In the early years of Star Wars, George Lucas frequently stated that he had planned anywhere from nine to twelve more episodes of the series. We would be following the adventures of Luke Skywalker for a long time to come. But as the toll of actually making those beloved films wore on Lucas, he changed his mind, cutting off the series abruptly with Return of the Jedi.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, there were rumors that Lucas might go back to the world of Star Wars--but back, rather than forward, providing the early stories that had been teased since the words “Episode IV” were added to opening crawl for the original Star Wars.
It took sixteen years, but in 1999 those rumors finally became a reality, with the release of The Phantom Menace. The anticipation leading to the film’s release was like nothing that had ever been seen before, but the movie came out to mixed reviews--which is putting it kindly. In time, The Phantom Menace would come to be known as not just the worst movie in the series, but one of the worst movies of all time.
But, sixteen years after the release of Episode I, is it is really all that bad? As we continue our year-long Star Wars series, Matthew Guerruckey, Donald McCarthy, and Lawrence Von Haelstrom are joined by Drunk Monkeys Film Editor Gabriel Ricard to answer that very question with an exploration of one of the most divisive movies ever made.
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: The original Star Wars trilogy cemented George Lucas, in the minds of the generation that grew up on those films, as a visionary filmmaker. A builder of worlds with an unparalleled imagination. A genius, even. He had created not only one of the most popular film series in history, but two -- the blockbuster Indiana Jones trilogy. Half of the top ten highest-grossing films of the 1980’s are either a Star Wars movie or an Indiana Jones movie. Lucas also had a hand in some of the high-profile flops of that decade, producing the ill-conceived Howard the Duck, and providing the story for the half-baked fantasy epic Willow. But those were just bumps in the road. Nothing could take the sheen off of Star Wars, and as long as that was true, Lucas’s legacy was secure. That all changed in May of 1999, with the release of The Phantom Menace.
As a huge Star Wars fan, I must admit that I had a delayed realization of just how terrible The Phantom Menace was. I had read the horrible reviews. Howard Stern spent an entire show ragging on it. I had seen clips featuring wooden acting and this weird, rubbery thing called Jar Jar Binks that looked like nothing else in the Star Wars universe. So I was on-guard. But from the moment those golden letters receded into space and the opening crawl began, I was watching Star Wars, and I was happy to be watching Star Wars. I understood that the acting was bad, that the plot was baffling, and that Jar Jar was really as irritating as everyone had said. But the movie built to a climax that worked for me, and the lightsaber duel was so fantastic that by the time I left, I had genuinely enjoyed the experience of the movie. So I went again a few nights later. And I enjoyed it a little less. And then I sort of put the film out of my mind, lazily defending it when it came up in conversation, but not absorbing it in the same way that I had with the other films (being 20 years old by this point obviously made a difference).
And then, about a year later, I watched it on home video and I could no longer avoid the weaknesses. Every performance was not just bad, but terrible. The story made no sense. The direction, aside from the podrace sequence and the lightsaber duel, was dull. Basic. It was a terrible movie. One of the worst, in fact, that I had ever seen.
In the years since, I’ve softened on The Phantom Menace. I don’t think it’s any better. It a failure, but it’s one of the most fascinating failures in film history. There’s something incredible about this odd, reclusive billionaire shuffling around his mansion in Marin County, California, writing out this gibberish on yellow legal pads, and then spending all of his money to make his own personal vision come to life. And when you read the original draft of “The Star Wars”, it becomes clear that The Phantom Menace is exactly what Star Wars would have been if George Lucas had unlimited resources in 1977. And that, more than anything else, is what has led to the present-day reconsideration of who George Lucas really is as an artist. Or if he is an artist at all.
Gabriel, what was your own experience with The Phantom Menace the first time around, and with Star Wars in general?
Gabriel Ricard, Film Editor: I was honestly ready to watch The Phantom Menace for the first time in over a decade, and think “Gosh, that wasn’t as bad as I remember it.” I’ve repeatedly mentioned in Captain Canada’s Movie Rodeo and elsewhere that I like being proven wrong. Or I like coming back to a movie after a long period, watching it again, and discovering things about it that I actually like. It’s one of the things that keeps me interested in film as a whole.
And I wanted all of that here. I really wanted to discover something pleasant about George Lucas’ controversial return to the Star Wars universe. What I discovered from watching the movie this past week is that not only is the movie still terrible, but I actually seem to hate it more than I did the first time around:
1.) Jar-Jar. Goddamn. Jar-Jar. Goddamn. Binks: Seriously, what the fuck, George? What the hell. Did kids like Jar-Jar? I certainly don’t remember that being a thing. I’m fairly certain kids by and large actively despised one of the worst additions to a franchise in history. We’re not even going to get into whether or not Jar-Jar is a (unintentional or otherwise) racist caricature. Let’s just talk about a character who manages to annoy and distract on every possible level. I’m sure other people in this discussion can better explain why Jar-Jar is such a spectacular failure as a character on every possible level. For me, it’s the way he speaks, and the fact that he gets a huge role for absolutely no reason that I can ascertain. There are a lot of pieces of evidence to suggest that Lucas completely lost touch with reality at some point in his life. The notion that Jar-Jar would be a welcome addition to the universe is a compelling argument to that end.
2.) Ewan McGregor: I’ll make the case that McGregor got better as the Prequel Trilogy went on, but here? Awful. He seems supremely uncomfortable in the role of young Ben Kenobi. In trying to find a compromise between hints of a young Alec Guinness, and his understandable desire to do something singular with the character on his own terms, we wind up with a character who is almost instantly forgettable.
3.) Jake Lloyd: I will freely admit that I’m a tough critic of child actors. A good child actor can add considerable depth-through-sincerity and unique personality to a movie. An annoying child actor can sink even the best of ships. Jake Lloyd portrays Anakin as best he can, and the best he can do is to show us Darth Vader as an obnoxiously precocious, distracting little shit, one who repeatedly makes me wish for a Terminator crossover.
The above items represent three fairly significant components to the film. I could rant about Darth Maul being underwhelming, but in the end, he’s not important enough to warrant complaint. The movie has a great opening, and at least a couple of action sequences that emphasize the best of this entire film series. Unfortunately, those sequences are not enough to make me forget the long list of things about The Phantom Menace that bother me, with the three items above being borderline criminal offenses. For me, The Phantom Menace is so inept, it brings down the entire franchise as a whole. It features performances that range from mediocre, to downright dreadful. It bashes us over the head with special effects so elaborate and constant, we never really get comfortable with the fantasy universe we are visiting. It has a terrible script with horrible dialog. It runs to a ridiculous length of two hours and sixteen minutes.
The Phantom Menace is one of the most expensive cinematic disasters in history. It has very little to offer, even as a straightforward, escapist entertainment vehicle. The Prequel Trilogy improved to a small degree with the next chapter, but there’s a reason why I didn’t watch Attack of the Clones for about a year after it came out.
Fuck this movie. Fuck this fucking stupid fucking movie forfuckingever. Fuck you, George. I’ll see you in hell, you moon-eyed, fuzzy son of a bitch.
Fuck hope. Fuck beauty. I’m getting a drink. Donald, what the fuck is even going on with this profoundly stupid movie?
Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: The moment when Qui-Gon Jinn plunges his lightsaber into the Trade Federation door, the original trilogy music coming on as he does so, is one of the best moments in the franchise’s history. I could even see an argument for it being the best moment. Liam Neeson’s performance as Qui-Gon is one of the most underrated performances in the Star Wars saga and his acting in this scene is a perfect example. There’s a look of melancholy on his face, as if he knows where this is all leading. Neeson’s performance seems to hint that Qui-Gon is aware of his coming demise and it’s one of the aspects of The Phantom Menace I most appreciate.
Then there’s the scene where Watto bargains with Qui-Gon and comes across as a very unfortunate stereotype. There’s an argument for this scene being the worst scene in the saga.
And that’s really The Phantom Menace in a nutshell. There’s a lot to appreciate in it and I think the hate often does a disservice to those moments and performances. Ian McDiarmid shines as Palpatine. New viewers would probably not guess his dark side, but viewers in the know can see the hints of evil underlying McDiarmid’s performance.
The two main objections to The Phantom Menace are usually: Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd. Look. There’s no defending Jar Jar. I don’t hate him as much as others, but he brings literally, and I mean that word in terms of its definition, nothing to the film. He’s a waste of time character that I can’t imagine even the littlest of kids found to be their favorite character. Why did nobody tell Lucas not to do this? I don’t know. Maybe on the page it doesn’t look as bad when you don’t have the resulting images in your mind. Maybe people did tell him it was terrible but he didn’t listen. Either way, there’s no denying the Jar Jar character is a failure.
When it comes to Jake Lloyd I have very few problems with his performance and a lot of problems with his dialogue. If you watch Lloyd’s physical performance he comes across as a normal kid and not the chosen one, a choice I liked. His scene saying goodbye to his mother is excellent, as well, and I tear up whenever I see it. Some of the dialogue he has to deliver is awful, though. His speech about the slave device blowing you up is so cringeworthy. I don’t put the blame on Lloyd, though. You can’t possibly expect an 8 year old to sell that shit.
Yet these flaws don’t result in me hating The Phantom Menace. I quite like it, actually, and consider a number of its scenes among my favorite (more on that later). I like the hints of mythology in it, the hints at the larger Star Wars world, and the character of Qui-Gon Jinn (perhaps my favorite character in the saga).
What do you make of the film, Lawrence? Do its flaws bring it down for you or do its successes make it work?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: I think it’s safe to say that George Lucas made a Star Wars film that no one expected. Our collective imagination simmered for the fifteen years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. There were some novels, some comic books, and, as time went on, references and in-jokes appearing in other films. All these added up to a basic understanding of what Star Wars is. It was mythical story of good versus evil, son versus father, nature versus machine with a bunch of space combat and lasers. It was simultaneously nerdy and cool at a time long before the concept of nerd cool ever existed.
All this time we thought we knew what Star Wars was George Lucas thought it was something else.
The Phantom Menace was only Lucas’s fourth feature film as a director. THX-1138, American Graffiti, and the original Star Wars being his first three. If you ignore the two Star Wars sequels (and all the licensed Expanded Universe stuff) and just look at the Lucas-directed films as a body of work, it suddenly makes it easier to understand where Lucas is coming from. His films are assembled from moments of past films. They are pastiche and assemblage. They are personal and nostalgic. They can be magical and thrilling. And they can be very clunky and boring. And all that is here in The Phantom Menace.
One thing that was in the original trilogy and is certainly missing from here is any sense of cool. Han Solo was one of the coolest good guys we’d ever seen. He did his own thing, flying around in hotrod spaceship with a good blaster by his side. Darth Vader was one of the coolest bad guys we’d ever seen. He ignored the bickering bureaucrats and choked them with his mind. There is nothing remotely that cool in The Phantom Menace. The bad guy isn’t choking bureaucrats, he’s one of them. The Jedi are an old order of bureaucrats themselves. The universe of The Phantom Menace is a cool-less, sex-less (no Leia in a bikini either) chaste, boring one. And that’s not what we expected.
I have a lot more to say, but I’ll pass the mic after this next point: The key to appreciating The Phantom Menace is understanding Qui-Gon Jin. He is manipulating things just as much as Sidious/Palpatine. Certainly he could have found an easier way off of Tatooine than betting on a pod race for the only hyperdrive that fit his rare import space ship. But he’s met this boy that he knows could shake up the old Jedi Order and the galaxy. And he wants that to happen. He’s hiding personal (possibly selfish) motivations behind a cloak of righteousness. And that’s really interesting. To get to the world of the original trilogy, we need to start with this one.
Matt, does anything in this film work for you?
Matthew Guerruckey: Well, I love the look of The Phantom Menace, and I always have. The designs for Naboo, the underwater Gungan kingdom, and the massive Senate chamber are all very cool. Most of the character designs are spot-on, notably all of Queen Amidala’s wardrobe changes, but also the Jedi outfits, even Obi Wan’s stupid little rat-tail thing is a little touch that makes you feel like you’re part of a world that’s connected to the Star Wars universe of the original trilogy, but more ancient, archaic. As we go further into the prequels, the wall-to-wall digital painting effect will overwhelm the design, and Lucas’s direction will grow even more stale--leaving us in a universe that feels almost nothing like the one we first saw in A New Hope.
One thing that I definitely appreciated more on this viewing is the character of Qui-Gon, and specifically Liam Neeson’s performance. He gives the one good performance in this movie. He’s sly, like you said, but also wise, which connects him to the brilliant performance that Alec Guinness gives in Star Wars. You always felt that Obi Wan was giving the other characters in the scene with him the information that he wanted them to have, and you get that feeling with Qui-Gon as well, whether he’s dealing with Watto or facing the Jedi Council. Also, we get the sense that Qui Gon is hip to using the force in a way that the stodgy Jedi Council isn’t really aware of--a more naturalistic vibe that sees past the simple light side/dark side dichotomy. With Qui Gon out of the picture in the other two prequels, we get only a hint of that debate.
And many of the action scenes are really excellent. When we get further into the prequels, the ability to put so much whatever on the screen at all times will make the action sequences hard to follow, but here, everything makes sense. Jar Jar’s accidental victory in the Battle of Naboo is infuriating, because it's Jar Jar, but it’s choreographed in a way that’s easy to read. And that lightsaber battle--epic. Maybe the best, in terms of pure fighting choreography, in the entire series.
Ray Park’s natural athleticism gives Maul a ferocity, and an unpredictability, that Darth Vader (the only other bad guy we’d seen with a lightsaber up to this point) never had. And when Maul stabs Qui Gon, and Obi Wan rushes out to fight him, with pure fuck-it-all fury, it’s one of the most exciting moments in any Star Wars movie.
So there’s some cool stuff here. There really is! You just have to wade through a river of sewage to find it. Gabe, while we’re ankle deep in that river, can you find anything that you like about this movie? Dig deep, and keep your boots on.
Gabriel Ricard: Samuel L. Jackson was very handsome.
I don’t know. I would definitely agree that Palpatine’s introduction, as well as the way his character operates throughout the film, is very well-handled. The political components to the film has some of the worst dialog in the movie, but it’s also another well-handled component overall. It’s just painfully boring a good deal of the time, and my perspective on that may have something to do with the fact that I’m probably the most casual fan at this table. If anything, I’ll admit that this movie introduced a lot of stuff about the politics of the Star Wars universe, which wasn’t really something we got with the Original Trilogy. It’s interesting stuff that tries and succeeds in small parts to fill out the universe a little more.
I also think Qui-Gon Jin is an interesting player. The comparison to Palpatine is something I never really thought about. His motivations and actions are difficult to comprehend at times, but Neeson has always had a knack for enigmatic characters. His dialog is as bad as almost all the rest of it, but Neeson gives it an eerie element of confidence and understanding.
And I do enjoy the lightsaber battles. They represent some of the best sequences in the entire movie. The opening? It’s good stuff, too. I know I mentioned that before. Basically, the beginning is great, the ending is pretty satisfying, and then you have this atrocious middle that has all of the stuff I’ve already complained about. With a running time like this, that atrocious middle feels like it’s going on forever.
I’m fascinated by the realization that I have never approached this movie from the perspective of only looking at Lucas in terms of his body of work as a director. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve never really thought about that before. I stand by everything I said, but it does make me appreciate his ambition a little more. It also makes me appreciate the enormous challenges he chose to tackle. Lucas clearly endeavored to do something that continued what fans loved, while also bringing a number of new dynamics to the table. I still think he failed on a grand scale, and I’ll stick with my “Fuck this movie” opinion, but this discussion so far has left me with some really intriguing opinions to consider.
Donald McCarthy: I already talked about many of the parts that worked for me so I want to follow up on what some of you guys have been talking about in terms of Lucas’ overall career before I get back to The Phantom Menace. I think Lucas’ approach to direction is interesting because he very clearly keeps genre in mind. A New Hope has a Buck Rogers action adventure feel to it; American Graffiti was a memory; THX-1138 was going for the hard sci-fi feel, similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though he didn’t direct it, his recent produced film, Red Tails, has a lot of his imprint on it and it is in clear keeping with old war movies from the 50s and 60s.
What genre is The Phantom Menace aiming towards? Or even all the prequels? I don’t think Lucas has an answer to this question and I think it’s what trips him up. Movies don’t need to neatly fall into one genre, but Lucas seems to like that approach. The problem is, the prequels don’t have a clear genre. They are at time political, other times space adventure, and occasionally childish, especially in The Phantom Menace. And I don’t mean childish in a bad way! But to believably go from Jar Jar being grossed out by an animal farting to Senator Palpatine using his political influence to impeach the sitting chancellor is… a task and a half for even the most seasoned and malleable director. Lucas isn’t malleable. He needs to stick to one form of a story. The prequels, on the other hand, want to be more than one form of a story; the prequels want to be an old school epic.
I think this is why the prequels are spotty (or a failure, if you’re so inclined, although I’d disagree). I also think it’s why the movies have so many great individual moments, however. Matt and Gabe are clearly not fans, but both of them have pointed out scenes that they’d get a kick out of. I’d put the lightsaber duel at the end up there with pretty much any action sequence in other sci-fi/fantasy/comic book film; hell, I think it’d beat all the competition.
Even the parts of the film that get complained about are great in concept. Folks talk about how boring the politics in this film are, but the idea behind it is actually quite good. Lucas is clearly trying to say something here: you have a corrupt senator who is using corporations, specifically corporations that make weapons, to overcome all of his opposition. Other politicians can’t stop him because they’re too indebted to other companies and every vote they make they have to vet first. This is a surprising amount of thought put into the politics of Star Wars, and Lucas goes further with it in Attack of the Clones (a movie that I agree is not good, but it could’ve easily been a classic- we’ll get there in time).
But if you’re not interested in politics or Palpatine as a character then the plot falters. This isn’t a hard fix. What Lucas needed to do was to craft the story for the prequels, do the first draft of the scripts, have someone else do a second draft, and then have another director direct the film or, at least, co-direct the film with him. He seems to have learned, because he did this with Red Tails and with the new Star Wars films (unfortunately, his story outlines were apparently discarded, which I think is a mistake).
I agree with Lawrence that there was no way Lucas was going to please Star Wars fans so many years after the fact unless he made films that were very similar to the originals. I have a lot of sympathy for Lucas because he clearly did not want to just do a redo of the original trilogy and have it be exactly the same, yet many fans were expecting just that.
Lawrence, you and I are fans of The Phantom Menace, to at least some extent; what tweaks or large scale changes do you think Lucas should’ve made to the film to really make it work?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Let me start with the easy target, Jar Jar Binks. Jar... Jar... Binks. Do you know why Jar Jar Binks fails? It’s not because he’s annoying, it’s not because he’s a caricature, it’s not because he’s not funny. It’s because he entirely fails at his actual role. And his role is to be the audience surrogate. He is supposed to mimic how we feel--whether it’s astonishment, excitement, confusion or skepticism. If Anakin wins the podrace, Jar Jar shouts “Whoopeee!!!” for us. If the Queen is contemplating her decision to return to Naboo, Jar Jar says “Yousa thinkin youssa people gonna die,” for us. If the film introduces a goofy fantasy fiction idea like a mystical force controlling all living things, Jar Jar skeptically retorts, “Oh, maxi-big the Force” for us. Of all the mistakes the film makes, the worst is that it expected us to relate to Jar Jar.
Poor Jar Jar. Here’s my theory to what happened to him: George Lucas at his desk knew he needed some levity in this story full of politics and somber Jedi. So he made sure to write this Jar Jar character broad. Ahmed Best on the set acting against a serious Liam Neeson and a wooden Jake Lloyd knew he needed to provide the light moments. So he played his character as broad as he could. The animators in post-production knew they needed to sell the audience on a computer-generated character. They weren’t confident enough in the technology for subtlety to work so they animated Jar Jar as broad as they could. And all this added up to the abomination we have. Poor Jar Jar. Everyone only had the best intentions for you.
The film needed an outsider joining in on the adventure to act in our place . The film needed levity. But Jar Jar as he is fails in these roles. I don’t even think he needs to be completely removed or changed. He could still look like he does and have the same voice that he does, and he could still work. He just needed one thing--one thing--cool and/or relatable about him. Maybe he could have been a laidback counter-culture guy who still knew his stuff ala Donald Sutherland in Kelly’s Heroes. Maybe he could have been loyal and naively sincere like Samwise Gamgee. Or maybe, hell, he could even have been a streetwise pickpocket who always spoke in rhyme, and he still would have worked better.
Another entirely missed opportunity is the Queen Amidala/Padme deception. The Queen is such a non-character that we don’t even miss her during the Tatooine sequence. We never once think, “Hey, I wonder what’s going on with that Queen right now?” And we certainly never follow up that thought with, “Hey, there’s something familiar about this new Padme girl. I wonder if...?” Those thoughts that should be happening for the reveal to work just never happen. The film never clues you in that any deception in going on. When Padme finally does announce, “I am Queen Amidala. This is my loyal bodyguard,” it’s not a satisfying moment, it’s a confusing one. We’re supposed to feel astonishment followed by knowing understanding, as all the reaction shots try to cue us, but we never knew or cared that anything like that was a possibility. In theory, the Queen/Padme deception should work. It mirrors and foreshadows the Palpatine/Sidious deception. It goes along perfectly with the film’s themes of duality and perception. It really should work to strengthen and deepen the film, but it is handled so clumsily it instead becomes just another example of the film’s failures.
Only subtle changes would have made it work. There’s always a balance for a film to make between over-explaining and not explaining at all, but just a few more clues would have been helpful. A few more visual cues, a few more lines of dialog, some stronger acting on the part of a young Natalie Portman and an even younger Kiera Knightley (receiving no guidance from their director) would have made the whole missed storyline more apparent and the film richer.(In my imagined reworking, our pickpocket Jar Jar says “Padme, I like you, you nothin’ like the Queen. She got the big clothes, but she so mean.”)
When it comes back to my turn, I do want to talk about the themes in the film. There is an attempt there. Compared to Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace tries to be deeper and better. In our discussion last month we lifted up the carpet of Jedi and found not much underneath. That film does little more than fulfill its obligations. The Phantom Menace fails in so many ways, but the poor thing is trying.
Matt, we’re swinging back around to the bad things in the film. What other, non-obvious mistakes do you see?
Matthew Guerruckey: You know, that comment about this film needing a counter-culture type brings up a glaring weakness in the structure of The Phantom Menace--there’s no cynical or sarcastic counterpoint to everything that’s going on. Every character is serious and straight-forward and, therefore, not much fun. The closest that any character in this entire movie gets to a cynical “Han Solo” line of dialogue is Jar Jar when he mocks the “maxi-big” force. But why is this Jar Jar’s line? Jar Jar is an innocent, and his innocence will be key, in the next movie, to Palpatine grabbing power. So there’s no way Jar jar would actually say this, but this kind of line should be said by some character.
Without opposing worldviews, there’s no conflict. Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia have chemistry as characters because they all want and feel different things, and those things are a reflection of their lives. Luke and Han lie in opposition to each other because one has seen the galaxy and one hasn’t. Han and Leia are in opposition because one believes in fighting the good fight and the other believes in looking out for number one.
The closest that the core characters of The Phantom Menace come to true conflict is when Obi Wan questions Qui Gon about training Anakin. Not only is that conversation never mentioned again, but Obi Wan’s words have no effect on Qui Gon. He never questions that Anakin might be the chosen one. Without even a moment of doubt, we don’t really believe that Qui Gon has his own thoughts and emotions. At the end of Star Wars, Han Solo comes back to save Luke because both Luke and Leia have confronted him about the good that he can do for the Rebellion. We see Han become conflicted, and so when he comes back, though we may be surprised, we can picture his moment of indecision. It happened off-screen, but at some point Han decided to turn back. Why does Qui Gon decide to train Anakin against the counsel of his superiors? Because George Lucas wants it that way. We, the audience, have no insight into why Qui Gon or any other character in this movie act the way that they do.
The only character we see doubt himself in this movie is Anakin, when he runs back to his mother before following Qui Gon and leaving Tatooine. Everyone’s dealt with doubt before a life-changing decision, so we can insert our own emotions into the moment. There is no other scene in The Phantom Menace that can connect to the audience’s emotions on a similar emotional level. Not a single one.
And while we’re in that moment--what happened to Anakin’s promise to come back and free the slaves of Tatooine? In Attack of the Clones he’ll come back to rescue his mother (committing a proto-Vaderian genocide in the process), but nothing ever comes of the dream Anakin mentions in this movie. Had they connected the plot of the second prequel to that dream, into the one true sign of emotion in The Phantom Menace, then maybe the climax of that film would have been more than a giant, garish cartoon.
Gabe, what changes to the prequels might have saved them for you? If you got the chance to strip these movies to spare parts and start from scratch, what changes would you make to get the engine running?
Gabriel Ricard: A better character to connect the audience to the story would have been a good start. I like thinking that one of the movie’s great failures was Lucas’ failure to create an effective audience surrogate. I also like the idea that failing to create any kind of sarcastic counterpoint is another glaring weakness. I would say both of those things contribute to why the movie feels so horribly, painfully long. That will always be one of the most frustrating elements of The Phantom Menace. You have good elements. You have interesting ideas. It’s just that we’re missing key elements that would have made the whole thing far more palatable than it was. It’s a case of the good points being overwhelmed by the bad points. Unfortunately, the bad points are substantial in size and quantity, and the sheer importance of this film is difficult to ignore, as well. You can’t ignore the fact that this was the first Star Wars film in over a decade and change. You can’t go easy on it. That may not be fair to Lucas and the movie, but the man knew what he was signing on for, when he decided to make his return to this universe. The stakes were high, and because of that, the glaring mistakes are more so than they would be under normal circumstances.
I guess if I was going to build these films from the ground up, I suppose I would work with the things I’ve mentioned in the paragraph above. I would pay considerably more attention to chemistry between actors, because that’s always been one of my problems with this movie in particular. I wouldn’t assume that just because this is the first movie in the franchise in years, people will be on board for whatever. I would perhaps play it a little safer.
Lucas was ambitious as hell with this. He just didn’t know how to make it all work together. I still like being reminded that this was only his fourth film. When you consider that notion, a lot of the problems with this movie start to make sense. This feels less like a movie by a seasoned pro, and more like the most expensive student film ever conceived.
I would also probably trim the running time for The Phantom Menace just a little.
Donald McCarthy: In terms of improvements, I’ll stay focused on The Phantom Menace for now. Like Lawrence, I would cut Jar Jar out. I understand the want for an audience identification character, but I don’t think we need one as much as we did in the original film. Still, this is meant to be accessible to new viewers and Lucas clearly wants to involve young people who would go for that. So my question is, why not make Obi-Wan that character?
Thematically, it’d work well. Luke was the guy taking a step into a brave new world in the original film, so having Obi-Wan carry some of that weight in The Phantom Menace would’ve felt just right considering he’d be guiding Luke before long. Involving Obi-Wan in the plots more would create more of the tension Matt was talking about above. Imagine if Obi-Wan was with the group on Tatooine instead of Jar Jar and he and Qui-Gon debated about how much to involve Anakin. Plus, imagine if Anakin was aware of their discussions, thus further complicating their upcoming relationship.
I would also cast someone other than Natalie Portman as Padme. Jake Lloyd never bothered me and as terrible as Christensen is in the next film, he does step up his game for Revenge of the Sith. There’s no excuse for Portman, though. She’s wooden and disinterested at best and will only get worse with each film. Portman seems to pick and choose which film she’ll bother to put effort in and it’s clear the Star Wars films aren’t the ones she’s going to get onboard with.
There should probably me some more usage of Darth Maul, as well. He’s very effective as a silent figure, but I could’ve done with some more exploration of his detective skills. Maul is obviously a blunt instrument, but one gets the impression there’s also a lot going on in his head. It’s a tough line to walk with giving us more but not too much, yet I do wish Lucas did something else with him because he’s one of the most visually memorable characters of the entire saga.
I’d also mention Count Dooku. This sounds like a weird fix, but stick with me. Dooku is one of the prequels’ most interesting and underused characters. A mention, or even an appearance, of him here would add weight to his presence and betrayal in the next two films, especially when he brings up Qui-Gon Jinn to Obi-Wan. He would also further cement Qui-Gon’s character because we’d see how Qui-Gon’s own master is a bit of a rebel, hence where he gets his perspective from. This leads to my last change…
I want to see more of the philosophical differences between Qui-Gon and the Council. The Council ended up being right about Anakin being a danger, but was he only a danger because he wasn’t suited for the very strict Jedi guidelines? Did Qui-Gon have a better path? The film seems to hint that the answer is yes, but I wish it’d fully commit. I think it’d give the film the extra weight it needs.
You’ll notice most of my changes are small or character based. Structurally, I think the film is pretty sound, certainly as sound as the original films. The devil is in the details.
Lawrence, you said you wanted to talk about themes and I’m with you. I find the relationship between the themes of the trilogy and John Williams’ music really interesting. For instance, the last scene is scored to the Emperor’s theme but in a more upbeat fashion, signaling that Palpatine won despite the celebrations.
Then, of course, there’s the hint of the Imperial March over the ending credits. And that’s not even mentioning “Duel of the Fates” …
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: What I’ll do is step into the post-modern rabbit hole, and say, yes, if you look at this film with traditional perspectives of what “good” is, it fails in many ways. Things like “character development” and “convincing acting” are indeed missing from this film. But, if you’re only looking for those things, you are missing what the film is trying to achieve. (And let me take my tongue out of my cheek from here on out.) There are some really sophisticated and interesting things going on in this film. There is a theme of duality: The film is filled with pairs: Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Sidious and Darth Maul, R2D2 and C3P0, the Naboo and the Gungans, the engines of Anakin’s Podracer, the two blades of Maul’s lightsaber. The pairs are strongest when they work together. Darth Maul reveals the second blade in his last fight and is killed after his blades are separated, Anakin wins the podrace only after repairing both engines. Two main characters, however, do not have counterparts--Anakin and Padme. Their lack of a partner foreshadows their eventual pairing. One more pair: the Force and the Midichlorians. Why did George Lucas make up Midichlorians? They fit with his film’s theme.
There is a second theme of perception. The film’s title, “The Phantom Menace” (which caused much consternation on the discussion boards of theforce.net circa 1998) points to this theme. The “menace” of the film, the invading Trading Federation, is only a phantom one--a false one created by the true menace, Senator Palpatine, to distract from his grand plans. The yet-to-be-named Sideous only appears as a hologram throughout the film (except for one scene with his pair Darth Maul.) Cleverly, Senator Palpatine is first introduced via hologram. Padme is really the Queen. The actress Kiera Knightley is in the Queen’s costume in more scenes than Natalie Portman. The title of “Queen” turns out to be an elected position. Anakin, the future Darth Vader, is a cute little boy. The Jedi, apparently all-knowing and powerful, are duped by a Sith Order they thought were extinct. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film we go from outer-space to a planet’s surface to deep underwater and through the planet’s core. A giant fish only appears giant until a bigger fish appears. Perception changes. Truth and reality change with perception. Our perspectives can lie to us and it is very dangerous to ignore that.
The Phantom Menace is an absolutely brilliant film. From, as they say, a certain point of view.
Matthew Guerruckey: Lawrence, you highlight something that’s really easy to forget, because it’s rarely been said since the turn of the last century: George Lucas is really fucking smart. Lucas understands theme and myth in his bones. It’s at the very core of who he is as a writer, and maybe as a person.
But, as with any tragic mythic hero, the very thing that makes him powerful is that which drags him to his defeat. That obsession with mythic structure gives The Phantom Menace a steady framework, but it’s a too-familiar framework. With the original Star Wars, we only notice the structure once we’re outside of the adventure, because we’re swept along by the events of the story. Because The Phantom Menace has too many creaking pieces of machinery, we don’t get caught up the same way, so we can tick off each step along the Hero’s Journey as we meet it. That takes away a lot of the fun of the adventure, but still--the basic structure is there, and is remarkably solid.
These days, we’re all full up with books and workshops and infographics that will explain Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to aspiring writers.
But George Lucas knew that structure because he’d actually read The Hero with a Thousand Faces (and because he actually knew Joseph Campbell), and so he knew that it’s not a blueprint. It’s not “Please insert Character A into Archetype C and give me 100 million in domestic box office receipts, please”, a philosophy that’s led to a plethora of dumb movies that think they’re smart because they’re using the monomyth structure (::cough::The Matrix::cough::). The monomyth is a useful tool to shape to your story, not the other way around.
That’s part of the problem with The Phantom Menace, and the prequels in general--they represent the dividing point between Lucas using the monomyth as a guideline and Lucas using the monomyth as a formula. Call to Adventure? Check. Wise Old Mentor? Check. Belly of the Whale Moment? Check. Meeting with the Goddess? Check. No deviation, no surprises, no fun. And after Episode I came out, there were suddenly far more films following that rigid guideline. Because, hated or not, the damn thing made $600 million dollars.
Gabriel, you see more movies than anyone else I know, so I wonder--do you see any influence from The Phantom Menace in the movies that have come out since it was released?
Gabriel Ricard: I definitely agree that the philosophy Lucas seemingly embraced with The Phantom Menace influenced a number of blockbusters thereafter. It was like the financial success of The Phantom Menace sent out the call that as long as you slapped some really rad bells and whistles on the ride, people would accept where it was going to go, even if it took them through the exact same paces they had been through a thousand times before. Much in the same way that A New Hope influenced the concept of the blockbuster for generations, The Phantom Menace sent a message to studios that the visuals were far more important to us than character or general storytelling. Because studios generally pay more attention to box office receipts than critical reviews, which I suppose is fair enough. So I think we went through a period of big blockbusters being even worse than usual, although I also believe you can find some exceptions to that.
But I will say that I don’t think Lucas set out to make a dumb film. I just think there’s way too much ambition going on here, and I also believe that there are elements of the film that are strangely handled with what I perceive to be far less interest than others. For example, you have all these interesting (on paper) political/philosophical components, and then you have such an intense dedication to following the Hero’s Journey to the letter, as Matthew pointed out, it’s almost like parts of this were made by Lucas, and then other parts were made by someone who just started writing Star Wars fanfiction. The Phantom Menace is a lot of failed ambition and infuriatingly uneven components. I honestly don’t know how much help Lucas had on this film, but I would imagine he attempted to maintain tight control over everything, and I think that really hurt things. I also sometimes wonder if there was a certain measure of disdain on Lucas’ part for fans of the series. Those of you in this discussion who are actually big fans of the franchise can probably better answer such questions than I can.
If nothing else, I like that The Force Awakens is clearly bringing in a number of different talents to handle different elements of the film. It may or may not work, but I’m encouraged by the fact that the seventh movie is being handled by people who actually seem to have a grip on reality.
In the end, the influence of The Phantom Menace is minimal in this day and age, if there is any influence to be found at all. Companies are far more paranoid about pissing off the nerds and the diehards than ever before. You also have things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the best examples of those movies prove that you can combine style and some form of substance.
By the way, I really liked Donald’s idea that Obi Wan should have been the audience connection to the film. I also really like his suggestions regarding replacing Natalie Portman, and then tying Dooku into things in some form or fashion. I’m not just saying this because the man is dead, but Christopher Lee’s performance, as well as the Dooku character in general, are two of the best things about the last three films.
But I digress.
Donald McCarthy: Lawrence’s comments are really insightful and made a number of connections I hadn’t seen before. I do think Lucas set out to subvert a lot of expectations. Making Anakin a cute, brash, and eager kid is not what anyone was expecting when they heard about the prequels. They expected Darth Vader slashing through the Jedi, massive amounts of clones in this fabled Clone War. They didn’t expect Obi-Wan to be a kid who, while inquisitive, was pretty stubborn in terms of his view of the Jedi. He loves Qui-Gon, but he’s still falling in with the company line and doesn’t understand why Qui-Gon keeps battling with the Jedi. Audiences instead expected a badass Obi-Wan. And no one expected that the Emperor would be a grandfatherly senator from a backwater planet. The most stunning reversal, though, are the Jedi. We pictured great warriors and they turn out to mostly be stuffy assholes. I love this choice. It also makes Luke’s journey more powerful because not only will he be bringing back the Jedi, but thanks to his passion they’ll be a more effective order. Darth Maul is probably what the audience did expect, at least thematically: an evil force ready to slice through the Jedi without remorse, an example of the violence to come.
I remember reading the junior novelization right before this film came out (I was in fourth grade, at the time, and this was shaping up to be the most amazing experience of my life). When the Trade Federation started hunting down Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon on Naboo I expected this to be the start of the Jedi Purge. After I finished the book, which I enjoyed, I was a little surprised that what I kept thinking would occur, the Jedi Purge, the Sith attacking (I also thought Darth Maul would turn out to be Xizor from Shadows of the Empire for some reason), never happened.
I do think Lucas’ choice to go against what people were expecting led to a lot of the backlash. While we’ve discussed The Phantom Menace’s flaws, we should remember that when we discussed Return of the Jedi we also saw that a lot of that film was rubbish, but at the time it was eaten up.
Yet Matt is also correct about Lucas sticking to formula. He does the exact opposite in Attack of the Clones, a movie that goes against structure in many ways, both to its credit and fault. This film sorta sticks to the hero’s journey, yet who the hero is keeps changing. Is it Anakin? You’d think so but he doesn’t arrive until well into the film. Is it Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon? Maybe, but Qui-Gon is already a mentor figure and Obi-Wan doesn’t factor in enough. In that sense, the hero’s journey doesn’t really work because there’s no consistent hero. Using the hero’s journey again makes sense because Lucas is subverting A New Hope; a lot of the same beats are hit, but each victory actually brings us closer to the inevitable defeat that’s coming. That’s a really intriguing idea that he doesn’t quite pull off. You can see elements of it crop up: the aforementioned musical reversal of the Emperor’s theme, Yoda’s line about how there are only two Sith and we know the little kid in the film is going to be filling in spot number two before long, Palpatine’s line about keeping an eye on Anakin. Yet the more juvenile aspects of the film prevent this from happening. From Jar Jar’s fart jokes to the weird, borderline stereotypical alien archetypes, we’re seeing stuff that belongs in kid films from thirty years before. Why Lucas did this is unclear to me and, despite talk that he doesn’t listen to critics, he elemented this almost entirely from the next two films so I think he’s well aware that it didn’t work out. I do think he was very personally hurt by the criticism, especially the talk of how he was just cashing in (remember Luca$?) and the ridiculous yet common “he raped my childhood” remarks. I think the prequels are very personal films to Lucas, especially when you consider how much time and effort he put into them. He didn’t just pump out one a year; he took three years to do each one of these.
I would love to see Lucas’ original outline and ideas for The Phantom Menace. I wonder if he had a darker story planned at some point or a lighter film and if he couldn’t end up deciding which direction to go in. We have early drafts of all the original films, but the earliest draft I can find for The Phantom Menace is 1997. I did a read through it and there are some small differences, but much is the same. However, the script reads a lot more intelligently in certain areas than the film. Put simply, the stupid parts aren’t as stupid or they’re non-existent (Jar Jar is still ridiculous, however- some of his lines are scripted in all caps, which is hilarious, but not in the right way). Qui-Gon’s character is also scripted differently, although the final product is one of the few things that work 100% for me thanks to Neeson. In the script, Qui-Gon comes across as more aloof, harsher, and older. Neeson softened him somewhat, giving him a more tragic edge.
I’ve read about earlier summaries Lucas had, such as ones where Qui-Gon didn’t show up until halfway through the film (a terrible idea; Qui-Gon’s arc represents what’ll happen to the Jedi in the prequels and the fact that he becomes a Force ghost by the end of the prequels signals what will happen in the original trilogy), but I haven’t seen concrete proof.
What does work better in the film than the script is a sense of mythology. Lucas expands the universe quite a bit in The Phantom Menace and to great effect. He’ll go overboard with the CGI in the upcoming films, but in this film every background character is unique enough and looks like s/he has his/her own life. Pick out any extra in Mos Espa and it feels like they’d have a great smuggler’s tale; pick out any Jedi and it seems like there’d be some awesome adventures. Elements of the gritty, lived in universe from the original film is present here, something the CGI will mostly eliminate going forward.
Small touches like the Tusken Raiders firing off shots at the podrace or Aurra Sing watching over it make it feel like we’re watching a real place. Even lines about how the Sith haven’t been seen in a thousand years are tantalizing. Why haven’t the Sith been seen? What happened? We don’t get told and that gets our imagination going.
What did you think about how Lucas expanded the universe, Lawrence?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Just as in the films of the original trilogy, we only actually see three different planets. (Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant.) Naboo, interestingly, is the first Star Wars planet that is more than a mono-environment. We had already seen a desert planet, an ice planet, and a forest moon, but Naboo, at the very least, has forests, plains, and underwater cities. Each succeeding prequel film will introduce more planets, but in The Phantom Menace, we’re seeing no larger a slice of the universe than in any of the original films.
In our Star Wars discussion, I talked about the throw-away lines that suggest a larger a universe. The Phantom Menace has similar, if less delightful lines. We learn that Jar Jar once broke the boss’s hedlebber. We know there’s very fast, very dangerous podracing on Malastare. We hear that the deep space pilots speak of beings called “Angels” who live by the Moons of Iego (I think.) General Panaka also lets us know that Naboo has ducks. (In Revenge of the Sith, Obi Wan Kenobi uses the phrase “Wild bantha chase.” Comparing that to Panaka’s line about being “sitting ducks,” suggests that, while ducks exist in the Star Wars universe, geese do not.)
While The Phantom Menace brought in things that were roundly rejected by fans, (midichlorians) there are more than a few additions to the universe that just naturally work. One idea has firmly cemented itself in the Star Wars mythology--the idea that the Sith are always two in number. This wasn’t a concept that was in the “expanded universe” or our collective imagination before, but it is essential to what we know as Star Wars now. It is a great idea: An organization so evil that only two can be members at any one time--and both have to constantly be on alert to betrayal from the other. A master takes on an apprentice knowing that, if he is successful in training his apprentice, his apprentice will eventually kill him.
I also think Anakin’s virgin birth is an idea that works. In this case, we know the Christ analog will become the most evil person in the galaxy (more subverting of perceptions and expectations.) Further, while Luke may have had some father issues, at least he had a father. Anakin, without a father of any sort, will never be complete.
I’ve talked a lot about interesting things in the film, but all my talk can’t eliminate the fact that much of it is unbearable. It’s so frustrating that there’s so much to think about here, but also so much that is simply repulsive. The Phantom Menace is so infuriating that way.
Matthew Guerruckey: And, in the end, that’s it, isn’t it? We, as hardcore Star Wars fans, can talk about the themes and concepts of The Phantom Menace as much as we like, but when we sit down to watch the movie, we have to admit that it’s an undercooked stew. A little more of this ingredient and a lot less of these other ingredients might have worked, but this pot is fucked. Better order a pizza.
But, to wrap this up, I need to get a bit sentimental. The year that this movie came out, I was living on my own for the very first time, so my memories of the trailers, the expectation, and my first viewing are wrapped up in emotions that grow more bittersweet with each passing year. It was a time in my life that was equal parts lonely, exhilarating, and profound.
I mentioned Joseph Campbell earlier. I hadn’t even heard that name before reading the TIME magazine interview with George Lucas released as part of the Episode I hype machine, but after reading that interview I tracked down a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That led to The Power of Myth, which led to Jung and to Joyce; to the Bible and tales from storytellers stretching back into infinite history. That journey led me to where I am now in my faith, my conception of humanity, and my career. That exploration has an irreplaceable value to me and it started, in part, with this loud, silly movie. The Phantom Menace is a garbage movie, but it’s added more to my life than most great movies I’ve ever seen.
Gabe, what’s your takeaway from this viewing?
Gabriel Ricard: I’m really grateful to everyone in this discussion for giving me a lot of different things to consider with Episode I. I almost feel a little dumb in the presence of such extraordinary insights. All of this almost makes me want to watch it again.
I think I’ll wait a few years. I stand by the vast majority of my opinions about this film, and I still hate the shit out of it.
Donald McCarthy: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed more and more of the flaws in The Phantom Menace yet I can’t say that I like it any less than I did when I was a young kid seeing it in the theater for the first time. Maybe that’s just nostalgia or maybe there’s just an element in this film that hits me right (Qui-Gon Jinn plays a big part in that). Really, the only part of the film that I’m turned off from that didn’t bother me as a kid is Watto, who comes off as a bad mix of stereotypes from old films. I think that points to Lucas’ overall problem in the prequels, actually. I mentioned before that some of the aliens act like ethnic stereotypes from old films (this must’ve been pointed out to Lucas because it’s gone in the next two films). I don’t think this is racism on Lucas’ part. I think he did it as an homage to older films and didn’t realize what he was reinforcing. Lucas understands film; he doesn’t understand people. That’s why the prequels are paradoxically deep and shallow.
The structural brilliance that Lawrence pointed out is undeniably brilliant. Sadly, Lucas is at a loss with most characterization and it all goes by the wayside.
The next time I watch The Phantom Menace I’m sure I’ll still greatly enjoy it, but after this talk I’m definitely going to be thinking about the film it could’ve been.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: There were a lot of things we didn’t get into in this discussion. The weirdly ethnic accents is one of them. The “The film isn’t racist, it’s only quoting racist films” argument only goes so far. A film’s symptomatic meaning may not be intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Donald also reminded me that we never got into the whole nostalgic elements of the movie, either. All of our original trilogy discussions spent a bit of time talking about our first time seeing each film. We only did that in passing here, if at all. It certainly doesn’t help The Phantom Menace that, while I’ve seen Star Wars every year of my life since I was four, I first saw The Phantom Menace when I was twenty-four (a young grown-up but still a grown up.) This movie doesn’t and could never have the deep emotional connection that the original films had.
I understand the hate that the prequels can generate. (Sort of. A lot of it is just internet rage-posturing, the sort of stuff you see on Reddit, and r/movies especially.) It’s not The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not cool. It’s not, in a lot of very real ways, that good. But I stand by saying it’s much more interesting than the study in obligation that is Return of the Jedi. It’s definitely not what we expected. But, dear angry boys on the internet, it’s better than you let yourself know.
Join us next month, as Taras D. Butrej joins us once more for a discussion of the second chapter of the Star Wars prequels, Attack of the Clones.