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Happy Star Wars Day! Let's defend the hated prequels

Seriously, they're not that bad.
Phantom Menace
One thing few people hate about the "Star Wars" prequels: Darth Maul. Credit: Lucasfilm

Today is Star Wars Day, when we celebrate a film series we haven’t stopped talking about every day for 40 years. Still, what do we talk about? We talk about the original trilogy. We talk about Episodes IV through VI, the three films that ushered in the era we live in now, in which Hollywood exclusively makes blockbusters and franchises, hoping that each one will become another “Star Wars.” Of course, they rarely are, which is why we’re almost certainly getting a new film about Luke Skywalker & co. every year even after we're all dead.

We also talk about the prequels — the other “Star Wars” trilogy, made between 1999 and 2005, which charted Annakin Skywalker’s evolution from annoying kid who squees “Yippee!” to brooding murderer of kid Jedis. But when we do, most of us do so with scorn. We’d like to forget these films, as they were, to put it lightly, not as good as the original three — over-plotted, cheesy, tediously expository, blandly filmed and lousy with Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians.

And yet, in a way — if only in one way — they’re superior to the new “Star Wars.” “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” are more engaging, more entertaining, closer to what everyone loved about the original trilogy. But that’s also the problem: They’re copies. The first three “Star Wars” were the brainchild of one nerd with a rich imagination and a jones for old, junky kids entertainment: movie serials, Westerns, samurai movies, even avant-garde film. Lucas has nothing to do with this rebooted series; he sold the rights to Disney, and they handed it off to people who grew up on “Star Wars.”

You can also argue (as we have) that that’s their charm — that filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Gareth Edwards are clearly fans who make “Star Wars” movies the way kids play with “Star Wars” action figures. But there’s something depressing about these movies, too. They try so hard to follow an old recipe — in the case of “The Force Awakens,” basically repeating the plot of the first “Star Wars” (no, we’re not calling it “A New Hope,” that title’s lame) — that they make you wish you were simply watching the originals.

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Granted, you’d probably rather watch “The Force Awakens” (or the decidedly lesser “Rogue One”) than the prequels. There’s too much palace intrigue and political maneuvering. (The opening title crawl to “The Phantom Menace” includes the words “trade embargo,” preparing us for a trilogy that occasionally feels like C-SPAN in space.) There’s Lucas’ anti-gift with dialogue, especially when things turn romantic. There’s his fumbling of Annakin’s descent into Sith-hood, which starts off promisingly then winds up hinging on a dumb misunderstanding.

Still, there’s a dignity to “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” that these new entries lack. It’s not just that Lucas made them himself. It’s that he was sincerely trying to do something new with an old brand. He didn’t give us what we wanted, like the revivals do; he gave us what he wanted. 

And honestly sometimes — often, even — they are things of beauty. The way Lucas films them are stiff, yet they still contain great wonders — incredible planets, vehicles and creatures and doohickeys cluttering the backgrounds. Darth Maul is at least as iconic as Boba Fett. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor (at least starting with “Clones”) give beautiful performances. And “Revenge of the Sith” is about half a good movie, with a rip-roaring opening and true despair as it weaves through its grim final act. These are noble failures, and noble failures deserve respect, not simple hatred.

We’ve been hard on “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One,” so let’s leave with this: They are good films (well, the first one, anyway). And we have high hopes for “The Last Jedi,” the forthcoming eighth episode. The filmmaker is the peerlessly creative Rian Johnson, of eccentric films like “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom” and “Looper.” Word is his script is the weirdest “Star Wars” yet. We’d like to think “The Force Awakens” was designed to ease us back into this world before the next one took us somewhere new. Somewhere new would be great. Simply trying to repeat the past is charming only for so long.

 
 
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