The Prequels Are Different
A major overarching criticism of the Disney movies so far is that they're familiar. The Force Awakens relied heavily on nostalgia and brought back several major plot points from the original trilogy, while Rogue One was set mere minutes before the first film, replicating much of the design and tonal elements of A New Hope. Both were different to each other - Episode VII is the Star Wars the wider culture knows, while the Story is more what fans expected from the Expanded Universe - yet they were still firmly in the same, safe bubble. That worked and was honestly necessary to lay the groundwork for what's going to be a never-ending run of stories, but has become a concern going forward. And this is where they really help the prequels.
The prequels are different. They introduce a completely opposed galactic backdrop - a crumbling, corrupted Republic instead of a binary civil war - have a litany of fresh, sleek designs (before slowly evolving into the ships and planets we know), and for all the narrative parallels (as George famously said "it's like poetry, they rhyme") they're telling a fresh story. Above all, they're tonally separate. Anakin's fall is a dark companion to Luke's arc, yet it comes alongside Palpatine's Machiavellian rise and dogmatic politics.
If you're expecting the same old elements repeated, that's going to jar, but as we've seen people don't necessarily just want more of the same. Many of the issues the consensus have with the new movies are not present in the prequels (and some of the praised elements are), to a degree making them harder to hate - the justification is weaker - but mainly highlighting that there is something unique there.
That's not to say all the differences are necessarily all good - and the filmmaking faux pas' still remain - but there's an emerging recognition that Lucas semi-purposely made something inherently challenging. Scrape away the obvious CGI sets and wooden delivery of muddy dialogue and the ideas - ideas that, importantly, Lucas had mapped out in the late-1970s - are strong; he's dissecting the notion of the Jedi as noble protectors and the basic concept of the linear Force.
The Prequels Are The Future?
Between Millennials inheriting the cultural voice and the previous generation moving on, the new movies offer a way to get over the disappointment and view the prequels in a new light, seeing them for what they are rather than what they aren't. Of course, they're never going to be viewed on a par with the originals but it's now less egregious to suggest something like that than it was ten years ago. Star Wars fandom has gotten over the hate - it's found balance.
And balance really is the word. There's not been much in the way of prequel elements in the new movies, but one thing that is prominent in The Force Awakens and seems to inform where we're going in The Last Jedi is the idea of balance in the Force, which comes from the Chosen One prophecy introduced in The Phantom Menace. Something from the prequels has been accepted into the fold as a defining trait of the series, and as time goes on we're going to get more of that: Rebels has openly tied up loose ends from The Clone Wars; Han Solo may be set closer to Episode III than Episode IV; and an Obi-Wan movie would bring back Ewan McGregor, reaffirming that there are good things in those movies.
We stand on the brink of, after a dark couple of decades, Star Wars once again being a coherent whole with every movie a part of it - the fabric that all fans grew up with and deep down want. So maybe the prequels were always cool. It just took us time to realize.
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019