The week of December 13, 2015

To truly love the ‘Star Wars’ prequels, stop watching them

By Charles Bramesco

Think of a film. One you’ve seen—The Conversation, for example. You remember it stars Gene Hackman; maybe that Robert Duvall is in there for a hot minute. If you fancy yourself a cinephile, you might know it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola; you might remember seeing it in a theater in 1974. You might remember Hackman’s snooping character tinkering with his eavesdropping equipment, the unnatural squeal of his audio dials as they warped the sound. What most people won’t remember is the name of Gene Hackman’s character. (It’s Harry Caul.)

This is how memory works upon a film. Nobody’s expected to remember every second of a film; human processes of memory do not privilege continuity, instead retaining indelible images and discrete scenes divorced from context. But there’s consistency in the bits that viewers do and do not hold onto. Details, from character names to plot specifics, get dumped from the brain’s memory banks; it’s the standout quotes and striking shots that become indelible. And this is true more widely: Try to recall your most cherished memories, with their borders now faded with years. Vivid and clear as snapshots, they likely have a fuzzy context. They’re like scenes from a movie, removed from its narrative.

Nobody’s expected to remember every second of a film; human processes of memory do not privilege continuity, instead retaining indelible images and discrete scenes divorced from context.

In dreams, that closest analogue to memory, the dreamer never remembers how he or she went from one place to another, as Leonardo DiCaprio (do you remember his character’s name?) points out to Ellen Page during a chimerical sequence in Inception. On waking, the mind recalls only the dread provoked by a scary monster, or the way trees were kind of weird, or the inscrutable advice offered by the ghost of a dead grandfather. In the waking world, dreams get edited before we even realize it.

Movies are often described as dreamlike: We step into a darkened theater to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of a wholly different world. And upon waking from the dream of a movie, we also begin the unconscious process of assimilating it into ourselves. We might not always make movies better in retrospect, but we do make some heavy edits.

That’s why you should stop watching Star Wars movies—or at the very least, the prequel trilogy. In fact, the key to enjoying Episodes I, II, and III is to stop watching them entirely. This smacks of heresy: The surest expression of Star Wars uber-fandom is the watch-count, the bragging rights that come with having logged innumerable hours rapt in front of a glowing screen, futilely trying to chisel every line of dialogue, every sweeping vista, into the brain’s gelatinous grey matter.

The key to enjoying Episodes I, II, and III is to stop watching them entirely.

This ritualistic forced devotion doesn’t, however, make for a “better” fan. It may familiarize the viewer with films, but as it’s said, familiarity breeds contempt. Look too long and the films don’t get any better. Look away, though, and with time and distance you’ll remember the good times. The things that worked. In this way, the latter Star Wars films are like a friend who constantly does annoying, bothersome things while you’re hanging out, but when you’re apart, it’s the good times that stick with you. You don’t even remember what Jar Jar Binks sounded like. Just as familiarity breeds contempt, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

The Star Wars prequels, with their unique strain of badness and general incompetence, actually invite this method of lessened engagement—of looking away. Because in trying to pay close attention, you see that, structurally speaking, the prequel trilogy is a shambolic, multifront cluster-mess. Lucas gathers so many fragments of narrative yet none of them fit together, as if footage from several different films had been haphazardly thrown together in post-production.

Much dust has been raised over the incomprehensible political convolutions that fill out most of the second and third films, all the bloviation about byzantine trade federations and tariff agreements between ill-defined galactic superpowers. With so many disparate warring factions, Jedis and rebel Jedis and separatists and droid armies working for who-knows-who, keeping track of everything was nigh-on impossible.

Even if a diligent viewer could keep tabs on which governmental agency was employing who to do what against whom, discerning why was an even more remote possibility. By the time the shriveled-up, Cheneyesque string-puller Senator Palpatine is somehow appointed to King of Everything by popular alien vote (complete with Natalie Portman somberly stating, “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,” as if she’s deliberately angling for inclusion in a history book), any semblance of order the series might’ve once had has gone out the window.

So that’s what you need to forget: the incoherent illogic of it all. Forgetting, however, does not mean forsaking. Instead, recall the prequels as you would a dream upon waking, or a happy if half-forgotten memory. The prequel trilogy contains quite a few crackerjack set pieces very much worth remembering. After having gone a year, or two, or five without revisiting, say, Revenge of the Sith, all the nonsense with shifting allegiances falls away—in memory, the film becomes much more entertaining than it actually was. With baffling plot particulars excised, the brain still holds onto images, like the cross-cutting finale between the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel and the Yoda/Palpatine duel. And characters like General Grievous, the flashy six-armed cybernetic killing machine with the sunken eyes of a million-year-old alcoholic. You can remember him vividly, even though the film itself seems to be unclear on who he is or his narrative purpose.

Memory clings to colorful characters, sci-fi swashbuckling, and soundbites. The prequel series consistently got its characters and its swashbuckling right, even as it featured some of the worst lines in the franchise. But with distance, even the most memorably awful lines of dialogue become more palatable, sounding more like quips from a ridiculously campy comedy (which in many ways is what The Phantom Menace is) than a sci-fi epic. Quoting little Annie’s inconceivably grating lines of dialogue while palling around with friends makes for good fun: “An angel. I’ve heard the deep space pilots talk about them. They live on the moons of Iego. They’re the most beautiful creatures in the universe.” Try it!

Even the most memorably awful lines of dialogue become more palatable, more like quips from a ridiculously campy comedy than a sci-fi epic.

There’s plenty in the prequel trilogy worth holding onto, but admittedly, not all of the standalone elements of the film that stand the test of memory are gems. We’d live in a softer, kinder world if Jar Jar Binks and the jauntily anti-Semitic caricature, Watto the trash-haggler, were wiped clean from the world’s consciousness. But that said, there’s no disputing that Darth Maul is the covert star of Episode I, and that the Kaminoans are an unusual and fascinating culture of beings, though far too absent to salvage the wreckage of Episode II. The only-one-can-survive showdown between Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul is balletic in its intensity, and the dispassionate sight of the two halves of Maul’s torso separating as he silently falls down into the void is rightly haunting. And Anakin’s pod-race in Episode I, punctuated as it might be by idiotic words, still plays like the space-set Ben-Hur that audiences deserve. Each installment has something going for it, even Episode II—surely I can’t be the only one enamored of the scene in which our dauntless heroes face off against alien behemoths in gladiatorial combat.

This issue of potential overexposure wasn’t always a problem. The first three films coincided with the advent of the VHS standard in the late ’70s, but wouldn’t get a home media release of their own until the mid-’80s. As such, superfans relied entirely on the odd theatrical rerelease to revisit their graven idol again and again, and even that barely sated their need for increased familiarity with the film. Make no mistake, their hearts were made fond by absence. Without the luxury of three different cuts of all six films at their fingertips for enjoyment at any moment of the day, moviegoers processed the Star Wars pictures in a much different way. The accumulation of (and reverence for) minutiae, arguably the chiefest criterion of superfandom, only came to pass once they hit home video, where they could be examined and dissected, frame by frame in some cases.

Few films could withstand that kind of obsessive interrogation. And while this uncovered some previously overlooked faults in the original trilogy, it was an absolute killing stroke for the prequel trilogy. They were never absent in the same way the previous movies had been, and now, with the consensus determined, any attempt at redeeming them looks like mere contrarianism. (Or, perhaps worse, a fandom so self-blinding as to be pitiable.) Yet when all is said and done, Episodes I—III are worth liking. They’re worthy of love, even. And if those love-worthy parts are trapped within a thick slog of mediocrity, maybe the way to free them is not to look closer, but to look away.

Stop provoking the aggravation. Stop watching the films. The memory will return, without fail, and it’ll be a happy one.

Illustration by J. Longo