How has opinion on the Star Wars prequels changed over time? We've looked back through the history of Rotten Tomatoes to view how their critic and audience scores have gone down (and up), representing how we all view Star Wars Episodes I-III.
2019 marks the 20th Anniversary of The Phantom Menace, the start of the most controversial movie trilogy of all time. George Lucas' long-gestating prequels to his industry-redefining original trilogy were so highly anticipated that a fall was inevitable, but not even a clairvoyant Force user could have predicted just what a fall it would be. After an initial wave of positivity, each film became regarded as a major disappointment at best, cinematic travesty at worst. Lazy direction, cheesy dialogue, flat romance, dry politics, confounding changes to the lore: the Star Wars prequels had it all, and fans wouldn't let it go.
Today, the relationship is even more complex. It's easy to forget now in the Disney era, which have their own controversies relating to reshoots, fired directors and fan-critic divides, that for over a decade the story of Darth Vader's fall was the biggest geek punching bag there was. Yet with the likes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story challenging fans in different ways, the maligned films are undergoing something of a reappraisal; many are respecting Lucas' clear vision, with the even long-standing hater Simon Pegg coming out in his defense.
But with so much emotion and opinion, it's hard to get a sense of all these intangibles. And so, we turned to Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator that blew up in the early-2000s. Using their scores from 2005 to the present, we tracked how opinion on the films had evolved once the Star Wars prequel trilogy was complete. The purpose of this experiment was to see the major influences on Star Wars fandom and its opinion since. The results, however, revealed much more.
To collect this data, we used the Wayback Machine to view the Rotten Tomatoes pages for Star Wars Episodes I-III from 2005 (the earliest records with usable site structure) to the present. The critic "Tomatometer" and audience score have been charted over the past 14 years, creating an image of how this period of backlash was measured by one of the most popular movie aggregators on the internet.
- This Page: The Phantom Menace & The 3D Rerelease
- Page 2: Attack of the Clones & The Force Awakens' Impact
- Page 3: Revenge of the Sith's Hacked Audience Score
The Phantom Menace Wasn't Rotten Until The 3D Rerelease
Due to the method of collection, the data misses out the first six years of Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace's life; there's no information on the film before early 2005. This means that a lot of fluctuation in both critical and audience appraisal will have already happened. Still, its reputation since is still revealing.
The Phantom Menace started 2005 on 62%, and stayed in the 61-64% range for the better part of a decade. Episode I only became Rotten in 2012, with the film's ill-advised 3D rerelease. Intended as the first of a complete saga reissue using the new technology, George Lucas' decision to start with his divisive first entry hurt its reputation badly; reviews skewed negative on the film and the effect, sending its score steadily downwards; it went straight to 57% before slowly decreasing to the 54% it's on today. As the only film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy to get a rerelease, this means The Phantom Menace is at a real disadvantage: whether this was a case of the new reviews setting the score straight or the mounting distaste skewing it, this glut of new reviews marked a point of no return.
The film officially going Rotten had an impact on the audience reviews too. It reached a high of 73% approval around the time of Revenge of the Sith's release before leveling out around 67%. It was only in early 2007 when its score dropped down to 60%, possibly spurred on by the 30th Anniversary celebrations causing a full-series reevaluation, but that recovered. It wasn't until 2014, though, that the film became Rotten for audiences, the result of a gradual degrading ever since the 3D rerelease: it had been on 65% before 3D, but quickly fell.
Overall, The Phantom Menace's Rotten Tomatoes scores highlight less the movie and more how, once out of release window, it's really hard for Rotten Tomatoes metrics to show an adjust in opinion, which can have a wider impact. It was only with the 3D re-release that the critics' opinion was truly shown to have turned, while the audience was evidently somewhat influenced by that shift.