Watch these as soon as you can…
The Star Wars prequel trilogy gets a lot of hate. Yes, there is some bad acting, childish humour, and some truly unconvincing dialogue, but this hate still feels undeserved. The bad is balanced out by the good- ironically, the ultimate goal of the protagonists in this saga. Some of the most creative villains ever put to screen, exciting battles and a remarkably well told story more than make up for the flaws just described.
Of course, the prequel trilogy gets a lot wrong. Jar Jar Binks is as annoying and unfunny as everyone says. His portrayal is borderline negative racial stereotyping as well, particularly with the long ears and the Caribbean accent. There is not much that can be said in defence of this character, other than the fact he is steadily phased out during the later part of the trilogy. Jar Jar Binks also represents a larger problem of quite childish humour throughout. However, this is easier to defend. The prequel trilogy came out over a decade after the original trilogy concluded. George Lucas had a choice: make films that only appeal to the older fans, or try to sell the magic of Star Wars to a much younger audience as well. Including characters and humour aimed at children could have been done with more balance, but their inclusion was ultimately necessary.
The performances in these films are bad. Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor are uncharacteristically weak. Whilst Ewan McGregor’s “you’re the chosen one” speech and Natalie Portman’s confession of love in Attack of the Clones are well-delivered and add a lot of emotional weight to their respective scenes, but generally they are at their weakest. Hayden Christensen is also clunky and inexperienced. It is like he is acting with no preconceived idea of what makes good acting. He probably should not have been cast in the role. Only Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon offers a saving grace on the acting front. The rest of it is bad.
To be fair to Christensen, he was not given great dialogue. The infamous “I hate sand” compliment is tough to digest; although, there is something realistic about the corny badness of the chat up line. We’ve all complimented people we find attractive, but not all of us are Shakespeare. Still, it is a bad line. Having one of Darth Vader’s first moments be plagued by a cheesy bellow of the word “nooooooooo!” was an unwise creative choice. The dialogue was also unconvincing. Real people do not talk like this- surely someone on set realised this?
However, everything the prequel trilogy gets wrong is balanced out by what it gets right.
The story is told with a masterful control of audience knowledge and expectation. Anakin’s story is so engrossing precisely because it is being told in the prequel trilogy. There is a tragic sense of inevitability throughout the trilogy. Every decision Anakin makes is given extra weight because we know it is another step on his journey towards the dark side. Knowing Palpatine is the Emperor also adds another layer of enjoyment to the prequels. Every decision made in his favour frustrates us because we have the benefit of hindsight which the characters do not have. Further, the famous Order 66 sequence works so well because we know the Jedi will eventually be wiped out. When we see them getting attacked by the clones, we have no hope for them. The sequence has a very despairing and despondent tone. The story plays with audience knowledge perfectly.
The overarching story never dominates each particular film, though. Despite having a narrative cohesion the sequel trilogy can only dream to possess ( The Rise of Skywalker does not feel like a grand finale to an epic story in the same vein as Revenge of the Sith), each episode of the prequels feels standalone with its own superb villain and thrilling set pieces. Of course, Dooku, Maul and Grievous were never going to touch the iconic status of Darth Vader, but you have to admire the creativity behind these villains. George Lucas could have given up and simply used established villains from the original trilogy- the films would have been a success. Yet, he chose to give us a dual lightsaber wielding athletic apprentice of the Sith, a separatist rebelling against the established order of the Republic, and a living being/robot hybrid with an insecure desire to prove he is as powerful as any Jedi. Grievous has a very memorable walk and design- in fact, all the villains are memorable in their own way. This is probably helped by the fact they all take part in excellent action sequences that are filled with tension: the lightsaber duel between Maul, Qui Gon and Obi Wan; Count Dooku vs. Yoda; the chase between Obi Wan and General Grievous. These films are just so entertaining and memorable.
The Star Wars prequels are weak movies. Poorly directed, some of the creative choices are baffling. The performances elicited are weak, and the casting of Hayden Christensen was a poor choice. However, under this cracked surface is a gripping story that you cannot take your eyes from as you watch it unfold, and some thrilling action between memorable characters, good and bad. Give the prequels a second chance.