IT IS NOW SAFE to declare the Star Wars prequels a failure. Whatever their merits as films, the three panels of George Lucas's new triptych, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith have failed to add permanently to the Star Wars mythology. Try to name one character or image or line of dialogue from these prequels that will, 30 years from now, have the cultural resonance that Darth Vader, the Death Star, the Millennium Falcon, the Mos Eisley creature cantina, "Use the Force," or "Luke, I am your father" have today.
The only iconic figure to emerge from the prequels is Darth Maul, the horned, red-faced Sith who had barely any dialogue and was dead by the end of Phantom Menace. But at least we'll remember him. Next to Darth Maul, the image most likely to endure from the prequels is Jar-Jar Binks, who is regarded as a campy mistake, like the ewoks from Return of the Jedi. The rest of these three movies--some seven hours of story-telling--has turned out to be merely disposable cinematic product, like Tomb Raider or Planet of the Apes.
You can judge the size of the prequels' cultural footprint by studying the merchandising. For instance, when Cingular began hawking its Star Wars tie-ins recently, they used characters from the original Star Wars movies--Chewbacca, Vader, Storm Troopers--not characters from Revenge of the Sith. The Star Wars toy industry has likewise become a shell of its former self: Where toy stores had permanent aisles devoted to an ever-growing collection of Star Wars vehicles, action figures, and paraphernalia from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s, toys tied to the prequels are now seasonal items--they blossom every three years when a movie comes out, and then quickly recede.
Or consider this: The first Star Wars, A New Hope, was rereleased in American theaters five times after its original run in 1977. The second, The Empire Strikes Back, was rereleased three times. It is difficult to imagine that there will ever be a clamor to bring any of the prequels back to the big screen.
ALL OF THAT SAID, are the prequels any good? The Phantom Menace wasn't as bad you think. Buried inside its 133 minutes is a great movie dying to be born. Cut out Jar-Jar, the sea-monster chase, midichlorians, the pod race, and most of young Anakin Skywalker's lines and you have a dramatically interesting story. Qui-Gon Jinn, a well-meaning Jedi master, finds a boy whom he believes will fulfill a prophecy to save the galaxy. He is, of course, wrong: Anakin Skywalker is fated to bring death and doom. The Jedi council realizes this and instructs Qui-Gon not to teach Anakin the ways of the Jedi. Even Qui-Gon's apprentice, Obi-Wan, is wary of the child. But Qui-Gon forges ahead anyway and when he is killed in battle, he makes Obi-Wan promise to take in Anakin. Obi-Wan agrees out of a sense of fealty to Qui-Gon, despite his misgivings. That's a pretty good story.
Lucas even added some competent moviemaking to the drama and slow-speed tragedy. The climactic duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is gripping because not only is it lucidly staged, but because there is a deliberate buildup to it. First the combatants meet in a hangar, then they meet again in the palace, and finally Qui-Gon and Darth Maul find themselves trapped in a hallway where rotating force-shields keep them separated. Faced with a pause before the final battle, Qui-Gon kneels and meditates; Darth Maul paces back and forth just a few feet away, wordlessly glaring down at the Jedi. This moment is so nimbly directed that for a moment you might suspect that it's Steven Spielberg behind the camera.
Attack of the Clones had no such saving graces. A crude contraption, it reduced Star Wars to an extended action sequence. There was no arc or story to speak of and there was nothing artful in its execution. Attack of the Clones would have been better as five minutes of exposition or montage at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith.
SO HOW GOOD IS REVENGE OF THE SITH? It isn't as awful as you've feared. There is terrible dialogue. Scenes with Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and his wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), are so incompetently wrought as to be embarrassing for all involved. And Lucas's exclusive use of CGI sets instead of real-world locations gives the entire film a sense of being animated. Nothing in Sith feels as real or lived in as, say, Empire's Dagobah swamps, or the Tatooine of New Hope and Return of the Jedi.
However, underneath all of this is an actual story: The turning of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side.
We've been waiting for this for a long time; the corruption of Anakin was the most interesting tale suggested by the original Star Wars back in 1977. As chronicled in Revenge of the Sith the story is badly handled: We are led to believe that the prime motivation for Anakin is a series of nightmares about his wife dying during childbirth. In a universe where interstellar travel is the norm, this seems an irrational and uncompelling fear. And faced with the prospect of Anakin's conversion, the Jedi council once again proves thoroughly and arrogantly incompetent--it is a wonder that the Galactic Republic lasted as long as it did with these twits as its only protection.
Yet despite all of that, there is drama inherent in the proceedings. The fall of Anakin Skywalker is interesting, no matter how badly it's told. In this way, Sith is much like Phantom Menace.
Another parallel to Phantom Menace is that Sith has the occasional grace note. For instance, after the crawl at the beginning of the movie, the camera pans to reveal a large star destroyer floating serenely in low orbit over Coruscant. Slowly, our point of view travels across the ship's hull and wraps around the bow where we see a furious battle being waged in what first appeared to be a moment of peace. It's a moment which inspires some genuine awe.
Sith has other small rewards, too. The evolution of design in the Star Wars universe becomes more clear. We learn that the Empire's TIE fighters are evolved in design from the single-pilot ships used by the Jedi knights. We also see the precursors to the Imperial star destroyers, speeder bikes, and X-Wings. In the corner of one scene you can spot a tiny version of the Millennium Falcon.
But the biggest payoff comes at the film's end. Bail Organa flees to the same ship which Princess Leia is using in the opening scene of A New Hope. We are returned to its stark white interior. And once Darth Vader is fully assembled, we see him taking to the bridge of a star destroyer with the Emperor. The officers on the bridge are dressed smartly in gray and all have the look of Oxbridge men. The instrument panels on the walls are simple, low-tech blocks of white and red lights. After the candy-colored futuristic design of the prequels, coming aboard the solid, dark bridge of this star destroyer is comforting, like being wrapped up in a warm, old blanket; the even, menacing respiration of Darth Vader in the background might as well be our favorite childhood lullaby.
What is most satisfying about Revenge of the Sith is that it finally delivers us back to the beginning, to the Star Wars we loved; to the Star Wars we still remember after all these years. Sith and the other prequels will, happily, soon be forgotten.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.