[I have yet to see the new blu-ray versions of the Star Wars saga, but in honor of its release I thought I’d post some thoughts on the prequel films which I’ve been mulling over for years. Spoilers follow, of course.]
The almost universal hatred for the Star Wars prequels amazes me. Not just because I think the films are rather good, but simply because such a uniformity of opinion is quite rare nowadays. If the situation were reversed, I would think it equally amazing that so many people could agree to like something.
However, it is my belief that the prequels are underrated films, and that the hostility towards them is unjustified. I will address why the hostility arose later, but for now, I shall content myself with presenting the films’ merits, beginning with The Phantom Menace.
One of the complaints often leveled at Menace is that its politically-focused plot is boring. A trade dispute serves as the original issue from which the Sith will launch their plot to take control of the galaxy. Most people find this concept, as well as Senator Palpatine’s machinations, to be boring. I rather like the idea, however. How much evil is wrought because people do not pay attention to “boring” issues? As the Roman orator Cicero said: “The beginnings of all things are small”. It’s a subtle thing, but also quite believable.
I thought that Episode 1’s plot was rather clever, giving you a much more realistic feel for the situation, as opposed to simply saying “There are bad people. We must fight them” as most adventure films, including the original Star Wars seem to do. After all, though it’s little noted by critics, Queen Amidala’s major action in the film is to aid Palpatine’s rise to power. She’s the heroine of the prequel trilogy, and yet even she has been conned into unwittingly helping the Sith, and it sets the tone for all three films. Even when the protagonists think they’re winning, they lose.
This may not seem terribly impressive, and I’ll grant that it is by no means an intricate plot, but by the standards of adventure movies, it is complex and subtle.
Another too-little praised element is the acting. While Jake Lloyd’s performance is rather poor, most of the other actors do quite well. In particular, I think Liam Neeson is excellent as Qui-Gon, who is one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars movies.
What I like about Qui-Gon is that he’s kind of a jerk. Again, it’s not played up in the movie, but the animosity between him and Obi-Wan and between him and the Council is referenced a couple of times. Qui-Gon is clearly a bit of a rebel Jedi, who makes decisions without regard for the Council. He also can be a little bit cold at times.
Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it would’ve been easy to make Qui-Gon a Perfectly Wise Old Man, like Obi-Wan in A New Hope. But Lucas chose not to do that; instead, he made him a more complex character than the kind we are used to from the original trilogy. And again, Qui-Gon’s rebelliousness ultimately leads to disastrous consequences for the galaxy and the Jedi. The heroes’ best intentions are working against them.
There are flaws in Menace, to be sure. Jar-Jar, while I don’t utterly despise him like most people do, definitely did not merit such a big role. Darth Maul is pretty much squandered. The podrace is rather tedious, although no more so, in my opinion, than the race in Ben-Hur which inspired it. But taken altogether, I think The Phantom Menace is almost as good as The Empire Strikes Back.
The qualities I’ve listed above are not in themselves enough to make a good film, I admit. But when we recall that it is an action-adventure movie, it seems to that it enough uncommon subtleties of plot and characterization mixed in with plenty of enjoyable feats of martial arts (who doesn’t like the duel scene?) and futuristic gun-battles that it deserves to be considered a very well-made film, and more intelligent than most of its kind.