The Evolving Legacy Of The Star Wars Prequels
If one phrase has been most frequently associated with the Star Wars prequel films, it would be something along the lines of “most disappointing movies of all time.” When Episode I: The Phantom Menace premiered in 1999, the amount of anticipation for it was unmatched by any film premiere in history, with it coming sixteen years after the conclusion of the original trilogy. Few could have anticipated the backlash and mockery that would follow.
The Phantom Menace was a huge box office hit, but it was panned by critics for annoying elements (particularly the new alien character of Jar Jar Binks), and poor performances, particularly that of the child actor Jake Lloyd as a young Anakin Skywalker. The film was nominated for that year’s Razzie Awards as the worst picture of 1999, although it didn’t win.
The 2002 followup, Attack of the Clones, generated similar amounts of online ridicule, particularly due to the lack of chemistry between romantic leads Hayden Christensen (as Anakin Skywalker) and Natalie Portman (as Padme Amidala). 2005’s Revenge of the Sith was somewhat better received, but still was nowhere near the reception held by the original three films. The verdict was in on the prequels- a total failure to live up to the hype. The original three were still held up as immortal classics, while the prequels were universally written off as total failures.
This general consensus around the prequels persisted for the ten years following the premiere of Revenge of the Sith. In those intervening years George Lucas sold the franchise to Disney, who began immediately planning and releasing a new trilogy of films, with a whole universe of spinoffs, tv shows, and other content to follow.
The first of these films, 2015’s The Force Awakens, was fairly well received by the fans and did extremely well in terms of box office, but rumblings of discontent would begin in whispers. The film, directed by J.J. Abrams, was criticized for being essentially a beat-by-beat recreation of the story of A New Hope; a competently realized imitation, but an imitation nonetheless.
Controversy began to build with the release of The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson. Johnson hoped to make a radical departure from The Force Awakens, and from every Star Wars film that had preceded it. However, his changes harshly polarized the fandom, and as a result the film suffered at the box office. Some found Johnson’s storytelling innovations to be a fresh and creative take on the franchise, while others found them to be an insult to their beloved Star Wars mythology.
In any case- opinions in the fanbase on the third and final installment of the Disney trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, were uniform- uniformly negative, that is. The film’s major plot twist, that of Emperor Palpatine having returned from his death at the end of The Return of the Jedi, was fodder for countless examples of internet mockery. Although the film still grossed over $1 billion at the box office, it was nevertheless a failure for Disney given the expectations placed on it.
In the years since Lucas sold the franchise to Disney, it has become more and more commonplace in online discussions for fans to defend the prequels, previously a niche contrarian opinion. It is certainly an easier task these days. One main reason for that, no matter what the flaws of the prequels are, they are at least the singular product of one filmmaker’s artistic vision- George Lucas. By comparison, the Disney trilogy feels like it was a product of an assembly line, and a shoddy one at that.
The passage of time also seems to more readily highlight the parts of the prequels that fans can universally agree upon as being very strong. The story as a whole, which in many respects is that of a democratic society descending into authoritarianism, certainly resonates to a much greater degree today, given the political environment in the country and the world.
Furthermore, although some of the performances in the prequels remain poorly received or divisive, others still stand the test of time. These include Liam Neeson’s turn as Qui-Gon Jinn, Ian McDiarmid as the future Emperor, and finally, Ewan MacGregor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Relatively well received by fans even at the time, MacGregor’s performance has only improved upon subsequent viewings, and is certainly worthy of the performance given by the legendary Sir Alec Guinness in the original films.
Even Disney seems to agree on the merits of MacGregor as Obi-Wan. When Disney announced a spinoff series focused on the life of Obi-Wan in between the prequels and original trilogy, the fans were united in their demand that MacGregor reprise the role. In a fanbase torn apart by disagreements over the quality of the new trilogy, this unity of voices in a place as chaotic as the Internet was rather remarkable.
Disney granted their wish, allowing fans to once again see more of his performance on screen as Obi-Wan. However, they will have to wait for a while, as the series was recently delayed as Disney works to iron out issues with the scripts; apparently the early drafts written were too similar in tone to the existing Disney series The Mandalorian. Although that series was well received, Disney seems to have learned its lesson from The Force Awakens in wanting to make sure that it’s series has a distinct creative identity.
The original Star Wars films stand as monumental achievements of cinema, not only immensely popular, but also hailed by critics on compilation lists of the greatest films of all time such as They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? The prequels’ reputation will likely not grow to that same extent, but their critical rehablitation may grow yet. As flawed as they are, the prequels remain a singular authorial vision, for better or for worse. They may be far from perfect, but they are a memorable and unique piece of storytelling.