Movies

‘The Rise Of Skywalker’ Made The Prequels Better, Somehow

It’s tempting – tempting! – to explain away the recent, undeniable resurgence of the Star Wars Prequels the same way Poe Dameron explains the return of Emperor Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker: “somehow the Prequels returned,” and just be done with the whole thing with no further explanation. But, no, there’s a lot going on here and, unfortunately for me, I can’t help but find the whole thing fascinating. Or, in other words, using current internet slang that I know in a few years I’ll regret: The Star Wars Prequels live in my head rent-free.

At first I tried to ignore the post-The Rise of Skywalker Prequels surge, thinking it would fade. But the lack of no new Star Wars movies anywhere on the immediate horizon has let this surge continue unabraded. Actually, the lack of any real blockbuster type movie has probably played a role here. But it’s tricky, because is this a case of actually misjudging these three movies? Or was The Rise of Skywalker just such a misfire we are getting the weird, “In retrospect, George W. Bush was actually good,” type of phenomenon going on? In reality, it’s probably a little bit of both.

A friend of mine always makes this great point about the Star Wars Prequels: If they had a different director, better acting, and better dialogue, they’d be pretty great. On the surface that seems very dismissive. But when you pick apart what that means, there’s a lot of truth there. Because the overall arc of the three films, the story, is actually there. Compare that to The Rise of Skywalker, which had a great director, good acting, and decent enough dialogue. If the story isn’t there from beginning, the movie is doomed before it even begins. Which is why both my appreciation and my frustration for the Prequels has increased. My appreciation because it’s a great story and, as we’ve seen, that’s not a given. My frustration because it’s all right there, it’s just not properly executed.

The thing that made the Original Trilogy work so well is that even though all three movies had a different director, the central storyteller was Lucas himself. And even though Lucas made things up as he went along – contrary to some opinions the Original Trilogy was certainly not “all laid out” before they were individually written; in the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back Vader still wasn’t Luke’s father, and Leia being Luke’s sister was a pretty lazy way to tie up a loose end Lucas didn’t want to explore any further – at least it was his story to make up as he went along. As we saw in the Sequel Trilogy, filmmaking out of spite for the other director who didn’t do what you would have done doesn’t really make the best story. Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for writing the second draft of The Empire Strikes Back, which is the first draft that looks anything like the final movie. But he was smart enough to hire Lawrence Kasdan to come in and tighten up the dialogue. And the dialogue in that movie is tight. Then Lucas just let Kasdan write the third movie himself, based on Lucas’s story.

Lucas should have followed this template for the Prequels. He’s mentioned numerous times he hates directing, yet he directed all three Prequels himself. And, yeah, it kind of shows in all three of them that he hates directing. (He assembled a fantastic cast for those movies, but didn’t really put them in a place to succeed. A lot of “acting with tennis balls.”) And he wrote all three scripts himself without anyone (at least officially) punching them up for him.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of different opinions about The Prequels. In fact, there’s probably nothing I’ve changed my mind on more, and more dramatically, then those three movies. I saw all three of them at midnight the night they came out and, on first watch, I loved all three. Then, over the next few weeks that followed each, after repeated viewings, I slowly realized that there were some real problems. I fell for this same routine every time, three times in a row. (The Rise of Skywalker is still the only Star Wars movie I disliked while watching for the first time. And I had paid money to fly myself across the country to the premiere: literally the best atmosphere to watch a Star Wars movie. I mention this to point out, at the time, I certainly thought I’d be liking this movie.)

After The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi (two movies I still like or love, individually) I wrote how the Prequels would become these weird three movies, that look nothing like the other movies, and would almost be strange footnotes that would wind up becoming “cool.” (Yeah, I admit that was somewhat wrong. Though, the “cool” part isn’t far off. But I sure didn’t see The Rise of Skywalker coming, a movie so scattershot, we’d have to rethink everything about this franchise.) I’ve also written that Revenge of the Sith was the worst Star Wars movie, primarily because the story was all set up. It was an easy slam dunk, yet it still somehow missed. (I still maintain Revenge of the Sith is still the worst prequel for the very reason I thought so before. But I no longer think it’s the worst Star Wars movie. To the point I now actually see some merit in ROTS.)

Oh, yes, speaking of having a movie all set up for an easy slam dunk… When The Rise of Skywalker came out a year ago, I expected the people who hated The Last Jedi — for having the audacity to actually take chances with the characters — to grit their teeth and pretend they liked The Rise of Skywalker. What I wasn’t expecting was those people to dislike The Rise of Skywalker, yet still somehow blame it all on Rian Johnson, who had literally nothing to do with that movie. The talking point goes that of course The Rise of Skywalker is bad because the way The Last Jedi left off, there was nowhere to go. Oh puh-leeze. The Last Jedi ends with our heroes being defeated and barely escaping, with now so few of them left they all fit comfortably on the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren just killed his boss and has now taken over an entire military.

Here’s the truth: from that ending you can literally do anything. The sky is the limit. It’s the opposite of being painted into a corner. The possibilities are literally endless. And, yes, as it turns out, one possibility was “retcon the things the new team didn’t like about the middle movie.” Again, as it turns out, a movie and plot driven solely by pure spite doesn’t really make a great movie. I’d understand this line of thinking if, in the last scene of The Last Jedi, Poe says to Rey, “Now we must go find the doohickey that leads us to the hidden asteroid planet that leads us to the knife that leads us to knife map that leads us to the Death Star that leads us to a room in the Death Star.” If that had happened, yeah I suppose the next movie needs to clear that all up. But give me a break that that just had to be the plot of The Rise of Skywalker.

And, see, it’s in moments like right now, going through the plot points of The Rise of Skywalker – that literally all sound fake as I write them out, but, somehow, aren’t – that makes me think fondly of all three Prequels. Well, just the fact they don’t exist as spite is a big thing going for them. But when I think of them and think of the story – they endear themselves to me. They have an actual point of view. They are legitimately trying to say something. When they veer too close toward something confusing and boring about the Force – midichlorians – they just drop the subject and move on instead of doubling down on Force dyads, or whatever. You see, right now I’m pretty sure I like these movies!

And then I watch them and I immediately go back to, “Well, there are some cool scenes and the story really is great, but there are moments when these are not easy to watch.” But that’s the key, “moments when these are not easy to watch.” That’s a far cry from, “I can’t watch this.” I’ve literally tried re-watching The Rise of Skywalker over the past year and I just can’t do it. It’s just too big of a mess. Again, the story itself, from the beginning, is just so off from the start, nothing can save it. It’s the exact opposite of the Prequels. And that’s why the Prequels will always live on with us, because we know they are like Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. We know there’s some good in there and we will forever try to mine that good out of those movies. And, now, after much thought, I think it’s worthy to keep trying. To paraphrase Vader’s last words, “You were right about them. You were right.”

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