Star Wars has always posed questions, even when we expected answers. Michael O’Connor examines why the prequels confounded expectations by creating as many new Star Wars mysteries as they resolved.
By Michael O’Connor // Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Star Wars used to just be one movie. Before the novels, the comic strips, the video games, the television shows, and all the sequels and prequels, there was just Star Wars. The great magic trick of that film was making one film feel like a small piece of the larger whole, of an entire, epic story that you had never seen before.
Think about that for a minute. Star Wars intentionally challenged an audience who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. References to the Clone Wars, Jabba the Hutt and the Imperial Senate were callouts to things that didn’t exist yet. We didn’t know what a Kessel Run was or how a moisture vaporator worked, but we would soon enough, along with the names to every single alien in the Mos Eisley Cantina.
As fans, we’re insatiable when it comes to learning more about the Star Wars galaxy. It often feels like a bottomless well for our imaginations; even nearly forty years later, there are plenty of untold stories. That wealth of storytelling opportunity and our zeal for uncovering new corners of the galaxy is a key reason why Disney bought the franchise and plans to release a new film every year.
There’s no point arguing whether such a plan is “good” or “bad” because it’s inevitable. One day soon we will watch a Han Solo origin film; how much longer before we get a Boba Fett film or one about Yoda? If an entire movie can be dedicated to the nobodies who stole the Death Star plans, it’s probably safe to say we won’t have to wait long. Heck, at some point that nameless bounty hunter Luke and Han ran into on Ord Mantell might have a film of his own. The only limit on new Star Wars films is the fans’ appetite for more.
But it’s worth pointing out that the Star Wars films of George Lucas were never so much about answering questions or filling in backstory as they were about asking more questions and introducing new characters and situations. While the expanded universe filled in the corners and connected the dots, Lucas kept expanding the galaxy and redrawing the map. There’s no better evidence of this intent than the prequel trilogy.
George Lucas hates beginnings, so he just doesn’t write them. The original Star Wars film was later retitled Episode IV, and that seemed fitting. Clearly a whole mess of stuff happened prior to the Tantive IV’s boarding.
How had an evil Empire taken control? What were the Clone Wars? Why did Darth Vader kill Luke’s father? How was the Death Star constructed? Who stole the plans? Why did the Jedi fall?
As children, these weren’t plot holes to us. There were answers, and one day we would know them. In the meantime, we followed the story we were being told, and the lack of answers only served to legitimize the fiction even more in our minds. This epic fantasy so far removed from our own reality garnered a level of plausibility in our minds because it, like real life, was full of ambiguities, secrets and mysteries.
Like Star Wars, we don’t enter the world at the beginning of the story. When we arrive on this Earth, it’s been spinning for billions of years up on the big screen without us, and we have no idea what we’re looking at. Who are these characters? What’s going on? How did the world turn out this way? We ask questions and we get some answers, but they rarely satisfy us.
At some point our parents, teachers and friends will admit to us that they don’t know the answers to our questions and they’re really sick of us asking them. They might even respond as Master Yoda does to Luke. “No, no, there is no why!” he says. “Clear your mind of questions.”
There comes a time in every person’s life when we are forced to acknowledge that some mysteries will require serious effort to solve and there will be many other things we will never know. As children, this just sounds like a challenge; “oh yeah?” we say arrogantly. “Just watch me.” Or as a young Anakin puts it regarding the visitation of distant star systems, “I want to be the first one to see them all.”
But as adults, these unanswered questions are daunting, if not frustrating or irritating. Many of us stop challenging ourselves, stop asking questions, stop looking for answers, stop learning. We become convinced we already know it all, or at least everything we really need to know.
Experiencing Star Wars for the first time is an invitation to feel this sensation again, to be thrown into a foreign galaxy where you don’t entirely know what’s happening or how you got there. That level of disorientation and confusion can either be thrilling or frustrating; it all depends on your mindset. Are you the know-it-all, or are you eager to learn and discover and hunt for answers?
A PHANTOM BEGINNING
As children we were captivated by Episode IV and its endless stream of unanswered questions, but as adults we saw a movie subtitled Episode I and we entered the theater expecting answers. We brought our childhood checklists of questions with us. We were certain we would experience the story of Star Wars from the very beginning, like turning to page one in a history textbook.
But that didn’t happen. The Phantom Menace is as jarring an introduction to the galaxy far, far way as the original Star Wars. A blockade engineered by corporate scumbags from something called the Trade Federation; an evil sorcerer who claims to have control over the Senate; diplomats with laser swords and unexplainable powers; a robot army vs. an alien army with strange shield technology; and a child ruler of a planet coping with some bad blood between the humans and those swamp dwelling aliens.
On paper, it’s no crazier than Episode IV, but it challenged us because it wasn’t the Star Wars we thought we knew. There were things in it that we didn’t understand and it forced us to rethink long held assumptions about characters like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi and about organizations like the Jedi and the nature of the Force. It told us, “You think you know Star Wars, but you’re wrong.”
Not only had this new Star Wars surprised us, it also hadn’t answered any of our questions. Instead, it just added more to our lists, some of which future prequel films would answer and some of which we’d never know. How does a young precocious child become Darth Vader? Who are the Sith and where do they come from? What about those Clone Wars we were promised? Who is this Qui-Gon Jinn and why isn’t Yoda training Obi-Wan? And why weren’t Gungans hanging out in the cantina in the original Star Wars film?
But to those young fans for whom The Phantom Menace was their first exposure to the galaxy, they got it. They fell for the same trick Lucas pulled in 1977. Challenged by what they saw, they rose to that challenge with their own questions and started their own checklists. What was the Republic like before it became corrupt? How did Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi meet? What happened to make the Sith extinct for a millennia? How had Anakin been immaculately conceived? Why didn’t the Naboo and the Gungans get along? How had Darth Sidious manipulated the Trade Federation into blockading Naboo?
The beginning of the Star Wars saga was a beginning of one story, certainly. But it had a hidden backstory of its own, a long, complicated history that fans new and old would have to reckon with and wonder about. It was a thrilling opportunity to ask new questions; or it was a frustrating betrayal that didn’t provide enough of the old answers fans thought they had been promised. Which truth you clung to depended largely on your own point of view.
One of the things I’ve always admired about Star Wars is its knack for throwing an audience right into the middle of something they weren’t expecting. Having seen the previous Star Wars film is almost no help at all in understanding what is happening at the beginning of the next episode. That’s largely because all kinds of insane things have been happening between where you left off and where you picked up again.
When The Empire Strikes Back begins, Darth Vader already knows Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star and has been pursuing him across the galaxy, the Rebels have built an entirely new base, and Luke has learned how to use The Force to move objects with his mind. In between Empire and Return of the Jedi, the Empire has apparently built a new Death Star, Luke has constructed a lightsaber of his own, and Lando has somehow infiltrated Jabba the Hutt’s criminal operations.
As Star Wars fans, there is a pang of regret in learning these things happened without our involvement. It’s almost as if we were in the bathroom when they showed Luke mastering the Jedi Mind Trick for the first time or Han Solo dueling with that bounty hunter on Ord Mantell.
The prequels continued this fine tradition of lightsaber teasing in particularly cruel fashion. A full decade of aggressive negotiations and gundark nest hijinks with a young Anakin and Obi-Wan falls between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, not to mention Count Dooku’s fall to the Dark Side, the order for the creation of a cloned army, and the mysterious death of Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. In this time, Palpatine has also been busy, whispering poison sentiments in young Anakin’s ear and moving the pieces on his dejarik game board to transform a Republic into an Empire.
In between Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the fearsome cyborg General Grievous arrives on the scene, killing Jedi and stealing their lightsabers; the Clone Wars rage across the galaxy, resulting in hundreds of untold stories of bravery and sacrifice; and Anakin gets himself a badass scar and doubles his Jedi powers. While fans would eventually witness these events in the animated Clone Wars television show and diligently work through their checklist, George Lucas couldn’t help himself; he threw a major wrench in the works by introducing a young female Padawan named Ahsoka Tano for Anakin to train. You could almost hear fans grinding their teeth at the announcement. How does this fit? they wondered.
But that’s the spirit of Star Wars and the tradition of its storytelling. The prequels were, in some fans’ minds, an opportunity to provide answers and to close loops, check off boxes and document the full record of what transpired before the original Star Wars film. But that was never entirely George Lucas’ intent. The prequels are fated to end a certain way but they never take the direct, predictable route; they are constantly upending expectations and making interesting choices as to what to show and what to conceal. And for every answer they provide, they counter with at least one new intriguing question.
THE DARK SIDE CLOUDS EVERYTHING
There are a lot of franchises out there that pay lip service to being sagas. Everything is “the next chapter of the ___ saga” but very few of these franchises do much more than drive around the parking lot to end up where they began. There is an illusion of change, but rarely a commitment to it. Star Wars is, and always has been, different. Characters evolve, grow up, and eventually die. New characters show up and fill new roles unseen in previous chapters.
The prequels not only introduced us to a brand new set of characters in The Phantom Menace; they also completely pull the rug out from us with Attack of the Clones. Compare the two casts of characters from each film. Our previous protagonist, Qui-Gon Jinn, is completely gone; Jar Jar Binks is a mere cameo character; and Anakin Skywalker has transformed from a precocious child to a petulant teenager played by an entirely different actor. Even Obi-Wan and Padme are unfamiliar, a side effect of the ten long years that have transpired between this installment and the last.
This giant leap forward in time is downright audacious on Lucas’ part, and it shows a willingness to challenge his audience rather than speak down to them. The point of the time jump is to provide a clear contrast with Menace‘s sunny, colorful disposition by immediately consuming it in clouds, mystery, and intrigue. Watched in quick succession, this effect is especially pronounced. The high spirits the first film ends on with its bouncy, cheerful parade immediately segues into assassination plots against Amidala, Separatists threatening to split the Republic apart, and the once cherubic Anakin now a haunted and frustrated character. It’s been one hell of a decade.
And that’s a recurring theme in the film. Practically everything eventful that happened between the films happened just where the last film ended. Ten years ago, Dooku left the Jedi Order, the clone army was ordered, and Sifo-Dyas was killed; eventually we understand that there’s a reason all those things happened at the same time; they are linked. The details of how and why are never fully explained and are left to the imagination, new and unexpected additions to our checklist of questions.
But a careful viewing of the film reveals all the answers we need to know regarding what has transpired. Any remaining obfuscation is entirely the point. The narrative matches the tone and theme of the film, which Yoda helpfully describes when he laments, “The Dark Side clouds everything.”
THERE IS NO WHY
Revenge of the Sith brings clarity and long-awaited answers to many of the questions we had from 1977, but of course it still twists the lightsaber in our backs a little too. It begins just as the Clone Wars end, leaving that conflict bookended but never explored in the kind of exhaustive detail many Star Wars fans demanded. But even more frustrating are all the new questions this last chapter of the saga presents.
Did Darth Plagueis actually create Anakin? How did Padme die–was it of a literal broken heart, or was Anakin unknowingly and parasitically siphoning off her life energy? Did Palpatine always look like Darth Sidious underneath the makeup or was it the effect of his own Force lightning turned on him? How did Qui-Gon Jinn’s consciousness return from the afterlife in the form of a disembodied Force Ghost?
Certainly there are answers to many of these questions in the expanded universe and potentially in future films in the Disney franchise, but when Lucas concluded his films in 2005, he had the intention of walking away from Star Wars and never returning. So why leave the audience with questions when he could finally answer everything we’d ever wanted to know and put a proper bow on the series? Why leave us in the same state in 2005 as he did in 1977, teasing us with vagaries and backstories that might never receive proper explanations or definitive answers?
That last question ultimately answers itself. Star Wars has always been about the unknown and the unknowable, the instinct to seek answers where none might exist and the faith in that galaxy to have an underlying logic and integrity. By jumping around in time, letting eventful sequences play out offscreen, changing characters dramatically between episodes, and leaving lingering questions about the nature of his galaxy, George Lucas crafted a saga that is endlessly fascinating and worthy of repeated viewings.
YOU HAVE THAT POWER TOO
The genius of Star Wars is how it is both a sprawling saga that encompasses generations and a deceptively simple and elegant story. It is a minefield of charming rabbit holes to fall down, but it is also like that hidden bridge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you know how to look at it, it’s always been right in front of you.
Many of the questions we ask are to things that aren’t really important to the main story and many of the things we don’t see we are never meant to see. The original trilogy wasn’t about the Clone Wars or Vader and Obi-Wan’s hostile past or Han Solo’s history with Jabba the Hutt. And the prequels are not about the mechanics of how the clone army got ordered, the origin story of General Grievous or why Count Dooku left the Jedi Order.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t wonder about these things; rather it’s that demanding answers to interesting questions is missing the larger point. If you consume Star Wars solely to get answers to your questions, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. We aren’t supposed to bring our checklist of questions with us to the movie theater or consult our Star Wars encyclopedias to see how all the dots align or endlessly pester Pablo Hidalgo on Twitter about questions of continuity or canon.
As fans we should be able to make up our own minds about these things. Lucas created Star Wars in part to teach children about empathy and values, but also to encourage their imaginations and inspire them. We must be willing to at least tolerate different interpretations of the saga and different theories on the parts of our fellow fans. Doggedly pursuing one incontrovertible record about the sequence of events and history of the Star Wars galaxy misses the larger point of these stories and the lessons they are trying to impart.
The fun of Star Wars is ultimately the opportunity to use our own imaginations to fill in the blanks. But what happens when there are no more blanks to fill in, when there is no room in the galaxy for our imagination because all these stories have been told?
The new caretakers of the Star Wars saga must know that its fans are open to change and to being challenged. As fans we must encourage Disney to expand the horizons of the saga by posing new questions, introducing new characters and exploring new worlds rather than simply checking off boxes of Things Fans Always Wanted To See or regurgitating Things Fans Have Already Seen.
In other words, if Star Wars is to continue to inspire and captivate us and future generations, it mustn’t answer all of our questions for us. It must continue to push us and prod us to think for ourselves, to wonder aloud as we look to the stars.
About Power to the Prequels
Power to the Prequels is an ongoing column that aims to critique and analyze the Star Wars prequels and demonstrate their worth as individual films and also as components of a larger saga. The goal is neither to blindly praise these films nor condemn them. Rather, the aim is to specifically and respectfully consider the artistic decisions made by director George Lucas and draw conclusions that may differ from the mainstream consensus.
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