Well, I think ATOC is the weakest of the PT. But that said, I think all of the PT are pretty awesome movies. They are nowhere near as good at the OT, but they stand far above a lot of the crap out there. There are quite a number of great SF movies that I would place on the scale between the OT and PT. Blade Runner, Stargate, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and others. There are ones I like that I would put below the PT.
I think that the PT are fundamentally different from the OT and I think that should have been more expected and accepted by fans. Sometimes I feel like the fans were expecting the Clone Wars and forgot that the PT wan’t going to be about the best of Anakin, but about the fall of the Republic, the fall of Anakin, Obi-wan, and end with the birth of Anakin’s children. The fall of the Republic is about politics. GL based it on the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. In the PT we have stepped back to an older era and I feel that GL let older movies inspire him. Watch TCM for a week and you’ll see what I mean.
I seriously wonder why people would complain about Anakin’s sand line. Sand is insidious stuff, especially in a desert. GL had personal experience with this in the SW, ROTJ, and TPM shoots. According to several sources, including Mike Verta, there is some serious dirt in the scenes shot in Tunesia. Sand gets everywhere and it is hard to get rid of it. Padme mentions the beach and Anakin instantly thinks of sand. To me that line is very organic and natural.
And let’s be clear. GL had a horrible task in the PT. Take the most iconic film villain of the 20th century and make him a somewhat likable character but with enough flaws so you can see why he fell to the Dark Side. I think he accomplished that. Does it make for a great screen character? No, absolutely not. Anakin is written to fail. That is a hard task. You have to walk the line between writing a likable character and the honest backstory of a great villain. How to you make the audience sympathize with him as you reveal how he became Darth Vader. Did GL do the greatest job? No, but he made 3 very successful movies that took the title of highest grossing movie away from Star Wars and those that had taken the title from it over the years. Bet of all, Eps 5, 6, 1, 2, and 3 are technically independent movies. They were all funded by the merchandising and side businesses that were born of Star Wars. Quite a brilliant move.
I think Lucas’s biggest mistake was directing AOTC and ROTS. Directing is not his greatest strength. He could also use some help with writing. And admittedly he had some unofficial help with Star Wars. I’ve read all the early drafts of the script and somewhere in the editing process is where the genius of the original movie was born. I think that is missing in the PT. In the OT, he had some genius help. Leigh Bracket and Irving Kershner is what made TESB so brilliant. He had no such help with the PT. For Star Wars he had Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola and his other early film friends checking his work. I think he relied too much on himself for the others and tried to stick to the pattern that worked, but it didn’t work as well. It worked financially, but it was not what many fans were expecting. At least not until Ep 3. But then we get the complaints that Anakin’s fall is not believable. I disagree with that. Watch it again. Palpatine catches him at a vulnerable moment after Mace Windu dies and does something to him to seal his final fall. He goes from saving Palpatine from Mace to killing younglings in a short span of time, but he was open to the change or it never could have happened. But if you watch that scene carefully, Anakin has no choice, he is turned by Palpatine using the force.
I think most complaints about the PT are justified. It could be made better with just a bit of editing. I personally hate the droid factory sequence (especially the part with C-3PO) and consider it the worst scene in any Star Wars movie. But I think too many fans ask too much of the Prequels. What we got was something good and what we wanted was the old magic back. I don’t think we will ever get that old magic back. If we could mine the archives and pull out other takes and go in and do some serious tweaking, I think the films could be what they were intended to be, but some of the complaints are about the inherent part of the story that can’t be edited out. The PT is really about Palpatine’s secret climb to power and how he dealt with those who stood in his way and manipulated others to his side. The characters we know from the OT were really just along for the ride.
The state of the Jedi Order is also very deliberate. GL is showing us how their inability to bend or see the obvious is what lead to their downfall. Anakin’s fate could have been different had the Jedi not been so bound by tradition. (Anakin being too old for training - not contemplating that a Jedi could fall in love - etc) Yoda is the best of a bad lot. I think Mace Windu is indicative of just what the Jedi had become. Tradition over justice. The Jedi we see are flawed. In the OT, Obi-wan blames himself for Anakin’s fall, but we learn that it was inevitable because the Jedi could not see that Palpatine was the Sith Lord and Palpatine had been Anakin’s friend and adviser since he arrived on Coruscant. The Jedi only tell Anakin what not to do. They never advise him on how to deal with his feelings, they just keep telling him to not have any. That works when you raise someone from early childhood in the order, but it didn’t work for Anakin.
While I find some of he dialog old fashioned (which I think was deliberate to give us the feel of an older time - which I think was derived from watching movies made in the 30’s and 40’s rather than just those set in the 30’s and 40’s), I find the story to be fascinating and brilliant. If you expected the PT to be just like the OT, you were going to be disappointed. If you went in expecting to see a past revealed you stood a better chance of liking the movies. I have tried from the beginning to see what GL was trying to do and judged him on that. I think he created a brilliant trilogy that could have used some outside input for dialog writing and directing, but I think he nailed the rest of it. Of course the one flaw I do see with what he did was he was too eager to let his imagination run wild, which was not always a good thing. I think the OT benefited from the technology hindrance he claimed to be operating under.
So I find myself agreeing with many of the complaints, but thinking that you are blowing the issue out of proportion. One of the things I found about Anakin is that if you use your imagination and substitute James Earl Jones’s voice you find that Hayden was speaking like Jones and the lines just come off terrible because of the voice, not the acting. Anakin comes off sounding whiny and immature whereas Vader would sound menacing. Doesn’t work for every line, but works for most, especially when Anakin is falling.
AOTC is the worst of the weaker trilogy. But the Saga as a whole is fantastic and tells a brilliant story of how things crumbled from the top and are restored from the bottom. While TFA may have great characters and dialog, I find the story to be weak and lacking any of the Brilliance of GL’s storytelling. The scenes are far superior to the PT, but the overall movie fails to create a story that can compare even to AOTC. It is still a great movie, but TFA isn’t as great.
I agree with most of what you said, but I think that The Phantom Menace was far worse than Attack of the Clones. I personally always liked the droid factory scene.