What the Star Wars Prequels Did Right

They’re terrible movies. Let’s get that out of the way. But watching The Force Awakens again, and then again the divine Original Trilogy, I got this weird and unsettling flash of appreciation for something Lucas had done in those stillbirths of CGI and suffering actors and dialog usually confined to airport novels written by ex-advertising executives. He built a universe and showed it to us.

Of course, he’d already done a bit of that with the Originals. We had an Empire and its Rebels. We had spectacular aliens and even more spectacular spaceships. But what we saw of it was only so much as needed to give the characters somewhere to be. Very little came off as existing without them. Luke’s farm sits like as movie set in the middle of nowhere. Alderaan is just a blue sphere until it’s not. Hoth’s a Rebel base and nothing else, and Dagobah is Yoda’s hut and a murky pond.

Not that we don’t get tastes. Tatooine in Episode IV has Jawas, a pass through Mos Eisley, and that wonderful cantina. Cloud City in Episode V features hallways with doors behind which people presumably live and earn a living. Jabba’s palace and Endor in Episode VI show denizens up to things unrelated to the struggle for a new Republic.

But those are small. Just tastes. The prequels gave us the whole meal. Planets and citizens. Civilizations from screen corner to screen corner. We knew about this stuff, some of it, going in, because we could imagine it in the Originals’ lacuna and had been told about it in novels and comics and games. Still, the prequels widened, radically, the scope of Star Wars.

That’s what I missed from The Force Awakens. It’s a great movie, a return to form, a revitalization and a demonstration of faith on Disney’s part that they get it, that they’re fans, too. But it’s a return to form, too, in narrowing that scope. Again we’re in a universe of isolated sets, of points of light in otherwise wilderness. Even Maz’s castle seems to exist without neighbors. There are no cities in The Force Awakens, save for a single shot, and only two villages, if we can call Niima Outpost that, and if we count Lor’s tiny settlement, which we only witness dying and never living. The wide angles of the prequels have become tight.

Perhaps this was intentional, meant to remind of us A New Hope, as so much else does, or to keep us focus on fresh faces as a way to establish them in our consciousness the way Luke and Leia and Han are. The fresh worlds will come. But after the expanse of the prequels and then the Clone Wars TV show, The Force Awakens feels a little small.

The prequels feel big.