As we have now entered the release week of the highly anticipate “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” I thought that I would give my two cents on the question that is on everyone’s minds, will “The Force Awakens be better than the prequels? Based on the marketing materials that Disney and Lucasfilm have released for the film to date, and based on what various people involved in the production of the movie have stated, the short answer is yes, “The Force Awakens” will be better than the prequels. Well, at least, the fans will most likely think so, and that is because the “The Force Awakens” has something that the prequels did not.
When the first of the prequels, “The Phantom Menace,” was released in May of 1999 there was the same level of hype and excitement surrounding that film that currently surrounds “The Force Awakens.” But, shortly after the opening of the film, something happened, something that led “Star Wars” fans to vitriolic hate for the next sixteen year. What could have happened to cause such a drastic change in attitude? It is a simple answer, although it is one I did not realize until recently. What happened was “The Phantom Menace” was not the “Star Wars” that people remember from when they were growing up. By they I mean first generation “Star Wars” fans. In 1999, there were two kinds of “Star Wars” fans. One kind was the first generation, the ones who were growing up around the time that the original “Star Wars” trilogy released in theaters. The second type of “Star Wars” fan was the second generation “Star Wars” fan, the ones exposed to “Star Wars” on home video.
As a member of the latter group of “Star Was” fans, I can tell you that in 1999, when I was seven, I was sold on “The Phantom Menace” because it was a “Star Wars” movie and when I was seven that was all I needed. I cannot speak for every member of the second generation of “Star Wars” fans, especially the older ones born in the mid-1980’s. It was the members of the first generation quickly became disappointed with the film because George Lucas took “Star Wars” some place different, some place that was not familiar to them. Recently when George Lucas said in an interview with “Vanity Fair” that “You go to make a movie and all you do is get criticized,” it was finally clear to me where the prequels and the original were different, and what about the prequels worked and what about the prequels did not work. Lucas did not intend to make the same “Star Wars” he had done in 1977. Lucas wanted to make a different kind of “Star Wars.”
The biggest problem with the prequels is not the weak screenplay, the wooden acting, the CGI overkill, and you know what, it is not even Jar Jar. The biggest problem with prequels is the movies, unfortunately, exist in the no man’s land between the story that Lucas was trying to tell with the movies, and the story that fans had wanted the movie to tell. Ultimately the story that Lucas was trying to tell was the fall of the Republic, the rise of the Empire, and Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side. What the fans had wanted was something that was a parallel to the original trilogy, in which Anakin starts off like Luke, only falling to the dark side at the end.
The story that Lucas was trying to tell is the thing about the prequels that works. Ultimately the prequels are not about Anakin Skywalker, they are not about Darth Vader, ultimately the prequels are about Palpatine. One of the biggest criticisms that “The Phantom Menace” has received is that the movie lacks a central character, that is because the main character of “The Phantom Menace” is not Anakin, it is not Obi-Wan, it is not Qui-Gon. The central character of “The Phantom Menace” is Palpatine. He is the titular “Phantom Menace,” he is the guy behind the scenes pulling the strings, he is the one behind the trade federation, and, in the end, he is the man ultimately responsible for turning Anakin to the dark side. Everything that Palpatine does throughout the prequel trilogy is to establish his power, his power over the Republic and the galaxy. The political dealings of Palpatine and the Senate are the main plot of the trilogy. These movies are building to the world that we saw in the original “Star Wars,” the world of the dark times, the world of the Empire. The prequels explore the world as Alec Guinness says in the original “Star Wars,” the world before the dark times.
Anakin’s turn, not his fall his turn, to the dark side is the subplot of the prequels. These movies take to the moment where Anakin turns to the dark side. At the end of “Revenge of the Sith” Anakin is not yet Darth Vader, Darth Vader is born when Anakin ultimately falls to the dark side. What happens in the prequels is that through Palpatine’s manipulation, see that opera house scene in “Revenge of the Sith,” Anakin becomes seduced by the dark side because Anakin wants the power that Palpatine is promising him. Lucas wanted the moment where Anakin turns to the dark side, but not the moment where falls. The fall of Anakin, that moment where Anakin and Darth Vader diverge and become separate entities, that moment does not happen in the prequels. That moment does happen at some point between the end of “Revenge of the Sith” and the start of “Star Wars.”
The ultimate failure of the prequel trilogy is that it was not the story that the fans had wanted, the fall of Anakin to the dark side. The greatest failure of the prequels is that they do not show the fall. At the start of “Star Wars” when you first see Darth Vader, at that point Anakin Skywalker no longer exists, at that point, Anakin and Vader have diverged. At the end of “Return of the Jedi,” the last film of the original trilogy, is where Anakin overtakes Darth Vader because Anakin, not Vader, is the one who kills Emporer Palpatine. With the prequels, the fans wanted to see Anakin Skywalker fall to the dark side, they wanted to see Anakin become Darth Vader. That is not the movie that they got; what they got was Anakin’s turn. Without the fall, without the transition from Anakin to Darth Vader, the prequel trilogy left many of the fans feeling like it just was not “Star Wars.” They wanted a film that felt like “Star Wars,” they wanted Anakin’s story to run parallel and end opposite of Luke Skywalker’s story.
What does this have to do with “The Force Awakens?” Well, it has everything to do with “The Force Awakens.” J.J. Abrams, the director of the movie, and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy had been saying throughout the long build up to “The Force Awakens” have said that they were going back to practical effects and going back to the tone of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Not only do you have those statements from Abrams and Kennedy, but recently at the Kennedy Center Honors, Lucas said that he had seen the movie and that “I think the fans are going to love it, it’s very the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” What that means is that “The Force Awakens,” unlike the prequels, will be a movie that feels like “Star Wars,” the “Star Wars” that many people remember from when they young. That is because Lucasfilm brought Abrams on to direct the film, and Abrams is a fan of “Star Wars.” Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” was essentially “Star Wars” dressed up as “Star Trek.”
When all of those elements add up “The Force Awakens,” at least regarding the public reception, will be better than the prequels.