“Real sets. Practical effects.” Those were the first words uttered in the Comic-Con trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
While this highlights the film’s “throwback” production techniques, it’s also a jab at George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that relied almost entirely on green-screen sets and CGI effects. Disney, J.J. Abrams and crew have made a point to separate the upcoming and subsequent Star Wars films from The Phantom Menace, The Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It’s the smart PR strategy that has — and will continue to — win back the fans of that galaxy far, far away.
With the prequels soon to be out-of-mind, I made a point to begin my rewatching of all six Star Wars films, beginning with the most recent. I purchased the saga on Blu-ray back in 2012 — the only way to get all the special features — as opposed to just the original trilogy and haven’t watched the prequels since I first bought the set. I recently purchased a new TV and thought now would be as good as any time to give them another look.
I have revisited all six movies on Blu-ray, DVD and VHS before but did so in the order of release. This is the first time I’m rewatching them in numerical order and while I haven’t started the originals yet, this was the closest I will ever come to being able to evaluate the prequels as their own trilogy, rather than an inferior part of a larger saga. This mentality allowed me to make some new discoveries about the films. Some aren’t as bad as we remember and each of them, even when they’re terrible, have redeeming qualities.
Episode I: The Phantom Menace
More than 16 years later, I’m still trying to figure out exactly why this movie is remembered in such a negative light. The Phantom Menace certainly didn’t live up to the standard set even by Return of the Jedi, the lesser of the original trilogy. It struggled by having multiple child actors in major roles with Jake Lloyd, eight years old, and Natalie Portman, 16. Jar Jar Binks is a groan-worthy hodgepodge of slapstick mixed with indigenous village idiot.
Despite these problems, I enjoyed The Phantom Menace when I was 11 and saw it opening weekend, still enjoyed it when I watched it the second time and then a little bit less when I saw it three times in a weekend at a second-run theater months later. Watching the movie again, though, it’s clear that this is the best of the prequels.
One of the largest points of contention with the film is that the political debates surrounding the Trade Federation’s illegal blockade had no place in a sci-fi adventure movie that’s “made for kids.” But there’s no doubt that the scenes present a contrast with the pod race and climactic lightsaber battle. Looking at it now, they really work despite Portman still having to act older than she is — which for this film, meant a deep, monotone voice. The highlight, though, is watching Ian McDiarmid play a “PG” Frances Underwood in convincing Queen Amidala and others to make room for his move to power. Granted, these scenes bored me back in the day but knowing Palpatine’s arc, they’re exciting today.
The real reason The Phantom Menace succeeds, in retrospect, is that it’s 100 percent a self-contained movie and gives little-to-no regard for the other films in the series. This doesn’t always pay off with the reveal of Midi-Chlorians, the absurd use of a “naked” C3PO and a terrible attempt to recreate the Yavin IV Death Star Battle. However, the film is stands on its own, with its only through line to the other movies being that we know some of these characters from previous (or subsequent) installments. The film’s final shot shows all of the characters in celebration with no focus on what’s to come. As we would soon find out, that might be for the better.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
While it’s popular to refer to the first prequel as “the worst,” that title belongs to its sequel. When Attack of the Clones released three years after The Phantom Menace, audiences were quick to grab on to anything that was an improvement over Episode I. Many point to improved performances from Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, the latter of whom found a way to incorporate his own charisma into a poorly written character. There’s the appearance of the Jedi council, which finally allows Samuel L. Jackson to be a badass — or at least as much as Lucas allowed — as Mace Windu.
Attack of the Clones struggles because it’s boring. Some of this comes from the fact that this was where Lucas fully embraced digital filmmaking. It was the first Star Wars film shot entirely with digital cameras. Maybe it was because I watched the film on Blu-ray but many of the scenes, particularly those with all-CGI characters, look like a cartoon.
This strips the film of any physicality like that Episode I‘s “Dual of the Fates” battle. Even the lightsaber battle between Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is riddled with CGI stunt doubles. Like everyone else, I ate up seeing Yoda with a lightsaber in 2002, but now it’s a laughable blur of green that doesn’t mean anything. The same can be said for the arena battle on Geonosis, the droid factory sequence and the asteroid field chase with Jango Fett.
Speaking of Mr. Fett, he is another reason why the prequel trilogy suffers. There is no effective villain to carry through the three films while Palpatine/Darth Sidious pulled the strings. Darth Maul suitably filled that role. Having Qui-Gon’s murderer survive in The Phantom Menace would have added stakes to the aforementioned fight.
The other major problem with Attack of the Clones is that it turns the series’ focus to being part of the larger trilogy, making references to the Death Star, the creation of the initial wave of Stormtroopers, Boba Fett’s origin and, of course, Anakin’s early dark side rumblings. The result is the worst film in the trilogy. Thankfully, the series picks up in the finale despite having many of the same problems.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Fans often remember the final chapter of Lucas’ prequel trilogy as the best and with good reason. Anakin finally turns to the dark side of the Force, allowing Christensen to act at his best emotion: anger.
But most fan positivity is directed toward the film’s final 40 minutes. The rest of it is mainly a continuation of the previous film’s bad habits. The opening space battle is a bore, as is the incorporation of General Grievous, whose origins reek of pressure to make a cool toy. There’s also laughably wooden dialogue that makes scenes pointless, including one where they argue about which one of them loves the other more.
The one difference, though, is Ian McDiarmid’s performance which picks up where he left off in The Phantom Menace after being almost non-existent in Clones. He brings back the character’s manipulative qualities that were so much fun to watch in Episode I. Before Palpatine becomes the cackling version of himself who repeats “Power” and “Gooood” ad nauseum, McDiarmid clearly had fun with the role in a way that few other actors in the film seemed to.
The trilogy also finally gained back its lightsaber battle mojo in the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar. It’s something fans knew was coming for a while and the scene lives up to expectations. Even the confrontation between Yoda and Palpatine holds up, despite its use of unrealistic choreography. While the fight might be using entirely CG stunt-doubles like in Clones, it actually carries dramatic weight, being the last ditch effort for the Jedi to save the Republic.
Finally, there’s the ending, which succeeds because it sets up for better films. But in truth, it works by giving our heroes hope despite losing the fight. This is one of the qualities that made The Empire Strikes Back the most popular choice for the saga’s best chapter, and the fact that the ending of Revenge of the Sith comes close makes it one of the prequel trilogy’s best sequences.
Due to their anachronistic production and release, as well as the order in which I saw them, it’s impossible for me to objectively judge George Lucas’ prequels without thinking about the original classics. However, it’s been refreshing to watch the second trilogy without immediately cleansing my pallet with the versions I love.
There’s no question that without the originals, these prequels aren’t very good and often tread into being quite poor. Watching them again without the sense of denial that came after my initial viewing allowed me to appreciate the moments where Lucas and crew succeeded. Even if those moments are few and far between. The prequel trilogy definitely lowered the bar for The Force Awakens, but hopefully Abrams knows his film actually has to jump higher than many think.