Even writing about George Lucas' three prequel films to arguably the most iconic trilogy in the history of cinema is less enjoyable than recounting my experience watching Episodes IV, V and VI. Whereas viewing the original trilogy allows you to balance one against the other, comparing how well each uses similar elements, choosing your favourite film and considering how well they fit together as an overarching narrative, the same task becomes a frustrating chore when applied to the prequel trilogy. Evaluating Episodes I, II and III is simply an exercise in picking out redeeming features amongst the sea of mistakes Lucas makes over and over again.
From the opening crawl of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, it's genuinely difficult to understand the reasoning behind the angle that Lucas opts for. Unnecessarily convoluted and frankly dull language about "the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems" starts the whole saga off on an awkward downbeat, something only furthered by Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), a pair of Jedi Knights, the mystical heroes of the Star Wars universe, promptly being ushered into a waiting room. So much of what is on offer throughout the film is weighed down with uninteresting diplomatic wrangling that it's hard to engage even when The Phantom Menace does occasionally improve. When the narrative shifts to Tatooine, Lucas draws matters out further, seemingly hoping to shift from politics to human drama but failing thanks to the flat characterisation and artificial dialogue which permeate his film.
Neeson admirably tries his hardest to make the vapid lines he has throughout work, Natalie Portman as Queen Padmé Amidala seems utterly bored throughout, whilst McGregor is too focused on doing an Alec Guinness impersonation to actually act. Jake Lloyd as the nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker grates in most of his scenes, but also feels seriously miscast - do we genuinely believe at any point during the film that he'll grow up to be Darth Vader? Jar Jar Binks has become the emblem of all that is wrong with The Phantom Menace, and whilst his clumsy brand of humour and the cultural ignorance behind his design and performance - whether intentional or not - does nothing to help the film, to be fair he's just one part of a badly conceived whole.
As poor as The Phantom Menace is in many ways, it's not unwatchable. Whilst it goes on for a little longer than necessary, the pod racing section is well executed and offers one of the few uses of CGI throughout the film that hasn't aged badly. The closing lightsaber battle in which Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan face off against the pitifully underutilised Darth Maul (Ray Park, voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) is one of the best in the entire franchise, brilliantly played out against John Williams' flawless composition "Duel Of The Fates".
Unfortunately, nothing really improves in Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, which essentially provides us with two narratives seemingly competing to be the least engaging in any Star Wars film. So we have the now nineteen-year-old Anakin (Hayden Christensen) assigned to protect Padmé, now a senator, after an attempt on her life, and subsequently wooing her through some truly terrible dialogue. Whilst Portman seems marginally more interested here, there is little chemistry between her and Christensen, and the relationship between Anakin and Padmé falls completely flat. The subplot involving Anakin's mother Shmi (Pernilla August) is clearly intended to introduce and develop key elements of Anakin's character, but as Shmi severely lacks any development either here or in the previous film these scenes fails to resonate at all.
Elsewhere, Obi-Wan is assigned to investigate the assassination attempt on Padmé. This basically involves him wandering around from one planet to another, either stumbling across things by accident or because someone else has done the thinking for him, and generally doing very little of interest. A fight between him and bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) is a relative highlight offering some brief interest, but there's little else here worth the considerable amount of time Lucas dedicates.
The key issue with Clones is that it's almost all set-up, and in a film not far shy of two-and-a-half hours in length that's a problem that can't be surmounted with an action-packed final act. That's what Lucas gives us, of course, but the overuse of CGI throughout makes the climax feel soulless. Matters pick up once Lucas brings the focus onto the battle pitting Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) first against Anakin and Obi-Wan and then Yoda (Frank Oz). It's here that the film's solitary redeeming moment is delivered, deserving considerable credit for not only successfully making a former Count Dracula having a lightsaber duel with a pointy-eared diminutive alien never feel comical, but delivering a well-choreographed and intense confrontation.
As with The Phantom Menace, despite its widespread flaws the second prequel cannot be considered unwatchable. It is, however, the most boring Star Wars film by far of either this or the original trilogy. There are attempts at emotional drama and fantastical action, but none ever even begin to take hold. When the greatest level of chemistry and authentic character interaction throughout Clones is felt between Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu and the computer-generated Yoda, you know a great many factors in the film have gone seriously awry.
Whilst Clones deserves to be known as the most ponderous Star Wars film, Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith undoubtedly has earned its position as the luckiest. There are those who hold the third and final prequel in much higher regard than its pair of predecessors (with some even ranking it alongside the original trilogy), perhaps having been taken in by Lucas' need to provide the set-up for many well-known features of the original in this film by essentially writing and directing himself into a corner during Episodes I and II.
The opening twenty five minutes or so of Sith finally injects some real excitement into the prequels with a pleasing opening dogfight as Anakin and Obi-Wan complete a mission to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). It's arguably the strongest segment of the whole trilogy, but sadly Lucas cannot sustain this level of filmmaking. Soon we are back to the tedious political drama and Anakin's secret marriage to Padmé, both of which are as uninspired as ever.
Whilst both the previous films took far too long to do not very much, Sith in fact heads the other way. All the major events that should be a key focus of the prequels - the slaughter of the Jedi, Anakin taking on the name Darth Vader, and the first time he is sealed within his iconic black armour - are rushed through in a way that not only does them no justice, but in some cases actually harms them as narrative elements. The development of Anakin in particular feels ludicrously artificial, transforming from an ambitious Jedi Knight suffering a crisis of conscience to an evil, murderous psychopath over the course of only a few scenes. The closing battle between the newly titled Vader and Obi-Wan is fine, but again is oversaturated with CGI elements and feels somewhat underwhelming in scope considering it's the battle all three films have been building towards.
The other key problem with Sith is that its ending is inevitable in order to give the starting point for A New Hope, and that ending is one where evil comprehensively triumphs over good. More skilfully handled, this conclusion could have been shot through with genuine notes of pathos and tragedy, but in the pedestrian manner that Lucas delivers the final act it feels both deflating and unsatisfying. Whilst Sith deserves to be known as the most successful of the prequel trilogy, the film certainly doesn't achieve that status by any consequential margin. It's more of a case of which film is "least unsatisfying", rather than which is the best, as ultimately there's not a great deal between all three films in terms of their overall quality.
It's genuinely frustrating that there aren't more positives to pick out from any of Episodes I, II and III. There are a couple of elements which remain strong throughout all three films: John Williams' score is consistently excellent, meaning that the films are consistently great to listen to even if they aren't always so pleasing to watch. Ian McDiarmid's portrayal of Palpatine also deserves mention as perhaps the strongest turn of the trilogy as a whole, convincingly creating a duplicitous figure manufacturing his rise to power and only descending into cartoonish overacting towards the end of Sith.
With a third trilogy on the way, for the first time without any involvement whatsoever from George Lucas, there's no doubt that a great many Star Wars fans will be hoping the new films will match the success of the original three. It's also undeniably true that many will be tempering their expectations as a direct result of the prequel trilogy's underwhelming nature, hoping that current franchise owners Disney and the writers and directors they hire create something a lot better than the last time we ventured back a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away.
|Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace|
|Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones|
|Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith|