In honor of the fast approaching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I re-watched the entire series with my girlfriend, who until then had never seen any of the Star Wars movies. While the originals were an obvious hit with her, the prequels came across as bland and unsatisfactory. Like millions of other disappointed fans I share her sentiment and decided to cogitate upon what it is that makes the prequels so disappointing to me.
Every sequel must overcome the challenge that accompanies being unoriginal. Later films will always be compared to the first, and are rarely considered as good or better. Sequels struggle to match the novelty that comes with being the original, and raised expectations place every sequel on a pedestal, just waiting to be knocked down. This is true even with the original Star Wars, as Return of the Jedi is way too cutesy and lacks the originality that constitute A New Hope. The Death Star was even dispatched in the same fashion as in A New Hope. The Empire Strikes Back is darker and lacks the rebel’s uplifting victory that makes the end of A New Hope so endearing. While the disheartening ending was necessary and helped set the stage for the final film and showdown with the likes of Darth Vader and Darth Sideous, I don’t believe I’m alone in saying that Empire Strikes Back is weaker than A New Hope.
The possible exceptions to the rule of inadequate sequels are 22 Jump Street and The Lord of the Rings franchise, although I contend that they exist in a category all their own. 22 Jump Street readily acknowledges the ridiculousness of its own existence, thus avoiding the trap of making the same movie twice while trying to keep a straight face. Lord of the Rings was also in a unique position because it had already existed for decades as a wildly successful fantasy series, and each film has a distinct role due to the evolving story.
However I digress, the main focus here is supposed to be the Star Wars prequels.
The Phantom Menace had enormous potential. It had the opportunity to introduce the Jedi at the height of their power, the Galactic Republic in its heyday and showcase Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. However, the brilliant minds at Lucasfilm felt that pod racing, a whiny Anakin Skywalker, and a preposterously young (and weirdly elected) Queen Amidala should be important story elements. Hopes that had been raised for a brash sci-fi adventure film were dashed with the appearance of this kid-friendly, exposition riddled disappointment of a movie. Perhaps the most painful element was the much-reviled Jar Jar Binks, the obnoxious attempt at comedic relief that left many an audience member groaning.
Ironically, while the prequels as a whole were far weaker than the originals, they somewhat defied the ‘sequels rule’ and actually managed to improve as they progressed. This means less, when one takes into account how poorly they began.
Attack of the Clones is a marked improvement on The Phantom Menace. The fact that Jar Jar has a much smaller role increases the appeal of the movie exponentially. However, the appearance of a wooden, moody teenage Anakin is almost a step-back from the annoying 10-year old version of himself. However, the mastery of the special effects makes up for the poor acting skills and thin plot to a certain extent. One element that I will never understand is Padme’s age. She is supposedly 14 years old during the events of The Phantom Menace, only 4 or 5 years older than Anakin. The age difference in their relationship is fine, what I struggle with is the fact that there is a 14 year old democratically elected queen running an entire planet.
The last of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith, is by far the strongest, and the only prequel on Rotten Tomatoes to be classified as “certified fresh”. Anakin becomes a steadily more interesting character, and his performance is progressively less wooden and bland compared to Attack of the Clones. The special effects expertise is by far the most notable facet of this movie, although the sheer scope of the story is impressive. The fall of the Jedi, the powerful and mystical knights of the republic, accompanies the rise of Darth Vader, one of the best villains in cinema history. However, much like Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Sith is burdened by having a rather bleak ending with the death of Padme, the extinction of the Jedi, and the ascension of Darth Sideous to Emperor. It is necessary to complete the story and finish where A New Hope begins ; yet in the end it is anticlimactic and flat.
The prequels are decent movies. Nowhere near the caliber of the originals, and with the exception of Revenge of the Sith it is doubtful they will ever be considered above mediocre. What they represent a besmirching of a revered saga: one of the most successful and beloved stories of all time, one that forever changed cinema and the notion of blockbuster films.