I camped out in May of 1999 for two days to get tickets to see the premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. My friend and I were about a third of the way back in the line. The real sad part of this story is that even with our camping out, and being in a good spot, we were unable to get the tickets because the theater allowed those in front of us to buy large quantities and sell out the screenings. This pissed a lot of people off.
Luckily, we were able to drive about twenty minutes down the road and get tickets at a different theater in a smaller town. This was the extent to which we were willing to go to see the first new Star Wars film in our adult lives, both of us being rabid fans since childhood, and having committed most of the original trilogy to memory.
It was clear from the opening scene that this was not like the movies we remembered. There was just something off about it. Everything about the movie felt stiff and forced. And yet, a cognitive bias simply refused to allow me to see its flaws. I went back again and again, wanting to love it, wanting to commit it to memory like the others. I watched The Phantom Menace in the theater 12 times.
There were definitely things to enjoy about it. Darth Maul, and the entire duel with the two Jedi knights, with the chanting John Williams score, was definitely cool. Any time a lightsaber buzzed to life, it sent a chill through my nostalgia-laden brain. But, overall, I look back at this moment in my life, as the defining revelation of what it meant to be blindly devoted to something. George Lucas took advantage of his fans. He made bad movies and knew that people would pay to see them anyway.
The revealing clue that somewhere in my subconscious, I knew I was being swindled for cash, is that I did not go back for such a glut of repeat viewings with the other two prequels. I watched Attack of the Clones twice. And I think I watched Revenge of the Sith three times, a movie which at the time I had declared foolhardily to be the best Star Wars film ever made.
I look back at this now and laugh. No one who loves cinema should ever confuse one of the Star Wars prequels with being a good movie. And no one should ever call George Lucas a good director again. For proof of this, just look at the work he has done since leaving Star Wars behind… Who could forget the cinematic classic of Red Tails?
George ultimately got what he wanted. A multi-billion-dollar payday from Disney. I do have to give him credit for one thing though. He did invent the whole shebang and started Industrial Light & Magic, which revolutionized special effects and changed motion pictures forever. As a producer, these things are undeniably great achievements. As an artist, his work fails to hold up to any level of scrutiny.
The Mechanics of Bad Film
There are very few redeeming qualities of the Star Wars prequel films. Generally speaking, most of the ingredients of these works, are terrible. From the outset, you have good actors delivering stilted and unnatural performances, signaling that they are working for a director who doesn’t know how to cultivate genuine emotion from his artists. Then you have the fact that they are reciting lines of dialogue that seem to have been written with robots in mind instead of people. And Jake Lloyd.
Jake Lloyd has to be one of the worst child actors to ever grace the screen. Every line he utters in Phantom Menace is spoken with all the emotional realism of a muppet reading lists of ingredients for breakfast cereals. They’d have been better off just CGI’ing a kid into the role. Given how he reacted to the criticism and all of the negative responses to his portrayal over the years, honestly, that would have been a better option. Or George Lucas could have cast someone capable of acting.
The biggest problem with the Star Wars prequels is their lack of authenticity. You can just tell that so much of the movies are computer-generated video game content. There are barely any practical effects, physical location shoots, or sets. It’s all green screen and CGI, forcing people to utilize limited space, and react to non-existent stimuli. This is why so much of these films are simply people walking and talking about what they are going to do, instead of showing us the actions of what they actually do.
One of the key fundamentals of good storytelling is SHOW don’t TELL. George Lucas repeatedly fails this basic principle of the craft, even when using a VISUAL medium, because he himself clearly lacks faith in his own technology to be able to do the job, or because he is just lazy. He’s also telling a completely unnecessary story to begin with, which obviously didn’t help matters.
By trying to fill in the origin story of Darth Vader, one of the most mysterious and iconic villains of all-time, he is essentially ruining the mystique of the character. This is something he also managed to do to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. Villains are better when they are unexplained. See also THE FORCE, which Lucas tried to also explain as midichlorians. Sigh.
Due to the stilted nature of the shot design and the overwhelming amount of robotic dialogue between the characters, these films end up being slow and boring, on top of being cheesy and saccharine. All of them could use a good edit to cut out the dull swaths of dead air. Instead, we get two hours of deadpan dialogue intermittently dispersed between long CGI-laden battle sequences, which all amount to the emotional gravitas of video games.
The Proof in the Pudding
If you want proof that George Lucas was aware he was making bad movies, all you have to do is look at how he tried to course-correct from one movie to the next. Jar-Jar Binks was so annoying to the fans, and so many people complained, his role was throttled down to the bare minimum of cameo appearances for the next two movies.
Yoda was taken from being a practical effect to being completely replaced with a CGI version, even after the film had already released with the puppet used in Phantom Menace. Future versions had the puppet completely edited out of the movie, though Frank Oz still voiced him.
Tone-wise, just look at how Lucas shifted steadily from focusing on a more child-friendly tone, to completely adult-targeted darkness. We literally go from Jar-Jar Binks stepping in poo and getting farted on, to Anakin Skywalker murdering a room full of children. There’s no median or through-line holding these films together thematically. It’s just a director without a vision, trying to people-please instead of trying to create something authentic.
After the release of the sequel trilogy and its concluding chapter with The Rise of Skywalker, there has been another wave of people trying to defend the prequel trilogy, and saying the prequels are ultimately better movies than the sequels. I’m sorry, but these folks are insane.
Yes, admittedly, a person’s taste in cinema is completely subjective. But any way you slice it, just looking at the quality of the films side by side, and looking at the performances, and the edits, the emotional impacts, there’s got to be an objective level of agreement that the sequel films are just better-made movies.
Sure, in many ways, the sequel movies rehash much of the original trilogy, in a sort of unofficial reboot instead of a completely new series. But, even with that in mind, they just work. They make the audience feel like they’re watching Star Wars.
These days, if I try to watch a movie like The Phantom Menace, or Attack of the Clones, or even if I try to watch Revenge of the Sith, I find myself so disgusted by its quality, that I have to turn it off about twenty minutes in. I can’t even force myself to finish it.
That, my friends, is a bad movie. Stop kidding yourselves.