Are the Star Wars prequels really that bad? Or rather, do people feel that they’re bad because their expectations weren’t met? Specifically—what if the prequels were, in a way, a different genre than the original trilogy? What if you thought you ordered pizza and got lobster instead, when you’re really not a lobster fan? Would that make the lobster bad, or would it make it simply, not pizza?
See, the themes and structures of the two trilogies differ markedly. Looking at them archetypaly, the original trilogy is a very American series, while the prequels are more European in feel. And I don’t mean in terms of cinema technique, but rather in theme. Put simply; the original trilogy is about a handful of scrappy, talented individuals pulling together to fight against the Evil Empire; most of which takes place out on The Frontier—on Tatooine, and in parts of the Outer Rim. The prequels, on the other hand, deal with High Court Drama; the comings and goings at the highest levels of political power, and of wealth. And they mostly (excepting some set-pieces) take place at the galactic core. The key moments of transition take place on Courascant, the heart of the Galactic civilization; a planet we never even heard of in the original trilogy.
And you can’t really have both at the same time. You an have elements of one in the other—for example, Leia through most of the first original movie and much of Empire—really until Han gets captured. But it’s clear even then that in a way she sort of doesn’t quite fit; it’s one of the sources of tension between her and Han.
And independent individuals in the prequels? The only example that comes to readily to mind is Qui-Gon. And he doesn’t quite fit in there, either. Pushed around by the Council, questioned by his apprentice… He is in a way Leia’s counterpart in that sense.
But I digress. Those expecting a very American sort of story in the prequels—a reasonable expectation given the original trilogy—were sorely disappointed in the court-drama set-pieces they got in the trilogies. But that doesn’t make them bad as such. Just not what people had thought of, for 20 years, as “Star Wars”.