When it comes to the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, there’s a lot to ridicule–the awkward script, the shaky directing, the obvious plot, the wooden acting–but they exist, and no amount of denial is ever going to change that (sadly). And so let us look on the bright side (of life, *whistles*) and focus on the positives. Like Darth Vader, there is still good in the Prequels.
1. John Williams’s scores
John Williams is the man, one of the most prolific and talented film composers of our time. His scores for the prequels are filled with classic moments from the flashy “Duel of the Fates” theme to the heartbreaking “Anakin’s Betrayal” which accompanies the extermination of the Jedi. If there was such a thing as a “score only” version of the films sans dialogue, I would be perfectly content.
2. Qui-Gon Jinn
Liam Neeson is pretty rad, and he really turns what could have been a very flat character into someone with a presence that transcends the one film he occupies. Qui-Gon is a rebel with a more radical view of the Force than the majority of the Jedi Council (he believes in the Living Force, which is a different aspect of The Force than the Cosmic Force or the Unifying Force, which other Masters have focused on), and so he’s so much more than just “The Wise Man” character in Phantom Menace; he’s the reason why Obi-Wan is more lenient with Anakin during the young Jedi’s training. Qui-Gon’s unconventional studies also allowed him to figure out how one can manifest after death as a Force Ghost, something he is able to pass on to Yoda and Obi-Wan.
3. The Costumes
Costume designers don’t often get the love they deserve. Trisha Biggar was the costume designer for the Prequels and her work is marvelous. From Padmé Amidala’s stunning queenly robes (the red one she wears in the beginning is so awesome, it hurts me that it doesn’t show up again) to Count Dooku’s oh-so-elegant gentlemanly garb (capes should never have gone out of fashion), the work that went into creating the character’s looks is no small matter. The sets were mostly digital, but those fabulous costumes were all real.
4. The Scenery
Sure it’s mostly CG, but you can’t deny that the backdrops and visual world-building is impressive. The Coruscant skylines, the Mustafar lava flows, even Jar Jar’s home city Otoh Gunga, all look fantastic. George Lucas is a visual guy, and though he stumbles in the writing area, there’s no denying his imagination. Every locale that’s visited in the prequels begs to be explored further (except maybe Mustafar…)
As a kid, I always wanted to see what would happen if Yoda fought Emperor Palpatine. Although that fight turned out to be a bit disappointing when I actually saw it (hammy acting and clumsy editing…), it’s awesome to see Yoda being a badass throughout the Prequels, especially once we get into the Clone Wars series, which shows what his military leadership style is like. It also informs his slightly unhinged characterization in Empire. It’s easy to see him as an exhausted old soul, staving off crippling PTSD and loneliness with flippant humor and denial once he meets Luke.
6. Palpatine in Episode’s 1-2 and the first half of Episode 3
I really like Palpatine as a character. It’s a shame he was directed to be so hammy and over the top at the end of Revenge, because the idea of a Sith toppling governments with a strategic war is wonderful. He literally destroys millions of lives and hundreds of planets just so he can rise to power. There’s no explanation as to why he does this. He’s just a monster who wants power (like his master, Darth Plagueis). I love that. Even when he’s charming in Phantom Menace, his end game is merely the acquisition of influence. Ian McDiarmid is a great actor and he does a great job, up until his face goes all wrinkly and he starts talking in a weird voice that sounds nothing like his Return of the Jedi characterization…but I still love the character.
7. Lightsaber Duels
They get a bit over-choreographed at times, but there’s no denying that the lightsaber duels are the high points of each film. From the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Maul tag team brawl on Naboo to the Yoda/Dooku duel on Geonosis, to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s violent therapy session on Mustafar, Star Wars fans are treated to all the flashy lightsaber insanity they could have wished for. In the OT, lightsaber duels have a huge psychological component, but in the prequels, it’s just fan-service spectacle, and, to be honest, I don’t mind that at all.
8. Obi-Wan Kenobi
The best part of Attack of the Clones is Obi-Wan’s storyline, which is sort of a noir detective story…in space. The character really has a great arc throughout the trilogy, going from the overly-serious padawan in Phantom Menace to the beleaguered teacher in Attack of the Clones to the distant mentor who realizes, too late, that his apprentice and dear friend is beyond his help in Revenge of the Sith. Obi-Wan’s tragedy is one of trying so hard to live up his master, and failing horribly. We like him because we see his heroics and his wisdom, but his failure as a master (and it’s not all his fault) really informs the wearied and cautious man we meet in A New Hope.
9. The Last Few Minutes of Revenge of the Sith
I don’t care for Revenge as much as many fans, do, but the transition from Prequel trilogy to Original trilogy is enough to make any fan grin. Darth Vader, Tarkin, and Palpatine oversee the construction of the Death Star, The Tantive IV takes off with the droids aboard it, Yoda leaves for Dagobah, Luke is delivered to Owen and Beru, and Leia is given to Bail and Breha Organa on Alderaan. It’s a great moment, probably because it’s dialogue-free. It’s just a series of visual touchstones that fans have been eagerly waiting to see, and it sets up the Original Trilogy beautifully
10. Giving Anakin Skywalker a Character Arc
(You’re allowed to hate me for the picture choice) Part of me likes leaving Darth Vader as an absolute villain. He’s there and he’s evil and he must be defeated. But his redemption at the end of Jedi has a lot more heft when his arc is rounded out. The Prequels give him a full arc. He goes from a slave with dreams of freedom to a promising Jedi with a whole complex of complexes. His pain at leaving and then losing his mother haunts him forever. His anxiety about losing Padmé leads him to fall. His desire for power, which began with a little boy who wanted to free the slaves on his planet, turns him into a monster. By the time Vader captures Leia, he has banished so much of himself that he is no longer even human.
That’s why Luke’s insistence that Vader still has good in him is so powerful. Padmé used her dying breath to beg Obi-Wan not to give up on Anakin, but when Luke asks Obi-Wan’s spirit about Vader’s identity, Obi-Wan dismisses it with his, “He’s more machine, now, than man, twisted and evil.” Even in death, Obi-Wan can’t forgive Anakin. But Luke can, and that’s what makes Jedi so much more powerful. I wish his dialogue had been better written, and I wish Hayden Christensen had been less wooden, but the overall arc is there, and it’s a good one. I’m curious to see how Anakin’s arc is echoed by a certain black-helmeted villain in the new Star Wars trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.
So, the Prequels may be clunky, but there are elements to admire amid the cheesy jokes and painful love dialogue, saddled as we are with them. You don’t need to like them, but in a seven movie marathon, at least you won’t have to grit your teeth through all of the Prequel trilogy. Focus on what’s awesome, and ignore what’s ridiculous.
And may the Force be with you.