When the first Star Wars movie was released in May of 1977 it was met with awe and admiration. The continuation of the trilogy was even more well-received and Star Wars quickly cemented itself as an icon in American culture. Much to the dismay of many fans, however, the final piece of the original trilogy was followed by a 16-year gap before another installment of the space opera would be featured on the big screen. The prequel trilogy, which began in 1999, was possibly one of the most anticipated movies in recent history. Despite the hype, or as a result of it, the prequel trilogy was received with significantly less enthusiasm than the originals.
In fact, the prequel woes were sung from the housetops. People couldn’t complain enough about the movies’ “awful” acting and “horrible” plot. Everything about the prequels was battered, bashed, bruised and belittled. The prequels quickly became nearly as hated as the original trilogy was loved. In truth, there is an awful lot of things that the prequels actually did right. Though I will no doubt be hated for even suggesting it, there are many ways in which the prequels actually do a better job than the original movies. While the prequels by no means constitute a “perfect” story, neither were the original trilogy. What the prequels lack, in most regards, plagues the original trilogies as well. While many Star Wars fans out there would have you believe that the prequel trilogy isn’t worth your time, I’m here today to not just disagree with that sentiment, but promise that there is just as much enjoyment and value to be found in the prequel movies as there are in the original trilogy.
|I like this image. I didn’t make it, and it has nothing to do with my article.|
HISTORY OF THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY AND THE PREQUEL TRILOGY
The original trio of Star Wars movies was released in 1977, 1980 and 1983. While there are certainly many factors that contributed to the popularity of the original three movies, a large portion of the success belongs to the groundbreaking special effects. Star Wars put things on the screen that people had never seen before and created a universe that felt almost real. Then, after 1983, George Lucas stopped producing any Star Wars movies for a very long time.
That’s not to say that Star Wars stopped being popular, quite the contrary in fact. While trading cards, video games, books, toys and other collectibles continued to sell like wildfire, there was simply no new, on-screen Star Wars representation. For better or for worse, this was the situation that precluded the arrival of the prequel trilogy.
The Prequel Hype and Disappointment. With the announcement of a new film being released in 1999, fans were drooling in anticipation. People were so excited that George literally didn’t have to advertise the film—it advertised itself. Before the movie had even wrapped on production, millions of dollars had been spent and made through merchandising and advertising for the Phantom Menace, and none of it came from George’s pocket. For example, Newsweek ran a package of stories (that’s right, more than one) just analyzing the hype the film was receiving. Everyone wanted in on the new Star Wars action. Even TV guide, who, as you might guess, typically only dabbled in things related to television, ran a cover story on the Phantom Menace.
Scott Donaton, a writer for the magazine Advertising Age, put it this way: “The hype, the build-up, the manipulation [was] all too much. When I turned down tickets to the New York premiere of Phantom Menace you would’ve thought I had declined a private audience with the Pope! People literally gasped when I told them. “How could you…?” they sputtered incredulously.” He continues to describe the hype and publicity that preceded Episode One as a “buzzkreig,” or a blitzkrieg of buzz, and one that ultimately hurt the brand. When you pay for marketing, you get to control the message, but for Star Wars, the hype train got so out of control that George Lucas, nor anyone for that matter, could stop it from derailing. “In the case of Star Wars,” Scott adds, “the tidal wave of hype grew so large it had to crash. Expectations were so high that when the movie turned out to be, well, a movie, [fans] came away disappointed.”
The thing is, while the hype surrounding the launch of George Lucas’ second trilogy was almost entirely positive, the release of his second, first episode was anything but. Its reception was so bad, that in my extensive research I was hard pressed to find any review that didn’t bemoan the Phantom Menace at least a little. I eventually did stumble upon Susan Stark’s review for the Detroit News: “Phantom is fantastic: Menace lives up to its hype as a visually stunning, engaging Star Wars prequel,” but this review was clearly the exception. And it wasn’t just the critics. Millions of Star Wars all fans all over the world were left with a bitter taste in their mouth. The film tugged the heart strings of every Star Wars nerd and inspired many spirited debates as to whether Lucas’ new film had in fact, ruined our childhoods.
Why Everyone Hates the Prequels. It’s actually not uncommon for a sequel (or prequel) to be received poorly. This could be because sequels are never as “good” as the original, but there may be other factors influencing it as well. In 2001, Todd Berliner wrote in the Journal of Film and Video about this very subject. He said that “the almost inescapable failure of sequels results from the fact that, at the same time a sequel [or prequel] calls to mind the charismatic original, it also recalls its absence, fostering a futile, nostalgic desire to re-experience the original aesthetic moment as though it had never happened.”
In other words, if you were to rewatch Luke blow up the Death Star in Star Wars Episode Four, you would be taken back to the same feelings you had when you first watched that climactic moment. Second viewings of a movie can restore the original film to us, in some cases leading to an increased feeling of adoration as we notice new details and insights. Comparatively, when you watch Episode One, you are similarly reminded of that moment with Luke and the Death Star, but also reminded of its absence. As Todd puts it, “sequels, by contrast… continually and conspicuously fail to reinvoke that initial pleasure.” While not all sequels suffer from this problem (The Empire Strikes Back being a prime example), the 16-years-later prequel films most definitely do.
A similar phenomenon to this is something that I like to call “nostalgia goggles.” As you may be able to guess from the name of the syndrome, it is my way of describing the natural human tendency to feel devotion to a certain thing and dislike further iterations of the same thing. For example, one of my favorite video games of all time is The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I loved that game like I had never loved a game before. While I will vehemently defend its merits (and many will agree with me), for a lot of people, it wasn’t much fun. Subsequent iterations of the game, however, have drawn in a much wider appeal and been significantly more successful (Oblivion and Skyrim, maybe you know them?). I’ve played these subsequent games and they are enjoyable. The graphics are better. But guess what? I like Morrowind a whole lot more and there is nothing that will ever change that. This is because of my self-acknowledged nostalgia goggles.
For millions of Star Wars fans, the original trilogy marked a new chapter in their life, the start of an obsession and in some cases, a radical change for good. Then, add on to that the countless number of times each fan watched, studied and dreamt about the original trilogy and you’ve got yourself some thick nostalgia goggles. Similar to how no Elder Scroll’s game will ever beat my beloved Morrowind, no matter how “good” the Phantom Menace and subsequent films were, for many fans, they could never have been good enough.
In fact, if we are all being honest with ourselves, Star Wars: Episode One never really had a chance to receive a fair, critical review. Let’s take a look at everything the Phantom Menace, and the other prequels, had stacked against them coming out of the gate:
- Nothing could live up to so much hype
- Sequels remind us of the original, but also remind us that they aren’t the original
- Nothing could ever beat the original trilogy that we had spent years loving
These weren’t the only things plotting the prequels demise, but they are the major points. One could say that the prequels were destined to be poorly received.
Why Everyone Really Hates the Prequels. The aforementioned reasons are certainly evidence as to why the prequels may have received more negative attention than they deserve, but the truth is that many people vehemently and venomously hate the prequels. Let me illustrate this point with a story. I once attended a prequels marathon and posted to a few different social media outlets that I had enjoyed the experience. Care to guess how my posts were received? Here are some quotes:
Burn in hell.
You should edit this post to read “Hey guys! I have horrible taste!
Are you mental?
You can go F*** yourself.
Nah they were Sh**.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. You and all your opinions are wrong.
You can’t polish dog****.
Then you can go die with Jar Jar.
That’s not to say that all the comments were bad or vulgar, but a vast majority of them were and this isn’t an isolated incident. Bryan Young, prolific Star Wars writer and podcaster, has written several articles in defense of the prequels. In one of his articles, he questions the reason so many people take it upon themselves to lower the reputation of the Star Wars prequels. He even quotes a man that states “I would rather pour snow-cone syrup all over my body, knock over a giant fire ant hill and lay down on the ground than have to watch this movie again.” Like Bryan Young, I somehow don’t believe him.
Now, as far as I know, everyone is entitled to like and dislike anything they want. If I want to like a movie that you think is “bad,” why should it have any effect on you? Well, I did an experiment. I took another film well-known for its poor production quality, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and posted a similar comment to the same social media outlets after watching it. If you can believe it, I didn’t get a single negative comment. A few people even had nice things to say (though the comment total was much lower). It seems we judge Star Wars by a very different standard.
Now I don’t care what you believe about the prequel movies or the Mortal Kombat movies, the fierce hate people have for the prequels is uncalled for. Back to the Future II and III score similar to the Star Wars prequels on Metacritic. You may not care for critic’s reviews, but no one is digitally shouting at someone for liking those movies. The Jurassic Park sequels are the same. Even the Hobbit (prequels to the Lord of the Ring series) don’t score much above the Star Wars prequels, and yet no one feels “betrayed” by those films. My point is this: People don’t hate the Star Wars prequels because they are bad movies. Fans take the prequels personally.
The big question is then, why do people hate the prequel trilogy so much? Essentially, I believe it comes down to two reasons. The first is response bias. Response bias (or more accurately “socially desirable response bias”) is defined by Miami University as the phenomenon where people respond in such a way that is accepted as socially normal or as is expected of them. This response bias can not just inform a decision, but also an opinion. For example, someone who liked or disliked a particular book might forego their opinion in favor of what’s expected of them, or in favor of the opinions of those around them. This particular response is most commonly seen among spouses. If one spouse vocally dislikes Harry Potter, for example, the odds that the other spouse does as well rise significantly.
Keep that in mind as we think back to the critical backlash that the prequel trilogy received. If one person, a critic, a friend or just someone you trust, started to rip into one of the prequel films, even if you enjoyed them, would you not join in on the fun? Or perhaps more likely, you joined in before fully developing an opinion, because we as a society love hating things. It somehow vindicates and validates us. Just think for a second about the sheer amount of time and energy that goes into hating Justin Bieber. It doesn’t matter how bad of a person he may actually be, the hate towards him, or any other celebrity, is a little absurd. But we do it, and we like it. It’s the same reason you are still friends on Facebook with that one person you can’t stand. They only post the most insufferable, political nonsense and reading their posts infuriates you, and yet you love hating them. Katie J.M. Baker of Jezebel calls it “hate-reading.” I call it hate-loving. We like to hate. Thus when the Phantom Menace was released to disappointing reviews, it was only natural to join the sea of slandering tongues and regurgitate the prequel’s faults and shortcomings.
At any rate, it didn’t take long before irreparable damage had been done. Even those who hadn’t seen Episode One were predisposed to hate it. The same goes for Episode Two and Three. Think about it this way: Have you ever given a specific food to a child that you know they have never tried before, but as soon as they see it, they say they don’t like it? “You can’t know you won’t like it until you try it” you’ll tell them. But what happens when you force that child to eat it? They hate it, even if in reality, they might like it. That’s Star Wars.
The internet—especially YouTube—has only made this issue worse, as it is the perfect sacrificial altar to slaughter and offer up anything and everything wrong with the world (including the prequels). Many of you have probably watched Plinkett’s reviews of the prequels or the “What if Star Wars were good?” movie series. They are very popular videos on YouTube and though I’m not a fan, I understand why people like them. They’re (for the most part) well-produced videos and they tear apart the prequels. Like I mentioned above, everyone likes to make fun of the prequels. Despite the thousands of likes these videos have received, I feel that they are largely baseless opinions, full of “blank sucks,” or “blank is stupid,” without any supporting evidence.
PREQUEL TRILOGY MISCONCEPTIONS
Let’s dive into some of the actual complaints that are levied against the Star Wars prequels. There are only a few majors issues (vomited on the internet over and over again) and so I should be able to address them all.
Jar Jar Binks and Anakin. Earlier I brought up Justin Bieber and all the hate that is drummed up against him. As crazy as it may sound, there is probably more anger directed at Jar Jar Binks. First, I should start off by saying that I like Jar Jar Binks. Don’t mistake me, he’s annoying, but also important. Bryan Young wrote an excellent article in defense of Jar Jar Binks where he illustrated the value to including a Jar Jar Binks-like character in the Star Wars universe (and it’s not because Episode One is a kids movie).
Jar Jar Binks, as Young explains, is supposed to be obnoxious. He’s not just annoying to us viewers, even the characters in the story can’t stand to be around him. In fact, for most of the film, Jar Jar is insulted by almost everyone else on-screen. Despite this, as Young illustrates, Jar Jar is intricate in bringing two nations of people together to ultimately save the day. There is an important lesson to be learned from this. Similar themes to this one can be found in the original trilogy through the often-more-annoying antics of C-3P0 (though for whatever reason no one seems to complain about him).
As for Anakin, I have to ask if Jake Lloyd’s acting can really be considered bad? As Bryan Young points out, “at the end of the day, saying that you didn’t like Jake Lloyd’s acting isn’t much of an argument.” Young continues, “have you met an 8-year-old? That’s EXACTLY how they act.” While no child is the same, I know that my niece, who is about that old, does certainly share some similarities with little Annie. Everything from the seemingly obvious questions that set up the perfect movie exposition, to verbalizing everything they do even when no one is listening. Sure, I realize that some of the lines from Episode One are indeed pretty bad, but I have found them to be both inconsequential and few in number. But go ahead, why don’t you smash on your keyboard a couple of times and remind me of a couple of those particularly bad lines that you are so fond of repeating.
Padme and Anakin. A lot of people have a problem with the love story between Padme and Anakin. I won’t go into much detail about this because I believe it is more a matter of personal opinion, but I think the love story is plenty believable. It’s not hard for someone to believe that Romeo fell in love with Juliet at first sight, but somehow people can’t seem to get over Padme and Anakin’s cheesy lines (which aren’t that cheesy). It helps if you place yourself in their situation and think of how they are feeling. How would you act if your personal feelings and your personal code disagreed? I’m the first to admit that Han Solo and Princess Leia had better chemistry, but Anakin and Padme’s acting is not bad.
There, I said it. It’s not bad acting. Just because Anakin is creepy or awkward doesn’t mean that his delivery was bad. Is it possible that his character was supposed to be that way? I mean, the guy’s been a slave most of his life, and a Jedi for the rest. You think he’s had much social interaction with the opposite sex? I think it would have made far less sense to see Anakin played by a suave, Han Solo-type. Although, one could argue that Anakin was pretty smooth when he tricked Padme and pretended to get hurt by the Shaaks (despite what you say Mr. Plinkett).
What is the plot? Yet another thing you’ll hear people complain about over and over again is that the plot is either too difficult to understand or just plain stupid. This one makes me laugh because neither argument holds weight for any of the prequel movies. First of all, the plot in EVERY movie is clearly stated in the opening crawl. Maybe people are too lazy to read?
In Episode One, the trade federation sets up a blockade to stop all trade in and out of Naboo. The blockade is just a ruse, however, so the Trade Federation can invade. The only part of the story that may be difficult to understand is why would the Trade Federation want to invade in the first place? That mystery is actually part of the genius of the first episode, as you won’t understand why until you realize that Palpatine is a Sith Lord. You see, Senator Palpatine needed to become Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in order to take over the Galaxy. The only way for that to happen was if someone in desperate need (like Queen Amidala) was to suggest a vote of no-confidence in Chancellor Valorum. The beauty of the plan is that at the end of Episode One you are left feeling uneasy—while the Jedi were technically successful in killing Darth Maul, they were completely unsuccessful in stopping Darth Sidious from inching closer to destroying the Jedi.
In Episode Two, the plot thickens. Many planets are leaving the Republic to follow a political idealist named Count Dooku. With tensions rising, Palpatine tries to persuade the Republic to create an army (so he can later use that army to kill all the Jedi—shhh!). Former-Queen Amidala is certain that this a bad idea and thus, in an effort to both quell her voice and prove that there is a need for an army, Palpatine tries to have Amidala murdered. The resulting investigation leads to the discovery of the clone army, the discovery of a separatist army and the start of a war. That’s about four sentences. Easy enough to understand? The beauty of this plot, again, is how it shows Palpatine as an evil puppet-master manipulating Jedi and senators alike to orchestrate the rise of his Galactic Empire.
Episode Three is the easiest to understand of the trilogy. We’re at war. Palpatine senses Anakin’s potential and begins to poison his mind while laying the trap for his eventual galactic take-over. Spoiler alert, Palpatine wins (for a brief moment anyway). Am I missing something, or are these plots simple to understand?
Let’s start with the main character. While an argument could be made that Anakin is the main character of the prequels, I think that Anakin is only the main character if you look at the Star Wars movies as a whole (Episodes 1 – 6), and not the main character of the prequels. Just as Luke was the hero of the original trilogy, I believe that Obi-Wan is the hero of the prequels. There are holes in my logic, but hear me out:
Episode One shows Obi-Wan transition from learner to teacher, culminating in his defeat of a great evil: Darth Maul. Similar to how Luke later loses Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan loses his wise old master Qui-Gon Jinn and thus must take charge. Come Episode Two, Obi-Wan is the main driving force propelling the plot while Anakin and Padme fall in love. Obi Wan’s arc concludes in Episode Three when he has to fight to the death against someone he sees as family. This is an interesting parallel to Darth Vader and Luke’s final confrontation in the series sixth installment.
Now, there are long portions of the Star Wars story in which Obi-Wan is not present, but not only is that consistent with the storytelling from the original trilogy, but it also adds to Obi Wan’s character development. Imagine, for example, that your beloved mentor left you alone to watch a ship while he goes off on an adventure. You probably wanted to go with him, but he asked you to stay. While waiting on the ship, your mentor tells you about his day and casually mentions that he may have found a new apprentice (to replace you). I don’t know if I’d take that with a smile on my face, and that may explain why Obi-Wan refers to Anakin unwittingly as a “pathetic life form.” While this theory does get a little muddy when you look more closely at Episode Three (which features Anakin heavily), I think it still stands.
At any rate, let’s move on. In my research for this article, I made sure to watch Mr. Plinkett’s prequel reviews in their entirety. One of Mr. Plinkett’s most compelling and frequently used arguments is that he doesn’t care about any characters and that the characters have no depth. He even runs a fun little experiment where he asks several people to describe certain characters from the Star Wars universe to someone who has never seen the movies—only they must do so without describing what the characters look like and without saying what their job or role was in the films. When asked to describe Han Solo, these volunteers easily rattled off a number of buzzwords like “scoundrel,” “rogue” or “dashing.” This isn’t surprising considering that they’ve likely watched the original trilogy many times and because Han Solo has become a pop culture icon himself. When those same people, however, were asked to describe Qui-Gon Jinn, they couldn’t come up with a single word beyond “stoic.” The same results occurred when Mr. Plinkett asked them to describe Queen Amidala.
As I’ve already alluded to, this experiment was incredibly flawed. Not only are there more movies showing the character development of original trilogy characters like Han Solo (compared to Qui-Gon Jinn), but Han Solo has been an icon in pop culture since the early 80’s. Add to that fact that the people in the experiment probably had only seen Episode One once compared to watching the original trilogy several times and you’ve got yourself an experiment that tells you almost nothing. Regardless, I thought I’d do Mr. Plinkett’s experiment myself (only in reverse). I’m going to list some attributes of Star Wars characters from the prequels, and I want to see if you can guess who I’m referring to.
The Little Stuff. There are countless other complaints living on the internet that I like to call “the little stuff.” Some people claim that CGI overload ruins the Star Wars epic. Some people complain that the explanation of midichlorians destroys the mysticism of the Force. Some people can’t get over the final “No!” that Darth Vader screams at the end of Episode Three. To these people, I have one thing to say: Please calm down.
I don’t see how the amount of CGI used has any part to play in the story whatsoever. It has no effect for better or for worse, so why not just enjoy the interesting architecture/scenery/alien in the background? Why do you care that they extended the dance scene in Jabba’s palace? It doesn’t change the story. Why does it matter that they added extra creatures in random scenes? Does it really ruin your childhood if Han Solo didn’t shoot first? Some people will say yes, and I doubt I will ever understand why. People even complain that the CGI fight scenes “ruin” Yoda’s character. If not jumping around, then how did they expect him to fight? Regardless, the CGI hate is, as I see it, pointless.
As for midichlorians, I have to repeat myself: How does adding them to Star Wars change anything? People cry that midichlorians “demystified,” the Force, but I just don’t see it. Someone’s force potential is tied to strange organisms living in their blood. I think that’s awesome, and I still have no idea how the force works.
As for the other stuff, like when Darth Vader screams “No!” at the end of Episode Three, or when Anakin yells “Yipee!” in Episode One, just plug your ears. It lasts a few seconds and if you can’t enjoy Star Wars because of a few seconds then that is your problem, not the prequels.
The Prequels aren’t perfect. I do want to clarify that I don’t think the prequel movies are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I do think that mistakes were made. It’s a movie, mistakes are always made. The original trilogy also had mistakes. In fact, I personally think that the costuming choice for Ewoks in Episode Six was a mistake. They should have looked more fierce.
WHAT THE PREQUELS DID RIGHT
Despite what you may believe, the prequels did some things extremely well. Some things were done so well, in fact, that they are better than their original trilogy counterpart. In a recent article by Star Wars Insider Magazine, there was even a list of “50 Reasons To Love the Star Wars Prequels.” Let me tell you, there’s a lot more than 50 reasons to love the prequels.
Palpatine the Puppet Master. The Emperor is pretty cool in Episode Six. You get a sense that he is evil and very powerful. In the prequels, however, you actually get to see that power. As I’ve alluded to earlier in this post, you see Palpatine in action. You watch as he manipulates and deceives the Jedi order, culminating in an epic battle between him and our favorite, green warrior. The prequels did Palpatine right.
Politics in Star Wars. This is something I’ve already talked a bit about, but the politics in Star Wars is another thing the prequels did well. In the original trilogy you get a sense of a galaxy being oppressed by an evil empire, but in the prequels, you actually get to see that galaxy. You see the hundreds of different sentient races and you can catch a glimpse at how society could operate in a galaxy nothing like our own. Furthermore, a lot of the problems that happen in the senate mirror problems that occur in the real world. That’s pretty cool.
Parallels Between Anakin and Luke. After you’ve watched Anakin’s fall to the dark side, Episode Six takes on new meaning. The parallels between Luke and Anakin are very enlightening, and we have the prequels to thank for that. Think about it, they both grew up on Tatooine and had no idea of their eventual destiny. Both were whiny; both were mentored in the ways of the force; both flirted with the dark side; both were presented with the option of love or duty and both chose love (Luke going to Cloud City, Anakin marrying Padme); and finally, both of them had to make the critical decision of joining the Emperor in order to save the ones they loved (Anakin believed the Emperor’s power could save Padme, Luke thought the Emperor would save his friends if he joined him). The only difference is that Luke chose wisely when he said: “I’ll never turn to the dark side.”
On top of this, the prequels provide fans with something that originals lacked (in my opinion): Lightsaber duels. Don’t get me wrong, the lightsaber fights between Luke and Darth Vader were intense, but they can’t hold a candle to some of the fights we see in the prequels. The space battles, pod racing and more, are gems brought to us by modern technology.
THE HATE HAS TO STOP
My arguments have almost come to an end, but I have one last thing that must be said: Give the prequel movies a chance. It would be so easy for you to continue hating the prequels, to ignore everything I’ve said (half of is probably hearsay anyways) and go on thinking that George Lucas ruined Star Wars… But that would be a mistake. There truly is a wealth of value and enjoyment to be had in the prequel movies. I mean, can there ever be too much Star Wars?
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