Let me start by making three points: 1) I’m glad that the Saturn Awards gave me this opportunity to discuss the Star Wars prequels, and thus round out my Star Wars coverage. As much as I complain in the following review, I am well aware that I inflicted this upon myself. 2) Lots of people, including rambling, misanthropic serial killers, have already covered what’s wrong with these movies, in incredible depth, so you might as well skip my thoughts. 3) Before you skip this, however, you should know that I got quite buzzed before rewatching/blogging this movie. I’ve had four beers, and I’m sipping brandy from here on out (“beer before liquor, you’re in the clear”! Right?) I’m not claiming that I’m blogging Sith drunk….but I kind of am. I’m “semi-live-blogging it buzzed,” at least. Also, note that I’m too drunk to care about spoilers for once.
These opening space battle shots above Coruscant are pretty darn cool…
So, yes, I think I’ve made it clear that I like the original trilogy (episodes 4-6), a not-so-controversial opinion, at least until the Ewoks show up. The prequel trilogy, which George Lucas gave us in 1999, 2002, and 2005, on the other hand, is utter crap. Again, this is not a controversial opinion. When Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, everyone felt obliged to love it for a couple of months, then collectively realized that it was awful. To this day, I’d say it still stands as one of the worst science fiction films ever made. Three things, in particular, made it awful: 1) Comedy slapstick racist-against-Jamaicans cgi alien Jar-Jar Binks, 2) crappy child actor Darth Vader saves the day, and 3) midi-chlorians, a pseudo-sciency explanation for Jedi manipulation of the formerly-New-Age concept of the Force. There was a really cool light-sabre battle in there, and someone tried to save it with the so-called “Phantom Edit;” my personal “Phantom Edit” would probably be about 15 minutes long and would be all Qui-Gon/Darth Maul/Natalie Portman-looking-pretty. All three of the original trilogy won Hugos and Saturns; the prequel trilogy received this one Saturn and nary a Hugo nomination.
Ugh, Hayden Christensen acting is really ruining this opening space battle.
2002’s Episode II, the awesomely-named-if-it-had-been-ironic-but-it-wasn’t-so-it’s-terriblly-named Attack of the Clones was a fair sight better, and had some genuinely cool action sequences. Unfortunately, the whole thing leans rather heavily on the love story between Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie “super-awesome-Oscar-winning-actress-clearly-slumming-it” Portman). At least one of these two is an amazing actor, but both of them come off as more wooden than a duck decoy [I’ve lived in Minnesota too long]. I blame George Lucas, who directs actors about as well as he writes dialogue (ie, not very well). After all of this, we’ve barely started on the path to episode IV. Anakin still needs to knock up his girl with twins, turn into Darth Vader, fight his teacher Obi-wan, and betray the Jedi order….which leaves a lot of ground for Episode III.
Which brings us to this film, Episode III, released in 2005. Padme is pregnant, Anakin is nervous about said pregnancy, and is being manipulated by Senator Palpatine, whom we all know to be the main villain of the whole series. Meanwhile, Anakin and his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor, the one actor able to come out of these movies looking halfway decent) are knee-deep in the clone wars, in which a separatist alliance using slapstick-loving droids fights the Republic’s clone army, which came from some complicated and conspicuously-unresolved plot-point in the second movie. This film begins with a major battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan and separatist generals Grevious (cgi) and Dooku (Hammer Horror/LoTR alum Christopher Lee). Then, Anakin worries that his secret wife Natalie Portman will die birthing Mark Hammill and Carrie Fisher, which allows Palpatine to manipulate him.
Which is where I am in the film right now. Blah blah blah; talkie talkie. “I wanna be on the Jedi Council, wah!” whines the future Darth Vader. I guess we know where Luke “I was gonna go to Tashi Station to get some power converters, wah!” Skywalker gets it, at least.
I need more brandy.
At the time, the commentary on the Bush administration (fear leads to totalitarianism!) felt rather significant. In hindsight…not so much. Bush’s approval ratings were already in steep decline in mid-2005, and they never recovered. The one aspect of this film that made it seem more relevant than the others sort of faded away in hindsight.
I still think this is the best of the three prequels, but it does have four clear problems. None is as prevalent as the many crippling issues of Episode One or the one fatal flaw (love story fail) of Episode Two, but they add up to another failure.
There are angry drunks. There are sad drunks. Apparently, I’m a list-making drunk. On a side note, a special thanks to spell-checker for making me seem more sober.
Problem #1: Continuity. This is the nerdiest complaint, but I think it says a lot about Lucas’s lack of planning and general pandering. Why are R2-D2 and C3PO in these movies? Why is Chewbacca in this one? Their presence seems to contradict some of what we see in the original films, so why include them at all? Hint: it’s not because they further plot or character in any way.
Problem #2: Pacing: Taken individually, beyond its contribution to the Star Wars mythos, the film’s greatest sin is that it just sort of plods along. Most of what we get is foreordained by the original trilogy, so a lot of this is just filler, especially Obi-Wan’s entire second-act-dominating battle with Grevious. And then there’s that really long third-act battle between Yoda and Palpatine, which would’ve been pretty unimaginable in 1982, but looks mostly like cgi-dreck today.
Okay, switching to wine so that I don’t pass out.
Problem #3: Sad, pathetic Vader: Darth Vader is probably the most fascinating character of the original trilogy. His origin should have been very interesting, but Chistensen gives a very whiny performance that undermines the whole character. Even the dark moments – the previous movie’s Sand-Person genocide and this movie’s Jedi-child-killing – come off as moments of weakness rather than moments of rage or evil. And his journey here is all over the place as he bounces aimlessly between Palpatine and Master Samuel L. Jackson. In no way does this version of the character live up to what we saw in the original trilogy.
Of course, the worst moment has nothing to do with Christensen:
Problem #4: Women are sad, sad, emotional trainwrecks: The original trilogy gave us one of the great female characters in sf in Princess Leia. When she’s “rescued” by Han and Luke, she immediately grabs a gun, kills a bunch of storm-troopers, and takes control of the situation. Sure, she ends up in a metal bikini in Jedi, but even then, she gets to kill Jabba and play a key role in the final mission on Endor. Meanwhile, Padme dies of… heartbreak?! Over Hayden Christensen’s Anakin???? Pathetic and insulting. This bothers me most of all.
Let me end on a positive note. The plots of the prequel trilogy are astonishingly lame, but the world that Lucas creates is pretty rich. I think it’s unintentional, but the lush, colorful, slapstciky world of the prequels ends up being a rather nice contrast to the stark authoritarian world of the original trilogy (especially if you can manage to get the non-adulterated-special-edition versions). It used to be a world of silly cgi Jar-Jars, and became a world of dirty space-bars and crappy-spaceships. In other words, the colorful, silly, kid-friendly world of the prequels can actually make the original trilogy better in contrast. Also, if you look at Genndy Tartakovsky’s prequel era cartoons, which are actually really great, mostly dialogue-free takes on the era from the creator of Samurai Jack and Powerpuff Girls, I think you really get an idea of the potential here. The world Lucas creates is a lot better than the films themselves, and it still adds to a rich mythos.
Phantom Menace: F
Attack of the Clones: C-
Revenge of the Sith: C-