Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is about to be released in 3D, and I’m going to see it. I’ve learned not to say that out loud, though: invariably, the horrified look I get when I favorably mention Episode I is something akin to the look I imagine I’d get if I told a racist joke. It’s a look that says, “I’ve always liked and respected you, so if you stop talking about this right this instant, I’ll agree to imagine I misheard what you just said.”
13 years (holy crap!) since the release of Episode I, it’s safe to say that George Lucas’s prequel project was not successful. Instead of amplifying and extending the success of the Star Wars franchise, the prequels dumped a bucket of ice-cold water over the raging boner that pop culture once had for Star Wars. Lucas himself has gone from being a revered genius to a punchline, and the once-cherished characters from the original trilogy, having kept their cool over the course of two decades of hyperaggressive merchandising, have finally been overexposed.
It was all but impossible to match the power of the first three Star Wars films; in retrospect, Lucas’s failure was practically inevitable. If there was any chance of making three films that would measure up to the original trilogy, Lucas blew it by forgoing the kind of meaningful collaboration with other writers and directors that kept the first three films snappy. The hammy clowning of Jar Jar Binks and other characters is beyond embarrassing when compared to the adroit wit of Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. The Force didn’t need a pseudo-scientific explanation, and the story of Anakin’s virgin birth was one of cinema’s great eye-rollers. Lucas overreached with his digital effects and left his somber cast floating in a digital vacuum that makes the sterile cyberscape of Tron look like the Mos Eisley cantina.
That said, I maintain that the prequels’ failure is relative, not objective. Episodes I-III don’t hold a candle to Episodes IV-VI, but if those first three movies had never been released, I think the public perception of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith would be much more positive.
Though the glossy CGI of the prequels compares unfavorably to the IRL grit of the original trilogy, objectively there’s a lot of great design in the prequels. The retro curves of the N-1 starfighter are just as stunning as anything Ralph McQuarrie and the original trilogy’s design team came up with, and the visual transformation of the Old Republic into the Galactic Empire is executed with impressive snap and subtlety. It’s worth revisiting the prequel trilogy if only to enjoy the production design.
Fundamentally, though, what makes the prequels objectively good movies—there, I said it—is the way that Lucas re-engages the ancient themes that made the original trilogy so compelling. Much has been made of Lucas’s debt to Joseph Campbell and the idea of universal myths, and the fall of Anakin is a genuinely resonant story.
The best sequence in the prequel trilogy comes in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin yields to the temptation to use his Jedi powers to lay wanton waste to the Tusken Raiders who killed his mother. “I killed them all,” he says, trembling with a rage that betrays his deep-seated fear and weakness. “They’re dead, every single one of them. And not just the men, but the women and the children, too. They’re like animals.”
It would be a powerful moment in any movie, but it’s all the more so in Episode II, foreshadowing what we’ve already seen in Episode IV: Obi-Wan confidently holding his saber at bay and allowing Anakin-turned-Vader to slice him in two. “If you strike me down,” Obi-Wan tells his former pupil, “I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” In Episode VI, the best of the entire series—there, I said that too—Luke saves both his father Anakin and himself by refusing to take his own anger out on the helpless Vader. At that moment, Luke becomes a true Jedi and assures the Emperor’s destruction.
The Emperor is the other great character in the films, and not nearly enough has been said about the good sense and good fortune of having the masterful Ian McDiarmid return in the prequels to reprise his role as Palpatine. The prequel trilogy became politically relevant in ways Lucas couldn’t have guessed: the demagogic rise of Palpatine on the strength of the fears he stoked in his subjects found an eerie mirror in President Bush’s cynical manipulation of public opinion as he rushed to war in Iraq. McDiarmid’s performance is a chillingly resonant exception to the general silliness of Episode I: watch for the play of greed and delight on his face as he says in quiet realization, “I will be Chancellor.”
It’s unfortunate—some would say downright tragic—that Lucas squandered the opportunity to make much, much better movies in Episodes I-III. But the movies he did make weren’t all bad. In fact, in a lot of ways they’re pretty damn good.