It’s no secret that the Star Wars prequels aren’t everyone’s favorite. Episodes I-III are so derided that it’s hard to find any Star Wars-related discourse where the dialogue doesn’t take a detour to disparage George Lucas and the prequels.
The prequel hatred can be so complete that even before release of The Force Awakens, there were calls from some fans to either de-canonize the prequels altogether, or at least ignore them in the future development of new Star Wars content.
After The Force Awakens, many were quick to praise J.J. Abrams for disregarding the prequels entirely. They urged Disney to follow this perceived pattern moving forward, and rely solely on original trilogy nostalgia to fuel the franchise. The fact that the entirety of Lucasfilm’s current slate - Rogue One, a Han Solo spinoff, and a Boba Fett Spinoff (in addition to Episode VIII and IX) - all stem from characters and events in the original trilogy only perpetuates that perspective.
The thing is, regardless of fans’ thoughts vis-a-vis the execution of the prequels, they’re an essential fixture of the Star Wars saga - and they aren’t going anywhere.
This article is not intended to change anyone’s feelings concerning the craftsmanship of the prequels. The internet has chewed on that one for years already, and most minds are already made up. This is purely to illustrate Why Future Star Wars Movies Can’t Ignore the Prequels.
First things first. While The Force Awakens was packed full of original trilogy nostalgia, it didn’t actually ignore the prequels, as some have claimed. Be it podracing flags outside of Maz Kanata’s palace, Lor San Takka’s reference to the balance of the force, a brief glimpse of a Nubian senator, Kylo Ren’s reference to a clone army, John Williams’s musical queues, or the clear similarities between Anakin Skywalker and Ben Solo, the prequels are alive and well in The Force Awakens.
Granted, the prequel callbacks were unquestionably more subtle than the original trilogy references. We didn’t see any battle droids, hear any references to the Trade Federation, or witness any actual podraces. Kylo Ren has an obsession with Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber is a central element in the film, but the name Anakin isn’t even uttered once. This all makes sense on most levels, because the original trilogy didn’t explicitly reference most of that, either.
The Force Awakens had many jobs between continuing the story from the original trilogy, establishing new characters, sewing threads of a new story, and just being a generally fun and entertaining film, so there wasn’t a ton of space to include prequel references. Even so, most viewers would agree that any hat tips to the prequels only occurred in the most muted ways. That can’t be the case moving forward.
George Lucas has always compared the Star Wars saga to poetry. It’s even become a bit of a meme with Star Wars fans, who will mock certain elements of the story by saying “it’s like poetry” or “it rhymes.” The thing is, it’s true. All of it.
The Star Wars movies all follow a chiastic structure, which means its themes are constantly playing and replaying in inverse loops. Each stanza flips the script and repeats the major themes in variation as it tells the story. This is a style incredibly prominent in ancient epic poetry like The Odyssey, or in other famous literature such as The Bible or John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
These stanzas or verses are often established across generations, and each Star Wars trilogy covers a different generation. In this fashion, Luke’s story is an inverted parallel to Anakin’s: The fall of the father leads to the rise of the son. This structure applies to the entire journey of both characters, but there are also individual scenes that contrast the visual and thematic parallels. Two specific scenes that follow this formula are Luke’s vision in the cave on Dagobah, and Anakin’s attempt to save his mother on Tatooine.
There are many deliberate shot by shot similarities between both scenes, as well as some striking differences. Both characters are forced to face their fears and meet their dark side. Luke’s vision concludes with him seeing his own face behind Darth Vader’s helmet, while Anakin casts a shadow that portrays the silhouette of Vader.
The path the father and son follow toward the dark side also comes to a fork in a nearly identical matter as well. Having removed the hand(s) of Palpatine’s apprentice Palpatine directs them to finish the job. Anakin complies, decapitating Dooku, but Luke goes the opposite route. He throws his lightsaber away. He refuses to strike down his father, breaking the parallel and demonstrating a compassion that ultimately leads Vader to commit his own redeeming sacrifice.
Scenes like this from the original trilogy had merit and stood on their own long before the prequels came along, so it’s not as if the original trilogy needed to be “fixed” or improved by the prequels. Nevertheless, the use this poetic structure to mirror and contrast these stories - both visually and thematically - creates a far more dynamic narrative wherein the whole of the saga is greater than the sum of its parts.
For a deeper dive into the brain melting poetic structure of Star Wars, check out Mike Klimo’s RING THEORY: The Hidden Artistry of the Star Wars Prequels.
One of the key parts of Kylo Ren’s character is his worship of Darth Vader. This idolization doesn’t merely extend to the Vader we know from original trilogy. Ren sees himself as the heir of Anakin Skywalker’s entire legacy, not just his time in the black armor. This is evidenced by the fact that he desires artifacts of the pre-Vader Anakin, and not just Vader’s mask. When he sees Rey with his grandfather’s lightsaber, his reaction is to yell: “That saber is mine!”
In The Phantom Menace, Yoda tells Anakin that “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate… leads to suffering.” This is the path to the dark side, and these very emotions are realized by Ren in the same order on-screen. This is the exact same arc Anakin walks in the prequels, specifically Revenge of the Sith, but also throughout the entire trilogy.
Without the foundation laid by the prequels, the path taken by Kylo Ren, while still quite dramatic, holds less gravitas. It bears more weight when we see him walking the same path as Anakin Skywalker. Will his journey mirror Anakin’s to the end? Will it take a turn, as Luke’s did? Or will his path follow a third iteration?
In A New Hope, Obi-Wan speaks of a Jedi order that served as the “guardians of peace and justice” for over a thousand generations. It’s suggested that the fall of the Jedi was due simply to the rise of the Empire. Darth Vader came in like a wrecking ball and wiped them out. Like most things coming from the lips of Obi-Wan, it’s true, “from a certain point of view.”
A more nuanced look at the fall of the Jedi provided by the prequels shows a flawed order that failed in its mission and allowed the seeds of the Empire to germinate under their very noses. The Jedi had grown arrogant and lazy and allowed themselves to become politically subservient to the Old Republic, and thus, politically subservient to Sheev Palpatine.
When civil war threatens the galaxy, the Jedi wrongfully assume the role of leading the Republic military during the Clone Wars. This decision only serves to increase the influence of Chancellor Palpatine and seals their own fate. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda tells Luke that “wars not make one great,” it originally came off as a sort of cheeky quip, but with the added context of the prequel trilogy, it adds a much sadder and more dramatic layer. We’re seeing the realizations the former Grand Master had come to in his two decades of reflection on his failure as the head of the Jedi Order.
The Jedi have another chance with Luke, however. After the aptly titled Return of the Jedi, he takes on the responsibility of reestablishing the Jedi Order. He eventually takes his nephew on as an apprentice. The ins-and-outs of what exactly caused Ben to turn on Luke, the Jedi, and his family aren’t all spelled out yet, but we know the fallout. He slaughtered dozens of students, became the master of the Knights of Ren, and joined up with the First Order. After this, Luke - Like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him - went into exile.
While this story is told off-screen, it’s another parallelism from the prequels. It’s the story of Obi-Wan and Anakin all over, but Obi-Wan’s story is played out by Luke, and Anakin’s is played out by Ben, who’s name is the cherry on top in this inverted Skywalker/Kenobi relationship. It’s a tragic story no matter how you slice it. The failure of the master is a cycle that adds so much depth to what is happening in The Force Awakens, and it will doubtless be a continued theme in Episode VIII and IX.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… George Lucas had always conceived of Star Wars as a sort of ancient history, being chronicled by beings called the Whills. The phrase “as taken from the Journal of the Whills” even appeared as a subtitle to nearly every iteration of the original Star Wars: A New Hope screenplay until 1995. The Journal of the Whills is now canon due to a reference in the novelization for The Force Awakens.
“All of this has happened before and it will happen again” may be a line from Battlestar Galactica, but it fits here just as well. History repeats itself. Star Wars is no different.
The Force Awakens drew a lot of flack for the perception some had that it was a rip-off of A New Hope, but this is only part of the story. It has just as much - if not more - in common with The Phantom Menace, because The Phantom Menace and A New Hope also share parallel stories. This is what will continue to give the “Rey is a Skywalker” theories fuel until the movies officially confirm or deny it.
There’s an element of repetition, just like music, and that repetition is accented by iteration. Luke’s story matches Anakin’s, until it doesn’t, and those differences draw contrast. Seeing how a new character handles a similar cycle as another character is part of what makes this grand story so dynamic. That’s why Joseph Campbell referred to it as the “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” The journey is always similar, but the face isn’t. Anakin, Luke, Kylo, and Rey are all participants in this same cycle. We watch to see how each will handle it differently.
A New Hope opens with the Empire capturing a senator who claims she’s on a diplomatic mission. One of Darth Vader’s first lines is “if this is a consular ship, where is the ambassador?”, and the introduction to the Death Star is through a conversation in a conference room where the entire political landscape of the original trilogy is established.
The Imperial brass is concerned that the Rebel Alliance is gaining too much sympathy in the senate, but Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin informs them that the senate has been “dissolved permanently.” The “bureaucracy” is no longer relevant, because the regional governors have been placed directly in charge of their territories. This is all possible because of the Death Star. The Death Star is a political weapon. It wasn’t constructed for war, it was constructed to instill fear. Fear to “keep the systems in line.”
This tool is the last piece of Palpatine’s grand scheme to gain complete political dominance. A scheme initiated in the prequels when he leveraged a trade dispute between the Trade Federation and Naboo to claim the office of Chancellor. The original trilogy’s style of political storytelling may have been executed differently, but politics are just as relevant in both halves of the current saga.
The big difference is in the way the story is communicated. The original trilogy preferred to show you the universe and allow you to infer details on how everything fit together behind the scenes, whereas the prequels were far more expositional in the storytelling. Granted, the characters in the prequel trilogy found themselves in far closer proximity to galactic politics than the original trilogy’s smuggler, farm boy, and princess without a planet.
In The Force Awakens, politics are just as relevant, although it spends far less time explaining it than any of the movies in either of the previous trilogies. Instead, leaving much of the political information to be deciphered from close rewatches, or gleaned from supplemental material. The political situation we do get, however, is very heavily influenced by the events of the previous two trilogies. Especially the prequels.
In an attempt to steer clear of the same mistakes that resulted in the downfall of the Old Republic, the New Republic avoids centralizing too much power by moving the capital city to a new planet every few years and refusing to maintain a military presence outside of basic defense forces. This refusal leaves them completely open for attack, allowing the First Order to destroy the entire Hosnian system, decimating the Republic senate. The political effects of this are bound to ripple into the next sequels.
The prequels laid the foundation for the true scale of the galaxy, although the original trilogy did a good job with this in many aspects as well. Mos Eisley Cantina and Jabba’s palace showed a sampling of the numerous species that exist throughout the galaxy, the conference room scene on the Death Star established the governmental structure, and Cloud City gave a taste of civilized life that existed outside the Empire’s control. But none of that expanded the universe as effectively as the prequels did visually with massive CG locations like Coruscant or the Senate Chamber.
The sequels could easily adopt prequel worldbuilding, yet still expand on it in the style of the originals. For example, The Phantom Menace spends a lot of time establishing the relationship between Naboo and the Trade Federation. The Empire Strikes Back, however, uses just a few simple lines of dialogue from Lando to explain to Leia that Cloud City is fortunate to be “small enough not to be noticed” by the Empire or Mining Guild, trusting the viewer to understand that there are trade guilds throughout the Star Wars galaxy, and Lando doesn’t want their attention. No discussion of trade route taxation or senate debates necessary!
The prequels portray a galaxy that is home to thousands of species representing just as many systems. And those are just the systems that are a part of the republic. We are also shown examples of life outside of Republic rule, such as Watto refusing Republic Credits.
The Force Awakens visually brings back that same scale with the star map, but the map only represents the physical scope of the galaxy. We need more than a brief shot of a balcony of doomed senators to actually populate that map.
Outside of worldbuilding, most of the lore in Star Wars actually comes from the prequels. The prophecy of the chosen one, the Jedi council, the Sith, and the rule of two, for example, are all concepts that were brought to life through the prequels. Some had been mentioned via the expanded universe, but even that never had the same canonical status as the films.
As mentioned earlier, the general kerfuffle with the way the prequels establish lore points a finger more to the style than the actual substance. Even so, most of what’s typically considered controversial lore is a necessary evil in any universe this large.
The force can only be described as a “mystical energy field” with some vague spiritualistic jargon for so long before the mythology starts to get stretched thin, necessitating a deeper dive.
This is the case for any franchise, especially anything that falls under the sci-fi/fantasy umbrella. The longer any story goes on, the more necessary it becomes to give solid explanations for any in-universe machinations, be it the Speed Force, the effects of a yellow sun, the X-Gene, or… midi-chlorians.
Unfortunately, the introduction of some lore (again, *cough*, midi-chlorians) happened in a way many fans didn’t accept as readily as Flash fans accepted the Speed Force, or X-Men fans accepted the X-Gene. That, however, still doesn’t change the fact that an explanation was inevitable eventually. Hopefully that’s an area future movies can expand on in a way that fans find more palatable
While the main cast members of the original trilogy were able to reprise their roles for The Force Awakens, any story told with them has to take place decades after Return of the Jedi, due to their age. When younger versions of those characters - such as Han Solo - appear on-screen, they will need to be recast. Recasting can be risky business with such iconic characters.
Many people have claimed that The Clone Wars animated series did wonders for “fixing” the prequels. If that’s the case, then a strong argument could be made in favor of a live action movie or Netflix mini-series that takes place during that same era. There are plenty of stories from unfinished seasons of The Clone Wars that could easily be adapted to live-action, and most of the actors are available (RIP Christopher Lee).
A story told in a style similar to that of the original trilogy - like The Force Awakens was - and takes place in the prequel era is an amazing opportunity Lucasfilm shouldn’t pass up. It’s also an excellent opportunity to repair the prequel image for any fans still feeling let down. Obviously those that don’t hate the prequels with a passion would also love to see those stories told, so it’s basically a win-win.
Anyone that doesn’t follow Star Wars outside of the movies - and didn’t notice the prequel connections in The Force Awakens - could understandably think the prequels are a non-factor in the new Star Wars canon, but that perspective couldn’t be further from the truth. All new canonical material outside The Force Awakens is permeated with prequel ties. The Star Wars: Rebels animated series might be the most prominent example, but many other books and comics either take place during the prequel era, reference prequel events, or follow characters introduced in the prequels.
Whether it’s Darth Vader thinking of Padme, Luke discovering old Jedi temples, clone troopers appearing in the ranks of stormtroopers, Leia visiting Naboo, or Temmin “Snap” Wexley (who appears in The Force Awakens, played by Greg Grunberg) building a bodyguard out of an old battle droid, the prequels are alive and well in new Star Wars canon. Seeing these same ties stretch into live-action will only serve to make the Star Wars universe even more cohesive and well-formed.
Finally, we have the issue of fan alienation. Many Star Wars fans like to act like the entire fanbase was there on May 25th, 1977, and lived in several decades of pure Star Wars bliss before George Lucas swept in and ruined their childhoods with the prequels.
That’s obviously not the case. First of all, not all fans that were there in 1977 feel that way. There are many who also enjoy the prequels. Second, The Phantom Menace came out over a decade and a half ago. There is an entire generation of fans that love Star Wars and were introduced via the prequels, or Rebels and The Clone Wars. Many of these fans view the prequels with just as much nostalgia as the older generation of fans view the original trilogy.
Of course, that older generation often dismisses these fans, suggesting that younger generation of Star Wars lovers “aren’t real fans.” The Force Awakens may have positioned itself to win back those of the older fan base that were disillusioned by the prequels, but in only a few short years, the majority of the fan population will be populated those “fake fans” who came to love Star Wars through the prequels and animated shows.
That generation is not going to be ignored. That doesn’t mean the older generation will be swept to the side, however. As mentioned above, there are many ways to include prequel era references in newer canon in a way that embodies the style and tone of the original trilogy. All Star Wars fans can be winners here, regardless of what part of Star Wars they love the most.
At the end of the day, some Star Wars movies will be better than others. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. That doesn’t mean that the movies some fans consider inferior should (or could) be discarded. The Star Wars saga has a little something for everyone, and fans should spend their efforts seeking out and praising their favorite elements, not trying to eject their least favorite from canon. After all, only a Sith deals in absolutes.
What other reasons can you think of that the prequels should remain an integral part of the canon? Disagree? Let us know why in the comments!