Third of a three-part series exploring the development of the blockbuster film trilogy over the 2000s.
It’s hard to think of a movie (or series of movies) that has been analyzed, criticized, and reconsidered more widely and thoroughly in recent years than the Star Wars prequels (with the exception, perhaps, of The Last Jedi.) The degree to which the internet has dedicated itself to discuss George Lucas’s prequel trilogy since The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 is, frankly, ridiculous; but it’s also catnip for a series about the great movie trilogies of the 2000s. So far, we’ve looked at The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix movies, and in both cases I’ve approached them both as important historical artifacts and as examples of great, idiosyncratic blockbuster filmmaking. All of this gets a little trickier when talking about the prequels. As far as the filmmaking is concerned, I can hardly make a coherent case – not because there’s no art to be found in them (they are, at the very least, very “idiosyncratic” movies), but because the conversation about the artistic quality of the movies has reached a point in which everything has been said from every angle and ad nauseam. The historical case is easier to make. The prequels mark an incredibly influential step in the development of both computer generated effects and the use of digital cameras, both of which are cornerstones of Hollywood filmmaking in the 2020s. Even more remarkable, though, is the historical importance of the way in which the movies were received by movie-goers, fans, and the culture at large. The response to these movies may very well be the most important shift in film culture form the 20th to the 21st Century. The story of how George Lucas went from being perceived as a creative genius to an out-of-touch eccentric, a story that ended with Lucas willingly selling his creation to one of the biggest media conglomerates, encapsulates the trajectory of American blockbuster filmmaking almost too perfectly.
A recapitulation of events is probably unnecessary, but for formality’s sake, let me do a brief synopsis of the history of one George Walton Lucas Jr. As an up-and-coming filmmaker in the early seventies, Lucas tried to leverage the goodwill he had amassed for directing the very successful American Graffiti to finance a science fiction movie that was meant to be an homage to the space opera serials of his youth. The result was a little movie called Star Wars, which not only became a huge hit, but the highest grossing movie of all time. Though the movie was distributed by 20th Century Fox, Lucas retained the rights to the film, which allowed him to become extremely rich by making two sequels (and thus cementing the idea of the “trilogy” as an ideal form for epic cinematic storytelling), and more importantly, by selling lots and lots of merchandise. By the mid-nineties, the centrality of Star Wars in the cultural discourse had subsided, but a visionary Lucas, encouraged by the development of computer generated visual effects, decided to write and direct a “prequel” trilogy, depicting the backstory that leads into his original trilogy. These movies were huge commercial successes, but critical disappointments… to say the least.
My perception of the movies is clouded somewhat by the fact that I was a child when they came out, but I think my personal experience can be illustrative about the way in which the prequels were regarded at the time. The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 (I was seven years old, perfect age.), and absolutely loved it. I was too young to know that the adult world, and especially the fans, had been confused by the movie’s convoluted plot and puzzled by the creature Jar Jar Binks, who was nothing but hilarious to me. Looking back, Phantom Menace is a largely dull movie, even though it does feature (in the pod race and the “duel of the fates”) the two best set pieces in the trilogy. The second movie, Attack of the Clones came out in 2002 (I was 10. Again, perfect age.) and while I absolutely loved it, I was old enough to know that all the adults around me considered it a bad, and that the acting in the love story between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) was particularly horrendous. The final installment, Revenge of the Sith, was released in 2005 (I was 13, cue the alarm sounds.) I know that i was exactly halfway through my second viewing of Revenge of the Sith, a couple days after my first, that I immediately outgrew these movies. Suddenly the dullness, senselessness, and badness, that everyone else saw in these movies came to me. To this day, I have a soft spot for the pulpy adventure serial aesthetics of Attack of the Clones, while I would pretty much toss Revenge of the Sith to the dogs, except maybe for its rather ballsy political allusions.
This is all to put into perspective the generational divide that (not unlike the case with The Matrix sequels) has allowed for a critical re-appraisal of the prequel trilogy as more than just outright terrible movies. There are many variants within the re-appraisal project, from those to which childhood nostalgia is an essential element, to those who admire Lucas’s directorial formalism and political messaging. The common denominator, as far as I can tell, is that – regardless if the prequels are an incoherent mess narratively – they present a singular and deeply creative artistic vision. This claim has gained extra credence thanks to the creative failure of the most recent, Disney-backed sequel trilogy. The political element is most present in Revenge of the Sith, where Emperor Palpatine’s (an unrestrained Ian McDiarmid) rise to power parallels that of George W. Bush, but a reading of the prequels as a “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” type of narrative that presents the Jedi Order as an antiquated institution populated by inept bureaucrats that is destined to fail is popular is some corners. It doubt Lucas was purposely trying to present the Jedi as incompetents, since he had plenty of toys to sell, but that isn’t super relevant to the kind of auteurist who will re-appraise the series. And if forced, to pick sides, I am inclined to side with them. The prequels, while largely unsuccessful, at least support the possibility of building a coherent vision within them. The sequel trilogy, on the other hand, is made up of movies that don’t have any themes beyond the director’s relationship to the Star Wars franchise, and in the case of the abysmal The Rise of Skywalker, no themes whatsoever.
But back in 2012, when Disney first announced its purchase of Lucasfilm, the perception of George Lucas as a competent creative figure had eroded so deeply that the fandom reacted with deep enthusiasm at the thought that their beloved saga had been freed from George’s tyrannical reign. The years between Revenge of the Sith and Disney’s acquisition, were full of stand-up routines, online video parodies, and all other kinds of comedians making fun of the prequels (of the corny dialogue, of the incoherent plot, of Jar Jar). There was even a documentary, The People vs. George Lucas, that tried to explore this curious phenomenon. In my corner of the internet, the series of feature-length videos published by Red Letter Media, which were part comedy routine and part granular dissections of the movies’ many failures, played a big role in cementing a definitive narrative around the prequels; As did the podcast Blank Check, which started out in 2015 as a parody podcast that pummeled the prequels for a whole year before transforming into something else entirely. It would be conspiratorial to describe what happened during these year as an orchestrated attack on Lucas, but it is rather fascinating to have witness a the creator of one of the most beloved series of movies go from messiah to pariah so steadily and thoroughly. Looking back, such a hard and fast transformation seems impossible without the internet.
It’s fashionable (and tired) to blame the internet for all of society’s problems these days, but the rise of social media undoubtedly played a role in increasing outlets for fans to make their thoughts known to a wider audience, and in amplifying the degree to which studios and filmmakers take into account fan feedback when making artistic decisions. Growing up, my impression was that market research, when it came to movies, was largely ineffective. All the stories you would read in books and interviews were about how the test screening audience had hated a movie that ended up becoming a huge hit. In the age of social media and streaming algorithms, market research is the way that all decisions are made. A corporation’s ultimate goal will always be to make a profit, and so it’s in the best interest of the CEO to minimize risk when greenlighting new projects. Movies like the prequels, or the Matrix sequels made money at the box office, but one can imagine an executive thinking that they could’ve made more money, made more sequels, and sold more merchandise if they had been regarded as good movies. In a context in which the movies’ failures are regarded as the result of directorial self-indulgence, it makes sense for the money people to remove the director out of the decision making process. I think the reason why every studio is chasing after the Marvel model is not only because those movies make so much money, but because it is spear-headed and fail-safed by an executive. Ironically, every attempt at replicating the Marvel model so far has been kind of a failure, including in the case of the Star Wars sequels. “Failure” is a relative term, of course, as the Star Wars sequels made an incomprehensible amount of money at the box office. At the same time, I can’t help but feel like The Rise of Skywalker seems to have left a real sour taste in most people’s mouth, and that the reason why there aren’t any new Star Wars movies in the horizon is that Disney is sensing some real franchise fatigue on the part of the audience (at least when it comes to the big screen.)
This series of articles has tried to make an argument for the blockbuster trilogies of the 2000s as a particularly robust and exciting time for the kind of epic action-fantasy filmmaking that has come to dominate American film in the years since, but that has lost the spark that was present at the turn of the millennium. It also tried to identify the reasons why the model that created those early 2000s movies ended up unable to sustain itself, and why it gave way to our current, less artist-oriented model. What The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and the Star Wars prequels have in common is a cycle in which early success allows for further creative freedom, which is in turn perceived as overreach, generates backlash, and ends with the directors being disillusioned by the industry in one way or another. In the case of Lucas, the disillusionment is apparent and almost poetically embodied in the sale of his biggest, most successful creation. The saddest element of all is that for the 35 years between the release of the first movie and the sale of Lucasfilm, Star Wars was synonymous with George Lucas. He oversaw every project, toy, video game, extended universe book, everything that had to do with the saga. It was a universe he had created, and that he understood like no one else. Something changed in the new millennium. Is it a democratization in the public’s perception, thanks to the internet, that they too can create and/or spearhead something as lasting as Star Wars? Or is it a concerted effort on part of the corporations to minimize artistic uncertainty and maximize security in their investments? The only certainty is that we cannot go back, even if the young cinephile who grew up in the mid-2000s, and who considered these series – along with Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, and others – to be the most exciting use of blockbuster-level resources, will always be tempted to dream that we can.
Read part one of this series on The Lord of the Rings.
Read part two of this series on The Matrix.
Conrado Falco III is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. He is the co-creator of the web-series Wormholes and the host of the Foreign Invader and The Criterion Project podcasts. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNY).