I’m old enough that Star Wars means something to me, yet young enough that I only caught the prequels in the cinema. I can still remember when The Phantom Menace came out… a massive multiplex was built to coincide with that launch and we stood outside for some tickets. My sister worked there for quite a while, more for the access to the movies than the actual job. Still a cinephile!
A few years prior, Lucas had re-released Star Wars to cinema and I had gone to watch them all multiple times. Smart to raise the hype. I was used to the old VHS versions that felt like they were of their time. The remakes polished some bits but also added some weird sections – Jabba in A New Hope, a moving Sarlacc, and the very jarring cantina signing scene. Foreboding!
I remember going to watch the Phantom Menace as a group. Full Star Wars hype was abound! The movie started to cheers with beginning of the scrolling text. To this day, I can still recall the group confusion that came when the words ‘taxation of trade routes’ showed up on screen. But then Jedis and action! Great! Meeting Jar Jar was really odd, but I figured it was one of the multiple passing characters in Star Wars. That he became a tag along was grating and an extremely poor substitute for the droid duo. The pod racing was, and still is, exhilarating. The final battle sequence with Darth Maul still holds up with great framing, pace, and music. That final score is found in every pre-quel movie, including the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
The end of The Phantom Menace was a high note. We came out with smiles, then talked about our favorite parts. It really only focused on 2 pieces…and then the conversation turned to the stuff that didn’t work. There was way more than 2 pieces.
I still went to see Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith in cinemas. The former was confusing and had horrible dialogue, while the latter had some amazing combat sections. The end result was mixed, but a better appreciation for Ewan McGregor. While it should have been Anakin that tied it all together, it really was Obi-Wan.
The major challenge the prequels had was that the universe had been fleshed out something fierce by that time. The sense of mystery and awe just didn’t exist in the same way. We knew how the prequels would end… there were books about it long before the movies. They didn’t talk about pod races, but the larger lines were out. The movies had a fairly high bar to reach before they ever reached our eyes.
There’s plenty written on why the original trilogy worked. Pacing, character building, physicality, R2D2 being a literal deus ex machina, and C3P0 being a stand in for the audience. Editing, photography, writing, and direction are all big ones – things that are much different in the prequels. These highlights are counterpoints to the prequels being so derided.
As bitter as it made me feel, I always knew that the core was solid. It’s Star Wars! It took a while for news to spread but someone had taken a knife to the Phantom Menace and edited it down to something watchable. The Phantom Edit was in nearly every respect, a better film with 18 minutes less content. Jar Jar was nearly removed, the Trade Federation was done with subtitles, midichlorians were removed, and then some precise edits. Just an overall better film! And the one I presented to my own kids. Attack of the Clones had the same treatment but ended up cutting nearly 40 minutes. These fan edits created an entire new sub-genre of film fanatics…there are dozens of fan edits of Star Wars films now.
And yet, the point remains that there was more good in these movies than bad. It was like a puzzle with too many pieces, and set up in the wrong order. When put together in a different way, the image is much clearer. If anything, it truly highlights the value of a great editor (not the person in the credits, but the person making the final calls).
So with Star Wars day last week, and a subscription to Disney+ my family got together and re-watched the prequels. No edits. Plenty of Jar Jar. Horrendous love dialogue. A brooding Anakin. A stellar Obi-Wan. The realization that the Emperor was in 7 of the 9 Star Wars movies (quick cameos in Episode 5 + 8). That Star Wars, for all it’s place of conflict in my mind, is best experienced through the eyes of a child’s wonder with no expectations. There is no extended universe for them. Just some crazy space ninjas with laser swords. And who wouldn’t want to watch that?