In their own ways, each of the three Star Wars prequel movies are disappointments. Each had their own unique set of expectations behind them and each of them failed to meet those expectations.
In the case of Episode I, it’s been said that no movie could have lived up to the hype that had been built up for that film. And while that’s true, the movie didn’t do itself any favors when it stumbled out of the gate. Episode I was a disappointment by every conceivable metric. As a pure film it was badly edited, poorly acted and terribly paced. As a Star Wars movie it fares even more poorly: It lacks the heart, charm and energy the original films had in spades. It undid the mystique of the Force and changed the Jedi from the “Knights in the Clone Wars crusades” that A New Hope hinted at, into an intergalactic order of monks who settled trade disputes.
After the high wore off and people started looking at Episode I with a more unbiased eye, the scrutiny against it increased. As it did, the run up to Episode II began, but other than a small pocket of callous fans, most managed to psych themselves up into thinking that Episode II would be better. The promise of an older Anakin was the main factor in fans’ renewed optimism. “Little Ani” was a huge part of fans’ frustrations with The Phantom Menace, so the promise of Anakin and Obi Wan on a swashbuckling adventure (the kind fans wanted to see ever since Obi Wan hinted at their adventures in the Original Trilogy) allowed everyone to turn a blind eye to the inherent problems in the prequels that weren’t going to go away.
When Episode II came out, new reasons for disappointment were found. The acting, which was already poor in the first prequel, took an even deeper nosedive in part two. Hayden Christensen takes a lot of grief for his work in the final two movies, but he was given no help by the two things that are supposed to help an actor: His screenplay and his director. The Episode II script was infamously rushed, and Lucas’ direction was nothing more than barking at his actors to be “faster” and “more intense.” The story that fans wanted—namely, an Anakin/Obi Wan adventure—was denied them again, two-thirds of the way through the trilogy, and instead fans were “treated” to the duo splitting up and following their own individual plots: Anakin went with Padme to Naboo and Tatooine, while Obi Wan went to Kamino and Geonosis. Structurally it didn’t work; there was no central hero to follow and no central villain to defeat. It felt less like a movie and more like a series of loosely connected scenes designed to give exposition in between the world building of Episode I and the big payoff of Episode III. It was a disappointment because fans walked into it hoping that the poorness of Episode I was the exception; Episode II proved it was the rule.
Which brings us to Episode III. And once again, fans managed to work themselves back into a frenzy of excitement in advance of the movie’s release. The same thing happened between Episodes I and II. Fans spent the first year post-release slowly getting over the excitement of “a new Star Wars” and then spent the second year tearing the movie apart for its many faults. Then when that was done they spent the final year before release getting pumped up for the sequel which they just knew would fix all the problems the other movie had. It happened between 1999 and 2002, and it happened again between 2002 and 2005.
As Episode III neared its release fans told themselves that the first two prequels—though flawed—were necessary evils. The real story fans had wanted since 1999 was the plot of Revenge of the Sith. The problems with the movie are therefore two-fold. On the one hand it did a poor job of resolving the plot threads that had been established in Episodes I and II. On the other hand it failed to adequately payoff the storybeats fans had been dying to see since at least 1983, namely Anakin’s fall to the darkside and the Empire’s rise to galactic power.
Every individual element that comprised Episode III was bungled in its execution. Fans walked into the theaters expecting—hoping—for the final prequel to send the disappointing sequel out on a redemptive note. Instead it has—in time—proven to be just as disappointing as its fore-bearers.
A DISAPPOINTING PAYOFF TO THE CLONE WARS
Before Episode I, all fans knew of the days before A New Hope was (1) that the galaxy was embroiled in “Clone Wars” where the heroes were brave, adventurous Jedi Knights, (2) that a Jedi named Anakin fell to the darkside of the force and betrayed the good guys, and (3) that—as a result of Anakin’s betrayal—the peace of the galaxy was undone and an evil Empire rose to power. Is there enough material in those three plot points to comprise an entire trilogy? Probably not, so Lucas never really tried. Instead he spent the first two movies setting up those three plot points, intending to tell explore them in the final installment.
Along the way, however, he lost sight of the original three-point outline. The Clone Wars in particular were changed from what they were hinted at in the Original Trilogy. Instead of the Jedi vs Clones dynamic hinted at in A New Hope, the Clones were changed to the good guys and a new, robotic army, was inserted into the narrative to be the villains. The Jedi were left as a third wheel in the story. Not only that but the movies never bothered to show the Clone Wars at all. We had the first major battle at the end of Episode II and the final major battle at the end of Episode III. The actual “War” that the Original Trilogy hinted at, and which was promised to be a critical component of the Prequel Trilogy, was instead left to a (fairly good enough) cartoon show. Considering it was one of the three pillars the Prequel Trilogy was to be based around, it was disappointing that it was not used as an effective backdrop.
A DISAPPOINTING PAYOFF TO THE PLOT THREADS OF EPISODES I AND II
Consider, if we never had Episodes IV-VI and if Episode I was the first Star Wars movie, and if the prequel trilogy was the only Star Wars trilogy, the franchise would never have survived. The story beats of the trilogy either aren’t fully developed or they are lingered on without any advancement and then suddenly dropped. The blockade of Naboo, the death of Qui Gon, Anakin’s conception, the diminished ability of the Jedi Council to use the force, the mystery of Sifo Dyas—those are just some of the dangling plot points that either went unresolved or were unspectacularly handled by the end of Episode III. Some things, like the Trade Federation leaders who had been lingering since scene one of Episode I, were cut down (literally) with little fanfare. If Lucas wanted Episodes I and II to stand on their own without relying too much on what was hinted at in the Original Trilogy he accomplished the opposite effect; by the end of Episode III viewers are left with the impression that little-to-none of Episodes I and II mattered, and that the only true prequel story to the Original Trilogy was Episode III.
I’ve written about Episode III before, and at the risk of stepping on my own toes…
Think about it, all the clues we get about the events leading up to Episode IV are answered in the final hour and a half of Revenge of the Sith. There’s nothing about Trade Federations, Droid Armies, Separatist Movements or Sith uprisings at all in Episodes IV-VI. But those elements comprise three-quarters of the Prequel Trilogy. All the Original Series discussed was Anakin and Obi Wan fighting together in the Clone Wars as Jedi Knights.
The way Obi Wan tells it to Luke, the Clone Wars were a kind of Crusade and the good guys were intergalactic Knights of Charlemagne (I’m aware Charlemagne never led any Crusades; go with it). Vader was a good guy turned bad, who helped the bad guys kill the knights and conquer the galaxy. We then come to find out Luke’s dad was Vader and was seduced by the promise of easy power through his pent up anger, fear and aggression. Instead of three movies about that, we got a half-movie about it, and two and a half meandering movies about nothing in particular leading up to it.
A DISAPPOINTING PRESENTATION OF ANAKIN’S FALL
This is the biggest sin of the Prequel Trilogy, because this is the biggest moment of the trilogy, and arguably the entire reason the three prequel movies exist at all. Anakin’s turn is the whole trilogy. Bungle it and you bungle it all.
And it is bungled.
It is ruined by a confused screenplay, horrid acting and direction that doesn’t allow the characters to have any clear motivations and reasons for their actions. Anakin goes from conflicted, telling Palpatine “you’re a Sith and I’m going to turn you in” to all-in on the darkside ways, and saying “time to murder literal babies” in the time it takes to heat up a hot pocket. There is no reason given for his change of heart. The only reason fans are expected to accept his change is because they are already familiar with the Original Trilogy. We’re supposed to buy Anakin’s change of heart because we know the end of the story. That’s sloppy, lazy filmmaking and it ruins what is now—thematically—the climactic moment of the entire saga.
Again, the fault is not just in the bad acting. The fault is in the weak writing. Lucas conceived the scene–which again is the entire reason for having the prequel trilogy–to have Palpatine end up lying to Anakin, and then tell him he never actually had the power to save Padme, “but maybe if they work together they can figure it out.” And then AFTER THAT he goes to kill babies. What possible motive is there to continue hanging with Palpatine? He just exposed himself as a liar.
The entire thing was mishandled from the very beginning. It would be one thing if Anakin showed some internal conflict after killing Mace Windu and learning it was all for nothing, but other than an empty “what have I done?” he shows no conflict. He pledges himself to Palpatine and goes off to become Space Hitler, no questions asked. It’s one of the two things fans wanted to see in the whole Prequel Trilogy and the way it’s presented there’s no rhyme or reason for it at all.
A DISAPPOINTING PRESENTATION OF THE EMPIRE’S RISE
Speaking of Palpatine, everything up until his plan is actually carried out is good. His machiavellian machinations and maneuverings in Episode I and II are the strongest parts of the stories. He starts out as one out of apparently-thousands of senators, but manipulates the right people in the right way to rise to becoming Chancellor. After that he uses his power to both create an army and then later the need for the army, giving him all the extra powers that typically come to a wartime leader. What’s even more amazing is how much power he amasses right under the Jedi’s noses. He accelerates his plans to consolidate power in Episode III and that provokes a response from the Jedi, but up until then they seem to be totally powerless to stop him. As long as the war—which stretched between Episodes II and III—was going on, Palpatine was a defacto Emperor and the Jedi could do nothing about it.
Then he decides to become an actual emperor and all the writing goes to crap.
Once again, the pivotal scene is where the biggest sin lies. With Anakin turning it was the scene where he pledges himself to Palpatine. With Palpatine declaring himself Emperor the pivital scene is the one in the Senate where he announces the Jedi are traitors and the Republic will be reorganized into a Galactic Empire. The scene fails because…that’s all that happens. There’s no subtext. There’s nothing under the surface. This robed, scarred, evil-sounding guy, who has—to paraphrase Obi Wan—“managed to stay in power far longer than normal” suddenly declares the “guardians of peace of justice” are evil and everyone believes him. He follows that up by saying “freedom is done, it’s a dictatorship now!” and…everyone cheers. Like with Anakin’s turn, it only makes sense in the context of the Original Trilogy. You have to just accept that “this is what has to happen” because that’s how things are in the next three movies. There’s nothing in these three movies to earn that moment. It is a bungled scene near the end of a bungled movie.
The first two prequels’ biggest sins are (1) bad screenplay (2) bad pacing. The movies are slow, plodding, meandering, unfocused messes, and the words that come out of the characters sound like middle-school drama plays.
Episode III is the only one of the three that doesn’t suffer from bad pacing, probably because when George Lucas sat down to write the prequel trilogy back in 1995, he realized he only had one movie’s worth of story and other than that, he had only about ten minutes of additional backstory. That one movie he had was Episode III, and the ten minutes extra that he had lying around was stretched out like butter over too much bread in Episodes I and II.
Think about it: Everything you ever wanted to see in the prequels can be found in EPIII. You want to see the Clone Wars? Opening scene. You want to see Anakin and Obi Wan tag-teaming as swashbuckling adventurers? Opening scene. You want to see Luke’s parents in love and making babies? That’s woven throughout the movie. You want to see the rise of the emperor? Act 3. You want some classic Jedi action? That’s Obi Wan’s half of Act 2. You want to see Anakin’s descent into the dark side? That’s Anakin’s half of Act 2. You want to see the hunting down of the Jedi? Act 3. Want to see Obi Wan and Anakin fight? Act 3.
What did Episodes I and II offer that we needed to see? Nothing.
And to take it a step further, there’s nothing in Episode III that NEEDED to be seen that wasn’t explained well enough throughout the Original Trilogy. All the prequels do is dramatize the thirty second conversation between Obi Wan and Luke in his hut in A New Hope. And it’s cool that Lucas wanted to give that to the
fans toy buyers. But he really should have handed it off to a competent screenwriter and director. He didn’t and all of the movies suffered as a result. But the biggest sufferer of them all is the film that fans held up as the last great hope of redeeming the putrid prequels. It was held up as the one that would send the Prequel Trilogy out on a high note. In fact, Episode III was all but marketed as “the good one” in the run up to its 2005 release. Many fans still hold on to it as just that: The good one. In truth, it’s just as poor as the previous two, only it shows us what the previous two didn’t: Namely, the stuff that was actually talked about in the Original Trilogy…and it bungled the showing.
For that reason it’s the biggest disappointment of them all.
And I didn’t even touch on Vader’s “NOOOooo!” or The Emperor’s horrible fat, ugly makeup job. Those are best left un-ranted about.