Even the freshest, most beautiful bowl of fruit can be ruined by adding a single rotten, moldy strawberry to the pile. And just like such a rotted berry, the Star Wars prequels (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) which were added in the late 90s and early 2000s to the bowl of fruit that is the epic, groundbreaking 70s space opera, eat away at the beauty and mystery of those original films.
As the quickly-upcoming Force Awakens bears down on us, I could not help but reflect a bit on how much I despise those prequel movies. And not just because they're terrible films from nearly any perspective you can evaluate (script-writing, visual direction, effects, acting, etc.), but because they actually threaten to retroactively destroy the story that I completely adored as a child. I won't waste time here explaining how they failed as films, or the innumerable ways the plot crumbles under the slightest scrutiny, as these arguments have been well-documented elsewhere. Rather, I want to focus on a few key ways these films specifically impact the story that I fell in love with when I first saw the originals at 9 years old.
1) They ruin Yoda.
Yoda is one of the most enigmatic characters in the original trilogy, and is one of the reasons 'Empire' is my personal favorite of the bunch. I can vividly remember my sense of awe when the film reveals this tiny, cartoonish, annoying character to be the great and wise Jedi Master that Luke is seeking. That sequence masterfully takes the viewer along the same emotional journey as the protagonist - we expect a great warrior, are frustrated at the way this green puppet interferes with the quest, and are incredulous (and a little bit ashamed of our preconceived assumptions) when he reveals himself to be the one we are seeking. This was one of the many twists that blew my mind and ignited my imagination as a child.
Yoda's physical frailty is intrinsic to his impact as a character in the Star Wars universe. He speaks directly against Luke's urgent thirst for more power, even nearly refusing to train him. Yoda's stature, combined with the fact that he doesn't carry a lightsaber, are precisely what caused Luke to be so surprised.
This is all completely upended when Yoda throws aside his cane and launches into zany, cartoony, lightsaber-fueled combat against Count Dooku in 'Attack of the Clones.' Surely this could not be the same, enigmatic Yoda, who consistently spoke against violence and using the Force for combat? Surely this wasn't the same Yoda, whose sole purpose as a character/plot device in the original films was to flip around the expectations that the Force was simply a means to become a great warrior?
This isn't even to mention the fact that Lucas went way too far with the silly, 'reverse-speak' that Yoda incessantly employs in every single line in all three of those prequels...
2) They ruin the Force.
As a kid, I was kind of obsessed with the Force. I imagined myself controlling things from a distance (especially my light switch after I was in bed), and fantasized about being trained to be a Jedi. What I didn't explicitly realize at the time was that the mystery behind this quasi-spiritual theme in Star Wars was a huge factor in what made it so enticing. The fact that there was no outright explanation (aside from the slight nods to a hereditary component) was one of the most compelling aspects of the Force. This very mystery fueled the imagination of so many of us, because conceivably anyone could become a Jedi, a great hero, with the right training, discipline, and focus.
But, nope, apparently that's not actually true. You just need to take a blood test. A computer can simply count how many "midi-chlorians" (and we can all agree that is a terrible name, right?) you have in your blood cells. That's it. No mystery. Just some numbers.
So, why didn't Obi-Wan, or Yoda, ever get out their handy "Midi-chlorian" counter when they met Luke or Leia in the original trilogy? If Midi-chlorians are just in blood cells, how can characters 'sense' the Force when they're near others? Once again, an enigmatic, spiritual, mysterious element of the mythology is explained away in the prequels in the laziest way possible. I'm sensing a theme here....
3) They ruin the mysterious backstory.
This is one of the most important points for me. The original trilogy consistently teases a seemingly vast, incredible backstory that includes: a great war in which most Jedi were hunted and killed, which also forced both Obi-Wan and Yoda into exile; a dramatic overthrow of a galaxy-wide government which resulted in a tyrannical empire overextending its power; a unique bond of close friendship between Obi-Wan (a great Jedi) and Luke's father (apparently also a great Jedi); the horrible wounds that we get mere glimpses of in Darth Vader's quarters which point to some sort of climactic battle that must have played a role in his turn to evil.
Point for point, each of these is proven to be farcical and uninteresting in the prequels. The 'Clone War' takes place between a seemingly limitless army of robot droids (which no one cares about) and a seemingly limitless army of human clones which were grown in labs (and, yes, which no one cares about).
The government overthrow plot is laughably convoluted. Senator Palpatine is so obviously pulling all the strings, and the Jedi Council is shown to be so inept that the viewer almost doesn't want them to exist as a governing body anymore.
The "relationship" between Obi-Wan and Anakin is consistently more annoying than endearing. You have no idea why they would ever care about each other. Obi-Wan constantly complains about Anakin's attitude and impatience, and Anakin ruthlessly whines about Obi-Wan's rigid approach to training him. In fact, if you didn't know they were "supposed" to be great friends, as Obi-Wan explains in the original trilogy, you would think they would, given their own choices, want nothing to do with each other. This also undermines the agency and individuality of each, as they are simply obeying the 'invisible hand' of the plot that needs them to develop a bond for the original films to make sense. Re-watching the first scenes with Obi-Wan in 'A New Hope,' when he wistfully explains that they were once "great friends" is transformed from a vaguely mysterious, but intriguing, hint at what happened in the past, into a laughable, head-scratching moment.
And poor, poor Vader needs a section all to his own....
4) They completely, utterly, irreparably ruin Darth Vader and his redemptive arc.
I remember when I realized that the title "Return of the Jedi" actually referred to Darth Vader's redemption, rather than the expected arrival of Luke as a great hero. The emotions that swirl around the climactic lightsaber duel on Endor are palpable, all fueled by the horrific revelation that Vader (seemingly evil incarnate) is Luke & Leia's father, a realization so abhorrent that Luke literally risks suicide by plunging himself into the depths of the Cloud City tunnels rather than face the possibility of its truth. The abject horror of this is only countered in the next film by the incredible turn of Vader, placing himself in harm's way to preserve his son. The light side does, in fact, prevail in the face of all hopelessness, not through power in combat, but through the power of self-sacrifice. Powerful stuff.
Except, not really, when you learn the backstory of Vader in the prequels. He's not actually a tortured soul, a victim of an unusual gifting and talent that was manipulated by forces beyond him, including a powerful Jedi Council and a galactic government, which eventually tore him from his true love and his children, and placed him in a heart-wrenching conflict with his former "great friend" and mentor. In all reality, he's an impossibly annoying, incessantly whining, radically unstable individual who has no idea what's going on around him, and is all-too-willing to be manipulated. The Queen is not his lover, but the object of an unhealthy obsession. The climactic fight between him and Obi-Wan has less than a fraction of the emotional impact of the Vader/Luke duel on Endor, mostly because you kind of want him to die.
It's pretty bad when the supposed emotional climax of an entire trilogy of movies results in an insufferably cliche scream of "NOOOOOO!!" complete with fists raised to the skies, and the viewer wants to chuckle instead of get misty-eyed.
While the outright failure of this supposed-to-be-emotionally-gripping moment in 'Revenge' is kind of funny, the effect it has on one of the greatest villians-turned-heroes in cinematic history is tragic. The kind face that the viewer finally glimpses under that black mask at the end of 'Return' has been forever poisoned by the grating, grimacing expression of a whiny Haydn Christensen. And it's for this very reason, when this conversation topic comes up and I explain my hatred of these movies, that I cannot stand the response, "Well, 'Revenge of the Sith' was definitely the best prequel." Maybe, but the "best" turd in a pile of turds is still a turd.
So that's why, if I (hopefully) raise kids one day, I will keep the existence of the prequels a tightly-contained secret for as long as possible. But I still cannot wait to watch the original Star Wars movies with them.