In my previous post, I mentioned that I believe that the current set of Star Wars sequels, under Disney, have been poor continuations of what came before. Now that enough time has passed that people are looking past the hype that Disney built in order to drive profits, the general consensus among those unlucky enough to care is that the films were, on a whole, a waste of time.
I don’t really want to go into a lengthy analysis of the many failures of Disney-era Star Wars. Partially this is because I feel like my appreciation for the franchise is of a much milder and more limited form than found elsewhere. Mostly it’s because there are already many fantastic movie reviewers who have, through articles, podcasts, and video reviews, picked apart all of the various shortcomings of the films.
What I find more interesting are what I consider some fallacies that pop up over and over again in discussing these films. Since these have been on my mind, I’ve decided to put down my thoughts on them. These fallacies are less about the films themselves (though they do touch on their content) and more about the context that the films find themselves sitting in.
The first assumption I see a lot of is that the sequels have managed to vindicate the prequels. The Star Wars prequel films were often considered the worst things to happen to Star Wars, until the sequels. However, that era has a good deal of nostalgia for many people as well, and there seems to be growing belief that the issues with the sequels somehow exonerates the prequels, showing that they had some kind of method to their madness.
Sadly, something being flawed does not remove the flaws from another thing. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say. What is very striking to me is that the two series actually seem to suffer from many of the same issues. The sequels promised to be a “return to form” for Star Wars and yet copied many of the worst aspects of the prequels, but without any of the charming parts.
Both series have a painful lack of editing on their scripts, with plenty of quite frankly terrible dialogue and bizarre story choices. In the case of the prequels, this is because Lucas had no one to reign in his poor choices – his scripts for the original films were also notoriously bad until they had some helpful editing and feedback from his wife and others. Lucas was a great idea-man but went off course without constraints. The new films seem to have no excuse except for a lack of imagination. The prequel films are filled with awkward attempts at conveying emotion (think “I hate sand”), while the sequel films are filled with worse than awkward attempts at self-aware humour (remember that we live in a world where a major Star Wars movie essentially began with a “your mom” joke”).
The scripts have similar issues beyond simple dialogue, however. Both prequel and sequel have a hard time sticking to an interesting villain, like the originals did with the mysterious Darth Vader. The prequel films make the mistake of keeping their best asset, the delightful evil Senator Palpatine, from doing much until the final film. Between that, there is a revolving door of villains who are continuously killed off before they can make much of an impact. If it can be believed, the sequels handled this even worse, having to pull back Palpatine in a truly ridiculous twist in order to have any sort of a real villainous presence in the final film. Both sides also undermine the protagonist side of things as well. A major aspect of Star Wars are the Jedi, who wield the mysterious power known as the Force, a unifying energy in the galaxy that can allow for fantastical powers through training and discipline. The prequels caught a lot of flak for “demystifying” the force, trying to give unneeded explanation for its manifestation in characters, as well as hinging far too much on overbearing prophecy. The sequels finish this deconstruction by removing the idea that you need any sort of training at all, with truly outlandish feats (including curing death) being fairly easily attained.
Perhaps most frustrating is how often both series rely on the idea that out of movie material can be used to justify their own missing parts. In the prequel, late addition villain General Grievous does not have nearly as much impact as he does if you watched the accompanying cartoon and read his books. In the sequels… well, absolutely nothing about the set-up of the films makes any sort of sense without a highly convoluted set of circumstances that are explained elsewhere. Is it too much to expect films to stand on their own? Good or bad, the expanded universe material for the original films were organically grown out from what was a completed story. Expecting audiences to pay more money to patch the holes in the narrative smells suspiciously to me like patching incomplete or buggy video games – and no one should be aspiring to copy the companies in the major video game industry.
Beyond just the plot, the sequels were supposed to avoid the overreliance on CGI that plagued the prequels. However, a few practical effect creatures here and there don’t change the fact that most of the “spectacle” scenes in the sequel rely nearly as much on CGI as the prequels did. Both films feel rather cold compared to the intimacy many of the best scenes in the original films provide. The directing in the prequels suffer because Lucas, a normally at least competent director, gets lost in his own labyrinth of CGI, using it is an answer to everything. In the sequels, CGI is used more as a gimmick or distraction than as an overbearing backdrop, bright and kinetic displays being used to try and divert attention from issues in script and editing.
A second and more insidious fallacy is that the sequels are bad because they are “political”,an assertation that normally comes with a lot of buzzwords attached – “SJW”, “woke”, “leftist” etc.
This is laughable to anyone who knows anything at all about Lucas’s very liberal political leanings. The original films were about combatting imperialism and fascism in the service of democracy and had a very Eastern philosophical outlook. You could even argue that Lucas viewed the evil Empire as America and the Rebels as plucky anti-imperialists like the Viet Cong. The prequels were very much made with George Bush-era America in mind. You cannot take issue with the new Star Wars films adding in minority actors without also taking issue of Lucas doing the same with characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu.
That said, I fully admit that every attempt by the sequels to add in politics come off as embarrassing and bungled, particularly in the second movie, The Last Jedi. What Lucas made feel natural or heartfelt, the new films make feel token and tacked-on. The second film raises the point that the “real villains” are war profiteers and capitalists, which then has promptly nothing to do with the rest of the series at all and is never brought up again. I think when space Nazis are breaking the laws of physics to blow up multiple planets, you may have a larger problem at hand. In a meta context, the film doesn’t really do much to advance any sort of cause in the way that a character like Princess Leia did in the originals – utterly subverting previous conceptions about princesses and female characters in fantasy and science fiction. Compared to the male leads in the originals, Princess Leia always comes off as the most competent and confident, though not to the detriment of other characters. She gets captured and injured but fights just as hard for what she wants as anyone else, eventually triumphing over her enemies in the end. In the new films, the female lead is seemingly perfect from the get-go, with truly superhuman powers and no real clear stake in anything, her triumph over whatever the script leads her into being assumed. In short, the problem is with the script of the sequel, not the politics of the creators – similarly to how it was Lucas’s lack of a restraining hand that doomed the prequels, not his own political outlook.
In the end, the Star Wars series seems to be less on a continuous decline, and more in the strange state it has always been – massively culturally relevant due to the influence of its original films and media based on them, but unable to ever really recapture their magic. That said, I actually do understand why the prequels are looked at much more fondly, and I don’t think it’s just pure nostalgia. The prequels and sequels are both massively flawed but in different ways. The prequels are bad in bizarre and often amusing ways and there is a reason that many parts of the prequels have become staples in meme culture. I wouldn’t feel too pained about watching the prequels if I was forced to, honestly. At their worst they’re funny, and at their best, they do have some interesting new ideas and situations. The sequels really feel like films made by committee. At their best, they are only blindly aping the original films. At their worst, they are almost physically painful to sit through. I will always remember The Last Jedi as my absolute worst theatre-going experience, bar none. In short, the prequels are one man’s vision that he failed to realize. The sequels are one corporation’s plan to start milking a newly acquired franchise as fast as possible. Lucas overthought a lot of the prequels. Disney gave none of its creative team nearly enough time to properly plan.
There are also the contexts that the films were released in to consider. While the prequels themselves may not have been that good, they came at a time when there was a wealth of Star Wars content being released, much of it quite popular. This was a time many remember growing up in, with plenty of excellent Star Wars video games and, later, related shows. If you were interested in Star Wars material, it was a good time, and the fans had much to be excited about to balance out the disappointment of the films. The sequel era began with Disney essentially removing all of the existing expanded universe materials from canon, wiping the slate clean. Star Wars video game releases under Disney partner EA became remarkably scarce and often controversial, such as with Battlefront II – EA seeming more interested in creating methods to hook children on gambling than on creating a good game. While Disney and EA both seem to be trying to course-correct with new products, it feels like too little, too late.
So, in the end, while I think it’s a little premature to declare the prequels now “good”, I do understand why they have more supporters and fans. The great analysis and criticisms of those prequels are just as valid as the criticism we have today about the sequels, however. As for me? I’m not particularly bothered – I still quite like the originals (particularly Empire) and they’re not going anywhere. That is unless Disney tries to copy Lucas’s “special edition” idea….