The Prequel Effect

“The Prequels Suck!”

How many times have you heard this?

How many times have you uttered this yourself?

Which prequels am I talking about?

Well, the most obvious answer for those of you who follow me is the Star Wars prequel trilogy, released between 1999 and 2003, all of which were directed by Star Wars mastermind George Lucas. These movies were contentious, to say the least, because they were ultimately something quite different than what the Gen X and Gen Y Star Wars fans that grew up with the original movies wanted.

There have been hours-long commentaries and documentaries on these movies, including the infamous “The People Vs. George Lucas.” Most of these take the position that the prequels, along with the “special editions” of the original movies, were bad—failures of filmmaking and that George Lucas was engaged in the destruction of his own creation.

Strangely, it was this attitude from the pop-cult adherents of Gen X and Y that drove the massive hype surrounding The Force Awakens, beginning with the purchase of Lucasfilm (and therefore the Star Wars franchise) by Disney for 4.05 billion dollars in 2012. Finally, the beloved franchise that was sabotaged by Lucas, the aloof creator detached from reality and the fans and surrounded by “yes men,” would be placed in more competent, caring hands.

The first result of this megacorporate buyout was a film certainly made by a fan, and by that I mean that it was an exercise in bad fan fiction with an unlimited budget. As incompetent as The Force Awakens was, it was The Last Jedi that really woke people up, because it was a fan film with an unlimited budget, only it was made by someone who, based on the content of the movie, deeply hated Star Wars.

It’s hard to describe the sort of mental gymnastics some fans exercised in 2015 following the silly and ridiculous The Force Awakens. The hype for non-Lucas Star Wars was so critical, so mentally and spiritually important, that fans had to defend J.J. Abrams’s disasterpiece against any and all critics, myself included. I had trolls hounding me for months, demanding I take down my review of the stinker, with some going so far as to say they would find me and kill me (luckily, these were not serious threats). That was an eye-opener for sure, and helped me to see that for some people in my generation Star Wars was a religion, not a franchise.

Now, at this point, I ought to mention that hatred of the Star Wars prequels was far from universal. It was, and is, mainly a product of specific age groups. Millennials a little younger than me loved the prequels, with many liking them more than the original trilogy. But even among my own generation, there was a certain re-appreciation of Lucas’s prequels that occurred following The Force Awakens and especially The Last Jedi. In light of the failure of those movies (as well as Solo and Rogue One, to an extent), the prequels were re-evaluated and found to be better products than originally thought.

I include myself in this group. There were always things I liked about the prequels, even the Phantom Menace, which I still don’t like much as a movie, but certainly after the sequels, re-watching the prequels revealed just how much I didn’t consider the first go-around. Now, the prequels weren’t bad in themselves, but rather were the work of an auteur who delivered products that did not fit with the greater landscape of cinema and genre—films which operated largely within their own standards, with their own style.

There are many parts that I find sub-optimal or perhaps even bad, but as a whole they are unique and respectable attempts at tragedy (not what fans expected) that mostly succeed.

That re-evaluation in the light of very poor quality work being released later on is what some people have dubbed The Prequel Effect (I’m not sure who coined this term, by the way, as I’ve mostly picked it up from my own comments section).

You see, this has to do with the way films (and other media, such as games) age. They don’t actually age, like say a bottle of wine, which changes physically with the passage of time to produce a different flavor. Rather, it’s the viewer and his expectations that change. When I went back and reviewed The Phantom Menace, I came to this conclusion: the main reason that Episode I was so disliked was that it delivered an experience that was completely different than what the audience expected. The generation that grew up with Luke, Leia, and Han saw a movie that was divergent along every possible vector: plot, characters, aesthetics, and theme. Lots of my viewers did not agree with this take, but it is technically quite true. People always carry their expectations with them, especially with an established art form such as cinema, and those who saw Episode I without seeing the original trilogy overwhelmingly enjoyed the movie.

Now, pushing past this example, does the “prequel effect” generalize?

I believe it does, though not always with just prequels. Many are the horror sequels of the 1980s that were lambasted by fans only to be appreciated in the 2010s—after many bad sequels and reboot attempts (I’m thinking of you, Halloween). I think Star Trek: Discovery made fans appreciate Enterprise and the Berman era more.

In music, Metallica’s 2002 album St. Anger, which most fans lambast as the worst Metallica album ever recorded along with one of the worst mainstream metal albums of all time, made lots of fans reconsider Load and Reload. It also, I think, helped the success of their next album, Death Magnetic, which while being overall a very bad metal album, was much better than St. Anger and so generally ended up being well-received by fans.

Now, for the prediction.

I predict that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy will receive a critical re-evaluation. I’m not a fan of these films, but if Amazon makes as bad a Lord of the Rings adaptation as I expect they shall make, then I also expect people to go back to Jackson’s less-than-perfect prequel trilogy and look at them with new eyes – and find them to have value. Perhaps I shall be one of these people.

Like the Star Wars prequels, my lack of appreciation for the Hobbit trilogy is mostly rooted in my expectations (and I don’t think, by the way, that expectations are irrational or that anyone is at fault for having them). I grew up reading The Hobbit. I know the story, its characters, and its tone very well. Jackson’s treatment was highly divergent from the novel in all of these aspects. I expected a more-or-less faithful adaptation of the book, as I had got with the Lord of the Rings movies, and I definitely did not get that when I saw these movies.

It’s impossible for me to answer the question of whether I would have enjoyed these films had I not been so familiar with the source. Perhaps I would have found them to be fun and exciting fantasy movies along the lines of Lucas and Howard’s Willow. I don’t really know. However, once I see a truly insulting adaptation—which I fully expect from Amazon’s series—I think it highly possible I will change some of my opinions regarding The Hobbit.

If the fan editing community is any indication, there are lots of good elements in there, they just aren’t assembled into the movie that fans really wanted from Jackson. I think possibly we might see the same thing for the 2nd and 3rd installment of the original Matrix trilogy (following a fourth film by the now Wachowski sisters), as well as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien Covenant in the future (following a return to standard studio milking).

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9 Comments

  1. I saw Phantom Menace 8 times, EIGHT TIMES, in the theater as a teenager. Was so happy to just see something Star Wars-related on the big screen with better special effects. If I were a teenager now, I wonder if I would’ve loved Force Awakens.

    But now, in hindsight, I can see that the Disney trilogy is nostalgic fan service with a woke message and the prequels did something different that stands on its own.

    After watching the prequels recently though, I can’t fully enjoy them because they’ve failed in terms of filmmaking (except maybe Episode 3). Poor performances (Jake Lloyd and Christenson), pacing issues, wooden dialogue, blocking shots, over reliance on blue screen etc. It makes me wish Lucas had help from a good director, like Irwin Winkler or even Spielberg.

    • My understanding is that Lucas originally wanted someone like Spielberg to direct, but things fell through, and he ended up having to do it himself. He had a lot of great people working on production, though. Those three movies are, production-wise, incredible, especially episode III. And yeah, most of my complaints are in the details like Jake Lloyd, etc. I still saw it three times in theaters.

      • I also saw The Phantom Menace something like eight times in the theater. I was genuinely excited at the time.

        I came to be critical of the prequel trilogy as a young man, but looking back now I think what you have said is very much the case: I simply expected something different than what Lucas delivered.

        I also think it helps that I now am familiar with the pulp stories that inspired Lucas in the first place. In 1999 I had never read anything of the sort, and I lacked that context. As you said, it is the audience that changes.

        Another element in my re-appraisal of the whole thing is the Clone Wars cartoon, which is a good match in tone and storytelling for the space opera feel that Lucas was trying for, but it didn’t have to attempt the whole arc of tragedy that the prequels as a whole were going for.

        With a better grounding in pulp classics, adding in the Clone Wars, and the negative example of TLJ, I now find the prequels reasonably enjoyable, in fact almost, but not quite great, which is in some ways worse than being less ambitious and competently executed.

  2. Val the Moofia Boss

    Definitely feel that this has happened with WoW expansions. When MoP was announced, it was decried as being a silly panda expansion. It wasn’t until WoD that people began appreciating the refreshing setting, the unusually good questlines, the great music, and the best class balance WoW ever had. Likewise, with the release of BFA and Shadowlands, people are starting to appreciate WoD. It didn’t have much in the way of endgame content, but it didn’t waste players time with chores and grinds. It had 20 hours of solid questing and great music and didn’t trick to you into hanging around any longer than necessary.

    • Absolutely stellar examples.
      While we played MoP we thought it was bad, but later expansions made me at least re-evaluate it. I still have complaints (dailies, dailies, dailies), but the aesthetic was sooooo good, and the gameplay in general was good.
      WoD’s main problem (other than garrisons, I suppose) was too little content in an otherwise really interesting expansion. I enjoyed the hell out of it while I had something to do.

  3. I already experienced this effect for The Hobbit movies, but for the first part relative to the second two parts.

    Now the first part isn’t exactly GOOD by any means. It has a lot of unnecessary deviations from the source, makes Radagast ridiculous, has action scenes which are so over the top that they make it impossible to take anything seriously, etc. But it avoids many of the pitfalls the latter two movies did. In particular, those two movies have tremendous pacing problems while An Unexpected Journey has self-contained character arcs for Bilbo and Thorin and has a good climax in the escape from Goblin Town. It actually ends at the perfect place for a Hobbit trilogy. Consider that it ends immediately before Beorn, and in the book Gandalf recounts the story up to that point to Beorn, making a very natural place to begin the second movie (the second movie didn’t actually do this of course.) If we only had the first movie it would be possible to imagine a coherent trilogy. But by the end of the second movie the trilogy was already unworkable.

  4. I love the prequels. IMO they are too “undiluted Star Wars” for the masses. “Attack of the Clones” is a high pulp movie title just like “The Empire Strikes Back” but the former was endlessly mocked for being corny, even though that is half the point of the series. The prequels exist in a post-Matrix world and maybe that is a big part of it. Large parts of the fanbase started taking it way too seriously, they wanted Jedi to be a real religion, they wanted a dark and brooding Anakin, they wanted Vader Begins, all these expectations and entitlements going into it. That was never going to happen and it was never part of the series to begin with. Reading “The Secret History of Star Wars” really put things into perspective for me, since you see how much of the prequel era was invented back in the 70s, how true to the original conception of SW the prequels are, perhaps even moreso than the OT films. The idea of the Jedi as pulpy and corrupt once-noble Space Cops was always there for years before ESB and the aftermath turned them into Pure Perfect Pacifist Zen Buddhists (who are also suicidal, thanks TLJ). All the convoluted space politics was there as well in those 70s interviews about the “early days of Obi Wan” movie he would one day make, and Lucas even cautioned people decades ago that the prequels would have a different tone than the OT. I find it commendable when an artist is confronted with so many outside expectations and decides to instead pursue his own vision. When you consider how he also nearly single-handedly revolutionized the filmmaking industry, using his army of audio/visual companies to create the technology and frameworks for digital filmmaking of the 21st century, that he accomplished this ALSO while making this trilogy himself, it is just too much work and accomplishment to comprehend. Lucas is a living titan of industry. Not to say the PT is an unimpeachable masterpiece. But it truly is something wild and unique and seismic, a vividly rendered art deco Flash Gordon epic trilogy crammed with new planets, spaceships, and the most gratuitously overproduced and loving multimillion dollar Ray Harryhausen homages of the 21st century. When Yoda fought Dracula in the movie theater, I lost it, it was so gloriously silly and fun, just as entertaining as the OT had been. That was hated by the Comic Book Shop pedants who were so intent on canon and stuff ruining all the fun, but I am so glad George went ahead and did it, and that’s the reason these movies exist at all.

  5. I don’t think I’ll like Jackson’s hobbit better in light of Amazon’s. The work’s shit because it tramples on the source material as will the new one.

    But when I say that the work’s shit, I’m emitting a overall judgement for the whole work. It doesn’t mean that there’s zero value in any part of the work. I’d love to see what those fan edits do to the flow of the story and to the woke elements although, there’s not much to do about the acting and the ridiculous characterizations I’m afraid.

    If I end up liking a fan edit, it won’t be in light of Amazon’s Hobbit but of a better composition (and less amount) of the same material, it’ll be analogous to your explanation of why metal albums started sucking in the 90s: having more time/space available on a CD vs a Vinyl allowed them to throw in subpar songs, taking down the overall rating of the product: take four songs off Reload and it’ll be a good album, but it won’t be Master.

    And about Star Wars, I’m happy to say I never railed against the prequels. I actually enjoyed the aesthetics and space politics. Some acting and specially the dialogue made them inferior to the OT, and Anakin’s arc could’ve been better, but that was it.

    The remasters, on the other hand, I riled against. Making something look shiny and adding some giant lizards is one thing, Han being a wuss that’s alive only because Greedo couldn’t aim across a table is a grave sin.

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