The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy isn't as hated as it used to be by most fans, but that doesn't mean it's better than Disney's Sequel Trilogy. Written and directed by George Lucas, the Star Wars Prequels were once the easy punching bag of the fandom, especially in the still-early days of the internet, and while critical opinion still skews more negative, amongst fans it's started to shift.
At the same time, Disney's Sequel Trilogy has started to occupy a similar space among the Star Wars fandom that the Prequels once held, with certain quarters hating what the Mouse House has done to the franchise. Although there've only been two sequel movies so far compared to the complete trilogy of the Prequels, it still makes for a fascinating comparison between the two sets of movies which, unlike the Prequels and Originals, are closer together in terms of release but set apart by the absence of Lucas.
The movies do share some ideas, but are set apart by their different approaches to both filmmaking and storytelling. But while fans who grew up with the Prequels and/or those who hate the Sequels will argue that the former is superior to the latter, it should be clear that Disney's Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, while not perfect, is much better than the Prequel Trilogy.
How Disney Has Caused The Prequels' Re-Assessment
While the movies were once widely loathed and "Prequel" became a dirty word among Star Wars fans, opinion has gradually started to shift in the past few years, which is in part because of Disney. A re-appraisal of the Prequel Trilogy was always likely to happen, because so many fans who grew up with those movies as their first interactions with the Star Wars universe are now reaching the age where they'll be more likely to dominate or influence the conversation. This is slightly intangible in a way - something like Rotten Tomatoes, for example, isn't an ideal metric for tracking changes of opinion over such a long time - but in a general cultural sense and anecdotally, the Prequels have been more forgiven.
Disney's Sequel Trilogy has helped with this in two ways. Firstly, their movies - along with the Star Wars Rebels TV show - have actually embraced the Prequels and ideas from them. Whether it's a reference to Darth Sidious, Rogue One including Darth Vader's castle on Mustafar, or exploring the notion of balance in the Force, the Disney movies have continued to develop some of George Lucas' concepts. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is going further in this regard by bringing back Emperor Palpatine, and likely revealing his entire Skywalker Saga plan that will loop all the way back to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. For a while, it was easier to ignore Prequels on Star Wars rewatches, but they're becoming increasingly essential.
Secondly, and even more pertinently, is how the response to Disney movies has helped the Prequels. While Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One were both well-received, the former has faced some complaints over being too similar to A New Hope. That was nothing compared to the backlash to The Last Jedi, and then the disappointing box-office performance of Solo showed how bad things had got. Star Wars 9 should bounce back, but there's a clear section of Star Wars fans who have major problems with how Disney has handled the saga. That, in turn, has led to increased nostalgia and reverence for the Prequels and for George Lucas himself. He may not have been happy that Disney didn't use his sequel ideas, but he's seemingly far more well-liked and respected by Star Wars fans now than he was when he sold Lucasfilm in 2012.
The Star Wars Prequels Still Have Too Many Problems
Another cause of the re-appraisal for the Star Wars Prequels is that they've faced so much criticism - both upon release and, even more so, when the Red Letter Media takedowns were released and gave rise to a new wave of Prequel hatred and anger - so a swing in the opposite direction was perhaps inevitable. But it's not just a counter-opinion designed to go against the grain, but that there are some good elements in there: Ewan McGregor gives a great performance as Obi-Wan; some of the lightsaber duels are superb; John Williams' scores are as good as anything else in the Saga; and biggest of all, there's a good story, on an idea level, about both the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker twinned with Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine's grand plan for galactic dominance.
But for those positives, the Prequels do still have too many problems. There may be a great story in there, but Lucas wasn't the man to tell it. His obsession with pushing new technologies was understandable, but ended up distracting from the emotional core of the narrative and characters. It's not just that there's a lot of CGI - there's plenty in the Sequel Trilogy, and most Hollywood blockbusters for that matter, while the Prequels had their share of practical effects too - but that it's not effectively used, with Lucas throwing things onto the (green) screen. In turn, the plot, which should be the greatest aspect of the Prequels, loses the necessary sense of focus, and that itself is then made worse by the movies having a more dialogue-heavy approach, when that was always the weakest aspect from Lucas' writing.
Certain performances don't help matters - Hayden Christensen, sadly, isn't up to the task of portraying Anakin's fall - but most of the problems are rooted in Lucas, who with more power here was able to have free reign over his ideas, taking greater control and lacking, for example, the influence of someone like his ex-wife and editor Marcia Lucas, who was so influential in helping make the Original Trilogy so great. Things do pick up in Revenge of the Sith, but in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, despite the odd standout moment of brilliance like Duel of the Flates, there's a failure on story, character, and action levels. Lucas had good ideas, but the Prequels are absolutely not what you could call well-made movies.
Disney's Star Wars Sequels Are Much Better Movies
What are well-made movies are Disney's Star Wars Sequels. That's not to say they're perfect, but just on a basic filmmaking and scriptwriting level, they're a clear cut above what Lucas was doing with the Prequels: the effects, the dialogue, much of the action, the characters, and the storylines (at least in terms of execution) that we see in Disney's Sequel Trilogy totally surpass what's in the Prequels.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens does have the issue of being too much of a re-tread of A New Hope, but that was - to a degree - a deliberate move in order to revive the love of Star Wars that had been lost during the Prequels. It looks and most importantly feels like Star Wars, which was crucial to its success, with a spirit and heart that felt lacking from the coldness of the Prequels. It was also, on a character-level, a masterstroke from J.J. Abrams. He's long had a gift for casting, and he nails it here: in the likes of Rey, Kylo Ren, and BB-8 he gives us new characters to root for and against; a thrilling new generation of heroes and villains that fans new and old can invest in, which was then developed further by The Last Jedi. These weren't just re-treads, but their own wonderful creations to carry a new series forward.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the most divisive movie of the Star Wars Saga, mostly because of its choices around certain characters and its writing in general. Taking a step away from the script for a moment, and it's again clear that this is on another level as a Star Wars film: not since The Empire Strikes Back has the Saga been so visually stunning; the Throne Room action sequence mixes inventive lightsaber fight with indelible imagery; the performances, of Adam Driver and Mark Hamill in particular, are among the franchise's best, while Bob Duscay's seamless editing makes the longest Star Wars movie absolutely fly by.
On a script level, The Last Jedi does make difficult and divisive choices, but they're ones that are simultaneously rooted in the past of the franchise AND pushing it forward in bold new directions. Luke's action's echo with his own past, and there are elements of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi alongside its unique aspects, while all is underpinned by themes and ideas of hope, despair, failure, balance, and family, which are core tenets of the Star Wars Saga. Across Disney's Sequel Trilogy so far, there are two films which are both good movies and good Star Wars movies, when neither thing can truly be said of the Prequels as a whole.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019