It’s chic to slag the prequels. For good reason: They look incredible, but they’re just not as fun, witty or captivating as Episodes 4 and 5. But admit it. “Return of the Jedi” aka Episode 6 is overlong, repeats the Death Star sequence with 25 percent of the excitement and ends with dancing teddy bears. Luke is boring. When we finally see Darth Vader’s head, it looks like your thumb after you’ve been in the tub for an hour. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
Here’s a controversial assertion: Episode 2 is better than the last movie in the original trilogy. Heresy! Perhaps. But there are so many interesting things in the movie that you have to check to see if they were all in the same movie. They are. Consider what it provides.
Coruscant culture. Most of the original trilogy took place on backwater worlds; the only look we got at the Empire’s home planet was the end of Episode 6, and even then we had to wait for the special editions. Episode 1 showed the planet-city of Coruscant — swiped entirely from Trantor in Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy, but never mind. Tall towers and “Jetson”-esque lines of skycars. Episode 2, however, got down on the streets, in the bars, and you got a glimpse of the Republic’s society, complete with televised sports and ads. It was an inhabited world full of people going about their lives, and probably unable to pick out Yoda from a lineup of small green gourds.
Dad Fett. Learning that Boba Fett looked like a kid in a mid-’70s grape juice commercial was a disappointment, but at least we got to meet his hard-case dad. Mr. Fett Sr. had a workingman’s dignity, and he was certainly more of an adult than Han Solo. The chase through the asteroids had one of the movie’s best sound effects: the Seismic Grenade, which thwanged like the biggest electric bass string in the galaxy. Of course, we shouldn’t have heard it at all, since sound doesn’t travel in space, but when you hear something like that and feel it in your bones and your fillings, who cares?
Bonus: Fett père had a flamethrower on his wrist, because it was cool. His ship is a matter of taste; still think it looks like a flying shoe. It’s somewhat pathetic to learn that his son was still driving it around 20 years later. The bounty-hunter business wasn’t that great, it seems.
The Cloning Factory Planet. Beautiful design, with elegant aliens who looked like highly evolved Q-tips.
The Arena battle. A throwback, or homage, or out-and-out swipe from sci-fi FX pioneer Ray Harryhausen’s great stop-motion monsters. The score is one of John Williams’ most muscular workouts, pounding and thundering and leaping along with the beasties and Jedis. Hoorah for the Cavalry at the end, even if they did get slaughtered. For most movies, this would be the climax — but they went straight from that exhausting display to …
The Battle of Geonosis. The Grand Army of the Republic is deployed, and the clones have not yet degraded through endless replication, so they can actually aim. The number and variety of military vehicles are geek-dream stuff, and most aren’t on-screen long enough for you to critique their implausibility. From the sweeping aerial shots to the kinetic ground-battle sequences with shaky POV scenes from the troops’ perspective, it’s exactly what everyone expected from Episode 1, instead of amphibians vs. duck-billed robots who said “Roger roger.” Plus, Yoda stomps around like some stumpy Churchill, directing the carnage.
There. All of that is true. And too kind. The battle sequence is constantly undermined by cutting back to the nasty insects handing off the Death Star plans to Dukoo; the Arena battle — swords vs. bullets, more or less, and about as plausible — has a wince-inducing comic subplot with C-3PO’s head stuck on a battle droid. The Coruscant sequence is overlong and preposterous, what with all the jumping out of cars 100 stories in the air. Even that would work if it weren’t for the dialogue, which is like listening to an endless series of lead pipes roll down stairs.
Samuel L. Jackson’s main job: Frown. Christopher Lee’s motivation: Get through the lines without laughing. Hayden Christensen still behaves like a constipated jerk who mopes around because Dad won’t pay to have the Porsche detailed twice a week. Natalie Portman does her best not to display any inner turmoil over sleeping with someone she knew when she was a teen and he was in grade school, and who grew up to be a guy with a rattail hairstyle who slaughtered women and children and has father issues with his mentor.
Perhaps that was all in the back of your head the first time, and you stifled it for the sake of actually enjoying the movie. It’s easier to enjoy than Episode 1. There are innumerable scenes of beauty and fascination, thanks to the artists of ILM. The closing shot of the fleet lifting off Coruscant, with the limitless clones marching into troop ships, grabs the same nerve you felt sing when you saw the original show. It left you wanting to see what happened next. Surely the next one would be awesome. Surely that would be worthy of the first trilogy.
It wasn’t, but now we can stake our hopes on “The Force Awakens.” Seventh time’s the charm!