This isn't just a review of one film. On Wednesday I watched The Phantom Menace
and Attack of the Clones
back-to-back on DVD, in preparation for seeing Revenge of the Sith
in the cinema on Thursday, then I came home and rewatched the original trilogy (DVD editions). Overall 'twas a fascinating experiment and full of surprises, though I'd recommend taking a break or two if you don't want to overload your Lucas tolerance levels. Incidentally this review contains NO SPOILERS for Revenge of the Sith
, which to my surprise I disliked. It's basically Attack of the Clones
part two, and Attack of the Clones
bored me. Great visuals, dull characters. Revenge of the Sith
is darker and scarier... but darker on its own isn't really enough for me. I've read reviews both enthusiastic and vitriolic for this film and oddly I agree with both sides. If I'd been able to feel for the characters, this film would have been a powerhouse.
However if you watch all six in order, Episode 3 is the saga's lynchpin. Its mere presence affects Episodes 1 and 2, but it makes a bigger difference to the original trilogy. What's more, I mean that in a good way.
Going back to the beginning...
The Phantom Menace
is a peculiar one. It almost doesn't belong with the others, but it's my favourite of the prequels. Almost everything after this is part of the greater story, but much of The Phantom Menace
is quietly doing its own thing. Qui-Gon! Darth Maul! Naboo! The Trade Federation! We're getting our first glimpses of Palpatine's plan, but essentially the whole Naboo invasion is a backwater squabble that will never matter again. Jar-Jar and his fellow Muppets will fade away like ghosts. Qui-Gon Jinn, ditto. If you're embarking on the complete saga, the section that was once an irrelevant pit-stop (getting stuck on Tatooine) is suddenly the bit where The Phantom Menace
Of course much of The Phantom Menace
is rubbish. The pod race! Jar-Jar Binks! The Gungan battle! In fact the whole Naboo invasion is half-arsed. A planet's being crushed, but we don't see a single frame of it. Who are the Naboo exactly? Show me one. There's Natalie Portman and her advisers, and, umm... oh, look, Gungans. Jar-Jar. On second thoughts, maybe I should be rooting for the Trade Federation.
However despite all this, The Phantom Menace
has a goofy Saturday afternoon charm that's missing from the other prequels. The characters are better too. What's great about Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids is that they're a squabbling bunch of misfits up against a galaxy-spanning empire. Episodes 2 and 3 serve up a bunch of politicians. Gee. However The Phantom Menace
stars the best Darth (Maul), the best Jedi (Qui-Gon), his Paduwan learner, a stroppy handmaiden, a doomed ten-year-old kid who's coming on to her, random droids and a pea-brained lizard monstrosity who deserves to die. I like that line-up! If it hadn't been for Jake Lloyd, Natalie Portman and Ahmed Best, it might have been better even than the classic line-up.
Attack of the Clones
feels more relevant to the ongoing story, but unfortunately it fails at what it's trying to do. On the upside, as you watch the pieces slowly coming together, there's a kind of beauty in seeing Count Dooku tempting Obi-Wan with the unadorned truth. However it's hollow. Its job is to give us a love story powerful enough to be the engine of Anakin's tragic fall to the Dark Side, whereas in fact it wouldn't power a pen torch's lightbulb. The love scenes are begging to be fast-forwarded or outright MST3Ked with sarcastic comments at the screen, with Hayden Christensen being immature and creepy while Natalie Portman is practically a walking corpse. We'll leave aside the film's other problems, glaring though they are. The Phantom Menace
is even more flawed, but at least that film wasn't trying to lay the emotional groundwork for a grand tragedy that's at the heart of the entire trilogy.
Revenge of the Sith
is more of the same. It's another film about politicians and anal-retentive Jedi delivering non-dialogue, but on the upside we get to see almost all of them die. That was a laugh. No less importantly it also weeds out the dull placeholders in time for Episode 4 to give us actual characters. This film's virtue is its brutality, violence and nastiness. It's a tentpole blockbuster action film in which the villains exterminate the heroes, instigate a bloodbath and take over the galaxy! The tragedy is powerful and gets even stronger on rewatching, but unfortunately it's based on the love story of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman with dialogue by George Lucas. This is a problem. I enjoy its darkness, but imagine how much stronger it could have been if you'd really believed that Anakin was being driven by his love for Padme.
Overall it's impressive but flawed, working better in the greater context of Star Wars than as a complete film in its own right.
As a whole, the prequel trilogy... well, it isn't one. You've got The Phantom Menace
and the rest. Liam Neeson is fantastic, effortlessly cooler than Samuel L. Jackson (although given the latter's role that's not difficult). He and Alec Guinness are the only actors truly comfortable in the role of Jedi Knights. Senator Palpatine kicks arse. Ewan McGregor is bland beyond description in Episode 1
, but he moves on so far between each movie that you don't even blink when he becomes Alec Guinness in A New Hope. Personally I think Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of the series's triumphs.
Even the various Anakins are better than everyone says. If you know you'll soon be watching Episode 3, then at times it's genuinely poignant to watch Jake Lloyd. He struggles with a line or two ("yippee!"), but I honestly believed that this boy would become Darth Vader and at times you could see the signs. Quite apart from anything else, he's the only actor in the series to have some chemistry with Natalie Portman. Hayden Christensen isn't completely rubbish either. In Attack of the Clones
he's a creepy stalker rather than a lover, but is that inappropriate? I couldn't believe in the love story being played, but at least I could buy it as the confused self-delusion of a sullen, aggressive teenager who'll eventually become Darth Vader. Then as the latter he's powerful enough that after watching Revenge of the Sith
, Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones paled a little in comparison.
The problem is Natalie Portman. She should have been the human core of these movies. She's at the heart of the prequel trilogy, the only main character without Jedi superpowers, a simple girl trying to protect her people and the man she loves. She should have been the audience identification character... but she's rubbish! In Episode 1
, she's okay in her scenes with Jake Lloyd but otherwise stiff and lifeless. She never manages to lift the dead weight of playing a queen. Then in Episode 2
, she doesn't sell the love story that drives the entire tragedy of Episode 3. Admittedly everything was against her... a director more interested in CGI, a leaden script and a 20-gazillion-dollar mega-epic production, a leading man who's a creepy son-of-a-bitch, an established relationship with "Ani" that's basically maternal... I can acknowledge the problems. However the fact remains that Natalie Portman practically disappears amid the noise and fury, becoming a bigger drag factor on the prequel trilogy than Jar-Jar Binks.
Oh, and Jar-Jar won't take long to discuss. The movie industry has moved on. We've realised that you need actors behind your CGI, not mugging clowns. Let's just accept him as a mistake and move on, noting only that any actor giving a live-action performance that bad would have been clubbed to death with baseball bats and buried in the desert. I literally couldn't watch him. Wherever he stood, my eyes slid away.
Oh, and you know that 2003 Clone Wars TV cartoon series? Two hours of space-age battles from Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack, that go between Episodes 2 and 3? It's rather good. The art is stylised but looks fine, the voice actors sound about right in their impersonations of the genuine articles (although Anthony Daniels returns yet again to play C3P0) and overall it's empty but kick-ass nonsense as Jedi flatten bad guys. A lot of people were surprised to learn that the Clone Wars would happen offscreen as far as the films were concerned, but if you stick this in your DVD player you can rectify that omission.
Of the original trilogy...
Empire Strikes Back used to be the best. Not any more. Today you haven't truly seen the original trilogy if you haven't seen Episode 3. The Star Wars saga contains two good films and another that's merely important, but the latter raises the others to another level. A New Hope can now make a claim to being the best Star Wars film. Once it was this ragamuffin collection of random plot threads that ended up vaguely entwined, but now it's as tight as a duck's arse. R2D2 and C3PO aren't twonks any more, but the survivors of the apocalypse. Sir Alec Guinness is beyond brilliant; you can feel the weight of the prequels in his every word and gesture, though they didn't even exist in 1977. The final Vader-Kenobi duel feels undercooked, but its conclusion is awesome. Wait for Luke's "no", by the way. Mark Hamill got a big "no" in all three of his Star Wars films, of which the hardest-hitting used to be the one in Empire Strikes Back. It now has competition.
A New Hope is special in other ways too. The Star Wars universe is rich and exotic, but the films don't tend to stop and stare at it. It's just the backdrop. However the first half-hour of A New Hope has a real sense of wonder, whether in the Mos Eisley cantina or a Jawa sandcrawler. George Lucas makes you stop and smell the roses, and it's something genuinely different.
Episodes 5 and 6 are less affected by Episode 3, but it's a new experience to rewatch Luke's Jedi training. For the first time his flirtation with the Dark Side has real weight, since we've seen his father fail the same test. Interestingly Yoda and Obi-Wan are lying bastards, while the Emperor and Vader are evil but honest. I also reckon Yoda's exile sent him gaga! Return of the Jedi also stands revealed as on a par with the prequels. It blatantly rip offs the first two films, though the final Luke-Vader-Emperor confrontation is worth waiting for.
In the end, I think it's meant to be clear that the Jedi are as wrong as the Sith. They're good rather than evil, but that doesn't validate their theology. Nevertheless Anakin did indeed bring balance to the Force. There were too many good guys! He killed them all! Then after that he eventually killed the Emperor too, leaving the Force about as balanced as it could be. Mutually assured destruction. You can't get fairer than everyone being dead. However I should add a footnote. If you liked Attack of the Clones
more than The Phantom Menace
, you might disagree with this review.
Incidentally, Anakin's redemption thing is why Tomoko thinks Star Wars is rubbish.
She'd never heard of Star Wars. She watched Star Wars 1-5 (in that order) and wasn't particularly impressed, but equally wasn't ranting or anything.
She then watched Return of the Jedi and so hated Darth Vader's redemption that she now has no time for Star Wars. This point of view wouldn't have occurred to me. However in fairness the only movie in which Anakin is a sympathetic non-villainous character is The Good Prequel Film and I'm on shaky ground if the best defence I can muster is to play the Kid Card. Otherwise, he's: (2) a creepy stalker having wet dreams about his mother, (3) helping evil conquer the galaxy, wiping out the forces of good and murdering children, (4) Darth Vader, (5) Darth Vader, (6) Darth Vader.
The Empire Strikes Back remains the best of the Star Wars films, thanks to its third act. Most of the movie is just business as usual, but by the time the action's moved to Cloud City, everyone's double-crossing everyone else and Han's getting frozen into a block of carbonite, it's stopped being merely a good Star Wars film and become genuinely compelling cinema. It's not as grand guignol as Revenge of the Sith
, but it's more claustrophobic and intimidating. Most of this series is just exciting fun in outer space, but sometimes it's more.
Hang on, no, wait. It's an odd-numbered rule, isn't it? The good ones are 1, 3 and 5. (Well, not quite, since A New Hope clearly isn't a write-off, but it's a better fit than the even-numbered rule for Star Trek films.)