I’ve read a few articles written by entertainment reporters, internet pundits, and film critics trying to put into words why people have forgiven the Star Wars prequels, specifically from the fringes of the millennial generation and the oldest members of generation Z who grew up the films. The most recent such article comes via Screenrant, which tries to decode why Star Wars fans have forgiven Anakin Skywalker actor Hayden Christensen, who portrayed the Jedi that would become Darth Vader in 2002’s “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and 2005’s “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.”
The answer is simple, really. The prequel films, while bad at times, are funny, and are extremely memeable.
Truth be told, in their original context, Episode I and II are borderline unwatchable, have extraneous characters and nonsensical plot points, and yeah, it greatly changes the Star Wars universe as portrayed in Episodes IV, V and VI. But to be fair, the universe of Star Wars really wasn’t all that in the original trilogy, and the facelift Star Wars creator George Lucas gave to the world during the prequels greatly improved upon the universe of Star Wars, especially on the alien side of things, even if there were a few misfires along the way (such as the inclusion of midichlorians).
But the years have been kind to the prequels, and their unique awkwardness is just what the doctor ordered when current meme culture arose, which often takes unique phrases and moments from TV shows and applies them to different contexts, often in humorous ways. And indeed, it is easy to laugh at the awkward dialogue and bizarre creative choices when re-watching the prequels on their own, once you remove your expectations of them being the next masterpieces to grace cinema.
The prequel’s unique awkwardness and unintended hilarity have allowed specific moments of them to live on as memes long after the uproar of the prequels died down. Really, in 2020, the memes of the prequel movies are arguably more famous than the films themselves, and it’s gotten to the point that young fans growing up might add phrases like “I have the high ground” and “Hello there … General Kenobi!” into their vocabulary before watching the films they came from.
And it really is this meme culture that has saved these films, and allowed us to laugh at their cringe. If you watch all three prequel films with a straight face, you’re going to have a bad time except for a few good lightsaber fights in Episodes I and II, and some legitimately good cinematic moments from Episode III. Prequel memes have added humor to scenes not intended to be humorous, re-framing the films in a way one might view likeable bad movies like “The Room”, rather than their original context as a serious follow-up to one of the most revered cinematic trilogies of all time.
It’s also helped that since the early 80s, Star Wars has become many things, including multiple respected video game franchises, book series, and a merchandise empire. And truth be told, Star Wars’s Expanded Universe books and games, as well as both animated “Clone Wars” TV Shows did a lot to redeem the prequels, even when they were fresh on people’s minds, so while Lucas did taketh away from the serious adventure Star Wars was, he did giveth plenty.
There’s also the fact that the last prequel film, “Revenge of the Sith”, is arguably a legitimately good movie, and in it Ewan McGregor, Christensen, and Ian McDiarmid gave us the definitive portrayals of prequel Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine. It ended on a high note, and that goes a long way to shaping people’s perceptions of something, especially considering that people’s memories are short, and a trilogy that leads up to a satisfying conclusion that had problems along the way is more easily forgiven than one with problems that leads up to nothing (such as the Star Wars sequels).
I have no doubt that the sequels will not be as loved as the prequels in the coming decades, mostly because of their lack of originality, and the nosedive “Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” took both creatively and functionally; it’s not even a funny bad movie, it’s just a bad movie. I would not be surprised if director J. J. Abrams is effectively blacklisted from directing big-budget sci-fi projects after Rise, especially considering that fans are beginning to realize the huge damage he has done with the “Star Trek” franchise by implementing almost identical creative decisions that has devolved one of the most thought-provoking and interesting sci-fi shows into action schlock. At least with Star Trek, he had the decency to keep the franchise’s old canon intact. The new Star Wars canon is almost as bad as if Michael Bay was trusted to rewrite everything that happened after Episode VI, and will no doubt serve as a textbook example of how not to handle a beloved IP you just bought.
The Star Wars prequels work as funny bad films with the worldbuilding and lore you’ll find in a cult film. Its memes are going nowhere, and its bizarre weirdness has made an impact on popular culture that isn’t going anywhere soon. To be fair, at the end of the day, years removed from their release, the good the prequels offer overshadows the bad, and the bad really isn’t all that bad. They didn’t necessarily ruin beloved characters (though many claim Lucas did with Anakin in Episode II; his character in Episode III and the Clone Wars prove that that essentially was his angsty teenage self who makes mistakes that he learns to grow past), nor introduce franchise-breaking plot points (for all the hate midichlorians get, they don’t affect meaningfully Star Wars at all), and they didn’t make the original trilogy pointless or redundant. The only things the prequels are really guilty of are an unfocused plot, too many characters, bad writing, dialogue and awkward acting.