In which we find out what was wrong with The Phantom Menace... like you didn’t already know…
Examinations of what went wrong with George Lucas’ return to Star Wars have been done better, and in greater detail, elsewhere. Here’s my two galactic credits’ worth on the subject, anyway:
:: Anakin Skywalker: It doesn’t work to show this character as a child. Jake Lloyd’s performance isn’t very good, but then we must remember he was primary school age. When a little kid misbehaves in public, you might be angry at him on a superficial level, but ultimately he is the responsibility of his parents. In Jake Lloyd’s case, we must blame the man who cast him, and the man who thought it would be a good idea to make the nascent Darth Vader a wee boy. We just never engage with the kid.
What they should have done: Make Anakin about 19-20, like Luke was in the original Star Wars. Except that instead of having him as a whiny teen, make him an Errol Flynn type, the bad boy on the block, a brawler and a troublemaker, desperate to get off Tattooine and make something of himself. His bravery and skill would draw the Jedi’s attention… and that of the hidden Sith. There would be a natural contrast with the stuffy, somewhat arch Obi-Wan which would come to a natural conclusion. Confidence would turn to arrogance, and then darker still… that’s someone we could see becoming Darth Vader, alright.
He should have been old enough to not only form a bond with Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala, but also to ruffle her headdress feathers a wee bit. Perhaps here they could have followed a template to better ends – taking in Han and Leia, and their initial antagonism, turning to something else.
Anakin and Amidala have to fall in love at some point; there’s absolutely no chance a teenage girl would look at an eight-year-old boy and think: “Yep. In ten years’ time, I reckon he’s the one.”
Heath Ledger had just broken through at this point – imagine him as Anakin Skywalker?
:: The animation: The effects are good in The Phantom Menace, but they’re not great. It’s too bright. During the droids vs Gungans battle scene, there is no point where you believe you are watching real things happen in a real environment. Lucas should have gone practical for the most part, with CGI where it was needed – out in the space scenes, maybe. It looked too clean, and, as in most green screen films, the animated figures didn’t seem to have proper weight and mass to them when balanced with the traditional photography.
With his mix of practical effects, sets, props and models to accompany the CGI, Peter Jackson showed Lucas how it should be done with the Lord of the Rings movies, which were at that point still being shot in New Zealand.
They bettered the prequel trilogy in every single way. Then, in a twist no-one saw coming, Jackson promptly forgot much of this for the Hobbit films, and made many of the same mistakes as Lucas (though I have warmed to those movies as time has gone on, in a way that I never did to the prequel trilogy).
:: Darth Maul: He looked the part. He was electrifying in his action scenes. But there was not enough of him, and he was gone all too soon. This was a film largely without a villain. He wasn’t in it long enough for us to have built up any sense of threat.
:: Midichlorians: Perhaps the most horrible alarm bell moment was when Qui-Gon Jinn started gibbering about special intergalactic algae. It was the moment the magic of Star Wars died.
The force was an ethereal construct, something that couldn’t be explained by simple science. It was something out of myth, something beyond the conscious, physical realm. “Magic” was all the explanation we’ve ever required. It needed to be ineffable, inexplicable, something that could be felt and seen, not something that could be accounted for like blood cells or lung capacity.
Surely someone reading Lucas’ script must have realised this. Surely someone had the authority to put a pen right through it and ask for a rethink.
Why didn’t they? Fear?
:: Poor design: Much has been made of the “clean” look of this universe compared to the original trilogy’s heaps of junk. The prequels harken back to the “golden age” of the Republic, and so it makes sense to have a clearer, more polished design, to contrast with the classic trilogy’s rough n’ ready aesthetic. However, lots of things just don’t work. Doug Chang’s battle droids… yes, I get that he was drawing upon ancient ethnic art concepts, but to me they looked like what they were intended to be: toys. They’re not scary. They’re not memorable. They exist only to be chopped up by the Jedi. Guilt-free cannon fodder.
That wasn’t the only area where the designers dropped the ball. The costumes were silly, particularly those they made poor Natalie Portman wear – a division up from Space 1999, but no more than that. Ewan McGregor’s Renton-style buzz-cut plus ponytail kind of worked, but in some scenes the continuity was off, with some sequences clearly shot, or re-shot, months apart.
Occasionally it looks like Obi-Wan has a ginger Scotfro. At other times he’s got the buzz-cut. The continuity jump was so jarring that some people burst out laughing when McGregor appeared – me included. It was like a parody sketch of The Phantom Menace, a skit you might see in French and Saunders, within the actual movie.
:: Plot: Trade delegations… embargos… what? Can we rewind the opening crawl, mate? I missed a bit.
:: Non-suspense: I wonder who that cloaked Sith guy is, that evil-sounding chap who’s giving Darth Maul orders… Wait! It isn’t Palpatine, is it? That guy who’s going to become the Emperor? Played by the guy who played the Emperor in Return of the Jedi? He never bloody is!
What a complete and utter waste of time. This was played as if it was some kind of secret, when everyone and their auntie knew what the score was. There was no subterfuge, here – nothing for the audience to discover, to be surprised by. It is storytelling slurry, total stupidity. This was a major plot point that the audience knew before they sat down in the cinema. Were we supposed to act surprised? This was a non-mystery that they stretched out for THREE FILMS.
This last point illustrates perhaps the key problem of the prequels: we know what’s going to happen. This is a story with an end point already in place. The Jedi die; Obi-Wan and Anakin have a fight on a lava planet; Anakin loses, and becomes Darth Vader; his twin children, Luke and Leia, are born and hidden away from him. Now, let’s stretch that certain knowledge out over THREE FILMS.
:: What they should have done: Imagine Palpatine – revealed to the audience as a Sith from the very start – was the apprentice to a hidden Sith lord in The Phantom Menace. We should have been up-front with this. Show his struggle to keep his secret hidden from the Jedi council, who should start out trusting him. He trains Darth Maul as his own pupil on the side, sure – but have that elder Sith as someone he will eventually usurp, perhaps using Anakin to do the dirty work. Imagine if Christopher Lee had played, say, Darth Plagueius, rather than Dooku?
:: The Jedi: Yoda seemed to have it all sorted out in Empire. He was wise, he was in tune with nature, he lived in a swamp, and he didn’t give a shit. Why, then, did he reappear as this uptight little whiskery pillock, sticking to the rules and ordering people about on the Jedi Council? Even Samuel L Jackson looked like he needed a poo for the duration of his screentime as Mace Windu – MACE WINDU, for god’s sake – in this awful film.
Did puppeteer and Yoda vocalist Frank Oz realise he was making an awful film while they were shooting it? Did Samuel L Jackson?
We wanted to see these Zen-like, serene masters of consciousness, spirituality and physicality. But in fact, the Jedi came across as prissy, uptight town planning officials. Something went badly wrong, there.
:: Cameos and cutesy touches: Yaay, here’s Jabba… Here’s some Jawas… Here’s Greedo… Yaay… “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” yaay. “Utini,” yaaay.
It’s like special guest stars on Happy Days, getting a wee cheer and a round of applause from the studio audience when they appear. They do nothing for the plot; it’s a tick-sheet for geeks, a little hit of what they’re after, something they recognise.
Imagine they’d shown Harrison Ford at the bar during the pod racing scene. “Hey, there’s Bingo Solo,” one of the characters would say. “How’s your boy doing, Bingo?” “Oh, Han’s a lively one,” Ford would drawl.
The audience would have shat themselves with excitement. And this is the problem. Instead of shitting themselves, they should have been throwing their nachos and rancid cheese at the screen. These little touchstones are childish and inert. It brings us no surprise, no novelty, only a pale imitation of what’s gone before, reducing it to a punchline. This is fanboy culture distilled down to the weak piss it is.
The hideous irony was that although The Phantom Menace used cutting-edge digital technology, the driving aesthetic behind this narrative recycling was strictly analogue: the VHS video cassette. Each reintroduction of familiar elements was like you’d recorded it again, and again, and again… with each recording slightly worse than the one that preceded it.
I won’t stick the knife into Jar-Jar, here, as he was one of the least offensive elements of this movie. The reaction to him was an early example of internet herding instincts. Once one or two people with high-profile platforms started blaming Jar-Jar for the whole mess, lots of other people piled in with questionable opinions.
“Jar-Jar is racist!” I still hear people cry. No, he’s meant to be from space. If there are space frog-people out there who are offended by the portrayal of Jar-Jar, then I will take that back. But he is a space person. Not human. Certainly not black. I suspect that people only thought to say Jar-Jar was racist because they’d read it somewhere, or someone told them about it. I do not see and hear Jar-Jar Binks and think: that’s a black person. Perhaps you need to have a good look at yourself if this is what you think. It’s in the eye of the beholder.
Also, Jar-Jar was not universally hated at first. He was loved by children at the time, including my own nephew, who was obsessed with him, which I guess is what Lucas was aiming for. (See also, Anakin as a wee boy. Maybe Lucas wanted to put someone in there for other wee boys to identify with?)
It only hit me recently what might have cut a little close to the bone when it came to Jar-Jar.
Jar-Jar was us. Over-excited, naïve, blundering in, bewildered, at the mercy of immense forces, and finally tossed aside and abandoned.
I think Jar-Jar was treated very badly out of all this. He was almost certainly meant to be a major component of the prequel trilogy, so the producers’ attitude to the character once they read comments from mouth-breathers on the internet – ie, cutting him dead – was a clear sign of what now seems obvious:
:: George Lucas didn’t have a plan.
He had a billion-dollar toybox at his disposal, with all the backing and control he could ever wish from a studio, with a ready-made audience. He had three big movies to make; one man at the helm of an operation worth billions and billions of dollars. It was one of cinema’s simplest open goals.
And he missed.
This is largely because he was winging it. Beyond “Anakin becomes Vader; climactic duel with Obi-Wan; Luke and Leia are born”, I’d be prepared to bet there was nothing concrete planned when George Lucas announced he was going to make these films.
What Lucas perhaps didn’t realise going into the project was that the opinions of children were less important than those of their parents, who had grown up with Star Wars threaded through their imaginative DNA; that these films would be consumed and dissected by grown adults the same way some critics might discuss fine art.
With Jar-Jar in mind, you can only imagine how R2-D2 and C3PO would have been received from the dark side of Star Wars fandom had they made their first appearance in the prequels.
“Who’s this golden ponce? Why am I supposed to care about a motorised alarm clock?”
There are good points. Yes, the lightsabre fight at the end was great. Also getting a thumbs-up was the pod race, even though it makes little sense and the wee boy looks stupid. How much more fun would this have been if you’d had late-teens Anakin, the cocky boy racer, instead of a little squirt with pebble glasses?
Ewan McGregor’s Sir Alec Guinness/Obi-Wan pastiche was rightly applauded as one of the better elements of the production, but Qui-Gon Jinn gives the film its heart. He bows out of the series a little too soon, and too cheaply. With the possible exception of Ian McDiarmid in Revenge of the Sith, Liam Neeson’s performance is about the best of the prequels. Through him we had a reminder of the Jedi as caring, intuitive, even human – instead of uptight, stick-in-the-mud space presbyterians.
The Phantom Menace and its two sequels went so badly wrong at a conceptual level that they couldn’t do anything but fail. Ultimately, did we really need to see Anakin Skywalker become Vader, and Obi-Wan facing off with him? These things were better left as they were – as backstory, as something near-mythical, told in the tones of legend. They were always much bigger in our minds than they were on screen.
Plus, Lucas contrived to get his own narrative hopelessly muddled. We’d heard about the Clone Wars in the original Star Wars. We also knew that Boba Fett had fought in these, that he wore the armour of some guys called the Mandalorians, who had a big say in it. Everyone assumed this business is what the prequels would be about. Here, surely, was where we’d see the Clone Wars brought to life – right?
Wrong. Despite starting work with the prime thrust of his three-movie narrative already right there in front of him, Lucas contrived to dance around the Clone Wars, utterly missing the mark in not one, but three films. We only saw the start of it in the conclusion of Attack of the Clones, and its very end in Revenge of the Sith. He did flesh things out in an animated series, which I’ve heard is pretty good. But this to me was unforgivable.
The Clone Wars was the conflict that should have provided the backbone of the prequels, and Lucas should have started these the same way he did with the rebellion in episodes IV-VI – in media res. The story should have been how Anakin rose in the ranks at the Jedi council and helped win the Clone Wars, and in the process became uncontrollable, egotistical, and finally outright evil.
Part five, you greedy devil? Here it is.
Read the whole thing from the start right here.