At our house the prequels are like the gnostic Gospels of “Star Wars.” They exist, but we don’t watch them. Why?
Like the gnostic Gospels, the prequels aren’t true. Or to put it another way, they aren’t the same story as the originals. Something about the essential nature of “Star Wars” was lost along the way.
A bit of background: Over the past decade or so, there’s been renewed interest in early Christian writings about the life of Jesus that didn’t make it into the Bible, often known as the gnostic or lost Gospels. Among the most well-known are the Gospels of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and, most recently, the mostly debunked Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
While those gnostic Gospels have garnered headlines, they’ve never been embraced by the faithful. That’s in part because they’re terrible, filled with stilted dialogue and bizarre plot twists.
Take the Gospel of Judas, which seems to depict Jesus as a visitor from another dimension.
“I know who you are and where you have come from,” Judas tells Jesus at one point. “You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo.” That line would be perfectly at home in the “Star Wars” prequels.
Then there was the time when Peter want to oust Mary Magdalene from their midst in the Gospel of Thomas.
“Make Mary leave us,” Peter tells Jesus, “for females don’t deserve life.”
In response, Jesus turns Mary into a man. He then tells the disciples that any woman who does likewise can enter the kingdom. It’s a fascinating exchange but not one that resonates with biblical Gospels, where women like Mary are among Jesus’ most faithful followers.
The other flaw of the gnostic Gospels is their detachment from the real world. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are set in a specific place and time and are filled with nitty-gritty details of life. Jesus gets tired and sometimes cranky with his disciples. And his parables are often about familiar subjects — a lost coin, a wayward son, some angry workers.
The gnostic Gospels aren’t concerned about those details. The Gnostics — an early Christian group considered heretics — thought the real world didn’t matter.
Unlike the original trilogy, the prequels have that same detachment from reality.
Despite being set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” the original three “Star Wars” films look like they take place in a real world. The sets are dingy and lived in. Everything is scuffed up and a little worse for wear. The spaceships and creatures are all tangible creations.
There’s a reason George Lucas called his special effect company “Industrial Light and Magic.” They made a galaxy by hand and brought it to life.
The prequels are all CGI —computer-generated imagery — and they’re fake. It’s all fairy dust and illusions. And everything is so clean and shiny. All the grit of reality is gone. Those GCI illusions have even corrupted the enhanced version of the original movies.
Take the Mos Eisley spaceport scene in “A New Hope.” Luke Skywalker goes there with Obi-Wan Kenobi, right after discovering that imperial storm troopers have murdered his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen, leaving their smoldering corpses on the ground.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Obi-Wan warns. “We must be cautious.”
Kenobi’s words proved to be true, at least in the 1977 version of “A New Hope.” The enhanced version, on the other hand, is cluttered with scenes of computer-generated comic relief. It’s as if our heroes wanted on to the set of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
But the worst part of the prequels is that they get Darth Vader wrong.
The “I am your father scene” in “The Empire Strikes Back” might be the worst plot twist in movie history. It didn’t completely ruin “Return of the Jedi,” but it came close. Not even Alec Guiness, who played Obi-Wan, seems to have bought it — he all but rolls his eyes while telling Luke about Vader’s newly revised backstory. At least Vader remains self-assuredly evil almost to the end of “Return of the Jedi.”
Not so in the prequels, where’s he has been reduced to a sullen teenager led astray by a scheming emperor.
That’s not the Darth Vader of “A New Hope” or “The Empire Strikes,” who seems to delight in crushing anyone who gets in his way or fails him.
Remember this line: “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” he says, while casually choking a colleague at a staff meeting.
Lord Vader exults in his power. He’s like Macbeth, a ruthless, blood-thirsty sorcerer, who betrayed and murdered his friends in order to gain power. No one seduced him to the Dark Side. He went willingly.
At least that’s how I see it. I can almost hear Shakespeare’s witches crying, “All hail Vader, who shall be king” in the background as he embraces the dark side.
If not Macbeth, then at least Anakin could have been a space-age version of Saruman, the wizard traitor from the “Lord of the Rings.” I’d pay real money to see a “Star Wars” prequel with a young Alec Guiness as Obi Wan and Christopher Lee (who played Saruman) as the pre-Dark Force Vader.
To be fair, there are a few moments in the prequels worth watching. Yoda’s battle with Lee as the unfortunately-named Count Dooku is one of them.
The showdown between Yoda and Emperor Palpatine almost makes “Revenge of the Sith” worth watching.
Or maybe not. Perhaps we’ll watch it on YouTube.
So this Christmas, may the blessing of the season be upon you. May your home be free of clones and battle droids. And may the force be with you, always.
Bob Smietana is a religion writer based in Nashville.