When I first saw Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as a kid, I remember loving it as if it were my favorite movie. I was dazzled by A New Hope, but here was a story about a kid my age who I could relate to more than Luke Skywalker. George Lucas has said that these movies were targeted mainly at kids, which goes to show how in touch with his inner child Lucas is, because Phantom Menace had all the irresistable elements for a young audience: warriors, laser swords, spaceships, robots, a cool villain, a cool princess, a funny alien sidekick, and an epic war! How could anyone not like this? As it turned out, very easily.
Yes, there are people out there who don’t like the Star Wars prequels, but there are people out there who don’t like a lot of films. It wasn’t a big deal when you heard about the criticisms for Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean. What made The Phantom Menace so special was that Star Wars has a fanbase unlike any other. The original trilogy was dynamite. They’re the kinds of films that never get old no matter how many times you watch them. And in the 15 years since Return of the Jedi came out, the fanbase got even stronger. George Lucas had an uphill battle making Episode I because he was competing with people’s hopes and dreams for what a new Star Wars movie could be.
While I do think that the criticism for The Phantom Menace was overblown by people who were comparing it unfavorably with the old films, I am aware of its flaws. But saying a movie has flaws is meaningless. What matters is how big the flaws are.
The similarities that some alien voices have to stereotypical accents is not great, 3PO’s inclusion in the plot seemed forced and unnecessary, and there are a lot of political speeches on that city planet, but that stuff was so in-and-out of the plot I could forgive all of it. The problem was Jar Jar Binks.
I know that’s not exactly headline news but here’s the thing. I don’t think he should have been omitted from the movie. I just think they handled the character wrong. If Jar Jar had remained on Naboo after Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan left for Tatooine, and then had returned when the Gungans were needed in the war with the battle droids, it would have made more sense. There was absolutely no reason for Jar Jar to be in the rest of the movie. I have no problem with a character whose purpose is to entertain the kids in the audience but not if that’s his only purpose for half the movie.
Jar Jar Binks makes The Phantom Menace tough to watch but Attack of the Clones was even worse. Episode I had redeeming qualities in my mind. Episode II felt like a sleepwalk. It was very plotty and it lacked humor and compelling characters, which is what made Star Wars so popular in the first place. There were plenty of things for people interested in the backstories of Darth Vader, Boba Fett and the Clone Wars, but fan service cannot sustain a movie alone. The only interesting thing about this movie is the fact that it’s a Star Wars movie, and that’s the problem.
Revenge of the Sith is easily the best of the prequel trilogy because the emotions run so high you can’t help but get pulled in. The film is at its strongest when the story focuses on Anakin Skywalker and Palpatine. The drama of watching the relationship of those two characters unfold is akin to watching a movie about the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. And I can’t help but feel heartbroken watching Jedi get slaughtered, and witnessing Anakin choosing the dark side over his wife and his mentor. It was Star Wars at its most operatic.
As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about the prequels. When people criticize them as inferior and terrible movies I get it. When people say they’re not that bad I get that too. The truth is that you can find value and flaws in all movies. That’s why film critics always disagree and why people on the internet always argue, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Just go easy on George Lucas, will you?