The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy - A Retrospective
By Ben Warner

The original "Star Wars" trilogy was a cinematic landmark and a fond fixture in popular culture. I was not fortunate enough to see the original trilogy in its first run at the cinema although I did get to see the updated Special Editions when they were released. My introduction to the original films was television, and constantly re-watching them on home video. I remember going through "Empire" the most, as well as the darker scenes from "Jedi", conveniently fast-forwarding through any scenes featuring ewoks. The original trilogy offered strong story telling, compelling and likeable characters, as well as spectacular images and a riveting soundtrack by master composer John Williams.

So where does the new prequel trilogy stack up against the brilliantly done originals? I guess it depends on how you look at it.

"The Phantom Menace", or "Episode I", generated an unprecedented amount of anticipation, so much so that there was no way this film was going to live up to expectations. I was certainly caught up in it all, having pre-bought the tickets weeks before and was all ready for a completely new Star Wars film.

The one thing I do remember after walking out of the cinema that day was being visually overwhelmed. I actually did not know what to think at all. I do not recall feeling anything negative about the film, or positive for that matter. I just felt I had seen something that was altogether different to the original films; that and my retinas needed to adjust to the real world after being bombarded with the cinema's most over-burdened and detailed CGI shots in history. Visually, the film was a lot to process.

Unlike a lot of fans, I did not hate Jar Jar, I did not hate Jake Lloyd, and in general I did not hate what I saw. Looking back, I realised that I enjoyed it despite it being a bit 'lite' on story; but looking at in context of the original films and the other prequels, there were some major problems, least of which was the criminally underused Darth Maul.

"Attack Of The Clones" seems to get the gong for 'silliest Star Wars title'. We were promised a more darker tone, but I would say we got a 'sombre' tone instead. This film introduced the world to Hayden Christensen as the young Anakin, and soon to be evil Darth Vader. Not good. Christensen seemed miscast to me, and for the most part he looks lost in a complicated role. In the end, it damages the film's standing only marginally because the film is really about the images, action and universe-ending melodrama, but somehow it manages to make "The Phantom Menace" a solid acting piece.

The plot for "Episode II" does manage to install Palpatine as the Supreme Chancellor and create the Storm Troopers seen in the original trilogy, so in this respect, it's much 'meatier' than "Episode I". An all digital Yoda is a revelation and a masterpiece of CGI and voicework. A friend of mine said at the time that they could have just had the two minute Yoda fight scene looped for two hours and it probably would have made even more money than it did.

And then came "Revenge of the Sith". For many fans, this was the film that "Episode I" should have been. It's easily the best of the prequels, mainly because it actually fosters a sense of sinister drama, and because it does not contain any fat in the story telling: a major negative for the other prequels. This was an enjoyable film to watch, and for the first time, almost all the CGI actually looked perfect. And you got to see some great moments, particularly anything to do with Palpatine and his transformation in to the Emperor of the universe. The last twenty minutes of the film are unexpected from a tone point of view; you have not really seen anything that dark in a Star Wars film, but it is very welcome from a dramatic point of view.

When watching the prequels, if you do not nitpick too much at what you have seen, you will find them all a very cinematic, enjoyable experience and worth the price of admission. Of course, Star Wars fans will nit-pick. And they would be justified in doing so because the prequels do not hold up well under scrutiny.

George Lucas said in the "Episode I" DVD documentary that the two trilogies rhyme; in essence, similar things happen in both trilogies but the stories ultimately end up taking different paths based on different outcomes at crucial moments. If this rhyming notion is accurate, why is Anakin nine years old in "Episode I" while Luke is eighteen or so in "Episode IV"? Why was Darth Maul not a central figure in "Episode I" like Darth Vader in "Episode IV"? Where was the Jar Jar Binks style character in "Episode IV"? You could go on and on. He may have been trying to get the trilogies to be synchronous, but it did not happen.

Then there is just the general laziness in the story telling, most likely due to the fact that there was not enough story to sustain three films. Anakin's turn to the dark side is completely arbitrary. In "Episode III", he goes from being conflicted about Palpatine and wanting to serve the Jedi to becoming Darth Vader in a matter of minutes. In "Episode II", we only see Anakin's mother for one scene, yet her death is the beginning of Anakin's journey to the dark side. I would have thought that spending a lot more time developing the most crucial scenes in the trilogy would been the way to go instead of endless scenes of CGI (the wookie battle or the pod-race comes to mind). Although I did not hate Jar Jar, he does not really have a place in the story structure of the six films aside from selling toys (okay, George made him relevant in "Episode II" but I think that was more thanks to fan reaction than anything else).

The most important developments in the trilogy are glazed over yet that is what we came to see. Ewan McGregor once said the prequels were about the 'background' and it is true; the images are truly astounding. It is a shame the same level of detail was not applied to the screenplays.

In many ways, the prequel trilogy is the embodiment of the modern blockbuster; entertaining for a few hours, and maybe even on a few repeat viewings, but then ultimately disposable. That may be a little harsh because they are better than the majority of blockbusters that have come out of Hollywood in recent years, but they are also Star Wars films and probably deserved better treatment. They will never achieve the high water mark of the original trilogy, nor should they. They are different films for a different generation. For the fans I would say, enjoy them for what they are and do not compare. It is really the only way to watch the prequels.

Ben Warner is an independent filmmaker, having made made three feature films and six short films through Digicosm (http://www.digicosm.com). He runs and contributes to the DVD review web site, All About Movies.net (http://www.allaboutmovies.net) and runs the independent film distribution channel, The Trial Of Film.com (http://www.thetrialoffilm.com).

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