Old vs New: Star Wars Prequels vs Sequels
The Star Wars Prequels are generally reviled. The Sequels, on the other hand, polarize fans. For most, though, it’s a case of diminishing returns. Many loved The Force Awakens, are divided over The Last Jedi, and most agree The Rise of Skywalker is a mess.
I think they’re all terrible.
I don’t believe the Prequels are great movies, but they do have great moments. They also have great Star Wars moments. The Sequels don’t have any. I can easily find a handful in each of the Prequels.
For example, when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are trying to get through the door to accost the Trade Federation leaders in The Phantom Menace: Qui-Gon thrusts his lightsaber into the doors. The Trade Federation leaders close another set of doors. Qui-Gon focuses and thrusts his lightsaber deeper. He concentrates. The music pipes in. The Trade Federation leaders express their fear.
Just a simple moment, but it’s cool. It shows the Jedi determination, their ability, and how they’re regarded.
It’s undone when the Droid Destroyers show up. You’d think the Jedi could just Force-push them away or reach into their mechanics and disable them. In fact, the Prequels would’ve been much more interesting had Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan gotten through the doors, questioned the Trade Federation leaders, and investigated who was pulling their strings.
Darth Maul’s appearances are cool – especially when he confronts both Jedi on Naboo. It’s a fantastic battle until Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are separated. Where’s that Jedi super-speed now? Stuff like this shows just how dangerous introducing magic into a story is – you then have to check whether a power could be applicable in another situation. If that power’s not applied when it could’ve been, you create plot-holes. Both the Prequels and Sequels mess this up.
Not a single one of Kylo’s appearances throughout the Sequels is cool. They try to give him this momentous introduction, a la Darth Vader in A New Hope, but he just doesn’t have the stature. Vader carries this mystique: what is he exactly? Man? Machine? He has super strength. And he’s HUGE. Kylo is obviously a weedy man in a shitty mask. His ability to stop the blaster bolt is nifty, but that’s about it.
The other thing is Vader immediately instills terror. He effortlessly holds a Rebel aloft by the throat while questioning him. The Rebel, terrified, tries to bluff. His terror is a cypher for us: this is how we’re meant to feel. Vader indifferently kills him and tosses him aside. Leia later offers backchat. She shows us her spunkiness. But this is after Vader’s been established. He also runs roughshod over her. So you could say they break even, but we feel genuine dread for Leia.
In The Force Awakens, when Kylo meets Lor San Tekka, Lor San Tekka chides him. Um, this is your bad guy? Kylo strikes Lor San Tekka down (in a scene that makes no sense – Lor San Tekka has information Kylo needs; why wouldn’t you keep him alive and interrogate him? In the Originals, Vader has plenty of candidates to interrogate, so killing one Rebel means nothing. At this point, Kylo has just one – the very man he sought out: Lor San Tekka. Kylo knows nothing of Poe at this point, and the villagers are ignorant).
Then when Kylo meets Poe, Poe backchats him. Geez. Is anybody afraid of this guy? Oh wait, some nameless (to this point) Stormtrooper is. Well, there’s a way to build marquee. Stormtroopers have no cache in this universe, they’re plentiful and disposable, so make one of them afraid, while our good guys are all about attitude and belittling our antagonist. Good narrative choices.
They’re just little things, but they importantly establish dynamics that become the foundation for the Trilogy.
And as problematic as the Prequels are, they handle these dynamics relatively well.
When we meet Anakin as a kid in The Phantom Menace, he’s cherubic. He wants to help. He shows a natural predilection for the Force.
Now I’m not saying starting with Anakin as a kid was the way to go (but given this is George Lucas’s universe, he can do what the hell he wants), but we see Anakin as selfless and angelic – a far cry from who he becomes. That’s what Lucas wanted: to show how far he would fall.
The Attack of the Clones is derided as the worst of the Prequels, but I think it does some good stuff. Also, some of the criticisms are stupid, e.g. Anakin’s corny dialogue to Padme. Anakin’s a lovestruck teen. You say stupid stuff as a lovestruck teen.
I don’t want to keep qualifying that I don’t believe the Prequels are great movies, and that there are lots of issues – I’ll just throw that out there again. Because they make some bad (although I tend to think of them as undeveloped) narrative choices.
The case of Anakin’s mother, Shmi, is a great example.
Yes, at some time between TPM and AotC, the Jedi should’ve went and rescued her. Or Anakin should’ve went back himself. Or they should’ve sent some Republic soldiers. There are plenty of options.
But I appreciate what George Lucas is trying to do by giving Anakin a major trauma. I love that when Anakin tracks down Shmi that he then goes out and mercilessly kills all the Sand People. He shouldn’t have then confessed this to Padme given the magnitude of the slaughter. It should’ve been something that festered – something that shamed him, but also invigorated and excited him because it shows him his potential.
That’s why I love the act – an enraged teen who has these enormous powers and is lost in his rage. I think it’s even filmed brilliantly: Anakin emerging from the tent with his lightsaber and killing two Sand People. The others charge him. Then you cut to Yoda meditating, and hear Qui-Gon’s cry of, “Anakin! Anakin!” Mace Windu comes in. Yoda tells him Anakin is in pain. (They probably could’ve just cut once they showed Yoda uncomfortable with the distress he was sensing.)
Add to this section AotC‘s climax: Anakin impulsively charges in to attack Count Dooku. Dooku accounts for him easily and lops off Anakin’s hand. This is great. Anakin loses. He learns he’s not as strong as he thinks. Losing a limb prepares him for life as Vader; you also see this reflected in The Empire Strike Backs when Vader lops off Luke’s hand: losing a hand in this universe? No problem. Upgrade to a machine part. But each time it happens, a lesson is learned: never think you’re better than you are.
Come The Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is a mature but impulsive Jedi. Apparently, the politics of why the Jedi don’t fully trust him, and why he forms such a bond with Palpatine, are better explored in the novelization. That’s not to defend Revenge of the Sith, although I do think it’s underrated and could’ve been its own trilogy.
But just going on what we see and know, at least the character of Anakin has continued to change. He’s no longer the angelic kid, nor the impulsive teen. He’s a capable and confident – if not over-confident – Jedi who grows affronted by what he sees as the Jedi Council thwarting his progression.
In the Sequels, Rey is an oblivious junk hoarder who doesn’t believe in the legend of Luke Skywalker and the Rebel victory even though she scavenges the marooned wreck of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Um, yes. That makes sense. I guess the Imperials just parked the ship here and forgot it. It wasn’t shot down or anything, was it?
When robbers try to steal BB8 from her, she beats them up. While Kylo Force-subdues her, it’s only so she can be put in a position where she can later Force-rebuke him, and then escape. In a battle at the end, Rey, with not a single day of Jedi training behind her, defeats Kylo, who’s had considerable training as both a Sith and a Jedi.
In The Last Jedi, she beats up Luke Skywalker – somebody who has like thirty years of Force training on her and a victory over Darth Vader. She then beats up Snoke’s guards. She overcomes Kylo (again).
Come The Rise of Skywalker, she just keeps winning.
What exactly is the arc here?
Circumstantially, her life changes. But intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally, she’s the same person. Bizarrely, the third movie, The Rise of the Skywalker, is the one that tries to (belatedly) give her an arc, but by then, does anybody care?
Anakin and Palpatine have arcs in the Prequels. Some might suggest Palpatine’s arc is tantamount to Rey’s – it’s only circumstantial change. But at least he’s the author of that change. He’s actively making things happen. Nothing Rey does changes who she is. Things happen to and around her, but they hardly shape her as a person.
Look at her interaction with Luke: if she hadn’t sought Luke out, how would she be different? She wouldn’t. Beating Kylo changes her how? It doesn’t. Confronting Snoke does what? Nothing. Han’s death affects her how? Well, not at all. They’re just meaningless events to a character who remains static.
The Sequels also mimic the Originals in terms of how they’re built. Does it work, though?
In A New Hope, the Empire is already prevalent. We know there’s an Emperor, and that his immediate lieutenants are Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader. We also learn the Emperor is so powerful he could dissolve the senate. Imagine a politician trying something similar today.
We catch our first glimpse of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back. We don’t really need much more than a glimpse because others are establishing his mystique. Vader bad-asses his way through Empire, yet defers to the Emperor. Just that simple act shows us how powerful the Emperor must be if somebody of Vader’s stature will kneel to him.
Come Return of the Jedi, there are more great establishing scenes. Vader chides his work force for their slow progress on the Death Star. When he mentions the Emperor is coming, his subordinate is terrified. How awesome is that?
Later, when the Emperor arrives, we see the ranks of Stormtroopers lined up respectfully. Vader and his officers immediately defer. It doesn’t matter that the Emperor would seem to be a fragile old man who needs a walking stick. Everything we’re seeing shows us this is somebody to be feared. He doesn’t need Snoke’s physical stature to be intimidating. He is power.
As an aside, Ian McDiarmid personifies malice as the Emperor. He’s brilliant. It’s the sort of performance that would today be recognized with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Lucas does the same in building up Vader. We have Vader interrogating Rebels, arresting Leia, and then he later Force-chokes out a disrespectful fellow officer – much to the morbid curiosity of the other officers. When the Rebels launch their assault against the Death Star, Vader takes his own fighter out into the fray and turns the battle (until he’s ambushed by the Millennium Falcon).
In Empire, Vader eliminates several of his own officers who fail him, invades the Hoth base, takes Cloud City, captures Han and Leia, then beats up Luke.
As the Empire is absolute in the Originals, the First Order hold a similar position in the Sequels. I won’t get into how inexplicable that would seem given the Rebels’ victory in Return of the Jedi was meant to be monumental, rather than just another cycle in an ongoing battle. Let’s accept the First Order exists, and Snoke is in charge.
We see Snoke as a projection. Kylo is particularly temperamental in addressing him – hardly acceptable or respectful behaviour. General Hux is demure but lacks any foreboding himself. Neither are a great advertisement for Snoke. He’s put goofballs in charge.
Come The Last Jedi, Hux is repeatedly humiliated – firstly by Poe, and then by Snoke. Snoke also repeatedly chastises Kylo. Kylo then throws a tantrum and smashes his helmet. These people now have no stature. They have the composure of six-year-olds fighting in a sandlot.
Snoke himself has presence in the flesh, although there’s not a lot of depth to who he is. Sure, we don’t know much about Emperor in the Originals, but we have all those little build-ups that amount to creating a formidable leader.
JJ Abrams can only manage that in The Force Awakens by making Snoke an enormous physical projection to compensate for the lack of everything else. In The Last Jedi, Snoke shouts at everybody. It doesn’t even come across as some Dark Force type of rage, but a crotchety old man displeased with anything and everything.
In both the Prequels and the Originals, Palpatine is just about always calm. This is somebody confident in his planning and his ability, somebody who knows his power elevates him beyond the quibbles and behaviours of ordinary people.
Let’s flip to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for a moment. Apparently, Ricardo Montalban originally played Khan as loud and unhinged. Director Nicholas Meyer told him he was a leader and when he spoke everybody listened. Cue the new portrayal: Khan’s quiet intensity – a leader who’s always sure of himself.
This doesn’t mean that every villain needs to be cool and calculating, but if they’re going to be volatile they should come across as epic, rather than irascible.
Snoke reminds me of Grampa Simpson.
Kylo killing Snoke is novel, but again not a great testament for Snoke. It’s meant to mirror Vader turning on the Emperor, but Vader was an accomplished Sith Lord and Jedi Knight who, you think, could be capable of masking and executing such a betrayal. Kylo is an ill-tempered kid. Snoke didn’t sense any of this? He didn’t feel a lightsaber moving on the armrest of his chair? He didn’t see the freaking thing? Kylo slowly turns the lightsaber so it’s pointing at Snoke. There’s plenty of time for detection. When Luke Force-grabs his lightsaber in Return of the Jedi, both the Emperor and Vader know it’s coming.
Worse, whatever marquee Kylo’s won by killing Snoke is immediately bankrupted once Rey again gets the better of him.
It’s also stupid that Rey just leaves him. She could end everything here by killing him or capturing him, but not to be. At least when Obi-Wan leaves Anakin burning on a lava bank, Anakin didn’t seem much longer for this world. Also, the real threat, the Emperor, remained, so killing Anakin wouldn’t have the same impact as killing Kylo. In The Last Jedi, capturing or killing Kylo should end the First Order, or at least deprive them of their Sith influence.
By the time of The Rise of Skywalker, it’s hard to believe the First Order could be formidable. Their leader is gone, General Hux is a joke, and a brat who’s lost every encounter with the protagonist is now in charge. Richard E. Grant is introduced as General Pryde in an attempt to bring some gravitas back to the antagonists. He often seems embarrassed to be there.
While the politics in the Prequels are messy, at least there’s a methodology: Palpatine goes from a senator to chancellor to the Big Bad. He’s won control of the Senate, has gotten emergency powers, and has set himself up as the boss. He’s also gotten the apprentice he wanted: a powerful Jedi who’s more than a man. (Also, let’s not forget that Anakin defeats the Sith who’d previously defeated him, which shows us both Anakin’s growth, and the ease with which he cold-bloodedly executes Dooku.) And, obviously, the allusion is that Palpatine conceived Anakin through a manipulation of the Force.
The Prequels play like early drafts. Perhaps Lucas’s subordinates were reluctant to challenge him to improve his story the way they did with A New Hope. They have lots of problems. But the structure is there, and there’s actual growth for the main characters. Maybe some of the choices aren’t brilliant, but at least they advance the characters.
The Sequels don’t do that. These pieces are put in place, but with no real understanding of why they occupy those positions. Most of them are ready-made. Fin is the exception. Unfortunately, the most interesting thing the Sequels do – introduce a Stormtrooper deserter – is squandered. Rian Johnson turns him into bad comic relief in The Last Jedi. Otherwise, circumstances aside, nobody changes over the course of the three movies – Kylo comes closest.
The Prequels show us Anakin growing more impetuous and finally turning. Kylo is handed to us fully formed. We don’t understand why he went from good to bad.
The Force Awakens offers vague references – Han tells us he has too much Vader in him. Okay. So that’s it, is it? The flashback shows us nothing but the aftermath of Kylo’s betrayal.
The Last Jedi hands us the worst explanation ever: Luke, who decided he’d try to redeem Vader even after Yoda and Obi-Wan and even Vader himself told him it was impossible, gave up on Ben Solo/Kylo because he sensed some darkness in him.
Then Kylo flips back to being good because he and Rey are a “dyad” – they invent a stupid mechanism to justify their connection (and thus motivate Kylo’s flip back) rather than show us how that could happen. (Leia’s and Han Solo’s separate conversations with him in Rise are trite.)
That’s as close as we get to an arc.
We see Luke go from a farm boy to an impulsive Jedi apprentice to a composed Jedi Knight, and we believe that journey because we see how his experiences change him. He learns. He grows. His failures are invaluable lessons – just like what happens in real life.
We even see Vader go from this cold-blooded automaton, to an ambitious schemer (in Empire, he proposes that he and Luke overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy together), to a man who rediscovers his humanity because of his love for his son.
While Han Solo’s arc in the Originals might be shallow – he goes from a mercenary who cares only about money to becoming involved in a cause, to giving himself to that cause, and falling in love – at least he has an arc. So does Leia, who goes the opposite way – from believing only in this cause, to falling in love, to learning of her own capabilities.
Both the Prequels and Sequels mightn’t be great, but at least the Prequels reach for something, and if they fail, they fail in being ambitious – in trying not to rehash the Originals and doing something different.
The Sequels fail because they not only offer nothing new but give us derivatives that have nothing to say. Things happen because they need to happen to push the predetermined story along. Every reason they’re lauded can be exposed as facetious.
Some might counter the issue is Rian Johnson derailed JJ Abrams’s arcs with The Last Jedi, or JJ Abrams (and Disney) didn’t build on Rian Johnson’s narrative choices in The Last Jedi.
Neither is a defense. We can only go on what’s there, and what’s there is one-dimensional.
I can’t say that about the Prequels.