Attack of the Phantom Sith

I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars prequel trilogy while working this week. That I own them on DVD tells you I have a better opinion of them than most people my age. I do think the hatred of the movies is, in some sense, a Gen-X thing. They failed to live up to expectations. I’ve noticed older viewers and younger ones tend to think they’re almost as good as the original trilogy.

I think the thing that frustrates most people — and frustrates me on occasion — is that you occasionally glimpse the great movies buried within just good movies. The prequels were not very far away from being outstanding. The direction — at least the visual direction — is great. The F/X are spectacular and, more importantly, imaginative. John Williams music is up to par. If the movies had just done a few things differently, they might have been great. Specifically:

  • Simplify the narrative. Complex political strife does not work well in the Star Wars universe. Having the droid army simply be the Sith enemy would have made things simpler. Only at the end would it have been revealed that Palpatine was playing both sides.
  • Keep Darth Sidious in the shadows until the last. Darth Maul would have been a better villain if he, and not Sidious, had appeared to be the main villian in Movie 1. And just think how devastating it would have been if Annakin had discovered the truth at the end of Movie 3. The omniscient audience is not always a good thing.
  • Recast and rework Annakin. Having him as a kid in movie 1 was a mistake. Having both Annakin and Padme as teenagers would have started romantic tension right from the first second. By movie 2, they could have been in love but unwilling to act. Having them “fall in love”, if you can call it that, was a big problem. Think about the romantic tension in Empire. It’s clear that almost all of the romantic stuff happened off screen. So it works.

    Accelerating Annakin’s descent into villainy would have done well too. Cast as a teenager in movie 1, he could have shown the ruthlessness and impatience that makes him fall. Movie 2 could have seen him growing more disgusted with Jedi restraint and more convinced that only a firm hand can destroy the Sith, culminating in hims executing a defenseless Dooku on Palpatine’s orders. By movie 3, he would be spinning out of control, unable to harness his own power, paranoid to the point where when Palpatine says, “kill the Jedi”, he does so without thinking.

    Casting someone other than Hayden would have been a good idea as well, although I’m not convinced that was a Hayden-sucks-as-an-actor problem and not a Lucas-can’t-direct-actors problem. His spell as the evil Annakin at the end of Movie 3 was quite good.

    What’s amazing, watching the movies, is how well parts of it work. Obi Wan works. The fights work. Yoda works. What drags things to a screaming halt is the forced arc of Annakin.

  • The problem with Jar-Jar and the Gungans was that they were comic relief. Any movie that has a comic relief character has problems. Humor should flow naturally out of all the characters. It works better. It lightens them up and makes them human. In fact, the biggest problem with the movies, I think, is the lack of humor in certain characters. Moving Jar-Jar from comic relief to “Chewbacca substitute” would have vastly improved Movie 1.
  • Notice I haven’t suggested any radical changes. Just tweaks. Simplify, accelerate, amplify. Star Wars does well with clean story telling. It’s a pity Lucas forgot that. Because instead of three good movies we could have had three great movies.

    4 thoughts on “Attack of the Phantom Sith”

    1. The dialogue actually isn’t that bad and, such as it is, is almost entirely connected with the romance story that could have been ditched. It’s the *deliver* that sucks.

    2. I’m glad to hear that someone else thinks this. I’ve always thought that the first movie, especially, was “almost great”. I actually think that the CIS plot works pretty well. It isn’t really all that complex, and it provides a plausible mechanism for the Sith (ultimately just two guys) to bring down the Old Republic from within.

      Additional thoughts:

      * I definitely agree that “child Anakin” was a mistake, as was “child Boba Fett”. Patton Oswalt called this one: what was with Lucas’ obsession with child versions of our favorite villains. I’m surprised we didn’t get a scene with a young Tarkin hazing the plebes at the academy.

      * Could we for-crying-out-loud move the story forward in the second movie?

      * Any characterization of Yoda that was developed in Empire was completely chucked out the window in the prequels. For instance, I got the impression that his tortured grammar in Empire was mostly an act to put Luke off his guard; he rarely seemed to use it after he revealed his true identity. The prequel version of Yoda seemed almost a parody of the original character.

      * More generally, randomly including iconic characters and settings from the original films (“Hey, kids, it’s Chewbacca! You like Chewbacca, don’t you?”) makes the Star Wars universe seem small.

      * Finally, the Old Republic setting just seemed less “epic” than I imagined it. When you watch the first movie, you get the idea that the Old Republic was a far-off, semi-mythical golden age. Jedi like Obi-Wan (himself impossibly old) have been carrying on the fight underground for generations until Vader (“a pupil of mine”) betrayed them, and now they are all but extinct. Then, along comes the prequel trilogy, and you find out that it was all only 20 years ago. Han Solo is probably old enough to remember the Old Republic, and Obi-Wan is only about 50, though the years have apparently not been kind to him (did he spend the whole time strung out on meth or something?) It’s ok, I guess, but it’s not what I (and apparently a lot of other people) imagined.

      And that, I think, is why Gen-Xers (at least those of the nerd subspecies) hate the prequels so much: they’re just not as cool as what we imagined ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I had an image in my head of what the heyday of the Jedi was like, and it didn’t include cutesey kids accidentally destroying droid battleships, sappy romances, or being offered black-market smokes in seedy joints within sight of the Jedi Temple (!?). The prequels don’t measure up to what we imagined, and I think that makes them all the more disappointing because it means the films we hoped for will now never be made.

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