The denigration of the Star Wars prequels – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – has been tediously ubiquitous ever since their release. What has been most striking is not the attacks coming from the expected quarters – those who have always been critical of the series, as with those dubious about the story's mythological underpinnings – but the hardcore fans who cherish the original movies most.
More than most, I tend to find prequels an exercise in the pursuit of diminishing returns, prone to depend excessively on the good will earned by previous works, mining less interesting parts of the tale than what we saw before for what riches remain, and often diminishing the whole in its failure to recapture the magic of the originals. And certainly episodes I-III had their flaws – weaknesses in the acting and dialogue, bits of story which seemed muddled or flat, inconsistencies with the original trilogy. Yet the criticism has long seemed to me excessive to the point of neurosis – and for good reason. Its expression has been so frequent and loud and strident that geek antipathy to those movies has become a pop culture cliché, casually referenced not just in genre-oriented films and shows like Spaced and Stargate: Universe, but more mainstream fare as well. (In the romantic comedy Failure to Launch, for instance, Patton Oswalt's character is identified as not just a fan of Star Wars, but one specifically devoted to the original trilogy, of course.1)
It seems to me that much of the reaction has really been about the audience itself. Between the special place the original trilogy holds in many a heart, the sixteen years that passed between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, and the predictably massive hype preceding the theatrical release of Episode I, expectations rose impossibly high – so that any conceivable movie would have been a letdown for many. And of course, much of the audience had changed during the wait. Those who saw the initial theatrical release of the trilogy as children were adults now – and in many cases, more sophisticated, more critical viewers who compared what they saw then with the earlier films as they recalled them through the rose-colored glasses of cherished childhood memory. (They were certainly less forgiving of weaknesses in acting or dialogue, which were hardly absent in Episodes IV-VI.)
But part of it is also the ways in which the prequels differed from the originals. In place of the clarity and simplicity of episodes IV-VI, there was a comparatively sprawling story with more complex plotting and world-building, and rather more politics along with the mythology. The originals had underdog good guys taking head-on, and beating, an evil empire – while the prequels have the guardians of order fighting an enemy that strikes at them from the shadows in what is ultimately a tale of tragedy rather than triumph. And in place of the youthful Luke, Phantom Menace put an eight year old Anakin at the center of events, while in Clones and Revenge the character was a really difficult adolescent. There is also no question that the lavish use of CGI gave the films a different look.
These are not, as such, bad things. Nor were they necessarily surprises. It was unreasonable for anyone to expect the prequels to simply be more of the same, for a tale of the Republic's fall to be the same in structure and tone and sense as the tale of its restoration, for the story of Anakin to be the same as Luke's, for the look of the films to be identical after nearly two decades of FX wizards upping the ante – the obvious appreciated by surprisingly, dismayingly, few viewers (among them, Scott Mendelson and Timothy Sexton, whose pieces I strongly recommend as a corrective).
Of course, one can still reply that these differences resulted in a less appealing, less compelling product. (The more complex world-building and plotting is a lot easier to do in a novel, or a TV series, than a two-hour movie, for instance, while the premise and the central character of the prequels do not lend themselves so easily to crowd-pleasing stories.) And that there are ways in which the new approach did not wholly succeed. (There is plenty of room for criticism of the films' handling of the Old Republic's politics, for instance.) But all the same, a more sophisticated, nuanced judgment was called for, and I, for one, found much to enjoy in the films beyond their indisputable appeal as spectacle. One thing the narrative cannot be faulted for is a lack of ambition or scope, and the plot did get more engaging as it developed, especially where it concerned Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader, and the slide of the Republic toward disaster. (Indeed, Episode III was justly the best-reviewed of the three films, quite well-received by a good many critics.) In fact, I will go further and say that, like no other Hollywood films since the originals, the prequels gave the big screen an epic science fiction tale (helped by that much-derided CGI, which afforded a much broader view of Lucas's galaxy) which lived up to the romanticism and scale the term "space opera" is supposed to denote.
For all their shortcomings, a general reappraisal is long, long overdue.
1. The relevant bit of dialogue is in an exceptionally stupid and patronizing scene in this exceptionally stupid and patronizing film. Ordinarily this fact wouldn't merit a footnote, but I wouldn't have felt right not clarifying that point, lest this mention be mistaken for an endorsement of this example of awful writing and (where the leads are concerned) really bad casting.