Destroy All Monsters: The STAR WARS Prequel Films Aren't The Worst Movies Ever Made, Just The Most Disappointing
As we approach the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I've been noodling the idea of writing some sort of defense of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. If stirring up the comments section is an objective of any "think piece" on the internet in 2015, standing up and saying "I liked The Phantom Menace!" is as good a place to start as any.
Fortunately, as part of their "Star Wars Week," the A/V Club seems to have saved me the bother. I won't go so far as to call Jesse Hassenger's piece, "The Star Wars Prequels Don't Deserve Your Hatred," the definitive defense of the prequels - he seems to be over-reaching in a few connections, and under-emphasizing the very real importance of whether or not those movies are actively entertaining to their audiences - but it's a pretty terrific piece of writing. And it makes an overwhelming number of good points.
The basic thesis is sound: you hate the Star Wars prequels more than, on the balance, you probably should. I see a lot of bad movies, movies with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I'm fully capable of recognizing what a "redeeming quality" looks like even in instances where the surrounding film, in toto, doesn't deserve much more than a passing thought.
The prequels are different. Taken on the whole, they aren't nearly as unabashedly terrible as the popular consciousness has deemed them in the past decade and a half. The same is true for Indy IV, which is the one that finally taught me why everyone dislikes the prequels as much as they do.
I rewatched Indy IV a couple of weeks ago, and had to acknowledge that my reflexive, "I hate this" star rating for the film is easily a point or two lower than any movie as competently produced, cleverly edited, and containing no less than three legitimately great scenes deserves. And it's easy to see why:
Because I hate that movie.
I just do. I hate it. It makes me angry. I want to punch its face. I hate it passionately, thoroughly, and, given the circumstances, unreasonably.
It should, arguably, be very difficult to hate a movie. Hate is a very strong emotion, and two hours is a very short investment of time. A movie needs to actively do something deeply contrary to our core values, I would argue, to earn hate.
I hate Kim Ki-Duk's Moebius, for example, because it contains a sequence where a character with a missing penis tries, and naturally fails, to rape a woman, which is played for slapstick laughs.
I hate this summer's Joel Edgerton film The Gift, because after two excellent hours of being a story about Rebecca Hall's character, the climax turns on which of the two supporting male characters "owns" the Rebecca Hall character.
And I hate Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for no reason other than it wasn't worthy of my second-favourite trilogy of all time, a series of films that meant so much to me in my childhood, teenage, and adult years that it basically wrote whatever percentage of my personality wasn't already written by Star Wars.
These are personal examples. You will have other ones. But one example that nearly every adult film fan my age or older seems to share (with exceptions I will go into a moment) is that they hate the Star Wars prequels.
(The exception: the pervasive pop cultural ideal that "everybody hates the Star Wars prequels" is, of course, the verifiably false propaganda of a deeply insecure cadre of thought bullies. I don't hate the prequels. I know a lot of people who don't hate the prequels. When The Phantom Menace returned to theatres in 2012, a friend of mine summed up the empirical attitude towards prequel-likers wonderfully: "Well, who knew y'all existed, anyway?")
To return to the point: as movies go, the Star Wars prequels aren't particularly good or bad movies. Your mileage may vary. As the A/V Club more than capably demonstrates, there are a number of areas in which the prequels are inarguable examples of exceptional artistic and technical craftsmanship. There are also a number of areas where they truly are "just bad."
But the reason why everyone likes to wander around with the prequels at or near the bottom of the list of the worst films of all time is simply that beyond the actual merits or lack of same in the films themselves, they hate those movies.
This is why, as Hassenger also points out, the crude and subtly misogynist Red Letter Media videos are as popular as they are. This is why, even in the last month, a conversation about Indy IV caused one participant, with a smile, to say to me "Hey, did you ever see that South Park?" You know the one: the one with the protracted rape scene. Hilarious!
Pop cultural barnacles on the hull of the Star Wars behemoth, like Red Letter Media and South Park, are the Wailing Wall of common dislike; they're the drink at the pub after the movie you don't like, except the whining's been going on for sixteen years now.
And the whining won't stop with The Force Awakens, either; rather, it will intensify, breaking into kaleidoscopic patterns of new, re-contextualized dislike. And there's even more good news: unlike in '99, this time, we have social media to help the complaining make the jump into hyperspace.
The size and scope of the hatred, to my eyes, can mean only one thing: the Star Wars prequels hurt people. Hurt them deep inside. Contravened those deeply held values I mentioned above.
"Star Wars is the best!" is the value in question. While it may not be as serious or adult a set of values as "protect the environment" or "transphobia is bad," "Star Wars is the best!" is a value that most of the people I grew up with hold pretty close to the center of their heart. And between 1999 and 2005 (with a parting shot in 2008 for Indy IV), George Lucas broke a lot of those hearts.
It's the ultimate "does not compute" error, if the Star Wars prequels didn't live up to your internally-held ideal of how great a Star Wars movie is supposed to be.
Add to that the number of ways the prequels recontextualize things from the original trilogy in a manner that forever alters the way you look at them (The Force, meet the midichlorians) and the heartbreak can seem pretty much total. Whether the Star Wars prequels are bad or not is actually beside the point. They were something much worse: they were disappointing.
And so really, every video essay, every meme, every retroactive review, every mean tweet or joke about Jake Lloyd's arrest, has absolutely nothing to do with a contemplation of the Star Wars prequels as films; they're just a further elaboration of long-held pain.
Well, great. Feel that pain, live that pain, articulate that pain. But don't mistake that pain for thoughtful criticism, or those opinions for balanced analyses rooted in the qualities of the films themselves. The A/V Club piece represents the first time in a while that we've seen any of the latter.
This is all very much in my mind as The Force Awakens approaches. I have no idea if it'll be a better movie or a worse movie than The Phantom Menace; the only thing I think I can say for sure is that it will be very different in tone, style, and approach.
And I am sure that the tone, style, and approach will appeal to some people more than the prequels did; and less to others; and to others, not at all. This is the basic, depressing reality of all sequels, prequels, add-ons, continuations, and ephemera throughout pop culture: what we love about a movie is not the movie. We love the experience of the movie, and then later, the cherished feelings and associations that the movie brings.
The original Star Wars films might contain the most cherished feelings and associations of any set of movies ever made; wildly over-idealized, nearly impossible to track back downwards into the simple, two-hour process of watching a new film.
When The Phantom Menace arrived, those cherished feelings and associations had been fermenting in our souls for sixteen years. When The Force Awakens premieres next month, it will be held up against a literal lifetime's worth of embroidered, unreasonable Star Wars love.
Now: how many movies, even some of the best movies ever made, could possibly compete with that?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and taking a pre-Force Awakens break from twitter.