Note: this is the second part in a two-part overview of the Star Wars series in anticipation of The Force Awakens. In part I, I covered the original trilogy. Here I will be covering the Prequels.
If you wade through the movie-oriented parts of the Internet long enough; you walk away with an inescapable conclusion that few movies get as much flack as the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. And I totally understand why: overall, they’re very disappointing in comparison to the films that preceded them (or proceeded chronologically, however you want to view it). It’s especially frustrating given that these were written and directed by George Lucas himself, with no studio executives telling him what to make and nearly unlimited access to any and all late 90s and early 2000s movie technology to realize whatever he wanted on the screen. He could do whatever he wished to do; he could tell whatever story he wanted tell.
But alas, what he gave us didn’t live up to our (admittedly lofty) expectations. Still, these movies aren’t entirely unappreciable, so I’ll divide this analysis up by first discussing the disappointing parts and then ending with the good parts (yes there are good parts here).
The Disappointing Parts
***Note: What follows could be seen as a rant. My apologies if the caliber of writing is not up to my usual standards.
The specific shortcomings of these films have been well documented over the last decade-and-a-half. The main criticism is that the story told in the prequels is quite mediocre, having neither the excitement nor the charm of the originals; and that it alternates between two unfavorable extremes: 1) relying too much on fan service or 2) introducing elements that undermine valued aspects from the original films. Acting as a force multiplier (no pun intended) is the presence of some laughably bad dialogue, delivered by actors of questionable casting; as well as an over abundance of CGI from an era whose CGI has not aged especially well.
Part of the fun of the original Star Wars trilogy was how mythic it was. This was good vs. evil; rogues against an empire; knights and princesses and emperors and monsters and fantastic realms. It was the stuff that has made stories work for thousands of years; with Star Wars acting as a modern archetype for it.
Perhaps we were wrong to expect the same thing when we went to see The Phantom Menace for the first time. As some critics have already noted, it was somewhat shocking to read the opening crawl of Menace only to see discussion of taxations and trade federations, a far cry from anything that could be considered mythic. It probably should have been apparent from that point on that Lucas was aiming for something much different with these films. In telling the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, how the Galactic Republic fell to the Galactic Empire, and the rise of the Sith over the Jedi; Lucas was trying for a more complicated narrative; one that would be more intricate and nuanced than the originals, while also still attempting to deliver on the entertainment value. In principle there’s nothing wrong with this approach; in a sense it’s quite ambitious. It’s the execution that’s problematic.
In trying to be more complex, large chunks of the prequels, especially The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, come across as lethargic. There are many instances of people sitting around and talking about some ostensibly pressing issue for long stretches of time, particularly during the underwhelming Jedi council scenes. I understand that what they’re discussing is important to the overall plot; but it feels boring much of the time; especially in comparison to the original trilogy, which found more fluid ways of getting its story across.
There’s also a real problem with the overall flow in these movies. Many moments function more as gratuitous ways to extend the running time than they do to contribute to the main narrative–the giant sea monster sequence in The Phantom Menace, the odd diner scene in Attack of the Clones, and anything involving Jar Jar Binks come to mind. It’s very distracting; and it makes it easy to lose track of the story, like what exactly the Trade Federation Viceroy’s role in The Phantom Menace is, for example (I still have to look that up sometimes to remember it).
I realize that an important aspect and major selling point of the prequels was to see where all the characters and story elements from the original trilogy came from. That’s why you would want to see these films. But somehow knowing where the story is going to end up hurts more than it helps when watching these movies. When we are aware that, for instance, storm troopers will be appearing in the later films, it’s hard not to grow a little impatient sitting through scenes upon scenes showing all the specific reasons why and how storm troopers are created. Another unfortunate side effect is that it makes many of the victories from our heroes seem very hollow. So what if the Gungans defeated the droids on Naboo, or all of those Jedi came to rescue Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padmé on Geonosis? We know it’s not going to matter in the end.
The fan service presented in the prequels also gets a little carried away. It turns out C-3PO was built by Anakin Skywalker; and all storm troopers are clones of Jango Fett, Boba Fett’s father. Also, Chewbacca evidently led a Wookie alliance against a droid attack in Revenge of the Sith. Some of these are novel, but after a while it just comes off as a hokey wink to the audience. Unfortunately, there are no references to Han Solo; which only makes me mourn his absence in these movies that much more. Somehow I think his cocky, wise-cracking attitude would have made all of this easier to digest.
Probably the worst aspect of these movies, though, are the small plot points that really undercut meaningful parts of the original series. There are several of these scattered throughout, but the primary culprit in this case is the concept of midi-chlorians. You see, in the original trilogy, one’s mastery of the Force was entirely a spiritual matter. It was about training and coming to believe in its power for yourself. Anyone, in theory, could become a Jedi master if they had the faith and will power. But with midi-chlorians, however, it turns out that your ability to use the Force is now linked to how many strange micro-organisms there are living in your blood. Now, your mastery of the Force is something you’re born with, not something you can just learn; and that detracts considerably from the core mythology of these films in (what I hope are) obvious ways.
To go off on a tangent, I once had a conversation about midi-chlorians with a friend of mine, Indiana-based filmmaker James Treakle, and he offered an intriguing interpretation one could make about midi-chlorians in relationship to George Lucas. If we view Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker as avatars of their creator at different stages in his life; we come to interesting conclusions about how Lucas’s view of himself has changed. We can interpret Luke Skywalker as a young George Lucas, a man at the start of his journey, having to master a discipline, be it Filmmaking or the Force, through hard work and guidance from the masters. He wasn’t guaranteed anything unless he really put for the effort. On the other hand, Anakin, with his high midi-chlorian count, is old Lucas, seeing his abilities as innate. He was always an abled filmmaker; and that skill was always going to come out in time. It’s an interesting take, to be sure; not one that puts Lucas in the best of light.
In general, the dialogue in the prequels is no better or worse than what you get in typical science fiction blockbusters; but there are key instances in these movies when it’s quite notably bad; and that undermines the storytelling even further.
A lot of the time this has to do with Anakin Skywalker, which is an issue considering that he is the focus of this saga. Jake Lloyd as young Anakin hadn’t quite figured out how to properly sell emotion on screen yet, and most of what he says in The Phantom Menace comes off as unenthused and forced (again, no pun intended). But Lloyd was a kid when he worked on that film, so I’ll let it go to a degree.
Then there’s Hayden Christensen as older Anakin, who again, is underwhelming, but it’s less forgivable this time around. Many of his more prominent lines, intended to hold cinematic weight, fall flat instead. His “You Underestimate My Power” bit from the fight at the end of Revenge of the Sith is one such example, or his lines after he’s murdered the sand people who killed his mother (“I killed them. I killed them all….I HATE THEM!”). These are big moments, but the delivery feels off. I’m wondering whether or not Lucas cast Christensen more for looks than ability, as Christensen does sell a certain appreciable anger in his eyes that you would expect from the future Darth Vader; he just doesn’t do the same with his words.
Of course, the crown jewel of bad dialogue in these movies takes place through the love story between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. The idea of romance in these films is perfectly fine (see the Empire Strikes Back); but the lines being spoken are just awkward and wonky and oh so stock in nature. Ironically, this is actually an instance in these prequels of Lucas again going for something archetypal and mythic–an old school forbidden romance–but it just isn’t as convincing or well implemented this time around. Below is an example that more or less speaks for itself:
Anakin: You are so… beautiful.
Padme: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.
What’s interesting is that Natalie Portman (generally a good actress) as Padmé isn’t much better than Christensen, which makes believe that the issue with dialogue is more one of writing than the performances, and the more I think about that, the more sense that makes; even some of Yoda’s (arguably the most quotable Star Wars character) lines are sillier in the prequels than they probably ought to be, and I don’t think we can blame that on Frank Oz. So maybe Christensen shouldn’t get such a bad rap. Maybe it all goes back to Lucas.
The last big, criticizable thing in these movies is the amount of CGI and the way its used. Now, obviously, in telling a huge space story like this at the dawn of the 21st century, it only made sense for Lucas to use what was available to him to get what he wanted on screen. But it’s laid on so thickly at times that it just seems synthetic. Legions of computer generated armies fighting each other look more cartoonish than they ought to. The CGI-version of Yoda simply doesn’t have the presence to him that the puppet-version did; and seeing him hop around unconvincingly in his light saber fights is a little too ridiculous for its own good (even if it is cool to finally see him show off more of his powers). There are countless other instances throughout the prequels of effects that used to be done practically now being done with computers; and the result is that, over two decades after the originals, none of what we see here seems as tangible or as real as what we got then. At least some of this stuff could have been pulled off with old-school techniques, and the film probably would have been better for it.
I don’t want to sound like I’m blindly hopping on the anti-CGI bandwagon that has surfaced among film-enthusiasts in recent years. I’m aware that good films can have a lot of it; that there are bad films that use all practical effects; and movies are better off with access to this technology than they are without it. But here, there’s just so much of it, and it gives these films such an artificial feel that it undermines some of the heart that these movies ought to have. Exacerbating the issue is that, unfortunately, the CGI of this era hasn’t even aged all that well; so seeing it nowadays makes it look very poor compared to what we have currently; and it serves to date what ought to be timeless pictures to the very specific moments in which they were made. It compounds the story problems that are at the real center of the flaws with these movies.
The Good Parts
I realize I just criticized the prequels quite a bit in the preceding section; but there’s a reason I labeled that section disappointing, rather than bad. While I share the general sentiment that these films don’t live up to the originals (the worst film of the original trilogy is better than the best film of the prequel trilogy), I actually don’t hate these movies the way some do. I don’t even really think they’re especially awful by the standards of what we usually see in cinema. And since it’s still sort of rare to discuss what’s good in these pictures; let’s talk about what I think is done alright in them.
While some of the actors are questionable in their roles, I do want to highlight that there are good actors doing good work here. I don’t think Ewan McGregor, as Obi-Wan Kenobi in all three films, gets nearly enough credit for his work. It wasn’t easy to follow in the footsteps of Alec Guiness, but McGregor finds the right notes as someone who is slightly more naive but just as principled as the wise mentor we would come to know. From my point of view, he’s essentially carrying these movies by himself a good deal of the time, and it’s actually fairly entertaining to watch him do what he does in them; particularly the detective work he performs in Attack of the Clones.
The same goes for Liam Neeson, who is pretty stellar as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. He is wise and daring and a little unconventional; and he actually makes for an interesting and admirable character. Neeson really sells the role and brings a surprising amount of physicality to it for a then-46-year old man. It’s a shame he is only in it for that movie, but that’s what happens when your character gets stabbed with a light saber.
While I’m on it, I also really enjoyed Christopher Lee as Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, both because he’s giving a delightfully corny performance, and how it adds to the massive in-joke of Hammer horror actors appearing in Star Wars films*. Samuel Jackson’s Mace Windu (awesome name) is another bright casting decision in the prequels; his no-nonsense attitude is amusing, as is his purple lightsaber.
While I did criticize the narrative as being dull at times; it’s not like these movies aren’t fun in parts as well. The pod racing in The Phantom Menace is engaging and was certainly something new to be seen in the Star Wars universe (it also inspired a fun video game). The lightsaber battle at the end is also pretty epic, both for Darth Maul’s double lightsaber as well as the “Duel of the Fates” music that really adds thematic weight to the scene.
Nothing is quite that impressive in Attack of the Clones and this is the one that bears the brunt of my CGI critiques; but the battles are at least engaging. You aren’t bored while watching its light saber and blaster fights. Plus, the gladiator style challenges the Jedi must partake in amongst the enormous beasts on Geonosis are admittedly interesting. The creatures at least look cool.
Then there’s The Revenge of the Sith, which is actually quite entertaining throughout. The opening space battle is certainly fun; the fight between Yoda and the Emperor is good despite all the CGI; and the ending lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is, all things considered, fairly well done. Apart from some aforementioned awkward dialogue, it’s a moment that has real emotional significance, it’s exhilarating, and it gives McGregor another great moment as Obi-Wan in the form of the speech of lost hope he gives to Anakin after he has defeated him. It’s a legitimately powerful, great scene.
Which brings me to my last point: yes, The Revenge of the Sith is actually fairly good. Disparate threads in the earlier movies come together alright in this one, the feeling of loss in the film’s narrative is appropriate; most of the characters get moments to shine; and despite some instances of bad dialogue, some of it, like that Obi-Wan speech or the Emperor’s “Darth Plagueis” story, is really impressive. Most importantly, the ending succeeds in finally getting all the pieces in place for the original trilogy to play out; in terms of setting and mood, it is appropriately nostalgic; and so it is one of the few bits of fan service in these movies that really works the way it needs to. So at the very least, the prequel series ends alright. No, it’s not up to the standards of the original series; but the conclusion is quite satisfactory. I can honestly say that I enjoyed how it ended.
In conclusion, the prequels do deserve a lot of the flack they get; but they also aren’t the worst movies ever. And in the interest of being fair; I do encourage finding and acknowledging the aspects of these movies that should be appreciated, if only to counteract the two-dimensional thinking and false dichotomies that sometimes spring up on the Internet, as well as to encourage a more nuanced approach to film criticism.
And now this brings us to the release of The Force Awakens tonight. We’ll have to wait just a little longer to see whether or not it will be better/worse than the prequels and/or up to the standards of the original trilogy. The response seems positive thus far; so it looks like it’ll do the series justice. But even if doesn’t, the cinematic legacy of Star Wars is already firmly cemented; we’ll love the original films no matter what, and nothing The Force Awakens does could possibly detract from that, although I’m hoping it adds considerably to it. I guess we’ll know soon enough. And again, these are all just movies** at the end of the day.
*Hammer actors David Prouse and Peter Cushing also appeared in Star Wars films. Cushing played Grand Moff Tarkin in A New Hope, while Prouse was the original physical actor for Darth Vader.
**Aren’t they all?