There’s more than a bit of hope in the derided prequel movies.
It’s easy to hate on the Star Wars prequels, and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. When measured as the sum of their parts, they fall apart faster and harder than clone loyalty towards Jedi Masters post Order 66. Jar Jar is possibly one of the worst characters in movie history. The love story between Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker is cringingly bad. Anakin’s decision to go from loving soon-to-be-father to younglings slayer is a bipolar pill that’s difficult to swallow.
It’s definitely not all bad, however. What follows is a collection of things that George Lucas got right in the prequel trilogy.
The light(saber) at the end of the tunnel
Sure, Episode I was more disappointing than watching Greedo shoot first in the Special Edition of A New Hope, but it got so much better beyond the political rantings of the opening crawl.
This epic battle of laser-sword mastery showed the dominating, thousands-strong Jedi Order had a very big reason to fear the return of the Sith…
Granted, when ‘terrible’ is the starting point for expectations post-Episode I, it’s not that difficult to climb higher, but even Episode I saved its best part towards the end of the movie. We are, of course, referring to the iconic lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and Jedi duo Obi-Wan Kenobi / Qui-Gon Jinn.
This epic battle of laser-sword mastery showed the dominating, thousands-strong Jedi Order had a very big reason to fear the return of the Sith, even though the ‘death’ of Maul meant they only had to destroy one more Sith Lord to cleanse the galaxy. Stuntman-turned-actor Ray Park brought the rage-filled Darth Maul to life in such a way that he was a believable threat to his Jedi opponents. After Maul nixed Jinn, the ensuing duel between Kenobi and the Sith Lord escalates in intensity to the point where Lucas reportedly considered slowing the fight down for audiences because it felt too fast.
In Episode II, the Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi fight versus Count Dooku was less impressive, but gave way to a duel between Yoda and Dooku. Sure, watching Yoda jump around like a frog on a hot plate is a bit ridiculous, but the fact of the matter is the beloved Jedi Master a) has a lightsaber and b) proves the claim that he’s an amazing swordsman. Episode III has more lightsaber fights than the first two, and we get to see that Palpatine knows his way around a ’saber, while the Anakin versus Obi-Wan showdown is sufficiently epic (if you can ignore how it ends).
(Mostly) awesome casting decisions
When you think of casting in the prequel trilogy, you probably think of the two less-than-stellar instances of casting that relate to the same character: Jake Lloyd as young Anakin and Hayden Christensen as older Anakin. While these two chaps certainly didn’t provide the best of performances, there’s a wealth of supporting characters who were fantastic choices.
Ewan McGregor is the perfect choice for a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and stands as one of the most consistently impressive components of the prequel trilogy. He portrayed a believably cockier and brasher version of younger Kenobi, compared to Sir Alec Guinness’ weathered portrayal of older Kenobi. Hell, McGregor even started to look a hell of a lot like Guinness by the time Episode III rolled around. McGregor also played well off Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn character, who was himself a fantastic casting choice. It’s disappointing he didn’t get more screen time throughout the prequels, but that’s testament to Neeson’s acting abilities.
Natalie Portman was a smart choice for Anakin’s love interest, even if her character wasn’t written particularly well. Portman did the best she could with the material, and really helped to sell some of the more tragic components of Episode III, while also showing that she was as up to the task of diplomacy as she was for gunning down Geonosians in Episode II.
It was a nerd’s wet dream to see veteran thespian Christopher Lee appear in both The Lord of the Rings, as Saruman the White, and in Star Wars as Count Dooku / Darth Tyranus. He may not have been responsible for the fast lightsaber manoeuvring of his character (stuntman Kyle Rowling has bragging rights to that claim), but his unmistakeable voice added weight and gravitas to the threat of his shadowy character.
Similarly, the return of Ian McDiarmid as would-be Emperor Palpatine, alongside Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Frank Oz (Yoda’s voice, and puppetry in Episode I), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and James Earl Jones (Darth Vader’s voice) was more than just fan service; it was the right decision to make for creating a semblance of continuity in the galaxy far, far away.
Bigger worlds with more elements
The overuse of CG notwithstanding, the prequel trilogy definitely looked like it belonged in the Star Wars universe. Surprisingly, despite the hate it receives, The Phantom Menace has some of the more memorable set pieces because it wasn’t as reliant on green-screened soundstages as the latter prequel chapters. Jar Jar may be eyeball-gougingly terrible, but the city he was exiled from, Otoh Gunga (or Gunga City), boasts a beautiful organic design and makes for a visually interesting locale.
It also helps to address one of the bigger criticisms of the original trilogy, which was that every planet seemed to be comprised of a single iconic trait. Tatooine is a desert planet. Hoth is covered in ice and snow. Endor is quite literally referred to as a forest moon. Naboo might have looked like a grassy wonderland for the most part on the surface, but the extensive green plains were complemented by the city of Theed atop a cliff face and the underwater Gunga City. It showed that the planets in the Star Wars universe were more than just one-element ponies.
To a lesser extent, the same was true of Coruscant: the central planet of the Republic. Sure, it’s a planet whose face has been completely covered by a vertically gentrifying city, but we got to see how different the surface was compared to the lower levels in Episode II. The seedy underbelly looked like a less-rainy version of something out of Blade Runner, while the multiple layers of hovering traffic put The Fifth Element to shame.
Best of all, we got to see more of the galaxy than ever before in Episode III, with time on previously the unseen planets of Kashyyyk, Felucia and Mustafar. Hell, Lucas even gave us a bittersweet look at the surface of Alderaan before its explosive fate in A New Hope.