It's common knowledge amongst many Star Wars fans that most moviegoers and film critics found ' Star Wars prequels to be underwhelming, with little (if any) redeeming qualities as a trilogy whose purpose was to showcase the backstory of cherished characters from the original Star Wars films. While there are countless articles, videos, and documentaries that debate what really was the issue with George's vision for the prequels, most content that I've come across seem to peg significant blame on The Phantom Menace as the catalyst for all that went wrong. That’s only natural, of course, since Episode I was the film which had the burden of getting the prequel trilogy machine moving. In retrospect, I feel as if the unfortunate title was like a bad omen.
In my own thoughts, the convoluted mess of a story that was present in The Phantom Menace was ultimately its downfall, which also determined the miscasting of characters, and as a result, a mediocre film was produced that was panned by critics and fans alike. Could the reaction have been more positive if the characters and casting were significantly revised? I’d like to think so. After all, it’s the characters and the actors who portray them that drive a film. I’m writing this article as an exercise of the “what if” scenario regarding the characters of Episode I, because if there’s any property that can be easily targeted by “what ifs”, it’s the Star Wars franchise.
The above Star Wars poster I’ve Photoshopped showcases a “what if” recasting and other such changes that I’m certain would have had a significant impact. You can view a bigger version of the poster here. Below is a breakdown of the revised core cast for this alternate version of Episode I, with comparisons to their ‘Phantom Menace’ counterparts. Note: I’ve made the casting relevant to the year 1997 (when Episode I began shooting), so keep that in mind.
Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi
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I know most people have praised Ewan’s portrayal of one of the most beloved characters in Star Wars lore, but honestly, I feel like Lucas casted Obi-Wan a bit too young to start off the prequel trilogy. Ewan also lacked the kind of alpha male bravado I’d expect a younger Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan would have had. I’ve said for years now that a more seasoned Obi-Wan, preferably one in his early to mid-thirties who was an already well established Jedi Knight, would have made for a much more riveting character for the audience to follow in Episode I, e.g., the kind of individual with a reputation of being brash and imprudent, but still honorable and well respected.
Russell Crowe would have been 32 or 33 at the time of Episode I’s filming, and I think his rugged and masculine appearance combined with his gentle nature certainly would have made for a much better take on the character. Casting Crowe would also mean that Obi-Wan would not be relegated to a supporting character. A lot of criticism was given to Episode I regarding Obi-Wan’s role in the film; he hardly did anything of importance and was merely in the background of the story. Had this change been what happened, we would have seen a much more proactive Obi-Wan from the start. Basically, everything Qui-Gon did in The Phantom Menace? That should have been Obi-Wan.
Lastly, here’s something interesting. I came across an early concept rendering of Obi-Wan from Episode I that looked similar to Russell Crowe, which you can see below:
Is it just me, or is there a resemblance in this drawing? You be the judge.
Owen (Qui-Gon) Kenobi
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Right about now I’m sure you’re saying something to the effect of “Wait, what? Qui-Gon Jinn is Uncle Owen…. and Obi-Wan’s Brother?!” It’s a significant change to two characters of the prequel trilogy, and the over-arcing story as whole, but it’s a change that would have made so much sense. Owen’s character deserved better than what we got in the prequel trilogy, and Joel Edgerton was severely underused. I felt Qui-Gon was a completely unnecessary creation (for reasons mentioned with how Obi-Wan should have been handled above) and that Liam Neeson looked hilariously out of place trying to convey a clueless character. It’s for these reasons I’m adamant that Owen should have been a co-lead in the prequels. For the ultra nerds out there you probably know this, but for those who don’t know, in early printings of the novelization for Return of the Jedi, there’s a bit where Obi-Wan explains to Luke why he was taken to Tatooine to stay with who we know as Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Here’s the passage I’m referring to, verbatim:
"Your mother and I knew he would find out eventually, but we wanted to keep you both as safe as possible, for as long as possible. So I took you to live with my brother Owen, on Tatooine..."
―Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker in the Return of the Jedi novelization
Owen’s character would essentially be like the padawan Obi-Wan in his early twenties during The Phantom Menace, with the difference being he’d be fresh out the academy after achieving Knighthood, shadowing his elder brother on various missions for the duration of Episode I. Changing Owen to be Obi-Wan’s younger brother does a few things to the character which I think would have made the prequel trilogy’s story much more dynamic, and would have retroactively made every scene Owen was in during Episode IV: A New Hope that much more powerful and emotional. Some examples of what I mean? This character change enables there to be tension and family drama within the core protagonists. In A New Hope, it’s clear that Obi-Wan and Owen didn’t see eye to eye when it came to the Skywalker family; wouldn’t it have been great to see the Obi-Wan and Owen getting under each other’s skin? Possibly even flirting with the Dark Side during heated arguments? And establishing Owen as a significant character in the prequels would have allowed us to explore his relationship with Anakin as well, something we were unfortunately deprived of.
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I think almost everyone can agree that Natalie Portman didn’t bring her “A” game to the prequels. Her performances came off wooden, deadpan, and almost lifeless even. I think it’s safe to say that Portman’s lack of enthusiasm could be attributed to Lucas not giving her proper direction. Either way, the actress in question really wasn’t the biggest issue, it was the actual writing of the character, but because I think Natalie Portman doesn’t suit sci-fi fantasy, I feel like Rose Byrne would have been far superior for this role. Stop and consider how much better of an actress Byrne was compared to Portman in the short screen time she had in Attack of the Clones...that says a lot, yeah?
As we know from the prequels, Padme starts off as the 14-year-old Queen of Naboo, who was elected into that position; she wasn’t a queen by birthright. How stupid is that. I honestly don’t know what George was thinking, but the perfect solution for the the character who would be Anakin’s love interest and Luke and Leia’s mother was blindingly obvious: Padme should have immediately started out as the young (in her early twenties) Queen of Alderaan; leader of the people by right of royal bloodline. This change immediately gets rid of the ridiculous Naboo handmaiden decoy subplot, verifies Princess Leia’s heritage from Episode IV in a logical and sensible way, makes for an interesting plot point as to how Anakin and her end up together, and gives Star Wars fans a chance to explore the beautiful and lush landscapes of of Alderaan before it gets blown up, offering up a bit of sentimentality, something that was woefully absent from the prequels in my opinion. I mean really, instead of heart-churning sentiment, we got Lucas’ self-indulgent fanservice.
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The unfortunate reality we live in where the most pivotal role in the Star Wars universe was sullied by both the casting and the writing of the character in The Phantom Menace is what I think a majority of Star Wars fans hate the most about the prequels. I honestly believe this was the single, greatest mistake that George made; everything else about the prequel films could have been sub-par or mediocre. If Lucas had to get one thing right to satisfy all the fans, it was the origin of Darth Vader… and boy did he blow it. In epic fashion I might add. Even when I was 13, I thought the idea of having Darth Vader start off as a child in Episode I was a dumb idea. My opinion then was further embellished and validated with Jake Lloyd’s horrible, horrible performance. How could this utter catastrophe have been avoided? Easily, that’s how.
What if Episode I introduced Anakin to audiences as a cocky, but devilishly charismatic young man around 20 years old, and not as some lowly slave boy, but as an orphan turned smuggler, well known among gangsters, hoodlums, and criminals across the galaxy for his uncanny piloting skills but who also happens to exhibit a Robin Hood-esque archetype? Sounds like a fun, engaging character right? Kind of like a certain nerf herder from the original trilogy? The prequels were lacking a lot of things, but if there’s one thing it really needed, it was a co-lead protagonist who shared similar characteristics to Han Solo. Everyone was so boring in the prequels, especially Anakin, and the films (especially The Phantom Menace) definitely suffered for it.
For the longest time, I felt that Heath Ledger, God rest his soul, was the prototypical roguish type who would have been the perfect actor to start a new Star Wars franchise with as Anakin Skywalker. He was young then, around 18 or 19 at the time when Episode I began shooting, which would have been perfect as Rose Byrne was about the same age right around that time as well, so the love story between Anakin and Padme wouldn’t have been terribly awkward like it was in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Heath also had something that I thought Hayden Christensen lacked… the right voice for when Anakin would succumb to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.
Casting Anakin older would have enabled several other positive changes for the prequels, e.g., we’d grow with Heath as Anakin over the course of all three prequels instead of having to deal with the jarring transition from annoying 9-year old, to the angsty teenager that we were given. Going off that notion, we’d also get a consistent, well-rounded cast of co-leads that could have been used to provide greater character interaction and development. The prequels, especially Episode I, really lacked character dynamic. Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, and Owen could have been the equivalent of the A New Hope’s protagonist core of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie. What a terribly missed opportunity.
So there you have it. Do you think these character changes would have provided a stronger foundation and made enough difference to build a better Episode I? Or maybe you had something else in mind? Either way, I could go on and on and into further detail regarding how I could forge a narrative using these 4 characters I’ve detailed, but I’d rather have a good discussion. Sound off in the comments below, as I’d love to hear what other ways you think Episode I could have garnered a more positive reaction.