This is not a defense of the Star Wars prequels. Conversely, I’m not here to tell you how bad they are. The truth is, if you watch them again, they are pretty much just how you remember them. There are some good scenes – Darth Maul is cool; the fight between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones is pretty good! – and there are some laughably bad scenes. (I won’t list these because you already know what they are and have already laughed at them.)
I spend most of my year watching movies and television. I don’t get a lot of days off (I work a lot of weekends), which isn’t a complaint, but probably makes it a bit odd that during the only sort of extended time off I got in 2015, this past holiday season, I made time to watch the Star Wars prequels. My girlfriend had never seen The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith. She is not one of these people who has “never seen Star Wars,” she just hasn’t seen the prequels because she had heard they weren’t very good, so she’s never watched them. (This makes almost too much sense.) I asked how I never knew this, she said, “I didn’t want to tell you because I was afraid you would make me watch them.” So, yeah, during our precious vacation time, we watched the Star Wars prequels.
Kathleen Kennedy, J.J Abrams and company went out of their way to convince you that The Force Awakens’ aesthetics would match those of the original trilogy. And The Force Awakens certainly does feel a whole lot more like the original films than the prequels. (Just the fact that characters are literally standing outside rather than constantly in front of a green screen goes a long way.) But here’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching the prequels again: Right now, a Star Wars movie using more practical effects and having characters going outside feels like a welcome novelty. It’s nice! But, soon, it will become the norm. Three and a half years from right now, we will be five movies into Disney’s reign of Star Wars. (That is still very weird.) We will be used to the look of these new Star Wars movies, which is a lot like the look of the original trilogy, which will make the prequels look even more like some weird thing that doesn’t belong. Where will these movies fit in culturally? Will people even watch them anymore?
It’s almost comical how important Luke Skywalker is in The Force Awakens when compared to how unimportant Lucasfilm made him from 1999 until 2012. Here’s an example: On the inside cover of the Blu-ray set that was released in 2011, there’s a menagerie of sorts depicting all of the major characters from the six Star Wars movies at the time. Hey, where’s Luke? (Maybe this picture sparked the plot for The Force Awakens?)
Oh, there’s Luke, way up there in the upper right hand corner! There he is, about one fourth of the size of both Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader (some version of Anakin is in this picture three times), and Luke is about half the size of the kid who plays Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. Judging from this picture, Jar Jar Binks is much more important than Luke. My goodness, Poggle the Lesser gets better positioning than Luke. I don’t think banishing the main heroes from the original trilogy to the far corner was an accident. For 13 years, Lucasfilm was in the prequel business. Little kids dressed as Anakin for Halloween, not Luke. This is the way it was. It was a dark time.
The new Lucasfilm is very much in the new trilogy business – which, of course they are – but by way of the original trilogy. I mean, 90 minutes of The Force Awakens is the Han Solo movie starring Harrison Ford people have been dreaming of for years. (You know, that guy way up there in the furthest part of the upper right hand corner of that picture, behind Luke, Leia and the ever-important Tion Medon. It’s really strange that we are getting a young Han Solo movie before we get a young Tion Medon movie.)
Anyway, the point is that for as much as prequel-era Lucasfilm wanted to bury the original characters and sell Anakin Skywalker and Tion Medon, the new regime is doing the exact opposite. Without saying it, it’s pretty evident their stance is “start with the original Star Wars trilogy, then watch all of our new movies.
One of the best lines during The Force Awakens is when Han Solo scolds Finn, “That’s not how the Force works!” after Finn suggests some dumb, “well, let’s just use the Force to figure this all out for us” plan. Re-watching the prequels, this almost seems like a direct response to Qui-Gon Jinn’s blasé, “the Force will guide us,” line as he, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar try to navigate through the core of Naboo while dodging sea monsters.
(One quick aside about The Phantom Menace: I’m now convinced that if you remove Jar Jar Binks and replace him with some sort of a legitimately funny and/or cynical human character, we’ve got ourselves a good movie. Lucas thought Jar Jar was the audience’s entryway into this story and he miscalculated. Also, for all the talk about The Phantom Menace being a kids movie, it’s really not. It’s a movie about the taxation of trade routes and internal politics that just happens to have a character meant for three-year-olds as one of the leads. It would be if like Spotlight was exactly how it is, only one of the reporters was a Gungan. “Meesa gonna get the sealeoed documents! [Steps in poop.])
It’s a strange thing, but as Star Wars becomes even more popular — again, with a movie every year probably for the rest of our lives — the prequels will fade more and more into the background. They will become these weird movies that people have heard about, but never watched. These strange three films that look nothing like the other 15.
They will become sort of like The Lord of the Rings Appendices in an, “Oh, you like these movies? Well, if you’re really into them, you might like some of the stuff that’s in the prequels. But I’m warning you, they are kind of crazy.”
The Star Wars prequels will eventually look so different than the other 20 some Star Wars movies and counting that people will start to like them for just how nutty they are. They will never be quite like the Star Wars Holiday Special (people inherently like the idea of watching something that is “banned”; the prequels will never be banned), but they will eventually develop into something sort of like the Star Wars Holiday Special in that people will discover that some stories take place before Star Wars, and they look weird and barely at all line up with the other movies. Someday it will probably become cool to like the prequels because so few people will have seen them.
Some kid in fifth grade will brag to his or her friend, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen the prequels. Get this: Luke Skywalker’s father built C-3PO! They are insane.”
His or her friend will respond, “I thought the prequels were a myth.”
Followed by a stoic response, “Funny thing is… it’s true. All of it.”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.