Star Wars: Prequels

⭐⭐⭐ averaged across 3 films.

tl;dr: A decent story marred by poor acting, poor directing, and some deeply problematic decision making, yet still clearly Star Wars.


Star Wars

Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

The last time I attempted to watch The Phantom Menace I gave up just after meeting Anakin on Tatooine. I had expected it to be rough – that was the first rewatch since being a kid – but oof. This time I was a bit more prepared, and I have to say the movie does pick up in the second half. I think the lack of emphasis on Jar-Jar definitely helps, but it also narratively finds its feet a bit too.

Still, that first 40 minutes or so is rough. There are some decent moments: the introduction of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is still a fun sequence; the first look at the Gungan city holds up even after all this time; and the general design of the worlds and people we meet is excellent. The CGI in the film is starting to look a little dated, but the aesthetic does a lot to cover over the cracks. Once Anakin joins the plot (which happens much faster than I remembered) the film ramps up thanks to a number of set-pieces. Say what you will about Star Wars, the franchise has always done spectacle extremely well, and the pod racing sequence is up there with some of the best. It's a fun and highly memorable moment of world-building. Similarly, the Battle of Naboo still captures my imagination. The Gungans have issues in terms of how they're animated and voiced, but as aliens they're well designed and their culture is just cool, so seeing them on an open battlefield against equally well-designed droids is a visual treat. Couple that with some fun espionage sequences with Padme and the Jedi, and the film's second half is a lot more enjoyable.

At the same time, though, Jar-Jar is just a deeply annoying character, Anakin is just badly written and acted, a lot of the more interesting elements to the story are only really clear once you know how everything will play out, Darth Maul is horribly under utilised, and it's painful to look past the now-obvious racial stereotypes and racist elements to the movie. I vaguely remembered that the Trade Federation were Asiatic sounding, but wow they're like something out of a Yellow Peril campaign 😬 Similarly, whilst I remember Jar-Jar being annoying, I'd never noticed how problematic the Gungans accent and "pidgin"-like language was, and then there's Watto who is straight-up antisemitic in design.

In other words, parts of the film were much worse than I remembered, much was as I expected, and some bits actively surprised me. It's a mixed bag, but I honestly think that if you were to update the CGI, completely rework the racist and outright idiotic elements, and recast a couple of the characters, The Phantom Menace could be a genuinely good film. The only reasons I wouldn't call for a complete remake is that Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Padme, and Mace Windu were all pretty perfectly cast (actually, add Smee to that as well, who gives a great performance). Maybe George still has the master film somewhere and one day we get a fully reworked version with original footage 😁

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I've always felt that Attack of the Clones was the best of the prequel trilogy, even going so far as to suggest it was up there with the OG movies. On rewatch? I'm not sure. AotC does manage to produce a less irritating Jar-Jar and removes at least some of the more overt racist stereotypes (or at least dull their edges, where now trapped by plot), so in that sense it's a step up from The Phantom Menace. Like its predecessor, there are some great moments of spectacle and a core plot which is genuinely interesting.

I know people complain about the prequels revolving around boring politics, but personally I find the themes of democracy, bureaucracy, and corruption quite well done, allowing us to see a more nuanced image of both Jedi and Sith without undermining the fundamental messages about good versus evil. Plus, Palpatine is just a very interesting villain, permanently two or three steps ahead, and there is something refreshing about a multipart story where the outcome is a foregone conclusion that the villain wins. Lucas could have just made Palpatine incredibly evil and powerful, with lots of Joker-esque madcap schemes that rely on a lot of storytelling luck, but instead his plot is clever and more than a little logical.

At the same time, the dissection of the Jedi and how their high ideals have blinded them to the reality of the galaxy is a poignant reminder that good intentions are not enough. Could the film have done a better job of humanising the Separatists and showing how their own beliefs could be viewed as just and good, as well? Sure, those elements are barely touched upon and mean that nuance is lost. But the stage is well set to explain Anakin's rise and fall.

And yet... it doesn't really work. Ultimately, AotC needs to achieve two things: it needs to set up a galactic war, and it needs to show the audience how Anakin is a good but ultimately flawed person. Some of the story beats are there: his illicit love with Padme is a fine touch (and necessary one, given Luke and Leia), but it's poorly written (who complains about sand?), stiffly acted, and given zero compassion (plus, the age difference is just creepy, and could have been avoided had they made him older in the first movie, which would also make the Council's decisions more logical; also, what's up with Naboo electing a teenager to highest office? She was a Queen as a kid, then a democratically elected official who only serves two terms, how does this make sense?). Similarly, the death of Smee should have been a pivotal moment, and whilst it works a little better, it's still a bit flat. (Again, you have to question why it took Anakin so long to return home; the Jedi argue against attachments, but are okay with people visiting each other; another reason he should have been older initially, then the time gap isn't so egregious)

On the other side, Obi-Wan's storyline is much more interesting and introduces Django and the Clones well (though Lord knows, we didn't need Boba Fett to be a superpowered Stormtrooper in canon, but whatever). Kamino is another well-designed world, and Ewan MacGregor continues to be the ideal casting choice. I wish we got a bit more of a cocky Obi-Wan in this movie, but he's still a fun role. But then, the movie doesn't even attempt to explain why the Republic doesn't have a sitting army? Like, why do they need the Clones? Sure, the Separatists have this huge droid army, but Naboo had an entire air force and the Gungans had a huge army, so why don't any of the other 1,000+ planets in the Republic? If peace had lasted so long that all civilisations had abandoned military forces, why are battle droids just an accepted thing? These are trading companies, why are they the only ones with guns? (And yes, I understand its so that two faceless, nameless, expendable armies can be killed en masse without the audience caring, but at least try to explain it)

And then there's Dooku. He's Yoda's Padawan, an ex-Jedi Master, the greatest lightsaber duelist of all time, and a brilliant statesman. Christopher Lee is great in the role, but his character is just introduced as a villain and then ignored. Don't even try to work out the timeline: if Maul was Sidius' apprentice for years, then when did Dooku join them? There can be only two, after all 🙄 I actually enjoyed seeing Yoda zip around (now I'm expecting it, it was jarring at first), but I just don't really care all that much. My biggest issue here is that Dooku could have been introduced instead of Maul. Yes, Maul goes on to become a great character, but the villains in the prequels have less character than the MCU manages, which is fairly damning.

Oh, and then we get the whole coliseum finale. Sure, the Jedi fighting all together is a great moment, and I really enjoy the creature designs again, but I dunno... It just feels a little flat. And I don't think Padme's 180 on Anakin makes much sense. Basically, like all of the Star Wars franchise, this is a solid movie let down by lacklustre writing, poor characters, and terrible direction. Still, better than the Phantom Menace, but the gap is much closer than I remembered.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

We ended up rewatching the prequels because we'd just finished the (much better) Clone Wars series, so going into Revenge of the Sith was a bit weird. There are some slightly odd bits that just don't gel with the narrative that the TV show gives you. Anakin and Obi-Wan are familiar and more like friends, but their chemistry isn't quite as good as the show (though part of that is because Obi-Wan has gone from a stoic, wise Jedi to a one-liner standup comedian 😂).

Worse, though, (and this is now a full-on prequels trend) are the villains. General Grievous is introduced seemingly just to have someone around for Anakin to kill Dooku, but he really isn't a threat. Nor does he know Anakin or Obi-Wan, which makes no sense considering how many times their paths have crossed at this point. Dooku is even worse, quickly being disarmed (literally) and then executed, whilst appearing to grovel for a second. Sure, he's just been betrayed by his master (though it's never entirely clear that he knows Palpatine and Sidious are the same person), but he deserved better than to go out like this. I know they need to show the Chancellor's control over Anakin, and his own descent towards blood lust, but they could have achieved this with Nute Gunray: Gunray was a villain in episode one, he's far more dispensable, he isn't a fighter, and Palpatine could more easily claim treason. What's more, Gunray was actively involved in a plot to kill Padme, giving Anakin an emotional reason to kill him, rather than simply seeing him ignore reason like a lapdog. (Oh, and they reworked the droid voices and they're all wrong and weird)

Yet if the villains are underserved, Anakin is butchered. His arc is the whole point of this story and not once has he been given a chance. To be clear, I think Heydon Christensen did the best he could, but the writing is just awful. Some of the lines in this film (as with its two prequels) are just outright laughable. "It's over Anakin, I have the high ground!" Like, what are you talking about? You literally killed Maul whilst flipping over his head from a much worse starting position than Anakin is in. Worse, is that Anakin just commits atrocities left and right without remorse. Yes, he's afraid of Padme dying and conflicted by a Jedi Order that has shunned him, but his immediate descent is ridiculous, and it turns to farce when he Force chokes Padme herself. (And let's not mention how Padme is downgraded from kickass royalty, to badass yet slightly pointless politician, to simpering lovesick housewife across the trilogy)

Still, again, the spectacle isn't too bad. I've been amazed to see just how much CGI improved over the prequel trilogy, to the extent that the opening space battle above Coruscant looks practically modern and is one heck of a sequence. (It was fun to see a whole bunch of tech I'd thought they invented for the TV show make appearances as well, like Buzz Droids, which is neat) Do the Clones take out the Jedi far too easily? Sure. Does Chewbacca need to be in this film? No, but then neither do R2 or 3PO (at least we didn't get a baby Han or something).

It's a mess, but (as with the other two films) there's some decent narrative going on underneath that mess. Palpatine's plan is clever, Order 66 is a big moment (though stripped of most of the impact by zero context in the film and very little time spent with the other Jedi), and it does get us to Vader and Padme's death. Does any of it feel earned, or logical? Nah, not really. But it's still Star Wars, it still has Ewan MacGregor as Obi-Wan and Sam Jackson as Windu, it still has some beautiful creature designs, the score still kicks ass, and it ultimately ties things together, if not well, then at least adequately. Plus, having seen the TV show, hearing Obi-Wan talk to Cody or getting small references was slightly neat. It just could have been so much more.

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