by Elizabeth Esten
I know that simply complimenting a single aspect of these films is very dangerous on my part. Just uttering the statement “I didn’t think the prequels were that bad” may get me a lot of crap from die hard Star Wars fans who say the infamous trilogy is worse than Satan. As a semi-casual Star Wars fan who grew up in a household more transfixed with Star Trek, I stand behind the prequels as not only a product of their time, but also a trilogy that has a lot of good in it. However, I acknowledge that a few solid moments can’t save the whole trilogy, as they exist within a mishmash of bad jokes, terrible dialogue and questionable direction from a man who once said Jar Jar Binks is the key to everything with a straight face. These are bad films—I’m not here to argue otherwise—but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a silver lining. Before someone hires Boba Fett to hunt me down, I would like to present the top seven elements in the prequel trilogy that I enjoyed (which I’m writing from my underground bunker that only three people know about). I also have Liam Neeson on speed dial and know a little bit of karate.
7. (Some of) the CGI – Throughout the Trilogy
While many people found the CGI in the prequels to be excessive, and while I do wish that they did more work with models and physical sets, it’s easy to see why the choice was made to use computer graphics if you look at the time the film was made in. You can call George Lucas a hack and a sellout, but like James Cameron, Lucas moves forward with the times and uses the best technology available to tell a great story. When the original films were made back in 1977, the only way to create the feel of space was through model making and practical effects. Computers were basically non existent in the film industry and the world at large. By 1999, CGI had come to take over that mantle, and computers had become very easily accessible and possessed a wider range of capabilities.
The effects in the prequels may feel like they came from a bunch of cold, impersonal computers, instead of the hardworking hands that gave us those tangible creations made from almost nothing in the originals, but that doesn’t mean the CGI looks bad. A lot of the spaceships look well integrated and the various planets our main characters visit throughout the films are very detailed and interesting to look at. Otoh Gunga, the home of the Gungans, may be populated with terrible characters, but it looks awesome, especially for a time when CGI was used mainly for creature designs and not for large scale settings.
The fact that we could travel to these worlds at all is another reason why Lucas’ CGI use is warranted. It allowed for him to expand the universe from simple sets to grand, unique vistas. From an underwater society filled with an annoying alien species to Coruscant, where flying cars speed overhead for a great action sequence.
Excess of CGI doesn’t necessarily equal poor CGI quality. The prequels are representative of a space adventure made around the turn of the century, while the original is a true product of the late 70’s. If you look at this trilogy as a modern space opera, it’s still flawed, but it works very well for the time period it was made in (at least visually).
6. Anakin Slaughters the Sand People – Attack of the Clones
Some people might think this a very small moment to focus on, but it’s one of the most critical scenes in Anakin Skywalker’s progression toward becoming the fearsome villain we all know and love. After Anakin dreams that something is wrong with his mother, he goes back to Tatooine with Padmé to make sure she is okay. There, he discovers that she was kidnapped by the notorious Sand People and hunts them down, but his mother ends up dying in his arms due to the injuries her captors inflicted on her. In a small moment, his facial expression shows the very beginnings of a man with dark tendencies just waiting to get out. Anakin, in his uncontrollable rage, ends up killing not only the people involved with his mother’s death, but also bystanders of the village simply trying to live their lives: women and children made targets by association. Here, Anakin discovers for the first time that hurting others can be a satisfying way to deal with his problems, which actually connects to a scene in Revenge of the Sith, where he is tempted to kill Count Dooku in the beginning of that film. Attack of the Clones is the most poorly paced and dull film of of the prequel trilogy overall, but this is one its best moments and the scene does a solid job of setting up the descent of Anakin’s character arc for the next film.
5. Darth Maul vs. Obi-Wan & Qui-Gon – The Phantom Menace
The Phantom Menace may not be as bad as Attack of the Clones, but it’s still terrible in many aspects. An exception to all the awfulness is the final fight with Darth Maul and his double lightsaber, which is one of the best duels of the entire Star Wars saga. Maul may not appear a lot in The Phantom Menace, but he’s still a compelling villain when he is on screen. Ray Park really works in the part, doing all his own choreography, and the fight that comes together is an incredible sight to behold. While the original trilogy didn’t have tremendously intricate duels, it made up for it with great dialogue, solid character development and excellent mythology.
The prequel trilogy is the opposite, shining primarily in the complexity of its lightsaber showdowns. From the final duel of Revenge of the Sith to Count Dooku and Yoda duking it out in Attack of the Clones, all the action is very well done, no matter the scale of the scene. But this duel in particular is a stand out by far. The tension is high, the choreography is tight, no bad jokes or one liners are present to bog the whole thing down, and with the assistance of the excellent score from John Williams, it’s one of the highlights of the weak first entry. Jar Jar may be annoying as hell, but this final fight makes The Phantom Menace worth at least a look.
4. Obi-Wan & Anakin save the Chancellor – Revenge of the Sith
By far the strongest of the three films, Revenge of the Sith brings a lot of great things to the table. One of them is the opening sequence in which Anakin and Obi-Wan spring into action to save the kidnapped Palpatine and defeat Count Dooku, the antagonist from the last movie. While the other films lacked the mix of exceptional action and solid comedy that the original trilogy pulled off so well, this sequence brings it to the table for the first time in three films. The banter between Anakin and Obi-Wan feels as natural as it’s ever going to get, the action is superb and it even contains a little bit of the humor that’s reminiscent of the original films. The lighter bits actually work in the scene’s favor, although it helps that R2-D2 is back as the comic relief for the third entry. In the past two films, C-3PO and the entirely comedic Jar Jar Binks really felt out of place as the comic relief characters in the grand scheme of their respective films. R2 works in this case because he is actually needed to complete the mission and doesn’t completely distract from the action on screen. Meanwhile, the fight with Dooku is a satisfying sequence because it really helps to plant the seeds of trust Anakin feels toward Palpatine, so later in the film it makes way more sense that the Chancellor’s manipulation works on Anakin so quickly. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t drag and sets up a trilogy-closer that is more epic than either of the previous two disappointing entries. It’s an opening that marks one of the only times in the prequels that you feel like you’re watching a genuine Star Wars film.
3. Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker – Revenge of the Sith
Now, before anyone breaks out the pitchforks and torches, let me explain. I am not saying this a great performance. The delivery is consistently bland and the dialogue doesn’t help at all. Most of the time in Attack of the Clones, he has the same annoyed facial expression and makes no effort to improve Lucas’ attempts at romantic dialogue. You can’t really put all of the blame on Christensen, though. Actors have to rely on the guidance of the director and really have to trust the decisions they make, and the direction of these films is terrible. To be frank, no one in this movie gives a perfect performance thanks to Lucas not being as skilled of a director when it comes to actors and being surrounded by a bunch of yes men who refuse to speak up. When Samuel L. Jackson can’t give at least an entertaining performance and make your dialogue sound somewhat natural, there is a fundamental problem with your movie.
Hayden Christensen, like Jackson and the other cast members, is a fine actor when given the correct material (e.g. Shattered Glass and Jumper). In Revenge of the Sith, he really shines in the role for the first time, but really only when he isn’t talking. Toward the end of the film, you can see so much just in his eyes: the loss of all hope, the realization that evil is the only way and how good the power he possesses makes him feel. Even in the final duel with Obi-Wan on Mustafar (which is awesome), the look in his eyes is so powerful and you can clearly see the hate and mistrust determining his actions against a man he saw as a friend and even a father figure.
A similar moment can also be found earlier in the film,when Padmé tells Anakin she is expecting their first child. Since Jedi are not permitted to fall in love or get married, there is so much that the character needs to express in that moment. This is pulled off incredibly well, as Christensen runs the gamut of emotions in a very short scene.
The last outstanding sequence for me is when Anakin and Padmé are separated as the sun sets on the Republic and forced to contemplate what to do on their own. As he stares out the window, Christensen, with the help of the score, displays a lot in such a small moment. What is he is going to do, how is he going to save his wife from the fate in his dreams, and what will happen to his child? This wordless moment is more powerful than anything ever spoken in the film. When Christensen is allowed to convey his character motivations by giving a long stare, the origins of Darth Vader can be seen from miles away.
2. Senator/Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine – Throughout the Trilogy
Emperor Palpatine has become easily one of the most recognizable icons of the original trilogy, despite the fact that he only appears in The Empire Strikes Back for one scene and is featured in Return of the Jedi, mostly just sort of sitting there and looking evil. The audience never really knew how this strange looking old man became an all powerful figure and the prequels presented an opportunity to develop the complexity of the character and display his rise. The audience gets to see both sides of the character: the side that executes complex political maneuvers with ease and the more explicitly evil side (Darth Sidious) that will do whatever it takes to dismantle the Republic from the ground up and become the unstoppable ruler he wants to be. Most importantly, we finally get to see that we shouldn’t just fear him because of how he looks, but also because of his ability to control any situation through manipulation. In the original trilogy, the audience believed in Palpatine’s power because of his mysterious nature. The prequel trilogy may address a lot of questions that didn’t need answers, but Palpatine’s powerful political standing is a mystery that deserves to be fleshed out.
At the same time, you can’t deny that this is one of the best performances of the prequel trilogy. Ian McDiarmid is having the time of his life in this role, and while he can occasionally go over the top, he remains a great antagonist throughout all three movies. With everything from his fiendish laugh as he battles Yoda, to how he savors every line and gives it the gravitas it needs to be effective, the performance is consistently entertaining. McDiarmid also pulls off the more subtle complexity as well, showing not only the explicitly evil side of his character, but also the calm manipulator that can convince Anakin to come to his side by simply telling him an old legend of a man who saved people from death. Thanks to the Emperor, the prequels become a fascinating look at the rise of one of cinema’s greatest villains.
1. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi – Throughout the Trilogy
By far the finest performance in all of the prequel films, Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi is worth the watch by itself. McGregor still has plenty of clunky lines of dialogue to get through, but he overcomes them better than anyone else in the cast and makes them sound the most natural. But where McGregor really shines is how his performance evolves with the character. Obi-Wan’s arc may be subtle in the grand scheme, but it’s the one that works the best out of all of them.
In The Phantom Menace, he was portrayed as almost a proto-Attack of the Clones Anakin; a young man with big goals. He wants to be a great Jedi who fights for justice, though he never outright voices that goal due to a lack of screen time. He trusts Qui-Gon to help him reach this goal without letting him get too confident. Unlike Anakin in Attack of the Clones, he never complains about being taken seriously. He knows that he isn’t the best at this point in his life, and it is only through his training and the guidance of the Jedi leaders that he will get better.
By Attack of the Clones, he has not only become more mature, but also a mentor for the young and hopeful Anakin. He’s almost taken on the role of Qui-Gon from the previous film, but has the added responsibility of being sent on a critical mission to investigate a mysterious bounty hunter (Jango Fett). Obi-Wan has proven himself, earning the title of Jedi Knight, but he is still aware he has room to grow and learn as a Jedi, and to never become overly confident as he is given more authority in the Jedi council.
By the time Revenge of the Sith comes around, you can really see the progression of the previous films come full circle. Obi-Wan has become even more of a father figure for young Anakin, and McGregor compellingly conveys the affection he feels for the young Jedi, despite the fact Lucas didn’t give the two of them many scenes together. He’s a Jedi master now, but he’s still completely aware that getting help and advice from others is important.
But the strongest aspect of McGregor’s performance is that it’s the best interpretation of a character that was present during the original trilogy of films. When you watch all three movies, especially the third, you can very easily see a young Alec Guinness. Through his delivery and mannerisms, you see the beginnings of the wise mentor that helps Luke on his journey. It’s one of the few performances of the prequels that truly connects to the originals and makes sense in the universe. If you are thinking of watching (or re-visiting) the prequels, do it for McGregor’s amazing take on one of Star Wars’s greatest characters.