“Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like fucking Shaft.” – Tim Bisley, Spaced, “Change” (2001).

Reviews for The Phantom Menace were, it’s fair to say, mixed. Looking back on it, that’s understandable. It’s a mixed film. After a lot of excitement and hype for the return of the game-changing franchise, some anti-climax was inevitable. 133 minutes and countless midi-chlorians later, a sense of disappointment gave way to rage for some (which, given Anakin Skywalker’s whole thing, is bleakly fitting). 

Attack of the Clones had an improved, if not stellar, critical reception and Revenge of the Sith continued this trend to be recognized as the best of the three. That said, despite the upward trajectory there was a sense that these films would never recover from their initial mauling and that their lasting legacy would be their failure to recapture the magic of the Original Trilogy in a sustained way.

But 25 years after the release of The Phantom Menace, the dust has settled and the Prequels are being reappraised, met with a Star Wars fandom much more willing to embrace what George Lucas tried to do with his space-set costume drama full of Senate meetings and tax schemes. One reason for this is that the young fans who were the actual target audience of the Prequel films in the early 2000s have grown up loving these movies and championing them. ’90s and ’00s kids have long shown up for these films and will again for 25th anniversary screenings and beyond. It’s no accident so many of the recent Star Wars live-action and animated shows have been tailor-made for those nostalgic for the Prequels and the spinoff Clone Wars cartoons.

Of course, it also helps that the internet discourse has largely shifted to the controversial Sequel Trilogy made by Disney after it purchased Lucasfilm. In fact, almost seven years later, The Last Jedi remains difficult to talk about due to the banshee wails of the very vocal minority that sounds off at the mere mention of it. As far as this article is concerned, The Last Jedi is brilliant, and the best Skywalker Saga film outside of the Original Trilogy. However, if you were to ask me which trilogy is better, I’d say without hesitation: it’s the Prequels, and it’s not even close.

A Guiding Vision

The seed of the Prequel Trilogy (The Phantom Menace in 1999, Attack of the Clones in 2002, and Revenge of the Sith in 2005) was sewn during the writing of the original films, with Lucas penning a backstory in the late ’70s that he ultimately returned to when he began work on the Prequel scripts in 1994. At the time, he didn’t feel like he should be the director, with Ron Howard confirming on the Happy Sad Confused podcast in 2015 that Lucas approached him, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis but that they all told him he should do it.

Lucas ended up writing the majority of the Prequels, with Jonathan Hales working with him on Attack of the Clones and Tom Stoppard acknowledging that he “interfered with George’s script in a mild way” during Revenge of the Sith. In other words, this is a series of films that is Extremely George Lucas, his interests and influences writ large. There’s a thematic consistency that works irrespective of the faltering emotional truth to the movies. For better and worse, these films are the product of a singular vision.

Rewatching Disney’s trilogy in 2024, it’s easy to see the most glaring issue with the Sequels: there is no sense of a guiding vision. While Michael Arndt was hired to write The Force Awakens in 2012, with a view to write treatments for the rest of the series with Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg, he left the project after saying he needed more time to break the script. Instead Lucasfilm moved forward with a plan for three different writer/directors to take one film each, spending time with their predecessor during production to get a strong sense of where the story was going. Rian Johnson followed J.J. Abrams but Colin Trevorrow left before making the third film – creative differences and Lucasfilm being dissatisfied with the script he’d co-written cited as the reasons. Even if he hadn’t left, this approach to making a trilogy has an element of risk to it because there is no guiding authorial voice throughout. It feels like a billion-dollar version of Consequences

If you are going with this approach, you need to commit to it and follow through on what’s come before. But by the end of the Sequel Trilogy, the studio had lost its nerve.

Justin Chang, writing for The LA Times, described The Rise of Skywalker as an “epic failure of nerve” in his review, and there’s a sense that the film was motivated more by getting a small group of angry voices back on board than there was continuing the story the studio was in the middle of telling. Lucasfilm’s response to the Last Jedi backlash made a tricky job even trickier, first for Trevorrow and then Abrams.

According to Chris Terrio, the writer brought on board to work on Episode IX after Trevorrow’s departure, Lucasfilm studio chief Kathleen Kennedy had “clear plans about certain narrative marks they wanted us to hit.” What exactly these marks were remains unconfirmed, although some of the ways the film tried to “course correct” the story after The Last Jedi are glaringly obvious (and not very good). It all begs the question of whether the first two films were made in a similar way, with beats the writers had to hit for each, and just how many of these plot beats changed drastically for The Rise of Skywalker in response to the first two films.

A Narrative Throughline

Looking at the Prequels, the themes and ideas are baked in from the start. For all that The Phantom Menace is a big goofy matinee film, it’s also showing us the creeping rise of the Empire and the tearing of a child from his mother. Good intentions abound as almost everyone effortlessly gets things wrong for good reasons: we’ll never know if Qui-Gon Jinn would have gone back for Anakin’s mum, but with his death we see his noble intentions result in a sad scared little boy being trained as the most powerful warrior in the universe. What’s the worst that could happen?

Likewise, the Emperor increases his power in the Senate through Padme’s desire to save her people. The Phantom Menace earns its reputation for toyetic churn, but the darkness of the rest of the trilogy is established here, albeit lurking beneath a film emitting a very strong “Gee whizz!” energy. Its bittersweet downer of an ending is vastly improved once you’ve seen the rest of the trilogy. There’s a sense of grim inevitability.

Attack of the Clones builds on this, its best scenes teasing out Anakin’s dark side, such as when he takes revenge on the Tusken Raiders who killed his mother. The burgeoning relationship between Anakin and Padme in this installment is also absolutely integral to the following film. Unfortunately, it is genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and I’m not just talking about the dialogue. The love story is simply not believable. Anakin is a creepy teenager waving multiple red flags, but Padme falls in love with him anyway. No offense to Hayden Christensen, whose performance has aged better than expected, but while Anakin is hot he’s not ‘Overlook confessions of mass infanticide’ hot.

Revenge of the Sith follows through on the clear and obvious danger that is Anakin. The childlike rage leads to strangling a pregnant Padme, more mass infanticide, and a desire to show-off that ultimately loses him the fight against Obi-Wan. It’s extremely grim stuff.

The trilogy closer shows us Anakin’s skill, his friendships, his marriage seeming to work well, and all of that is lost for reasons that are clear and understandable. For all the problems with dialogue and characterization these films have, Anakin is consistent throughout, a little boy who wants to help, lost and looking for support that the Jedi cannot provide. His strengths and weaknesses have been seeded. Setting the fall of a young man, manipulated by lies to oppose his friends, against the backdrop of a similarly falling society, their fates cruelly intertwined…it’s clumsy but the throughline is there.

Rey, on the other hand, doesn’t have that throughline. As the protagonist of the Sequels, she doesn’t get a strong enough story: she doesn’t know who her parents are, she’s learning to control her new powers and is scared of the dark side, and her main antagonist ultimately sacrifices himself to save her.

Which is Luke’s story. 

And given that Luke’s story is already in Star Wars – and is itself based on the Hero’s Journey in John Campbell’s extremely influential 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces – merely changing the hero’s gender is not enough here. It’s not exactly a triumph of diversity to give women lead roles that are watered down takes on stuff men have already done. As we aren’t being introduced to this universe through Rey’s eyes, it’s not as potent a take, and the dramatic reveal concerning her lineage falls flat. It’s in the first half of the final film, delivered by someone else as exposition, and features a character we hadn’t seen in the first two movies. It was a decision very clearly made late in the day, and not one that feels connected to what’s come before. That’s the risk you take starting a trilogy without a sense of where the story is going. It might have paid off, it’s a valid way of writing, but then you need to have confidence in the approach and stick with it.

Irrespective of the quality of the acting or dialogue, the strength of the Prequels lies in this consistency. It gives the central story power despite the many flaws in the telling. It’s more than one can say about the Sequels.

The post The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy Helped the Prequels Age Surprisingly Well appeared first on Den of Geek.

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