening alternative of taking the utter dysfunction at face value. Many of the participants – like Lucas – want to see the drama in existential terms. They compare it to the 1930s, evoking imagery of people fighting against totalitarian enemies. In reality it is a sad, depressing, and above all else silly farce. The person who is having the most fun – President Trump – is the one who refuses to admit that any of it really matters. I am not saying that we are doomed to decades of tyranny (punctuated by occasional firings of a giant superlaser against arbitrarily selected planets). The Space Force has no Star Destroyers. But the prequels – unlike the sequels – are one of the few major fictional epics that capture our era even if we have to read them counter-intuitively to do so. It is, after all, not a story the Jedi would tell you.