As Dec. 18 draws near for the seventh installment of the “Star Wars” saga, and my plans on binging the whole series (Episodes I-VI) are being figured out (I’ll probably make it a two-day adventure), I am left thinking about the second trilogy of the series. The prequels. The controversial installment of George Lucas’ scifi legacy that has divided a once strong, unified fanbase. Films that have been tore down with vitriolic anger (sometimes even by me) and defended just as vigorously.
It seems that in the decade-plus since “Revenge of the Sith” was released, there still burns a fire of angry debate among “Star Wars” fans — were the prequels good? Or did Lucas jump the shark — a shark made 100 percent from CGI only to be tinkered with again every other year?
There are some who defend these films to such an extent that they argue the prequels are better than the original trilogy. These people are obviously sick in the head, because that’s just insane. But they do make some good arguments. The prequels were not as bad as people make them out to be — for the most part. In fact, they are quite enjoyable.
The Phantom Menace
Let us get the weakest link of the franchise out of the way. I think the only real clunker of the prequels was the first — “The Phantom Menace.” I can argue all day about this, but let’s just say the issue with this film was that there was not really much of a story, nor a main character. We have a villain, but no clear protagonist to root for. It’s like a film full of side characters. That alone makes this a hot mess of garbage. But that is not all.
We have Jar Jar Binks. People often use “these are kids films” as a justification for this abomination of a character. “Star Wars” is aimed at all ages. The adult themes of the original trilogy gave those films the gravitas to stand the test of time. There was no excuse for such an annoying character to be in these films. But it seems like Lucas surrounded himself with a bunch of “yes people” who agreed with every horrible idea that popped into his head. Also, he was kind of a racist character to boot.
But even ridding the film of Jar Jar wouldn’t have saved it. Again, there is not much of a good narrative, it is just a bunch of people in scenes. I see what Lucas was trying to do in introducing us to these younger versions of well-known characters, but if he spent more time making it a better constructed story, it might have fared better. But since everything seemed to have gotten muddled, it makes for a rambling, uneven film.
Also explaining the Force via Midi-chlorians took out a lot of wonder and imagination from what we understood it to be in the original trilogy. This, too, was a bad idea. Nobody asked for this to be explained.
Not that it is totally bad. For all its faults, the pod race scene was great. Darth Maul was a cool character (killing him off right away irked me though). The fight scenes were good and the costumes were also cool. I saw this in the theater after people had already told me how terrible this film was. So, going in with horrible expectations, I found myself actually enjoying it more than I thought. But let’s call a spade a spade: This is not a good movie.
Attack of the Clones
This one seems to get more hate than it deserves. I think that comes from the fact people were going in jaded from “Phantom Menace.” They were already in a bad mood, and the awkward romance between Anakin and Padmé Amidala was both poorly written and poorly acted. But to me, the rest of the film was not only fun, but fixed some of the issues of “Phantom Menace” — most notable we now have a protagonist to follow in Anakin.
What I enjoy about this film was it set up more of the plot that leads Anakin down the road to becoming Darth Vader (again, something that should have been a bigger part of the first film). He takes revenge for his mother’s murder on Tatooine. We have Obi-Wan discovering what will become the clones that we heard about for the Clone Wars. In all honesty, this should have been Episode I, with some flashbacks from “Phantom Menace” sprinkled through for context. And Episode II should have been between this and “Revenge of the Sith.” We also get some context as to the origin of Boba Fett.
So we actually have a story moving forward. This was needed after the meandering “Phantom Menace” fiasco. Not only moving forward, but making it interesting. We finally are seeing things referred to in the original trilogy, which creates a connection with the viewer.
Cut out some of the CNN In Space moments, beef up on Anakin’s journey and the clones, it might have fared a bit better than it did. Again, this was an enjoyable “Star Wars” film, and my complaints are minimal compared to “Phantom Menace.” Also, seeing Yoda in combat was ridiculously fun. And scaling back on the use of Jar Jar made the character at least more tolerable.
Revenge of the Sith
I enjoyed this greatly. It was the “Star Wars” film I had been waiting for since “Return of the Jedi.” It paces much better than the two before it and gets down to what made everyone excited about the prequels in the first place — how Anakin becomes Darth Vader. Something that should have been set in motion much sooner than this.
This was also a fun “Star Wars” film to watch in the theater. For all of the things Lucas screwed up with these prequels, he certainly made this one well. I may even put it above “Return of the Jedi” if I were to rate these films from best to worst. While some of the acting remains wooden, it drives the plot home — Anakin is not the hero the Jedi was hoping for (that would be Luke, his son). He was, in fact, one of the worst things to happen to the Jedi.
We find out how Leia and Luke were separated at birth (for protection from their father, though throwing Luke on Anakin’s home planet was odd, even odder was Leia was thrown into royalty — a position that would more or less make her well within Vader’s radar). Seeing why Yoda was forced into hiding, as well as Obi-Wan, explained a lot from the original trilogy that we actually wanted to know. We also got to see an army of Wookies, which was really fun. We also see the rise of the Empire, which was interesting to see how that came about (again, we didn’t need all the CNN in Space moments throughout the trilogy).
It was a satisfying film that answered a lot of questions fans have been wondering about for a long time.
Hating on the prequels is easy. Lucas had the unfortunate position of trying to quench the thirst of fans who were expecting a scifi equivalent of “The Godfather.” He did drop the ball right away with “Phantom Menace.” But beyond that, the prequels have their place in the saga. We saw the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker (his redemption comes in “Return of the Jedi”) and how the galaxy became what it was in “A New Hope” and beyond.
There was no way Lucas was going to appease the expectations people had in the 20 year gap between the original trilogy and the new one. But he should have had more people around to help massage his scripts (this happened for “A New Hope” because apparently the script was a mess). But hindsight always offers a clearer vision, now doesn’t it.
Be that as it may, Lucas is an incredible ideas man, and he had a very cool vision of “Star Wars.” He just wasn’t the best guy to write it into a script. Maybe not the right guy to direct it, but damn he had a great vision. And he did make two pretty good prequel movies.
Even the original trilogy has its faults, and the acting isn’t all that great either (I’d argue Harrison Ford was one of the main reason the original trilogy was so good. His Han Solo brought swagger to an otherwise stale character on paper). These films, all six of them, are not perfect. But at least five of them are fun to watch and two of them (“A New Hope” and “Empire Strikes Back”) are great films.
I do think the prequels get a lot more hate than they deserve. I think as time moves on, and people can go back to them with less jaded eyes, they will find that the prequels were really quite enjoyable. I still find the original trilogy more satisfying to sit down and watch, but my distaste for the prequels have waned over the years.
So no, the prequel films are definitely not that bad at all. Maybe give them another chance without the unrealistic expectations you may have had going in the first time. Perhaps you might find them more enjoyable this time around.
Anyway, since I love Patton Oswalt, “Star Wars” and “Parks and Recreation,” here are all three combined: