Destroy All Monsters: The STAR WARS Prequel Films Aren't The Worst Movies Ever Made, Just The Most Disappointing

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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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.

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George LucasStar WarsStar Wars prequel trilogyThe Force AwakensThe Phantom MenaceHarrison FordAlec GuinnessMark HamillJames Earl JonesActionAdventureSci-Fi

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Around the Internet

MehliensNovember 18, 2015 10:15 AM

Just wait until JJ drops his turd... even tho its pretty hardcore to limbo under the bar set by the prequels you can't rule that out just yet

SandboxNovember 18, 2015 10:51 AM

The 'prequel' has an inherent problem. Lindenoff (for what it's worth) said it best. "If you’re going to make three movies where you basically just tell me what I already know. At least embed a new idea in there that I didn’t already know. It is not exciting when all the viewer has to do is connect the dots".

Matthew PriceNovember 18, 2015 11:44 AM

Quoting Lindelof, the guy who gets the "blame" for Prometheus (I'm in the proprometheus camp, BTW). BOLD CHOICE.

SouppilgrimNovember 18, 2015 1:56 PM

"subtly misogynist Red Letter Media videos" Please just stop with this wild hyperbole, RLM does not hate women. Jesus...

Matthew PriceNovember 18, 2015 5:34 PM

Of course they do

UilickMcGeeNovember 19, 2015 3:55 AM

The prequels for me are a perfectly fine means of pissing away a rainy Saturday. I have long-since buried my "disillusioned fanboy" hatchet with Lucas and just enjoy them for what they are.

soupcrusherNovember 19, 2015 4:38 PM

I don't hate these movies, but I do hate Jar Jar. Patton Oswalt summed up my feelings perfectly

Geoff ThomasNovember 20, 2015 8:40 PM

That is very well said.

Thing One n' Two ThingsNovember 20, 2015 8:43 PM

Oh. Dear. Christ. This shit is gonna go on every year until 2035?

RxPhantomNovember 21, 2015 12:43 AM

Let's sum up the real reasons these films are so loathed. The dialogue was clunky and poorly written. The story was dull. The acting was wooden, but of course that may be blamed on the script. Lightsaber battles became about how many backflips they could do. Then, of course, there's "everybody knows everybody syndrome," like Anakin/Vader just so happened to construct C3P0.

They aren't bad because of lofty expectations. They're bad because they're bad.

misfit_85November 21, 2015 12:51 AM

Not to mention getting offended by a South Park episode is a pretty sure sign of an SJW fucktard.

StevenNovember 21, 2015 6:19 PM

Its only Jar Jar, but thankfully he only messes up TPM, and the forced love scenes that spoil it for me. Otherwise fine family films

Renaissance NerdNovember 22, 2015 11:36 AM

...Which is why I don't hate them. I never thought the original Star Wars trilogy were the best movies ever, so I had reasonable expectations of the prequels, which were met. They were fun, goofy, and made for kids, just like the originals. They were (all six) John Carter meets The Seven Samurai meets Saturday matinee serials. There's nothing wrong with that, and I own all six movies and watch them occasionally...for fun.

Even as a 9-year-old I wasn't much impressed by 'the Force.' I've been a religion geek my whole life and I never took seriously the inherent contradictions of the Jedi quasi-philosophy, so who cares if it's just as goofy on the inside as it is on the outside?

These movies are fun, lots of fun, and that is all. I bugs me that so many people can't just have fun and appreciate it at that level. When I walked into 'Phantom Menace' at midnight I was an excited 9-year-old again and that was all I wanted. Desire completely satisfied!

similarlyNovember 22, 2015 8:11 PM

The prequels have some great scenes and they're fun to watch, but they're loaded with problems, from bad dialog to incoherent motivations of characters to inconsistent tone.

The biggest problem though is that they don't match the ideas, tone, or setting of the original trilogy, and as prequels, that's something that the movies should be EXPECTED to do.

And there are SO many characters, places, things and ideas that just don't show a smooth transition from prequel to sequel.

Jeff MackeyNovember 23, 2015 2:46 AM

Abrams isn't even a filmmaker; he's a fanboy who does like it or hate it homages as well as big-budgeted fan films. Who can forget how many Trekkies he's pissed off?

MithrandirOlorinNovember 23, 2015 4:42 AM

I was someone who was never a fan of the original Trilogy. The Prequels films made me fall in love with Star Wars.

OpinionGiverNovember 23, 2015 8:18 AM

"they don't match the ideas, tone, or setting of the original trilogy, and as prequels, that's something that the movies should be EXPECTED to do"

You do realize that the PT era was entirely different from the era of the OT, right? The PT portrays the Republic and its downfall. It was never meant to depict a period of oppression but more of how a galaxy went from a Republic to a cold-hearted Empire. Simply put, the PT represents "before the dark times".

You having expectations as such is already an error thinking it was going to be depicting the same era (Empire vs. Rebellion). The PT was meant to feel different. It wasn't just depicting how Darth Vader came into existence; it was depicting how a society was played and deceived by an individual who rose to power. It was depicting how the Jedi Order, who were at their prime in regards to strength, were not able to detect the warning signs of the dark side of the Force from the start thus this being their downfall. This is the error that many who didn't like the PT fall for: making up the movies in their mind. Untimely, you are disappointed because the PT wasn't exactly like the OT in regards to look and style due to their misguided feelings of nostalgia and instead of looking at it on its own, you continue to make comparisons (a fallacy that haters continue to commit). Instead of looking at the big picture, instead of contextualizing the events, haters continue to feel disappointed due to reasons I've described above.

Also, people need to stop having impossibly high expectations because if they do, they will find disappointment as hype can cause one to fall back when expectations aren't met (as they were made ridiculously high).

Lastly, these people who continues to harp on the their hate need to let it go; it's been 10-16 since the PT, move on. There are many who do like the PT despite their flaws (no movie is 100% perfect and flawless, including the OT movies); these folks have a right to enjoy them and think what they want about them without someone ridiculing them.

similarlyNovember 23, 2015 9:41 AM

You misunderstand me on several points, but it's my fault, I think, for not being clear.

1. I don't hate the prequels. I find them uneven, and poorly written. But I don't hate them.

2. I have not ridiculed ANYONE who likes the prequels. I agree, they do have a right to enjoy them.

My entire post was focused on the content of the prequels: as it should be. We shouldn't be making assumptions about people who like or dislike a movie.

3. My criticism of the tone is not about Republic vs. Empire. I realize that.

I'm thinking of the literary tone. But I'm not going to argue it.

4. As for inconsistencies of ideas in the PT, they're things covered in other posts, so no need to say more.

Finally: I agree that we shouldn't criticize people who like harmless entertainment. But, I do believe that people should have the right to criticize entertainment if they want to.

chuckNovember 23, 2015 10:50 AM

Tell you the truth, I didn't get how great the prequels could have been until I watched the computer generated "Clone Wars". Through the Clone Wars I saw how The Jedi were waylaid by their own hubris, how they created their own slaves. In essence, how they followed the dark side though they didn't realize it.

Ken WannbergNovember 23, 2015 11:27 AM

I was not disappointed at all. Fan since 77! The new ones look too rebooty though. WTF is the Empire doing back!? JJ!!!!!

Ken WannbergNovember 23, 2015 11:30 AM

If that were the case, people would hate the OT too. But nobody goes to see these movies for the method acting or contemporary dialogue. In fact, most of the haters only seem to like the action scenes. It's just that people go for the spectacle and check out for the story. A sign of the times.

Ken WannbergNovember 23, 2015 11:32 AM

Then why watch the original trilogy ever again? You already know what happens.

OpinionGiverNovember 23, 2015 11:48 AM

I do agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion (and no one should be trying to force others to change their minds).

As for this:

"I don't hate the prequels. I find them uneven, and poorly written. But I don't hate them."

Again, that's your opinion. I'm not saying that this is perfect, but the PT does represent non-traditional storytelling. It was not meant to follow a similar prose as other movies (not even a "heroes journey" approach toile the OT has); it was meant to set a trend of a unique way of storytelling, not follow some sort of traditional model.

Another thing to think about is that the PT was meant to cater to a new generation of younger fans; Lucas made it clear that, although people of all ages can enjoy the PT movies, it catered to a younger generation in bringing them in to the SW fandom (not a trilogy to cater to the fans that grew up on the OT when they were released in theaters). So yeah, just like a young generation of fans fell in love with the OT (and Lucas has gone on record that the OT was targeted to youth), so was the PT, which the PT did do its job in bringing new fans in (let's be honest, between 1983-1999, outside of the old EU, SW had been a dying franchise since no new movies were coming out). I guess old-school fans seem to have forgotten all of this (thus those that are haters trying to make a younger generation feel bad for liking something that catered to their generation just because a group of people from the older generation didn't like it). TFA (and the ST in general) is also meant to bring in a new generation of fans (which has been stated by both Disney and Lucasfilm). If that's not clear to you now, it'll be clearer later on.

Also, people seem to have forgotten that the PT was intended to be different. Lucas was clear on this before he started filming the PT movies that they were going to feel a bit different from the OT movies as they were going to be different stories. Why old-school fans decided to ignore this is beyond me.

Matthew PriceNovember 23, 2015 2:03 PM

you seem nice

KrudNovember 23, 2015 8:20 PM

I think old-school fans were hoping that Episodes I-III would more or less transition smoothly to the original series both in story and tone, and in keeping with the "9-movie" arc that George Lucas said he envisioned. And many old-school fans (myself included) felt that the prequels did not deliver on that promise, other than a rapid set of montages near the end of Revenge of the Sith to put things in place for episodes IV-VI. (I do think RottS is the best of the prequels, even with various moments of what, for sake of argument, we'll call unexpected creative decisions rather than flaws.) I imagine a lot of fans are hoping for some sort of similar transition for episodes VII-IX, and are in for similar disappointment in that regard.

I've always considered movies to be "timeless" to some degree; I'll watch 50's movies as readily as 70's, 90's, and current movies*. I know not everyone feels that way about it, but it still bothers me to say that "the [such-and-such] movies are for THIS generation." I am not about to step aside and say, "Okay, I'm done watching movies, time for the younger people to watch them." Nor am I going to resign myself to series, adult, dark movies just because I'm older.

(* - Admittedly, once you get into the 40's and earlier, I become much choosier and/or reluctant. Which I guess would be the equivalent of expecting kids today to get into a 1977 movie.)

Though to be honest, a lot of the fandom rage stems from the geek entitlement many of us have about the Star Wars Universe, despite having literally zero legal ownership of it. To read novels, comics, and play games centered around it, and then to have prequels come out that trumps it all (and now Disney scrapping the Extended Universe canon-wise), it can be hard for many to take.

Corps I AmNovember 27, 2015 2:58 PM

Well it does make sense. The Empire was far more than the Emperor and Darth Vader. Militaries are always more than a couple leaders. Considering that the Empire was spread out all over the galaxy and contained plenty of admirals and generals, Endor was just a battle.

Corps I AmNovember 27, 2015 3:08 PM

"...the Star Wars prequels hurt people. Hurt them deep inside."

This is certainly true for many. But in the end, the Prequel movies were simply not good. The great Darth Vader exists because Anakin fumbled into the Dark Side by accident? One does not help destroy planets, murdering billions of people, because one "oops" his way into being bad. And in the past, R2D2 can fly? With almost every major character in the Original getting a cameo or an origin story, the Prequels were very gimicky and based on nostalgia. There was a great story to tell, but it was delivered very poorly and fans were stuck filling in the blanks to make it work.

The Prequel was an exercise in technology not story telling. Forget Jake Lloyd's comments on Phantom Menace. When seasoned actors like Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman report having troubles with line deliveries, you know there is something fundamentally wrong here.