Are the Star Wars prequels actually as bad as so many of us remember? Or are they, like lots of people have started saying, secretly quite good?
In recent years, I’ve become more and more perplexed by both the public and critical reception to George Lucas’ infamous Star Wars prequels. The films were initially criticised at the time of their release, and for many years it seemed like their reputation would only get worse, especially as online meme culture evolved and tore the films apart, turning almost every moment, no matter how serious it was in context, into a massive joke. Yet despite this, following the release of Disney’s sequel trilogy, which included the incredibly divisive The Last Jedi (2017) and the panned The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the prequels seem to have gone through a critical re-evaluation of sorts, with people who previously called the films bad now saying that they’re actually good after all.
When I first saw this general shift in opinion, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. I first watched the prequels as a young kid with a passing interest in Star Wars, and the films failed to leave any kind of mark on me, positive or negative. Fast forward to my early teenage years, where a group of friends and I decided to revisit the films with the full intention to mock them, now that they’d become laughing stocks online. We watched them over the course of a single night, and I remember being entertained ironically by The Phantom Menace (1999), being bored to tears by Attack of the Clones (2002), and then mocking Revenge of the Sith (2005).
As the years passed by since that marathon, my opinion didn’t change too much. I found myself liking Revenge of the Sith more as time passed, but I still wasn’t entirely sure of its overall quality outside of that brilliant final battle, and I still thought that its two predecessors were complete flops from start to finish. Now we’re in 2023, and the prequels seem to be held in somewhat of a high regard by a decent portion of fans. So, to try and fully understand this, I decided to revisit all three films and attempt to figure out if, after all these years, they’re any good, or if they are still as bad as so many of us remember them being.
EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE
For the first half of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas had successfully converted me and I thought that my days as a critic of the prequels was over. Sure, there were some worrying signs in that first half, like the presence of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and the generally poor acting from everyone involved, but it was simply so charming that none of that mattered. No matter how bad these films get, and they do get very bad, I can’t bring myself to hate them at all because you can tell George Lucas absolutely adores this weird, dorky universe he’s created.
The Phantom Menace introduces us to Jedis Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), as they, joined by a young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) attempt to protect Queen Padmé Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman). It starts strong, peaking relatively early on with the exhilarating pod-racing sequence, but the second the characters land on Coruscant, it crumbles. Lucas has a real knack for large-scale, ambitious setpieces – his films are always at their best when they’re truly embracing the fact that they’re “space operas”, but his writing, especially when dialogue is concerned, is never great.
At the midpoint of the film, Phantom Menace decides to stop being a fun action film and instead place its characters in boring rooms and have them converse in clunky political jargon. It’s a decision that the film struggles to recover from. The acting isn’t great to begin with in these films, but it’s made even worse when the dialogue they have to deliver is awkward and barely comprehensible. Natalie Portman especially struggles in this film, lacking both any semblance of gravitas or charm, resulting in a performance that constantly drags the quality down. Then, there’s the Jar Jar Binks of it all, a notoriously hated character who unfortunately deserves that reputation. He’s irritating, unfunny, and the movie is absolutely obsessed with him, shoving him in scenes he has no right being in.
Despite these flaws, I will say that I do generally like Phantom Menace, and I definitely like it a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. As annoying as Binks is and as bad as the acting can get, it still radiates charm from start to finish in a way that manages to make it never boring. The action’s consistently enjoyable and Darth Maul (Ray Park) is an absolutely fantastic villain, with his presence helping the film get back on its feet in its third act. The visual effects are definitely poor when viewed in 2023, but it’s the ambition behind these effects that saves the movie from being a laughing stock for me. I don’t think the film is a masterpiece by any means, but I do somewhat agree with the shift in opinion, as it’s definitely not the disaster so many of us said it was years ago.
EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Whilst a rewatch may have changed my opinion on The Phantom Menace, it unfortunately did not do the same for Attack of the Clones. A lot of the previous film’s flaws carry over to this entry, namely the bad acting and a script that constantly switches between being simply boring and being downright uncomfortable. Watching it again did help me appreciate the film’s technical elements more, like the phenomenal score courtesy of John Williams, but it also highlighted just how bad the film is in comparison to the two other entries in the trilogy.
Attack of the Clones picks up ten years after the end of The Phantom Menace, with Obi-Wan investigating a mysterious clone army and a teenage Anakin (Hayden Christensen) being put in charge of protecting Padmé, with the two forming a secret relationship over the course of the film. Neither of these storylines work particularly well, with the former being the more boring of the two whilst the latter is straight-up uncomfortable for the majority of its screen time. Christensen is unfortunately not great as the Jedi apprentice, though the dialogue does him no favours at all.
Attack of the Clones features countless lines that have gone on to be embraced by meme culture, like the infamous “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere” and “Not just the men. But the women… and the children, too”. These lines are already awkward and clunky on paper, but when combined with the uncomfortable context and Christensen’s stilted delivery, they unfortunately become ironically hilarious. Anakin, in this film, is such an obviously evil psychopath that his blossoming relationship with Padmé never once feels believable, which isn’t helped at all by the fact that the two actors possess absolutely no chemistry together.
Out of the three films, Attack of the Clones is the only one where I can’t even begin to understand the critical re-evaluation. Even with the worst parts of The Phantom Menace, I can understand how one might like the charming goofiness of it all, but here I just can’t find much to like. The second half has a few good action scenes, but in a 142 minute epic, that’s not enough to qualify it as good by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily though, this is the low point of the trilogy, and its successor is so, so much better.
EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH
The final entry in the prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith is probably the only one that didn’t need a critical re-evaluation at all. Out of all three movies, it seems to be the one held in the highest regard, and even before people started retroactively praising the trilogy I saw plenty of people labelling it as a genuinely good movie. When I initially watched it, I didn’t completely agree with that sentiment, instead mocking its more awkward elements, but overtime, my opinion changed. This was mostly thanks to several rewatches of key moments on YouTube, but I found myself growing an appreciation for just how ambitious of a film it is. This may seem like hyperbole, but I do think it’s an attempt at modern-day Shakespeare. Whether or not it’s completely successful is a different thing, but it’s definitely an attempt nevertheless.
Set three years after Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith places its characters in the middle of an all-out war, and depicts Anakin’s slow deterioration, as he succumbs to the dark side and finishes his transformation into the villainous Darth Vader. On paper, it’s an incredibly tragic tale with some genuine emotional weight to it, but it unfortunately doesn’t quite get the execution it deserves. A large part of why this doesn’t completely work again comes mainly down to those performances. Here, the primary offender is Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine, the Sith lord responsible for Anakin’s transformation. His performance is both the best and worst part of the movie, with his odd line delivery resulting in some truly hilarious moments that I unfortunately don’t think were supposed to be funny.
Hayden Christensen reprises his role as Anakin and, like the majority of the cast, his performance is better here, thanks mostly to a far superior script. The dialogue is still awkward but it’s significantly less uncomfortable than in Attack of the Clones, partly due to the fact that, because of the previous films already having set everything up, Revenge of the Sith can simply focus on the action scenes and Anakin’s downward spiral. The action is definitely where the film shines, with the final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin being the highlight of the entire trilogy, an emotionally devastating lightsaber duel with an iconic and chilling ending. Lucas does his best work when he can throw away the script and simply focus on the emotion and visuals, and no other scene shows that off as well as this one.
Revenge of the Sith is without a doubt the best of the trilogy, being easily the most consistent and well-made from start to finish. It’s still got its fair share of problems and it’s hardly a surprise that so many unintentionally hilarious moments have gone on to be immortalised in meme culture, but there’re so many genuinely great scenes that I can excuse some awkward acting and poor writing. A final entry in a trilogy should pay off the emotional beats built up in its predecessors, and this film nails that completely. It’s not just the best prequel film, but in my eyes, it’s one of the best Star Wars films period.
SO, ARE THE STAR WARS PREQUELS STILL BAD?
Annoyingly, I don’t think the answer is as simple as calling the entire trilogy good or bad. Having now seen them all again, I think Revenge of the Sith is great, Attack of the Clones is bad, and The Phantom Menace is fine. Add that all together and you get an incredibly inconsistent trilogy, with some very high highs and some very low lows. I do think that part of the reason these films generate such an extreme response from so many people is in large part due to the fact that, conventionally, these films are not good. The acting isn’t great, the dialogue is laughable, and especially in 2023, the visual effects have aged horribly.
Yet, why so many people have come round to them, including myself somewhat, is that what dwarfs all of these aspects is just how ambitious and charming they are. Sure, Hayden Christensen’s performance may be rough, but the actual character of Anakin Skywalker is such a fascinating one, and the story being told is genuinely interesting. Lucas obviously loves this world and adores these characters, and his passion for Star Wars constantly comes through. Even if not every element works, you can’t fault Lucas for effort and for commitment. The universe he’s created is such a fascinating one, and these films revel in the inherent goofiness of it all, so I can completely understand why someone would be put off by this strange, awkward world.
However, for the people who are on Lucas’ wavelength, and are willing to forgive some of the rougher aspects of these films because they genuinely love the ones that do work, these films are truly epic space operas, complete with a brilliant score, some great action scenes and several truly emotional and chilling moments. I don’t think any of these films are masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination, but I can completely understand why so many people have changed their minds after all this time, and no longer see the prequels as bad films.