I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the upcoming Star Wars trilogy (my daughter asked me yesterday if I’m worried about the Disney-fication of these new films. I am, though I’m also banking quite a bit on J.J. Abrams’s abilities to create something that’s at least thoughtful). Then yesterday Christopher Lee’s passingprompted me to think a bit about the last trilogy, the prequel films. For the most part, these films get derided by critics and audiences alike, and I’m not really out to defend them in any kind of wholesale fashion. I do think they improve as they go, and there are certainly elements that work well (as one of my colleagues pointed out to me recently, casting Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan was a stroke of genius). I would like to defend them, though, on a couple of points, particularly one small moment from the weakest film, The Phantom Menace, that I think offers some actual depth both within the context of the film and more broadly in the history of cinema.
As a starting point, I think no sequels (or in this case prequels) can ever truly live up to the original trilogy. As hopeful as I am for the new series, I think I can safely say, six months before the first one even hits the screen that they will almost certainly disappoint in some way or other. No film can capture the magic of the originals: they were of their time in a unique way; they were original in a way no follow-up can ever capture; they defined generation X no less than the Beatles on Ed Sullivan defined the baby boomers; they exist in a place in our minds, attached to a specific time, in such a way that nostalgia overwhelms any considerations of quality. That’s not to say they aren’t quality films – there’s a reason they defined a generation, became cultural touchstones almost on the level of a religion – only that their value has grown more mythical over time because they maintain such a sentimental place in our hearts.
It’s also worth pointing out that, while Jar Jar Binks is a piece of silliness we all regret (I like to think even Lucas realized he had over-played the “childishness” factor, which explains why he made Binks responsible for Palpatine’s rise to power in Attack of the Clones), through a different filter, R2D2 and C3P0 might be seen as kindred spirits. When the original Star Wars came out, I was six years old. Before taking me to see the film, my mother did what any responsible parent might do – she went to see the film for herself. Lines all over the country extended around the block, and she was curious to see just what the fuss was all about. Now granted my mother is not exactly a sci-fi aficionado. Even so, she left the theater fifteen minutes in, around the time C3P0 and R2D2 are wandering the desert of Tatooine, wondering what kind of ridiculousness she’d gotten herself into. My point: even our beloved droids once seemed “silly” in ways not necessarily so different to Jar Jar Binks. Does Jar Jar rise objectively to the level of R2D2 and C3P0? I can’t argue that with a straight face. But as my mother’s case shows, “ridiculous” may be a matter of relativity (the story has a happy ending: she did return for a second showing and eventually “got it”).
Finally, though, I want to focus in on one moment, one tiny piece of dialogue from the Phantom. It happens during the first third of the movie, as Jar Jar guides Qui-Gon and Obi Wan beneath the sea from the underwater Gungan city to the capital city of Naboo, Theed. At one point, they are pursued and ultimately find themselves in the mouth of an opee undersea killer. They only escape when a sando aqua monster fortuitously appears and devours the opee. Or such was how I construed the scene the first time I saw it. In fact, the sando’s appearance wasn’t merely fortuitous. Only during a later viewing did Qui-Gon’s words in this scene, “there’s always a bigger fish” suddenly resonate for me: He himself has summoned that “bigger fish.” It’s a lesson both for us and for Obi Wan on just how smoothly a trained Jedi uses the objects at hand to accomplish his tasks.
Perhaps the fact that I didn’t catch on the first time says more about me than about the moment, but giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I think it does suggest there are occasional depths to these films that may not even now have been completely plumbed. I don’t mean this in the “conspiracy theory” sort of sense (the sense in which someone discovers that Dark Side of the Moon eerily synchs up with The Wizard of Oz), but simply in the sense that there are small details here that matter, that provide us with important information, but which we may occasionally miss.
Watching Jurassic Park last evening in preparation to go see the new Jurassic World, I saw that same scene played out, this time with dinosaurs. Near the end of the movie, in its final action scene, our heroes find themselves trapped between two snarling velociraptors, when out of nowhere a T-Rex appears and neatly saves the day by devouring the two smaller creatures.
It turns out there is always a bigger fish. This is a piece of directing wisdom as much as a piece of Jedi wisdom. A director always has control of his universe, always has the means at his disposal to “save the day,” because, well, it’s his universe. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Lucas’s scene was a bit of a nod to his friend Spielberg’s earlier scene, but in either case it makes an interesting point about the nature of film. It also helps turn the Jedi into more than a mystical order of galaxy guardians – they become, at least in this small moment, a kind of stand-in for the director himself, a version of Lucas and all directors who serve as guardians of their own created galaxies. Does this make it all better? Nope. But it reminded me that when I am finally there on opening night of The Force Awakens I should try to let the Jedi guide me without being quite so stubborn.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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