“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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