You don’t really hate the Star Wars prequels. You hate that you grew up.
I’ve never quite understood the vehemence directed against George Lucas’ second trilogy in the Star Wars saga. Or perhaps I understand it all too well. The very thing that won me over from frame one of The Phantom Menace is what prequel detractors abhor: the way these films act as time machines, transporting us to our earlier, less-cynical moviegoing years. Sent back to the Star Wars universe, only without the haze of nostalgia to protect us, many who grew up on the originals were horrified by what they saw.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are far from perfect films, for reasons I’ll get to. Yet they’re still great ones. They did certain things so well—conjured a fully imagined universe, echoed millennia-proven myths of hope and redemption, set standards for incorporating live action and special effects, gave us lightsabers—we looked past the deficiencies and gave in to their unique, retro-futuristic pull. Yet when The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith arrived with some of the same flaws as the originals, Star Wars fans reacted as if a terrible, repressed memory had suddenly emerged.
The uncomfortable truth is that just about everything bad in the prequels was also bad in the originals. Hayden Christensen is no worse than Mark Hamill, with his whining about Tosche Station and power converters. Jar Jar Binks is no more annoying than C-3PO, who tagged along after R2-D2 like an unwanted dance chaperone. “It’s coarse and rough and irritating—and it gets everywhere,” was terrible dialogue. And don’t forget Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: “How you get so big eating food of this kind?”
There’s one crucial difference between the prequels and their predecessors: the age at which many moviegoers experienced them. To become apoplectic over the prequels while still adoring the originals has always struck me as a strange sort of dissonance. Call it nostalgia gone sour, petulantly whining, “You ruined my childhood!” when in actuality the Star Wars prequels’ remarkably preserved it—warts and all.
This curdled nostalgia has, unfortunately, caused many to overlook the good qualities of the prequels, including—and here’s their true beauty—how they function in artful conjunction with the first three films. Phantom Menace’s pod race—a masterfully choreographed action sequence that relies, like so much of the series, on inspired sound design—is an echo of the speeder-bike chase through Jedi’s forests of Endor. Jango Fett’s death scene in Attack of the Clones, in which boy Boba holds his father’s decapitated head, infuses the bounty hunter of The Empire Strikes Back with a new relentlessness. And in Revenge of the Sith, tragedy and redemption meet like strands of DNA, with the birth of the very villain who will be saved three films later/earlier. What’s more, as a terrific recent compilation-video makes clear, the prequels’ mise en scène is almost entirely constructed of visual echoes of the earlier films. These instances are not a matter of recycling or cribbing, but of poetically mirroring, so that all episodes have an aesthetic connectivity that would earn other filmmakers the label of auteur.
My guess is that with December’s The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams will do a fine job righting the prequels’ “wrongs.” If his Star Trek work is any indication, he’ll polish the dialogue and modulate the performances so that we’ll all—myself included—be entertained, comfortably swaddled in nostalgia-down blankets. I’m just glad to know that when I miss the peculiar, majestic and, yes, dorky Star Wars sensibility that first captured the imagination of a generation, I can always return to C-3P0 and the gang. Jar Jar included.