Tag Archives: The Phantom Menace

Thoughts on The Prequel Trilogy

Last year I watched all three of the original Star Wars movies and commented on them in the lead to The Force Awakens. Since we’ve got another prequel coming out, I figured I’d do the same thing for the prequels before Rogue One (which I’m seeing on Thursday [!!!] on the biggest freaking screen in New York City[!!!]).

Now, I have a soft spot for the prequels, so this isn’t going to be the angry nerd ranting you may expect.

In fact, I think they actually aren’t all awful. This got a little longer than expected, but that’s because I have Many Thoughts on Star Wars.

I first saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday, in theaters. I loved it and Qui-Gon was (and is) my favorite. These days I still think it’s the best of the prequels, because though it’s a bit irrelevant as a whole, it is relatively well put together. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.

  • After the typically Star Wars offbeat gag of the droid coming out we get to see two Jedi in their prime kicking ass. It’s also a great visual introduction to them, showing us the Force, their ability to block blaster bolts, and how lightsabers can cut through walls. Instant exposition!
  • The conversations between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are such fun, with Qui-Gon’s brashness and Obi-Wan’s chastising despite being the apprentice.
  • One of the biggest flaws of this movie is its unconnectedness. Scenes seem to just happen and characters say things without much cause and effect (ie: Panaka’s “I don’t think this is a good idea” and Qui-Gon’s “You must trust my judgment” has them carry on to Tatooine without issue).
  • Argh, Anakin’s introduction to Padmé shows the issue with telling instead of showing. Anakin tells Padmé he’s gonna leave this planet. In A New Hope we see Luke Skywalker longingly watching the binary sunset. We feel Luke’s want, but are told about Anakin’s.
  • “The Queen’s wardrobe maybe…” Gotta love Obi-Wan’s dry humor.
  • And with Shimi’s introduction The Phantom Menace already has more speaking female characters in its first forty minutes than all of the Original Trilogy (Captain Madakor in the beginning, Padmé, Sabé, Jira the saleswoman, and Shimi vs Leia, Beru, Toryn Farr, and Mon Mothma).
  • The lack of music for most of the Podrace is striking; the engines make their own soundtrack.
  • Anakin having to leave home would have meant so much if we actually gave a crap.
  • When the vote of no confidence is called, Chancellor Valorum sits down out of the light and into shadow. Gorgeous visually.
  • There are still moments in the movie that are just so cool, like all the Battle Droids unfolding as the Trade Federation theme plays.
  • AND DARTH MAUL. AND DUEL OF THE FATES.
  • Seriously though, the lightsaber fight in Menace is one of the coolest things in the Star Wars movies, period. It’s so cool you don’t really care about the lack of narrative purpose. Plus, each combatant’s fighting style reveals character, another cool touch. Its effective, wordless, visual storytelling makes the Gungans & droids, space battle, and palace raid feel clunky.
  • Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is such a great duel.

Whenever I watched Attack Of The Clones as a kid I’d always fast forward through the romance between Anakin and Padmé, preferring to stick with Obi-Wan’s more interesting plot. Which kinda made sense given how crappy theses scenes are as an adult. That said, Across The Stars is a magnificent piece of music.

  • And within its first three minutes Clones does what the Originals never did: pass the bechdel test.
  • Obi-Wan at the bar with the deathstick pusher is a wonderfully funny gag.
  • Anakin and Padmé striking off together should be fun, flirty adventure, but it’s played so darn drily and self-serious.
  • Anakin is so friggin creepy in his romancing.
  • Obi-Wan’s plot is actually engrossing, which makes the stagnancy of Anakin/Padmé so frustrating.
  • …maybe it’s Hayden Christensen that’s the problem here. His deliveries are a far cry from Han’s gruff charm (which is the benchmark).
  • It’s like Anakin doesn’t believe in subtext. Or a filter.
  • Shimi’s death is legitimately tragic…
  • …which is undercut by Hayden Christensen’s overacting. He really might be the problem.
  • Christopher Lee is excellent. And Dooku and Obi-Wan’s conversation is so well done.
  • The movie seriously gets better after Dooku shows up.
  • Anakin and Padmé’s entrance into the arena: really cool, really effective; just wish their scenes before actually made us care about them!
  • The prequels in general, but especially this one, take themselves so seriously. Where’s the fun romantic adventure that was a hallmark of the originals?

I saw Revenge of The Sith in England the day after it came out. Was really excited and really liked it at the time. Watching it again a few years back I was frustrated about how flat Anakin’s arc felt (especially in light of the Clone Wars show) and, with it, the entire tragic thrust. It’s the messiest of the movies, with some of the prequels’ best moments, but also the weakest.

  • The opening crawls do such a great job in letting the movies open in media res without too much exposition.
  • That opening shot that goes from the Venator to the ETA-2s that race along it and plunge into the battle below is so good.
  • Rescuing Palpatine feels a lot like the cold open-esque ones of Empire and Jedi.
  • A Hispanic actor was cast as Bail Organa, someone mentioned in the originals as Leia’s father. For all the crap George Lucas gets, there was noticeable diversity in the prequels’ casting (Panaka, Tycho, Queen Jamillia, Mace Windu, etc). Small parts mostly, but an effort nonetheless.
  • The political intrigue with the Council having Anakin spy on Palpatine is kinda interesting, if half-baked.
  • Anakin and Padmé’s discussion on the war, however, wasn’t even put in the oven.
  • Ian McDiarmid gives Palpatine such menace and subtext.
  • Padmé is so useless in this.
  • The duel between Grievous and Obi-Wan is shot with far too many close-ups (as was Dooku vs Anakin). Compare it back to the fight with Darth Maul where we could actually see the fight and close-ups were saved for special occasions.
  • Anakin’s fall to the dark side is a result of that sitcom trope where the woman walks in and her boyfriend’s all “this isn’t what it looks like!”
  • Which means that Anakin’s fall is so weak, so unearned. It’s the big turn, but it doesn’t work!
  • The Order 66 sequence is downright inspired, especially the choice of shots for Ki-Adi Mundi’s death and cross-cutting to Yoda.
  • Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa is wonderful. Why wasn’t he in the movie more? Why isn’t he hanging out with Padmé and doing stuff?
  • Holy crap, Yoda is on an assassination mission. Why isn’t this addressed?
  • The two final duels are pretty cool. Especially the music.
  • Oh that clash with the lava in the background. A+
  • Seriously. Obi-Wan vs Anakin is great (if you get past some of the silliness). I just wish the movie had done more to really sell us on how much they loved each other and made the fight genuinely painful (ie: Iron Man vs Captain America in Civil War)
  • But “I have the high ground” is a poor note to go out on.
  • Dear god, Ewan McGregor is so good as Obi-Wan. You can feel his heartbreak in his ‘goodbye’ to Anakin.
  • Vader’s masking, chilling.
  • …why does Padmé die? Argh.
  • The final sequence with Leia and Luke ending up on Alderaan and Tatooine is downright beautiful. It’s such a strong visual ending to a lousy plot.
  • To be honest, Lucas’ prequels are best when his characters shut up and he lets the visuals and music speak.

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An Actual New Hope

One of my earliest memories involves, unsurprisingly, Star Wars. I, and another kid, were talking about Empire and how Luke loses his hand and gets a robot one. I’m sure in there was talk of Darth Vader being Luke’s father and all that. Now, I couldn’t have been that old; based on where we were I doubt I was more than four. Which shows just how inborn my Star Wars nerd is, but also, wait, I was four and talking about Empire? The darkest of the original Star Wars movies? We’re talking losing limbs and finding out your dad is the villain.

And yet, here I am, twenty-odd years later and decidedly not emotionally scarred. There’s no denying that Empire is dark, darker than I realized as a kid. But, this is Star Wars. Even though it’s a bleak ending, it’s still one with hope. When faced with the fact that Vader and his father are one and the same, Luke chooses to sacrifice himself instead of turning surrendering to his father. Han’s only mostly dead and Lando and Chewie have teamed up to find him. And, of course, Luke gets his hand back.

There’s a romantic optimism to Star Wars amidst its background of a cosmic Good and Bad. It’s Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, which is big, but it’s rife with hope. There’s no cynicism to Star Wars at its best: something can’t be ruined forever. No matter how far down they’re forced, good will be able to come of it. Luke’s father is Vader, but Vader can be redeemed. This isn’t something that would fly in the more recent slate of movies (besides the Marvel Cinematic Universe): whereas can the love between a father and a son be triumphant? Star Wars unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, which by today’s standards seems a little old fashioned.

So maybe this is one of the big places the prequels went wrong. They seemed to teeter a little too far into the realm of tragedy (which, it being Anakin’s fall, it is) without that earnest hope that made The Original Trilogy so great. That galaxy far, far away is one to escape to, one where a backwater farmboy, fumbling smuggler, and planetless princess can save the galaxy. Maybe the prequels got so caught up in their tragedy they forgot about the escapist nature of these movies, where it’s okay for the underdog to be the hero plain and simple. Obi-Wan, for example, is a Jedi, respected albeit inexperienced and not a crazy old wizard. The closest we really got were Jar Jar and Anakin in The Phantom Menace, but neither had an arc worth investing in. As a kid (and an adult), I wanted to be Qui-Gon because he was cool, but that’s about it. But Luke got to be the nobody-turned-Jedi and Han was the selfish-jerk-turned-war-hero. There was a change there — an optimistic one — that the prequels lacked.

The Force Awakens comes a solid decade after the last Star Wars movie. It’s also directed by someone who grew up with the movies and knows, as an outsider, why he liked them so (and they stuck with him). And the movie delivers. Despite containing perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire film franchise (and one that actually works courtesy of deft writing and acting), it remains rife with hope. There’s the declaration that unconditional love beats out hate, even when it seems like hate has won.

There’s an unquenchable joy to The Force Awakens that gives the originals a solid run for their money. Like in the old ones, we want to be a part of this world because there’s adventure here, and even when the adventure goes tragic, there’s hope. Star Wars is fun again.

And also, Rey is the friggin’ best.

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Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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The Prequels Aren’t So Bad

One of the most controversial series of films released within the past twenty years is the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. In all seriousness, the Star Wars prequels do get a lot of flak for not living up to the precedence of the Holy Trilogy. But I’m here to say they’re not the travesty of film that a lot of us make them out to be.

 
By no means am I saying they’re flawless. I grew up with Star Wars and can’t recall a time in my life where I didn’t know the story of the classic three. I saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday and loved it for all the reasons an eight year old would love The Phantom Menace (that is: Qui Gon Jinn). I thought Attack of the Clones was, well, whatever, and Revenge of the Sith was fantastic. Then I didn’t watch any of the prequels for almost six years.
 
So I watched them again a few months ago and, well, they’re not that bad.
 
Oh, they’re definitely not amazing. They lack the sweeping narrative and engaging characters of the originals. Where the originals were character driven adventures, the new ones are more poorly-written political dramas. We lose that sense of grand adventure in favor of stories weighed down with unnecessary intrigue. While the Classic Trilogy had Luke, Han, and Leia getting out of all sorts of scraps, in the new ones we watch the heroes navigate pointless discussions in the Senate and other assorted politicking.
 
But there are things the prequels did do right – they’re very pretty. We’re afforded a deeper peek into the world: more ships, more planets, more buildings, more people. There’s this tangible life to the world. The podrace in The Phantom Menace would never have been possible when the original movies came out. The new movies took the technology afforded to them and built a world. A world without particularly engaging characters, but a world nonetheless.
 
Building on that, the action and fight choreography stands unrivaled by few other movies. From Qui Gon’s encounter with Darth Maul on Tatooine in The Phantom Menace to the final duel on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith, every fight is a joy to behold. This is sword fighting like we always wanted just never knew we did. Fast paced and intense we watch them fight for, um, because they have to? But that’s beside the point; the fights are great and even though we’re not sure why we’re invested in them we’re still drawn to them. They’re flashy, but somehow they still strike an emotional chord with us.
 
And that’s because of the music. John Williams’ score for the prequels stands as one of the best of his particularly illustrious career. Duel of the Fates gives the climatic duel in Menace the appropriate grandeur and gravitas. Likewise, Across the Stars actually makes you almost care about the horribly written romance between Anakin and Padme. An echoed refrain of the theme that plays back during Revenge instantly tugs at your heartstrings. More so than in the original movies, the score in the prequels pull you into the movies and makes you feel what the writing and acting does not. It’s easy to look back on them and realize how they aren’t that good, but while you’re watching them the music and the visuals are simply captivating.
 
But they never quite measure up to the original movies.
 
The prequels failed because of, yes, poor writing and lousy characterization, but also because they just didn’t feel like Star Wars. The Holy Trilogy was an adventure. The new ones, less so. Rather than following characters we’re following the plot as it develops. We’re not watching Luke become a Jedi, we’re watching a trade dispute lead to war. It’d be okay in another movie, but it feels too impersonal and distant to be Star Wars. That is the movies’ falling.
 
When I think of Star Wars I think of the Empire and the Rebellion, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, and Luke and Vader. Despite being the ‘intended’ age when the prequels came out, The Empire Strikes Back and the rest of the Holy Trilogy are my favorites. But, like I’m trying to say, the prequels aren’t that bad.
 
Writer’s Note: I know there are literally hundreds of other arguments about the prequels’ failings. I’m not gonna get into them because we’ve heard them before. I’m making an attempt at a defense (which kinda gets bogged down because, well, yeah).

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