Reconsidering “Star Wars”: Prequels Edition

[DISCLAIMER: GEEK-OUT POST AHEAD–BUT NO EPISODE VII SPOILERS, SO NO WORRIES.]

Mrs4thDave and I have been (re)watching the 6 Star Wars films in anticipation of Thursday night’s release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It had been years since I’ve seen some of these films (in the case of Episode III, I think I only ever saw it on opening night in the theater).

It’s easy to bust on the prequel trilogy. Over the last sixteen years, it has become matter-of-fact among some circles that the prequels were terrible, ruining the childhood memories of fans everywhere. (And that’s putting it extremely mildly, as the rhetoric in some dank corners of the internet is much worse–very much a wretched hive of scum and villainy). One only needs to mutter the word “midichlorians,” and almost ever Star Wars fan within earshot involuntarily sneers or shudders.

I confess that I’ve been one of these fans, jumping on the anti-prequel bandwagon. However, when your beloved wife suggests that you marathon the Star Wars films, you don’t say no.  And in rewatching the prequels, my opinions/thoughts about the prequels have evolved. Today, I’d like to share some stray observations. But first…

Let’s go ahead and address the first elephant in the room: Jar Jar Binks. So much fan angst has been directed at Jar Jar Binks, and sure, sure, we can understand that, right?

I mean, how bizarre and out of place is some weird creature with big ears who lives in mysterious water-based environment, acts in a childish way, and has a bizarre and awkward speech pattern? …Wait, sorry, were you thinking of Jar Jar Binks just now? I was talking about our first introduction of another character, in Episode V.

yoda just went there

Am I equating Jar Jar Binks with Master Yoda? No. Am I saying that the angry fan reactions to a silly and harmless character are over-the-top, even for Star Wars fans? Yes. Yes, I am.  (Am I going to get death-threats some day for saying that? Yes, because the world is bonkers.)

Elephant, number 2: Midichlorians. Yes, it’s unnecessary. Yes, it takes some of the “magic” away from the mythos of The Force. But does it really matter beyond Phantom Menace? No. It’s never mentioned again. Move on.  Honestly, I’m more irritated by the fact Shmi Skywalker says that Anakin was immaculately conceived.

Mary Midichlorians

Okay, with those two issues out of the way, onto the hail of bullet-points:

  • Can we start by giving big props to Qui-Gonn Jinn, the most Jedi-est Jedi in the Council? Seriously. The dude is boss.
  • The first movie is about taxes and trade embargoes. Just think about that. We got tricked into watching a movie about economic theory. Well-played, Lucas.
  • The “Duel of the Fates” sequence in Phantom Menace is one of the 3 best lightsaber duels in the entire series. Go ahead, prove me wrong. The next-best (but only by a hair) is Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar, in Sith. You might make an argument for the Luke and Vader fight in Jedi, but that’s only because of the emotional stakes involved.
  • The love story in Attack of the Clones is still wooden, awkward, and unbelievable. Padme flips a switch and is suddenly into a guy who has been leering at her like a creeper, admits he’s been obsessed with her for a decade, makes awkward romantic advances, and–oh yeah–has unchecked rage issues and homicidal tendencies. You picked a winner, lady.
  • Seriously, Padme, he slaughtered an entire village of sand-people. Maybe they are savage. Yes, they kidnapped his mom and beat her to death.  He murdered an entire village of men, women, and children. This doesn’t give you pause, Padme?
  • I somehow never noticed the fact that they say Boba isn’t Jango’s son, he’s another clone. Somehow I forgot or glossed over that fact. Makes me wonder about Jango’s story a little more. Makes him a little more tragic, in my opinion.
  • Clone or not, Boba saw Jango as his father–whom he saw a Jedi decapitate right in front of him. (Again, a detail I had forgotten.) His motivation for being a villain makes so much more sense.
  • Having watched a little bit of the Clone Wars animated series, seeing Commander Cody turn on Obi-Wan during Revenge of the Sith made me really sad.
  • Revenge of the Sith is just a really good movie, despite the awkward and still joltingly out-of-place “No, no, no!” of Palpatine as he fights Mace Windu.
  • Even if the dialogue and Hayden Christenson’s emoting are off-point, Anakin’s storyline and character arc are believable and consistent throughout the prequels. His greatest fear is losing the people he cares about–mirroring Luke’s fear of losing his friends.
  • Another cool mirroring moment: In Clones, Palpatine sits tied to a throne-like chair, telling young Skywalker to strike down an incapacitated Dooku (who is secretly Palpatine’s Sith-Lord apprentice). Eventually, Skywalker takes the slain apprentice’s place. In Jedi, Palpatine tries the same approach with Luke, who refuses to strike down the now-handless Vader. Nice.

I could list off several little details that somehow evaded me in previous viewings, but I’ll stop there.

So what’s my revised verdict on the prequels?  Honestly, they’re pretty good.

They aren’t perfect films, by any stretch, and they have moments of cheesiness and terrible dialogue. Of course, the classic trilogy falls into those traps as well. But I think the emotional arc of Anakin Skywalker and the Shakespearean tragedy of his downfall is still pretty compelling. The Phantom Menace gets more criticism than it deserves.  Attack of the Clones is actually the weakest film of the prequels, but it’s not without merit. And Revenge of the Sith is actually a pretty great film that gets overlooked when the three are lumped together.

So, if you’re in the mood, I would recommend rewatching the Star Wars prequels. In spite of their imperfections, they are a lot of fun and provide some surprising depth of character and feeling.

=====

What do you think? Are the Prequel Trilogy secretly great? Obviously awful? Somewhere in between? What are the best moments or most frustrating elements of the films? Sound off in the comments below–but BE NICE. What do you think this is, Mos Eisley?

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15 thoughts on “Reconsidering “Star Wars”: Prequels Edition

  1. I forgot to give props for Darth Maul! Darth Maul was a truly menacing villain, in the same way that Darth Vader was the first time you saw him. Maul didn’t say much, and he just exuded malice. Dooku and Grievous couldn’t come close to that level of nasty.

    • Buy the Book Darth Maul, Shadow Hunter to find out more about the guy. His hatred inside is palpable! Just do a google search for Darth Maul books and you’ll see there’s plenty of backstory on this character you barely meet in the movies!

  2. What a great, honest review. I was one of those pathetic losers that simply enjoyed jar jar binks and the whole story. I loved the clone wars cartoon, too. I didn’t complain about Anakin’s whining in II and III. It seemed like the natural progression that he’d be an unlikable character. Could they have found a better actor, maybe? I’ll grant you that.

    But Qui Gon Jinn – OH YEAH. Totes Agree witchoo there, bro!

    Now, I don’t know how geeky people really are. I was one of those guys that read all the books. Dozens of star wars universe books. I know about the origination of the Sith, how the trade federation and all the difficulties with naboo and the trade routes started, the history of Darth Maul, how light sabers are made…what happens to Luke and Han’s kids! You get the point. I even read a comic book version which showed Dooku ordering the clones. neat stuff.

    In Ep II, remember the early battle with Dooku that ends rather quickly? In the book, that was like 3 chapters long, with history and the thoughts and feelings of the people – characterization. There is so much NOT REVEALED in the movies which is part of the story. Oh well. Those were the days my friend. I grew up and sold all my books. I wish I had them all now for my son.

    So I appreciate the movies for what they are. I thought they were fun. The good guys used the power of good to win over the bad guys. Evil deeds are punished. Overall a nice story to enjoy.

    • It’s nice to hear unqualified appreciation from an actual fan of the whole SW universe. You spend enough time on the internet, you become convinced that most self-proclaimed Star Wars fans were just hate-watching the prequel trilogy.

  3. We only own Sith and Empire and watched them the other night. Empire first (and the hubs and I whined along with Luke “NO! THAT’S NOT TRUE! IT’S IMPOSSIBLE!”) and then Anakin in Sith. Winston cried when Anakin became Vader but then admitted he’s the coolest bad guy ever. I think he’s having a crisis of conscience because he feels like he should hate Vader but really thinks he’s the bomb.com. He is so into Star Wars right now so Christmas gifts are pretty much SET. 🙂

    • Opening for spiritual conversations about sin and redemption? I’m not saying anyone should strain to make the whole thing an analogy (that would be a disaster), but it might be worth talking about how we are tempted to sin in order to get what we want, but we can be rescued from our sin.

      And YES on the Star Wars toys. I remember getting the original-release SW toys when I was a youngling. I loved those things. (Also, pro-tip: blue Playdough makes excellent carbonite for encasing GI Joes, but is impossible to remove completely from all their joints later!)

  4. I like Phantom the best of the prequels. I do not understand the love for Sith. I’ve been rewatching all of these two (I need to rewatch the 6th yet) and when it came time for Sith, complete boredom. I think that was the third time I’ve seen that movie, ever? Hayden Christensen is a good actor, but the character is just so badly written, especially the dialogue. And yeah, Padme turned into a different person starting with Clones. Why do I dislike Sith? I honestly don’t know because I haven’t watched it closely enough to say why. Just, nothing lands for me. I’m baffled that people say it’s the best. Now, I admit, it’s less painful than Clones, and the only reason I’m not bored through Clones is (1) it’s painful and (2) some nostalgia, since I was about 16 when it came out.

    Phantom, I suppose, is muddied with nostalgia, but I do think it works the best. Qui-Gon is awesome, I enjoy the Padme subterfuge story, the podracing scene is great (even if it’s a little off-topic), the sets, the costumes, oy vey! It’s nice to get some sand. That’s so Star Wars and Episode VII is acknowledging that. And the lightsaber duel is my 2nd favorite. At least, I’m pretty sure it is. When I rewatch 6th, I’ll have a better stat there. Also, boo on you for not factoring in emotional drama with lightsaber battles! I love the end when Ewan is anger-fighting Maul.

    (It goes without saying I find the Sith lightsaber duel terrible and disappointing, but keeping my emotions out of it, I still think it’s weak and the overabundance of set pieces is compensating for that. The characters get lost in it, for me. Joss Whedon mentioned in Firefly commentary how he used a peaceful snowy scene to mourn a character’s death, and how it’s nice to tweak the expected weather, to make sure the moods don’t match perfectly so there’s contrast, so there’s the discord the characters no doubt feel. I don’t think you always need to do that, but I do think matching the mood too closely makes it all blur together, and yeah, the erupting volcanic lava was too spot on.)

    To me, the prequels are 50% okay. That’s a bad rating for most films, but this is Star Wars, so that makes it endurable. I don’t need to forget about them like I do the 4th Indiana Jones. I sort of rewrite them in my head, though, so they suck less. Anakin and Obiwan’s duel has a lot less speaking in my head. They begin fighting suddenly, out of necessity, so there’s emotion throughout which gets communicated verbally at the end. Lucas knocks all the punch out before it happens.

    …That sort of rewriting.

    My biggest impression in the rewatch was of episode IV. It’s not since I was a teenager that I’ve watched that one straight through, and it’s so 70s, including the hero’s friend (Han) showing no interest in Leia beyond affirming that yes, she is objectively beautiful, and then egging Luke on a bit. The scene where he says, “Do you think a princess and a guy like me?” I had retroactively imagined to be his first mental pairing of him and Leia… I had though it was genuine… but Harrison Ford’s acting makes it pretty clear it’s not. He gets the idea because he sniffs some possessiveness from Luke. Also the part at the end where he tells Luke, “May the force be with you,” I had imagined to be the first moment he was giving the force some credence, but Harrison Ford plays it like Han is about to laugh throughout that line, and Luke lets it go either because he doesn’t notice or because the occasion around them is too serious. In short, Han Solo has no arc in episode IV, not until the very very end, and I’d thought there was more.

    It was most interesting to watch 4 fantastic actors (Guinness, Hamill, Ford, Fisher) make the bad dialogue work. I can’t fault Christensen and Portman, though, because their situations were much more serious and it’s harder there.

    Episode V is a work of brilliance. Some people hate how Luke gets marred by a monster at the beginning, due to him being in that car wreck and needing a plot reason for his face to be different, but I think it just adds to the random unfairness they’re all dealing with, like the hyperdrive consistently failing. Episode V is about reality. Although it is a little unreal how many admirals Vadar goes through. I have to imagine it’s a recent phase, otherwise that system would crumble fast. And the Yoda/spaceship moment works infinitely better without the prequels. If jedi can move spaceships around rooms, whoa, game changer. That’s a wonderful moment and the first time in that movie we feel any hope.

    Novel! Apologies for any typos. I’m sure they hurt. 😉

    • Excellent! You wrote: “Anakin and Obiwan’s duel has a lot less speaking in my head.”
      I always liked when Obi Wan said, “Only a Sith speaks in absolutes, Anakin.” I kept wondering, is that absolute?
      I am going to see the movie Friday morning. A company is treating me and they sent this note today:
      “For security purposes, the theater requests that masks, face paint and costumes are not worn for this event.”
      I replied to the email: “Are light sabers ok?” 😛

      • Dang, now I’m worried about a shooting where I am. I can imagine one happening there really well. Opening night? Well, I guess now I will have an exit strategy.

        Yes, “only a Sith deals in absolutes,” is an absolute. So much cringe.

  5. I think my enjoyment of Sith comes from Palpatine playing Anakin like a violin. It has a tragic quality to it–yes, he embraces the darkness, but a fair bit of Anakin’s fall is that he’s lied to or purposefully left in the dark by everyone around him.

    I see your point about the Mustafar location being overly involved in the duel. But then again, the Naboo location was a major factor in the duel in Phantom as well (e.g. the force-fields creating tension by suddenly stopping the action).

    Han’s motivation: Okay, yeah, I see what you’re saying about the “guy like me” line, but I still think he’s idly considering it–much like any guy imagining a random pairing with some unlikely girl. However, I think his “May the Force be with you” is more along the lines of an agnostic saying some sort of spiritual blessing to their religious friend–i.e. I know this means something to you, even if I’m not sure it means anything to me.

    Vader’s admirals–I’m suddenly getting image of Vader as Caesar, just randomly ordering people to be killed.

    The different view of Yoda will be part of my next post (I’m doing another one about the classic trilogy). Basically, I would argue the prequels lessen the impact of Yoda in Empire. More on this later.

    [Also, another idea that will mess with one’s view of the series: if droids are sentient beings, then everyone in this story is essentially engaged in slave trade. So there’s that.]

    Thanks for commenting! I’m really enjoying this discussion with everyone.

  6. Dave, I love you, but the prequels sucked. I remember waiting all day at the Shawnee Mall to see Phantom Menace and then leaving at 3am entirely let down. At least I got an “A” on Dr. Litherland’s Gov final the next morning. I will say the lightsaber duels were cool, but the whole thing just seems disconnected from the later movies. Finally, I still haven’t figured out why some jedi fade away and others don’t yet some can come back as force ghosts. I know there are explanations online, but from the movies they are completely unclear.

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