It’s a commonly accepted fact among most geeks that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was not very good. Generally, the common response is one of hate or disgust whenever the films are brought up. After many years and much deliberation, I’ve been forced to agree.
I wanted to have liked these movies so much. I really did. I tried for a long time to justify Lucas motives in making them the way he did. In the end, I just had to accept that they weren’t well made. (I’m not going to make any statements about how he’s destroyed my childhood or ruined Star Wars forever, etc. I’ll leave such judgements up to the more hyperbole-prone fans).
Part of the problem lies with the methods George Lucas used to make the newer films. He chose, for better or worse, to do things in an assembly-line style. This is great from a practical standpoint. You line up your various targets in a row and then take them down in succession. Lucas took each of the varied tasks and set them up in a corporate sort of structure–this department does this and that one does that, etc.
One need only look at the films to see the truth of the matter. The wardrobe, art department, visual effects, practical effects, music and so on are well executed. Even the advertising department did a wonderful job of getting people, time and again, to come in and see films that continued a story they had loudly and publicly decried on the internet.
Where this system failed miserably, however, was that Lucas did the story himself and, after however many drafts, decided what he had was good. This deviates from the mess that was the making of A New Hope, where many people worked on tweaking and outright re-writing the script until we arrived at we saw on screen. It’s been said repeatedly that Lucas needed an Editor or at least others’ input for the prequel trilogy. Sadly, in his confidence that he had the right set-up to make the films he certainly overestimated his own ability to pull off a satisfying story. And what is any film, no matter how efficiently its executed, without a good story first and foremost?
What They Did Right...
Most articles I’ve seen quickly jump to “what’s wrong with the films”. There are certainly many problems but there are also a few things they managed to get right.
As seen on the various documentaries included with the DVDs/Blu-rays, Lucas ran a very impressive operation when he filmed the three films. Each time, he was efficient and organized when he filmed these movies. He knew exactly what he wanted, how he wanted it and how to get there. It seems like waste was kept to a minimum.
The special effects are top notch, by and large. Lucas depended heavily on CGI instead of practical effects in these films. Most of it still holds up years later and looks very impressive even on a home screen. Additionally, the props and wardrobes are well done and very realistic looking when you watch the movies.
The music is also excellent. Especially in The Phantom Menace, it’s clear John Williams brought his “A” game to his efforts. New compositions, such as Duel of the Fates, the Trade Federation “invasion” music, the Tatooine street music and many others demonstrate this amply. Even Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith have their moments, although they don’t feel quite as creative overall when compared to the first four films (I’ve heard it said that Lucas wanted Williams to make places where he could just insert pre-recorded themes into the later films. I’m not certain if this is true or not but it does seem a logical option when one listens to the soundtracks as performed).
As previously mentioned, the advertising efforts were also excellent. The trailer for Phantom Menace made me want to rush out and see it. I don’t recall Attack of the Clones trailer as much but the Revenge of the Sith teaser was excellent. Obviously the commercials (and efforts) made people desire to go out and see the films time and again.
Of course the huge failure of the prequel trilogy is its awful storytelling. I’ve seen it mentioned that The Phantom Menace is structured horribly, without really having a main protagonist (one of the best commentaries on the matter that I’ve seen is the Redletter Media reviews, HERE). We really don’t know who to cheer for in TPM and after all is said and done, wonder why Qui Gon Jin is even in the story to begin with. Or why the characters make half of the choices that they do.
Attack of the Clones is interesting but right away I knew it was a terrible movie. I was in a daze after TPM but AOTC was bad right off the bat. Once again, we have things happening that are either irrelevant or poorly executed so that we can get to the special effects and action. Perhaps one of the story’s most critical flaws is the romance between Anakin Skywalker and Padme (side note: Why was she Queen Amidala in the first movie and then Padme Naberrie in the second? No one even tried to reconcile the name differences for the character. I mean, yes, she has a double in the first film so the dual identity sort of makes sense. But how does “Amidala” relate to Padme or her time as Queen? I could never figure that one out). The romance storyline is largely given a backseat compared against Obi-wan’s mystery plot and is never convincingly done. We know Padme likes Anakin on some level but why does she suddenly decide to fall in love and marry him? He goofs off around her, whines a lot and then his mommy dies so he goes and kills a bunch of Sandpeople. In the right hands, this could’ve made sense. As it is, it’s a mess and unconvincing). Two cut scenes from the movie where we meet Padme’s family and they discuss Anakin a little behind his back help but they could’ve gone further still.
On a minor note, the title is also terrible.... apparently Lucas was going for some kind of fifties sci-fi movie homage but it fails miserably and seems horribly out of place. The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith titles I have no qualms with.
Revenge of the Sith has its moments, but there aren’t enough of them and it’s still hampered by some bizarre story choices (wasting too much time on the Separatist ship, for example, and not being convincing enough in why Anakin turns to evil when all he really wants is to save his wife. Also, having most of the critical “Clone Wars” story happen off-camera between films).
It’s clear Lucas didn’t plot out the whole story ahead of time, instead having broad story “beats” to achieve in each segment (Padme meets Anakin. Check. Obi-wan trains Anakin. Check. Anakin turns evil. Check. And so on...) If he’d taken the time to look at the big picture (beyond his bank account total) he could’ve figured out what he needed to do and set it up over the course of all three films instead of the willy-nilly nature of the story we got.
Who knows? Maybe George was so busy running his empire that he didn’t have the time or creativity to devote to making a new story right. In that case, he really should’ve gotten some writers that he trusted and let them go to town on it instead.
A New Vision...
Lucas’ broad strokes were fine, he just didn’t execute them right. Looking at what he had, he should’ve axed the whole kid Anakin thing and made him a teenager to start with. Hire one actor to play the character (someone who could act and could pull off a believable Anakin, whether he’s mellow, a hothead or whatever). Have him be believable, want to do right and end up giving into the temptations of the dark side. For my two cents, make him a Han Solo-like character...after all, the audience should like him so they can cheer for him instead thinking he’s a whiny, obnoxious twerp like the Anakin we got.
Also, drop the whole religious-sounding thing where the Jedi abstain from relationships. It was stupid and really didn’t serve the story all that well. They were Jedi Knights, not Jedi Priests after all.
Decide what you want to do with Padme–is she a queen, a politician, something else all together and stick with it. She should be strong minded and independent. Their relationship should be less over the top and more natural. Make us believe it and feel sad when Anakin goes bad. No more of this she died because she lost the will to live crap.
Have some villains show up in the first movie and stay through until the third one. Yes, Darth Maul was cool but he died immediately with no real character development and had to be replaced by surrogates such as Count Dooku and General Grievous. Why not have had him stay until the late second movie or even the early third one? We get to know him a little, see him fight the bad guys-maybe beat them thoroughly–and then he gets his comeuppance in act three. Maybe Palpatine employs him with the secret plan that either Anakin will defeat him and join the dark side–or perhaps the best man will win. So Ray Park wasn’t an actor so much as a stuntman. No problem. Get him into an acting workshop, give him at least the basics. Done.
Either drop Qui-gon all together or have him be the apprentice to Obi-wan and have him die heroically early on. Obi-wan, Anakin and Padme should be the main focus of the story. Everyone and everything else is secondary.
Why not have the clones be the result of a mad eugenics war? Perhaps the Sith or somebody is creating an army to conquer the Galaxy and the Republic capture their own clone machines and grow some soldiers (or have them be reprogrammed to fight for the Republic). Yes, it’s a more simple approach. But Star Wars and simple go well together so why over-complicate things too much? Also, the droids were laughably bad opponents in the trilogy and shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Either no Jar Jar all together or replace him a more mellow, less spastic character. He really served no purpose in the story (other then to piss off adults and make kids buy toys). The idea of a cgi character was cool but the character himself was not.
Character and story are the key elements to a satisfying movie–Star Wars or not. Sadly, we did not get this in any of the three prequel movies.
Episode 7 and beyond...
In Fall of 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm (and Star Wars) to Disney. The Mouse immediately decided they would do a Episode 7 movie as part of a new trilogy. Additionally, JJ Abrams will direct the film. I think Abrams sensibilities are well-suited to Star Wars (and a lot less so to Star Trek–but that’s another story).
Will the new trilogy succeed? Probably. But I’m not sure I really care anymore... also, no matter how many classic SW actors get involved, this story should’ve been told decades ago. Now that they’re all old and able, at best, to mentor new characters in the story it just won’t be the same. People will come in with big expectations (like before with TPM) and come out disappointed. You simply can’t go home again so there’s no pointing in expecting to relive your childhood with new films.
They should not set the movies after Return of the Jedi. Go somewhere else, if you must make more. Do Knights of the Old Republic--or come up with something all-together new but using the familiar elements (Jedi, space battles, etc.) Trying to ride the classic trilogy’s coat-tails further is only a recipe for fan disappointment in the end.
In the end though, no matter what happens we’ll always have the classic trilogy as it existed and nobody will ever be able to take that away from us, no matter how many sub-par prequels or sequels get made.
They also want to do a new SW movie every year. Every in-between year will be a stand alone film that ties into some aspect of the overall universe. Personally, I think this is a terrible idea and will burn people out on Star Wars, ultimately ruining the brand. As it is, Lucasfilm had milked the concept hard this last decade and this will only make things worse (I’m already sick of Star Wars–something I never believed could be possible at one time).
May the Force be with you...