THE STAR WARS HERESIES by Paul F. McDonald accomplished two nigh impossible things for me.
First, Mr. McDonald demonstrated that despite my inability to enjoy these movies, there are a great deal of intelligent and interesting things going on within them. This is a book that calls out and pulls together an impressive number of disparate philosophical ideas, mythological imagery and important dialogue from the trilogy of STAR WARS prequels, and then manages to tie a neat bow on them. It does so in a way that I found extremely interesting, informative, and satisfying.
With the help of various Taoist, Buddhist, Christian and mytho-historical scholars — both actual and armchair — McFarland & Company’s release of THE STAR WARS HERESIES creates its own Tao of STAR WARS in an easily digestible tone and in just slightly less than 200 pages. Naturally, I found some of the connections tenuous enough I wouldn’t have emphasized them. And maybe once or twice McDonald saw things that I honestly don’t believe are there. But that’s the nature of this kind of beast, and McDonald’s enjoyment of both the subject matter and his quest to dig into it cover a multitude of sins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover all of them.
The second almost impossible thing McDonald did is pull together the frayed threads of prequel narrative and weave them together into a tapestry that is not only cohesive, but also fairly compelling. Those of you who, like me, found the prequels almost incomprehensible from a “why are these things happening?” standpoint may find that statement literally incredible. You may wonder how McDonald pulled it off.
Easy: He cheated.
McDonald approached the borderline nonsensical and inane plot of the prequels the same way he approached the sometimes nonsensical and often apparently inane philosophy of STAR WARS: He scoured a great many nooks and crannies to pull together something that made sense. Unwilling (or unable) to rely solely on the films to accomplish this, the author brings in deleted scenes, audio commentaries, quotes from interviews, the movies’ paperback novelizations and even nearly unrelated cartoon shows. He makes it abundantly clear that there was, at some point, a cogent plot in the prequels. Sadly, he is unwilling to admit that it got lost along the way to theatrical release.
And I, at least, consider that cheating. It’s the one sin of HERESIES that cannot be forgiven. HERESIES insists the movies are, on their own merits, coherent, well-plotted and “good.” Further, HERESIES makes it clear that if the reader doesn’t like the prequel trilogy, or feels the plot is confusing, or that the acting is wooden and stilted, then it is simply because the reader isn’t smart enough to get what George Lucas the auteur was doing.
That is some pretentious nonsense right there — and unfortunately, an argument poisoned with its own counterargument. If all the stuff that makes the movies hang together is found on the cutting-room floor, in novelizations, animated series or 400-year-old romantic poems, then I’m not entirely sure how it is that the movies hang together.
And I say this is from a guy who really, really appreciates pretentious and scholarly approaches to pop culture. I might look you in the eye and compare 1980’s FLASH GORDON film to BEOWULF. I might be deadly serious. And I might do a great job of making the argument. But I would never, under any circumstances, try and convince you that FLASH is objectively good. That’s called intellectual honesty, folks; HERESIES is missing that key ingredient.
If you can put that aside, though, you will really appreciated the scholarly end of things. There are fascinating insights culled from a wide variety of sources. I’m no slouch in the armchair end of mythology or philosophy, but there were moments McDonald genuinely surprised and delighted me. I would give a gushing and glowing review to that part of the book and happily hand copies out like candy at Halloween.
Against all odds, he convinced me that I had given the intellectual side of the prequels short shrift. He breathed new life into my interest in that galaxy far, far away. But HERESIES strangled that new life in the crib when it failed to accept and acknowledge that appreciating these fresh insights means I’m forced to slog through impenetrable plotting, bad dialogue and amateurish performances. Instead of convincing me to rewatch the prequels with a new eye for what I’d missed, the book instead redoubled my resolve to never bother with them again. That feels like a greater failure than if the book had simply failed to convince me I’d missed anything in the first place.
I’m not harshing on anybody who loved the prequels, by the way. I love FLASH GORDON and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and I don’t give a damn who knows it or what you think of it. Watchable bad movies are still watchable and, therefore, lovable, even if the mileage on what keeps them watchable varies. If you somehow manage to consider the prequels watchable, then may Lucas bless your intestinal fortitude.
So, those among you who loved THE PHANTOM MENACE, ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, and are looking for a work to give you a great deal of insight into the philosophical and mythological underpinnings of Lucas’s magnum opus, you are going to love this book. I could not recommend it more to you.
If you disliked the prequels, but believe that there were a lot of interesting things going on in the story’s unplumbed depths, Mr. McDonald will happily plumb them for you and drag those things to the surface in an enjoyable way. However, he also will pretend that he didn’t have to cobble together his own bathysphere and diving helmet to do so. And that sorta puts a kink in his breathing tube. —Joshua Unruh