Now that the premiere for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has come and gone one of the most striking things I noticed about the lead up to one of the most anticipated movies of the year is how much it resembled the excitement and gleeful anticipation of the Star Wars fandom pre-Episode One. Before The Phantom Menace graced the silver screen with the promise of revealing the events prior to the original trilogy, we had hope that questions would be answered and characters fleshed out in ways that Episodes IV, V, and VI couldn’t accomplish. The richly expanded canon of the novels and comics gave us an idea of the future for our heroes and villains in a galaxy far, far away, but Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith were supposed to provide us with the Star-Wars-Prequels1-600x300official backstory, the foundation of the Star Wars Saga from which the events of the original trilogy sprang.

It would be an understatement to say that millions of fanboys and fangirls cried out in confusion when the prequels turned out to be more spectacle than substance. Since then there’s been a bit of a jaded quality to the fandom. Oh sure, we still want more Star Wars, but even the hype surrounding The Force Awakens could be considered subdued at times, tempered with a guarded quality that spoke to our lingering distrust. As evidenced by the amount of fan-edits, analysis, and what ifs created in response to the prequels, it would be a bit like preaching to the choir while beating a dead horse for me to go on about how those movies fail on their own merit.

And before you get your Jedi robes in a twist, this isn’t an attack on Star Wars, the prequels, or the fandom. If you love the prequels, then that’s great. People like what they like and I’m certainly not one to begrudge someone their passions. While not my personal favorite trilogy, the prequels actually present an interesting look at the stagnation and piecemeal growth in Hollywood since The Phantom Menace premiered in 1999. In many ways, The Force Awakens is a direct response to the failings and innovations of the prequels, so in many ways they function more as a tent-pole for the entertainment industry and the movies that followed.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

1. Prequels –> Low-Stakes Storytelling –> Suffering

The problem that we always come back to with the concept of “prequels” in general is the lack of stakes involved for characters we know are going to survive. Though the idea of going backwards to uncover the origins of characters we know and love is enticing, the story ultimately becomes a foregone conclusion. How can I be concerned for Obi-Wan in a life-and-death situation in Episode II when I already know he’s an old man in Episode IV? We see it throughout the prequels; fake-out moments meant to ratchet up the tension of whether or not Anakin, Yoda, or Obi-Wan might die only for them to emerge unscathed because of course they do. It cheapens the story by leading the audience to believe something they already know can’t happen.

That’s not to say that the characters in the prequels can’t be in life-and-death situations; they’re fighting a war, which means they’re putting their lives on the line everyday, but it’s the responsibility of the filmmakers to make those life-and-death moments count for something. That should be the purpose of a prequel, not just action pieces for the sake of action. The underlying story within the prequels is the fall of Anakin Skywalker, which puts the stakes of the prequels in the realm of the philosophical. How does a Jedi turn evil? How did Anakin become Darth Vader? In this case the action should inform those questions. Sure, Anakin is going to be in the midst of battle a lot but the very concept of War conflicts with the philosophy of the Jedi. And yet there they are, practically on the front lines where emotions are high and the ultimate goal is to subdue your enemy, usually by killing them.clones2

The prequels lower the stakes again by pitting the Jedi against armies of nameless, faceless robots. It gives the Jedi, Anakin specifically, an easy enemy to slay, one that holds no moral quandary and leaves the audience without the ability to sympathize and therefore question Anakin’s decisions. The closest the prequels comes to this conflict is in Attack of the Clones when Anakin kills the village of Tuskan Raiders out of revenge for his mother’s death. The subsequent scene where Anakin breaks down in front of Padmé should have been the jumping off point for the rest of the movies. Instead, it’s glossed over and used as an establishing scene to justify Anakin’s turn in the next movie without following through on the moral can of worms it just opened. The only saving grace of the prequel concept, at least for Star Wars, have been the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoon series as well as the animated feature by Genndy Tartakovsky. Through those cartoons, the Star Wars Universe, pre-A New Hope, has become a more richly populated world; one where the Empire’s rise and the fall of the Jedi are earned and the tragedy of Anakin’s fall is made all the more relatable.

Unfortunately, prequel-itis hasn’t left Hollywood, nor does it look like it’ll disappear any time soon. It’s become an easy way to cash in on a franchise, especially older franchises, without studios worrying about little things like character development, story, or whether or not the prequel even matches up to the films that came before it. When push comes to shove it’s about brand recognition. We live in a world where X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Hobbit trilogy, and Oz The Great and Powerful exist; and if the rumors are true we may be getting prequels to The Hunger Games. Even Lucasfilm and Disney are venturing, once again, into the arena with the planned young Han Solo movie and the upcoming Rogue One which focuses on the rebel fighters who steal the schematics for the Death Star between Episodes III and IV. One can only hope their writers understand that we’re willing to follow them if they give us a story worth telling.

2. There’s a Fine Line Between Fan Service and Pandering

What was the purpose of Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones? What did he do that added to the story besides being there so fans could recognize him by name? The same questions apply to Chewbacca, Jabba the Hutt, C-3PO, and R2-D2. The answer is nothing. They affect no change and they add nothing to the events going on around them. None of these characters needed to be in the preceding films. In fact, the presence of most of them raises more questions when lined up with the original trilogy. The reality of the situation is they were added for toy sales (see below) but it was also a case of playing to the audience’s nostalgia via a shorthand of familiar characters linked by an inordinate amount of coincidences that makes the coincidence- based plot of A New Hope look subtle by comparison.Young_Fett

Hollywood is still trying to find the right balance, though, and I don’t envy any creative teams who have to tackle this. With every franchise, adaptation, remake or reboot the line between fan service and pandering resets. There’s no easy formula because it largely comes down to story and characters. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a repeat offender of pandering with no regard for continuity or the laws of physics. Yes, I know it’s a comic book movie, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read comics where better care was taken in grounding characters in some kind of believable reality. Movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Transformers quadrilogy, and the Hobbit suffer from the same issues. On the other hand, a movie like 21 Jump Street makes multiple references without crossing the line mainly due to the story being told, the characters involved, and how much respect it has for the source material. Even The Force Awakens straddles the line repeatedly, to the point that it has near carbon-copy story beats from its predecessors. And yet the movie still works because while it does its job of giving the audience several moments of “Look, it’s that thing I know!”, especially on the Millennium Falcon, the film also gives us plenty of new things and characters to latch onto.

3. Unnecessary Explanations For Things That Don’t Need Explaining is Unnecessary

Midi-chlorians. Do I really need to get into how this one word changed how the Force was viewed in the eyes of the fandom? Yeah, if you were one of those people who believed the Force was the spiritual, mystical essence of life and the universe – something anyone could utilize given the right training – jokes on you because, according to the prequels, the Force is facilitated by the amount of bacteria in your blood! Because science? Actually, it was just a really lazy way of telling us just how strong in the Force Anakin was without, ya know, showing us through the visual medium of film. Why is it lazy? Because it’s never referenced again and yet midi-chlorians practically define what made the prequels a frustrating mess.Midi_Chlorians_by_A_Heart_of_Blades

There seems to be this insatiable need within franchises, prequels especially, to over explain what seemed like simple concepts in order to justify the existence of the film itself. The Exorcist prequels tried to chart the repeated meetings of Pazuzu and Father Merrin, Alien vs. Predator and Prometheus really wanted those xenomorphs and space jockeys to have a concrete origin story regardless of how much sense it made, and Monsters University believed that Sully and Mike’s college days were worth telling because we were concerned about how they met and became friends? I mean, if you were actually concerned, then I guess this worked out for you. Yay, you! Look, Hollywood, we’re okay with ambiguity. Not everything needs to be laid out for us to connect the dots. A little mystery is okay. We’re good.

4. No More Christ Figures And/Or Chosen Ones

One day I want to see a movie where every person has the initials J.C., that way the outcome wouldn’t be so predictable and I might actually care who lives and who dies. I know the Christ metaphor is as old as storytelling – at least after 33 – 36 A.D. – but it’s such a lazy way of trying to attach unearned importance on a character that I’m honestly taken out of the story the second I see it happening. It wasn’t enough that Anakin was super strong with the Force, nope, it turns out he was also an immaculate conception and may or may not be the Chosen One prophesied to bring balance to the Force.chosen one

The Chosen One/Christ Metaphor trope is also indicative of Hollywood’s preference for unnecessary explanations (see above). The most recent example is Pan. Supposedly the story of how Peter Pan ended up in Neverland, the movie goes out of its way to make Peter a prophesied hero instead of the spirited trickster that he was presented as in previous iterations. Pan misses the point of its main character because it wants there to be a reason for Peter’s existence in Neverland because happenstance doesn’t appear to be a good enough explanation.

Turning a character into a Christ Figure or a Chosen One is a surefire way to make them the least relatable person in the story. Putting the burden of fate or prophecy on them puts the burden of empathy and sympathy on the audience. We can’t spend the whole of the movie trying to find things to like about them. There has to be some instant commonality because if they’re elevated too high, then we can’t truly follow them. At least with the Harry Potter books and movies we didn’t know there was a prophecy until Order of the Phoenix, but once it was revealed it changed the way we viewed Harry, though not necessarily for the better. The Star Wars prequels, Man of Steel, and The Matrix all deify their main characters and shortchange them on personality, something that could, at the very least, make them entertaining. The result is the audience stops caring and loses interest.

5. CGI Isn’t King

Speaking of losing interest, one way of doing that is to create an entirely CGI world where human actors are standing, sitting, or barely walking on a green screen while expositing dialogue at each other. Okay, I’m willing to give George Lucas some leeway on this – mostly. While we’ve now reached the plateau when it comes to the overuse of CGI, the prequels were made in the interim years when the potential of all-CGI environments seemed new and innovative. The idea of Star Wars looking slick and updated was enticing as well. We could see the galaxy in a new light thanks to the technology finally catching up with the imagination of the filmmakers. Lucas certainly put a lot of time and energy into crafting the gorgeous environments of Naboo, Coruscant, Mustafar, and the like but it was at the expense of giving his actors room to, ya know, act.

What we’ve learned now is that CGI really shows its age even within the span of a year. Our eyes are now trained to see CGI, so when it’s done poorly we notice it quickly. CGI is best used as a means of enhancing the story not as the primary facilitator. Some filmmakers understand that, which is why films like Jurassic Park, District 9, and Pacific Rim still hold up. They found the balance between practical and visual effects. Other filmmakers haven’t quite figured it out, which is why we have the prequels, the Hobbit trilogy, and the Matrix sequels.coruscant

The most recent trailer for Disney’s live action Jungle Book shouldn’t really be called live action, I feel, since a majority of the movie will be mostly computer animated animals and an occasionally human child doing stuff. There’s a reason the Force Awakens team put out that featurette emphasizing the use of puppets, on-location sets, and the choice of film over digital cameras. It was a means of showing fans that Abrams and company had learned from the mistakes of the prequels. The egregious use of CGI over practical effects in a movie that’s supposed to be “live action” results in a lack of weight and physicality, which affects our ability to relate to characters on a human level. If we know the environment isn’t real, then we don’t feel the immediacy of their plight. We flinch at every punch and kick in the Daredevil tv series because they’re fighting and the impact is palpable with the people and the environment. A lot of limbs get cut off over the course of the prequels and it barely registers.

Part and parcel of the all-CGI environment, however, is the more nefarious agenda of…

6. Blatant Merchandising Within Movies

Yes, I know this isn’t a new thing, but the Star Wars Saga has been on the cusp of huge technological and cultural shifts that have changed how movies are marketed within the last four decades. The original trilogy is single-handedly responsible for the merchandising boom of genre movies in the 70s and 80s- there are action figures for background droids for crying out loud. A lot of that is due to Lucas being a smart businessman, but even by Return of the Jedi we witnessed the mad grab for toy sells with the introduction of the Ewoks (buy a fuzzy sci-fi teddy bear, kids!) and a slew of new vehicles like landspeeders and chicken-walkers. The prequels practically put the original trilogy to shame where merchandising is concerned. The hard push on Jar-Jar Binks, the inclusion of familiar characters, and the all-CGI environments were thinly veiled attempts to cash in on Star Wars fandom through action figures, play sets, and, more importantly, video games.Anakin_conveyor_belt (1)

Within Episodes I – III there is an obvious set piece meant to be a level in the upcoming video game; Phantom Menace had the pod race, Attack of the Clones the droid conveyor belt, and Revenge of the Sith the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar. Their placement is obvious because each sequence goes on far longer than they have any right to and the actual function of the scene devolves into spectacle. All for the sake of giving gamers young and old a reference point, a level to look forward to when the game comes out. The sequences, however, come at the expense of the movie’s pacing and the chance for more character and/or plot development.

Obviously this mentality hasn’t gone away. The Hobbit trilogy, more so than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, had overlong sequences meant to be video game levels (the barrel ride through Mirkwood, for example) but were also deliberately designed to pad the running time of the movie as a means of justifying the decision to make a three hundred page book into three movies. Even Episode VII has sequences that are sure to be video game levels, but the difference is in the execution of the scene and how the characters are involved. Rey’s piloting of the Millennium Falcon, Poe and Finn’s escape from the First Order, and the trench run on the Star Killer are obvious set pieces for game levels, but they’re also sequences that don’t drag and keep us rooting for the characters. They keep us engaged instead of boring us to the point of noticing the marketing ploy.

But the one thing that still seems to elude Hollywood, especially when it comes to merchandise is…

7. Women Love Genre Movies and Want to Buy Stuff

You’d think this wouldn’t be such an issue, but even after the release of Force Awakens and the obvious heroine that is Rey there’s still a complete dearth of official Star Wars products marketed to, or featuring, women. We went through this with the lack of Black Widow merch for both Avengers movies and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and it isn’t letting up. The hashtag #WheresRey has been trending since the Force Awakens premiered as children (girls and boys) and their parents have come up empty finding Rey action figures or seeing her represented in toy sets. Not only is it part of a larger conversation about women led movies as viable properties but it’s also part and parcel of the gender gap within the Star Wars canon.reybb8

In the last five years we’ve seen movies featuring female leads make bank at the box office. Frozen, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Mad Max: Fury Road are just some recent examples. The Force Awakens counts as well based on the numbers rolling in post-release date. And yet there’s still an enormous blind spot in merchandising and marketing where young girls and women are concerned. The very idea that women would like, let alone want, merchandise based on a popular movie or genre that isn’t a princess movie seems to cause aneurysms with executives for all of the mental gymnastics they have to go through. It’s not hard to see the reason, however, when one considers that the marginalization of women where merchandise is concerned is a direct result of the marginalization of women within genre movies.

The prequels are just a piece of the greater puzzle that is the relationship between women and genre movies. Unless it’s a romantic comedy, any movie in the realm of science fiction, fantasy, westerns, pretty much anything action-oriented still applies the 2:1 ratio of male to female characters. If you have four or five leads odds are only one of them will be a woman. It’s Hollywood’s version of inclusion. They’re marketing the movie to men, but the female character is thrown in the mix supposedly so women will have a character to draw them to the film when it’s really just another marketing ploy for men; a sexy woman to stare at while the male characters act out the power fantasy.

Viewed in this way, it isn’t hard to see how the original trilogy and the prequels took their cues from this formula. In Episodes IV-VII there are only four women featured and three of them have barely a minute of screen time. In Episodes I-III the only substantial addition to the female population of the galaxy is Padmé Amidala and her role is essentially reduced from Queen turned senator to wife, mother, and dead. It isn’t until the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons that we get a variety of female characters in Ahsoka Tano, Asajj Ventress, Hera Syndulla, and Sabine Wren. Finding their action figures or any kind of official merchandise, however, boils down to a search on eBay.

The greatest innovations in Hollywood aren’t visual effects, but the audience. We’ve become more savvy, more inquisitive about the ins and outs of making movies. We’ve also become more vocal, willing to speak out when we see something that doesn’t sit right. There are definitely strides being made, but the system is the system because it’s managed to work for so long. It’s going to take time, but there are definitely people listening and some of them have some clout in Hollywood. Some of them are making movies in a galaxy far, far away.

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