Saturday, December 5, 2015
THE PHANTOM MENACE
With opening day for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS fast approaching, I've decided to go ahead and do a series of posts on the Star Wars prequels. This is an idea that I have been mulling around in my head for a while, and a number of people have told me that it is an idea that I should follow through on.
I do have some trepidation on writing these posts. I mean, what more can I say about these movies? In some ways, it is the equivalent of beating a dead horse. My brother Robert wrote a guest post on this blog (in April of this year) about the prequels, from the perspective of a parent. Robert's take on the series, as a father watching them with his children, is a rather enlightening and welcome change from the usual "The prequels suck" style of commentary.
There are many who consider THE PHANTOM MENACE a terrible film. But it is more disappointing than terrible? Could any Star Wars movie had lived up to the power of the original Sacred Trilogy? This calls into question whether the idea of having Star Wars prequel films to begin with was a good idea.
One of the reasons given for the creation of the Star Wars prequels is that George Lucas was so impressed by the use of CGI during the making of his TV series on Young Indiana Jones, and the use of it on JURASSIC PARK, that he felt now he could fully create his visions for the Star Wars Universe. I've also read that the real reason for the prequels was that in the early 1990s Lucasfilm as a company was stagnating. The Star Wars prequels were a way to keep the company's main property viable. Not only did Lucas start writing the prequels in the mid-1990s, an entire new Star Wars action figure line was produced by Kenner, and Lucasfilm re-released the original trilogy on home video, supposedly for the "last time".
The very thought of what happened in the Star Wars Universe before Luke Skywalker was born had been playground and water cooler fodder for over twenty years by the time THE PHANTOM MENACE was released in 1999. Everyone had their own theories on it....I certainly had mine. The imagination of one individual is far more powerful than anything you can put on the screen. No matter how THE PHANTOM MENACE turned out, it never would have lived up to the hopes and dreams of millions of fans (let this be a warning to all the folks desperately counting down the days till STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS). In a way George Lucas was competing with himself.
By deciding to do the prequels, Lucas also put himself in something of a box. There was only one way they could end--with things going bad. The climax was already known--the Galactic Republic was going to fall, along with the order of the Jedi Knights. The original STAR WARS was influenced by thousands of legends and tales from throughout human history. Most of these tales are really just a different way of saying the same thing--which is why STAR WARS has been accused by so many of being nothing more than a rip-off of various storytelling concepts. One thing that these tales have in common is that the main hero must achieve a goal, or set something right. A major problem with all the Star Wars prequels is that no matter what the heroes do, they are not solving a problem--they are just playing right into the hands of the future Emperor. It is a backward type of story telling, and one that is very hard to translate on screen.
This backward storytelling results in having a lot of Star Wars history "explained". As I mentioned before, most of the explanations did not live up to the imaginations of the fans. The danger in providing background on movie characters and ideas is that it could very easily wind up like telling someone how a magic trick is performed. Once you know the magic trick, you're not enchanted or impressed....you just say, "That's all it is??" It might seem a cool idea at first to see Boba Fett as a kid--but when you really do see a little Boba Fett up there on the big screen, adult Boba Fett doesn't seem so mythic after all.
The best example of "explaining the magic trick" in THE PHANTOM MENACE is the scene where Qui-Gon Jinn tests young Anakin Skywalker's blood for midi-chlorians. What the heck are midi-chlorians? We find out in the film that midi-chlorians are what makes someone intuitive to the Force--in other words, the more midi-chlorians one has, the more powerful in the Force that being will be. Anakin has more midi-chlorians than anyone else....we're even told he may have been conceived by them!
Now, up till THE PHANTOM MENACE I had always assumed that the Force was really a metaphor for a person's ability to believe in themselves, and to use that belief to achieve great things. Supposedly, according to the Original Trilogy, the Force could be found in "all living things". But after the revelation of the midi-chlorians, it appears that the Force isn't for everybody--you have to be born with it. This reduces the Jedi Knights to an elitist group of "pure-bloods" instead of an ancient order of heroes. Sadly, this is how the Jedi act throughout the entire prequel trilogy--they come off as arrogant hypocrites who are constantly saying they are not soldiers, while at the same time they are fighting everybody in sight.
Did George Lucas really want the Jedi to look bad in the prequels, to set up Anakin's fall from grace? Maybe, but the fact is the whole Galactic Republic doesn't look too appealing in THE PHANTOM MENACE. A system belonging to the Republic, Naboo, is under blockade due to some type of tax dispute with the Trade Federation (when the opening crawl of a Star Wars movie talks about taxation and trade routes, you know you're in trouble). The Republic's response to this is to send only two Jedi Knights (I know the Jedi are supposed to be bad dudes, but only two of 'em??) who are supposed to mediate the dispute. Naboo is a democratic planet that has elected a young teenage girl as its "Queen". (I have to say here that George Lucas' political beliefs have always fascinated me. He's apparently left of center, but he's also a billionaire who continually creates characters who have something to do with royalty and nobility). Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi arrive just as the Trade Federation is beginning its invasion of Naboo. The two Jedi run into Naboo native Jar Jar Binks, and the group eventually helps Queen Amidala escape the planet and the clutches of the Trade Federation. (During this sequence we are introduced to R2-D2, and as soon as he comes onscreen he starts saving everybody's behinds.)
We all know how beloved a figure Jar Jar Binks is among the geek community. Jar Jar was the result of George Lucas' obsession with having a fully-fledged CGI main character in his film. Jar Jar's characteristics come from the George Lucas idea of humor, which seems to be aimed at the level of an American fourth grader. The Lucas humor ruins all sorts of scenes in THE PHANTOM MENACE, and it would leave its goofy traces through the entire prequel trilogy. The Trade Federation leaders are also set up to be comic, and this would have great repercussions for the prequels. In the Original Trilogy, we have villains like Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. In the prequels, we get guys with fish faces who have generic "Foreign Bad Guy" voices. In other words, there's no danger to them...they just come off as pathetic. The Trade Federation relies on an army of robots who act just as goofy (the average bad guy droid has a Hanna-Barbera cartoon-like generic sci-fi voice). There's a rumor that the reason the Trade Federation has a droid army is because George Lucas wanted to have all sorts of battles, but he didn't want any blood or guts to go along with them. So....he created an army of robots, that way the heroes can destroy thousands of them and the movie can still get a PG rating.
The group of heroes wind up stranded on the backwater planet of Tatooine, where Qui-Gon makes the acquaintance of a young boy named Anakin Skywalker. Queen Amidala disguises as one of her handmaidens and goes by the name of Padme (if the Jedi are so wise, how come they didn't figure this out?). Anakin and her mother are slaves--but they seem to be very well off, since they have a decent place to live. Not only that, but Anakin is building a protocol droid (C-3PO of course) and he even has his own pod racer. If Lucas came up with the idea of Anakin being a slave to show where the boy's dark side comes from, it backfired....there's a lot of young kids that would probably trade places with Anakin. The Tatooine sequence in THE PHANTOM MENACE contains most of the movie's biggest problems.
For example....Qui-Gon is a Jedi Knight, and supposedly a very powerful one--but he gets himself stuck in a situation where his only recourse is to gamble on a ten-year kid to win a dangerous contest. I realize that the pod race is just a contrivance for Qui-Gon to take Anakin away from Tatooine, but it makes Qui-Gon look weak. How many of you, while watching THE PHANTOM MENACE, have felt the need to yell at the screen, "Just take the damn ship parts, Qui-Gon! You're a Jedi!!" It doesn't help matters that Qui-Gon tells Anakin, "I didn't come here to free slaves." What exactly are the Jedi supposed to do?? They can't interfere in this, they can't involve themselves in that....it's no wonder that Sith Lord Darth Maul is by far and away the most interesting character in THE PHANTOM MENACE.
Darth Maul is the apprentice of Darth Sidious, who is the real "phantom menace" behind the Trade Federation's decision to attack Naboo. Darth Sidious is actually Galactic Senator Palpatine, which 99.9% of all Star Wars fans figured out way before the movie opened. (It cracked me up how all the pre-publicity for THE PHANTOM MENACE tried to set up Darth Sidious as a mysterious figure.) We get no background at all on Darth Maul, which makes him an even more intriguing and charismatic being. Lucas wisely limits Maul's appearances in the film until the climax.
The pod race sequence is impressive....but like a lot of things in this movie it gets watered down by Lucas' attempts at humor, such as farting alien creatures and race announcers who sound like 20th Century American stand-up comics (great way to pull the audience out of the moment there, George). At the end of it, you still don't really buy into the idea that Anakin is somehow special.
Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin, gets a lot of blame for why the character is so bland. One of the major criticisms I kept hearing about him was, "He acts just like a kid!" Well, he was a kid. I've never been a big fan of child actors who act like adults....a kid in a movie or a TV show should act like a kid, not a wise-cracking 40 year old. I guess fans wanted Anakin to act more Vader-like. I don't really know how you can do that successfully with a little kid without it looking ridiculous. Lloyd isn't helped by the dialogue Lucas gave him, or the fact that he is supposed to be laying the foundation for a future romance with the much older Padme. I think the reason why Lucas didn't have little Anakin be more Vaderish is because Lucas was determined to get a PG rating (that determination, I believe, had a lot to do with how this movie turned out).
Anakin wins the race, the heroes get the parts they need for their ship, and they take off, just as Darth Maul is zeroing in on them. (One question: If Anakin had not won the race, what was the group going to do? Just sit around for a while?) The group heads to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic. The planet of Coruscant is one giant city, and its representation in THE PHANTOM MENACE is one of the highlights of the film--it is a prime example of how CGI should be used. The Jedi Temple is on Coruscant, and Qui-Gon takes Anakin there to go before the Jedi Council, whose members include Yoda and seemingly always pissed off Mace Windu. The Council turns down Qui-Gon's request to train the boy, the reason being that Anakin is "too dangerous". Once again, the Jedi wind up appearing badly....if Anakin really is dangerous, shouldn't they want to attempt to train him, or keep him within their control? Meanwhile, Queen Amidala appeals to the Galactic Senate in hopes that they will decide to come to the aid of Naboo. The Senate proves that politicians are alike everywhere by basically doing nothing. The Queen feels that she must go back to Naboo to help her people personally, and the Jedi Council send Qui-Gon and Obi-wan with her. Anakin tags along as well (Coruscant must not have many day-care options).
The climax of the film revolves around the Queen's plan to take back Naboo. The Queen goes to Jar Jar's people, the Gungans, for help (which means we have to put up with Jar Jar's antics during the final battle). The Gungans face off against the Trade Federation droid army in an all-CGI action sequence. Because Jar Jar, the Gungans, and the droid army have been portrayed for the most part as comic figures, the battle has no emotional resonance whatsoever (it's kind of like seeing The Three Stooges facing off against stereotypical Germans and Japanese in one of the comedy team's WWII shorts). The Queen attempts to get to the Palace to capture the Trade Federation leader, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan face off against Darth Maul in a lightsaber duel.
The Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber duel is without doubt the best part of THE PHANTOM MENACE. Backed by John Williams' stirring "Duel of the Fates" music, you can't help but get geeked up for it...and it's nice to finally have the Jedi duo actually do something (Obi-Wan, in particular, has a rather insignificant role in this film). Ray Park as Darth Maul shows his stuff here, and he makes such an impact that you're almost sorry to see him get killed by Obi-Wan. The death of Qui-Gon makes sense story wise, but it is a bit of a waste--the character could have been used in all sorts of unexpected ways for the future movies. (For example--what if Qui-Gon had lived, and sided with Anakin against the Jedi?)
While all this is going on, Anakin (along with R2-D2) inadvertently gets himself into a Naboo space fighter heading for the Trade Federation main battle ship. The space battle sequence is a mini-version of the Original Trilogy's Death Star battles...it's the old "We have to destroy the main power source of the facility" plan again. Through mostly dumb luck Anakin takes out the Trade Federation ship (all the while saying things like "Whoa!" and "Wow!"), and just like the pod race, you go away still not seeing Anakin as "The Chosen One".
The ending shows Qui-Gon's body on a funeral pyre (did Anakin give this idea to Luke before he died?). Obi-Wan promises to Anakin that he will train him to be a Jedi, Yoda and Mace Windu discuss whether there are more Sith Lords out there, as we get a close-up of Senator Palpatine's face (just in case anyone hasn't figured things out yet). We are then treated to a celebratory parade on Naboo, featuring a brigade of pimp-walking Gungans.
I saw THE PHANTOM MENACE on its opening day. My first reaction was "Uh...well....". I didn't all out hate it, but I knew that it wasn't the movie that I hoped it would be. The movie's idea that you have to be born as a Jedi, instead of being able to become one, struck me as wrong....just like the idea of Anakin being the result of an immaculate conception (you can imagine the jokes that sprung up over that one).
I watched the film again last week and my opinion on it hasn't changed much. I don't hate it or love it...I guess I'm lukewarm toward it. I'm a huge Liam Neeson fan, and he's stalwart as always in the role of Qui-Gon Jinn. An actor with a lesser screen presence would have made Qui-Gon look even weaker than he does in the script. It's not Neeson's fault that Qui-Gon comes off as a underwhelming character. Ewan McGregor does what he can with the young Obi-Wan, but his best moments are during the lightsaber duel. Natalie Portman as Padme is meant to remind viewers of Carrie Fisher (Portman even uses a fake English accent during her "Queen" scenes, just like Carrie sometimes did during the first STAR WARS film). The separation between the ages of Portman and Jake Lloyd do make their budding friendship somewhat uncomfortable, especially considering that their future romance winds up being the turning point in the entire Star Wars Universe.
The FX in the movie, like in all Star Wars movies is spectacular--perhaps too spectacular. The Original Trilogy had a "lived-in" used-technology look...and the environments of THE PHANTOM MENACE seem too new, too clean. One reason may be that this story is set during the time of the Galactic Republic, and the Original Trilogy is set during a time of war across the galaxy. But I think the abundance of CGI had to play a part. I also think George Lucas chose to give THE PHANTOM MENACE a spiffier look than the Original Trilogy.
Like all Star Wars films, THE PHANTOM MENACE moves fast (Lucas re-uses the multi-climax ending featured in RETURN OF THE JEDI). It's not boring....but I must say that it is nowhere near as entertaining as any entry in the Original Trilogy. The only character that grabs your attention is Darth Maul--the "good guys" are constrained due to the mechanics of the plot. The story is missing the excitable innocence of a Luke Skywalker, the feisty attitude of a Princess Leia, and the cool swagger of a Han Solo. This is a different Star Wars from the first three films. When Lucas does try to refer to the Original Trilogy in THE PHANTOM MENACE, it feels forced--such as the revelation that Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO, or the appearance of Jabba the Hutt at the pod race.
What hurts THE PHANTOM MENACE the most is that it feels like a kid's movie. I know some of you reading this will reply that all the Star Wars movies are kid's movies, but this one is definitely designed for the younger set. Re-watching it made me realize how much so-called "comedy" is in it. I'm not suggesting that all Star Wars movies should be 100% serious--the Original Trilogy had numerous laugh-getting moments--but in the Original Trilogy the comedy came from the situation, instead of the comedy being the situation.
No matter how THE PHANTOM MENACE had turned out, it would not have exceeded the expectations that so many people had for it. It may go down in history as a failure, but like a lot of presumed cinematic failures, it made a huge amount of money. For better or worse, George Lucas made the film he wanted to make. Star Wars fans can disparage Lucas over the prequels all they want, but the fact is it was his universe, not yours or mine.
The other two Star Wars prequel films are better than THE PHANTOM MENACE--but they also have several problems of their own, as we shall see.