The Star Wars prequels, long the ultimate mar on the franchise, are getting a reevaluation - and a lot of it is thanks to Disney. Or, rather, how fans have reacted to the post-acquisition output of Lucasfilm.
Star Wars has always courted strong reactions, but recently things have gone into hyperspeed. Star Wars: The Last Jedi split the fanbase right down the middle, with some embracing Rian Johnson's unexpected deconstruction of the monomyth while other found the handling of Luke Skywalker - among others - an affront to the decades-long wait. And then Solo: A Star Wars Story became the first bonafide box office failure in the series' history, with a director change and expensive reshoots leading to a good movie yet making it impossible to turn a profit. Now the discussion heading towards Star Wars 9 is less how the sequel trilogy will wrap up and more what the long-term sustainability of Star Wars really is.
Related: No, Disney Isn't Killing Star Wars
In all this forward-thinking discussion, however, there's been one fundamental aspect of Star Wars that's being at worst ignored, at best reevaluated: the prequel trilogy. Whereas ten years ago Episodes I-III were treated as the nadir, now the handling is docile. Part of this will come from the ongoing adventures of the Skywalker clan (and broom boys beyond) meaning Darth Vader's protracted "No" at the end of Revenge of the Sith (or The Clone Wars' Ziro the Hutt) is no longer the final cinematic word from the galaxy far, far away and further that a whole generation of fans who grew up with Anakin instead of Luke and Boba Fett a Kiwi clone are now of age, but in the light of the Disney Star Wars controversies, there appears to be something deeper going on here.
- This Page: What Was Actually Wrong With The Star Wars Prequels?
- Page 2: Disney's Star Wars Reboot Never Lost Sight Of The Prequels
- Page 3: What Disney Did To Exonerate The Star Wars Prequels
Why Are The Star Wars Prequels So Hated In The First Place?
That the Star Wars prequels were so decried so intensely for so long feels almost surreal twenty years on, and that really has little to do with anything that's subsequently happened with Disney.
The prequels were promised almost as long as there was Star Wars. George Lucas had written what was then the single movie as part of a longer serial, and by 1978 he was overtly teasing what came before (including how the Emperor manipulated his way to power and a duel between Vader and Obi-Wan on a lava planet). When the movie known just as Star Wars became Episode IV: A New Hope (a retitle in 1981), Episodes I-III became tangible. And so, for over twenty years, they existed as immensely hyped, near-mythic possibilities. The best modern comparison is, well, Star Wars Episode VII.
Of course, the prequels did not live up to the promise or quality of the original Star Wars trilogy. They were at once immensely divergent - Darth Vader was a whiny child and politics not hope dictated the war - and peculiarly reliant on what had come before - Lucas himself said The Phantom Menace was "like poetry", and the films are full of tight-knit establishment and references to the point that Anakin's fall, the Vader suit, the Empire's rise, Luke & Leia's birth, Padme's death, the Jedi purge, and the end of the Clone Wars all occur in the space of a long weekend. These counter-intuitive aspects prove challenging regardless of quality, and the films are notoriously creaky, with Lucas' wooden dialogue and over-reliance on CGI starting a snowball of weak creative choices.
Yet, despite this well-trodden ground, there are a lot of strong ideas and fewer-but-not-insignificant executions. The story of the prequels - which, again, had been mapped out before the original trilogy was even decided - is immensely powerful, a tale of parallel corruptions that inverts the well-worn hero's journey and Chosen One myths to add depth to the altruism of the original movie, and while Lucas' scripts hide a lot of it (that the Jedi are a useless organization isn't a criticism, it's the point), the performances (think Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine or Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi) and visuals still convey that. With that bedrock, what's strong stands tall: blistering action (the opening space battle of Revenge of the Sith, Duel of the Fates); striking iconography (Order 66, the proto-stormtrooper clones); genuinely impressive special effects (the model-work on The Phantom Menace, Mustafar).
All of which is to say, the prequels are mixed bag. They run the gamut of quality and have some woefully low moments, yet how is that any worse than other reviled follow-ups like The Hobbit? What undid the prequels was that they were only average under the weight of the then almost-infallible Star Wars brand. Episodes I-III are undeniable disappointing, and in the decade following The Phantom Menace, the justification for that became all-consuming dislike; initial reactions were positive, but slowly the rot set in and by the time the iconoclast Mr. Plinkett reviews ran in the late-2000s, the horse was dead.
The key here, though, is that so much of the backlash comes from self-perpetuation rather than analysis. Take midichlorians. The most reviled aspect of the prequels for an entire generation, these microscopic, Force-giving lifeforms are blamed for ruining the mystique of the Force. But do they? A high midichlorian count is, in practice, not that far beyond being "strong with the Force" in the original trilogy, it's just a scientific application. That's not to say they're necessary, but anything claiming they're ruinous within the mythology divorces itself from the material. Much of the backlash works in this form - and that's what Disney's corrected.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019