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To believe the conventional wisdom, the prequel trilogy of the Star Wars saga — 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Episode II: Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Episode III: Revenge of the Sith — is not only a low point for the franchise, but for science fiction cinema as a whole, and single-handedly (Well, triple-handedly, technically) responsible for breaking an entire generation of fans’ hearts in its sheer ineptitude.
With the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens just days away, however, that idea has begun to come under attack, with new reappraisals of the movies appearing, each one arguing that the movies weren’t bad, just misunderstood and, as one such A.V. Club reappraisal put it, “in many ways fulfill the potential … for old-fashioned Star Wars adventures made with ever-advancing technology,” and, in fact, might even surpass the original movies in some areas. (“In the prequels, the lightsaber battles are sleeker affairs with better choreography and more athleticism” as another USA Today piece suggested.)
The reality is, of course, somewhere in between those two extremes and — to be blunt — far less interesting.
No, the Star Wars prequels aren’t as bad as the haters would have you believe (The pain of thwarted nostalgia is strong in those ones), but neither are they lost classics that will unleash forgotten treasures upon rediscovery. The sad truth of the matter is, the Star Wars prequels are fine, at best; they deliver a glossy, if somewhat soulless and sterile, spectacle that in many ways offer a hint of what would come in later Wachowski sibling productions like Speed Racer or Jupiter Ascending, right down to the slick visuals and weak dialogue. They’re interesting from a point of view of the evolution of sci-fi blockbusters, but beyond that, not so much.
And that, really, is the most interesting thing about them. The Star Wars prequels are fine, but instantly forgettable. If they didn’t have the Star Wars title attached, no one would give them a second thought, either to condemn them or defend them; they certainly wouldn’t be a hot topic more than a decade after their release.
They’re certainly not the Star Wars that anyone thinks of first when someone mentions the title, and there’s an argument to be made that they’re merely an ill-considered addition that people simply have to deal with, rather than “the real thing” in any meaningful sense.
In many ways, Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan has the right approach to the two trilogies, in that he’s apparently able to set them apart entirely as different entities. “They obviously have a certain feel, and that was not the feel we wanted this one to have,” he told the Los Angeles Times recently, addressing the subject of whether the new movie would interact with the mythology of the prequels to any great extent.
Would that fans could follow suit, and let the prequels fade into the same completist territory as the Star Wars Holiday Special or the two Ewok movies that everyone politely pretends didn’t really happen, where they belong.
It’s not as if fandom hasn’t already known for some time that not all Star Wars is created equal — how else to explain the unspoken agreement to never really talk about the 1980s animated Droids series? — but the importance of the prequels, by dint of their format, and especially the pedigree of their creator, have been unfairly elevated in many minds beyond the position they deserve.
Perhaps when The Force Awakens opens the floodgates to more Star Wars movies, that will finally change, and audiences can happily allow the prequels to fade into memory peacefully. At least until someone decides that enough time has passed to allow the world to prepare for Star Wars: Revenge of the Gungan.
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