Just days away from the premiere of ‘Rogue One’, we take a look back at the prequel trilogy and their influence on the franchise.
It may be necessary to preface this article with something of a disclaimer. This is not a discussion on whether George Lucas’ prequel trilogy films are good. They are not. Whether you love or loathe them, they are deeply, unequivocally flawed films. It’s impossible to elaborate on their shortcomings without launching into a long-winded diatribe, so it’s best to simply assume you’ve heard it all before. With that said, it’s easy to understand why some fans choose to discredit or disregard the films. However, what’s troubling is that Lucasfilm and Disney seems to have taken this approach as well.
Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney the prequels have been little referenced beyond a few choice characters and events. Much of the recent media, including Episode VII: The Force Awakens, has leaned heavily on the original trilogy. In gaming, developer DICE has been adamant in their decision to exclude the prequels from Star Wars: Battlefront, which has been met with mounting criticism from fans and pundits. In television, Star Wars: Rebels has featured the most influence from the prequels, but mostly in regards to Darth Maul and Darth Vader, two essential characters and easily the best villains of the era. It’s current timeline is still much closer to the original trilogy than Episode III. The exception here is Marvel’s new line of Star Wars comics, which has a few prequel-centric titles.
While not being completely swept under the rug, the prequels have been tucked safely away in the closet. Disney’s motive is crystal clear. Their recipe for future success of the Star Wars franchise is to include all the flavors from the original trilogy, heavy on the nostalgia. Few can argue with the results. The Force Awakens, shattered box office records and fans quickly fell in love with the new characters that were introduced. Even though the film was an obvious rehash of A New Hope the majority of fans don’t seem to mind because it delivered on all the things we love about Star Wars. Rogue One, though a prequel itself, is poised to follow suit by tying directly to the events of Episode IV. So why be concerned about the divisive prequel trilogy? Better left in the past, right?
Well, these days it’s very easy to forget the franchise’s lull during the 90’s. By this time it had been 15 years since Return of the Jedi was in theaters. Fandom was still healthy to say the least, but it was sustaining strictly on a diet of Expanded Universe novels, comics, and games. As rich and engrossing as those may have been, live action adventures in a galaxy far, far away was what everyone truly desired. If the brand was to stay relevant in the approaching millennium it needed new films to reignite the franchise.
When George Lucas announced Star Wars: Episode I was in development it sent an Alderaan-level shockwave through the galaxy. The cultural relevance of the property was put on full display as Star Wars news dominated the mainstream media and built up unprecedented anticipation. The world was reminded that nothing comes close to the passion and love people had for all things Star Wars. Of course, the final product, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, would eventually go on to disappoint a large number of fans. Yet at the time of its release, it wasn’t as harshly received as we would now expect. Though its flaws were evident, both fans and critics attempted to look past them out of admiration for the greater universe Lucas established.
Naturally, this was a “honeymoon” phase where everyone relished in having Star Wars back on the big screen, regardless of the quality. Public criticism of The Phantom Menace and its sequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith drew sharper with the passing of time. Lucas’ failings as a filmmaker grew more obvious with each film, but they were all incredibly successful. Not just commercially, but culturally they reinvigorated the franchise with original stories, characters, and concepts. Where Lucas may have failed at creating coherent movies, he succeeded in building a deeply layered and visually stunning galaxy for his cardboard cut-out characters to inhabit. It served as a rich playground for a new generation of creative talent to expand upon. The Star Wars universe was flooded with exciting stories and projects, more than at any point in the franchise’s history, and most of it was quite excellent.
Star Wars Clone Wars, a companion series of animated shorts, is widely regarded as superior to the entirety of the films it was based on. The Xbox RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, borrowed elements from both the original trilogy and the prequels to create one of (the best) Star Wars gaming experiences ever brought to life. From Star Wars Battlefront to The Clone Wars to Republic Commando, the prequel trilogy served as infinite inspiration to the creative talent behind the projects. To some fans, the prequel trilogy is simply Star Wars as they know it.
Focusing on the original trilogy may serve well to hook fans into embracing the newness of Episodes VII-IX and beyond, but there is risk in truncating the Star Wars universe, making it feel smaller or redundant. You can’t really be blamed if you mistake Jakku for Tatooine, or the surface of Starkiller Base for Hoth, or Takonda for Endor — well, you get the point. The greatest thing about the prequels was how they expanded the Star Wars universe in fantastic ways, defining the property for an entire generation. Excluding all of that does a great disservice to the franchise and the fans that spent the better part of a decade exploring them. They don’t deserve to be lost in the greater lexicon of the Star Wars mythos. However, there’s something to be preserved in the original trilogy too.
If Lucasfilm’s methodology is to recycle characters and stories from the original films ad infinitum, they run the risk of devaluing their importance. As fans we should fear the plundering of such a precious resource. With iconic characters already being recast, it’s apparent that nothing will be considered sacred. That’s not extremely concerning within itself, but it does make dearth of material from the prequel era feel like more of a slight. They don’t have to be exalted, but they shouldn’t be excluded either. After all, “legacy” is one of the more persistent themes in Star Wars lore. It has taught us to be wary of those who would suppress or obfuscate it. In denying part of our history, we deny that which makes us unique — which makes us whole. There’s a balance to be desired and we should hope to one day soon see it restored.