Star Wars Revisited: The Prequels

The recent release of the complete Star Wars film franchise on blu-ray serves as a good reason to revisit the films.  Appropriately, this will actually be a trilogy of reviews, as there’s so much material with this set that trying to cram it all into one piece of content would be too much.

The Star Wars: The Complete Saga set is nine discs in total.  That includes one disc for each of the six movies, plus three additional discs just for myriad extras.  I’ll review three discs per article.  This one will obviously cover the oft-maligned prequel trilogy.

First, the basics: The video and audio on the set are outstanding.  Full 6.1 Dolby Surround and 1080p visuals make for an exceptional movie-watching experience from a purely technical standpoint.  I did notice that the colors seem to skew a little toward the “red” end of the tint spectrum, but this is a very minor complaint (and one that can be corrected easily if the viewer finds it noticeable).  The digital transfer of the movies generally amazing, although there are spots where the human actors look even more unnatural than usual when contrasted with their CGI counterparts, especially in Episode I.

All six films contain myriad subtitles and audio language options, as well as two commentary tracks.  One of the two tracks includes specific commentary by those who worked on the trilogy in question.  So, the prequels have Rick McCallum among others, while the original trilogy has, e.g., Carrie Fisher and Ben Burtt.  George Lucas provides commentary for all six films.  This track is a traditional commentary recorded as the speakers were (individually) watching the films.

The other commentary track is an “archival interview” track with various cast and crew.  These are often pieced together to seem semi-relevant to what’s happening onscreen, but aren’t necessarily specific or commenting on the actual onscreen events, per se.  If I’m not mistaken, these are the same commentaries that were on the standard DVD release from just a few years ago[1].

But let’s talk about the actual movies themselves.  It had been about five years since I had watched these films.  Previously a Star Wars apologist, I thought revisiting them now might provide some more objective insights, especially where the prequels are concerned.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Put simply, this just isn’t a good film.  All of the misplaced vitriol directed at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels right at home here.  It’s as if Lucas spent fifteen years thinking about what worked and what didn’t work in Return of the Jedi, then kept all the missteps and dumped most of the good stuff.

Specifically, and most egregiously, is the prominent role that the infamous Jar-Jar Binks plays.  Binks was clearly a sop to merchandising and the kiddie demographic.  In retrospect, this is a strange bit of irony, since what attracted me and most of my late-70’s / early-80’s bretheren to Star Wars in the first place were the cool things, not the kiddie things.

Included under the “cool” umbrella was the mysterious power of the Force.  Unfortunately, Phantom Menace manages to de-mystify the over-arching, compelling spirituality of the Star Wars universe by reducing it to a mere function of how many tiny, symbiotic creatures one has swimming around in his cells.  Fantastic.  The silver lining here is that this narrative decision (some would say “blunder”) by Lucas taught a valuable lesson to the future creators of Lost, such that they would be very careful about over-explaining the show’s mythology[2].

One positive is that the film has aged well in terms of the overuse of computer generated animation.  The amount of CGI in Phantom Menace was jarring in 1999, but, for better or worse, looks quite “normal” by current standards.  Phantom Menace does deliver a couple of great action sequences, particularly the final showdown between Darth Maul and Kenobi / Jinn.  We’re also spared from the attempts at romantic dialogue that would damage the next two films.  Ultimately, the film substitutes the magic and fun of the original with droid armies and midi-chlorians.

Grade: C-minus

Episode II: Attack of the Clones – This one actually isn’t bad if the viewer uses a very specific method to watch the film: Skip all the scenes that involve extensive one-on-one dialogue between Padme and Anakin.

Lucas has never been great with dialogue, and this problem is exacerbated by wooden acting and awkward emotional scenes between future Academy Award winner Natalie Portman and future former actor Hayden Christiansen.  It’s hard to imagine someone watching those scenes and thinking, “These are two fine artists at the height of their powers.  Sit back and enjoy the craftsmanship!”

But here’s what you get if you excise those scenes: An interesting mystery slowly unraveled by Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Decent political intrigue.  The uncertain motives and allegiances of Count Dooku.  Four or five good pieces of action: The battle between Kenobi and Jango Fett on Kamino, the rescue of Kenobi on Geonosis and arena fight, the chaos of the first skirmish in the Clone War, and the final sequence when Darth Tyranus reveals himself and his power – as does Yoda, in his own way.  I was also on board with Anakin’s quasi-genocidal assault on the Sand People as a necessary step in the character’s evolution (although I could have done without Christiansen’s attempt to emote that preceded it, as well as Padme’s far-too-quick-to-forgive attitude that followed).

There’s little doubt that this was a better effort than Phantom Menace.  Jar-Jar is toned way down, and there’s even a little self-referential humor about his annoying qualities – not to mention the fact that he unwittingly initiates the grant of power to Palpatine that eventually leads to the creation of the Empire.  I also remember greatly enjoying the little nod to the Death Star near the very end, almost as if to say to fans, “Just be patient, we’re going somewhere with this.  We promise.”

Attack of the Clones rates a solid “B-minus” or possibly even a “B” – if you can skip the scenes as described above.  However, I have to grade it in full.  As a result . . .

Grade: C

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – This is a fairly strong effort made to look even better by comparison thanks to the two previous films.  It suffers from the same dialogue problems as Attack of the Clones in spots, especially the romantic dialogue, although it’s not as bad as Episode II.

Since I’ve talked about this issue so much already, here’s a concrete example of a minor dialogue offense from Episode III:

OBI-WAN: Can you fly a cruiser like this?
ANAKIN: You mean ‘Do I know how to land what’s left of this thing?’
OBI-WAN: Well?
ANAKIN: Under the circumstances, I’d say the ability to pilot this thing is irrelevant.

Emphasis mine.  Using the phrase “this thing” twice in close succession, but not for effect, is an indication of “first-draft” writing.  Substituting a different word, rather than using “thing” twice in three seconds, would be an obvious first step on a rewrite.  Yet, this is what we get in the final product.  Here’s another one:

ANAKIN: They want me to spy on the Chancellor?  That’s treason.
OBI-WAN: We are at war, Anakin.

Huh?  Why does being at war preclude treason?  There’s no explanation given, and the two lines don’t seem to jibe.  It feels like a line of dialogue was cut.  If not, this is nonsensical.  If so, the wrong line was cut.  It appears to be poor writing either way.

These are two of a dozen (dozens of?) prequel trilogy examples of dialogue that doesn’t hit the ear quite right.  Or, in the case of romantic dialogue, is sometimes cringe-inducing.

Much of the movie does work.  What I enjoyed a lot about Revenge of the Sith was the execution of the endgame by Palpatine/Sidious.  Ian McDiarmid is fun to watch in nearly every scene in which he appears.  The action sequences – the strong suit of the prequels generally – are as good as or better than the first two and more plentiful to boot.

We also get a hint of the “feel” and sense of fun that made the original trilogy so timeless.  The opening rescue of the Chancellor has a smattering of that, as does Kenobi’s trip to Utapau.  On the other hand, dream sequences seem oddly out of place in a Star Wars movie.

There are a few nits to pick with the narrative logic (brace yourselves for some nerdery): For one thing, I never quite got over the fact that it takes the Jedi so long to piece together the Sith plot, despite the fact that the guy who was used as the template for the Republic clone army was also in cahoots with Darth Tyranus.  That’s a red flag that you don’t need supernatural powers to see.  The mild implication that Anakin may have been created intentionally by Darth Plagueis also rubbed me the wrong way.  And, when he and Yoda are talking in the Jedi Temple at the same time the special session of the legislature is in progress, how does Obi-Wan know that Palpatine is now “the Emperor?”

Oh, and “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” is an absolute.

Also, do we need a slow zoom during EVERY non-action scene?  That’s another unfortunate choice we see in the prequels but not the original trilogy.

Despite the problems with the movie, Lucas deserves credit on a couple of fronts.  First, the degree of difficulty increased as he moved closer to Episode IV.  There were greater creative constraints on what he could and couldn’t do with characters and events the nearer the tale got to existing material.  Yet, he managed to produce the best of the three prequels with the final effort.  There’s also some subtlety here[3] that often gets overlooked.  For instance, the irony of the ultimately fruitless pursuit of eternal life by the Sith (especially Vader) through trying to cheat death using the power of the Dark Side, when, in fact, Qui-Gon had discovered the immortality of the soul (or Star Wars equivalent) while remaining true to Jedi precepts.

Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels and the only one of the three that can stand on its own as a worthy film, rather than a necessity for fans only.

Grade: B-minus (a “B” if I’m in the right mood)

Next Week: The Original Trilogy

[1] And they’re the same commentaries we’ll get a couple of years from now when the saga is re-released in 3-D in a classic George Lucas move.
[2] Of course, some fans hated Cuse and Lindeloff for THAT, so I suppose the lesson is that you just can’t win with nerds.
[3] No, I’m not talking about the political allusions to Nixon and/or Bush.  Nothing subtle about that at all.
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4 Responses to Star Wars Revisited: The Prequels

  1. Pingback: Star Wars Revisited: The Extras | The Axis of Ego

  2. Pingback: Star Wars: Episode III « The Movie Report

  3. Pingback: Star Wars Revisited: The Original Trilogy | The Axis of Ego

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