Revisiting Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy
I’m really, really excited for the new Star Wars movie. If you added up the time I’ve spent watching Star Wars movies in my life, it’s probably in the days. That’s not to mention the time spent playing with toys, writing about Star Wars, playing video games and standing in line for the Star Wars rides at Disneyland. And every once in a while, I need to add some more time to that counter. In anticipation of “The Last Jedi,” I’m going back and re-watching ALL the Star Wars movies. In order. Yes, starting with the prequels trilogy.
What surprised me is that my impressions of the Star Wars movies had changed in recent years. I’m not just being contrarian for the sake of it; I genuinely have new insights as I revisit the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I hope you’ll humor me by following along… and then blow up me (and PorchDrinking) on Twitter to say how wrong I am. #MTFBWY
EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE
Okay, the plot as introduced by the opening crawl is absurd. I don’t care about trade routes being in dispute – and I certainly didn’t care when I was 9 years old. I think “Phantom Menace” was probably the first time in my life I’d heard the word “blockade” – so imagine how little I cared about the legality of such a thing. I was never into Star Wars for the politics.
I think the single coolest thing about “Phantom Menace” is how amazing it was to see the Jedi at their peak. Until seeing this movie, the only representation of Jedi I’d seen were an elderly man, and then a young newbie who only ever dueled against another elderly man.
So seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn together is a real treat. Not so much the Jedi Council scenes where the elders wax philosophic, but the chemistry between teacher and student. It’s a shame we never got more Liam Neeson in Star Wars after this; I liked his character.
Oh, that third-act duel with Darth Maul. Damn, that was cool. The original trilogy had lightsaber battles that ranged from stiff to theatrical. But this one is acrobatic. And heartbreaking. And intense.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think it’s time to stop beating up on Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar, man… I can’t defend him, and I don’t like him. But holy cow, there’s some serious Nickelback Syndrome here. Jar Jar Binks is a dumb character. Deliberately so, and to excess. But Star Wars fans seem to either mercilessly mock him and treat him as the worst thing in all of Star Wars-dom, or else somewhat-jokingly insist he was the evil mastermind behind a Sith conspiracy. I can’t get into either camp. He was a misstep by George Lucas – like this lady.
I also am a defender of the Pod Race scene. It’s a bit of a non sequitur, but it’s also one of my favorite chase scenes in any movie. The CGI holds up nearly 20 years later, and winning the race is one of the least annoying things Anakin does in any of the prequels. I think the reason a lot of people hate on the pod race scene is because it doesn’t really fit the “feeling” of the original trilogy. And even though I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the pod race, I think that’s a fair complaint. And it brings me to my last big take-away…
The production design and cinematography of “Phantom Menace” are great. They don’t exactly fit in, but they’re well-executed. Queen Amidala’s get-up is one of the most iconic costumes in any Star Wars movie. Naboo looks gorgeous. And some of these shots are really impressive. They don’t look quite like the world of the 1977 Star Wars movie, though. “Rogue One,” for example, matches the gritty 70s look of George Lucas’s original better than Lucas himself could in the prequels. Everything in “Phantom Menace” is just a bit too glossy, just a bit too Y2K-era, just a bit too clean. I’d be fine with the sets looking a bit more rinky-dink; the blue-screen sets are done well, but I’m not quite sure they were necessary.
EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
If re-watching “Phantom Menace” made me appreciate it more, watching “Attack of the Clones” again had the opposite effect. Gosh, there’s just not much to love here. And I used to like it!
There are the obvious and well-documented issues: the dialogue is awful. Just terrible. Hayden Christensen gets more hate than he deserves, but his romantic scenes with Natalie Portman are cringey and boring.
His simmering anger over his mother’s plight feels less “Vader” and more “emo.” And when he delivers his monologue about slaughtering Tusken Raiders… it’s straight out of a soap opera.
Again the CGI is overwhelming. Did you know that not a single piece of clone armor was ever made for this movie? Every single clone is made in a computer. There’s a nice action sequence between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett which would really work if it wasn’t just an excuse to reward Boba Fett’s inexplicable popularity among some fans. And the entire third act takes place on a blue screen set. And Geonosis isn’t even as pleasant to look at as Naboo or some of the other planets – it’s ugly, monochromatic, and uninteresting.
What a waste, too. Ewan McGregor is so great (he really starts to channel the coy but wise spirit Alex Guiness brought to the character), but he spends most of his time doing old-school noir detective work with a series of CGI aliens.
This was supposed to be a movie about Anakin’s descent to the dark side, but it’s not as compelling as it should be. He sort of seems like he’s just a talented and troubled young man with romance problems and a bone to pick with his best friend. Oh, my god… Anakin Skywalker is Johnny from The Room in this movie!
I think maybe as a kid I liked “Attack of the Clones” because it was better in many ways than “Phantom Menace” – less Jar Jar, more Ewan McGregor, and a Yoda who doesn’t look like a crackhead! I also might have liked it because the video game that came out along with the movie, “Jedi Starfighter,” was one of my favorites on PS2. But re-watching this movie, there’s so much melodrama and talk about Senate votes, I think the spirit of Star Wars is even less present than in “Phantom Menace.”
EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH
Well, at this point I think I just need to be resigned to the fact that the Star Wars prequels had really bad dialogue, and pretty crappy acting (except for Ewan McGregor). Calling “Revenge of the Sith” the best prequel movie is pretty faint praise; it’s still not as good as the originals (at least as I remember them… we’ll see if they hold up when I re-watch them). But at least we finally got a movie focused on what we wanted all along – an origin story for Darth Vader.
God, this movie’s a bummer. I can’t stand watching poor little Yoda crumble under the distress of feeling Jedi die around the galaxy. It’s legitimately evocative and profound watching characters we’ve come to love die. Seeing characters break ties and lose faith in the ones they love is the closest the prequels get to great acting. And as the tone of the movie gets progressively more hopeless, I found myself on this viewing thinking about how desperate those Rebels were in “Rogue One” and “New Hope” – the whole galaxy has really descended into darkness.
And damn, the Kenobi versus
Skywalker Vader fight delivers. Ewan McGregor is heartbroken. Since my last time watching “Revenge of the Sith,” I heard a bit of Star Wars trivia I’d never known. In one version of the movie, Anakin actually calls for help from Obi Wan as he burns. The dialogue is removed from the final cut, but in this version it’s Obi Wan’s refusal to help him that finally pushes Anakin over to the Dark Side*.
(*Bear in mind at this point he’d already slaughtered innocent children, so maybe that’s more of the point of no return, but filmmakers wanted the climax of the movie to be Kenobi versus Vader, so…)
Okay, okay, I said nice things. But there’s some dumb stuff that didn’t work for me this time through. I still hate the line, “You’re breaking my heart” – and I especially hate that the movie casually says that Padme legit dies of a broken effing heart. I used to enjoy General Grievous (for his really cool character design), but he didn’t work for me this time. His accent is goofy, his motives and personality are never really developed, and I can’t handle putting Ewan McGregor next to more damn CGI characters!
I also don’t love Palpatine this time around. Let me explain why.
- I used to be able to justify Palpatine’s quick killing of the Jedi in his office because it supposedly showed just how powerful he was. Now, it plays more like George Lucas trying to quickly cut ahead to the part where Samuel L Jackson gets a hero’s death.
- The prosthetic makeup… whoa, dude. I know they needed to make Palpatine look spookier once he got into full Evil Emperor mode… but it looks way goofier than he does in Return of the Jedi. There’s really not even a good in-universe explanation for why his fight with Mace Windu aged him like that.
- The battle with Yoda was kind of silly – all that flipping. And it’s the nature of a prequel: I’m not worried about the danger to characters who I know survive.
- I appreciate the shot of Tarkin, Palpatine, and Vader together checking out Construction of the Death Star. But Tarkin looks… off. And this is a weird way of setting up “Rogue One” – didn’t Tarkin take over the Death Star project, like, a decade later? Now in my headcanon, Galen Erso is somewhere on the ship in that last shot.
One more thing about Obi Wan. “Revenge of the Sith” makes me actually buy the lies that Obi Wan tells in the original trilogy. He never admits to having met R2-D2. He tells Luke that Anakin was killed by Vader (not that they’re on and the same). He says Anakin wanted Luke to have his lightsaber “when you were old enough.” That last lie has been mocked in memes. But I kind of see it as an older Obi Wan who can’t bring himself to relive the loss of his student and best friend. Have you ever met someone who’s so ashamed of something in their past that they get emotional at any vague mention of it? For the first time, I recognized the seeds of that being planted in “Revenge of the Sith” – Obi Wan feels he’s failed.
Thanks for reading one nerd’s opinion of the Prequel Trilogy. Stick with me as I get into the Original Trilogy. It’s time to revisit the birth of the Star Wars phenomenon!
All photos are property of Lucasfilm.