There are Star Wars fans who hate the prequel trilogy far more than I do, but few seem to question why it was made in the first place. Years before The Phantom Menace, I wondered why Lucas wanted to make prequels instead of sequels. I would have preferred to see the continued adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han.
Would that have resulted in better films? It's hard to say. The series was already showing signs of wear and tear by Return of the Jedi. But at least we would have been in the company of characters we had come to know and love. The prequel trilogy failed to create any new, engaging characters, and even familiar characters like Yoda and Obi-Wan seemed curiously flat.
There's no obvious reason why Lucas needed to make movies about the events before A New Hope. Put differently, there's a good reason why he began the series at the point he did: that's when all the interesting stuff starts to happen. If the prequels fail to come alive, it's because he conceived them more as history than narrative.
That's why you can practically hear the crankings of the plot. Padme and Anakin must fall in love, whether or not they have chemistry. Anakin must turn bad, whether or not his transition will be believable. The story cannot progress on its own terms; it is weighted down by inevitability.
I don't mean to imply the films could never have worked. There simply needed to be more effort to give the events and characters the spark of life. This challenge, however, goes a long way in explaining why prequels are so rare. Lucas himself helped popularize the term as well as the concept. Temple of Doom takes place a year before Raiders, but its prequel status is a technicality. There's no story arc, not even a single reference in one film to events from the other.
The Star Wars prequels are better described by an older term, coming from comic books: the origin story. They don't merely depict events from before the first trilogy. They aim to explain how the situation from the first trilogy came to be.
That required skills that I don't believe Lucas ever possessed. Vader was a convincing character as long as Lucas kept him mysterious. Many of the Star Wars novels, written by authors with more depth than Lucas, portray Vader as morally ambiguous. But on the evidence of the films, he seems almost purely evil, an unrepentant mass murderer. Despite Luke's repeated claim that "there is good in him," what turns Vader against the emperor is simply love for his son--hardly a sign of true goodness.
The first trilogy gives no information on how Vader turned evil. It doesn't need to. The Star Wars films have always worked best when they've stayed at a basic, archetypal level. Explaining complex moral transformations is not their strong suit.
Film critic Stephen Hunter disagrees. In his review of Revenge of the Sith, he writes that Lucas successfully "answers The Question," which was previously addressed by "Melville and Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare," who "could never agree on the answer." That question is, "What makes man evil?" According to Hunter, the depiction of Anakin's fall from grace "explains how you could fly a plane full of mothers and babies into a skyscraper and think you were going on a date with 72 virgins, or how you could goose-step your way toward conquest and genocide while singing schmaltzy oompah music."
I agree with Hunter that the film attempts to answer this age-old question, but I cannot imagine what makes him think it succeeds. Beyond its solid understanding of the seductive qualities of fascism, the film provides little insight into the nature of evil.
In a previous post, I pointed out that real-life killers usually perceive themselves as the good guys, whereas fictional villains tend to know they're evil. (This tendency was satirized in the Star Wars parody Spaceballs when Dark Helmet says, "Now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.") The Sith don't so much think of themselves as evil as think that darkness is good--sort of like Satanists.
That's about the extent of Lucas's insight into the subject. So it's no wonder that Anakin's turn to the Dark Side proceeds as if a light switch gets flicked off. One moment he's a conflicted individual unsure where his loyalties lie; the next he's slaughtering children without breaking a sweat. Not exactly the most profound explanation for Al Qaeda or the Nazis.
We shouldn't be too surprised. Back in the early '70s when Lucas began work on his Buck Rogers-inspired screenplay, I doubt he had any idea he'd one day have to deal with these issues. He was seduced by the power of his unforeseen success.
*Dilbert reference. See "Catbert, evil HR director."