As a lead up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, FBTB is going to do something crazy (and likely something that a whole bunch of other sites are going to do too), and review the previous movies. Why? Because shut up, that’s why. We are going to take a slightly different take, other than just eviscerating the PT and fawning love on Empire Strikes back, and actually look at some of the impacts that it has on the toys and stuff we really love. Plus, it gives us an excuse to make fun of Jar Jar. It’s basically win-win.
My dislike for the prequels is a matter of record on this site. It’s been the source of many arguments on this site, because when you keep reviewing products born out of something you hate… well, you repeat an argument a whole lot. I’ve also gone on record that The Phantom Menace isn’t the worst Star Wars movie… Attack of the Clones is. That’s also the only movie that my wife has seen, so take that as you will (most here will likely take that as me being a terrible husband… but she just doesn’t care much for Sci-Fi movies; she only went to Episode II because we were still early in the dating process and not willing to admit to each other what we didn’t like).
The last time I watched all of the prequel movies, I drank so much I was unconscious on my office floor before Dooku gave Anakin the nickname “Lefty.” This time, I’m going to take a much different path, for which my liver says thanks, and take the opportunity to introduce my daughter to the Star Wars movies. She’s already into the toys… in that she likes to grab the LEGO ships and minifigs and play with them, and she’s only three, so the scarring left by the prequels will be healed in time for Episode VIII.
So, let’s kick off this “adventure” with Episode I. I know a lot of fans are going to just skip Episode I on their marathon lead-up to Force Awakens, but I think that’s a mistake. As bad as this movie is, and it is bad, it’s also a very important reminder of what can happen when the hype machine takes control. Nothing we’ve seen about Episode VII thus far can really match the hype monster that was Episode I.
Those of us a certain age or older, let’s say about mid-30s, have a distinctly different memory of the prequels than anyone that was younger when they came out. Those who were even a bit older, and saw the originals in the theater, likely have an even harsher memory than we do. Mid-30s, though, and like me, you may have seen one or two of the movies in the theater (Jedi, in my case), but your theater memories were likely the Special Editions… and a lot of VHS rentals. The SE releases left us all primed for more Star Wars. There were things about them that showed warnings of what was to come, like changing the Ewok song, Greedo shooting first, and the Jabba’s Palace “song” additions, yet the prospect of seeing what came before was too great.
So when the trailer for Episode I dropped on us, in those early interweb tube days, it was a bomb of “ohmygodohmygodogmygod” like… well, Episode VII (except there was nowhere to share our excitement other than friends in the meat-filled real world, for the most part). Let’s look at the trailer:
That… looks like a pretty good film. Sure, we have Jar Jar in there, but we also have basically amounts to a super cut of the good parts of Episode I. The Phantom Menace, and the prequels in general, get a lot of grief for their lack of plot… but Episode I really doesn’t deserve that particular criticism. It most certainly had a plot: growing discontent in the Republic leads a group of separatists to form a Trade Federation which blockade an important planet in the hopes of forcing a showdown over their grievances. As far as plots go, it’s not a bad idea, it was just executed terribly in the movie. The problem was more that the B (Anakin and Qui-Gon) and C (Sith taking revenge for… something) plots kept shoving the main plot out of the way, and the details for the main plot were just stupid.
While I hate on the movie a whole lot, I will admit… there were some good parts. None of them were the dialog, acting, story… well, most of it, but there was some. Sidious/Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, was a genuinely mysterious and menacing figure. McDiarmid’s performance was really a highlight of the whole prequel (along with McGregor)… up until that last fight with Yoda.
Naboo, specifically Theed, was just executed beautifully. As one of those people that mourn for Star Wars Galaxies in the same way that a lot of us mourn for Firefly, I spent a huge chunk of my time in that game on the planet. Gungans were dumb, pseudo-racist caricatures, but the underwater stuff was pretty. There was a visual style across Naboo that was varied and pronounced, and when it was expanded on, it was used to great effect.
Some flaws are much easier to pick on. Jar Jar is just sort of a gimmie, though he’s fairly easy to ignore for the most part. He was designed for kids in a bumbling loser sort of way, so that’s easy to look past. The character I had more problems ignoring was Anakin. Sure, I feel bad that Jake Lloyd’s life was basically destroyed by this movie (because Star Wars fans are just the worst), and I think we need to give the guy a pass but not the character. No one could save that role, because it was all awkward statements and quips.
The fact that 80% of the dialog was written as one-line zingers (that mostly just fell flat) most certainly didn’t help the movie. To quote my favorite MST3K line ever, “There is an audible thud every time he tells a joke!” It’s from Ed Wood’s The Violent Years, riffed in Season 6, Episode 10, if you were curious. It’s also not limited to just Anakin, Obi-Wan is plagued with the exact same problem in the film, and it continues well past Episode I.
In truth, we should have seen how bad this movie was going to be in the opening seconds of the film. Let’s look at the text of the opening crawl, that iconic element that got us so excited when we saw it in the theater. Seriously, that crawl, the 20th Century Fox Fanfare, and the Star Wars theme still give me shudders. Have you ever read it though?
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….
That’s not a plot for a movie, it’s like a program description for whatever Star Wars’ version of CSPAN is (since it’d likely be on Coruscant, I guess it’d probably still be called CSPAN). The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems? An army of zombie Jimmy Stewarts couldn’t make that discussion exciting. Good stories about the Boston Tea Party focus on angry drunk guys chucking crates of tea into the water in defiance, not the letters and debates about taxation that was happening on the local level.
One thing to keep in mind for those who hadn’t grown up watching the OT exclusively, when that was basically all there was. Sure, we had some EU books (though not nearly as many), some video games, and the re-release of the OT. Jedi were still a mysterious thing, some powerful relic that had been wiped out. We had Jedi in the EU… but that was, well, uneven is being generous. When we got that first shot of Qui-Gon and a young Obi-Wan, it was pretty amazing.
Initially, those impressions stand up. We get to see our Jedi being Jedi for a bit. They hold their breath a really long time, have lightsabers, and a certain amount of arrogance (maybe confidence). We also get our first new word… Padawan. It’d shown up in the early treatments and notes for the OT, but was changed to apprentice because that’s actually a real word. The one-liners start pretty early, and our first “I have a bad feeling about this,” Star Wars’ most prominent repeating line that has lost all meaning.
Something I hadn’t really noticed about Episode I the previous times I’d watched it is that it’s simply a boring movie most of the time. I say most because there honestly a few good scenes in Episode I. Pretty much any scene with Ian McDiarmid is great, and while I made fun of the whole political intrigue part, it could have been pretty awesome if done right. When he’s with Amidala in the senate, and showing how the whole system is corrupt, it gives some real oomph to the idea that the Republic is fracturing. Even the completely undeveloped plot between him and Darth Maul (a shame, it was more like they just read off some occasional notes and then that was it) were carried by his acting.
Likewise, the scenes with the Jedi council also give real insight into how they work as an organization, and gives the force something more than mystic hand-waving. Those scenes also serve as the perfect reason to go and change Star Wars movies after the fact… because that original Yoda muppet just looked awful when it was first released. While that would get improved by the time Episode II rolled around to offend us in every other way, it was hard to get over the knock-off Chuck-e-Cheese look of that Yoda in that movie.
You could fill dissertation with the problems with Episode I. Some people probably have. But ultimately, it really boils down to awful dialog and awful timing of the whole thing. Scenes have two general settings, way too long or way too short. You can get whiplash with the jump cuts between some of the cuts, assuming you were still awake for them. Others, like the Pod Race or the Naboo starfighter fights, just go on forever.
Interestingly, the long scenes highlight one of the big visual issues not named Yoda, and it’s one of cinematography, one of Lucas’ typical strong suits. Large space battles are seen from a wide panning shot, and that only serves to diminish the whole. Part of the issue is a problem of scale. Unless the blockade has millions, if not billions, of ships, the easy solution seems to “go to the 80% of the part of the planet these ships can’t see.” Space is huge, and even small rocky planets like ours are gigantic compared to anything we can imagine. I suppose we can add space to the list of things Lucas doesn’t understand.
Most of the other problems, like the boring plot or the general racism of characters like Watto, Jar-Jar, and Boss Nas, while awful, are easier to tune out. I suppose that’s a sad commentary on me more than anything, or maybe me and Hollywood. It could also be that when you have a rolling dumpster fire, you don’t pick out less interesting fires. I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, and we know dumpster fires!
The ending to the movie is equal parts awesome and excruciating. The Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan vs. Darth Maul scenes are just awesome, helped by bringing in someone who can actually stage fight (and real fight) in Ray Park. The fact that so much of it is carried just by the fighting, and not dialog and one-liners, is what makes it great. It also gives us a great look at the Jedi way contrasted with the Sith way when they all get separated by those inexplicable energy barriers. I’m sure there was some fancy EU explanation for why such a stupid and deadly feature was installed in their maintenance tunnels, but I’m sticking with stupid.
Like I said though, it’s also excruciating, because those deadly, deadly jump cuts really get in the way here. We get Anakin “one-liner” Skywalker being the kid who saves the day, forever absolving Wesley Crusher of all the times he was victimized plots like that. This is worse than any other “kid saves the day while trained adults fail at everything” because it was all dumb, stupid luck. I’m glad he grew up to kill all the Jedi if they are going to call it fate, because the number of stupid things that needed to happen are just mind-boggling. Let’s look at them…
- Anakin is brought into a war zone by some seriously negligent people
- He gets in a cockpit of a starfighter loaded with dangerous weapons that for some reason have no control lockouts, just a start button
- He avoid thousands of droid ships that were tearing apart trained pilots all while dodging fire from a capital ship capable of blockading an entire planet
- He ends up crashing in a landing bay of the one ship in the chain that controlled the rest of those control ships (was it the only one in orbit for this battle)
- The droids that are still on the ship just sort of ignore him for ten minutes when his ship “overheats”
- They don’t fire as soon as they get there, probably after a coffee or something, and when his ship is ready, he fires, accidentally, missing the droids and hitting a reactor that causes the whole thing to explode
- He escapes the ship before it goes up, which shuts down the armies and thus wins the war
- All while being nine, and never having so much as been inside a starfighter
It’s like a super-conglomerate of Wesley, Will Robinson, the kids from the first Jurassic Park, and cousin Oliver mixed with every other child star you can imagine, multiplied by eight, and then given a big enough of a head injury until that makes any sense.
This is only made a little bit less asinine by Qui-Gons’ death (spoiler, I guess), which is basically just him suddenly forgetting how to fight. It doesn’t even look like a fatal blow, but apparently medical technology is only good in that era if you get something cut off. Stabbings, blaster shots, and losing the will to live are all fatal. Getting your head chopped off by the BAMF… well, I think that would always be fatal, but also another movie.
Obi-Wan then proves why he is just the worst Jedi master before he is a master in taking a promise to train a boy that he knew was dangerous, even if powerful. What do the Jedi say? Trust your feelings? Let go of the past? He could have saved the universe a lot of problems just by following the code. Just like the Jedi could have saved a lot of lives just by going back and purchasing and freeing Anakin’s mom from slavery. It’s pretty safe to say that the Republic fell because of a whole litany of bad decisions.
The ending also feels very off, trying to capture the Episode IV “happy ending” a bit too much. Prior to the needless scene, where racist caricature #2 holds up a glowing ball that signifies… something, we get the Jedi talking about “which one was destroyed” with their new Sith friend, and the darkness of the funeral of Qui-Gon. It could have been a great setup ending… the war was won, but there was still darkness on the horizon and gives a concrete tie to the next movie. Instead, celebration! Little Anakin dressed up as a padawan! Music that even Ewoks would hate! A parade with entirely too few giant balloons that look like Underdog!
It’s easy to hate on Episode I in hindsight, because it’s just easy to hate on. I suppose my generation, who grew up on the originals and the Special Editions, will always hate the prequels for the same reason people hate new albums by their favorite old musicians. Past that, though, the fact is that Episode I was a huge diversion from the earlier films, and even the films that came after it. It suffered from a boring plot and unrealized ideas, but more than that, uneven editing and cinematography, which no other Star Wars movie can really claim.
But let’s always remember, it was Episode I that really made Star Wars LEGO possible, and put LEGO on the course it’s on today, good and bad. The OT stuff came out first, but it was the Episode I furor that lit the fire with the general public, and not just us nerdy collectors. Like I said earlier, it’s hard to imagine, but Star Wars wasn’t nearly what it is now in pervasiveness. Popular, sure, but not everywhere. Toys were mostly lightsabers and action figures… then LEGO came and blew that apart.
Episode I has given us some stinker sets, sure. Naboo Swamp, the two subs, and the awful versions of the Sith Infiltrator all come to mind. But it’s also given us one of my all-time favorites, 7662 Trade Federation MTT, even if that also spawned a fairly sub-par remake in 75058 that still hits some of the better parts of Episode I. But we also get the good versions of the Sith Infiltrator, the fragile nature of the Naboo Starfighter, Flash Speeder Green, the AAT, and Battle droids. Episode I won’t be remembered fondly, but it should be acknowledged as the spark that kicked off what we get now.
And, let us not forget the single greatest thing to come out of Star Wars Episode I…
I’d rate this film a two out of five, getting that extra point for Palpatine and Maul, basically. Also, the MTT.
Next, I’ll review the Star Wars film that’s probably worse than Ewoks and the Holiday Special combined…