The Spring of Sci-Fi Review #14
In 1999 George Lucas brought Star Wars back to the big screen. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace begins the tragic journey of Anakin Skywalker. I was only 6 years old when this movie came out so I don’t personally remember the hype or hysteria that this movie created. I only know that when I originally watched this movie on VHS a few months later, I was enthralled. Star Wars has always held a special place in my memory. They are the first movies I can remember watching, and I remember being excited to watch The Phantom Menace when my father brought home the VHS tape. That movie came out 22 years ago, and my feelings on it have changed a lot: my feelings in general on the entire prequel trilogy have changed a lot. From The Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith, the prequels–for the most part–fail to create compelling characters or tell a coherent story from movie to movie. Even though these movies fail in most departments of quality and entertainment, I constantly find myself drawn back to them out of nostalgia. When I was younger, I filtered out the bad stuff and found some good, which means I must have filtered out most of the first two movies.
Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace
The Phantom Menace is a mess of a movie. The movie opens with two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), meeting with the Trade Federation to negotiate after the Federation puts a blockade on the planet of Naboo. Negotiations are short, and after battling some droids and escaping to the planet’s surface where they meet the Gungan, and bane of this movie’s existence, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), Qui Gon, and Obi-Wan go to the Gungan City where they receive a means of transport back to the planet’s surface. They escape Naboo with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) so she can plead to the senate about the safety of Naboo. Along the way, they make a pit stop on Tatooine, where they discover local slave boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) who is strong with the force. Qui Gon believes Anakin Skywalker to be the chosen one who will bring balance to the force and forever destroy the Sith. There are space battles, a lightsaber fight between Qui Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul (Ray Park); even with all of this, the movie remains boring and uninteresting.
There is too much plot and little story in The Phantom Menace. George Lucas focuses on building up the world around him, and the characters suffer because of this. Qui Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme are all one-dimensional characters without any charisma or personality that we see from the characters in the original trilogy or even the sequel trilogy. The idea of starting Anakin off as a child is bizarre and drags the movie down. I understand that George Lucas wanted to show the entirety of Anakin’s life, showing how even the most innocent and optimistic child can become the evilest man in the galaxy, but the way the character of Anakin is handled in this movie is poor and just downright boring. Lucas also tries to explain the force and gives us midi-chlorians which takes the mystical and spiritual element away from the force. The inclusion of midi-chlorians negates the speech Yoda gives Luke in Empire about the mystical nature of the force. The inclusion of the chosen one prophecy has always been a negative for me as well. I think it could have worked out better if the movies would have used it as a launching point to explore the fallacies of the Jedi order. That is a subtextual element of these movies that would have been interesting to explore. Lucas using these stories to comment on power, both political and spiritual, would have been an interesting thing to explore. I feel like Qui Gon’s reluctance to some of the Jedi principles would have made him an interesting character to use to explore the Jedi’s fallacies and his death should inspire Anakin’s rebellion to some of the Jedi’s principles.
There is some good in this movie. While Palpatine is given much to do, the inclusion of Ian McDiarmid is always a welcome one. John Williams’ score is magnificent and The Duel of Fates themes is one of the best pieces of music put on film. The fight that coincides with that theme is also one of the movie’s biggest selling points. Ewan McGregor, while not given much to do in this movie, is also a welcome inclusion and his acting would be one of the saving points of this trilogy. The Phantom Menace is mostly a misfire but some of the movie’s imagination and worldbuilding were fairly interesting and helped give way to concepts used in the excellent Clone Wars series.
Star Wars: Episode 2-Attack of the Clones
Attack of the Clones is one of the worst things to ever happen to Star Wars. Released in 2002 and set 10 years after the events of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones almost feels like it is hitting the restart button. I’ve always felt that one could skip The Phantom Menace and still understand everything going on in Attack of the Clones. Characters like Anakin (now played by Hayden Christensen) and Padme are entirely different characters at this point in their life and even though Attack of the Clones builds off some of the political stuff present in The Phantom Menace, that movie was so poorly written and incomprehensible that Attack of the Clones can exist without it, and that is a crime itself.
The plot of the movie again concerns Amidala being protected by two Jedi, this time Obi-Wan and his apprentice Anakin. Most of the plot concerns the developing romance between Anakin and Padme. He woos her by talking about how much sand sucks and she doesn’t even blink when he angrily mentions murdering men, women, and children as an act of revenge. Obi-Wan spends most of his time discovering a hidden plot in which a Clone Army is being created, his fight with Jango Fett and the detective plot is kind of cool even though the scene name drops a character, Master Sifo Dyas, that has never been seen or mentioned before this point. The main villain–besides Darth Sidious who operates in the background–is Count Dooku (played by the wonderful Christopher Lee) who appears way late into the movie’s runtime that makes him feel like a lacking threat. The fact that Dooku was Qui Gon’s former master and Yoda’s apprentice should hold more emotional sway and would work as a poetic reminder of Anakin’s future downfall, but Dooku comes in so late into the movie that he feels less like a character and more of an obstacle to get past. Anakin’s character is also poorly handled. I don’t mind Anakin questioning the Jedi and his Master’s motives but having him portrayed so whiny in unlikable makes his ultimate fall less tragic and more inevitable. I feel like the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker should be more rooted in his heroics and how his lust for power leads to his downfall. There is a moment where Anakin and Padme are talking in a field and he romanticizes authoritarianism and fascist ideology, but this character trait doesn’t feel explored enough. We instead get multiple scenes of him whining to Padme about Obi-wan or his and Padme’s tragic romance.
The good moments in this movie are few and far between, but as I said before I do enjoy the detective plot with Obi-Wan and my nerdy side gets excited watching all the Jedi on the battlefield with ignited lightsabers. I personally don’t find the Yoda fight scene to be all that great, but it is pure fanservice that I know plenty of people enjoy. All in all, Attack of the Clones, like The Phantom Menace is a misfire. George Lucas wants to tell a compelling story showing how Anakin’s fall is connected to war and the politics of that era but he never commits to that idea and the movie comes across as sloppy and mishandled.
Star Wars: Episode 3-Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith is a fun Star Wars movie. This movie has its fair share of issues, but unlike the previous two installments, this one is watchable. The characters in this aren’t nearly as poorly done, but this movie has to make up a lot of ground from the previous two movies’ failures. Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid steal the show in this movie though, and honestly, Hayden Christensen has moments where he does a surprisingly decent job. I feel like the actors are unfairly treated for their performances but the screenplays for these movies would even make the best actors look bad, even Ewan McGregor doesn’t come out of this movie unscathed.
The opening of this movie is delightful. I enjoy the witty banter between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and I feel this movie does a better job of justifying their brotherly love towards one another. They do split off in this movie, but with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, they barely get any screen time together to build up their friendship. Anakin is at his most heroic at the beginning of this movie and his suffering comes in secret. This is Anakin’s movie and while I feel like Christensen’s performance is much better than Attack of the Clones, his fall is so quick and rushed that it doesn’t have any emotional weight to it. The Clone Wars animated show does a better job of exploring Anakin’s fall, his mistrust in the Jedi, and his lust for power and glory. I think for me what makes these movies so frustrating is that there is a good story hidden beneath all the bad. This movie suffers because it is the third movie in a franchise of duds, so no matter how fun and decent it may be it is still marred by those movies’ faults.
I don’t want to complain too much about this movie because despite my grievances I still find it an incredibly entertaining watch. The fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan is wonderful and despite how over the top it gets there is more emotion in that fight than was present in any other scene in these three movies. John Williams brings his A-game again and the music during this scene is amazing. Ultimately, this movie is a mixture of satisfying and disappointing. I think if the movies leading up to this were better handled the story of Anakin’s fall could have been excellent to see. The Clone Wars shows try to patch up some of these movies’ lack of quality but it can’t fix everything. Revenge of the Sith is much more entertaining and pleasing to watch but it still suffers from rushed writing and some poor characterization.
All three of these movies hold a nostalgic place for me and despite their issues I still find myself coming back to watch them. There was a lot to live up to for these movies. It featured iconic characters who people had a lot of expectations for and the series itself held a lot of expectations. These movies attempt to show the fall of the Republic and the fall of Anakin Skywalker and how they relate to each other but they never live up to those lofty goals. This trilogy is marred by poor writing, poor characterization, and a plot that kept trying to move away from the previous bad movie in the series; The Prequel Trilogy never really comes together to tell a compelling story.