Midichlorians. The Trade Federation. Watto. The coarseness of sand. Jar-Jar freakin’ Binks. Oh, and you can’t forget…. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”
George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels comprise what is possibly the most controversial motion picture trilogy of all time. Despite grossing hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and selling countless DVD and Blu-ray copies, Episodes I through III remain a serious bone of contention for ferociously devoted fans of the Star Wars universe for many reasons.
Bradley Weatherholt’s Indiegogo-funded documentary The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan’s Journey provides — through a series of insightful and provocative interviews with open-minded admirers of the films and their thematic elements and links to the original trilogy –- a pointed critical analysis of the prequel trilogy’s multitude of perceived narrative and technical flaws. Rather than serve as the set-up for a rude, feature-length rebuttal of the faults that have fueled many a furious blog post or chatroom discussion, detractors of these unjustly-derided intergalactic adventures to look at those faults once more, but placed in different contexts and interpreted through a series of unbiased points-of-view.
Anyone who has sat through any or every one of the prequels and not found them to their liking is entitled to their informed opinion, but the amount of frothing hatred and vitriol that have been directed at Lucas’ independently-financed passion projects since the first, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, was released in the summer of 1999 have made it seem as if hardcore followers of the saga took the weaker prequels as an affront to their lifelong loyalty.
This is pretty much where the “[insert movie, TV show, or person here] raped my childhood” meme first took shape and has appeared persistently over the years in a vast selection of forms. The claims that the prequel trilogy wantonly violated the wistful childhood memories of Star Wars adult fans are addressed, in addition to Lucas’ increased reliance on computer-generated visual effects, certain characters and plot points, the supposed repetitive narrative structure (the “ring theory” helps makes sense of it all), the inclusion of relevant political themes in the films, and much more.
Weatherholt’s interview subjects include notable film writers James Berardinelli, Matt Singer, and Chris Gore, filmmaker Kevin Smith (a gentleman who knows a thing or two about absorbing the wrath of anonymous online trolls), and Industrial Light & Magic model maker Fon Davis. Davis’ contribution is crucial to dispelling the long-held criticism of the prequels that they placed a greater emphasis on digital effects over the practical variety.
The interviewees, some of whom possess extensive collections of Star Wars merchandise and memorabilia, dissect the mythological inspirations Lucas looked to when he was scripting the prequels. In one fascinating segment, music journalist Doug Adams uses a piano to illustrate how iconic themes composed by John Williams for the original trilogy were secretly embedded in the music he created for the prequels. I must admit to having my mind a little blown when he demonstrated how Williams linked Luke and Leia’s individual themes to underscore the tragic romance of their youthful and idealistic parents, Anakin and Padme.
There is a surprising amount of empathy reserved for giving careful evaluation to the saga’s most universally-loathed character, the aforementioned Mr. Binks. Jar-Jar has been criticized and analyzed since the theatrical release of The Phantom Menace and condemned as a racist caricature (which is not mentioned once in this film, strangely enough), but the interviewees approach the character as he was intended to be viewed from the very beginning as nothing more than a source of delight and sympathy for the prequels’ younger audiences as the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 were for the original trilogy. The influence of silent film comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd on Jar-Jar’s onscreen antics is revealed through a series of enlightening comparisons.
The making of The Prequels Strike Back was clearly a labor of love for Weatherholt, someone who has grown up with the Star Wars movies, books, cartoons, comics, etc., as many of us have. The subtitle A Fan’s Journey is appropriate, as the documentary is a personal quest for Weatherholt, who puts himself in front of the camera occasionally to discuss the impact George Lucas’ visionary achievement made on him at an early age and finally gives the prequels their long-deserved day in court. Mostly he steps back and allows for the many intelligent and passionate voices he assembled for his film make their own cases for The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith as true Star Wars movies worthy of preceding the legendary original trilogy in the universe’s timeline.
As someone who has loved the Star Wars movies since childhood, I will admit to not completely understanding the self-righteous anger constantly leveled at the prequels. I saw each of them on the big screen during their initial theatrical engagements (whereas the only film in the original trilogy I experienced the way it was meant to be was Return of the Jedi during a 1985 re-release) and though they had glaring flaws, I found them to be highly enjoyable and fun and appreciated the technological breakthroughs in evolving cinematic visual effects (which are also addressed in this documentary) and the imagination and artistry that went into their creation.
I was working at a movie theater when The Phantom Menace premiered. During the film’s first two weeks of release, business was booming big time, and day and night there was nary a screening that wasn’t sold out. Part of my job was to clean up the theaters after each showing before the next started, and I and several other employees would hang out at the entrance to the screening rooms and catch snippets of the film. We were floored by the visual effects and action sequences, marveled at the intoxicating theatricality of Williams’ operatic scores. It was the sort of movie-going experience that we tend to take for granted in this new age of streaming and advance home-viewing technology.
The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan’s Journey is a terrific documentary made with brains, heart, and an undying love for the beautiful madness and thrills of the Star Wars universe. Watching it made me realize a revisit of the prequels on Blu-ray was well in order. Bradley Weatherholt has made a potent and thought-provoking film that fans of the saga and detractors of the prequel trilogy would do well to check out. You might be surprised at what you learn, and what you may have missed this entire time.