Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Phantom Menace: A semi-critical viewing

Recently, I sat down to watch Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace again. It was kind of an experiment to see if my appreciation for aspects (though not all out love) of Episode III Revenge of the Sith might give me a different perspective on TPM (given my overwhelming and incredulous dissatisfaction with it up until now). The experience was an interesting one and I feel that I can safely say I passed the litmus test of fanaticism: I did NOT find myself retracting my detractions, I did NOT find myself gushing over any missed references nor did I see in it any sort of genius that I'd been blinded to the first time. In fact, I believe I saw much more clearly than before what was terribly wrong about it not only as a Star Wars film but as a film and story in general. I will admit that one new aspect intrigued me on this viewing and this was the character of Darth Maul. On this viewing I saw him as a much more mysterious figure whose origin was never to be revealed and who suggested a back story in which the rebirth of the Sith would have unfolded (unfortunately, I suspect that even this new-found interest came more from reading the expanded universe (EU) spin-offs published by Dark Horse comics rather than anything inherent in the film itself).

Another reason for watching it again was to see if I could, coming at it from an editor's perspective, find a way of taking TPM, and perhaps AOTC as well, and recut them, even if only into one film, perhaps shorter than feature length, that might be more satisfying and faithful to the Star Wars universe [more on this idea of being faithful to the Star Wars universe in a future post]. I thought this might be accomplished simply by eliminating most, if not all, references to Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans, even if this meant somehow cutting out the final battle at the end (or rather, if it meant definitely cutting out the final battle at the end!) as well as much of Anakin Skywalker's story (because it really isn't very interesting, nothing made us care about him as a character and the acting/directing/dialogue is pathetic). Shortly after Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan make their way to the surface of Naboo, this idea of recutting suffered a serious set back. I was amazed to see how it was as if intentionally made impossible by the sheer volume of screen time in which the despicable, unsympathetic Jar Jar stumbles across the frame, tripping on yet another conveniently placed CGI prop or character or droid, regardless of the emotional level of the scene and events happening around him (the most extreme example being the death of Qui-Gon Jin juxtaposed immediately with Jar Jar succeeding in battle unintentionally out of the virtue of his clumsiness!). It was as if he had been used as some diagetic watermark! Quite quickly I realised that any re-cut of this film would require so much removal of continuity editing that it would end up being something akin to a trailer or flashback requiring a voice over explaining something to the affect of "In the Old Republic, the Sith rose again secretly guided by a subtle plot to overthrow the Republic and the unsuspecting Jedi; and though the Jedi fought bravely little did they know they were unwittingly playing right into the hands of their enemy, helping the Sith destroy the very thing they sought to defend and protect!" accompanied by images of dueling and explosions and character close ups and little else. I still may try to do this recut someday, but only if I can find a way to do it so that it is still a story, even if just for my own personal satisfaction. The task does look to be a near impossible one however.

Before I really begin though, a general thought on the prequels: There are at least two ways to approach them (and either one, or even a mixture of both, can bear fruit): One, I would call the "Deal With It" approach in which one accepts that they cannot drastically alter "George's vision" and have to tweak the story and it's details within certain limits, more or less accepting and respecting the basic story outline (Anakin is found as a boy, Darth Sidious' plot is relatively the same, there is a trade federation blockade of a planet and an invasion of said planet is expected). With this approach one tries to simply "suggest" details that could have been left out or changed slightly to make the story stronger. An example might be admitting that, if the two Jedi escaping the Trade Federation cruiser must land on Naboo and they must meet a race of people that help them get to where they want to go, the race is not the Gungans and there is definitely no Jar Jar. The race they meet and befriend are interesting, exotic (not so humanized), believable and are perhaps even involved in a long smoldering conflict, now on hold, with the human Naboobians.

The second method is pretty much the opposite approach: a no-holds barred wish list, the "What if..." approach. This approach can take or leave as much as it wants from the prequels as they were made or, much more satisfyingly, completely scrap them if necessary and attempt to tell a tale that would have been, well, better and much more "Star Wars". Using both of these approaches is useful in coming to a better understanding of the SW universe. This approach is fueled by years of imagining the backstory to the OT and in many ways is a necessary antidote to save something that was very important to one's personal development since 1977.

So, without further ado, here is a list of several aspects of the film that did not work in my opinion and contributed to the unsuccessful attempt at this prequel story telling (and I'll flesh them out below):
1. Anakin Skywalker introduced as a child.
2. The "Virgin Birth" origins of Anakin.
3. Going back to Tatooine.
4. The Force explained.
5. Gungans are no Ewoks (and that really says something!).
6. Too many cutesy CGI characters for the sake of having a cutesy, CGI element in the film. Constantly.
7. The new aesthetic is too severely different, with too few references made to the aesthetic of the original SW universe.
8. C-3PO as a creation of Anakin/Vader's.
9. Ultimately, making what should have been happening in the background and affecting the characters lives (the political intrigue/manipulation/plot) as the foreground of the story and boring us to death as characters struggle to deal with official channels, senates and councils.
10. Allowing other characters to call Anakin "Annie". Not cool. No wonder he turned evil!
11. The Jedi Council with Yoda, i.e. Yoda being on Coruscant all the time rather than on Dagobah normally, Coruscant occasionally.
12. Anakin accidentally saving the day by pulling a Will Smith Independence Day type trick.
13. A battle between obviously CGI forces that we don't care about (goofy duck-billed platypus humanoids versus spindly, hobby horse-headed robots) on a CGI golf course.
14. Who is (are) the central characters/protagonists of this story?


1. Anakin Skywalker introduced as a child.

Was it necessary or was anything gained by introducing Anakin as a young boy? I am hard pressed to say yes to either question. If Lucas thought that by starting Anakin off as a child it would allow children watching the film to identify with him, then he did not understand what made Han and Luke, not to mention Vader, so inspiring as characters to kids in the 70's and 80's (and hopefully even today). These characters were adults. And what kid doesn't want to be an adult from time to time, commanding respect and being taken seriously, able to do all those cool things with gadgets and space ships the way adventurous adults do? They already identify with these characters so they don't need to be children-heroes. Just look at the superhero genre, not too many kid-heroes there either. If anything, the opposite reaction probably occurs or is at least risked, and not only amongst children but most definitely amongst the adults. Even if Anakin will eventually end up flying into a mission haphazardly and accidentally destroying the space station that saves the day, does anyone really want to be him? Does his life look appealing? Is his personality and bearing enviable? And then there is, of course, the practical problem of writing for, casting and directing a child actor such that they pull off a believable, sympathetic performance. With these two forces already working against him, I'm surprised that Lucas went for the idea at all. It also inevitably slows down the story, even with the inclusion of something like the podrace. It takes away options for high octane adventure when you have a kid tagging along, needing to do kid things, running at a certain pace, not possessing adult strength or experience (and, ultimately, not wanting to put him in any real danger for fear that one might get into trouble with censors and parents). His being introduced at such a young age also made the beginning of the love story between Padme and himself very flimsy and begged the question why the age difference between them didn't show more as the films progressed. Also, and this is truly very telling, as a child myself, I'd always imagined that Obi Wan and Anakin met when they were both roughly the same age, that Anakin was already an adult or young man, with a family perhaps, a much more Luke-type figure, with a career as a "navigator on a spice freighter", all of which made training him, like Luke, dangerous. This means that even as a 7 year old I recognized, without being able to put it into words, that adult characters offered up better possibilities for exciting stories than child characters could and that I myself wanted to experience this adult fantasy world and imagine myself in it! Didn't you? Just think, if Obi Wan had found Anakin as an adult, it would have immediately permitted us to jump right into action, to have Anakin demonstrate his natural Force abilities in combat in coming to the aide of new found friend(s). Something immediate and human would have been at stake, rather than a dispute with the Trade Federation and being inconvenienced by having to make a stop over on a planet we already know all too well from the OT (more on that below).

2. The "Virgin Birth" origins of Anakin.

Assuming that we have to live with Anakin being introduced to us as a child (the "Deal with it" approach), this aspect of his character's origin needed to have a point, and one that would be made clearer in this film alone so that it didn't just come off as some less-than-subtle metaphor for him being Christ-like (even if unintentionally). If, as is hinted at in ROTS (but more so in the novel adaptation), that Palpatine and his former master had something to do with Anakin's birth ("He could influence the midichlorians to create life"), attempting to create a potential, ultra-powerful candidate for the Dark Side, then that would have been interesting and made us watch him struggle with his origins, resisting them perhaps, ultimately, unsuccessfully. Instead, we just think we've segued into one of those gigantic Bible-story blockbusters from the 50's and that at any second Moses is going to come round the corner only to have his tablets knocked out of his hands by, who else, Jar Jar (whom we hope not even God could forgive!).

3. Going back to Tatooine:

This action shrank the Star Wars universe. It felt too convenient, and the universe too small. Planets we'd known before could have been included but should have been kept as background elements, mentioned and only visited/shown when the detail was inevitable, as in ROTS when they show Alderaan and Tatooine. This is a mistake he would repeat later with Chewbacca meeting Yoda in ROTS. Suddenly two characters from two different worlds are friends in the past? Why wasn't this mentioned? It comes off as forced and an afterthought. Ultimately, Anakin could have been found anywhere. The Lars family could have settled on Tatooine because they were hiding from Vader and sought a remote out of the way location. In my "what if" scenario, Anakin is actually found traveling in space, aboard a freighter, as a navigator, and stumbles into helping Kenobi who is losing a battle or on the run in the midst of an already ongoing Clone Wars (more on that in a future post).

4. The Force explained:

Did it ever cross anyone's mind, when watching the OT for all those years and years, what exactly, in scientific terms, was the nature of the Force? Did Lucas really think we were all holding our breath and hoping we'd find out in the prequels? Yoda and Ben's explanations seemed good enough for me as a kid and the word "midichlorian" wouldn't have added one iota to the strength of the concept (in fact, it does the opposite). If when Qui-Gon had met Anakin he had simply sensed the Force, rather than administering a blood test, I think the audience would have bought it (he is a Jedi after all and Force-sensitive). Then maybe we could have seen Anakin innocently using the Force in front of the Jedi, or maybe when he didn't think he was being watched. We would have then seen it demonstrated and had no need for running any blood tests. Again, if Qui-Gon had said, the Force is so strong in him, and maybe at some point almost collapsed in Anakin's presence, I think we would have got the point without hard-ish sci-fi getting in the way. Later, in ROTS, when Palpatine taunts Anakin with the notion that the midichlorians can be manipulated, we would have been fine with him saying that his master had found ways to use the Force to create or manipulate life and death. Again, we believed in the concept for 25 years without midichlorians, why wouldn't that kind of explanation work now?

5. Gungans are no Ewoks (and that really says something!):

I was always a closet admirer of the Ewoks (the ROTJ version and not those of any of the spin-off materials like those horrid made-for-TV movies or the cartoon). I mean, yes they are furry and cute, but they are believable, and courageous for fighting the good fight despite the odds against them. They speak a language we can't understand, they aren't simply humans in creature-guise (the way the Gungans are), they behave like stereotypical primitives, are, therefore, exotic and somewhat animal-like in their behaviour (Wicket sniffing, backing off from Leia's removal of her helmet and her offering of food). And even though cute they still want to fry up and eat our heroes. They also die in combat before our eyes as they come to the aide of the rebellion in battling the overwhelming forces of the Empire. The Gungans, on the other hand, possess none of these qualities. They are obviously meant to be silly rather than believable. We don't really see any of them die, and mourn, and in fact in the main battle at the end it's hard to see them as much more than the Republic's version of a droid army: completely expendable and anonymous.

6. Too many cutesy CGI characters, starts to look like a Bug's Life and Disney:

Yes, it is good that Lucas and company push the limits of current technology and software for creating special effects, but to turn Lucas' own words against him, uttered more than once during his more glorious past, SFX should never come before story and should only be there in service to the story. Another way to say this is that if you do not have a good story, no amount of SFX is going to cover it up and save it from its bad beginnings. He could have got seven hundred of the best writers today to help him with the script, thrown out 699 different versions and got another 700 writers' advice on the draft he picked. But instead, after having not written or produced much of anything in years, he locked himself away and wrote in a bubble, not even revealing drafts until preproduction was well under way. As far as the "cutesy" element, again, if it was for the kids, well, maybe it worked on some. For the time being. But it will not, therefore, have the staying power the OT did by allowing that even kids can find "serious" aliens inspiring to the imagination. I mean, the cantina scene anyone? As a kid, some of those aliens were terrifying, evil looking, inexplicable but all the same (or perhaps because of this) I wanted to know the story of every single one of those denizens (and I still do to this day!) and my imagination was fueled (leading to the purchase of hundreds of action figures even to this day!) Adults can't take too much of cutesy, however, because it screams "laugh at me" rather than "wonder and imagine", they tend to get turned off (as would some more story-saavy children I'm sure). Classic examples of how much this felt like a Disney sequence are the Gungan city or the pod race bits. About 95 percent of the pod racers looked like 3D versions of characters from Alice In Wonderland and the Gungans are one long "ewwww gross" joke that never gets funnier because it was never funny to begin with.

7. Change of aesthetic too severe, not enough references made to the aesthetic of the original SW universe:

Those sleek, detail-less ships the Naboobians flew were interesting, but they were not Star Wars. Yes, in 20 years (from the time of the TPM to ANH roughly), we could expect massive changes, and yet, the idea that the universe only gets a "lived in" look in those 20 years is ridiculous. The Old Republic is, well, old. And what's more, no new technology seems to get invented between these eras so what would be the big deal if the aesthetic didn't change much either? The residents of Tatooine keep the same building style, the Jedi keep their garb and Sidious keeps his robes. Nothing resembling a tie fighter or an x-wing would even start to show up until AOTC and only with ROTS did we start to feel we were really in the same universe (except for the lightsabres). The audience was already expected to swallow a much more slick film, SFX wise, with inevitably some new faces, wouldn't it have been smarter to stick to the "look" of the OT world a little more closely to give us a way in, to make us feel we'd really come home? And heck, it worked the first time? Why mess with a good thing?

8. C-3PO as a creation of Anakin/Vader's.

Lame. It falls under the category of making the SW universe and its details too intertwined/convenient/small. It takes away any of the mystery of the origins of the two droids. Ultimately, there's just no point to having it be him that does it, especially since C-3PO becomes less and less important, if he ever was, as the PT films go on. He looked like he'd just stumbled on the set in ROTS, waiting for the last line of Bail Organa's to have his memory erased.

9. Ultimately, making what should have been happening in the background and affecting the characters lives (the political intrigue/manipulation/plot) as the foreground of the story and boring us to death as characters struggle to deal with official channels, senates and councils:

Think of it this way: in ANH, we didn't need to see Palpatine as the Emperor dissolving the Imperial Senate, nor see scenes in which characters hear whispers of the construction of a planet sized battle station. The story is told from the perspective of little people with big destinies, not from former Senators, bureaucrats and upper echelon types. Even Princess Leia is removed from her regal context and plunked down amongst a scoundrel and a farm boy. In TPM the obscure references to trade blockades and ongoing negotiations with Senators, as well as showing much of this, just weakens and waters down what is at stake. The Jedi are also mostly diplomatic figures, coming from the top of society, concerned with huge, overarching political disputes. The characters get put in harms way eventually, though it never really seems dire. It's all very "follow the Force and we'll see where we end up", rather than having clear and pressing goals. This entire back story was fine but should have been kept in the background. We should have arrived on the scene with a Jedi or two in pitched battle, in the midst of something big and not so subtle, like I said above, in the midst of the Clone Wars. My gut feeling is that the Clone Wars should have already been well under way and things were desperate and going badly for the Jedi. Though it is interesting that the Clones were good guys originally, maybe they could have been bad and the Jedi failed and fell into disrepute. Specifically, we could have met Obi Wan on a secret mission, operating more like he did in ANH, sneaking around, being much more stealthy when he meets Anakin by chance, whom he persuades to help, reluctantly, like a Han Solo type, but naturally attuned to the Force. We would have quickly picked up on the mood, the exegesis could have been handled through other ways worked into the main thrust of the characters plight.

10. Calling him "Annie":

I mean what would have been wrong with everyone calling him Anakin all the time? Would anyone have said, hey, why doesn't he get a shortened name like Obi Wan or Leia...I mean, okay, she didn't get called "Princess Leia" all the time, but that was her title not her name....Regardess, if he didn't have a shorter version of his name I doubt anyone would have noticed.

11. The Jedi Council including an ever present Yoda. Meaning: Yoda being on Coruscant all the time rather than on Dagobah normally, Coruscant occasionally:

This just would have made Yoda much more of a wise hermit type, in tune with the environment/nature/Force, like he seemed in ESB and ROTJ. Also, it's pretty obvious he was really designed for/suited to that planet when they came up with his character. I mean he's of the same colour scheme and his ears drip like moss from the trees. It would have made an appearance on Coruscant all the more special if Yoda had to be summoned to come visit or sensed something and arrived unexpectedly, this ancient Jedi Master, to help decide what course of action to take. Or, alternatively, Anakin was brought to him by Obi Wan for advice and Anakin was made to watch from a distance as the two discussed him, and he sensed that he was not fully trusted and this caused resentment to build up in him early on.

12. Anakin accidentally saving the day:

If Anakin has to be kept as a child character, he should have been much more in the background, his story could have been more fully developed in Ep II and III. The film could have been much more about Obi-wan for example. Or, he could have done something actually heroic instead of just blundering into something and accidentally pushing buttons and going whoa! whoa! A lot. This is why I feel strongly that Anakin should have been an adult when found. The climax of Ep I could have then been a great opportunity to show him as a willful, skilled pilot coming to the rescue of everyone, much as Luke did in ANH, though perhaps with more of a hint of recklessness and maybe even aggression/anger. And of course, the final battle needed to be much more intense and interesting than taking out a central server (besides, what a horrendous design flaw for the separatists! I mean, a built-in Achilles heal? Surly such weaknesses would have been weeded out thousands of years before given that technology in this universe is not only centuries but millenia old!) Whatever the adult Anakin would have fought against and destroyed, it should have had the same in thematic importance as the Death Star was to ANH, which, though seemed a huge victory at the time, was really just a temporary one until the Emperor himself was taken out of the picture.

13: A battle between obviously CGI forces that we don't care about (goofy duck billed platypus-people versus spindly, hobby horse-headed robots).

If we don't care about any of those characters we see up there fighting and if some seem to be having too much fun doing or not doing it, we have no emotional involvement with the scene. Add to this the fact that we have no idea where that battle is taking place, we see no one in harms way that didn't walk right up to harm and turn on some lame dinosaur powered shields that repel fast but not slow things and the villains aren't even threatening, well, again, who cares!?

14. Who is (are) the central characters/protagonists of this story?

Is it Obi-Wan? Qui-Gon? Padme? Anakin? None seem to really go through any big changes, except Qui-Gon since he dies and Obi-Wan for witnessing it. Even then, Kenobi doesn't seem all that changed for having been there. Anakin seems to be very adamantly set in his ways for a kid and seems just as set in them by the end (again, because he was a child character and written badly). Padme, well, nothing much there either. In fact, just because the OT worked with a tightly knit ensemble cast, did Lucas really think that just having an ensemble cast would work again without actually figuring out why it worked in the first place? There was no love interest to cause tension between the protagonists. They all seemed to have similar motives, all wanting to help the Republic, no questions asked. Who was the hero? Not Anakin and not Jar Jar, not really, unless bumbling your way through something and squeaking by passes for heroism in the Old Republic. The more I watch it the more I feel it should have been Obi-Wan's movie or Qui-Gon's but even then they would have had to have something really at stake that they were working to resolve.

So that was probably too easy, Ep I being such an easy target, but I had to start somewhere. I want to write more specifically on smaller topics but just when I was trying to get this going I decided to watch TPM again and, well, this came out. What I think I am going to do is start a running draft of an outline or script of my alternate version of the prequel story, coming at it pretty much from the "What if..." approach, inspired by both what Lucas has offered up but much more from my own childhood-til-now musings on the backstory hinted at in the OT. I'll start it as a post and then maybe update it as time goes on, if I can sustain interest. I'll also work at linking it on the sidebar so it can be found easily.


Blogger Blog Monkey said...

interesting. you have put a lot of time and thought into this, i see.

time and thought best left to grooming albeit, but impressive nonetheless.

9:10 AM  

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