Salvaging Star Wars

The Star Wars prequels were a catastrophe. These clunky, over-animated films enraged a generation. Thirty-something movie geeks, who had invested love and loyalty in this “far, far away” universe, watched as George Lucas transformed childhood daydreams into a commercialized, overwrought nightmare.

Many have attempted to redeem Star Wars since. Some dreamers still defend the prequels as “Star Wars for a new generation” (millennials enjoy the movies much more than Generation X). Others have attempted to “fix” the prequels via fan-edits, trimming the fat and re-rendering the most offensive animations. Still others, despite being burned in the past, look to the upcoming sequels to restore the tarnished Skywalker legacy.

But it’s too late. Episodes I, II, and III happened. And they sucked. They’re fine for distracting the kiddos on a Saturday morning, but they hardly belong on the bookshelf beside The Empire Strikes Back. Fans are left to dream wistfully of what might have been. To ask “What went wrong?” To wonder how Lucasfilm might avoided the prequel disaster.

I’ve got a few ideas. Over the next few posts, I’ll suggests a few ways that the prequels might have been improved. We’ll call the series “Salvaging Star Wars.”

My first suggestion? Don’t make prequels. At all. With very rare exceptions, prequel films pose problems that should daunt any good writer. First, such projects smack of corporate avarice. A good original film (or film series) ties up its plot threads and wraps up each character’s story. It’s meant to be whole and compelling and complete. But when that film earns big bucks at the box office, the suits trump the creatives. The studio demands a sequel, eager to milk its new-found cash cow. But because there’s no more future story to tell (the villain died; the galaxy was saved; the end), the writers must mine the past instead.

But there’s the second problem. The past is past. It’s history; the audience already knows what’s going to happen. In the case of Star Wars, we know that Obi Wan and Anakin and Yoda and the Emperor will survive. We know that Anakin gets hurt and becomes a hell-bent cyborg. We know that Padme will die. We know (or can very quickly guess) that Senator Palpatine is a secret Sith Lord.

The prequels attempt to generate some drama by introducing characters whose fates we can’t foresee. We get Jar Jar and Samuel L. Windu and Qui Gonn Jinn and Darth Maul and the Trade Federation bozos. But even if these were interesting characters (spoiler alert: they’re not), the audience can’t be fooled. If these characters don’t even get mentioned in the real Star Wars movies, how could they possibly be worth our time?

But there are other prequels that beat the odds. That present a compelling prologue to the original. Think of Godfather II or X-Men: First Class. It’s theoretically possible to make a prequel project work. So how might the Star Wars films have worked, then?

Next time, we’ll dive into the films themselves and explain how the Star Wars universe got muddled with our own—to the prequels’ detriment.