Star Wars is arguably the most significant piece of fiction of the past fifty years. As with any grand invention or discovery, the original trilogy was a perfection of already existing ideas resulting in the wrong person garnering most of the credit. George Lucas certainly played an essential part, but over the course of the past thirty years it has become clear that Lucas himself had little to no idea why exactly the original trilogy was such a success. At the very least, he had the foresight to trade traditional payment in hopes to make the megabuck on merchandising. This resulted in unprecedented funding for the movies, plus an overarching emphasis on creating characters, sets, and props which would make good playthings for children.
On a less cynical note, Star Wars gives us a glimpse at what a type 2 civilization might look like. The Kardashev scale says that a type 1 civilization can take advantage of a planet's entire potential energy, type 2 can use an entire star, and type 3 can use an entire galaxy. Now, Star Wars does not make overt references to their energy gathering potential, but the implication is there. A type 2 civilization would likely have nearly perfect technology which has become so long lasting and mundane that development stagnates. This could last thousands of years. Setting a story in this universe takes subtlety - one could easily get lost explaining everything. Having the characters approach the tech in a familiar way solves many problems before they begin.
Returning to reality, I personally feel that Star Wars plays an important role in the generation divide. Recently, Slate and NPR have both alleged that Generation X ended in 1980, and all those born afterwards are part of "the millennial generation". I find this rather closed-minded, and likely propagated by baby boomers. I asset that, to be a member of Generation X, you must remember the 70s in some way. On the other end, "millennials" should be those who do not remember a time before the internet. Now, one could say "the internet" began in the late 70s within the esoteric programming circles. Realistically, it began with America Online in 1995.
Therefore, we have a gap between Generation X and the Millennials. If 1995 is the beginning of the millennial generation, then how would I define the end of Gen X? It ended with Star Wars. A New Hope was released in 1977, and Gen X ought to have some memory of that year. I would place the ending of Gen X in 1974-ish.
The opening of the first Star Wars movie is notoriously remembered as a huge success. In truth, it was not immediately well received. In the summer of 1975, the movie Jaws had completely rewritten the playbook for movie producers. Before then, movies would be released regularly over the year, and each one was given relatively equal funding. With Jaws, the producers had organized a massive advertising campaign around the July 4th opening. This was a complete sea-change in the way movies were funded and released. Jaws proved that you could make one giant hulking ultra-movie and release it on 4th of July weekend, and basically all of America would go see it. This would effectively cover the entire years budget.
Star Wars had massive funding in order to take advantage of the '77 summer rush. In addition to this, George Lucas had taken his seemingly foolish paycut in exchange for the merchandising rights, as I mentioned above. This truly empowered the movie to succeed, but again, it was not immediately adored. The secret was that Lucas had negotiated bringing the movie back to theaters months later, and essentially airing it indefinitely. Slowly the word spread, and by 1978 there were numerous fans who would pay to see the movie every weekend, quoting the lines back at the screen.
The same thing was done with each successive movie. The characters and lines had become ingrained in the minds of all Americans. George Lucas made a zillion dollars and created his special effects "ranch", which is responsible for many incredible movie scenes and video games. All in all, Lucas has done more good than harm, but he still has some significant failures.
Returning to the generation divide, I maintain that one of the most significant aspects of Gen X is that they saw Star Wars: A New Hope in the theater between '77 and '79. They must actually remember this event, so they would need to be born no later than 1974.
The Millennial Generation is largely characterized by their inundation into technology. They do not remember a time before computers, internet, and cell phones. I could pontificate for hours on the potential impact of this, but for now, how does one define the beginning of the Millennial Generation? Well, I wrote my first research paper in 1992. I was 10. This required a library, a card catalog, and knowledge of the Dewey decimal system.
The internet was a futurist technology which could be five years away or it could just as easily be fifty years away. I remember how clever computer scientists on TV would try so hard to describe what the internet could be. In retrospect, it is laughable to imagine a computer scientist trying to appeal to Joe the Plumber, for lack of a better term. All they could say was, you could do your taxes efficiently, and send "electronic mail messages" to other equally-equipped and knowledgeable people. How is this better than a telephone and a fax machine? Why on earth do I need to learn how to type if that is 90% of my secretaries job? Even when they tried to describe what we now know as "wikipedia", it begs the question of who is going to curate this? How on earth do you ever trust anything on the internet? In retrospect, all they would have to say is "You get every song ever recorded and more pornography than you can fathom." We would have had nationwide wifi by the year 2000.
I do not know when internet research reached the acceptance tipping point, but I would guess it happened around 1998. My sister, a Luddite at heart, had been given an Email address from her University, and she actually used it. She came home, plugged the computer into the telephone jack, signed into AOL, opened up some sort of BBS browser, and logged into her email address, which was something akin to LWANDE1238613409713604 or other such nonsense. By 1998, craftier members of The Greatest Generation were actually getting online.
Now, the most important defining moment of the millennial generation is, unfortunately, fucking September 11th. Here again, I could talk for hours on this subject, but as it pertains to the generation divide, Millennials were unable to comprehend the significance of 9/11 at the time. I would estimate that you must be at least eight years old to have any idea of what the state of geopolitics were in 2001. Eight year olds might have also experienced the heady days of pre-9/11 air travel in America.
Taking all this into account, I say that the Millennial generation began in 1994. The internet was born in roughly the same environment. Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, and Internet Culture was barely out of its infancy. For the Star Wars fans from Generation X, the stage was set for the greatest disappointment in film since the invention of the camera. People of my intermediary generation had a similar reaction; however Star Wars was not 'discovered' by us. The new Millenial Generation had the prequels thrust upon them. They never got the opportunity to 'discover' Star Wars. After the dust settled, it was clear that the prequels were not made for Generation X, or anyone over age 10. The movies were heartbreaking, but the worst insult of all came when some Millenials claimed they liked the prequels better than the originals.
Star Wars is clearly a touchstone for popular culture, and it carries a greater significance than any other single fictional 'universe'. The anticipation and hope surrounding the prequels, and their subsequent awfulness was heartbreaking in a completely new way.
I cannot claim to have any original insight into why the prequels were such a failure. What follows is simply a list of the worst offenses as I see them.
There are a number of characters who are poorly written. I hesitate to simply blame the acting outright. Actors need good direction, and these movies were made using a number of new digital effects. These actors had to deliver terrible lines while surrounded by green screens and lights. Unfortunately, the problems did not stop there.
There were zero children in the Original Trilogy, and the Lucas still managed to reinvent the idea of merchandising to children. For whatever reason, this fact was overlooked, and Lucas decided it was a good idea to have a precocious ten year old kid play a main character in the first prequel. The motivation seems obvious - you want to pander to kids, better include some kids in the movie. This could not be more misguided, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Natalie Portman was 18 when this movie was made, so she barely qualifies as a child actor. Regardless, her character is meant to be 14 in The Phantom Menace. This character could have been made more mature, and in a sense that is what Lucas tried to do. At the same time, he was motivated find someone who looked young. Natalie Portman, while being very talented yadda yadda yadda, was just not good. She does not portray any strength or confidence, but rather weakness and vulnerability. She plays a terrific frail ballerina, not a powerful child-queen of a planet. Like most characters, her lines are flat and on-the-nose statements about obvious conditions.
As far as plot points are concerned, Natalie Portman's fame basically derails one of the major 'reveal' moments of The Phantom Menace: that Queen Amidala is actually a body double, and Padme is the real queen. When Natalie Portman reveals herself to the Gungan King, it is hard to imagine anyone who would actually not already realize this.
The strangest aspect of little Padme is in her budding relationship with Anakin. We all accept that one of the main plot points of the entire Prequel trilogy is how Anakin eventually fathers twins with Padme. Everyone knows this will happen, and we do not need to waste so much time stating the obvious. In general, Lucas needs to think "show don't tell". He has characters literally say what ought to be conveyed in the most simple of subtext. This is a fundamental of drama, but beyond that - the audience literally already knows what the subtext will be. It is insane how the story is told, taking this into account. In the Phantom Menace, we see the 14 year old Padme become acquainted with her future love interest when he is 10 years old. This is an awkward arrangement, and I do not know how Lucas arrived at this decision. Anakin is on the cusp of puberty and Padme is one of the hottest female actors working. Not to be too lewd, but despite how this is a kids movie these two characters will eventually have sex. Their first interaction ought to set the stage for this relationship at least. The correct way to do this would be to have Padme and Anakin be the same age. I can imagine how the story could easily be rewritten to have Padme be younger, or Anakin be older without changing much of anything overall. All things being equal, it would be better to have Anakin be a teenager in The Phantom Menace, simply to remove more child actors, but more on that later. Teenager Padme and 10 year old Anakin is weird. Their relationship seems more like siblings. It is strange that Padme ever accepts Anakin as a lover, having this as a fundamental of their relationship.
Boba Fett does not show up until the second prequel. In the original trilogy he barely has any lines, and yet his costume and attitude were more than enough to make him a fan favorite. Before the prequels were released, it was known that Boba Fett had something to do with the creation of the clone army. This was tantalizing. Perhaps we would see him actually do something other than stand in the shadows menacingly.
Looking back on the period between the release of the Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, opinions still varied widely about the state of Star Wars. The Phantom Menace had been a tremendous disappointment, and yet many fans defended it. Most agreed that Episode 1 was not good, but perhaps Lucas just needed one movie to set up all the politics, and show Darth Vader as a child. Episode 2 would likely be much better now that Anakin is a teenager and the setting has been established.
In many ways Attack of the Clones was far worse than Phantom Menace. Episode 1 was a tragic failure, but Lucas's fame permitted one mulligan. Perhaps Lucas just needed to shake it off, and focus on making a good movie? Episode 2 was unforgivable. Moviegoers were prepared to forgive and forget Episode 1 if Attack of the Clones was remotely good, but alas it was not.
Episode 2 has hundreds of problems, but to some the most painful of all was the inclusion of another child actor as the beloved Boba Fett. The main selling points of episode 2 were that there would be no more child-Anakin, and that Boba Fett would be in the movie. These things were technically correct, although Lucas decided to completely miss the point again by casting an 8 year old to play Boba Fett.