I had a Road to Damascus moment recently. Despite the fact that the Star Wars prequel trilogy is broken and the original trilogy is solid, I realised that Episodes I and III might be my favourites of the series.
The difference, as everyone knows, is in the actors. McGregor, Portman and Christensen are charmless, dull and uninvolving, whereas it's always fun to watch Ford, Fisher and Hamill. However the danger of bashing the prequels is that they're such easy targets that one can lose one's perspective on the originals. Of course I'm not denying that they're landmarks in action-adventure that transformed the movie industry. They're fun. I enjoy them. I even like the Ewoks. Incidentally the best of the three is clearly The Empire Strikes Back, thanks to that bit near the end where you don't know who's double-crossing whom and suddenly you find yourself watching a real movie.
Personally though I find the originals less interesting movies. They're SF action bubblegum, albeit with emotional weight and a massive canvas. Farscape has a stronger hold on my affections, for instance.
Episodes I-III on the other hand are challenging. They're less successful, but they're doing darker, freakier things than the originals. Attack of the Clones
is the outright failure, of course. It's a love story with Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen (stop laughing), which makes it the only one of the prequels where the casting is undercutting the film's raison d'etre.
The Phantom Menace
is wobbling on the tightrope, but I love it. Jar-Jar is unspeakable and I'd love to trim the action scenes (the Pod Race, the Gungan battle), but I'm crazy about Liam Neeson and his "Duel of the Fates" climax with Darth Maul. Furthemore, more fundamentally, I'm tickled by the hero being the galaxy's ultimate villain as a cute kid. This creates unusual notes. I'm also fond of Jake Lloyd.
We've reached Revenge of the Sith.
What's great about Star Wars is its villains. They win! They stomp planets, grind the galaxy under their jackboots and return repeatedly to exterminate the forces of good... and this film is their apotheosis. You'd never believe a family-friendly franchise could get this bleak. The hero murders children! Democracy is destroyed. The Jedi get gunned down by their allies, the hero's girl dies and the galaxy falls into the hands of evil. This is tragedy so operatic that we visit the opera. Sometimes it fails (i.e. Portman), but you've got to admire how far Lucas is taking it. Order 66 is astonishing and the final Christensen-McGregor duel is nearly as great, if only for its apocalyptic setting.
As with Attack of the Clones
, you can also turn the casting into a narrative feature. There it was simply that Darth Vader is an incestuous stalker. In this film though, the villains are the protagonists. It's the delicious Ian McDiarmid's movie and we're cheering him on as he corrupts the innocent and destroys all things good. We're certainly not cheering on the heroes. They're useless. The Jedi are stupid and have a redwood-sized stick up their arse that makes them largely responsible for their own destruction, via their mishandling of Anakin. McGregor is wooden. Portman is worse than Jar-Jar. No, the story here is about evil's triumph over good and the acting is helping get us on side with that.
What's more, a lot of that is deliberate. Lucas wants to show that the Jedi are helping to bring about their own downfall.
The hole in the film is Portman. She's superficially okay, as she was in V for Vendetta
, but she fails to take command of her scenes. She feels smaller than the film, in a way that Ford, Fisher and Hamill never did. Theoretically she's the human heart of the prequels, but in fact she's a null and her death is begging for a comedy fan edit like Adric's in Earthshock.
Ewan McGregor I don't mind, though. I've never particularly rated him, but equally there's nothing wrong with him once you've accepted that he's a nice guy rather than a movie star. To me he's always seemed natural and likeable and here I think a little of that warmth shows through. Here he manages to toe the Jedi party line and hence be part of the problem, but at the same time be a pillar of decency and kindness.
Meanwhile Hayden Christensen still doesn't know what to do in his scenes with Portman, but it's his journey to becoming Darth Vader that shows you why Lucas cast him.
Could I mention that I like the CGI, by the way? It's meant to be obtrusive. It's creating a texture for the Star Wars universe, which I think is a valid choice, so the fact that it's drawing attention to itself is a feature, not a flaw. Oh, and in the opening sequence, as a joke the space debris includes a kitchen sink.
It's the most successful of the prequels, because it basically works. It's got no problems as glaring as Jar-Jar or a core Portman-Christensen love story. Watching it though was a bit underwhelming. Much of it is pretending to be about the good guys, so there's a lot of slightly empty business with space battles, Jedi action scenes and hunting down General Grievous. I can see the interesting side-effects of having heroes that you don't really care about, but at the end of the day the result is that you don't really care about them. That's what sways me personally back to The Phantom Menace
, I think, although obviously the original trilogy is the winner in this department.
Did I like it? Yes. I like all of Star Wars, really. It has its problems, as do all the prequels, but to me it's also the most important of the six. All the others I could imagine dropping down a drain and you'd still have a functional version of the saga in the form of the remaining five films, but not this one. Killing kids, heh heh.