Disney Awakens: In Defense of the Prequels

By Jonathan Lace

Spoiler Alert! The following post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Proceed at your own peril.

George Lucas, creator of Star Wars...and Jar Jar Binks
George Lucas, creator of Star Wars…and Jar Jar Binks

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally been released to the collective relief of millions of eagerly-awaiting fans. By any measure, it has already been a huge merchandizing and box office success for Disney, who purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion back in 2012, and J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote and directed the latest installment of the franchise. Noticeably absent from the creative process, however, was George Lucas, the creator of the original and universally-acclaimed original trilogy as well as the much-criticized Prequels. In an interview with CBS last month, Lucas claimed that, after hearing that his own ideas for the events post-Return of the Jedi had been rejected by Disney executives, he removed himself from having any creative input into the latest installment. Lucas said:

The issue was ultimately, they looked at the stories and they said, ‘We want to make something for the fans…People don’t actually realize it’s actually a soap opera and it’s all about family problems – it’s not about spaceships.

You might think the absence of his creative mind, which birthed the likes of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Empire, the Force (and yes, Jar-Jar Binks) from The Force Awakens would have a big impact on the new film. And you would be correct.

Abrams and his team (including renowned co-writer Lawrence Kasdan) have created a story which copies wholesale major plot elements of previous Star Wars films from the original trilogy: a young, desert-bound Force-sensitive and future hero who doesn’t know her real family and wants nothing more than to desperately escape her subsistence lot, Han Solo and Chewbacca piloting the Millennium Falcon out of impossible situations, a father-son dynamic in which the son kills the father (but for very different reasons), the hiding of mission-critical plans inside of a droid that must be delivered to the Resistance, and a planet-size killing machine that can destroy entire star systems (Really? Again?).

JJ Abrams, writer and director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
JJ Abrams, writer and director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Needless to say, as a huge fan since I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater at age 8, I was hoping for something that was new and exciting. And while certain facts about what happened to Han, Chewie, Luke, and Leia were revealed, these could not lift the film to be something other than a film that was an entertaining caricature of its forebears, with excessive Disney-approved attempts at humor thrown in. I left the theater on the one hand, grateful to have seen old characters and ships reunited on the big screen for the first time since 32 years ago (and any fan should definitely see the film – it does many things right), but on the other hand I was genuinely disappointed that I had just seen a “reboot” of a franchise that, to me, didn’t need one. Because, you see, for all of their flaws, I actually liked the Prequels.

In early reviews of the film, the Prequels have been nearly universally accused as the trilogy that took the fun out of Star Wars (due, in part, to their over reliance on CGI and lackluster acting). Some have even gone so far as to claim that the prequel world “wasn’t real” and “fake”. While some of those critiques are not without warrant, in light of the recycled narrative of The Force Awakens, the Prequels, I believe, exemplify the importance of an original narrative over special effects. These completed the story of Anakin Skywalker and of what happened to the Jedi and the Republic; a story about the all-too-human tendency to succumb to temptation and failure to connect the dots within evil social machinations. They provided the “Fall” for the later redemption of Darth Vader and return of the Jedi order. And its the story that’s always been the most important element of movies, to me. That’s why I could forgive the abuse of “fake” CGI and bad acting; they were secondary to the actual and original plot. That seems to be exactly the opposite approach of The Force Awakens; real effects, fake plot.

Numerous critics have described Abrams’ attempt to “repent” for the sins of George Lucas, to “ignore” the Prequels, and giving them the “cold shoulder”. To be fair, there is one reference in the new movie to their events (involving a “clone army”) but no further mention of their overall plot. Not that here has to be, but it would have been nice to see more of an effort to create original thematic elements instead of subtly suggesting that the Prequels weren’t worthy of inclusion the canon. In its attempt to reboot the Star Wars franchise by recycling the original trilogy, Disney has flirted with cinematic Marcionism.

The Apostle John (L) and Marcion (R)
The Apostle John (L) and Marcion (R)

Marcion (c. 85 – 160) was the son of the bishop of Pontus who became a wealthy ship builder in Rome. After a gracious donation to the Roman church of 200,000 sesterces (about a cool million), he likely believed he had franchise rights to spread his ideas that the God of Israel was not the God of Jesus Christ, and, concurrently, that the Hebrew canon of Scripture was not inspired, along with all the gospels except Luke and a few of Paul’s epistles. Marcion was eventually excommunicated and later returned to Asia Minor. In the view of many historians, he became the catalyst for the formation of the New Testament canon because of his tampering with accepted doctrine. The Old Testament? That’s so boring. So not popular. Who needs a Moses who preaches Yahweh with unending laws when you’ve got a Savior who preaches love with special effects? Origen of Alexandria was a third-century Church Father who worked hard to develop a hermeneutical approach this question. His development of allegory is still influential in many homilies heard today.

While The Force Awakens is now definitive Star Wars canon itself, J.J. Abrams and Disney may have recycled too much of the original trilogy vaguely enough to leave too many unanswered questions about the backstory and relationships of key characters, fraying the nerves of those awaiting episodes VIII and IX. George Lucas told Vanity Fair that he hoped “…the Force doesn’t get muddled into a bunch of gobbledygook” after his original ideas were rejected. His reaction to seeing the new film was somewhat muted; “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement by the mythology’s creator. Rather, it’s likely an acknowledgement that original storytelling is no competition for pandering to the nostalgia of past box office successes. It’s a recognition of a cultural but canonically unnecessary reboot of the franchise.

The Prequels aren’t nearly as popular as the The Force Awakens has already been and will be for understandable reasons. They do suffer in both acting and in special effects. But they are original. They are the first books of the Star Wars canon, and, like Origen, future directors would do well to develop a viable hermeneutic for their inclusion.

Jonathan Lace is the creator of the “Theologica” iPhone app and teaches iOS app development and theology at Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, NJ. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanlace.