I don’t hate the Star Wars Prequel films. In fact, I’ve likely watched Episodes I, II and III more than I’ve watched the original films and certainly enjoyed them as much. There, I’ve said it: I love the Prequels. Roll the comment thread vitriol.
Hatred for the Prequel trilogy in Star Wars fandom fascinates me, though. It’s a fait accompli in intelligent circles – a last acceptable sweeping condemnation. “Those terrible Prequel films,” one academic friend recently called them in passing, as if The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were one dysfunctional organ within the Star Wars body, threatening the health of the whole and subject to removal without a second opinion. Yet their removal would leave us with a Star Wars that looks like Darth Maul at the end of The Phantom Menace: sliced in half. Like it or not, the Prequels are an essential part of Star Wars story-telling.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not uncritical. The Prequels’ use of ethnic stereotypes to portray characters meant to be “exotically other” (think Newt Gunray, Jar-Jar Binks and Watto) is distractingly offensive, even if it wasn’t meant that way. And sure, Lucas went overboard on the CGI effects. And yep, there was bad acting (flanked by very, very good acting) as well as bad directing.
But there is one criticism of the Prequels I’ll always push back on: their focus on politics. Many fans felt bored or overwhelmed by the films’ heavy political narrative. Whereas the original Star Wars film’s opening crawl tantalized us with “rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base”, and princesses “racing home,” having stolen “secret plans,” The Phantom Menace’s opening crawl speaks of “turmoil,” “taxation,” “blockades” and endless “debates.” It was a change of tone many fans didn’t favor. Though politics may not be as exciting or sexy as rebel spaceships racing around, still we must attend to the politics of the Prequels, for it is these films’ source of power. Although the Prequels ostensibly tell the story of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall, they also tell of the rise of one of fantasy’s greatest tyrants: Emperor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious. Palpatine’s rise is not violent at first. In the Prequels, his is a politically-maneuvered ascent, which uses the fear and insecurity of the people and the crushing bureaucracy of democratic rule to establish absolute tyranny.
1999’s The Phantom Menace begins with a game – not the one Chewie and Threepio play on the Millennium Falcon, but a bigger, much darker game, played by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. He has pitted the greedy Trade Federation against the Galactic Senate – of which he himself is a member – in order to seed division and fear in the galaxy. Filmically, the “menace” of The Phantom Menace was Jar-Jar, but narratively it is Sidious, whose back-to-back holographic appearances in the film’s opening scenes – first as Sidious, then as Senator Palpatine – slip us a clue to the riddle of the film’s title.
At Sidious’ command, the Trade Federation’s droid army invades peaceful Naboo, attempting to hold Queen Amidala hostage, terrorizing her people until she will sign a treaty which legitimizes their occupation. Young Obi-Wan’s instincts serve him well when he has “a bad feeling about this”. Qui-Gon too senses that something more sinister lurks behind the scenes, citing the lack of logic in the Federation’s stunt. So why does Trade Federation Viceroy Nute Gunray listen to Sidious, agreeing to perform his dirty work? In Star Wars and History, Tony Keen avers Sidious’ pseudo-religious position as a Sith Lord gives him political authority over the Federation, just as the title or chief priest, or pontifex maximus, gave Octavian political clout in Imperial Rome (132). This correlation is corroborated by Sidious’ introduction of his Sith apprentice, Darth Maul, a demonic figure who carries out their plans while intimidating the Federation into submission.
Keen points out another important link between Star Wars and Imperial Rome; just as Julius Caesar stacked the Roman Senate with his own partisans (129), Palpatine carefully establishes his dictatorship while leaving the appearance of democracy. But it is a democracy that, he suggests, no longer works the way it should. “There is no civility, only politics,” he tells Queen Amidala. “The bureaucrats are in charge now.” (The Phantom Menace, chapter 27) He subtly persuades Amidala not to rely on the Senatorial process, but to vote “no confidence” against Chancellor Valorum, insisting on the need for stronger leadership and trusting to his own magnetism to do the rest. Thus Senator Palpatine becomes Chancellor Palpatine.
Then, in Attack of the Clones, Chancellor Palpatine continues to play on the corruption and bureaucracy that hinder the Galactic Senate’s effectiveness. As war looms, the Chancellor requests and receives special powers, meant to be temporary, like the temporary title of dictator which Julius Caesar sought, attained and only lost when assassinated. These powers enable Palpatine to create an army for the Republic, and fear of the Separatist threat moves the Senatorial vote in Palpatine’s favor. Keen points out the cue Lucas took here from the rise of Napoleon, whose “elevation to the position of emperor was also approved by a large majority of French citizens in a referendum vote.” (Star Wars and History, 139)
In addition to Imperial Rome and Napoleonic France, Hitler’s establishment of Nazi Germany also informs Palpatine’s rise to power. Keen notices that like Hitler, Palpatine uses deep ideological divisions in society and government to his advantage, and when an economic crisis throws the government into gridlock, the brutal dictator’s party gains power through persuasion. And in Revenge of the Sith, a flash point of crisis – the attempt on the Chancellor’s life by Jedi Mace Windu – gives Palpatine the authority to destroy his only remaining rival for power: the Jedi Order. This echoes “the mysterious fire which burned down the Reichstag building on the evening of February 27,” (Keen, 143) which allowed Hitler to claim that the government itself was in danger, just as Palpatine cites “a plot of the Jedi to overthrow the Senate,” (Revenge of the Sith) and declares himself leader of the first Galactic Empire, “for a safe and secure society”. Cue Padmé Amidala’s most iconic line: “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause.” It is significant that the final lightsaber battle between Yoda and Palpatine takes places in the halls of government. Why not smash them up? Democratic structures will no longer be needed in Palpatine’s new Galactic Empire.
In Star Wars as in history, unchecked fear among the populace and the crushing inertia of bureaucracy in times of crisis create political climates wherein societies willfully surrender democratic structures in favor of a swift, authoritative action by a strong individual. In Star Wars as in history, this is how tyrants rise. This disturbing political thread of the Prequel films may have bored audiences, but when taken seriously, it should deeply interest us instead. And it should make those who feel secure in their democratic societies rather uncomfortable. Who knows? Maybe this difficult truth about our precarious freedom is part of why audiences turned their thumbs down on the Prequels.
I predict that as we continue to deepen our examination of those films, mining their narrative and symbolic richness instead of scoffing at their surface-level flaws, appreciation for the Star Wars Prequels will grow. What do you think? Please share your comments below. If you do, however, please be nice to Jar-Jar. It’s really not his fault.
Follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand). Also, you can catch up on Part I of this series, on the rise of Lord Voldemort, here.