Over the past few months, we here at HeyUGuys have offered up a number of arguments in defense of underestimated filmmakers, their flawed films and the trends that haunt Hollywood even to this day. Never, however, has a property been more deserving of a rebuttal than George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy – an alleged travesty that has apparently robbed a generation of unforgiving fans of their precious childhood memories.
I’ve taken a decidedly different view of the latest additions to the Star Wars cinematic canon – whether as a result of the age at which I first viewed them (as a still-impressionable youngling) or the number of times I’ve since revisited them at the cinema or on DVD – one that is considerably more tolerant and more than happy to see them nestled before the original trilogy in my collection.
Convinced that it is nostalgia – and nostalgia alone – that has given the original trilogy its hallowed status among people of a certain age, it is my opinion that nothing was ever going to live up to the adventures of Luke Skywalker, his one-time love interest turned sister and their favourite scruffy-looking Nerf herder. Casting a critical eye over Episodes IV, V and VI, it quickly becomes clear that many of the criticisms leveled at the prequels are just as true of their predecessors – namely the clunky dialogue and juvenile
archetypes characters. Heck, it’s almost as though they’re supposed to be like Saturday morning adventure serials.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
From the opening moments of Phantom Menace we are back, panning through space as though nothing has changed – the same musical cues, sound effects and exemplary set design conspiring to invoke the same excitement and sense of adventure inherent in every instalment to date. Though the substantial plot may kick in before we get much of a sense of who Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi actually are, if you care to remember A New Hope was not that much different itself – with R2D2 and C3PO escaping their blockade runner before you could even tell your Jedi from your Jawas.
Even when Jar Jar Binks finally sticks his insufferable neck in, The Phantom Menace remains a lot of fun. Naboo is absolutely stunning, as is Coruscant, while Tatooine provides a nice lifeline to the original trilogy, fleshing out a culture that until now had been confined to one raucous bar and a overgrown slug’s boudoir. The droids are back too, with C3PO once again providing the pristine prissiness (a staple, if you ask me) and R2D2 intermittently saving the day, amid his usual beeps and whirls. These continuations of – and references to – the original trilogy come thick and fast rendering this indelibly Star Wars, and expertly retrofitting elements that will come into play later.
The film’s two biggest strengths, however, have always been Ray Park’s Darth Maul and John Williams’ gorgeous composition. Park boasts real menace as the colourful Sith, his physicality bringing an exciting new urgency and practiced skill to the lightsabre battles of old. The final battle in particular – intercut with two other skirmishes as in the unparalleled (and sadly still unmatched) last act of Return of the Jedi – really is a sight to behold as audiences finally get to see how qualified Jedi might fare in combat with one another. To the tune of Williams’ enthralling Duel of the Fates, it is an epic finale in every sense of the word.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is certainly no travesty, with Jake Lloyd proving surprisingly capable (he’s a child, he’s supposed to be annoying) in the role of Anakin Skywalker. Good humoured and an absolute boss when it comes to pod racing, he may have had a particularly brutal run in with the earnest stick but he is still suitably likeable and innocent enough to give his future arc all the more resonance. Natalie Portman too is a delight as the disapproving Padme, her overdressed queen standing out magnificently against the earthy simplicity of the original trilogy’s net wardrobe – a nice change that compliments the technological imporvements and superbly implemented CGI (say what you like about Binks, Sebulba is an absolute joy) beautifully.
With the occupation of Naboo put to an end and Darth Maul in pieces, Attack of the Clones picks up the story 10 years after the events of the previous movie. Although lambasted for its focus on Anakin’s sloppily portrayed relationship with Padme, that is not exactly all the film has to offer. Hayden Christensen’s take on the character is as petulant as it is wooden, a reality that is done few favours by Lucas’ patchy script and the fact that he is acting opposite such superior talents as Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson and a newly CGI’d Yoda; but – hear me out – if you go back and look at Top 10 lists nobody was ever that smitten with Luke either.
One of the most popular characters from the original trilogy – Boba Fett – makes a return (of sorts) alongside father(?) Jango Fett. Offsetting all the talk of Midi-chlorians and Padawan learners, the presence of a bounty hunter once again injects some real muscle and threat into a franchise which has become increasingly hung up on politics (though if you revisit A New Hope it quickly becomes clear just how deeply Lucas’ fascination with trade agreements really runs). On the oceanic planet Kamino, where the clone army is being manufactured, Obi Wan’s run in with Fett senior results in a truly memorable skirmish, but even taking into account the preceding asteroid field-set dog-fight you really haven’t seen anything yet.
The termite-esque inhabitants of Geonosis are an absolute revelation. Introducing three monstrous creatures to the colosseum holding our heroes, this brilliantly orchestrated action set-piece just keeps escalating. When the Jedi cavalry arrive and the clone army finally enters the fray, the audience is treated to the biggest land battle the franchise has ever seen – complete with faux realism and simulated camera tricks that were to simultaneously inform Joss Whedon’s work on Firefly. As Yoda trades in his walking stick for a giant can of whoop-ass, it is difficult to be entirely disappointed with our second slice of Star Wars in over sixteen years.
As if recognising his audience’s misgivings surrounding the relatively romantic (mis)focus of Episode II, Revenge of the Sith is quick in its reconciliation, opening with the most impressive space battle committed to screen to date – the action unrelenting for almost the entire first act. As the camera follows two Jedi starfighters into the heart of the Battle of Coruscant, it really is breath-taking to see such a large-scale battle unfolding within the atmosphere of the city planet. The next 20 minutes deliver wall-to-wall action as the ships crash land on a larger vessel, the holding area is secured and General Grievous’ ship is captured and ultimately run into the ground on the planet below. If this had been a Saturday morning adventure story in itself, it surely would have been considered the best ever.
From Coruscant we are whisked to Utapau for a final conflict with Grievous, then to Kashyyyk to recruit the Wookie race to the rebel cause, and, finally, to Mustafar for the climactic conflict between Obi Wan and Anakin: the newly appointed Darth Vader. A tragedy as deliriously heightened and overplayed (yes Ian McDiarmid, I’m looking at you) as any other, Revenge of the Sith is a delightfully grandiose conclusion, not only to the prequel trilogy, but to an arc that’s been in development for decades. The final confrontation is steeped in emotion as Yoda accepts his exile to the Degobah system, Obi Wan destroys his ex-apprentice and Padme dies in childbirth. The final scenes portraying R2D2 and C3PO aboard the Tantive IV, and Obi Wan and Luke on Tatooine, are quite simply poetic.
What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the prequel trilogy boasts the same epic battles, memorable characters, workmanlike dialogue, breathtaking set design and sweeping soundtracks characteristic of the Star Wars franchise. Each film is laced with that same sense of fun and adventure that made the original movies what they are today: incomparable slices of children’s science fiction entertainment that can be more – much more – to those who are willing to embrace it. George Lucas’ saga has grown exponentially over the past few years, and I for one have relished every moment of discovering what the full story was intended to look like – even if it didn’t always meet my own unreasonably exaggerated expectations.
So why not give Episodes I, II and III another chance? With your estimations no doubt firmly dashed after your first encounter with the prequel trilogy, you might just find yourself grossly underestimating three incredibly well made films following a first impression, one which – lets face it – was more than likely clouded in towering expectation. Worth it for Williams’ score alone, there is enough to impress and engage with across Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith to justify a place in your heart alongside A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (after all, did you really just want a rehash of the same three films?). Though you may fight it at first, there is no denying that The Force is strong with these ones, too.