The Star Wars Prequels Strike Back
Austin-made documentary gets to the heart of the hate
Nobody hates Star Wars like a Star Wars fan. That's the central conceit of The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan's Journey, the new Austin-made documentary about how we watch the epic saga of the Skywalker family. As Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view, and director Bradley Weatherholt isn't necessarily trying to change anyone's minds about the franchise, but rather to give them a different perspective on the films they love to loathe. He said, "This is not a Star Wars fan film. This is much more a cinematic person wanting to make a film about Star Wars."
Weatherholt has heard all the standard criticisms of George Lucas, creator of the story of a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. "All he cares about is money. He's racist. He's insensitive." That fan fury may be part of why he is quick to note that he's not a "capital F" fan. "I like Star Wars, but I'm not a Star Wars guy," he said, but that's why he wanted to make this film. "It's really important to be able to be interested in something without attaching any part of yourself to it." The Prequels Strike Back continues that analytical and historical critique as applied to the popular cinematic franchise. At its heart is one big question: Who is George Lucas? To Weatherholt, he is the Anakin Skywalker of his own story, the hero fallen from grace. He was the arthouse superstar, whose friend Francis Ford Coppola foresaw leading an avant-garde revolution, but rewrote the rules for popular cinema. Then, with the special editions and prequels, a vocal portion of the fan base turned on him, calling him traitor to his own stories.
But just as Anakin was Darth Vader before he donned the armor, Weatherholt sees the film student responsible for impressionistic reels about car racing in the blockbuster director that steered The Phantom Menace's pod race sequence. "Say what you like about Lucas, but the amount of creative risks he continued to take is incredible, and I am much, much, much more sympathetic to a creative disaster – not that the prequels are a creative disaster – than a film that is constrained and takes no risks."
He posits a different transformation – that of the fans. In his film's cantina-esque montage of talking heads, there are prequel bashers (such as Film Threat's Chris Gore, director and self-crowned king of geekdom Kevin Smith, and, representing Austin fandom, Vulcan Video manager Bryan Connolly) counterbalanced by prequel lovers. But Weatherholt's question is not who is right or who is wrong. Instead, it's about what changed between the original trilogy and the prequels: Was it really Lucas, or was it the audience?
And why do fans who claim to love his most abiding creation mock everything about him, from his films to his beard? For Weatherholt, that's the most irrational aspect of prequel-bashing. "It says a lot about the severity of emotion around Star Wars," he said. "You can find some legitimate personal criticism of Woody Allen or Polanski or Disney, but to have Lucas in the same tier as all these other directors, and for him to have the most negative opinion, is bonkers to me."
There have always been intellectual underpinnings of the saga: Millions of well-thumbed copies of Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, the academic deconstruction of heroic narrative that inspired Lucas, can testify to that. But amidst the lightsabers and Death Stars, there are examinations of call backs and narrative mirroring; academic citations and references to Dante; hidden musical stings, and writer Mike Klimo's ring theory, a pivotal re-evaluation of the story structure underpinning the six-film cycle. Ultimately, this may be the only film as likely to quote The Journal of the Whills as Walt Whitman, a subtly disguised academic treatise. "We knew that we had to be 40 minutes in before we mention [French philosopher] Roland Barthes," said Weatherholt, who calls the end result "a tightrope balance of getting audiences that don't have that background, who maybe don't care about Star Wars, and trying to get them to trust what's going to go down."
Weatherholt's hope is that those who condemn Lucas as just a bad filmmaker consider that there is as much stylistic intent in Anakin and Padmé's amour courtois as Han and Leia's witty banter. He said, "What he was always trying to make was a mythology, and mythology is always moldable and shapeable. If you're Sophocles, you don't always explain what is going on in Oedipus' head. I honestly think that's how he views film. His timeline is long, and I don't think he's making films for contemporary audiences. He's literally making an American mythology."
The Prequels Strike Back: A Fan's Journey has its theatrical premiere Thu., Oct. 6, 7pm, at the Alamo South Lamar. The documentary is also available on VOD.