The Prequels are bad movies. Across the board, really. And no amount of distance between the immediate letdown and the present will change that.
If anything, time has been unkind to Star Wars — Episodes I – III. Their increasing overreliance on CGI removes much of the illusion from crucial characters like General Grievous. And with human actors, vital stunt work is extinguished by poorly rendered somersaults and fight combat. The Special Editions, while not without their positives, did little more than encourage George Lucas to tinker in his Industrial Light and Magic sandbox, providing a bankable field test for throngs of Federation Battle Droids whose utter ineffectiveness is reduced to a punchline in less than a trilogy’s worth of time. The digital technology revolution is greatly indebted to LucasFilm’s early pioneering, but cinema is not.
As far as the actual narrative of the Prequels, the epitaph’s been written for a decade. These scripts stretch and condense their stories in odd, often baffling ways. One would be hard pressed to explain why we needed to see Anakin Skywalker as a nine year-old slave at all, and Attack of the Clones indulges in a shaggy dog assassination plot while failing to deliver on the Clone Wars front. And despite Lucas’s intentions, Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil does not “rhyme” with his return to the light, cranking up the volume on his friendship with Palpatine to hide an otherwise hasty betrayal of the Jedi Order. Comparing this bungling of such a pivotal arc to Return of the Jedi‘s subtle changes in Vader’s psyche is borderline unfair. Revenge of the Sith might actually fare better were it released in 2015 rather than 2005, where a 5 minute compilation could capably summarize the sparse plot points for YouTubers and fans alike.M
Much of the Prequels’ 6+ hour saga is bloat, but that was apparent on opening weekend. What time and distance have come to show is that “The One With Jar Jar” might actually be the best of the bunch. No, you’re not misremembering anything. Jar Jar Binks is as intolerable and insensitive as ever, Lucas’s flat direction turns a solid cast into plasticine playthings, and I still can’t explain why the taxation of trade routes was so pivotal to intergalactic conflict.
But in addition to a recurring theme of interdependence and a good-if-not-great grasp of visual language, The Phantom Menace has another point in its favor: narrative proximity. A slave boy’s podracing exploits are a headscratcher in the grand scheme of things, but the Boonta Eve Classic’s distance from the Original Trilogy numbs its shenanigans. Midichlorians are dumb, but they don’t rewrite characters’ relationships. By and large, Episode I tells us what we already knew: Anakin was a good pilot. He was strong with the Force. He knew Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here, Obi-Wan can tell you:
The Phantom Menace has no lasting effect on Star Wars, and it’s a better Star Wars movie for it. If that seems like a low bar, rewatch that scene where Vader comes to in Revenge of the Sith. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
The Phantom Menace preserves a timeline where a compelling Prequel story is still possible. It’s a place where Leia’s memories of her mother still make sense. Where Boba Fett isn’t a stunted clone with a dodgy accent. Where the Galactic Empire wasn’t kickstarted by a Gungan senator’s emergency vote. Where Yoda doesn’t know Chewbacca.
To be clear, re-shaping perceptions doesn’t have to be bad. Rogue One shows how change can be done right. Change is bad when it’s done simply for the sake of change. In other words, whenever George Lucas does it.