Everyone Likes the 'Star Wars' Prequels Now
Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
Whether or not a movie lasts in pop culture's collective consciousness often depends on major shifts in perspective. Critical and commercial failures like The Big Lebowski and Blade Runner have become much-revered classics, while everyone seems to agree now that Love, Actually was pretty silly. The popular consensus on Titanic shifts back and forth every five or six years (it's good), as does Batman & Robin (it's bad, buuuut…). Perhaps the biggest pop-culture reevaluation that has taken place just in the last few years concerns a certain science-fiction prequel trilogy that was received so badly even its own hardcore fans didn't really like it.
That's right, folks! The Star Wars prequels—Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)—are good now. (They're good now?? They're good now!) Everyone loves them, or at least that's what it seems like if you took a cursory glance at social media every time the franchise is back in the news.
In a way, this critical tide shift is easy to track. The Star Wars prequels have some of the weirdest lines of dialogue you will ever see in a multi-hundred-million-dollar blockbuster movie series, and are thus endlessly quotable. "Hello, there!" "A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one." "There's always a bigger fish." "Did you ever hear the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?" "You underestimate my power." "I AM THE SENATE." Quote Anakin's sand speech right now. I know you can do it.
This kind of cultural saturation only comes around once in a while, and this particular case is the result of the prequels' thriving semi-ironic fan community. The subreddit r/PrequelMemes has more than 2 million members posting every day, carving every innocuous second of these ridiculous movies into the eternal stone of the internet. (It's these very fans who convinced stars Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen to come back for Disney+'s Obi-Wan Kenobi.)
Let me say something that is maybe controversial: The story of the prequels, the main arc that all three movies follow, is really good. A young boy, born a total nobody and enslaved on a nowheresville planet, is discovered by a network of mysterious knight-sorcerers who find out that he has a powerful connection to the mystical energy that balances the universe. While training to hone his skills and learn a bunch of cool sword-fighting moves, the boy becomes disillusioned with upholding the system of government that has stagnated during its long reign of tranquility, and fights to stay loyal to his restrictive vows while falling in love with the galaxy's most unachievable woman. A cunning politician and secret servant of evil exploits the boy's weaknesses and drives him into the darkness, creating the most terrifying villain the galaxy, or cinema, has ever seen.
That's GOOD. That's a Wagnerian epic, a Shakespearean tragedy. That's a whole movie series' worth of great ideas, and the thing about the prequels is, when you look past all the bounty hunter clones and Gungans and unfortunate racial stereotyping and wooden dialogue delivery and totally incoherent side quests, all of those ideas are in there. It's just unfortunately overshadowed by, well, everything else. Say what you will about George Lucas, the man had a vision.
And it's that very vision, or at least that notion of having a vision, that feels so unique in our current era of micro- and macro-managed blockbuster franchises created by businessmen and scripted by 20 people at a time and filmed on green screens and digitally enhanced by cheap labor and sourced from material by artists and writers who are never paid their due. Maybe the Star Wars prequels look so good now because we're so tired of what that type of filmmaking has become. They were crowdpleasers that weren't trying to please everyone (and rarely pleased anyone). During the reevaluation of the new trilogy, the continuation of "the Skywalker saga," as Lucasfilm belatedly began to call it once they realized what The Rise of Skywalker was going to be about, those in the negative camp repeated a common refrain. At least the prequels were about something.
Maybe it's as simple as this: We're sick of watching movies made for the lowest common denominator. By that I don't mean "stupid people," or even "children." I'm talking about art meant to be easily digestible, inoffensive, low-stakes, and, thus, immediately forgettable. The Star Wars prequels are a lot of things, but they certainly aren't forgettable. This isn't even about a critical overhaul—even the fans know that these movies are not, by any stretch of the imagination, destined to become classics. But, if you look at something for long enough, "bad" starts to become "weird," which eventually becomes "interesting." From a certain point of view, you could even say it's good.