At first glance, it seems a bit ridiculous to pit the Star Wars sequels against the prequels. The easy comparison is between The Force Awakens and the original trilogy, since the former is a continuation of the latter and features many of the same characters. The prequels are basically just extended backstory while the sequels are passing the torch forward to tell something new. TFA was pretty universally loved while the prequels were…not quite as admired. Surely there’s nothing the prequels could offer in terms of advice for the sequels.
It is true that both trilogies have differing relationships to the original trilogy. For the prequels, the originals are the endpoint while for the sequels, they’re just the start. You can’t approach them the same way from a narrative and creative point of view. However, I think it’s worth looking at what the sequel trilogy as a whole could learn from the prequels. After all, both trilogies are basically reaching for the same goal: continue the story of the Skywalker family while living up to the high regard of the originals. That’s not an easy task.
And yes, I’m aware that this may seem counterproductive since pop culture at large tends to have a less than favorable view of the prequels. But there is a lot that the prequels did well, and even where the prequels didn’t succeed there’s something to be learned. When you’re making a sequel, what better way to do so than to look back at what came before to see what worked and what didn’t? And so, there’s three areas in particular where I think the Star Wars sequels would do well to take notes from the prequels.
Don’t get caught up in connecting all the threads.
While I am a huge prequel fan and will eagerly defend them until my last breath, I do acknowledge that they aren’t perfect. And they frequently get too caught up in trying to tie off every perceived loose thread from the original trilogy…even if it wasn’t necessarily a story thread that needed to be tied up. It’s a fine line between Easter Egg and gratuitous fan service. Finally getting to see Yoda in a lightsaber duel was pretty neat; introducing Chewbacca during the battle of Kashyyyk felt a bit too on-the-nose. And finding out that Boba Fett is actually a clone of the original template for the clone troopers felt like pandering. At a certain point, you almost start wondering if everyone in the Star Wars universe is less than six degrees away from our main heroes.
And granted, the prequels are a bit of a different beast in this regard, since they are building towards the story of the original trilogy. Obviously some references will be unavoidable. In contrast, the sequels are forging a new narrative path, destination unknown. But there’s a difference between making a reference for the sake of the story (or including a subtle background Easter Egg) and making a reference just for the sake of making a reference. When Finn accidentally turns on the dejarik set on the Falcon, it feels like such a hamfisted attempt at fan service that I cringe every time. And I recognize that this is nitpick territory; certainly my enjoyment of the movie isn’t ruined by this moment. But the sequels shouldn’t feel the need to constantly refer back to what came before. We’re in a new trilogy now and shouldn’t stay stuck in the shadow of the originals.
Explore the possibilites
It’s no secret that my biggest issue with TFA was that I felt it hewed too closely to A New Hope. I’ve said my piece on that with regards to the narrative and I know a lot of people disagree or see that as a feature, not a bug. And, you know, I get it; it was a movie with a ton of expectations on it and I can’t really blame them for playing it safe. But at the same time I’m hoping that the rest of the trilogy won’t take that same approach, especially when it comes to the look and feel of the universe.
One of the things I love the most about Star Wars is the huge sandbox it gives you to play in. The worldbuilding offers nearly limitless possibilities, and one of the things the prequels do very well relative to the originals is visually expanding the galaxy far, far away. The original trilogy had mostly been confined to the interior of starships and exterior locations that can actually be found on planet Earth. And of course that’s due to the technological and budgetary limitations of the time. But the prequels didn’t face those same limitations and they take full advantage of the opportunities.
And, frankly, that’s a large part of why I like the prequels: They didn’t try to redo the aesthetic of the originals. There was enough there to feel familiar, but it was a jumping-off point, not a safety net. It would’ve been easy to just replicate the visual aesthetics of the original trilogy but the prequels instead created their own identity within the Star Wars franchise. True, it didn’t always work out for the better (hello Jar Jar) but at least they tried.
With the prequels, we get a city the size of a planet and aliens and creatures in all shapes and sizes. We got a chance to actually explore cultures and societies, as politics were more prominently layered into the story. The prequels were what made the Star Wars galaxy actually feel like a living, breathing universe. There was an influx of life and color that we just didn’t get in the original trilogy. It’s no longer just soldiers (and the occasional scoundrel) fighting each other on the desert planet, forest planet, ice planet, etc. You actually get an idea of the diversity of worlds and life and people found in the galaxy, which is something I think TFA could’ve done a better job at portraying.
But hopefully Episodes VIII and IX won’t play it quite so safe, and will try to branch out from the original trilogy’s shadow. We caught a glimpse of Felucia during the Order 66 montage in Revenge of the Sith; how cool would it be to see another planet that’s also utterly unlike anything we have here on Earth? Or bringing back more of the culture and politics of the New Republic (something that TFA sorely needed)? There’s so many possibilities to create and explore.
The denizens of Maz’s cantina are pretty cool looking though, I won’t lie.
Diversity is key
The original trilogy is pretty great, but I think most people can agree that it could do better on the representation front. There’s really only one prominent female character and we don’t get a prominent character of color until Lando shows up in The Empire Strikes Back. The prequels do better on this front (though, admittedly, are far from perfect). The Phantom Menace gives us Padmé and her handmaidens, as well as the first screen appearance of female fighter pilots and Jedi. We also get Mace Windu and later in the trilogy are introduced to Bail Organa, both prominent men of color. But that was really it; we didn’t get that much more and most of the main cast was still pretty white and male. However, a baby step is still a step, so the prequels’ contribution to diverse representation shouldn’t be discounted.
But so far, the sequel trilogy has blown both out of the water; not a single member of the main trio is a white male and the secondary/tertiary/extras character casting shows a greater commitment to diversity than either of the other two trilogies. And that’s fantastic. But the sequel trilogy shouldn’t rest on its laurels; there is always room for improvement when it comes to representation. The Star Wars movies are still sadly lacking in women of color, and of course there has yet to be an openly identified LGBT+ character in the galaxy far, far away.
The prequels built on what came before and expanded our view of the diversity of people we see in the Star Wars universe. The sequels should endeavor to continue doing the same.