After the monstrous hype that preceded the 1999 release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, the resulting film — and, ultimately, its sequels — left many fans cold, and it soon became hip for even the most stalwart Star Wars fans to dismiss the prequel trilogy entirely. Although the most recent chapters in George Lucas’s space opera are definitely far from perfect (to put it mildly), they certainly are not entirely devoid of merit. In fact, the prequels actually do, in some respects, succeed in capturing the spirit of the original films and living up to the unquenchable expectations that fans set for them.
Here are 10 ways in which the Star Wars prequel trilogy worked, in no particular order.
1. Next-level lightsaber battles
The Jedi and the Sith are described numerous times throughout the saga as fearsome warriors, and the prequels finally show us why. True, the films benefit from being set during a time when thousands of Jedi still roamed the galaxy, protecting peace and justice through diplomacy and — if the situation called for it — some “aggressive negotiations” (i.e. negotiations with a lightsaber).
Still, the complexity of the fight choreography in the prequels easily outshines the often-stilted battles in the original films, which admittedly rely more on emotional heft than fancy footwork. No one will forget that epic showdown when Darth Maul (Ray Park) faced off against both Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), a confrontation that still stands as perhaps the series’ best lightsaber battle to date.
2. Returning cast members
Considering that the prequels take place long before Luke, Han, and Leia got caught up in the struggle against the Empire, the films seemingly had little opportunity to bring back the original cast — a possibility only now being explored by The Force Awakens — in order to maintain continuity and connectivity between the two trilogies. However, Ian McDiarmid, who wore makeup in 1983 to play the decayed-looking Palpatine, was only in his mid-fifties when The Phantom Menace hit theaters, making him the perfect age to return as his own character’s younger self. He remains the only actor whose face is visible as the same character in both trilogies, though other performers — such as Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) — reprised their roles in the films as well. Even James Earl Jones briefly returned to voice Darth Vader for a critical moment (more on that later).
3. John Williams’s soaring score
Star Wars is among the most iconic and instantly recognizable film scores of all time, thanks to the brilliant work of the legendary John Williams. So it was a huge relief when news broke that Williams would provide the music for Lucas’ new trilogy. Even though the events onscreen don’t always match the epic nature of the music playing (the Anakin/Padme love theme from Attack of the Clones springs to mind), the melodies and delicate, purposeful instrumentation reassure viewers that this is the same universe we’ve loved for years. “Duel of the Fates” has emerged as perhaps the most beloved new theme for the prequels, but other tracks like “Anakin’s Betrayal” from Revenge of the Sith — which plays during the pivotal Order 66 sequence that takes place mid-film — are underrated gems that prove just as vital as Lucas’s footage itself.
4. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi
Ewan McGregor was still a relatively unknown actor when he was cast as the prequels’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, as he was still known mostly for his breakout role in the 1996 Danny Boyle film Trainspotting. The actor had large shoes to fill in taking on the role made famous by Oscar winner Alec Guinness, but luckily, the films lucked out. McGregor’s performance shows shades of Kenobi’s wisdom and honor, though he imbues the character with more raw and playful dimensions as well. He is a Jedi who is fully committed to his duty but also takes great pleasure in carrying it through, making him one of the easiest heroes to root for in the prequels. While the films’ depiction of Anakin and Padme nicely mirrors the whininess and bravery of their kids, respectively, McGregor is a clear standout as the man who will ultimately guide Luke Skywalker to destroying the Death Star.
5. Planets, planets, and more planets
The Star Wars prequels receive a lot of criticism for their overuse of CGI in creating the fantastical worlds of the “galaxy far, far away”, but the introduction of planets like Coruscant, Kashykk, and Naboo goes a long way in fleshing out the expansive universe of the films. During the time of the original trilogy, such visuals would have been incredibly tricky to pull off, and Lucas made the right call in using these new films as opportunities to significantly broaden the franchise’s landscape, even if he does go a bit far with the green-screen backdrops sometimes.
Without the prequels, fans would never have seen the central system of the Republic, the Wookiee homeworld, or even Alderaan itself (albeit briefly). At least some good came of the advanced technology many fans consider the double-edged sword that damaged the prequels’ chances of matching the original trilogy’s quality.
6. The birth of Darth Vader
Before Revenge of the Sith brought the saga full-circle, fans could only speculate on the circumstances that led Anakin Skywalker to be “seduced by the dark side of the Force”, as Obi-Wan once put it. Actors Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen have been the subjects of intense fan wrath for their performances, but the character’s journey does include a number of resonant themes, such as fear of loss and lust for power.
Lucas’s scripts might not always execute the story as well as they could have, but the foundation is there for Anakin’s fall to make sense from a narrative standpoint, especially when one considers the years of emotional manipulation he endured at the hands of Darth Sidious himself. Moreover, the prequels finally brought fans that fateful battle with Obi-Wan on Mustafar and the horrific injuries that lead to Anakin’s chilling transformation into Darth Vader.
7. Bridging the gap
From the development of the Death Star to the origin of the Imperial Army, the prequels make a distinct effort to shed some light on how the Republic was overtaken by the Sith-led Empire. Sometimes, this goal is ham-handed — as with Obi-Wan and Anakin’s first meeting in The Phantom Menace — but often it proves effective in setting up various elements that will pay off in the original trilogy later on.
Much has been written on how Lucas views the two trilogies as one long tale of a son redeeming the mistakes of his father, and with all the visual and narrative callbacks throughout the prequels, one can’t help but wonder if the filmmaker’s vision for the most recent trilogy hasn’t been severely undervalued, no matter how imperfect the end result turned out to be. Cynics may claim that he is simply imitating his own work, but moments like that binary sunset indicate a greater purpose.
8. The animated Clone Wars TV series
Some of the best stories of the prequel trilogy weren’t actually in the films themselves. Rather, they were in the animated Clone Wars TV series, set directly following Attack of the Clones. The show gave a real chance to get familiar with Anakin Skywalker as a friend, a soldier, and more than that, a powerful yet conflicted man just trying to do the right thing. Beyond that, we were given a fascinating subplot that brought back Darth Maul, as well as an intriguing look at the clone troopers who fought on the front lines of the war against the Separatist armies.
9. Mace Windu
Of all the various casting decisions George Lucas made for the prequels, tagging Samuel L. Jackson to play Jedi Master Mace Windu was a truly inspired choice. There’s something about having Hollywood’s biggest badass don the Jedi robes and a purple lightsaber that worked so perfectly within the prequel trilogy, making his death at the hands of Palpatine that much more heartbreaking. Needless to say, we’d watch the hell out of a Mace Windu Anthology movie set sometime before The Phantom Menace.
10. Plenty of fan service
Say what you want about some of the more ham-handed cameos in the prequels, but there’s no denying that they were jam-packed with all the fan service you could possibly ask for. Throughout the trilogy, we were treated to the origin of C-3PO and R2-D2’s famous friendship, the Skywalker family’s relationship with Owen and Beru Lars, and a whole lot of background into the Jedi Order before its fall in Revenge of the Sith. Sure, the writing leaves a lot to be desired, and yet still, it’s exciting to see recognizable Star Wars characters in their younger years.
Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable
Additional reporting by Nick Cannata-Bowman
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!