Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy Review

The Movies

1999 saw the second coming of a certain bearded gentleman; no, not that Jesus fella, but George Walton Lucas Jr. After the release of Return Of The Jedi in 1983, Lucas diverted his attention to other film and TV projects, not to mention his burgeoning portfolio of companies, but the Star Wars series started to take on a life of its own with the success of Timothy Zahn's bestselling 'sequel' novels in the early 1990s. This combined with concurrent advancements in computer generated (CG) effects convinced Lucas that it was time to restart the Star Wars juggernaut. Writing on Episode I finally began in 1994, and in the meantime Lucas oversaw the controversial 1997 Special Edition updates to the Original Trilogy (OT), using them as test subjects for the digital technology which would be so integral to his new trilogy. And so we come to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Set 32 years before the events of the original movie, Episode I starts with a blockade of the peaceful Naboo system by the greedy Trade Federation, intent on protesting about the taxation of their trade routes. Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp), leader of the Galactic Republic, is bound by bureaucracy and is unable to intervene directly, so he secretly sends two Jedi - exponents of the mystical Force - to mediate the conflict. But Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) encounter some unexpectedly deadly resistance, and they flee to the surface of Naboo to warn Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of the threat to her planet and her people. On the way they come across Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a goofy, bungling Gungan who helps the Jedi make their way to the planet's capital, Theed.

Once there, they convince the Queen to escape the impending invasion and plead her case directly to the Galactic Senate on the capital planet of Coruscant, where they will meet with Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). But their ship is damaged while fighting through the Trade Federation's blockade, and so they seek refuge on Tatooine, a desolate dustball far from the jurisdiction of the Republic. There they encounter Darth Maul (Ray Park), sinister agent of the shadowy Sith Lord Darth Sidious (McDiarmid again), who's pulling the strings of the Trade Federation to enact his long-term plan of destroying the Jedi. Short on friends and funds, they encounter an unlikely saviour: a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) who is unusually strong with the Force. And so the chain of events which leads to the fall of the Republic and the inexorable rise of Darth Vader is fully set in motion.

Let's get one thing nice and sparkling clear: Phantom Menace is not the worst movie ever made. But given the slew of internets hate that has dogged it over the years I get the feeling that even if it was the best film ever made, people would still complain about it. Yes, it's wildly uneven in terms of tone and has a convoluted story which is light years away from the straightforward simplicity of the originals, not to mention the stiff acting style and clunky exposition-laden dialogue (though Neeson and McDiarmid acquit themselves admirably). But the production design is beautiful, from the teeming planet-wide metropolis of Coruscant to the gorgeous renaissance stylings of Naboo's Theed City, and the action is spectacularly staged. Sequences like the pod race and the three-way lightsaber duel were always fantastic, but they look even more impressive in the post Shakey-Cam™ world we live in.

Lucas threads prominent symbolism and thematic allusions throughout the movie, not quite elevating it to intellectual status but it's certainly more literary than people will ever give Lucas credit for. Lucas himself says that he's a visual filmmaker and not a literary one, but methinks he doth protest too much, especially after referencing the works of Joseph Campbell so much during interviews for the 1977 original. Remove the farting CG animals and people might've actually taken you seriously, George. Finally there's the fabulous music, composed by John Williams once again. Episode I is perhaps his last great score, expertly flitting between militaristic action cues, playful child-like melodies, brooding darkness and just about everything else in between. The hints and re-workings of various OT pieces are expertly done, getting the point across while never upstaging the new compositions like the amazing Duel Of The Fates.

Episode I was a huge box-office hit, garnering staggering receipts of $924 million dollars worldwide (approaching $1.5 billion adjusted for inflation), which no doubt soothed Lucas' fragile ego after the less than kind critical response to the film. But was the movie simply showing up Lucas' ring rust, him not having directed a full-length feature for over 20 years, or had his skills atrophied beyond the point of no return? That remained to be seen, and we were promised many things in the run-up to the next film. "More Action!" they said. "Less Jar Jar!" they said. "Natalie Portman in a gold bikini!" they probably didn't say. But perhaps they should have, because that would've made Episode II a damn sight more enjoyable.

Episode II: Attack Of The Clones picks up the story 10 years after the events of Episode I. The Republic has become dangerously unstable, with the Trade Federation having planted the seeds of rebellion by threatening to secede and take thousands of star systems with them. The Senate is recalled to vote on the urgent issue of creating a grand Army Of The Republic to deal with the impending civil war, which brings Padme Amidala (Portman) back to Coruscant, not as Queen of Naboo but now as a senator. After a failed attempt on her life, the job of protecting her falls to an old friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), with his stroppy padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in tow.

The trail of the would-be assassin - a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) - takes Kenobi to the outer reaches of space where he discovers a deeply troubling secret, while Padme and Anakin hide out on her home planet of Naboo. There Anakin declares his love for her, putting both of their futures at stake should they give in to their feelings. Skywalker then experiences a troubling dream about his mother, leading him back to Tatooine and setting him on the path to the dark side. Events conspire to bring our heroes together on the droid foundry planet of Geonosis under the watch of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a former Jedi who is now leading the Separatists. He's playing his part on behalf of the sinister Darth Sidious (McDiarmid), as the pieces are moved into place to declare war on the Republic and bring down the Jedi Order. The Clone Wars have begun.

Doesn't sound too bad on paper, right? But the reality is very different, because Episode II is a disjointed mess of a film that takes everything bad about Star Wars and turns it up to 11 (apart from Jar Jar, who makes a small but pivotal appearance in the film). The acting borders on the diabolical, and while no Star Wars flick escapes criticism on that front it's simply laughable here. Natalie Portman is incredibly robotic, stranded between a swirl of greenscreen and Lucas' typically stilted writing, and Hayden Christensen plays the now-teenaged Anakin as borderline psychotic. Their love affair is rendered so awkwardly it's like watching 10-year-olds putting on a school play, and Anakin lacks an audience-friendly arc. He starts the film in a sulk and simply ends it in the same way. Ewan McGregor does what he can with his usual class, but not even he can get around the comedy fake beard that he's stuck with for the myriad of reshot material. Christopher Lee adds a sprinkling of old-school magic in his role as the statesmanlike Count Dooku, and Ian McDiarmid is very good value once again.

What really destroys Episode II is the shocking treatment meted out to John Williams. His score for the movie was chopped up, moved around, replaced with Episode I cues or simply removed altogether, Williams being a victim of Lucas not knowing how the film will turn out until the last possible second. And it's clear that Williams was fighting a losing battle with Ben Burtt, the latter prioritising his precious sound effects over the music, and Burtt's long-standing disdain no doubt informed Lucas' increasingly shoddy handling of the score. Even so, Williams still delivers a classic Star Wars cue with the haunting love theme called Across The Stars, which is a thousand times more evocative than the so-called romance which it is supposed to enhance.

However, I'd be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy anything about this middle chapter. The action scenes are staged very efficiently once again, although the speeder chase that kick-starts the film is just a little too derivative to be truly exciting. But Obi-Wan's asteroid chase with Jango Fett is plenty exciting - I love those sonic depth charges - and once the daft love story and Obi-Wan: Private Eye tangent are dealt with, we get the stunning final reels where the Jedi go to war. We even see Yoda duel with Count Dooku, and while some may mock the cartoony nature of the scene it's still an iconic Star Wars moment. The only time I've ever heard a cinema audience draw a collective intake of breath was when Yoda swept back his robe and sparked up his lightsaber. It's just a shame that the previous two hours was utter bobbins, and it didn't bode well for the next - and final - Star Wars movie.

NB: The BBFC cuts to Jango's headbutt on Obi-Wan have been waived for this PG-rated Blu-ray release. This is the uncut version, although there have been further tweaks by Lucas. Anakin's dream about his mother now has her cries for help laid over the top, removing the unintentional laughs elicited by Anakin's sweaty groaning, and the Coruscant speeder chase has been rearranged slightly, as has the end of the Yoda/Dooku duel.

Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith rejoins the story 3 years later. As the Clone Wars draw to a finish, the Separatists - led by the cowardly droid General Grievous - launch an unusually bold assault on Coruscant to kidnap Chancellor Palpatine. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi race back from the front line to rescue Palpatine, and in doing so they confront Count Dooku once again, although Grievous escapes. One decapitated Sith Lord later, the dynamic duo are back on Coruscant and Anakin is reunited with Padme, whom he married in secret at the end of the last film. She has some unexpected news for Anakin: she's become pregnant, and instead of being a reason to celebrate it troubles Anakin all the more, his Jedi senses telling him that his wife will die in childbirth. While Obi-Wan is despatched to the Utapau system to hunt down General Grievous, Anakin stays behind and seeks counsel with the Chancellor after he is placed on the Jedi Council but is humiliatingly denied the title of Jedi Master. Palpatine eventually reveals himself to be the Sith Lord whom the Jedi have been looking for, and he offers Anakin a way to save Padme. Young Skywalker is faced with an agonising choice: turn to the dark side of the Force and betray his Jedi friends, or watch the pregnant love of his life suffer and die. His decision has grave consequences for the galaxy...

The last Star Wars film is very much a return to form, Lucas finally being able to reconcile his outrageous visual sensibilities with a satisfying story. At last we get to the meat of the prequels, and so there's a proper sense of urgency as the Republic finally falls apart. As thematically clever as the 'phantom menace' of Darth Sidious may have been, it didn't make for a particularly exciting narrative in Episodes I & II because there was no 'big bad' to drive the story along, but seeing the Jedi fall and the Empire rise rectifies that. And while the lightsaber fights of the prequels thus far have been exciting from a technical point of view, they have precious little emotional content. This changes in Episode III, the various duels combining the prequel's flashy choreography with the emotive power of the originals.

Anakin and Obi-Wan finally display something of the relationship which old Ben speaks so fondly of in the original films, and Threepio with his gold coverings (which he received in Genndy Tartakovsky's excellent Clone Wars cartoon shorts) adds a subconscious affirmation that, yep, this IS Star Wars. The music is back to its best after the butchering of the score on the previous film, John Williams again providing some classy cues like the dramatic Battle Of The Heroes, and there's a heart-rending piece which underscores the Order 66 sequence. There's maybe a little too much of Harry Potter's influence, and there are still a few cues tracked in from Episode I's score, but overall the music is fantastic.

It's not all perfect, as the dialogue is still chronically tin-eared (Lucas can't write romantic stuff to save his life) and the trademark goofy humour is present, and it's a shame that Padme is now reduced to wet blanket status just because she's knocked up. Still, because she has more 'normal' concerns in this film she seems much more human than the bland character seen in the previous movies. And Padme was given something to do, but the scenes of her helping to establish the Rebellion were deleted because they would've made the movie too long. We can't do without that lengthy Obi-Wan/Grievous chase sequence, can we George?

Overall, the prequels hit more often than they miss, but when they miss they do it in the most cringe-worthy ways. Get past that and you'll find much to enjoy. My scores are: Episode I 7/10, Episode II 6/10, Episode III 8/10.

The Blu-rays

Video

It's been confirmed by Lucasfilm that Episode I was freshly remastered from the original 2K data files for this new Blu-ray release, and not before time. The original HD film-to-tape transfer was full of artefacts including noticeable gate weave, extremely heavy edge enhancement, dull colours and lots of noise. And by Lucasfilm's own admission it was cropped quite substantially, even in the widescreen format. The original DVD was horrible, quite frankly, and I would love to say unequivocally that the Blu-ray blows it away. In most respects it does, but the high-def transfer still falls short of greatness.

The softness of the picture is immediately apparent. The movie was shot anamorphic on good old 35mm, and normally I'd be saying that some softness is part and parcel of that format. While there is evidence of the usual anamorphic foibles, the lack of clarity on display here goes way beyond that. Unfortunately, it appears that a substantial amount of noise reduction has been applied. It's possible that it could've been done during the making of the movie, allowing for cleaner digital composites, and we're only seeing it for the first time because they've gone back to the data files. But it's applied so precisely, and without any obvious artefacts, that it's got to be a more modern application. Textures are overly smooth and lifeless, with faces suffering the most - there's a screencap of Qui-Gon doing the rounds which is every bit as bad as the pictures suggest.

I can only speculate that Lucasfilm compared the data files to the noise-free filtered look of Episodes II & III (more on that later) and decided to hobble the image for a better fit with those movies. Edge enhancement is still there too, creating very thin halos around high-contrast edges, and while it's nowhere near as bad as the DVD it simply shouldn't be there on a 2011 Blu-ray release. Another prominent DVD artefact was the banding in the murky underwater shots of the Gungan city, and again it hasn't quite been eradicated here (it could be part of the effects render itself, rather than an encoding issue).

There are still plenty of positives to this new master. Fine detail can look exceptional in spite of the DNR, usually on a CG-heavy shot. Black levels don't display the detail-sucking crush seen in the OT Blu-rays, and the colour has a new-found vibrancy that jives much better with the other prequels. Skin tones do tend to vary quite a bit though, and some hints of oversaturation still sneak through. The opening up of the entire frame gives the image a bit more room to breathe, and lets you soak up every last bit of the gorgeous scenery. A few CG shots look more like SD upconverts, particularly some of the footage which was finished for the 2001 DVD version, but any loss of quality is brief. The digital Yoda additions - replacing the freaky looking puppet - look very good, and help to line the movie up visually with the other prequels.

Episode II is a bit more straightforward to assess. It was one of the first full-length features to be shot entirely on 1080p HD video, but, contrary to the usual spiel about digital video not having enough resolution, the images they were getting back were so sharp that the movie was shot with Pro-Mist filters to give it a more traditional look. While the direct-from-the-digital-master DVD version was considered spectacular for the SD format, Episode II doesn't have the same impact on Blu-ray. There's plenty of fine detail but not the out-and-out sharpness of a more recent HD production, and the eye-popping colour has been dulled just a tad with a revised blue tinge. Still, the colour is pleasingly consistent, and in my humble opinion the blue push gives the movie a slightly more grown-up feel. The DVD had obvious compression problems, with the expanse of red walls in Palpatine's office being covered in noise, but the Blu-ray easily passes that test with no noise/grain in sight. There's no obvious edge enhancement either. Black levels are fine.

Episode III is the newest film of the bunch, so it should be no surprise to learn that it's easily the best looking one out of the whole saga, never mind the prequels. The tech for the HD cameras had moved on considerably in the years since Episode II (amongst other things, colour compression had changed from 8-bit to 12-bit and an unnecessary RGB to YUV colour space conversion was bypassed) and it gives the movie a superior quality. Blacks, colour, detail, it's all quite superb. There is an occasional bout of softness which stops this encode from getting a perfect score, but that's the worst thing I can say about it.

You may think that the HD quality will show up the CG joins rather than hiding them, but surprisingly enough the effects integrate extremely well in all the prequels. The CG artists went to great lengths to ensure that 'real world' camera artefacts crept in to the shots, and those touches are almost subliminal, like reproducing the anamorphic lens distortion in Episode I and the chromatic aberration (colour fringing) seen throughout Episodes II & III. Because these details are so ephemeral they were lost in the SD presentations of the prequels, but they're more obvious in HD and it really helps to sell the effects. There's a heck of a lot of model work throughout these movies too, which again is afforded the proper sense of scale and detail in HD.

As with my Blu-ray review of the original trilogy, a collective rating for these encodes won't tell the full story. Episode I is a revelation compared to the DVD yet it's got a new set of flaws, and like the OT Blu-rays it'll look spectacular on a smaller set (say, 42" or below) but the larger you go the more it loses its lustre. Episode II is good yet slightly hampered by the filtered HD photography. Episode III knocks it out of the park with a stellar presentation. If you're hankering for individual scores they're as follows: Episode I 7/10, Episode II 8/10, Episode III 9/10.

Audio

You'll be pleased to know that there's no need for me to waffle on at length about the DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 (discrete) sound mixes, because they're all nigh-on perfect. All three movies have a very similar presentation, with atmospheric and enveloping surround usage, dialogue that's always intelligible, crisp music and deep, well-integrated bass. The latter aspect impressed me the most because the DVD mixes were pretty variable. Episode I had it just about right, but Episode II had loud, flabby LFE which delighted bass-heads but left me cold. And Episode III actually regressed somewhat, giving us a leaner sound which didn't fit with either of its predecessors (in a way, it actually sounds more like the original movies, which may have been intentional). But on Blu-ray the sound is presented with much more consistency across the three prequels. And these movies can also be pushed much louder than the originals before the sound starts to fatigue and harden up, but that's not unexpected given the age discrepancy. 10/10 across the board.

Extras

This 3-disc movie-only set contains two audio commentaries per movie, one being the original DVD chat track and the other being a newly-arranged effort culled from lots of different sources, including extra material from the original commentary sessions. These ones are dryer than the OT tracks because there's a lot more waffle about the special effects, and guys like John Knoll and Rob Coleman aren't anywhere near as interesting as Dennis Muren. Even when folks like McGregor, Neeson and Portman are featured they're nowhere near as interesting as Hamill, Ford and Fisher. There are still nuggets of goodness - you'll hear plenty of grumbling about bluescreen and CG from the actors, and Sam Jackson repeatedly saying "purple light" is bizarrely funny - yet only über-fans will get much out of these commentaries. I remind you that if you want any more extras then you need to buy the 9-disc Complete Saga.

Overall

The prequels are not your father's Star Wars but they share enough of the same DNA to make them enjoyable, if only in terms of visual spectacle. People give rubbish like Transformers 3 a pass just because it looks pretty and has lots of 'splosions, so why can't they do the same here? Because it's got the name Star Wars on the title, that's why. Personally I think they're better than mere lightshows - well, The Phantom Menace and Revenge Of The Sith anyway.

These Blu-rays should theoretically represent a higher A/V standard than that of the OT, but in terms of picture quality it's a wash. The OT discs have their problems but they also have lots of fine detail, something which is occasionally lacking from the DNR'ed Episode I and the slightly soft (as shot) Episode II. Only Episode III really excels in that department, with an excellent all-round video presentation. In terms of sound, the prequels are clear winners over the OT with 6.1 audio that's dynamic and immersive. Extras are limited to two audio commentaries, but these ones aren't quite as enjoyable as the OT tracks.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
10 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 11:09:59

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