Saturday, July 7, 2012

Defending the Star Wars Prequels: The Phantom Menace

For those of you who are expecting my next Old Who Review (on the off-chance that you exist) I'll probably have it ready this weekend, so don't worry. But right now, there's something I've been meaning to write about for a while and I just suddenly had the urge to finally do it.

The "Star Wars" prequels aren't that bad.

That's right, I said it.

Speaking personally, I actually enjoy watching them. Some more than others, but truth be told, even my least favorite from the batch I enjoy watching about as much as I enjoy watch "Return of the Jedi".

But I know that my personal tastes aren't enough to dictate that a movie is actually "good". For example, I KNOW that the "Matrix" sequels are "bad" movies. They are paced and constructed poorly, the plots make little to no real sense, and a lot of the acting choices really don't work. That said, I still enjoy the "Matrix" sequels because I like techno-philosophy, kung fu action sequences, and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith. Also I think there are parts that are very memorable and quotable and I have a lot of fun watching them.

That being said, I won't ever try to DEFEND the "Matrix" sequels because I know they are bad and people have plenty of reason to not like them.

I will, however, defend the "Star Wars" prequels, not because I think they're necessarily "good" movies (I do acknowledge they have a lot of problems) but because I think "Star Wars" fandom has a tendency to overplay just how "bad" these movies are.

Because I don't want this post to be TOO long (Spoiler Alert: It is anyway), I'm going to break this up into a three-part series, each part discussing a different movie and the points that are commonly brought against it.

Before we go any further, I would like to say that YES, I HAVE SEEN THE REDLETTERMEDIA REVIEWS. I do think they're funny (minus the parts where they're not talking about the movies and instead building on the fictional Plinket character, who annoys the crap out of me) and I do think they make SOME good points, but I think they also make misleading arguments that they believe hold more water than they do.

I'm not going to completely deconstruct the RLM reviews, but I do want to counter one or two things just to make a point.

A lot of the time, RLM will say something, accompany it with quick anecdotal evidence or a short clip from the movie, and the viewer is left with the feeling that it is true. This is a common tactic for persuasive filmmaking, but it also works in propaganda. Just because something FEELS true, doesn't make it so.

The best example of this is when they try to make the point that the characters in "The Phantom Menace" are fundamentally weaker than the characters of the original trilogy.

Funny, right? They sure made a good point.

Except they didn't.

First, look at the people he interviewed. Given how this was basically the review that put RedLetterMedia on the map, I doubt they had a lot of pull to get random people they didn't know to do these interviews. And you can tell from the way they interact that they are probably friends with the people who made the reviews. For all we know, they also work for RedLetterMedia.

I'm not saying they aren't giving genuine responses, they clearly are. What I AM saying is that they're probably the sort of people at that certain age who saw the original "Star Wars" movies a lot throughout their lives and then MAYBE saw the prequels once or twice. Of COURSE they aren't going to be able to tell you what Qui-Gon Jin and Padme Amidala are like. They probably only saw the movie once and probably didn't care enough to understand the characters.

If they had asked ME, I would have said Qui-Gon was stubborn and impulsive, and certainly not above doing questionable things, but also wise and patient. Padme is also stubborn, a bit of a control freak, not very trusting, not keen on taking unnecessary risks, and perhaps a little naive, but always willing to do what must be done to protect what she cares about.

However, the people they ask in the review are acting as avatars for the sort of people who want to watch this review. The sort of people who watch this review WANT to hear reasons why "Phantom Menace" sucks when compared to the original trilogy. They don't want an even-handed analysis. They enjoy these reviews much in the same way that the people who watch "Fox News" enjoy that, because "Fox News" is calculated to give them the biased view of the world they want to enjoy. The bulk of the people who watch these reviews are looking for validation in their hate, and they definitely get it.

The other thing in the RedLetterMedia review of the first movie that bothers me is the insistence that the Galactic Senate makes no sense. How can Padme be a Queen of a planet while the planet also has a seat at the Galactic Senate? Well, how do the United States have a President while having a seat at the United Nations? It's the same damn thing just on a galactic scale. It's not confusing, they just are trying really hard to find reasons why this movie is stupid and by making this Senate SEEM confusing they believe they accomplish that, completely IGNORING the fact that the Galactic Senate is referenced in "A New Hope", a movie where we ALSO have a character who is a Princess. So why is the Senate stupid in "The Phantom Menace" but not in "A New Hope"? Because "A New Hope" is a better movie and criticizing it is not the point of the review. The writers at RedLetterMedia like "A New Hope" and they don't want to analyze it's weaker points, even though it's not a perfect movie, simply because it doesn't provide them the same cathartic validation they get out of tearing apart a movie they hate.

I'm about to finish talking about RedLetterMedia for now, but let me just say that I don't disagree with ALL of their points and I do think most of their reviews, including this one, are worth watching. I just don't think that they should be considered a definitive proof of how bad "Phantom Menace" is.

Now let me give my reasons why I think people are harder on these movies than they should be.

The main reason is because these movies aren't as good as "A New Hope" or "The Empire Strikes Back". Notice I didn't include "Return of the Jedi" in that list. In my opinion, if "Return of the Jedi" were made at the same time as the other prequels and was in every other way identical to the movie as we know it today, it would have been hated just as ferociously as the prequels. I can already hear the angry fanboy cries in this fictional other earth: "How dare you put Leia in a metal bikini! Han Solo is a wuss throughout the movie! Luke and Leia are siblings!? That's so contrived! These Ewoks are the worst! They're recycling the blowing-up-the-Death-Star thing!? Think of something original! George Lucas has ruined his creations!"

And in truth, "Return of the Jedi" was originally not very well-liked by many "Star Wars" fans. But a few decades later, they embraced it as a part of a whole, mostly due to nostalgia and grasping onto a few cool bits in the movie, like the confrontation between Luke and Vader, or Leia as a bounty hunter, or Leia strangling Jabba, or Yoda's death scene. There's enough good in that movie for most fans to overlook the bad.

But for SOME reason, they can't do the same with the prequels, which I believe have just as much good to allow someone to overlook the bad, and I think the reason is because they find that they are able to just completely write off the prequels in a way they can't with "Return of the Jedi". RotJ is a part of the original trilogy. It finishes the story they cared about and it is necessary. The prequels weren't necessary, so they felt no reason to bend over backwards to accept them into their fandom.

However, George Lucas continues to insist on making all of the movies tie together. He re-edits RotJ so now Hayden Christensen is Anakin's ghost, he releases the movies as one big whole, and he refuses to release a remastered version of the original trilogy without his added scenes and tweaks. He refuses to play into the fandom's denial of the existence of the prequels.

But like I said, the core of the problem isn't the fandom itself, it's the fact that the prequels just aren't very good. The fans wanted something that validated their obsession, lived up to their expectations, and solidified "Star Wars" for the next generation in the same way it did for theirs. What they got was a pretty OK movie with a lot of tangible problems.

Film Crit Hulk talks a lot about how tangible problems in movies tend to mislead us into thinking we know why a particular movie is bad. We aren't enjoying a movie and when we go over in our heads WHY we didn't like a movie, we point to the things that stick out to us. While those tangible elements may be problems, more often than not they are either just symptoms of a bigger problem or they are just distracting from the real problem.

For example, when you ask people why they hate "Phantom Menace", many of them will say either "Jar Jar" or "That kid who played Anakin".

I won't deny, Jar Jar fails miserably as a supporting comic relief character and the young actor they chose for Anakin is not talented at all. If you watch the behind-the-scenes making-of documentary for "Phantom Menace", you'd see that there was actually a reasonably talented young actor in line to play Anakin, but Lucas ultimately chose Jake Lloyd, and the reason seemed to be that he felt more like an actual child, and this is true. Lucas went for an actor that felt more emotionally genuine for the character rather than an actor who could perform the role more competently. This was a gamble, and in retrospect, it didn't pay off. However, Lucas has made gambles in the past. Harrison Ford was not an actor before he played Han Solo and he was awful at taking direction, constantly ad-libbing and going off-script, which George Lucas infamously has little tolerance for. Hiring him was a gamble, but it paid off. Jake Lloyd was also a gamble, but it really didn't work, mostly because most fans were not asking for an Anakin Skywalker who felt like a little kid. They wanted someone more like Luke who was more mature and pragmatic.

But while I agree that Jake Lloyd is a poor actor, I do think he manages to communicate the emotional core of Anakin very well. He IS a little kid and it IS difficult to imagine him becoming Darth Vader. That's what makes his character's journey compelling.

Jar Jar doesn't work at all. I think the main reason is that this sort of humor just isn't George Lucas' strong suit. He's better with snarky sarcasm and that sort of thing. In the documentary, he even says that they've never had a character like Jar Jar before, and that definitely shows. George has no idea how physical comedy should work, particularly when all of the physical comedy is done by a CG character, which also had never been done before. It just plain fails.

There are, however, some things in "The Phantom Menace" that I will defend to the death.

While George Lucas is not a terribly talented director and not always good at writing dialogue scenes, he IS great at world-building, and all of the prequels show this off like nothing I've ever seen. The reason these movies worked for me is that I was invested in the world Lucas created. The attention to detail with the art design and the culture is so good, I would say that it surpasses that of the original trilogy. I mean, what sounds more interesting to you? The desert planet or the city planet? The ice planet or the planet heavily influenced by Turkish architecture?

I do believe that while George Lucas probably should have allowed someone else to direct and maybe rewrite his script, he definitely should have stayed on as a very active executive producer. If you watch the documentaries, you tend to see that Lucas is most passionate and active when he's not working with the actors. When he's storyboarding, when he's advising art design, when he's reviewing CG work, you can see a different side of him. Ultimately, the greatest strengths of the prequels come from the design and atmosphere. I think that's what makes people fall in love with "Star Wars" and it's the most important part to get right.

I also think that "Duel of the Fates" is one of the greatest songs John Williams has ever written. Hands down. I mostly feel this way because a lot of his famous work is very... samey. He basically writes a few original phrases for each movie he works on (and those phrases ARE very memorable and cool) but the rest is very... John Williams-y. It's very easy to recognize when he wrote a score because they all tend to sound similar. However, "Duel of the Fates" has more than just a few short original phrases and then going right into the familiar fanfares and whatnot. This ENTIRE SONG is unique in Williams' body of work and it is fantastic. I think even people who hate the movie will agree that this song is great.

Speaking of which, I think that the corresponding duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul is one of the best sword fight scenes I've ever seen in film. The only thing that matches it in "Star Wars" canon would be the part of the Luke and Vader fight scene in "Return of the Jedi" where Luke briefly gives in to the dark side and cuts off Vader's hand. That was an emotionally powerful scene and the combat really reflects Luke's emotional state, which we feel from Williams' score in that moment. Similarly, "Duel of the Fates" swells up at all the right moments to make that fight scene really powerful and when Obi-Wan loses his shit and really starts getting aggressive with Maul, you can REALLY feel it, and I absolutely love that moment. Even though other fight scenes in the other prequels are just as well-choreographed, none of them reach that emotional fever pitch.

But back to the weaknesses of the movie. Like I said, people point to Jar Jar and Anakin as the weak points, but the fact is, they're just TANGIBLE problems, not the actual problems. If you cut out Jar Jar and replaced Anakin with a better actor, the movie would still have some pretty major problems and it still wouldn't have been much better, people just might not have complained as much. Specifically, the central conflict between Naboo and the Trade Federation has no major tangible stake. We're given no specific reason for why the Trade Federation has set up their blockade other than Darth Sidious has prompted them to do it. We don't know why they want Naboo or why they have agreed to work with Sidious. Without really understanding what Padme and her people are up against, the stakes are never very clear. In the original "Star Wars" movie, "A New Hope" (as it would later be known), the Empire has a very clear goal... use this unbelievably powerful weapon to wipe out the rebel alliance in one stroke and strike fear into the heart of the galaxy to discourage any further rebellion without depending on the Senate to maintain order. As an audience, we understand that for the rebels to succeed, they must blow up the Death Star, and that goal carries the story.

In "The Phantom Menace", the story that takes up most of the time is helping Naboo stop the Trade Federation's invasion, but as an audience, we're never really sure how she intends to do that. Sure, first she needs to escape, so we're with her up until Coruscant, but once we get there, she's just scrambling to get someone to help her out. We don't know who she'll get to help her, and if she does, what she'll do to stop the invasion. It's not very well-constructed.

But when the movie resonates, it's usually in regards to the secondary plot of Anakin and the Jedi, which is really the plot that matters most but is concentrated on the least. We meet Anakin by chance and we're told he matters, but his potential never comes to fruition within the movie, other than a rather stupid moment where he accidentally wins the war for them, but it still has nothing to do with him being "the chosen one".

Even so, this movie stuck with people for the same reason people got into "Harry Potter". The premise of a young boy who living a humble existence being told that he's unique and special and being carried away into a colorful, imaginative world where he will learn special powers and then return to his old world as a hero and free the slaves.

As bad an actor as Jake Lloyd is, because he does carry across the emotional core of that childlike innocence, the character resonates. When the council refuses to train him, we are surprised. How could they not want to train the chosen one, particularly when he hasn't shown a single evil bone in his body? Because they know that his passion and ambition and ideals could give him a difficult spiritual journey. He has too much emotional baggage, and that is what ends up leading to his downfall. This is why it was important for Lucas to show the emotional side of Anakin.

I also stand by the pod racing scene as a really good racing scene. There are bad parts in it (like where we're shown the characters reacting to it on view screens which is jarring and breaks up the pace), but it's well-constructed, well-animated, and each racer is given their own personality, even if they never have a line. A lot of people think it's bad, and I think the reason they think this is because they hate Jake Lloyd's Anakin. If you can't care about the character in the race, you generally won't care about the race. But since I can bring myself to get behind Anakin as a character (even if I don't like the actor), I can get invested in the race and I think that it is really well-put-together.

The last thing I wish to defend from the movie is the existence of midi-chlorians.

Let me start by saying that no, this was NOT something George Lucas invented for the prequels. This was something he invented way back in the 70's when he first gave writers a universe guide for the Expanded Universe. Granted, none of them actually USED the concept, but it was something George knew about all along. It was how he explained to himself how strength in the force can be genetic and how it can be measured from person to person.

In addition, people have the misconception that midi-chlorians ARE the Force. They are NOT. They are explained as the medium through which human beings FEEL the force, much like how our nerves communicate physical pain and pleasure and allow us to control our body parts. Hence, the higher concentration, the stronger your perception and control of the Force.

A lot of people think this takes the magic out of the Force. I personally disagree. The Force is still never explained. Its limits and potential are still undefined. All we know now is how it is connected with living organisms and why it is stronger with some than with others and why not anyone can be a Jedi.

Now I have gone over a lot about this movie, the good, the bad, and many things in between, but what I want to defend most of all is that these prequels brought a new generation into "Star Wars". These kids love Anakin and their hearts were broken when he turned evil, and that love began with "The Phantom Menace" for quite a few of them.

I think a lot of fans are mostly frustrated with the movie than anything else. They want it to be perfect, but whenever Jar Jar comes on screen or Anakin cries "Yippee!", they find themselves ashamed for liking any other part of the movie. It's frustrating to them. "Why couldn't Lucas just cut out these parts that prevent them from loving the movie?" But the thing is, there's nothing wrong with enjoying the bulk of a movie even if it has a lot of poor elements. The movies don't HAVE to be perfect so long as there's something you get out of it.

One thing that Phantom Menace has more than any other "Star Wars" movie is passion. Lucas didn't hold back anything. There is excruciating attention to detail everywhere and every aspect of the production pushes the envelope. The biggest problem is just that he put more effort into the world and the set-pieces than he did on the actual screenplay and direction. This is why he probably shouldn't have taken control over every aspect of the production. In "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith", we don't see quite as much attention to detail or rich mythology that we see in "Phantom Menace", and I think that's because Lucas tried to devote more attention to other aspects of the production. They still have their own problems, and they still stem from Lucas trying to take on too much, but ultimately, "Phantom Menace" really made the world of "Star Wars" feel enormous and really sparked the imagination of the next generation in a way the other prequels didn't.

And even the fans who claim to hate the prequels still reference it as much as they reference the original movies. "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering!" "Always two there are, a master and an apprentice!" "Wipe them out, all of them!" Also, anyone who ever picks a double-edged lightsaber in a "Star Wars" game at least subconsciously thought that it was a really cool moment in the movie. Notice how most of these things came from the trailer? Well, that's because fans thought the trailer looked awesome. They welcomed these parts of the lore into their hearts before they decided they hated the prequels, and so these parts live on inside them. They are a part of our popular culture and that's a testament to these films. Truly bad films are the kind that people forget immediately afterward. But all of the prequels have parts that stick with us. Some of them are referenced ironically, and most of those come from the latter two films, but we still remember them.

Yes, "Phantom Menace" tried a lot of really ambitious things and fumbled with a lot of the more basic things, but I still appreciate that it put that much effort into the production. It really set the stage for the next generation to build on this universe even if the movie itself doesn't hold up in a vaccuum. I can understand why people don't like it, and if you don't like it, I don't expect to change your mind. But honestly, "Return of the Jedi" doesn't hold up on its own either, but a lot of people consider that to be their favorite. Why is it OK for people to love that movie but not OK for people to love "The Phantom Menace"?

In my opinion, it's really no different.

"The Phantom Menace" may be far from perfect (I'd probably give it a C- as an overall film) but there's still a lot to love about it, and there's no shame in admitting that.


  1. I have no problem with the acting or script. Star Wars has gotta be a little campy and imperfect to be Star Wars. Always has been a celebration of everything from B movies to Samurai movies to melodrama. The "stiff" acting would not be out of place in a Kurosawa film.

  2. "However, Lucas has made gambles in the past. Harrison Ford was not an actor before he played Han Solo"

    Huh? Harrison Ford worked with Lucas years before in American Graffiti, had a significant role in Coppola's masterpiece The Conversation, and had a good 20 roles (not including uncredited or extra work) Star Wars. Seriously have you ever seen a movie?

    1. Oh yes, when people think "Coppola's masterpiece" they must IMMEDIATELY think of "The Conversation". Not those lesser-known films, "Apocalypse Now", "The Godfather", "The Godfather Part II", and "Patton", Yes, "The Conversation" is definitely the film he's remembered for.

      Anyway, I admit I probably should have specified "known" actor, but Han Solo WAS his first leading role. Before American Graffiti, he had had such a difficult time getting any decent (or even credited) roles that he all but gave up and became a carpenter. That was how he met George Lucas: as a carpenter, not an actor. It's true, he was had been an actor before he played Han Solo, but his casting WAS still very much a gamble given that he had never had a role of that importance before. Even in the two movies you mention, he only had minor supporting roles. I'll admit I phrased this particular bit poorly, but yes, I have seen a movie. Several, even.

  3. I give TPM a B+, maybe even an A-.

    It's Star Wars mythology at its finest, & storytelling of mostly strong order. I know what ppl dislike about the Prequels, & you don't touch on any of it at all. For you to discover.

    But you do bring up some very strong, excellent points, so kudos for all of that.

    1. I've had many different discussions with tons of people who dislike the prequels, and they almost always point to the same things: Jar-Jar, the actors who play Anakin, the sometimes stitled and awkward dialogue, the overuse of CG over practical effects, the sometimes bizarre plotting, and the increased demystification of the Jedi and the Force (i.e. midi-chlorians). I touched on most of these, though I could have talked more about the CG overuse, I suppose. People often make the argument that because you can tell the CG is fake, it's inferior to the practices used in the Original Trilogy. I strongly disagree on that front. The stop-motion in Empire and Jedi is just as obviously-fake as the creatures created by CG in the Prequels. Granted, the Yoda in Empire is absolutely perfect, but even the Yoda in Jedi isn't of the same quality. I do think some of the CG hasn't aged very well and some characters could have been done with make-up and prosthetics, but the set-pieces achieved by the prequels set a new standard for special effects in sci-fi/fantasy films just as the Original Trilogy did for its time. I think it deserves a lot more credit for that than it generally gets.

      What are some other criticisms that you know of that I don't really address here?