In its favour, this episode is many orders of magnitude better than the other two prequels. Most of the teeth-grating kiddie fare has been jettisoned, including Jar Jar, with only the silly droid army as an ineffectual legacy of the earlier movies. With the exception of the wooden romance, the flaws of this film are not those of the other two prequels.
Right from the outset the film *feels* more like a Star Wars movie. The opening battle sequence, although marred by too many droids, is simply amazing, capturing much of the epic feel of the space battle in Return of the Jedi. The focus on the two Jedi amidst the chaos is also really effective, and introduces the film’s emotional core in the friendship between Obi Wan and Anakin (one which is far more effective than the romantic plot). This is the opening of The Phantom Menace done right.
The pacing is often that of the original trilogy: snappy scenes, wipe cuts, and decisive action. The film never misses a chance to tip its hat to the original films, from the raft of familiar background aliens, to the cameo by Chewbacca, to the deliberate visual and musical nods to all three of the original movies. There are many sequences here, pivotal sequences, that feel almost like shot-for-shot lifts from the equivalent moments in Episodes IV, V and VI. It’s clear that this is deliberate, and in many cases it works. In every way, this is the film that the rest of the trilogy should have been.
Except… for every key moment that works, there’s one that doesn’t.
In particular, the story of Anakin’s fall *should* feel inevitable, like all the best tragedies. Instead, it feels laboured and unconvincing. Although Anakin is egotistical, and Padme is presented as his achilles heel, it’s still hard to see why Palpatine is able to convince him so readily with an anecdote or two. Worse, Samuel L Jackson’s character is forced to behave extremely out of character in order to engineer Anakin’s attack (in a direct nod to Vader watching Luke suffer at the Emperor’s hands in ROTJ). Then, overcome with remorse, he… agrees to murder children. It just doesn’t hang together. With three movies to play with, surely the fall could have been engineered more convincingly than this: in the event, his turn to the dark side takes all of about five minutes. His later betrayal of Padme is even more illogical, although by that time he had arguably been twisted by his actions.
I have very mixed feelings about the movie. Ewan McGregor is great, the action and effects are much better and more atmospheric than those in the previous two films, and the music and feel are classic Star Wars. It has warmth, humour and decentish characterisation. However the plotline is contrived, the drama often soapy, and the key moments fail as often as they succeed. Palpatine becomes shrivelled and evil much, much too quickly, to the point of unintended comedy. Vader’s Frankenstein birth is effective (following the startling brutality of his scarring) but undercut by Vader’s Anakin-like behaviour and ridiculous “Nooooooo!”
Ultimately, this film finally captures the trappings of Star Wars, and those trappings work strongly in its favour early on. The problems come when it tries to turn those comfortable devices to the task of telling an uncomfortable tale of genuine human tragedy. The level on which Star Wars operates is simply too adolescent, too simplistic, to meet the demands of such a complex psychological drama. I’m left enjoying much of the film’s spectacle, but feeling distanced by several of its pivotal moments.