Revisiting the STAR WARS Saga

August 30, 2015
A thought by James Berardinelli


The hype associated with the upcoming release of the seventh Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is pretty intense, but not nearly as all-consuming as it was in 1999 when The Phantom Menace opened. In many ways, The Phantom Menace rode the crest of an unparalleled wave. It was the first mega-blockbuster to take advantage of the newfangled thing called "The Internet" and the saga's core fans (who were around 10 years old when Star Wars was released in 1977) had graduated into the entertainment industry's most desirable demographic. Additionally, the "energy" surrounding all things Star Wars was extremely positive in 1999. The 1997 theatrical re-releases of the original trilogy had stoked unprecedented interest. (This was at a time when the words "Special Edition" weren't tantamount to profanity.  Most people liked Lucas' changes at the time.)

I previously reviewed all six of the Star Wars movies. For A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, the write-ups came at the time of the 1997 Special Edition re-releases. For The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, the reviews were written just prior to their theatrical releases. It should come as no surprise that my opinions about the original trilogy haven't changed much from 1997 to 2015 although, truth be told, I find myself less enamored with Return of the Jedi every time I watch it. It has not weathered the passage of time well. My views about the prequels have shifted since I first saw them and wrote the original reviews.

Reviews of theatrical films are written "in the moment." By that, I mean that they are intended to capture my feelings at the time of the release, based on a single viewing. In most cases, I write about a film within 24 hours of seeing the screening. I feel that letting my thoughts marinate for longer is dishonest to the process. The intention is to capture my immediate response, not one developed after a lengthy period of reflection and deliberation. So the reviews for The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith represent how I felt about the movies upon leaving the theater. They are not necessarily in synch with my feelings today. The star ratings of all three have changed over time for a variety of reasons (which will be discussed in the individual reviews).

Over the years, I have been asked whether I still feel the same way about the prequels (and, to a lesser extent, the original trilogy) as I did when writing the original reviews. I wasn't sure. I certainly don't demonize the prequels the way a portion of fandom does. But I also feel that my ***1/2 ratings for both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones may have been inflated by "in the moment" factors. That was how I felt in 1999 and 2002 (respectively), but what about today? Retrospective reviews filter out contemporaneous elements, thereby making them more attuned to how a current audience might react. So I decided that, with The Force Awakens on its way and interest in Star Wars (once again) cresting, now is as good a time as any to re-watch the films in sequence and write up my thoughts. These "re-reviews" are not intended to replace the original reviews. They should be seen as supplements.

Watching the six films in the context of a single epic story represents a different experience from watching them as individual segments, sometimes with years in between. Some films are helped by this approach. Some are hurt. Some stay the same. The biggest surprise may have been how Return of the Jedi was adversely impacted by the existence of Revenge of the Sith. (More about that in the Return of the Jedi review.)

I approached this project with the freshest perspective possible but it would be disingenuous to pretend this offers a new, quasi-objective analysis. Yet I have tried to take a step back and view the films through lenses that, although still rose-tinted, aren't quite as opaque. For example, to the extent that I am no longer as enamored with The Phantom Menace as I once was, I will explain where I now believe its shortcomings to be and where I think its strengths lie. The faults I identify in the re-review were mentioned in the original review but I weighted them "in the moment" as less important.

The most important film of the series? Historically, it's obviously A New Hope (a.k.a. Star Wars). In terms of the saga's internal continuity, however, it's Revenge of the Sith. That's one reason why I decided to write the re-reviews. None of the original reviews were penned post-Revenge of the Sith and the release of that movie changed everything in terms of how we look at the other five episodes. Those who returned to A New Hope after 1983 saw the Vader/Leia scenes in an entirely different light. Ditto for the Obi-Wan/Luke introductory conversation. In the same way, observing the process by which Anakin became Vader and understanding how Palpatine seized control informs how we think about the rest of the story.

Prequel haters - those who disavow Episodes I, II, and III and make hyperbolic statements about George Lucas raping their childhood - represent a small but vocal minority of Star Wars fandom. (Some think their numbers are larger than they are but that's because they're the most active in on-line forums and chatrooms.) It's legitimate not to like the prequels but far from reasonable to be obnoxiously militant about it, especially since there are a lot of old school Star Wars fans who enjoy them. What's the most common sentiment I hear when talking to fans about the six movies?  "I like the prequels but not as much as the originals." Among younger Star Wars fans, it's commonplace for the prequels to be placed alongside (or even - gasp! - above) the original trilogy.  Those whose first exposure came through The Phantom Menace have a different perspective than those for whom it was A New Hope. Much as it pains me to admit this, my son thinks Jar-Jar Binks is hilarious. He's five years old. Give Lucas credit for being able to connect with kids.

I'll let the re-reviews speak for themselves. Each will include 1000+ words of new commentary and will link to the original reviews. I'm not "hiding" my earlier thoughts. There's no reason to. The Phantom Menace will be available in early September 2015. Attack of the Clones will follow later in the month. Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope will arrive in October, The Empire Strikes Back in November, and Return of the Jedi in (early) December.