The prequels are undoubtedly the red-headed stepchildren of the Star Wars universe: scorned, belittled and mocked at every turn for dragging the franchise into depths from which it can never recover. Nobody doubts that Episodes I-III could have been better. The dialogue clunks, the performances are wooden and… yeah, there’s Jar Jar. But not all of us believe that those flaws are fatal, and maintain with fierce conviction that undue Prequel Hate disguises some of the truly great elements present in I-III. They bring honor and depth to the Star Wars saga, and ignoring them is just as bad as excusing the flaws. Here are five fantastic things about the prequel trilogy: things that all the “NOOOOOOS!!!” in the world cannot hide.
Sure, there’s that annoying two-headed announcer, cracking bad jokes and basically making everyone feel dirty and used for even buying a ticket. But look at the rest of the scene: the white-knuckle editing, the zipping landscapes, the deliriously awesome notion of strapping a seat behind a jet engine and hitting “afterburn.” Add to that a few marvelous touches like the Sand People taking potshots at the racers, or Jabba starting the race by biting off a frog’s head and spitting it at a gong, and you have everything the fans were hoping to see when they stepped into the theaters.
For all the complaining about The Phantom Menace, I’ve yet to hear anyone say “boo” about that lightsaber duel. Before then, the duels were all a little stiff: fought between old men and untrained youths. Here, we get a front-row seat to what three fully-trained Jedi could do. The buzz from their climactic struggle might have helped a number of people overlook the film’s flaws for a time, and while Episodes II and III couldn’t quite match it, they still uncorked regular helpings of laser sword-y ass kicking for our enjoyment. (We’ll give second place to the showdown between Obi-Wan and General Griveous in Revenge of the Sith.)
George Lucas likened the Star Wars movies to silent films – not surprising considering his awful dialogue – and cited the music as their emotional lynchpins. Hard to argue with that. John Williams’ gorgeous compositions delivered all the beats that the actors couldn’t: true to the original music while adding fresh new pieces that each film could call its own. I maintain that “Duel of the Fates” is the best Star Wars music ever composed, and “Battle of the Heroes” in Revenge of the Sith is the only thing keeping the landscape from swallowing Anakin and Obi-Wan whole.
Ewan McGregor deserves some kind of medal for making a compelling character out of the hash he was given. The actor consistently holds our attention, does honor to Alec Guiness’s iconic turn and even brings the odd twinkle in his eye just when things look their bleakest. He’s not alone. How about Sam Jackson as the baddest Jedi in the whole damn universe? Yoda in crack-addled death Muppet mode? And the whole plethora of weird and wonderful Jedi beneath them: seen best in the climax to Attack of the Clones, but popping up here and there throughout the trilogy. They help convey the scope and breadth of the Star Wars universe… while kicking all kinds of butt to boot.
Okay, so Anakin’s pretty whiny and those Trade Federation guys skirt way to close to the “racist caricature” line for comfort. But it’s not like the prequels have a shortage of truly awesome bad guys. Darth Maul goes without saying – he became an audience favorite almost before he stepped onscreen – and Ian McDiarmid’s measured, calculating turn in Revenge of the Sith holds that film together. (Keep hiring the Scotsmen Geroge; they do good work.) But don’t forget Grievous, Star Wars’ Richard III clone who keeps a collection of lightsabers from all the Jedi he killed. Or Count Dooku, giving Christopher Lee a marvelous opportunity to bookend Peter Cushing’s appearance in A New Hope. Even Sebulba – the podracer with whom Anakin crosses engines in The Phantom Menace – looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before, a weird and fascinating creation of the sort that Star Wars produces without a second thought. Pound for pound, the prequels have delivered more first-rate villains than any ten other films combined… so many in fact, that it’s easy to overlook how cool they really are.