This is the 16th post in a daily series. Read about it here and see the list of previous posts here. A new post about “Star Wars” will be posted every day for 40 days leading up to the franchise’s 40th birthday on May 25th.
I’ve yet to meet a “Star Wars” fan that would place the prequel trilogy above or even on par with the three original movies. In my large but biased sample, everyone has agreed that prequel trilogy was inferior to the original trilogy. And my sample of fans agrees that not only is the prequel trilogy inferior in comparison, it’s also not good.
But the “Star Wars” fans in my sample have differing opinions on which move in the prequel trilogy is the worst, because none of them agree on what is the biggest underlying weakness of the trilogy.
There are no shortages of weaknesses, of course, but to me, the biggest failing of the prequel trilogy is that it makes many events in the original movies hard to believe. On top of that, the prequels make me love some original trilogy characters less than I previously did.
It’s because of that perspective that I do not think “The Phantom Menace” is the worst prequel.
Yes, there’s a lot of horrible things in there. Jar Jar is an annoying, bumbling sidekick meant for kids. He’s a culture stereotype, as are Watto and the trade federation assholes. The trade federation plot is a snoozer. And the introduction of midi-chlorians is remarkable in how stupid it is.
So, yes. There’s some horseshit in that movie that can’t be defended and must be acknowledged. But the other movies have some similar weaknesses.
The trade negotiations plot in “The Phantom Menace” is boring, but that subplot never doesn’t get any better in “Attack of the Clones” or “Revenge of the Sith.” In those movies, we learn that the drama with the trade federation and the chancellor and all that horseshit is part of the basis of the clone wars.
In the original movies, we heard about the clone wars as if they were something dark and mysterious. It’s a huge letdown to see the origin story squandered on what is essentially an intergalactic zoning board dispute.
That’s why I judge Episode II and III more harshly than I judge Episode I. As annoying as Jar Jar is, he’s a nuisance. But his inclusion doesn’t tarnish the original trilogy. You could take him out and you’d still have the same problems with the plots. And that problem is that because of the prequels, we have to see beloved characters in a new light.
Not only do R2 and Obi-Wan come off as assholes for not telling Luke that they knew each other, but Yoda is not nearly as badass now that we’ve seen him interact with younglings like some Cub Scout leader who has aloe vera in his fanny pack. In other words, they turned him into Ned Flanders. And worst of all, Episodes II and III cheapened his aura by depicting him flopping around with a lightsaber like some over-caffeinated Muppet.
Even Leia comes off bad after the prequels, which is impressive considering she’s born at the end of the third movie. We see Padme die at the end of “Revenge of the Sith” when Luke and Leia are born, so it seems odd in “Return of the Jedi” that Leia would tell Luke about any memory of her mother. This an oversight, and a lazy one.
Darth Vader doesn’t appear until the end of “Revenge of the Sith,” as the entire trilogy is meant to show how Anakin Skywalker transformed into Vader. Young Anakin can be grating in “The Phantom Menace,” but he’s a child; we should not have expected an Oscar-worthy performance. Jake Lloyd accomplished the charge of playing an earnest child. However annoying this kid was, he was chipper and kind. And he was young enough that we could still hope he’d get better.
But he didn’t get better. He got worse. Hayden Christensen’s turn as Anakin would be considered emo if he weren’t so wooden. But Christensen cannot be blamed for that. In having to work with Lucas’s scripts, Christensen was in the unenviable position of having to turn chicken shit into chicken salad. Next time someone wants to rag on “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” show them any of the scenes with Anakin and Padme on Naboo in “Attack of the Clones.”
The parts of “Attack of the Clones” set on Naboo are supposed to show the developing romance between Anakin and Padme. But the chemistry isn’t there, so not only is it hard to root for their relationship, it’s hard to believe it in the first place.
The inability to buy Padme and Anakin as a couple makes it hard to buy the premise of “Revenge of the Sith.” We are supposed to believe that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is driven by his intense love for Padme, but there’s so satisfying demonstration of their romance. We are meant to believe it just because, and that’s a big ask.
But Episode I deserves at least same of the blame for why that romance storyline and other parts of Episodes II and III feel so forced. While George Lucas was introducing us to Gungans and battle droids in Episode I, he could have (and should have) been using that movie to flesh out Anakin’s internal conflict.
That said, “The Phantom Menace” had some highlights of the trilogy. The pod race scene was a fun action sequence reminiscent of the speeder chase on Endor, and the lightsaber duel where Darth Maul takes on Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is one of the best lightsaber scenes of any “Star Wars” movie.
But those scenes, like much of “The Phantom Menace,” don’t illuminate Anakin’s transition to the Dark Side. It’s for that reason that many have said it shouldn’t be viewed at all. In 2011, blogger Rod Hilton suggested a new order in which to view the two “Star Wars” trilogies. Machete Order, as Hilton dubbed it, was Episode IV, V, II, III, VI. Fans loved this order for a variety of reasons, chief among them that it cuts out Episode I entirely.
I could initially see the appeal. Without “The Phantom Menace,” there’s less Jar Jar, no Anakin as a child, and less discussion of midi-chlorians. But cutting out Episode I doesn’t magically make Episodes II or III exponentially better. Midi-chlorians are still referenced in Episode III. Anakin is hard to tolerate, no matter the prequel. In Episodes II or III, Yoda still looks ridiculous flopping around with a lightsaber. Without Episode I, we can pretend Anakin didn’t build Threepio, but still see Obi-Wan and R2 doing shit that they conveniently omitted when meeting Luke. And cutting out Episode I doesn’t save is from the romance on Naboo.
We can hate on Episode I all we want, but that movie never had a character pontificate about how he hated sand. Let alone a character that we are supposed to believe becomes Darth Vader.
So, yeah, I’ll take the pod race over that any day of the week.