Financial Success versus Cultural Legacy

Though I can’t now remember where I read it, I  read somewhere that the 2009 film Avatar, despite it’s immense financial success has not left any sort of cultural legacy. When thinking about it, it is hard not to agree. It is not commonly spoken about and I have never met anyone who considers it one of their favourite films. If I do hear about it, it is either calling it overrated or mockingly comparing it to Disney’s Pocahontas, Fern Gully or Dances with Wolves — all films which have essentially the same plot and all pre-dating Avatar by well over a decade. I found Avatar to be a boring, unoriginal film despite the visual spectacle it was sold on. I suspect many went to see it based on hype and quickly forgot it, so it is quite possible the sequels won’t do nearly as well unless they offer a lot more than impressive visual effects.

It occurred to me that the Star Wars prequel trilogy, despite being rather poor films, have had a significant cultural impact. They were critically panned and many Star Wars fans dislike them but the characters, worlds and sub-stories still spawned a significant legacy across multiple mediums. They even have hilarious memes; something that just doesn’t happen without a genuinely affectionate fanbase.

This post won’t be me trying to defend the films themselves — which I do think are bad. I am in agreement with the sometimes disturbing, frequently crude but thoughtful Plinkett reviews from RedLetterMedia. All the elements were there to make great films with some better writing and direction but this was not to be. What I will do is consider what might have helped these films have developed a strong legacy despite the negative critical reaction at the time and even still today.

One of the most consistently appealing aspects of the prequels is undoubtedly the Jedi. While one might criticise the visual cacophony of the action scenes; it was exciting to see the Jedi in battle. The earlier Star Wars video games tended to focus on the space combat but the prequels directly inspired a lot more games based around the Jedi. Notable are the Jedi Knight series, Knights of the Old Republic, The Force Unleashed and even 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order. The Jedi were legends from the past in the original movies and lightsaber battles were infrequent and generally brief. For better or worse, the prequels went the other way and thus inspired a lot of supporting media as well as capturing the imaginations of young viewers.

The next was the Clone Wars which was mentioned in passing in the original film. The original films became so beloved that fans would pore over every line for meaning and speculate about what things might mean. Even though the writers at the time probably attached little meaning to most of what was said, the fanbase took these otherwise throwaway lines far more seriously. This is why you get Han Solo’s line about the Kessel Run being made into a major event of a film. From what we know of the character, this should have been dismissed as empty bravado but fans (as well as hack screenwriters), didn’t. In making the prequels though, the Clone Wars could not be ignored as they were related directly to the story to be told. The direction this was taken was interesting and its wider scope as an intergalactic civil war involving a mass-produced clone army was certainly original. This aspect of the prequels inspired more video games but also a very well-received animated series based around this war.

The writing — especially with regard to the dialogue was definitely poor in the prequels. In its defence, a lot of popular lines in the original trilogy were quite corny as well but the prequels were definitely on another level. Some people place the blame on the actors but this would be a mistake. I would say that literally every actor in the film was well-cast (even Jake Lloyd), and this is especially so for the main leads. Ewan McGregor in particular, perfectly looked the part of a young Obi Wan. The choice of actors did a lot to create appeal for the characters they played which did help the audience (though not me), to overlook the terrible dialogue they had to deliver. I should also add another defence to the writing is that a lot of this bad dialogue was fuel for the hilarious memes.

In general, something that I realised in seeing the sterile, empty Disney sequels was how original the prequels were. They definitely weren’t great films but they could be distinguished from the originals while still feeling like Star Wars films. So many new planets, characters and ideas such as those mentioned above were introduced. One could at least appreciate the imagination behind it all. If you read earlier expanded universe works prior to the prequels, you will notice how limited they seemed to be by the material of the original films. As with what was written above, the prequels gave creators a lot more to work with in the universe in general. It really puts in perspective how pathetic the Disney-produced trilogy was that almost nothing they came up with wasn’t piggy-backing off the original trilogy. Almost every character, plot point and even location was lifted from the original trilogy. The heavy reliance on CGI was another major criticism of the prequels but despite this, they didn’t feel anywhere near as lifeless as the Disney films.

Once again, I do not like the prequels and I don’t even think I’ve watched them all the way through since they were released. What I can see however in hindsight, is that despite all of this, they have left a legacy and remain genuinely liked by a lot of people. I may not be one of them but I can somewhat appreciate why. The Disney trilogy (like Avatar), certainly saw financial success but it is doubtful these movies will have any genuine cultural legacy.

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