The fundamental problem with the Star Wars prequels is that they’re a good story poorly told.
When you lay out the narrative of the prequels on paper, beat for beat, it’s actually pretty compelling. At a time when galactic civilization had stagnated after a millennia of peace, evil quietly emerges, taking advantage of complacency and using the specter of war as a justification for eroding democracy. And amid this turmoil, a young man with a troubled past finds that all of the institutions he put his trust in are inadequate to confront the challenges, dangers, and heartbreaks of the world and so turns against his ideals because his ideals failed him in his time of greatest need. It’s a pretty radical, thematically pointed story concept for a trilogy of crowd-pleasing, popcorn sci-fi movies, and if they had stuck the landing, it could have been monumental.
But those grand thematic statements were undermined by the fact that basically none of them landed the way they should. It took close to a decade before the critical conversation was able to move past the films’ surface level failings and our own imagined versions of how we’d have done it better to start digging into the thematic meat of the story George Lucas was trying to tell. His lofty ambitions were sabotaged by poor filmmaking, and none of the films in the trilogy highlight this dichotomy between good intentions and shoddy execution as dramatically as Attack of the Clones.
In terms of pure plotting, the script for Episode II is better by leaps and bounds than The Phantom Menace. Gone is the herky-jerky episodic structure that defined most of the first film, instead you have a story that is structured coherently. Tensions over a possible war are brewing in the Galactic Republic, and as one of the few voices advocating sanity and restraint, Padmé Amidala’s life is being threatened. Anakin, now nearing the end of his apprenticeship, is given his first solo assignment to protect the senator in hiding while Obi-Wan attempts to get to the bottom of the assassination plot. What Obi-Wan finds are armies being amassed in secret, each with strange ties to the Jedi Order, and a cabal of the heads of galactic industry plotting in secret to wage war with the Republic. Meanwhile, Anakin – out on his own for the first time – has crises both in his convictions to the Jedi Order as well as his first real brush with death and loss. Obi-Wan is captured, as are Anakin and Padmé when they attempt to rescue him, and the three are only saved when the Jedi come riding in alongside the full might of this newly discovered army, kicking off the start of the first war in 100 years. On paper, that’s all pretty solid. The story flows and presents great opportunities for emotionally charged conflict and grappling with provocative themes. The only problem is that almost none of it plays the way it should.
Of the two parallel stories, the political intrigue angle fares better. The Detective Obi-Wan stuff is genuinely fun, and it’s bolstered by the fact that Ewan McGregor is the most consistently good player in the entire trilogy. Highlighting the prideful arrogance of the Jedi Order by having Jocasta Nu insist that if something isn’t contained in the Jedi archives, it simply doesn’t exist is terrific. It’s one of the few moments where the fatal failure of the Jedi Order Lucas is trying to explore really shines through. Evil could rise in secret because if Jedi couldn’t see it, it therefore couldn’t exist. Obi-Wan finding the cloning facility on Kamino and uncovering the first real pieces of the conspiracy is also exciting and compelling… but then it stops. Obi-Wan is investigating an assassination attempt on a senator who is very vocally opposed to a bill that would establish an army for the Republic, and here he finds an army for the Republic that has been concealed for nearly ten years, yet when he contacts the Jedi Council, they all just shrug their shoulders and say, “no idea what all this could mean.” Like, I get that the point is that the Jedi were blinded by hubris and that led to their downfall, and if they figured out the whole thing right here, the movie’s over and there’s no sequel, but the way it’s dramatized is really frustrating and ineffectual. This isn’t even a Hitchcockian situation where the audience is meant to know more than the characters for the sake of tension, Obi-Wan has all the pieces to the puzzle but still can’t figure it out. It would have been more dramatically satisfying if Obi-Wan reports these suspicions to the Council only for them to do nothing and have Obi-Wan be frustrated by it. Have Anakin’s crisis of faith be paralleled by one for Obi-Wan only to have them arrive at different places – Anakin turning away from the Jedi while Obi-Wan stays loyal even amidst their failure.
The other big thing that is dramatically unsatisfying is the beginning of the Clone Wars themselves. Last time I saw this movie was in 2015 in the run up to The Force Awakens, and even just four years later I could not for the life of me remember what the actual inciting incident that kicked off a three year long galactic war even was before rewatching it this time. Turns out the impetus was Obi-Wan discovering that the Separatists were amassing an army and relaying that information back to the Council. That’s one of those ideas that when you say it out loud it makes sense, but it’s not particularly cinematic. In terms of what’s depicted on screen, Obi-Wan goes somewhere and finds a secret army being built for the “good guys” even though that’s illegal, and then he goes somewhere else and finds a secret army being built for the “bad guys” even though that’s illegal. The moments are identical, but one is met with a shrug, and the other is met with war. Again, I’m kind of struggling to articulate this, because it’s not exactly a bad idea – after all this movie came out only four months after George W. Bush accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction, so the idea of an illegitimate war waged on flimsy pretenses was certainly timely and shockingly prescient – but the weight of what’s actually happening doesn’t quite register on screen because it never quite registers with the characters we’re following. And again, that’s The Point, but there had to have been ways to convey that in a manner that’s more dramatically satisfying. To that point, having the first real lapse in the democratic process come courtesy of Jar Jar, a character who is broadly characterized as dimwitted and clumsy, undermines the gravity of what’s happening. But then, in real life we have dimwits like Lindsey Graham proposing that the President take emergency power in response to a budget dispute over a grand gesture of political posturing, so maybe Lucas was onto something and all my criticisms of this movie are moot because the real world is just that stupid.
What’s less difficult to criticize is the other side of the parallel stories: the romance. This movie was meant to be a love story. It was in the marketing and publicity and a talking point in every interview, and yet you would be hard pressed to find a less romantic, less convincing love story in a major Hollywood film in at least the last twenty years, and unfortunately it all comes down to Anakin. Anakin is such a shitbag in this movie that there’s no reality in which Padmé would ever be into him. Padmé graduated from being the two-term queen of an entire planet at 14 to become a political firebrand on the galactic stage with so much influence that she seems to singlehandedly be holding the Republic back from plummeting into fascism. Meanwhile, Anakin’s not even a real Jedi yet and still he’s an entitled, whiny, creep who frequently condescends and talks down to her. It’s bonkers. Painting Anakin as sort of an MRA-type isn’t a terrible idea on its face, and the story of some angry doofus who became space Hitler because he didn’t get what he thought he was owed might have been an interesting take (and, in fact, that’s sort of the idea behind Kylo Ren, but we’ll get to that in another eleven months), but that’s clearly not what Lucas was going for. To tell the story Lucas wanted to tell, Anakin needed to be someone who was charming, good natured, and well-intentioned, but who hid a deep well of darkness and pain just below the surface. That’s a pretty complex character to play and regardless of how good an actor they got to play it, you just can’t get that kind of performance with “Faster. More intense.”
That was a cheap shot. There are very many things I think Lucas is very, very good at, but by his own admission, working with actors is not one of them. Hayden Christiansen gets a lot of the blame for the weakness of his performance as Anakin, but like every other part of film, acting is collaborative. As an actor, you put an immense amount of trust in your director to guide you in the right direction. You might have the best instincts in the world, but if your director is leading you astray, there’s only so much you can do, and Hayden Christiansen is far from unique when it comes to giving sub-par performances in these movies.
But whoever is to “blame,” the way Anakin is portrayed never works to sell the tragedy of the character. Once again, on paper the story is good. Going out on your own for the first time only to find it far more difficult than you imagined; being exposed to confusion and heartache and anger and grief and coming back from it fundamentally changed should be really compelling stuff. Lucas even has the symbolism right with a physical piece of Anakin being left behind on this journey, but all the individual emotions are played wrong. Maybe the best (worst?) example of this is on Tatooine when Anakin witnesses the death of his mother and kills the Tusken Raiders. This is the turning point in Anakin’s journey, when the darkness below the surface boils over into hatred and rage, but the scene where we see it happen is weirdly flat. The very first time Anakin murders a sentient being is presented in a static wide shot, and the attack itself is an even, smooth strike that feels more calculated than wrathful. Compare that with Luke’s brush with the dark side in Return of the Jedi. We start in medium shots with Luke howling and flailing his lightsaber about wildly, missing strikes and damaging the environment around him. Next we pull out to a wide shot that pans across the room following Vader as Luke’s swings start to connect and push him backwards. Finally, as Vader stumbles and Luke starts to just relentlessly wail on him, we’re in close, looking up at Luke’s face (essentially Vader’s POV), seeing the untethered rage written across it. By getting in close it feels more intimate, by almost constantly moving the camera it feels wild and unpredictable, and by putting us behind the eyes of the person he is attacking, we get to briefly be fearful not just for our hero, but of our hero. It’s more dynamic and cinematic and the emotion feels more real.
And then there’s the aftermath. When Anakin confesses to Padmé what he’s done, he does so with shouts and growls, screaming “I slaughtered them!” “I hate them!” But anger is the wrong way to play this scene. Anger is the principle emotion of the act itself, but the feeling after all the dust has settled and the adrenaline has stopped pumping should be one of intense remorse. This is the moment that breaks Anakin, and he needs to feel broken by it. Our hearts need to break for Anakin because he’s a good person who has done something terrible. Instead, the impact this has on the audience is sort of a prodding, “Hey, you remember this guy’s gonna be Darth Vader right?” It’s playing less to the emotion of the scene and more to our knowledge of movies two decades removed from this one.
This is a problem that carries across all of these movies. For as much as Lucas says these movies are meant to be watched in chronological order, the films themselves operate under the assumption that you are already familiar with the original trilogy. What should be a tragedy of watching a good character slowly succumb to evil instead becomes a checklist of things that need to happen to set the stage for the original film, and it gets worse the deeper we get into the trilogy. Part of the reason why I think The Phantom Menace works better than the other two films is that it’s telling a story that – though linked to the originals – very much embraces the fact that it is not the originals. It has just enough of the familiar iconography to be recognizable as Star Wars, but it pushes the boundaries on everything else. It feels like Lucas is having fun with it, pushing out the walls of what is stylistically of a piece with the world he created. Unfortunately, that very thing was one of the elements fans gravitated most fiercely towards in their criticisms of the film. It felt too different from the Star Wars they knew and that’s why it was bad. And so, Lucas made the age old mistake of taking bad notes at face value. The problems with Episode I had nothing to do with the film’s style; it was the failures of its storytelling. But instead of trying to address the storytelling issues, Lucas loaded up this movie with way more recognizable imagery and fan service. There are stormtroopers this time and Boba Fett and the homestead from the first film and blue milk and antics with Threepio and Artoo and so many more lightsabers. And sure, some of that makes sense from where the story naturally needed to go, but a lot of it feels like fan service for fan service’s sake.
The worst offender in my mind is Yoda’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that feels clunky and inorganic in the moment, and it fundamentally undermines the nature of who that character is. What makes Yoda special is that he’s about as physically unimposing as a creature could be. He’s a frail, weak, 800-year-old, two foot tall frog thing, and yet what gives him power is his connection to something so much greater than he is. Even in this period where The Point is that the Jedi Order is failing, it stinks to have Yoda be preposterously agile and adept at physical combat. For as much as the prequels did wrong, this is maybe the only moment in any of Lucas’ films that makes that very specific Expanded Universe mistake of doing something because it’s “cool” even if it undermines the deeper meaning of the story, and it feels like it was done purely for the benefit of fans.
There’s not much consensus when it comes to which is the worst of the prequels, but Attack of the Clones seems to be a frontrunner for most people. I understand why. It’s interminably long, the romance at the center of the movie falls completely flat, and it’s possibly the worst looking of the films thanks to its early adoption of digital cinematography (side bar: a lot of the film’s ugliness is blamed on excessive CGI, but a shocking amount of this was made practically; it just looks fake anyway. I would have bet money Dexter’s Diner was a completely digital set, but nope, that’s one they actually built). For me, though, Episode II is the middle ground. The prequels were never great from the start, but the problems only compounded as each movie was released and Lucas tried to react to the criticisms of the last one. Maybe that’s why it pleases the least number of people – it doesn’t have the same ambition of Episode I nor does it go all in on fan service quite like Episode III. It’s a middle child as well as a middle movie, but for all the film’s awkwardness, there are still moments that work. I wish I could say the same about the next one… but we’ll get to that.
Leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode IX, I am endeavoring to watch every canonical Star Wars movie and TV show in the in-universe chronological order. Follow along with…