You could argue that Lucas’ attempts to make lightning strike twice with the exact same formula on an audience who had only grown more jaded and cynical since their first viewing of the original trilogy doomed the project from the start. I think if we had come to Star Wars for the first time as kids with Phantom Menace, we’d feel a bit more fondly towards the prequels.
Having just watched all six Star Wars movies again, after not seeing them (except Phantom Menace, which I saw in 2012) for about 8 years, I would say that my impression was still that the prequel trilogy, while flawed, was far better than the original trilogy, which is entertaining but a mess. A New Hope was frankly rather silly. I’ve always felt this way, but this time the feeling was actually more pronounced. The Phantom Menace may have some of the best scenes of the entire saga–each time I see it, I’m impressed by how good it is.
I’ve written at length about why each of the Star Wars prequels are actually good here, here and here. I think people are gradually coming to appreciate them more.
I touched on this with my last post about the movie Rudy: it can be fun to come up with alternative interpretations of movies that the directors and writers didn’t think of. With Rudy, I was saying that I found the hero character’s fixation on football to be an unhealthy obsession, rather than the inspirational determination it is presented as being.
Some movies have much more elaborate alternative interpretations. Take the Star Wars movies for example: most people assumed that the Empire is evil just because the opening crawl said so. But, in Phantom Menace, it’s pretty clear that what Palpatine says about the Old Republic being “mired” by “bureaucrats” is true. They can’t even get it together to go do something when one of their planets gets invaded and occupied. If nothing else, the Empire runs a more efficient operation.
This does not even take into account the Jedi, who claim to be good–although the only people who really seem to feel this way are the Jedi themselves–but who are shown to brainwash people from a young age to indoctrinate them into their cult. They say the Sith are evil, but in the movies, at least, the Sith wait until you’re an adult before asking you to join. Count Dooku was a former Jedi and an aristocrat of some sort before he opted to try his hand at Sith Lording in his retirement.
Also, of course, there’s the fact that everything the Jedi do turns out to be an abysmal failure. The Sith are clearly the only ones capable of creating a plan and seeing it through to the end in that galaxy. Even at the end, in Return of the Jedi, all the Jedi stuff Luke had been taught goes by the boards, and the Emperor is overthrown not by him, but by the actions of a renegade Sith.
George Lucas probably didn’t intend any of these interpretations (and the “Expanded Universe” contradicts a lot of them), but I think the movies can definitely be viewed that way. Personally, I think it makes more sense in some ways.
Or take Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. It was controversial for its promotion of conspiracy theories. I have a different take on it: I think Kevin Costner’s character is an unreliable narrator (he’s not really the narrator, but the film is very much from his perspective) who has this weird obsession with conspiracies. Donald Sutherland’s character “X” is a figment of his imagination, whom he created to fulfill his dreams of uncovering a massive plot. Try watching JFK and then A Beautiful Mind and see if you don’t agree.