While it’s definitely popular to hate on the Star Wars prequels, not all of the vitriol of warranted. The prequels featured genius foreshadowing, some of the casting is amazing, the idea behind the overarching story is well-researched and subversive, and the creative team didn’t try to create remakes of the original trilogy (unlike other films out there).
But those who hate the prequel trilogy have many valid points to back up their claims. Aside from the acting and writing, one of the biggest complaints is, despite the fact the films were made with newer technology, they somehow look dated as compared to their predecessors.
So what behind the scenes reasons are there for why the VFX hasn’t aged as well as it could have? Why do the props pale in comparison to those in films with worse technology and much smaller budgets? There’s no simple answer, but if you’re curious to find out, check out the list below.
Lackluster Special Effects Made Poor Performances Even Less Believable
It’s easy to blame Natalie Portman or Hayden Christensen for subpar performances but the situation was far more complex than a perceived lack of talent. Many of the actors were essentially stuck in a room with four blue walls and told to act like they were on a normal set; that’s incredibly hard, even for the most experienced thespians.
Actors need things to play off of and they simply didn’t have them. What resulted is some very confused and stunted performances from Oscar-winning performers.
CGI Characters Have Not Aged Well
Back when making the original trilogy, Lucas famously said that special effects should serve the story rather than be the story. Well, the prequel trilogy often took the opposite approach. Many sequences feature shots that feature CGI characters or effects shots that simply contribute nothing to the story. That meant the movies tended to be a bit bloated.
Writing aside, Jar Jar Binks gets worse every year. While it’s laudable that Lucas decided to pioneer the use of completely CGI characters in his films, the technology just wasn’t quite there – especially in the first two prequels as Jar Jar almost looks transparent in some of his scenes. Facial expressions are lacking when compared with other films such as Avatar or the new Planet of the Apes films. It’s a side effect of being the first major attempt at using the technology, but it ages the films nonetheless.
Background Compositing Is Awkward
One of the trickiest elements with blue screen is melding it with everything in the foreground. At its best, the audience won’t even notice it was there. At worst, it looks like an awkward floating painting behind a pair of badly shot actors.
While the prequels are by no means a disaster, there are times when the background composition just doesn’t come together. At times, audiences are aware the characters are standing in front of a green screen, and it just completely takes you out of the film.
Shots Lack Depth
Because many of the shots featured actors standing in front of a green screen, the camera often lacked points in the foreground and background that gave the image a three-dimensional quality. If you look at The Empire Strikes Back, it features sets that were specifically built to make them feel bigger than they really were; they feature points that draw your attention using forced perspective and camera focus. The Star Wars prequels simply lack that quality, which results in a very flat image.
Everything Real Stood Out
Because a vast majority of the world in the prequels is constructed using CGI, real elements tend to stand out. When characters were on location or in a set that didn’t involve some painted vista, it actually took you out of the film because it felt like a completely different movie.
It’s almost as if your eye got so used to computer-generated landscapes that it forgot how to register anything tangible. As the original trilogy used models, real sets, and even hand-crafted paintings to create its world, it all formed a cohesive whole.
Everything Is Too Clean
One of smartest decisions George Lucas made with the original movie was to give the universe a lived-in feel. It instantly stood out from all the shiny and pastel-colored sci-fi flicks of the era and would become the style to beat within the genre for decades to come.
When it came to the prequels, however, that lived-in aesthetic gave way to spotless shine and idealism locations. We understand that the prequels took place in a more civilized time, but the clean CGI sheen makes the image look fake as compared to the slapdash feel of the originals.
The Lighting Is Flat
When you have real sets and real characters standing in them, a good cinematographer has all the elements they need to light a scene. The problem with the prequels is that they mostly just featured actors standing in a seat of flat green with little idea what was being painted in around them. Therefore, they had no idea how to light the scene. As a result, they went with flat lightingthat never really enhanced the atmosphere, the character, or the story.
CGI Gave Lucas Too Much Freedom
When you’re given the means and the resources to do whatever you want to tell your story, sometimes it can be intoxicating. But just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, no one really asked if every sequence serves the story because there’s a lot of extraneous stuff in the prequels.
The Coruscant speeder chase, Qui-Gon’s duel with Darth Maul on Tatooine, and pretty much the entirety of General Grievous’s character did little to service the plot of characters in those films, despite the impressive technical wizardry behind them. Meanwhile, the action sequences in the original films always impact the plot or characters in some way, which is why they’re so meaningful.
The Worldbuilding Is Less Believable
Tatooine, Hoth, Bespin, and Endor were the main worlds in the original trilogy. While they each technically had only one echo system, it wasn’t a tough sell for an audience to believe in an ice world or a desert planet. When the prequels brought new types of planets into the mix, however, believability was hindered. The prequels boasted a city planet, a sinkhole planet, and even a fungus planet. While those are undeniably cool… they also don’t make a ton of sense.
Cameras Only Shot In HD
George Lucas broke through a technological brick wall when he ditched film in favor of digital camera. While shooting in digital is the standard today, that was a very bold move back in 2002. The problem is that digital cameras today can shoot at incredibly high resolutions… while Episode II and III were not. So, while the original trilogy could have 4K versions released, the prequels likely wouldn’t look very good at such high resolutions.
Lightsabers Lacked Character
The original lightsaber props were made on a shoestring budget. They were constructed with everything from old camera flash parts to pieces of grenades. That scrounged quality to the props gave them a feeling of authenticity like they had history behind them.
The lightsabers in the prequels, on the other hand, were all machine made. They feel clean and manufactured, because they were. There’s little feeling of history there which makes the universe feel that much smaller.
Clonetroopers Look Awkward Compared To Stormtroopers
The stormtroopers in the original trilogy are universally recognizable. Their white armor and filtered voices made them a nameless legion that represented the Empire’s faceless strength. The clonetroopers, however, are well-designed but very awkward in how they move. The reason for this is that Lucas decided to make them all CGI, thinking it would be easier.
Sure, they’d all have to be the same build and height, but instead of finding guys with the same frame, they just made computer creations that interact awkwardly.