The Star Wars prequel movies – The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack Of The Clones (2002), and Revenge Of The Sith (2005) – are the most fascinating bad movies that have ever been made. That’s probably not the distinction these films were going for, but there you have it. I’ve been asked, “Why are you so interested in movies that you hate so much?” Why? Because these movies are the poster children for self-indulgent excess and tone-deaf, myopic filmmaking. Being Star Wars movies, and the first Star Wars movies in nearly two decades, their profile could not have been higher. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” These are fascinating examples of movies that had every resource behind them that any filmmaker could possibly want, and yet fell far short of reaching any kind of cinematic competence. They’re a great lesson for others about the value of the collaborative nature of cinema, and how putting too much power in the hands of a single person can lead to disastrous results (and there’s not just a little bit of irony in that, either; life imitating art and all that). 15 years later, it’s still pretty fascinating to look over The Phantom Menace and analyze just what went wrong. I’d be hard pressed to think of another film with a bigger budget and a bigger profile that fell so flat in so many different ways, except for its two sequels. I actually think there’s a lot to learn from these films; unfortunately most of that is learning about how not to make a film. So, there are lots of good reasons to critique and discuss these movies even as the years go by. For better or worse, they make excellent discussion fodder.
One online commenter notes:
The fascinating thing for me is that so much time and resources went into making the movie and yet the final product is so lifeless. I find it amazing with such a big production crew that so many of the questionable ideas made it through.
Putting Jar Jar’s personality aside, out of all the people on the team was there no one that pointed out that his design wasn’t interesting? I just can’t believe no one looked at Jar Jar and said this is pretty stupid. Who knows, maybe they all trusted that George knew what he was doing, some of the stuff in the original trilogy was pretty weird too.
Yup, that’s one of the things I find most fascinating about it. You watch the “behind-the-scenes” stuff on the DVD or Blu Ray, and you can clearly see George running the show, to the point that literally no one challenges him on anything. That’s no way to collaborate. Even established giants like Scorsese and Spielberg have people they trust whose feedback they incorporate.
(In contrast, Star Wars was a highly collaborative film that took advantage of many unique and imaginative talents. It was created under great adversity, and the final product basically did not resemble anything George Lucas had in mind. And yet it was great, in large part because of the limitations that surrounded the making of it. I highly suggest reading Rinzler’s The Making Of Star Wars so you get a better sense of what went into making the picture, and what the reaction to it was. It’s a fascinating read with tons of insight not found anywhere else.)
So I think that, yeah, on Phantom Menace, everyone probably just kind of trusted Lucas. But what’s really amazing to me is that after Phantom Menace, when it was pretty clear what went wrong, they continued to run with the same formula for two more movies, and again nobody seriously challenged all the bad ideas coming from Lucas. Did cinematographer David Tattersall honestly never tell George he was blocking like they would do it in a soap opera? Did nobody ever point out to George that during dialogue scenes, his characters were doing absolutely nothing interesting besides sitting or walking? I mean, it’s comical how formulaic every dialogue scene in these movies is. Two cameras, over the shoulder, plus a master shot of both characters. Sometimes they’re sitting, sometimes they’re walking. If they’re walking, they’re just walking slowly down some immense hallway, even if something really urgent was just said. If they’re sitting, someone might stand up and go look out a window, then turn back and talk some more. It’s the same thing over and over and over…through all three movies! The lack of creativity in the dialogue scenes is astonishing. The originals sure didn’t do any of this! Nobody who knew anything about filmmaking ever told George, “Hey, maybe we should liven this scene up a little bit, maybe have someone light a cigarette or something…”?
And you see, there I go again. It’s just so fascinating to detail these flaws, they’re so huge for such a lush and opulent production. Lol…I can’t even help myself. It’s almost a morbid fascination. I almost like watching these movies just to pick this stuff out!
But it’s never personal, it’s just a fascination with high-profile badness. What’s interesting to me are people who defend these movies, who act like we’re talking badly about their moms or something. They’re just movies. Like them if you like them. Don’t like them if you don’t like them. Do talk about them – isn’t that the purpose of discussing movies? “Haters” – heh. That would imply emotional investment, and believe me I have nothing invested in these pictures.
(Now, Lucas messing with the originals and making them worse by adding crappy CGI? That’s another story altogether…)
“Hate” is such a strong word, and implies something personal. I “hate” the prequels only as a figure of speech, but I don’t in actuality hate them. There’s nothing personal here; I’m just a film aficionado who likes to discuss movies with others. I’m actually strangely fascinated by these movies, and by how such a high-profile project with all the resources in the world behind it could go so wrong. They’re actually quite fun to talk about with other knowledgeable film lovers, so in that sense I kind of “like” them.
Anyway, my criticism of these films has nothing to do with not being a kid any more, or being overly nostalgic, and everything to do with the observation of poor craft.
Some of the defenses presented for these movies are truly bizarre. One of the most common examples:
The old films are just as bad.
Hoo-boy, where do we start here? First of all, I suspect anyone who says this wasn’t there for the release of the original films. It doesn’t make the argument necessarily invalid, but it would explain how anyone could say something so bizarre and so completely misinformed.
What people have to understand is that the original 1977 Star Wars was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, a shift in the cultural zeitgeist and a true revolution in filmmaking. Their lasting and profound influence automatically makes them not “just as bad”. There is a definite period “pre-Star Wars” and a definite period “post Star-Wars”, which basically to this date has not yet ended. I was 8 years old at the time. Maybe you had to be there, but the experience was utterly unforgettable. What we were seeing on the screen had literally never been seen before. And this is not nostalgia talking; I certainly didn’t go to the theater by myself! My parents were equally astonished, all of their friends too. Plenty of adults packed those theaters. And the theaters were packed for months, with lines around the block weeks after the film had opened.
But that’s just popularity. Some people say, “The dialogue is just as bad.” I don’t see it that way; it isn’t Shakespeare but the dialogue is simply what it needs to be, and it’s always interesting and carries both drama and information, qualities that are sorely lacking in all the prequel films. Some people say, “Star Wars wasn’t that well received upon release.” I don’t think that’s true, but for the sake of argument let’s say it was. Critics in 1977 did not take science fiction very seriously, because most sci-fi to that point was not very seriously done, whereas nowadays science fiction is a cherished genre with several master films and many more good films to its credit, so it is no mystery why many critics did not understand or recognize the greatness of at least the first two films. Lastly, there are the accusations that us “old-timers” have rose-colored glasses about the flaws of the originals. To that, I say sure, why not? Like I said, the experience was completely unforgettable. To this day, I’ve not seen a movie that has blown me away quite like Star Wars did, mostly because it’s so rare to see anything so flat-out new.
Here’s what these people need to realize: Star Wars, Empire and even the flawed Jedi had character. The newer prequels don’t. The original films were fun fantasy-adventures that reveled in their pulp sci-fi origins, while simultaneously rising above them to deliver a compelling narrative arc populated by characters that we cared about. We had fun watching them because the filmmakers obviously had fun making them. The stories were engaging, and the characters were likable, relatable, and diverse. The new movies are more like attending a lecture; the filmmakers appear to be going through the motions to deliver what they think we want to see. The stories are confusing and don’t make a lot of sense, and the characters are virtually indistinguishable from each other, they are all so wooden and undefined. Every film has flaws, but there is simply no comparing the flaws of the original trilogy with the flaws of the prequel trilogy, because the original trilogy delivered in so many areas where the prequel trilogy did not. It’s easy to overlook flaws when you’re having a fun time regardless. When you’re bored and unengaged, those flaws become magnified and difficult to ignore.
One thing is for certain: the older movies are objectively not “just as bad” as the newer movies. The prequel trilogy has significant and fundamental construction flaws in all the important areas, including the writing, acting, directing, characterizations, character motivations, character decision-making, storytelling and general narrative structure, mise en scène, costuming and visual effects. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were rock-solid tight in all of these areas, while the prequel trilogy appears to have been written and executed by a grade-school mind in comparison. Interestingly, I will concede the small point that only Star Wars and Empire seem to avoid the pitfalls of the prequel trilogy, but the problems really started all the way back in 1983, with the relatively disappointing Return Of The Jedi. Looking back, it is easy to see how the problems in that movie were carried over and amplified in the newer movies.
Another common defense:
The movies had some good scenes…
First, I don’t think it’s valid to evaluate movies by comparing the number of “good scenes” to “bad scenes”. It’s not a pros and cons list. A movie is not about the individual parts, it’s about the sum of its parts and how they all work together as a whole. Just one or two really bad scenes can ruin an entire movie, and these movies certainly had more than one or two. Similarly, a bad movie with one or two great scenes in it is not a good movie any more than a rotten apple with a couple of good spots in it is a good apple.
Second, I would dispute that they had any good scenes. Like what, for example? I suspect people are thinking of the action scenes, which I will agree are reasonably well-staged and executed, and were fun to watch on a superficial level. But again, does anyone really think a movie deserves credit for having something exciting in it if it’s surrounded by bad scenes otherwise? Furthermore, upon repeat viewings, I dispute that the action scenes in these movies were any good at all. While the action itself was fine, such as it is, there was no drama to any of it because there were no real stakes. We weren’t invested in the characters or the story, and didn’t really care about what happened to anyone. Furthermore, the movies themselves were not invested in the setup of the action scenes, and many of them played out as nothing more than video game-style special effects showcases with no meaning, subtext or stakes of any kind. For example, contrast two similar scenes from The Empire Strikes Back and Attack Of The Clones:
- In Empire, Luke faces down Vader, at last. I say “at last”, because we’ve waited through most of two movies for this showdown. (And in 1980, I mean we literally waited…for over 3 years.) There is so much more going on here than merely the good guy meeting the bad guy for a face-to-face duel. The build-up to this moment is tremendous. Knowing that Vader killed Luke’s father, watching Vader kill Luke’s mentor Obi-Wan, watching Luke train with Yoda to help prepare him for this moment, watching Vader chase Luke down at any and all costs…the stakes, tension and drama here could not be higher. And then the bombshell at the end of the duel! This is action being dictated by the characters and the story, and it works so well that this scene is referred to decades later as a defining moment in cinema. Say to anyone, “No, I am your father,” and everyone instantly knows what you’re referring to. It’s iconic. Heavy stuff.
- In Clones, Obi-Wan, Anakin and finally Yoda all face down Dooku. There is no drama or tension here, because there was no build-up to this conflict. All we know about Dooku is that he’s a “bad guy”, but we’re given very little background on why we the audience should be rooting against him. There isn’t anything more going on here than a light-saber action scene. No subtext, no meaning – why are these guys even fighting? What’s at stake here? Why should we care about the outcome of this fight at all? (Ditto for the showdown between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.) And for all that, the entire thing ends in what is essentially a draw, with no resolution. If the fight hadn’t happened at all, the course of the story would be unaffected. This is action dictating the characters and the story, and it doesn’t work because it comes off like a video game without meaningful consequences. Nobody refers to this scene for anything, and nobody would know what you were referring to if you were to say, “Go in slowly on the left,” or any other line from this duel. There is nothing iconic here. Lightweight stuff.
All of the action scenes in the prequel movies are similarly low-stakes, low-consequence, low-meaning kinds of stuff. Obi-Wan and Jango Fett in the asteroid field. The flying car chase through Coruscant. The battlefield of clones and droids, all of them computer animated. Great eye candy, but pointless and not driven by the story or characters. The only scene that seemed to have any drama and tension in it at all, the only one where I felt like our heroes were actually in peril and something bad could happen, was in Clones when they were tied to the posts in the arena and the monsters came out. That was actually some pretty good stuff – although the build-up was still kind of lame and I wasn’t too invested in any of these characters, at least they were put at a disadvantage and had to fight against the odds to survive. There was genuine tension in this scene. But then their Jedi friends arrived with extra lightsabers, and any tension that had been built up dissolved away as they went back to being indestructible superheroes. Yawn.
The rest of the action was all literally pointless, and often bizarre. Good action scenes mean something, and continue to do the business of the plot even while they’re happening. The action scenes in Clones could have been removed entirely and hardly affected the plot at all, so I don’t think these are “good scenes”.
On Hayden Christensen: I have difficulty blaming Hayden too much. He wasn’t given much to work with, and he didn’t receive what he needed from his director, and so it is what it is. Watch him in other non-Star Wars movies and he’s all right. No, I consider the script he was given to work with and the guidance he received (or rather, didn’t receive) from the director to be lacking. When you see the actors that surround him, all very talented, also struggling with their roles, it’s hard not to point the finger at the writer and director. These movies were an actor’s nightmare, even Oscar winners like Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman couldn’t pull real characters out of the script. If Christensen had stood out like a sore thumb between amazing performances from Portman, Neeson, and Ewan McGregor, we might be able to say he’s at fault. But when those actors also come across as flat and dull, well, there’s only one common culprit to pin the blame on.
The “describe the character without stating their occupation or what they wore” exercise in Red Letter Media’s Phantom Menace review is brilliant in that it completely exposes how poorly written these characters really were. If Neeson couldn’t pull out a miracle, I can hardly expect Christensen to.
On problems with the characterizations: one online commenter made a valiant effort at re-evaluating these films. He claims the following as a positive:
Whilst the originals remain ‘better’ in my opinion, the prequels have added richness and depth to the story over time. Specifically, I think the prequels have enhanced the Star Wars story in the following ways. Most significantly, Anakin is now the central figure of the six films – the story of Star Wars is Anakin’s, not Luke’s (and is arguably as much Obi Wan’s as Luke’s).
I disagree. This is a problem, not an enhancement. In the originals, Darth Vader is part of a much larger story, and this works much better than making him the central character around whom everything else revolves. In Star Wars, when did you ever get the sense that he was The Big Cheese in the Empire? Heck, he was being bossed around by old man Tarkin. He was a blunt instrument, muscle used for doing the dirty work of the Empire. In Empire and Jedi, he had definitely moved up the ranks and was second only to the Emperor, but again he was merely one part of a larger story. Luke was the main protagonist, and Vader was the main antagonist, and the writing reflected this. Jump forward to the prequels – now everything is centered on Anakin, to the point that everyone makes decisions based on his status and welfare, he’s referred to as The One (they literally called him The One!) to fulfill some prophecy we’d never heard of before, and by the end of Revenge Of The Sith, he’s absolutely the Big Cheese of the newly formed Empire, again second only to Palpatine. Uh…how did he get in the position of being bossed around by Tarkin 20 years later, then? There are a lot of reasons this whole concept didn’t work. Once again, Red Letter Media covers this very well in the Part 3 of their Sith review, I recommend this to you if you haven’t seen it already (in which case, rewatch it anyway – he nails it).
Our online commenter continues:
The prequels clear up two aspects of the original trilogy I felt uncomfortable about – the seemingly sudden introduction of the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi (who’s this guy who we’ve barely seen before and why is he all of a sudden in charge?), and the Anakin reveal at the end of Jedi (believe me, it just seemed weird and ill-fitting that Darth was this old guy who we’d not met before at the time).
The Emperor reveal in Empire, not Jedi, was clearly a case of the original Star Wars not having the time or budget to fit him in there. Nobody in 1980 had a problem with this – he was a new character, and he’d been referred to in the first movie so it’s not like he appeared out of nowhere. We were eager to see him. On the second half of the point, I’d say he’s in the minority here. It doesn’t even make sense that Anakin would be young again, and Luke wouldn’t even recognize him! Why isn’t he all like, “Hey Obi-Wan, hey Yoda…uh, hey weird young dude that I’ve never seen before and who bears no resemblance whatsoever to my elderly father – who the hell are you?”
Our wayward commenter’s last point:
The originals didn’t need side-order baddies to carry the storyline, and the prequels which sometimes had weak story lines (here’s looking at you Episode II) or were plot and dialogue heavy so were in more need of this relief, but Darth Maul and General Grievous were truly awesome.
Again, these characters are problems, not enhancements. Darth Maul is basically not even a character. He has all of 4 lines in his movie, has no clear motivation; we don’t even find out the bare fundamentals of who he is and why he’s doing things beyond the mere fact that he’s a Sith. He is simply someone for Obi-Wan and Qui Gon to fight at the end, fitting in with a recurring pattern throughout the prequel movies – the action dictating the characters and story rather than the other way around like it should have been. General Grievous is a completely baffling character – now this is a character that comes literally out of nowhere (he’s not even mentioned in Menace or Clones), and he serves no story purpose whatsoever – like Maul, he’s simply another character to fight. What makes him “awesome”? The fact that he has 4 limbs that can wield lightsabers? What kind of a character is he? Who is he, where did he come from, and what are his motivations? Ditto for Maul – why is he awesome beyond the fact that he exhibits great choreography? As characters, these two are “bad-ass” in the action sense, but they’re nothing else beyond that. What makes them “awesome characters”? Nothing – they’re barely even characters at all.
On the awful cinematography: it’s baffling to me how unimaginative the camera work in these movies is. One wise online commenter notes:
Lucas was lazy as hell on the last 2 movies. Every conversation and dialogue scene is filmed with cheap soap opera style film-making, stressing efficiency and speed over making the dialogue scenes engaging, having interesting blocking, or even any kind of cinematic flair. It’s a quick 2 camera set-up with either the characters standing still and talking or sitting on a couch and talking or walking down a hall slowly and talking. Even the action scenes aren’t filmed in an interesting way, there’s very little camera movement anywhere, no playing with depth of field, no interesting blocking, it all feels flat. Sith got better and had more dynamically filmed scenes but Clones was pretty bad. Phantom Menace actually looked terrific and Empire is the best looking of them all, such beautiful film-making in that movie, dramatic lighting, beautifully composed shots/sequences. Just think about how moody the Falcon looked compared to A New Hope.
In response, another commenter says:
Agreed , look at A New Hope or Empire and see that the use of large sets and locations allowed for interesting camera placements and actor staging. All of the prequels have pretty terrible blocking and staging for the actors. Look at Empire where you have a simple scene of Luke saying good bye to Han, Han is on top of the falcon looking down at him, with Chewy standing next to the Falcon. If this has been shot in the prequels, Han and Luke would have either been standing facing each other with the Hanger as a background plate or they would have been sitting in a room.
Camera placement aside, if a character isn’t providing dialogue or in a pre-choregraphed fight in the prequels they don’t have anything to do. Part of the issue with the prequels, especially 2 and 3 is that there isn’t anything interesting to shoot. I can’t help but think of the pod race where Qui Gon, Padme and Anakin’s mother have nothing to do in the scene except watch the race on an iPad type thing and just stand around, even Anakin just has a few random close ups.
Yup. Probably my favorite shot in all of Empire is in the carbon freezing chamber, as they are about to test the facility on Han. Just look at the staging of that scene, and the lighting! Fantastically moody. Look at the actors’ blocking, and the great angles used to film them. Think of the great exposition we’re treated to here, all while doing the business of advancing the plot and creating suspense. It’s all so informational, interesting, and dramatic all at the same time. There is nothing even remotely like this in any of the 3 prequel movies – not one single scene from any of the 3 prequel movies is as good as this one from Empire.
The flatness of the shooting is a direct artifact of filming so much of these films with actors on a stage against a green screen. There is literally no room for them to work, and there’s nowhere for the camera to go. Filming with blank props on a stage is no substitute for filming on an actual set. The Phantom Menace fares better than the other two films in this respect, because in spite of the over-reliance on CGI in much of the movie, many scenes were filmed on actual sets with actual props, and so scenes in this film tended to have more depth and more interesting camerawork. But by the time Clones was being filmed, even these fundamentals had been abandoned and the entire film was essentially being constructed in the computer, with live actors inserted over the animation. In essence, Clones and Sith were animated films with live actors, no different than the second half of Bedknobs and Broomsticks or most of Cool World. In my opinion, this was a critical tactical mistake in the filmmaking process for these movies, since action movies require room to move and organic interaction between the actors and their props and environment. Lucas has long stated an obsession with replacing conventional sets with digital sets, which I think is a misguided notion at best, and here he demonstrates just how a movie can shoot itself in the foot and cripple itself by employing such a one-size-fits-all solution. If all you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
On Dex’s Diner: this is one of the worst scenes in the entire prequel trilogy. The word we’re looking for here is “anachronism”, and while the original trilogy made a few fond callbacks to our own world in certain spots, and certainly drew inspiration from Lucas’s adolescence in the 1950s and his affinity for hot rods and serial sci-fi, there was nothing truly anachronistic about any of it. But here, in Clones, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we have a full-fledged 1950s diner! Complete with neon signs, a boxcar/mobile home design and red vinyl seating. It’s so out of place with the rest of the Star Wars universe I hardly even know what to say. I half-expected a waitress to roller-skate up to Obi-Wan and serve him a cheeseburger and fries with a milkshake on the side.
In a movie full of bad decisions and miscalculations, this scene stands out from the rest of the pack because of its sheer stupidity. Again, did no one tell George this was a bad idea, and challenge its inclusion in the film? There is no overstating how bad this scene is, so please forgive me if I don’t feel like holding back on how much I hate this scene.
On the scripts: every movie lives or dies on its script, and Star Wars movies are no exception. An online commenter notes:
It’s the script, pure and simple. It feels like the roughest of rough drafts, with scarcely a memorable turn of phrase anywhere, red herrings, tangents that have no follow-through, and plenty of scenes of characters arriving and departing, traveling from place to place in the service of the barest thread of a plot.
It’s certainly where all the problems start. The script is the foundation for any movie – it’s the prerequisite from which everything else follows – and the above commenter is certainly not alone in thinking that it feels unfinished. To me, it frankly feels like a literal rough draft – like he really wrote it all at one time in marathon sessions over a couple of weeks, and then just left it exactly like that, with no re-writes and no peer review. It’s so full of bad ideas, bad dialogue, bad characterizations and nonsensical circumstances it boggles my mind and makes it impossible to believe that anyone might have proof-read it or edited it, or that subsequent drafts were written.
Just think of the assassination plot near the beginning of Clones (not the exploding ship, but the poisonous space worms) to get an idea of how much bad this script was able to squeeze into 10 minutes of screen time. From the method of assassination (Poisonous space caterpillars? Really?) to the choice of character who jumps through the window (shouldn’t it have been the reckless and emotionally-attached Anakin, and not the calm and collected Obi-Wan?) to the impossible physics of the “car chase”, it’s like Lucas was drunk when he wrote it, and certainly no one re-read it and pointed out all the flaws to him.
And the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Anyone who says that the dialogue in the original trilogy was just as cheesy must not know how real human beings talk to each other. In these movies, people say banal and obvious things to each other in purely informational banter, while emotional reaction is kept to an absolute minimum. The worst offenders, of course, are all of the lines that Anakin and Padme deliver to each other, over the course of all 3 movies, lines that are obviously contrived to inform us, the audience, that these two characters are falling in love with each other, but which fail to convince because the lines themselves carry no emotional weight whatsoever. People who fall in love build relationships through talking, but here we are merely told how each character is feeling at any particular moment, almost as if the acting is being closed-captioned for our benefit. “From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you. And now that I’m with you again… I’m in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you – I can’t breath. I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating… hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me… what can I do? I will do anything you ask.” Who talks like this? Where did we ever hear a line even remotely like this in the original trilogy? We didn’t, and that’s a fact. Again, did no one tell George that the dialogue was completely awful? Even with Star Wars, Harrison Ford is famously reputed to have told George, “You can write this shit, but you can’t say it.” But the fact is there was no line in Star Wars nearly as bad as the 10 or 20 worst lines in Clones.
The scripts for all 3 films needed significant oversight and revision, simple as that. I’m convinced these were single drafts, written by one person with no input from anyone else, and once again the lack of collaboration delivers a death blow to these movies. There is no shame in having an editor or two – that is how complex movies are made. The director’s job is not to do it all himself, it’s to coordinate all the talented people working for him in order to deliver a product that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Lucas’ failure as a director is perhaps no more apparent than it is right here, in the failure to deliver a solid foundation upon which to build these films.
On the overuse of the light saber: yes, that’s right – overused. When you overuse something special, it ceases to be special and it just becomes normal, even boring. This is true of just about anything in the creative arts, so why would anyone think the light saber should be exempt?
Consider that part of the reason the light saber was so freaking cool in the original trilogy was because we rarely saw it. “Always leave the audience wanting more.” When it was pulled out every 5 minutes in all the prequel movies, it ceased to be amazing and just became part of the status quo. That indicates a lack of imagination on Lucas’s part – and that’s boring.
On Yoda with a lightsaber: contrary to initial reactions, this was not in any way cool. It was completely ridiculous. Ask any fencer. I can’t believe no one told George Lucas, “Uh, George? Yeah…you see, the idea of a two and a half foot tall being wielding a miniature sword against a normal sized being with a regular size sword…well, are you sure you’ve completely thought this all the way through?”
Red Letter Media once again nails it: insisting that all Jedi used light sabers rendered the light saber impractical in its own universe, and ideally each Jedi should have had his own specialized weapon suitable for his own stature and physicality. I honestly don’t think the guy with the tentacle head or the guy with the super tall and skinny neck could be expected to wield light sabers…and neither could Yoda. It was a bad idea, badly executed. “It looks cool” is no reason to include something dumb in a movie.
When Star Wars was released in 1977, there was no concept of Jedi being composed of various not-necessarily-humanoid aliens. Heck, I remember thinking they were probably a bunch of guys who pretty much looked the same as Obi-Wan; i.e. more or less human. So a line like, “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight,” didn’t stand out any more than saying that a sword is the weapon of a regular knight in a medieval movie.
When Empire was released in 1980 and we were introduced to Yoda, I never once imagined that he ever wielded a light saber. He didn’t talk about it, he didn’t touch it, he didn’t indicate any interest in it – on the contrary, he spoke of it almost contemptuously when Luke took it into the tree. Later he gave us a speech about how the Force has nothing to do with our physical nature. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” he says while pinching the flesh of Luke’s arm.
So Red Letter Media absolutely nails it here: Lucas simply didn’t understand any part of this sequence, if he wrote the characters of Yoda and Dooku being evenly matched in terms of other Force powers, and finally relegated Yoda to pulling out a light saber. Because the fact of the matter is, no matter what powers he has, Yoda is at a physical disadvantage to Dooku when it comes to combat with swords, and since the Force is something that was explained in Empire as being beyond the physical, there is no reason Yoda should be put at a physical disadvantage like this. Although the movie unrealistically portrayed this fight as resulting in a draw, the fact is that Yoda is much shorter and smaller than Dooku, has a much smaller light saber, and therefore lacks the capability to land a hit and inflict any damage due to his lack of reach. Anyone who watches boxing knows how important arm reach is. The fact is that Yoda never stood a chance in this fight, and he should have known that and never engaged in it in the first place. He’s old and wise, after all – wouldn’t he be perfectly aware of his physical disadvantage and seek to avoid it at all costs? And if the two are evenly matched in terms of Force powers, how come Dooku didn’t jump all over the screen like Kermit on cocaine? No, the fact is that Dooku should have squished Yoda like a bug, and this sequence wound up being entirely pointless. It resulted in no consequences and didn’t advance either the story or the plot, so what was the point of including it? It was a literal waste of our time, with no results for the effort.
This segment was poorly conceived and not thought all the way through, simple as that. And by writing and filming it, Lucas demonstrated a massive disconnection of understanding with his own creation of two decades earlier. There is no way to reasonably draw any other conclusion, and I’m at a complete loss to explain how George Lucas could have been so lazy and thoughtless when conceiving of the kind of weaponry a varied array of alien Jedi Knights would use. Giving Yoda a light saber was a gimmick, plain and simple, and while I admit that even I was taken with it upon first viewing, hindsight has brought me back to my senses, and watching the Yoda fight scenes in both Clones and Sith makes me cringe today. Bad call, George, bad call.
On the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin: Frequently cited as the best the prequel trilogy has to offer, I think this scene is a paragon of over-indulgence and excess, and is as bad as anything else in the rest of the prequel trilogy. This online commenter nails it:
The silly looking fighting that is going on between these two heroes is laughable. They are so comfortable in their dance routine that it should be featured on Dancing with the Stars. They are obviously not even trying to hit one another (except when the script calls for it in one of the silliest looking moments put to film when Ani magically loses three limbs in one jump), and their silly posturing and dumb pose striking makes me want to laugh rather than pull me into the conflict. I knew this would happen, though. This final duel needed to be like one from the old films (specifically Return Of The Jedi), laced with lots of dialogue that drives home the conflict, not fancy, idiotic looking posing and fancy special effects. Leave it to Lucas to only focus on making it bigger, while not infusing it with anything more. The bad dialogue at the start and end is all we get. It was all rather embarrassing, though the lava effects were great. Too bad the visual effects got carried away as we had characters running all up and down big red hot beams floating down a river of lava. It was ridiculous, overall. Obviously, lava is not hot until the script requires it.
Bingo. My favorite part is near the beginning of the fight, when they each kind of do these multiple figure-8s in the air with their sabers – what is the purpose of this exactly? I don’t know, I think we’d have to ask the choreographer to find out. He’s standing right there, isn’t he? Can’t somebody just tap him on the shoulder and ask him why Obi-Wan and Anakin are slinging their laser swords in figure 8 patterns repeatedly while standing about 2 feet away from each other? Is that part of the fight? Is that a good way to hit someone with a sword and I just don’t know about it? Would my fencing or martial arts instructor recommend this as a fighting tactic?
The martial arts in the prequels may have been exciting to watch in a superficial sense, but the fencing in the original trilogy was far superior to the ridiculous and obviously choreographed posing in the prequels. Fencing is what actual sword fighting looks like – if you tried that martial arts show-off shit with a fencer you’d be a deep trouble. Vader and Luke in both Empire and Jedi – that was realistic sword fighting, emotions and all.
On the 4-way finish in Phantom Menace: here’s an online comment that I think misses the mark, discussing the climax of The Phantom Menace:
The way Lucas handled the FOUR conflicts on Naboo is nothing short of masterful. Each event happening simultaneously, with each scenario in perfect synchronicity having their own distinct mini three acts where at the final resolution they all interlock back together to finish off the main arc. I cannot tell you how gracefully crafted this part of the film was. Very inspiring and surprising (after what I have now discovered to be artificial hatred towards this particular episode).
Disagree; there is way too much going on here for the audience to feel truly engaged about any of the four conflicts. Red Letter Media covered this very well in their video review of this movie. Star Wars had one climactic set piece: destroy the Death Star before it destroys the Rebel Base. Empire upped the ante with two simultaneous conflicts: Luke vs Darth Vader, and the rest of the gang trying to escape Cloud City. Jedi had three events to track: Luke vs Vader again, ground battle on Endor, space battle above Endor. It was a lot to take in but they made it work. But now we get to Phantom Menace and we have four battles to track: Gungans vs droids, Naboo fighters versus droid ships, Jedi vs Sith and away team tries to retake palace. It’s too much. Our attention is divided into so many pieces that it’s hard to care or feel urgency about any single one of them. Yes, the coordination required to put this in the movie at all is impressive, but to what end? The most effective climaxes tend to be simpler, leveraging the sympathies you’ve built over the course of the movie to create a sense of urgency and dramatic tension. Menace had none of this, because by the time I was getting involved in one action set piece, we’d cut to another, then another, and then another. Worse, some of these conflicts were basically inconsequential – the Gungan battle adds nothing, and the light-saber duel is pointless choreography with no real emotional stakes involved. The characters in that fight literally don’t even know each other. Quite a far cry from the emotional tension and turmoil at the end of Star Wars or Empire. The payoff in Menace was meager in comparison.
It would have been better to remove the Gungans altogether, from the entire movie. They serve no story purpose and add nothing to the narrative. I can’t help but note that even Lucas rolled back from this cacophony of climaxes in the next two movies.
On the lack of a solid protagonist: “Who is the protagonist in each of these movies?” Qui-Gon isn’t the protagonist of The Phantom Menace. Although he appears a lot in the movie, the story is not centered around him and he experiences no character arc. Ditto for Obi-Wan and Padme.
Anakin is probably intended to be the protagonist. But we don’t meet him until almost halfway through the movie, and his character arc is primarily composed of stuff just happening to him, with no sense that he’s actually in control of any of it. Contrast with Luke Skywalker’s story and “hero’s journey” in the original Star Wars, and the character weaknesses of this film should be very apparent.
Clones and Sith don’t fare much better. Who is the protagonist of either of these movies? None of the characters is growing or changing, except maybe for Anakin in the most hackneyed way. And given his indiscretions into evil territory, it’s pretty hard to accept him as the protagonist in either movie.
Obi-Wan Kenobi should have been the main protagonist in all of the prequels, and why this wasn’t blatantly obvious to George Lucas is beyond me. It would have been a very natural extension of the original movies. Characters like Qui Gon, Jar Jar, and yes, even Amidala, should not have even been there – their characteristics could have and should have been combined into the other main characters.
“Star Wars” had a trio of main characters, a few “sidekicks” and supporting roles, and a main bad guy. Even though it was a large cast of characters overall, with a lot of world-building, it was a very focused ensemble – the movies always stayed with Luke, Han and Leia and viewed things from their perspectives. The prequels were all over the place, so much that we can’t even say who the main protagonist was in any of the three movies. It appeared to lean more towards Obi-Wan by the time we got to Sith, but by then it was too little too late. He should have been the main character right from the very start, with Anakin as his padawan, and an actual bad guy with a clear motivation, not this phantom menace stuff. It ain’t a Hitchcock film. If anything, the cast of characters in the prequels should have been simpler than in the original trilogy. In the prequels, the world-building took precedence, and I’m sorry to say, the world that was painted was pretty different from the world in Star Wars – they don’t look like they belong in the same universe at all. Such complete failure all around.
On Anakin’s fall from grace: maybe one of the best of the online comments:
The main problem with the prequels, aside from the fact that they suck in every way imaginable, is that they never really build up Anakin before he takes a fall. He was supposed to be a legendary pilot, a hero and Obi-wan’s good friend. We can’t mourn the fall of a hero because he was an annoying, whiny bitch from the start. Instead of feeling sickened by his turn to the dark side, we all just hope he dies in the most excruciating way possible.
Anyway, none of this really happened. I’m off to drink some bleach and wipe the memory of this rubbish from my mind.
Completely agree. It’s a real flaw of characterization, and it’s fatal to all 3 of the movies. At no point does Anakin ever feel like an actual real person. He’s a caricature, and it’s pretty hard to empathize with a caricature. And I’m with this guy, I just pretend these movies don’t exist. There’s a backstory to the original trilogy, but the prequel trilogy ain’t it.
I have often thought that if the Star Wars prequels did not have the Star Wars name attached to them, they’d be forgotten already. I am looking forward to the new film coming out this December, because while I believe that George Lucas is apparently incapable of the kind of introspection required to ferret out the fatal flaws in his modern filmmaking process, outsiders like new director J.J. Abrams will have no such problems. Hopefully lessons have been learned from the prequel trilogy that will be diligently avoided in any new films, and it’ll be great to once again see a Star Wars film born of a collaborative filmmaking process rather than a dictatorial approach.