I actually don’t mind that George Lucas spruced up and modified the Star Wars prequel for the Blu-Ray releases. CGI dates poorly, after all, and the prequels are extremely reliant on it. On top of that, whereas the original trilogy was made at a time when the prospect of redoing the special effects at a later date was simply unthinkable, the prequel movies came out in the wake of the Special Editions.
Plus, of course, there’s the fact that the impact of the prequels was rather different to that of the original movies. The original Star Wars changed the direction of cinema and revolutionised the use of special effects; the prequel trilogy instead changed the direction of fandom, and not in an especially positive way. Cast members – and Lucas himself – have had to suffer enduring abuse for what the movies have wrought.
This is largely undeserved. Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd in no way deserve the abuse that’s been rained down on them for their roles as Jar Jar Binks or baby Anakin, for instance; it’s pretty evident from most behind-the-scenes featurettes and stories that George Lucas was wholly in control of the production process and was the final decision maker, so if the blame lies anywhere it’s with George.
At the same time, there comes a point where piling on George becomes tiresome in its own way. Sure, there’s aspects of the movies which are unconscionable and which he richly deserves to be called out for; the reliance of The Phantom Menace on a range of crude racial stereotypes as a means of providing cheap, lazy characterisation for alien species was abhorrent at the time, and only feels more and more dated and disturbing as time goes by. There’s really no debate needed on that – if you can’t see that the Trade Federation are based on thinly-veiled stereotypes about Japanese business culture, or that Watto draws on cartoonish antisemitism, I’m not sure what I can say at this stage to persuade you.
However, two of the three prequel movies are perfectly cromulent family entertainment – not excellent, often not even good, but functional at what they do. The remaining one is an utter mess, but still, overhyping how bad the prequels are does everyone a disservice: it lets the really unforgivable errors and mistakes off the hook whilst casting aside the redeemable bits.
The Phantom Menace
This is the movie which exposed George Lucas as a massive racist.
I mean, it just is. Ahmed Best has argued that he personally doesn’t consider Jar Jar to be a racial caricature, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Trade Federation’s whole characterisation draws on fears about Japanese corporate expansionism, right down to their accents. It also feels like there’s a slice of cultural appropriation going on in Amidala’s costume, which I think is meant to make us think of, say, the sort of ceremonial costume that Pu Yi, last Qing Emperor, was sometimes shown as wearing.
You can guess at the thought process behind this, and for that matter behind the 1920s-1930s art deco aesthetic that a lot of the prequels share: if you are depicting something analogous to the rise of fascism, it makes sense to have some aesthetic nods to the time period and it equally makes sense to throw in some events with parallels to the geopolitical events of the time. In this context, the Trade Federation’s shenanigans read like a riff on Japanese Imperial adventurism in China during the era.
That makes sense, but you can do that without putting on racist accents, and in particular you can do that without throwing in a character like Watto. If Watto is not intended as an antisemitic stereotype, it can only be because Lucas was so ignorant as to fail to realise that the “evil, greedy merchant” archetype he’s drawing on here is replete with antisemitic dogwhistles and implications. That level of ignorance might be understandable for someone working away alone on a novel in a cabin in the woods, but it’s astonishing in someone surrounded by a large team of collaborators, any one of whom could conceivably have spotted this issue. We can only kid ourselves that Lucas wasn’t aware of the implications if we assume either that a) nobody raised the problem or b) someone did, but Lucas didn’t believe them and overruled them. Neither alternative is attractive; if the support structure around you shields you from the racist implications of your own ignorance, that’s hardly much better than if you were being racist on purpose.
The Blu-Rays do nothing to alleviate this. However, the tuning-up of the CGI is very much merited. Recall Henson’s Law; though proposed in jest and not always true, the fact remains that, at least presently, the pace at which CGI improves vastly outpaces the pace of improvement of puppetry, model work, and other physical special effects techniques, with the result that it ends up looking dated much faster as we get more used to superior work. The clean-up is appreciated.
It’s too late, however, to tighten up the plot. The basic idea of depicting Palpatine playing both sides of a crisis in order to advance his political ends is sound in itself – problem is that the whole “trade dispute” thing feels too small fry to be worth all this sound and fury, though I can see why you would want something a bit less galaxy-shaking than the original movie so you could have a sense of building crisis until Palpatine seizes ultimate power. The Separatist struggle of subsequent movies is perfect in that sense, and it sort of makes sense that being sided against in a trade dispute would prompt the Federation to go Separatist – what would have been handy would have been if the Federation had declared independence from the Republic here in order to underscore that.
A good moment would have been right at the start of the film – have the two Jedi arrive expecting to talk trade, only to be faced with a declaration of independence. The attack on Naboo could then be presented as the Trade Federation attempting to assert its new sovereignty by taking action to resolve the dispute unilaterally. Really, the movie as it stands is almost there in this respect – it just needed another script pass by a competent script doctor like Carrie Fisher and more consideration of the intended arc of the later films.
An area in particular need of tuning up is Anakin himself, which since he’s the central character of this trilogy is a huge fucking problem. Jake Lloyd as Anakin is not great, but in child actor terms isn’t terrible. Where it goes wrong is in the interactions between him and Padme – he’s a little boy, she’s in her late teens, it just feels weird for them to have the sort of hint-of-a-spark interactions they have here. It gets even weirder when the kid’s facing down local pod racing asshole Sebulba – the lines he’s given are more reminiscent of a teenage James Dean joyrider type than a small child. Apparently, earlier on it was intended that Anakin would be 12 during this movie, not 9, but they made him younger to make his separation from Shmi that much more heartbreaking.
(It’s a shame that, whilst they were polishing that aspect of the plot, they didn’t come up with any reason why Shmi wasn’t freed by one of the heroes after the end of the movie and had to wait for Lars to show up and emancipate her. Sure, it makes sense that Obi-Wan doesn’t do it – the Jedi Council wouldn’t appreciate having that potential attachment free and wandering around and trying to see Anakin, and that could be a good way to hype up the fact that they’ve lost their way and have become so terrified of emotion that they render themselves entirely incapable of handling it sensibly. But Padme is a Queen who just won her world back; you’re telling me she couldn’t afford to send a little delegation to Tatooine to buy Shmi her freedom? Given how much she hangs out with Shmi during the movie it’s weird that she never thought to do this.)
It’s quite evident that they made this change without considering the knock-on effects it has on so many other aspects both of this movie and the overall arc of the prequels. So much that doesn’t work here would work so much better if Anakin were in his early-to-mid-teens at this point – then he wouldn’t seem so weirdly precocious, the fact that he’s allowed to enter pod races at all makes at least slightly more sense, and the interactions between him and Padme would work better as a prelude to what comes next. (Age gap relationships are fine; age gap relationships where one partner was a teen/young adult and the other was a small child when they first met are a bit more alarming, especially if the older partner actually talks – as Padme does in Attack of the Clones – about how they still think of the younger as a small child.) On top of that, it’d make the whole “he’s too young for training!” angle seem vastly less risible – here he very clearly only has a year or two on the younglings depicted in other prequels, whereas 12 year olds are a bit more keen on exerting their independence than typical 9 years old.
I mentioned in my previous article the idea that the original Star Wars was “saved in the edit”; I tend to think that, on top of the above flaws, The Phantom Menace was flat-out murdered in the edit. For instance, the problem with Jar Jar – once you set aside the racial stereotyping – isn’t the humour involved; yes, it’s silly and childish, but silly comic relief has been part of Star Wars ever since C-3PO first fussed at the blockade runner being captured. No, the issue with Binks is that he never goes away; he gets inserted into every scene he could plausibly be present for, even when he isn’t needed, and he is always doing his schtick. Even a simple fight scene where the Jedi rescue Amidala and her aides from a group of droids can’t go by without Jar-Jar clowning about in the background. It’s near-impossible for the movie to attain anything resembling a moment of gravitas or drama unless it is clearly and specifically impossible for Jar-Jar to butt in, because if there’s the remotest possibility that he will, Lucas will have him do so.
This is incredibly reminiscent of the issues with the early cut of Star Wars Lucas screened for Spielberg and De Palma in 1977, before handing it over to Marcia Lucas and her team to work their magic on it and yield the cut we know and love today. Tonal inconsistency was a major factor there, and one of the issues was stuffing in comic relief at points which wrecked the tension. I can easily see that, if Lucas had his druthers, C-3PO might have become just as annoying as Jar Jar, fussing about in every scene in the original movie he could conceivably show up in. Had Jar Jar’s appearances been edited with an eye to ensuring that his antics did not disrupt the tone of the scenes he was in, I truly believe that he would have been vastly less annoying and wouldn’t have become the hate figure he is today.
Another bit which could do with some judicious editing is the pod-racing scene. This is infamous for being appallingly long, particularly since it’s a bit of arbitrary busywork thrown in as a means to an end (providing some convoluted way for the protagonists to get the spare parts they need to fix their ship and acquire Anakin) rather than something actually advancing the main plot. If they’d just stolen the parts in question on the basis of “Eh, this is a galactic emergency and an entire planetary population is in danger, we’ll pay ’em back later”, and Anakin had stowed away out of a sense of adventure, the story honestly wouldn’t be that much different: the pod race matters solely and exclusively for that one scene and has no lasting wider consequences. (Compare to, say, any particular major set piece from any other Star Wars movie ever.)
It isn’t completely wrong-headed in its execution, mind; the mild Roman bread-and-circuses air to it is a sensible enough tie-in to the barbarian sword and sorcery tone of Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi, except it’s way too neat and sanitised for that. At the length it runs to, however, it’s just a whole load of filler – and the wildest thing is that it’s completely needless filler too, since the movie runs at 132 minutes and could easily lose some flab here and there and still have a suitable running time.
Most of all, however, The Phantom Menace loses sight of the classic Star Wars formula I identified in the previous article – first mission, breathing space, second mission – and fails to find an alternative structure which flows as well. Rather than presenting a a strong initial adventure, a breathing space, and a strong concluding adventure, The Phantom Menace effectively tries to have a third adventure crammed in where the breathing space goes. The first adventure is the initial rescue of Amidala, then you have the acquisition of Anakin via the podrace happening in tandem with what would be the breathing space, and then the concluding adventure is the liberation of Naboo. This unfolds with fat talky slabs sprinkled throughout the entire proceedings as well as being shoved bodily in between the adventures in great wobbling trowelfuls – a habit which, unfortunately, would continue into the rest of the prequel trilogy.
Attack of the Clones
This is the movie which exposed George Lucas as being constitutionally incapable of writing convincing romance.
To be fair, he’d set himself up with a bit of a challenge. One of the knock-on effects of Anakin being so young in the previous movie was that it badly truncated the extent to which the romance between him and Padme could reasonably be advanced in that context. If they’d been closer in age (say, Anakin at 12 and Padme at 14-15), it’d have been easier: you could have had some light flirting and the first signs of a spark before Anakin’s cloistering for his Jedi training disrupted things. As it stood, Jake Lloyd was entirely too young to be flirting with a teenage Natalie Portman in The Phantom Menace, and as such the development of their romance has to be stuffed into this movie so it can be an established factor in Revenge of the Sith.
The progress of it here is ends up feeling massively rushed. They barely exchange a couple of sentences before Anakin switches to full-bore creep mode, not so much flirting with Padme as openly leering at her and throwing shitfits because he thinks she doesn’t remember him. (That’s odd in itself: how many friends did you make at 9 and then never saw again for a decade did you really keep thinking about for all of that time? Why does Anakin think so much about this person he knew for at most a few days when he was 9, when he’s spent years since surrounded by peers at the Jedi Academy? I guess this is Lucas’s take on Twue Wuv, but it’s sufficiently alien to my own experience that I find it hard to take seriously.
Literally as soon as Anakin actually gets any alone time with Padme he rants about how Obi-Wan doesn’t respect him and actually he’s totally amazing and generally behaves in such a way that ought to repel her as much as possible. It’s less reminiscent of the kindling of a tragic love affair than it is some alt-right dude showing up in someone’s OKCupid inbox wittering about the Red Pill. The infamous fireside talk is the absolute nadir of cinematic dialogue. There’s really two ways you can do romance scenes in a movie: you can try to capture the way people actually talk to each other and produce something which feels emotionally and psychologically plausible, or you can steer into the poetry which love inspires in us and produce something which might be unrealistic but does at least stir the emotions and rouse the blood. I have literally never seen a romantic scene which fails so comprehensively by both metrics as the fireside chat does.
Beyond the romance, which is the part of the script which is usually cited as being the weakest, what’s really striking is how Lucas seems to have lost all sense of the value of showing rather than telling. There’s a plot point here about how supposedly the Jedi’s control of the Force has been slipping and their powers are diminished, which I think is supposed to be as a result of the rise of the Sith. I’d completely forgotten that it was mentioned until my rewatch, and it barely seems to be mentioned in wider discussion, and there’s a reason for that: we aren’t shown even the slightest shred of what this actually means. So far as can be told, they’re still happily poinging about doing their Force stuff as usual, and the plot point is literally just dropped into a conversation between Mace Windu and Yoda without any foreshadowing and never really comes up again. It’s like there was a whole “diminished Force use” subplot which was cut, but they forgot to snip that bit.
If anything, by comparison to The Phantom Menace the Jedi seem to be at the height of their powers, because this movie marks the point where the stunts undertaken by the Jedi characters start getting going totally out of hand here. That’s not in and of itself a terrible thing – absolutely wild Force tricks are cool and Genndy Tartakovsky really showed the possibilities of this sort of stuff with the original Clone Wars cartoon miniseries that bridged this and Revenge of the Sith. It is, of course, particularly incongruous that Anakin’s doing all this wild flippy stuff here but later, when he’s become Darth Vader and is supposedly even more powerful than he was at this stage, his use of his powers in the original trilogy are much more subtle. I guess when it was foretold that Anakin would restore balance to the Force, they meant in the sense of “game balance”, nerfing Force powers so that they mostly involve vague intuitive hints plus the odd bit of gymnastics and psychokinesis rather than the full-on absurdities we enjoy here.
The fact that Jedi can survive Wile E. Coyote-esque falls unscathed does at least mean that the Coruscant car chase sequence is an exciting and fun part of the movie, though it makes the podracing scene look even more dull and unimaginative in retrospect. (Kudos, incidentally, to Lucas for making the assassin shapeshifter they’re chasing a woman, though reverse kudos for Anakin and Obi-Wan assuming that they’re a man.) The car chase also allows us to admire Coruscant a bit more, which I consider a plus; I sneakily quite like the occasional 1930s-to-1950s-style aesthetic of Coruscant, like the flying buses or the diner Obi-Wan visits. It’s this weird sort of art deco-plus-Hugo Gernsback aesthetic which is perhaps the strongest point of the prequels – for all their faults in terms of writing, both in the dialogue and the plot, they’re great movies to look at, especially the second two. (The major exception here is the Camino sequence, where the CGI has dated really poorly and the Blu-Ray improvements haven’t really helped that much; it’s all white shiny surfaces everywhere and none of it seems to have mass.)
Ian McDiarmid reveals himself here to be one of the few saving graces of the prequel trilogy. There’s some nice seeds sown when Anakin goes to Palpatine to enlist his help in convincing Amidala to leave Coruscant – if anything, my criticism of that is that the script could have gone further. The flattery from Palpatine and the establishment that Anakin sees him as a bit of a mentor is good, but why not have Palpatine ask Anakin to do a little something-something for him as a quid pro quo for his word in Padme’s ear? It wouldn’t need to be on the level of youngling-killing or anything like that – but if it’s very slightly dodgy, then that would help Anakin’s moral descent seem like a more emotionally realistic gradual process instead of this bizarre actual-humans-don’t-work-like that flip of his switch from “Goody-Two-Shoes” to “Nazi”.
Revenge of the Sith
This is the movie where George Lucas almost managed to turn it around.
The opening space battle is great – easily the most exciting use of CGI in the prequel trilogy by my money – but even despite the Blu-Ray touchups, the CGI on the droids and bits of scenery once they get into Dooku’s flagship are already looking stale. (The bit of walkway which falls on Obi-Wan looks kind of awful.) This is an issue which crops up a lot during the movie – Obi-Wan’s lizard that he rides when he goes to take down Grievous looks pretty bad too, and I’m pretty sure the nursebot looked bad even by the standards of the time. The extensive mingling of CGI and practical effects in the new generation of movies should age much better by contrast.
Still, even despite these faults there’s some excellent visuals here – I quite like how Palpatine’s fakey-fake hostage situation is laid out in a manner reminiscent of one of his later throne rooms. Then again, up until he goes full pantomime villain more or less everything involving Palpatine works really well here. The reason the whole “tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise” sequence stands out to the extent that it does is that, unlike so many talky scenes in the prequel movies, it’s not a mere infodump – Palpatine isn’t merely expositing here, he’s actively doing something by presenting that information, specifically dangling the idea of the Sith having capabilities to save Padme that the Jedi lack in front of Anakin in order to provide him with the crucial temptation needed to drag him across the line. It helps that Ian McDiarmid is a theatre actor by background, and also helps that if you read between the lines it’s meant to be a slice of Sheev’s own backstory – one which it would have been tedious to put onscreen.
Christiansen actually puts in a genuinely decent performance in this section too – note how when he’s delivering his line about the selflessness of the Jedi it catches in his throat and he sort of trails off, like he doesn’t believe it’s true any more. Contrary to all impressions, the man can in fact act so long as the material he’s working with isn’t actively sabotaging him.
In fact, most of the talky bits in this are substantially more purposeful than in any of the previous prequels – it’s like that now that the finish line is in sight, Lucas stops meandering around and is able to focus on bringing everything to a peak. Unfortunately, once the movie reaches that peak it ends up becoming ludicrous. McDiarmid’s acting goes to shit once he goes wrinkly – you can more or less see the point where he stops pretending Palpatine is a human being when he goes “Noooo – nooooooo!” in that silly voice.
Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader isn’t so much falling over a moral precipice as it is an abrupt and weird alignment change. Going from new Sith recruit to hacking up younglings really is a bit sudden – it would have worked better had Anakin and Palpatine made their corrupt pact in the previous movie, making the first act or so of this one a Breaking Bad-esque juggling act as Anakin tries to keep his undercover Darth Vader identity secret from the Jedi. Hell, that would even make Obi-Wan’s lies to Luke in the original trilogy a bit more understandable – if Obi-Wan had spent much of the Clone Wars believing that Darth Vader and Anakin were entirely separate people, then it makes way more sense for him to continue to think of them as such even after the truth became apparent.)
What’s left, once the writing and characterisation goes to shit, is an entertaining series of fun set pieces. The final duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is one of these, but it could have done without the talking – in which all semblance of good writing is pissed straight up the wall. (“Only the Sith deal in absolutes!” could, if you squint, be interpreted as Obi-Wan embodying the raging hypocrisy of the Jedi Order at that point, parroting the party line and being entirely unable to catch the intrinsic contradiction therein or the absurdity of using it in an argument with someone making morally relativistic arguments like “From my point of view the Jedi are evil!” – but the movie doesn’t do the work needed to frame it that way.)
Pregnancy is a doozy, but even so Padme’s complete passivity this movie compared to Attack of the Clones is infuriating. Her death is especially unconvincing. (How much better would it be if she’d had her kids, arranged to send them away herself to keep them out of Anakin’s hands, and then confronted him, being overtly killed in the dispute? I mean, it’d be a nasty way to write her out, but hardly nastier than this, and it’d be a major indication of Anakin’s moral collapse.) The parallelism between Anakin being fitted with his Vader armour and Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia is fun, but it doesn’t seem to be worth the whole “Oh dear, I have lost the will to live, not even the prospect of mentoring two babies who I clearly retain great love and affection for is enough to make me want to keep going” nonsense. (Seriously, how much of a “fuck you” to Luke and Leia is that? “You were OK babies, but your mother would have rather died than be there for you.”)
Both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are most tolerable as things you have on quietly in the background, looking up whenever there’s a decent action sequence worth your attention. When they are content to be mindless adventure stories, they’re really at their best – unfortunately, they have higher aspirations, and whilst The Last Jedi proved that a Star Wars movie could be quite clever, the prequel trilogy just wasn’t up to the challenge.