It’s estimated (by me) that nearly 35 percent of all Internet content is comprised of people complaining about the Star Wars prequels, and with good cause. Even a decade after Revenge of the Sith put a bow on George Lucas’ computer-generated buzzkill, time still hasn’t healed all of those wounds or restored the countless childhoods that were retroactively ruined by The Flannelled One.
Still, the prequels aren't all Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd. There are some outstanding lightsaber battles for fans to feast their eyes on, and certain members of the cast — namely Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid — certainly try their best to rise above anything that was birthed from Lucas’ word processor. But despite those momentary glimpses of what could have been, nothing is consistently enjoyable across all three movies … except for the one person who never even shows up on the screen: composer John Williams.
As shoddy CGI, bland characters and confounding plots make the Star Wars prequels barely recognizable from the originals, Williams’ music is a comfort for fans. At the very least, these movies sound like Star Wars, and you can argue that the more memorable pieces — like “Duel of the Fates” from Episode I and “Battle of the Heroes” from Episode III — can easily stand toe-to-toe against “The Imperial March” any day.
Though it’s pretty much agreed that the prequels should have taken more cues from the originals in terms of tone and structure, Williams wasn't a slave to what came before. Instead of recycling and reintroducing older orchestral pieces for Episode I, the legendary composer went out of the franchise's comfort zone right from the start by bringing in a choir for the movie’s main piece “Duel of the Fates.”
The use of a choir is rare in the Star Wars universe — with "The Emperor's Theme" from Jedi being the other memorable one — but it's necessary for the type of grandeur the climactic lightsaber battle in the movie calls for. Instead of settling in for those familiar Star Wars horns and strings, fans are instantly greeted with a chorus that sounds like something ripped right out of an intergalactic church service, and Williams' ability to change tone and tempo at a moment's notice adds to the frenetic nature of the piece.
The big swashbuckling scores work well with the tone of the originals, but in this literal religious duel — the Jedi against the Sith — something more operatic paints the perfect picture.
Williams even manages to breathe some life into that corpse of a love story between Anakin and Padme from Attack of the Clones with the piece "Across the Stars." This is basically the prequel's answer to "Han Solo and the Princess" from Empire, but with a much grander scope. It's a sweeping love ballad that builds and builds to an emotional peak that actually makes you feel that their relationship — no matter how stilted it plays out on screen — is not only genuine, but has consequences for the entire galaxy.
It's a far better piece of music than the movie deserves, and it perfectly sums up Williams' ability to salvage at least some small moments before the rest of the movie crashes down around it. This is something that should be played in front of hundreds of tux-clad classical music snobs — not accompanying two actors so wooden that it's a wonder their on-screen embrace didn't result in a blaze.
The last main piece from the prequels is also its most bombastic: Revenge of the Sith's "Battle of the Heroes." For a lightsaber duel that would change the course of a friendship and a galaxy, Williams went as big as possible with pulsing strings, some vicious staccato brass and a callback to the memorable "Force Theme" from A New Hope.
Played during the final lightsaber showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin, "Battle of the Heroes" was, at the time, a send-off — not only for Anakin and Obi-Wan's relationship, but for the entire Star Wars saga. Again utilizing a choir, Williams makes this serve as a counterpoint to "Duel of the Fates," with "Battle of the Heroes" painting a much bleaker picture this time around.
There are moments when the piece gets a little too big, even for Star Wars' standards, but Williams always manages to pull back before it gets overbearing. By tying in music from both trilogies into this one piece, Williams thematically bridges the sagas in a way that the movies themselves seem incapable of doing at times.
Aside from these main pieces, there are countless musical cues throughout the prequels that Williams absolutely nails. Here are just a few of them: