Don’t Give in to Hate

How a child of the original Star Wars trilogy learned to love the prequels—and why we should all look forward to Episode VII.

The Phantom Menace.
Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in The Phantom Menace.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

Accompanying the announcement last week that Disney will acquire George Lucas’ Lucasfilm for more than $4 billion came the news that a new trilogy of Star Wars films will be produced and released, starting as early as 2015. Regardless of their content, Episodes VII-IX will almost certainly be dismissed by scores of adults, men and women in their 30s and 40s who have consistently rejected nearly all attempts to reinvigorate the franchise. (Indeed, the criticism has already begun.) As an avid fan of the franchise and the father of a young Star Wars devotee, I am on the other extreme—I can’t wait for the release of Episode VII. I fully expect Episodes VII-IX to be as entertaining and irresistible as the original trilogy—and believe they have the potential to be most enjoyable Star Wars movies yet.

George Lucas first disappointed Star Wars fans in 1999, when, giving in to demand, he produced the first of three prequels (Episodes I-III). Though successful at the box office and in terms of merchandising, the films were widely panned by adult fans on any number of grounds (from the quality of acting, to weak and possibly racist characters, to the use of CGI rather than the crude but beloved methods of animation available 20 or so years earlier).

I was one such critic. Born in 1977, the year Star Wars was released, I grew up on the original films and adored pretty much everything about the franchise. I (somehow) convinced my then-girlfriend (now wife) to see Episode I: The Phantom Menace the day it opened. I was appalled. Jar Jar Binks, a major character in the film, was embarrassingly silly and uncomfortably servile. The conflict underlying the film was a byzantine trade dispute that to this day I do not fully understand. The computer-generated animation of characters such as Watto (a small, flying creature with a tight fist and a vaguely Semitic nose) was not at all realistic, and the live-action actors sharing the screen with him looked every bit as though they were conversing with a character to be inserted later. I was so disgusted with Episode I that I didn’t bother to see Episodes II and III in the theater. I was in solidarity with my peers—Episodes I-III should never have been made.

Then, in January 2008, my son was born.  Though I had been put off by the prequels, my love of the original trilogy still burned bright, and I was eager to introduce my son to Luke, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Vader. By the age of 4 he had seen the original trilogy—the only trilogy that mattered—so many times that he longed for more. I reluctantly allowed him to watch Episodes I-III, and was surprised to discover that he liked them just as much as Episodes IV-VI, if not more so. As we further expanded our Star Wars Universe to include the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie (2008) and the animated TV series of the same name (currently airing on the Cartoon Network), it finally dawned on me that as a thirtysomething veteran of the original trilogy, I was no longer a member George Lucas’ target audience.

These movies are for children. Let me say that one more time: They are children’s movies, like Wreck It Ralph or Madagascar or Alvin and the Chipmunks. And George Lucas, to his great credit, speaks as well to children today as he did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In fact, it is possible that he has gotten better—in my experience, today’s kids seem to identify far more with Anakin than Luke Skywalker, with Jango Fett than his son Boba (a cult hero of the original trilogy), and with clone trooper Captain Rex than with Han Solo or Chewbacca.

I know what you’re thinking, fellow Star Wars die-hards: Today’s kids are just mistaken. As they mature, they will come to recognize the superiority of the films and characters from the original trilogy. I humbly submit that this position is just plain wrong. Having been inundated by everything Star Wars over the past three years, I now see clearly that the original trilogy is not nearly as good as we’d like to remember it—and Episodes I-III are on equal footing with, and at times surpass, their predecessors.

As others have noted, the original trilogy has plenty of problems. For starters, much of the acting is terrible. There is a reason that Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) had hardly any success as an actor after Return of the Jedi—he is not a good actor. As for the film’s more accomplished stars, even after the wild success of the first trilogy, they have looked back on their work and cringed. Alec Guinness frequently lamented his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi before his death in 2000, and famously once made a young Star Wars fan promise never again to watch the films in exchange for his autograph. Harrison Ford, less of a stranger to the role of swashbuckling hero than Sir Alec, has a long history of expressing contempt for the franchise. Nonetheless, critics of the prequels bemoan the performances in Episodes I-III—most frequently that of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker—while glossing over the original trilogy’s weaknesses, with some even suggesting that Hamill’s wooden performances are an essential component of the Star Wars charm.

More fundamentally, the plots of the original three films are far from airtight. While a reasonable viewer might be willing to accept that a fledgling Jedi heretofore not in any way battle-tested (or trained in military aviation—surely an X-wing is harder to fly than a sand-speeder) might execute a 1-in-a-million torpedo strike to destroy the otherwise indestructible, moon-sized Death Star in Episode IV, it strains any reasonable sense of credulity that a band of 3-foot tall, cuddly Ewoks could somehow overcome dozens of highly-trained storm troopers (whose precision as marksmen, at least, is lauded in Episode IV) with sling shots and well-placed booby traps. Certain fans might here employ the Ewok Caveat, arguing that everyone knows the Ewoks are terrible and that true believers long ago disavowed most if not all of Return of the Jedi as a sad omen of what was to befall the Star Wars universe in the ‘90s, when Lucas’ love of merchandising and money overtook his love of myth. But even The Empire Strikes Back, the crown jewel of the original trilogy, has its inconsistencies. How is it that the whole of Luke’s excursion to the Dagobah System and primary training with Yoda takes place in the same temporal window that Han and the rest of the crew spend hiding out and being chased by a Star Destroyer? Did Luke learn the ways of the Jedi—something that takes others a lifetime and customarily begins in childhood—in a day or two? Or were his friends in the Millennium Falcon holed up in the belly of that Exogorth for weeks?

My intent is not to undermine anyone’s affection for the original trilogy (I love these movies, too), but to show that a sober interpretation reveals that they are at times every bit as preposterous as the prequels, which have been harshly criticized and dissected on similar grounds. At the same time, Episodes I-III do not get nearly enough credit for the many things that they do well. The 9-minute pod race scene from Episode I, in which we see for the first time young Anakin Skywalker’s powerful command of the Force, is as gripping and technically sophisticated as anything Lucasfilm has done before or since. Episode III’s telling of how this bright-eyed kid becomes the evil Darth Vader in just a few years is convincing and at times heart-wrenching, particularly with respect to Anakin’s slaughter of a chamber full of youngling Jedi (thankfully indicated but not shown) and his final encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi, his master and mentor (it does not go well for Skywalker). And if you like lightsaber battles, one of the Star Wars series’ key cultural contributions and one of the most exciting for kids, you will find far more of them in these films. In Episodes I-III we get to witness not only a spry Yoda and a young Anakin Skywalker wielding their sabers, but also the arena portion of the epic Battle of Geonosis (in which no less than 10 Jedi Knights display their skills), the spectacle of cyborg General Grievous skillfully handling four lightsabers at the same time, and perhaps the finest lightsaber battle of all of six films, between Obi-Wan Kenobi, his master Qui-Gon Jin, and the terrifying yet graceful Darth Maul (played out over John Williams’ haunting “Duel of the Fates”).

I do not mean to suggest that Episodes I-III are cinematic masterpieces, any more so than Episodes IV-VI are. I only wish to point out that the prequels also have their moments of excellence. It follows that the sharp distinction between the original trilogy (wonderful) and the second trilogy (rubbish) is unwarranted—both are flawed, yet for long stretches remarkably entertaining space operas. Today’s kids seem to understand this better than their parents, who are often so concerned with protecting the legacy of their beloved films that they can’t appreciate the new ones. My son and his friends embrace Mace Windu as much as Luke Skywalker and are just as scared of Darth Maul as they are of Darth Vader. To them, Star Wars is a captivating, six-film succession, each episode replete with a healthy dose of quirky characters, action, and mystery.

That Disney of all potential suitors managed to purchase Lucasfilm underscores the point that the Star Wars universe is, as it always has been, meant to delight children and not necessarily their parents. Given Disney’s 90-year track record of delivering high-quality entertainment for kids, I am eager to see what they come up with in Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. When I told my son about the upcoming trilogy in the car over the weekend, he flipped out. In celebration, we purchased two lightsaber flashlights—a green Yoda for me, and a blue Anakin for him. Rather than continue the misguided, nostalgia-soaked veneration of the first trilogy, it’s time to hand Star Wars back over to its intended audience and celebrate the fact that today’s children will soon have nine Star Wars films to treasure.