If you still love Star Wars, you have to come to terms two things. One: the prequels happened, and are continuing to happen via the cartoons. Two: George Lucas will constantly be releasing Star Wars in various media formats, until the films can be transmitted via a telepathic imaging unit directly jacked into his brain. And until that day, we’ll continue to debate the merits of the old films versus the new films, versus the special editions versus extra special super duper Hayden’s ghost editions, etc, etc. But one thing that happens a lot in these conversations is we forget to praise the good things about the prequels, because we’ve simultaneously elevated the old films to an untouchable pedestal.
As a disclaimer: the prequels do suck. They are poorly structured movies, with crumby internal plots that mostly ruin or over-explain the themes of the classic films. However, bizarrely in spite of these truths, there are some great cinematic achievements and cool Star Wars moments we can highlight. Here are five in no particular order.
1. Ewan McGregor
Though he’s underused in The Phantom Menace, and the character is written inconsistently from the Obi-Wan we perceived from the old films, Ewan McGregor really owns the part. He doesn’t do a full-on Alec Guinness impression, but hits the marks just enough to make you believe this is the same person. Does this enhance our perception of old Ben in the old films? Yes. Because we witness Obi-Wan kicking ass in the prequels, his age and lack of agilitly in the classic films is a little sadder. When Obi-Wan looks at Vader for the first time in A New Hope, you can see the look on his face is saying, “oh shit, I’m going to die.” This is made a little more tragic since you know this guy was able to handle himself back when he was Ewan McGregor. The look on Ewan’s face in the final duel in the lava resonates with the expressions of Guinness in the duel with Vader on the Death Star in the opposite way.
Lucas talks a big game about themes being parallel in the two trilogies. This is a spot where it worked. Also, in Revenge of the Sith when Anakin worries if they might be walking into a trap and McGregor says that they should “spring the trap!” while smiling like a lunatic, you can’t help but love it. Oh, and when McGregor screams “NOOOOOOOOOOO” in The Phantom Menace after watching Liam Neasson being stabbed, the scream actually beats Luke’s scream in Empire Strikes Back. Just saying.
2. Ian McDiarmid
Let’s get serious. This guy is the star of Revenge of the Sith and he’s tremendously great in it. If you ever believed that Lucas had a masterplan of waiting almost 20 years before making Star Wars movies set before the existing Star Wars movies, one piece of evidence for that argument would be the age of Ian MacDiarmid in the prequels. This is the same man who played the Emperor in 1983 in Return of the Jedi. In that film, he was 39, but layers of creepy make-up: they made him look about a 70 or 80. Then, in 1999, McDiarmid was 54, and looking about the right age to be 30 years younger than his decrepit hooded-self in 1983. Not only does this work visually, but he totally owns his faux-innocent Palpatine routine, as well as the insidious Darth Sidious. Sure the lightsaber fight with Yoda is beyond silly, and it’s stupid that deflected lightning bolts mess up his face, but every line he utters in these movies is delivered with more panache and style than almost any other actor in the prequels. He even makes Christopher Lee look like a joker.
With Ian McDiarmid, we don’t worry about Palpatine’s motivations, or if his zany civil war plan makes any sense. He means serious business and he’s scary as hell. Don’t believe me? Watch that scene in Revenge of the Sith when he says “you’re anger makes your powerful gives you FOCUS!” It’s like he’s actually aroused by Anakin’s anger. Creepy.
3. The Music
I’m not saying John Williams could have actually improved on the score for the original Star Wars films, but let’s face it, with “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace, he kind of did. This single piece of music alone might justify the entire existence of the prequels. Further, the whole score of Episode I is arguably better than the film it accompanies. (With the exception of that ludicrous track at the end featuring children laughing manically.) Further, the “Across the Stars” love theme from Episode II is wonderful while not trying to out-do anything he did in the previous movie. Finally, the “Battle of Heroes” stuff from Episode III totally elevates that crazy way-too-long lava duel into something truly emotional. If Star Wars movies are supposed to be old-school melodramas, then Williams really outdid himself in matching up some of the hyperbolic stuff in these movies to really great and memorable music. “Duel of the Fates” is just as famous as the “Imperial March” or the main Star Wars theme. And that’s because it’s great.
4. The Ships in Episode III
It took the designers a couple of movies to get this part right, but the fighters that Obi-Wan and Anakin are rocking in Episode III are awesome. We all know those yellow hot-rod fighters from Episode I are silly, but the cool Tie-Fighter/X-Wing mash-ups they’ve got it by the end of the prequels are totally sweet. Without getting into too much nerdy detail, the designs of these spaceships work because they look like Star Wars. In short, part of the reason why we watch the Star Wars prequels is more Star Wars stuff. Most people think neat Star Wars stuff means lightsaber fights, but come on, it’s all about spaceships right? I mean the title of the series implies lots of spaceship battles, meaning the prequels had to deliver really cool spaceships at some point. And I think they did. These ships are so awesome that 9-year-old Ryan would have a hard time choosing between Obi-Wan’s Jedi Starfighter and Luke’s X-Wing. Seriously.
5. The Subtle Vader-like Qualities of Anakin
It’s pretty easy, and sometimes too fun to take pot shots at Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. I’m going to go ahead and say I like it. And I like it because it’s perfectly bizarre. And though I maybe didn’t picture Anakin that way before, I have to now. I mean, what a weird guy, right? It would take a pretty big weirdo to become Darth Vader, and Anakin is super weird and creepy. The way Hayden plays him is that he’s sort of like Mark Zuckerburg or something, which is actually terrifying. But unlike Zuckerburg, Anakin is always being pushed around by some kind of official group of people who want to put him in a box for, like, his entire life. In the prequels the Jedi council is pretty much 75% responsible for him turning to the dark side, insofar as they treat him like shit. I mean, they basically tell this poor kid from the word “go” that he totally sucks, even though everybody knows that he doesn’t.
This is echoed in A New Hope when the Imperial officers at the big board meeting start talking shit to Vader TO HIS FACE. It’s like it doesn’t matter how much cool stuff Anakin/Vader does, people are always trying to discredit him. Part of this is because Anakin is socially dysfunctional, and part of that comes from being micro-managed by everyone since he was a little kid. When Vader is micro-managed by Tarkin, and later the Emperor in the classic films, we can now think of how Hayden Christensen was getting the same kind of crap from Mace Windu when he was in his twenties. Bottom line: Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader has always been one of the most talented people in the room, and everyone hates him for it. It makes sense that he’s openly choking people in Episode IV, and I think the little moments in Episodes II and III set it up better than a lot of fans admit.
5 Dumb Things in The Classic Films
As a disclaimer: these movies rock. They are structured well, with mostly great internal plots backed up by simple themes, which get slightly more complex as the series progresses. However, what we forget about the classic movies is how sloppy they were in a lot of areas, and how lazy some of the storytelling really is. Here’s what I mean.
1. The Love Triangle/Leia Being Luke’s Sister
One of the sloppiest things about the original trilogy is the half-assed love triangle between Luke, Han and Leia. If Lucas tries to tell anyone that Leia was always going to be Luke’s sister, he’s totally lying. It’s obvious that a fairly traditional love triangle is set-up in the first movie and continued into the second movie. In fact, you could almost imagine a third film in which Han dies, Leia is not Luke’s sister and the “other” Yoda refers to in Empire is VADER! Think about it. Instead, Luke is desexualized in Return of the Jedi, Han is turned into flat, boring wimp, and Leia becomes a sort of second-fiddle character to Luke insofar as she supposedly has all the power he’s had, but she was only using them to do what? Force-powered legislation?
Leia shouldn’t be reduced to being Luke’s sister. It makes her lame. In the context of the original three films, she a much more interesting character in the first two than in Jedi. Both her and Han become sort of satellite characters to Luke by the end of the story, which feels wrong. I know the story is about Luke, but you really feel like it’s an ensemble movie in the first film. Jedi destroys this notion, but the undermining of Han and Leia’s agency was already underway in Empire. Those three characters are billed equally at the end credits. By the end of the story, they don’t matter, and Luke has to save them all. Which is dull.
2. The Second Death Star
I don’t need to spend much time on this one, because it’s so obvious. The biggest example that there were too many cooks in the kitchen by the time the script for Return of the Jedi was being written is this pointless second Death Star. It’s as if the writers forgot that the second movie didn’t need a Death Star to make it feel like Star Wars. Why does the whole movie revolve around the destruction of another Death Star anyway? Well, Mon Mothma tells us “the Emperor himself is personally overseeing the construction of this Death Star.” The subtext here is that the Rebels want to KILL THE EMPEROR. This is a big ruse to simply assassinate the Emperor.
What if the entire movie was only about this instead? What if the gang had to track down and murder the Emperor? If you think about it, the plot structure wouldn’t be that different. Instead of Endor, it could be all about infiltrating Coruscant (or whatever they wanted to name the Imperial Planet) with a stolen Imperial Shuttle. The Rebel Fleet could still be there, creating a diversion, while Luke, Han and Leia sneak in and try to pop a cap in Palpatine. Of course, the lightsaber fight between Luke and Vader would still go down. See? You don’t even need a Death Star. Same movie. Only better and smarter.
3. Vader’s Lameness in A New Hope/Why Tarkin?
Though I like how it relates to the prequels, I don’t like what a pansy Vader is compared with Tarkin in Episode IV. It doesn’t really make sense with what we see Vader doing in the later films. Why would Tarkin be holding Vader’s leash? If he’s the Emperor’s right hand man and Tarkin is an Imperial Officer, why is Tarkin in charge? What is the point of this character dynamic? I love Peter Cushing, don’t get me wrong, but seriously, his character doesn’t make any sense. It’s like Lucas was already worried that Vader was overpowering the narrative of Star Wars, so he gave him a keeper. But then Tarkin is promptly killed. Also, why would Vader do what Tarkin says? He chokes everyone left and right in Empire, why not before? Based on what is depicted on screen, Vader should be showing everyone who is boss all the time, and yet, in the very first Star Wars movie every shown, he’s not near as in charge as we’re lead to believe he always has been.
4. Why is Luke Suddenly a Badass? /Luke’s Weird Ethics
Just why is Luke so much better at using the Force in Return of the Jedi than he was in The Empire Strikes Back? Maybe Obi-Wan left a bunch of Cliff’s Notes on Force-stuff in his house on Tatooine. Luke is using the Force to make one of those poor pig-faced guards gasp for breath when he waltzes into Jabba’s Palace. Did he learn how to do this because he reached a certain age? Also, why doesn’t he just use this kind of crap on Vader and the Emperor when he shows up on the Death Star? I know! It’s because Luke has double standards. Luke lies to himself so much. Come on, he was there to confront Vader, but also to kill the Emperor. Here’s where his double standards become clear. In his head, it’s okay if someone is killed by a spaceship blowing up a space station (i.e. what he did in A New Hope, what he claims the Rebels will do in Jedi.) But if he goes after the Emperor and stabs him personally with his lightsaber, then that’s turning to the dark side. Come on, Luke. At least Anakin doesn’t kid himself that murder is murder. When Anakin kills, he kills everyone!
Luke does this same thing and gets a medal. Then he teases the Emperor about it, saying “soon I’ll be dead and you with me.” Anakin kills a bunch of people and then feels fucking awful. FOREVER. Luke also kills everyone on Jabba’s Sail Barge by blowing it up. Was that necessary? Would Obi-Wan approve? In terms of body-count, Luke is probably tied with Anakin prior to Anakin turning to the dark side. Bigger hypocrite: Luke.
5. Confusing Amount of Time Passing in The Empire Strikes Back
Just how long does it take for the Millennium Falcon to get from Hoth to Bespin? I’ve heard all kinds of theories. We never see the Falcon go into lightspeed when they escape the Star Destroyer, so if Star Wars followed the rules of regular science fiction this would mean it would take years to get to Cloud City. Han even says, “it’s pretty far.” It sort of makes sense that it took a while, because it would account for Luke having a fair amount of Jedi training before taking off to go rescue his friends. But the problem is, we’re not really told. Are we dealing with a couple weeks here? A month? Possibly six months?
If we knew, like from a line of dialogue or something, it would strengthen our understanding of where everyone is at emotionally. If Han and Leia have been making out on the Falcon for like six months, or even a couple weeks, that’s a way bigger deal than couple days. This is a structural flaw in the film that no one seems to worry about it. It’s mostly important with Luke’s Jedi training. If he was only there for like a week, there is no way he would have enough information to actually be good at any of this stuff. Further, I know Han and Leia have liked each other for awhile, but if we had a better idea of just how much time they’ve spent together, everything might be a little more interesting. Instead, it relies on lazy movie logic and makes us come to our own conclusions. In a story as basic and simple as this, we shouldn’t have to be worrying about stuff like that.
What else dear readers? What do you love/hate about Star Wars?
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.