This is a portion of an article I drafted about the entire Star Wars movie franchise thus far, however it's been in my drafts for son long I decided to cut it down to the prequels because, despite how much they've been discussed: they're the most fun to discuss!
Especially as kids like me who grew up with the films are now aging into their twenties and thirties, the reappraisal of the film's particularly is worth examining, as well as Star Wars' unique place in culture at the time of the late '90s to early '00s.
The Phantom Menace
"EVERY GENERATION HAS A LEGEND. EVERY JOURNEY HAS A FIRST STEP. EVERY SAGA HAS A BEGINNING."
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Brief Synopsis: Anakin Skywalker, a young slave strong with the Force, is discovered on Tatooine. Meanwhile, the evil Sith have returned, enacting their plot for revenge against the Jedi.
The Phantom Menace is without a doubt one of the highest profile filmmaking embarrassments of all-time. Bear in mind George Lucas had planned this prequel trilogy since he was developing The Empire Strikes Back in the late '70s, dubbing it Episode V implying that we always had three more films to come. However, Lucas didn't have many ideas for this trilogy until the '90s and only supplied a first draft script a few months before shooting.
Released in 1999, 22 years after the first Star Wars and 16 years after Return of the Jedi, suffice to say the return of one of cinema's most loved franchises was enticing audiences. It ended up being the most successful film of 1999 and the second highest grossing film of all-time, after James Cameron's Titanic released a couple years earlier smashed box-office records and would hold that record until James Cameron's next film Avatar released in 2009. So while financially it was a hit, it was impossible to ignore that Star Wars' grand return was not as inspiring as many had hoped, even looking objectively past the immense hype.
However, while it's obvious this film doesn't land, there's something to be said about its ambitions. George Lucas deliberately waited until special effects were advanced enough that he could try new things for his franchise and let his imagination go further. It's a transitionary film for Hollywood's switch to digital filmmaking and arguably the first 'digital epic', paving the way for blockbusters in the years to come. I'm sure in 1999, the scope and effects would have been incredibly impressive.
But therein lies a large issue with The Phantom Menace. When the spectacle dies down, what is left? Well for the first time since the original Star Wars we have George Lucas back in the director's chair and he's the sole writer on the screenplay. Lots has been said about how the original Star Wars was saved in editing and this film where Lucas has total creative freedom proves that maybe having somebody to restrain you a little bit is necessary when crafting such a big film. To be fair, Lucas approached Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard (who would later go onto direct a Star Wars film with Solo) and proposed to each if they would direct this movie, but they all passed on the project deeming it too daunting.
George Lucas's screenplay for this film is pretty poor for numerous reasons and needed to be challenged in order for this film to appear more functional as a story. The ambition is there, the story is not. A large flaw is that the film's balance of A and B plotlines feels misjudged. The primary plotline involved trade negations between planets, which barely involves many of the lead characters and generally isn't very compelling. It's poorly constructed, exposition is dumped at regular intervals and it's all tell and not show.
Then there's the puzzling question of who the main character of this film is. No doubt, given the way the sequels play out, it should be Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan. However, he's a sidekick who doesn't even take part in much of the plot involving a young Anakin Skywalker. Instead, the pseudo-lead of the film is played by Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon, who is Obi-Wan's Jedi master. Issue here is, he's not particularly interesting and when the sequels to this film focus on the friendship and mentorship between Obi-Wan and Anakin, it seems obvious in retrospect that Obi-Wan should be in place of Qui-Gon for this film's screenplay.
However this could be ignored by a lot of the casual movie going audience as the effects are ground-breaking (for the time). What a lot of people couldn't ignore however, was the poor writing for the characters and the fact that while a lot of people had grown up with Star Wars, Star Wars had not grown up with them. In fact, it was more childish than ever before. Return of the Jedi's introduction of the cuddly Ewok teddy bear alien characters had nothing on the infamous Jar Jar Binks.
Jar Jar Binks, a computer animated comedy relief character shows up near the beginning of the movie and doesn't leave. A clumsy buffoon with a grating voice and a platform for the most childish humour that the franchise had exhibited until this point. Star Wars was always for kids, but enjoyable for all ages. Jar Jar was inherently for the kids and clashed with the main plotline being about galactic trade disputes, which kids obviously would not understand or care about (and adults neither to be honest). Even more unfortunate, Anakin Skywalker, who will eventually turn into the fearsome Darth Vader is introduced here as an innocent 9 year old unfortunately played by Jake Lloyd.
It's important to not that the dialogue in The Phantom Menace is consistently poor and even baffling at times. Prestige actors like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor can't even make a lot of this work, so placing some diabolically bad dialogue in the hands of an actual 9 year old, while you're also renowned for not exactly being an actors director, spells disaster.
So it's unfortunate for the young Jake Lloyd to receive much of the blowback to this film as his performance just isn't good. Maybe it's a case of poor timing as the second highest grossing film of 1999, The Sixth Sense had one of the best child performances of all-time in it, courtesy of Haley Joel Osment (which even netted him an Oscar nomination). Combined with Jar Jar, a poor child acting performance which also makes up a central part of the film, makes The Phantom Menace unfortunately annoying to watch pretty consistently.
This isn't even mentioning certain things that feel minor in the scheme of things, but in another movie would be major short fallings. Darth Maul looks really cool and woah, a double edged lightsaber? He's so cool, so it's a shame he is worthless as a character and given no personality or even any dialogue for the most part. He nonchalantly appears about halfway through the film and then completes his mandatory "badass" duel for the ending.
The ending is also a mess, with four separate events coinciding of varying importance and intended emotional weight. As George Lucas says in behind the scenes footage, reacting to the first cut of this ending: "I may have gone a bit too far in few places". There's an overwhelming sense that somebody on the production needed to be there to challenge Lucas more firmly and reign him in.
IS IT WORTH A WATCH?
NO! But the ambition on show cannot be faulted and it is as at least as fascinating as it is terrible. I think it's the worst Star Wars prequel, so for that you could say it's only up from here (though, not as high up as you'd ideally want). John Williams did his magic on the soundtrack at least! But mostly, this is pretty bad, especially as with age we take these sort of digital effects for granted. So the story, characters and script are center frame in our mind and it's impossible to ignore how sloppy this feels. Considering the overall quality of the prequel trilogy, you could skip this one and move straight onto Attack of the Clones and you won't have missed much beyond a few character introductions that you can infer.
Attack of the Clones
"A JEDI SHALL NOT KNOW ANGER. NOR HATRED. NOR LOVE."
Director: George Lucas
Writers: George Lucas & Jonathan Hales
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen
Brief Synopsis: Following an assassination attempt on Senator Padmé Amidala, Jedi Knights Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi investigate a mysterious plot that could change the galaxy forever.
Sticking to a three year release cycle, the middle chapter in the prequel trilogy arrived in 2002. By this time the legacy of The Phantom Menace was already starting to be cemented as a poorly thought out film. While the effects and 'magic' of a new Star Wars might've blinded people upon its initial 1999 release, having three years for it to settle in meant that certain flaws were apparent to even general movie-goers. The mixed response effected George Lucas's approach to this sequel and he brought in a co-writer, Jonathan Hales. The negative response to Jar Jar Binks in particular stung Lucas and he mockingly used the title Jar Jar's Great Adventure as a working titled for the film.
With such a mixed response and now a co-writer to help reel things in, the stage is set for Attack of the Clones to be better, though now it's largely considered the one of the worst Star Wars films and definitely the worst of the prequel trilogy, generally. I think it's an improvement, but I can't fault anyone for thinking this is worse than The Phantom Menace because it certainly shares a lot of that film's problems while also introducing some notable new sources of disdain for audiences to marvel at.
It's worth noting that Attack of the Clones marked a shift in what blockbuster audiences were after, becoming the first Star Wars film to not be the highest grossing film of the year. Peter Jackson's second instalment in his Lord of the Rings trilogy was putting this film to shame in terms of quality, the second Harry Potter film was showing that kids were interested in a different fantasy series and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man was one of the first movies to foreshadow the eventual dominance that Marvel and superhero films would have over general audiences.
To focus on what this film does do better, the script is far more focused than The Phantom Menace. There's clear storylines with more defined characters. Anakin is aged up and now played by Hayden Christensen while Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan is actually given the screen time and plot involvement that he so desperately needed in the previous film. Jar Jar Binks is still here, but his sidekick role is greatly diminished.
Though, while better structured, the dialogue fares not much better here. A primary point of discussion on this film is the Anakin Skywalker and Padmé romance. It's a very unfortunate aspect of the plot that has cemented this as one of the least liked of the Star Wars saga, if not the least liked. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman don't have particularly good chemistry and the dialogue Lucas gives them to work with, ah. It's some of the most baffling dialogue you'll hear in a mostly self-serious film like this, lots of it is infamous such as Anakin's "I don't like sand" monologue, where you can feel Christensen's disbelief at what he's being directed to say.
Though while this dialogue is often unintentionally hilarious and often groan-inducing, I do get where Lucas was coming from. It's an attempt to be theatrical, with flowery dialogue and unconditional lust for a forbidden romance. Hayden Christensen's performance for these scenes scream unconvincing, especially given that Natalie Portman comes off more confused by his attempts to woo her. Though the childish entitlement that Anakin has towards the romance does fit in with his character, this prequel trilogy being a villain origin story after all. It's just a shame the romance feels goofy and flat.
While the romance is going on, Obi-Wan goes off on a classic noir styled detective action-adventure journey that has some charm to it. Lucas successfully channels the old b-movie adventure serials he was inspired by for this sequence, and even the final act where the cast all coincide. Finally allowing McGregor some time to shine shows him as a worthy successor to Alec Guinness even if the script he's working with isn't much to write home about.
I enjoy the first two acts to this film to an extent because it has a good energy and serviceable structure, making its flaws bearable. Sadly, the final act turns into CGI noise where George Lucas shows us his collection of new toys, where many jedi all mindlessly fight in a colosseum. Since Darth Maul was killed off in the original film (which comes off as one of Phantom Menace's many mistakes) they introduce another new villain this time, Count Dooku who is portrayed by Christopher Lee. An inspired casting choice given his reputation for starring as villains, such as Count Dracula, a James Bond villain and even as a villain in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was being released alongside this new Star Wars trilogy. His presence here is enjoyable, but it still feels like a bit of wasted potential given his hurried introduction and focus on having him in the inevitable climatic lighsaber fight.
IS IT WORTH A WATCH?
Probably not? This is still very lacking but at least this time it's got a solid through line to make it more watchable. The romance stuff is cringe, but I think some of it works to make Anakin an uneasy presence - someone who's been put in the role of a hero when he's clearly destined (as we the audience know) to be a villain. Still, the final act sucks and the writing is often borderline unacceptable so it brings down an otherwise silly and fun sci-fi b-movie with a massive production value.
The Revenge of the Sith
"THE SAGA IS COMPLETE."
(well, until the sequel trilogy in ten years time...)
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid
Brief Synopsis: The evil Darth Sidious enacts his final plan for unlimited power – and the heroic Jedi Anakin Skywalker must choose a side.
The finale to the prequel trilogy! In contrast to The Return of the Jedi, of which the title of this film smartly mirrors, the stakes weren't quite as high. Coming off two of two films lauded with praise compared to coming off of two films that were lauded with various criticisms. But Revenge of the Sith promised to be the darkest Star Wars yet, recieving a PG-13 rating, the first in the franchise to do so. Of course, the central outcome of the film was inevitably to show us how Anakin Skywalker turned ot the dark side and became legendary villain Darth Vader.
Revenge of the Sith is considered a redeeming film in the prequel trilogy, but when 2/3rds of that trilogy is kinda bad, does it really make it worthwhile? Well I'd argue this still isn't particularly good, though it's the movie where the flaws aren't so distracting and center frame, making it the ewasiest of the prequel trilogy to enjoy at a mindless baseline blockbuster level. The dialogue is not as constantly baffling and lightsabers go whooosh a lot. Finally, George Lucas gives the fanboys what they wanted!
Here the action is set at such a preposterously large scale that the operatic ambitions of this prequel trilogy finally feel like they're being more consistently met. I see the vision George! It's just a shame it took this long and still isn't fully capitalised on at the trilogy's close. The drama here actually has some weight and it's also the most consistently entertaining of the prequels. Not really any large lulls in quality, even if some of the first half is definitely still silly. What's cooler than Darth Maul having a double edged lightsabre? What's cooler than Anakin dual-wielding lightsabres? UHH how about we get a robot to quad wield lightsabres, yep George you've outdone yourself this time.
While he's been present for each chapter of the prequel trilogy, finally Ian McDiarmid is allowed to let loose and show his change from 'Chancellor Palpatine' to the evil 'Emperor'. He's silly but also menacing, probably my favourite performance of the prequels by far. He's one of the only actors who can take George Lucas's dialogue and work it to sounding compelling. He's having fun with the role and seems more at ease with the ridiculous dialogue, hamming it up as the villain.
The core to this film is Anakin's turn to the dark side, and given that the previous two films didn't do too much to move him along the path of light to darkness, his motivation here feels a bit underwhelming. There's some interesting elements of moral; ambiguity given the roles of the Jedi and the opposing Sith, but the screenplay simply toys with these ideas rather to committing to them. The core story here is the best of the prequels for sure, it's just a shame we're left to bask in filler content like Obi-Wan chasing another new villain as they kill off Christopher Lee's Count Dooku in the opening and also there's a vacant detour to get us a Chewbacca cameo as Yoda goes there for some CGI mindlessness.
It all leads up to the largest scaled scene in all of Star Wars, a fateful duel between Obi-wan and Anakin and the true origin of Darth Vader. Comparing the modest lightsaber battles of the original trilogy to this behemoth of a scene reveals a bit of 'style over substance', but hey, this is pretty stylish and enjoyably large scaled. Dialling back to the beginning of the film, a digital no cuts tracking shot intro offers one of the series' most exciting space battles of the trilogy. These parts of the film finally seem like George Lucas has found the tone and style for his trilogy, just way too late.
IS IT WORTH A WATCH?
If you watched/suffered through the other two (or Attack of the Clones at least) or have a mild curiosity then this is the most harmless of the prequels. Though it's still not very good. It's got the most excitement and drama of the trilogy, but still largely feels hollow and the payoff for this entire trilogy being Darth Vader comically hobbling forward in a thinly masked allusion to Frankenstein and shouting "NOOoOooOooOo" is laughable, but whatever.
George Lucas would continue to work with the expanded universe of Star Wars TV shows, video games and comics, but this remains his last hurrah as a writer-director.