Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn't a perfect movie. But there's near-universal relief that it doesn't stink — that the newest addition to the Star Wars franchise is parsecs better than the three flawed prequels.
After two decades of disappointment, you could even say fans have new hope.
Episode VIII is already in production, and I'm incredibly curious to see how it will pay off the mysteries of The Force Awakens. But I'm worried about some of Disney's other moves, especially as the company rushes to mine the Star Wars universe for new stories, including a Han Solo spin-off movie, a possible live-action TV show, and more. All of those decisions offer some amount of risk. The adventures of a young Han Solo could be brilliant … or they could cheapen the original character.
Without spoiling the movie, the plot of The Force Awakens suggests the studio might be inclined to play it safe. To preserve the spirit of the original trilogy while giving fans what they want to see.
In that case, there's a clear map for what the franchise should do next: Reboot the three Star Wars prequels.
Free idea for Disney: please reboot all the Star Wars prequels and actually make them good this time.— Dr. Ed (@ICUDrEd) December 20, 2015
For those who don't remember — or desperately want to forget — the 1999–2005 prequel trilogy was decidedly mediocre. Critics and viewers savaged the movies' bad dialogue and worse plots. The kiddie snuff film Home Alone 2: Lost In New York has a higher score on IMDB than Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.
Main characters Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala were flat, boring, and at times unwatchable. "Anakin sucks," screenwriter Max Landis said on Screen Junkies this week. "He's one of the worst protagonists in film history." And the overt racism and horrible CGI were unbearable.
Of course, all three prequels still made a ton of money. The Phantom Menace was the top-grossing movie of 1999, and Episode III — Revenge of the Sith sold the most tickets in 2005. (Episode II — Attack of the Clones was the only movie in the franchise to not win its year, finishing third in 2002.)
Imagine how much more money the movies would've made if they were good?
Critics (and many viewers) are rightly cynical when a studio reboots a film franchise. It's often a cash grab: Remakes are safe bets for box office success. Data has shown that films that are part of a franchise tend to outperform other movies, even when they're critical flops.
But in an era replete with remakes — Sony is currently rebooting Spider-Man for the second time in five years — redoing The Phantom Menace after nearly 20 years feels less like a cash grab and more like a necessary correction.
Especially because rebooting the Star Wars prequels would be a rare double win. While the films are guaranteed blockbusters, legions of fans would be grateful too.
The first person I saw make this argument was Dr. Ed Bajwa, a Boston-area ICU doctor, who tweeted out his disgust after trying to rewatch the prequel trilogy before going to see The Force Awakens.
Bajwa — who's in the business of resuscitating critically ill patients, mind you — thinks the prequels can't be rescued.
"This can't ever be fixed by any special edition or director’s cut because the problems run too deep," he told me. "The only solution is to ditch them outright and start anew. There’s definitely precedent, as J.J. Abrams wiped out literally dozens of previously canonical Star Wars stories from the novels, video games [and elsewhere] in order to film the new movie."
I think Bajwa's onto something, but I don't believe the prequels' plot points should be completely dropped from the canon. Too much time and merchandising dollars have been invested to build up characters like Anakin Skywalker and Darth Maul, and the overall Clone Wars plot arc is integral to the franchise.
Especially because a few simple changes — No racist characters! No long debates about taxation! No midi-chlorians! — would dramatically improve those movies.
Of course, a full reboot offers the opportunity for more significant fixes, too. Here's one path that filmmakers could follow — and, like Bajwa, I'm offering it to Disney for free.
Episode I: Start with an older Anakin Skywalker
The Phantom Menace made many mistakes, including the decision to rest its giant ambitions on the tiny shoulders of an 8-year-old actor. As young Anakin Skywalker, Jake Lloyd wasn't up to the task. And who wants to see Darth Vader as a little kid?
Starting the movie with an older protagonist would correct these blunders. Anakin is an inherently flawed hero, and a teenage or 20-something actor is far more capable of showing the necessary emotional range. An older Anakin also avoids a very creepy romantic subplot. Rather than an 8-year-old actor developing a weird fixation on a 16-year-old princess, the movie could build real chemistry between the future Darth Vader and his intended spouse.
A teenage Anakin would be a better parallel with the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens, too — a young adult's journey, beginning on a desert planet. But whereas Luke Skywalker was whiny and Rey was strong, Anakin could just be reckless: He knows he has a gift, he's had years to test it, but he's grown up without any real mentorship. It would better plant the seeds for his future fall as a Jedi and rise as Darth Vader.
Episode II: Go deeper into the Clone Wars
The original Episode II concludes with an epic battle … of an army of CGI clones versus an army of CGI robots.
That's just one reason why it feels like there's very little at stake, character-wise, in the current iteration of this movie.
But the Clone Wars can be compelling source material. Just look at what happens when it's in the right hands. A 2003 Clone Wars cartoon series from master animator Genndy Tartakovsky mined drama from the battles and characters, even when anonymous clones took on routine missions.
A better movie would kill the CGI in favor of practical effects. And it could start with the Clone Wars underway, but have the clone army unexpectedly (and traitorously) ally with the robot army, attempting to conquer the galaxy — with only the Jedi standing in their way.
Episode III: Follow the fall of the Jedi
Too much was jammed into the final act of the original Revenge of the Sith. As Honest Trailers brilliantly skewered, Anakin flips from life-preserving Jedi to child murderer in less than 10 minutes of screen time; thousands of Jedi are exterminated in a simple montage; Anakin loses his limbs because he can't jump high enough; Padme dies from a "broken heart"; twins Luke and Leia are born and then rapidly shuttled to Tatooine and Alderaan, respectively; and Obi-Wan and Yoda go into their respective exiles.
There's some good stuff here! But those plot points deserve a whole movie to breathe.
A better version of Revenge of the Sith would start with the twins already born, protected by a dwindling number of Jedi and being hunted by an Anakin who's steadily losing his humanity along the way. Think of The Terminator in space, but with a proto–Darth Vader instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger.