Yes, they’re awful movies, but there are some great things about them that we should be able to acknowledge despite that.
1. The music. John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” is a terrific theme, as are its derivatives. Totally worthy of the series. The usage of the theme was even judicious, never becoming obnoxious.
2. The titles. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are great names, in full harmony with the original three–nostalgic, evocative, melodramatic. Too bad the content didn’t live up to the promise here.
3. The conspiracy. Many of us complain about the dull political tedium of the prequels, especially in Episode I, but closely linked to that is something that never gets the respect it deserves: the scope of Palpatine’s conspiracy. He had to have orchestrated this in minute detail decades before he even started executing it (think of how the clones were requested in advance). He had to play multiple sides of a conflict against each other. He had to send more than one side on wild goose chases. He had to schedule betrayals of his own cohorts. This really might be Hollywood’s best conspiracy story.
4. The Emperor. Speaking of Palpatine’s conspiracy, Ian McDiarmid’s performance in all three films is top notch. He commands a haunting, genuinely sinister presence. In a series renowned for its abysmal acting (*cough cough Hayden Christensen cough*), he supports the villainous side of the films almost single handedly.
5. The final battle. Except for that weird bit at the very end about having “the higher ground” (what?), the fight that the whole series worked up towards–the duel between Obi Wan and the newly-dubbed Darth Vader–was exactly what it should be. It was epic, fast-paced, painful, and intense. It was even shot well, with perfect angles and lighting (unlike the disappointing Obi Wan vs. General Grievous sequence). Even the Yoda vs. Sidious battle interspersed with it was solid.
Not much else went right in these three movies (although I’ve also always really loved the big underwater monsters in Episode I), but these five things, at least, should be remembered with a wee bit of grace.