Monday, February 8, 2010

Geek break: In defense of The Phantom Menace

I am in agreement with pretty much everything Eric says about the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  Regardless of quality, those films are morally repugnant, and they thoroughly cheapen Anakin's transformation from perky grade schooler to evil incarnate.  And I thank one of the commenters for linking to Patton Oswalt's brilliant routine on the subject.

That said, I do not think the films are uniformly bad.  "Revenge of the Sith," for all its flaws, I maintain, was superior to "Return of the Jedi," although I concede that's not saying much.  And while my early reaction to both "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" was that they were irredeemable trash, I have come to believe that the former actually has several kernels of quality film in there that just aren't fully realized.

One of the recurring themes in "Phantom Menace" is the idea of symbiosis.  Qui-Gon describes the midi-chlorians as symbiotic beings, living off our cells yet providing us with guidance from the Force.  We are frequently told that both Jedi and Sith travel in pairs -- a master and an apprentice.  Each needs the other. Beyond that is the suggestion that good and evil are never found alone.  The light and dark sides of the Force are, in a sense, symbiotic.

And yet the great irony is that the Jedi, while teaching about symbiosis, seem blind to these relationships.  The concept that evil might be nearby continues to escape them.  They are slow to perceive the Sith threat.  And Qui-Gon, for all his preachings, fails to acknowledge his dependence upon his padawan, Obi Wan.

This failure on Qui-Gon's part is best articulated wordlessly, through the three-way light saber duel at the end of the film.  This duel, by far the best and most creative of the entire six-film series, conveys story in a way that George Lucas' ham-handed dialogue cannot.  Darth Maul is fierce and talented, but he knows he will lose against two Jedi unless he can separate them.  This is his entire motivation early in the fight.  Rather than going for an early kill, he instead tries repeatedly to kick one of them away from the action so he can focus his energies on the remaining one.  He ultimately succeeds in this and lures Qui-Gon further away from Obi Wan, a task that is only possible because of Qui-Gon's short-sightedness.  Remember early in the film when Obi Wan talked about being mindful of the future, and Qui-Gon advised him to keep focused on the present?  That blindness killed Qui-Gon.  In later films, a similar blindness by the Jedi would lead to similar results.

All this is to say that there were a lot of interesting ideas and themes bandied about in the film that served the entire trilogy well.  They were, of course, buried under some pretty crappy filmmaking.  Lucas has a real knack for sucking the life out of actors.  The principal actors of the prequel trilogy were much more talented than those of the original series, but Lucas still managed to make them all sound like middle-schoolers in a class play.  And the film also gets very boring at times and generates needless plot holes.  And then there's Jar Jar.  But still, there's interesting material in here.  Attention must be paid.

"Attack of the Clones," by contrast, is pure shit.


JHB said...

Feh. Now you've gone and distracted me when I'm supposed to be writing about "Mission to Moscow"...OK, here's a rant for you.

1. The first half of "Jedi" is awesome, as good as the first two movies. The second half...well, I have more tolerance of inexcusable insufferable cuteness than I should, so I don't mind it. Overall, that leaves it much better than any of the prequels.

2. "Clones"? I saw a IMAX cut that was, I don't know, maybe seven minutes shorter, and it was *way* improved. I think it's fine, except for the romance stuff, which is (granted) about as bad as it gets.

3. I don't see it, at all, about "Phantom Menace." IMO, bad as Jar-Jar is, the kid is just such a disaster that it makes it close to unwatchable for me. All the stuff you like? I'm not convinced that it's really there. And while Vader in Jedi heaven doesn't really bother me, the scientific hand-waiving explanation of the Force does, a lot.

4. About Lucas and actors & dialogue...I think that the original movie was brilliant in that area. It's supposed to be "corny" dialogue and "wooden" acting; that's what makes it iconic! And he just muffed all of that w/Hayden Christensen. The key scene, and I'm totally convinced of this, is the one where he's whining to Padme about how the Jedi won't ever let him do any of the cool's supposed to echo Luke, but it just falls totally flat.

Seth said...

On your first point, I strongly disagree. The first third of "Jedi" didn't make a lick of sense. The rest of it was teddy bears and cheap Freudian analysis. The only redeeming part was the Emperor's sarcasm.

And I don't get that the acting was supposed to be wooden in Episode IV. That assumes that Lucas is capable of evoking non-wooden performances from his actors. Has he ever done that?

JHB said...

Putting Jedi aside for the moment...

I don't think Harrison Ford is wooden in either Graffiti or Star Wars. I can't say I'm a fan of Dreyfus, but he's no worse in Graffiti than he is in anything else. Toad is great. Mackenzie Phillips is great. Ron Howard does what Ron Howard does...I wouldn't say he's better in other things. Ditto, I think, with Paul Le Mat (I like both Howard and Le Mat, but they, and Harrison Ford, aren't exactly known for range). I don't think Cindy Williams is very good, but again it's not as if he's working with a lot, there.

Oh, and James Earl Jones is awesome. And Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness are fine, too.

I haven't seen THX in years, but aren't they all supposed to be robotic in that?

I'll give you Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and obviously Mark Hamill, and maybe Robert Duvall...but I will say that IMO Hamill probably does a better job in the first movie than in the other two.

Jeremy said...

I was thinking about Phantom Menace a while ago myself (although I have not seen it in a few years and will not do so again). I think the biggest problem with it is this: for one second, divorce it from the rest of the films. Forget that the midichlorians don't square with the previous ideas of the force, or that Jake Lloyd just doesn't seem believable as the future Darth. It's supposed to be the first episode, so it should stand on it's own. But removed from the context of the rest of the series, it's just boring as hell. The characters aren't interesting, and for a movie set in space with lasers and spaceships, the plot is insanely dull. It's not well acted, and there just simply isn't a single interaction between any of the characters that's still interesting when divorced from the films that are (now) actually meant to be viewed afterwards. There's just no reason to care about the fate of this planet with a stiff, boring queen and a bunch of annoying frogs. The only really great thing is the score.

"Jedi," for all it's flaws, is at least a fun movie that had the benefit of goodwill from the previous two films. You want to see what happens with all the characters you already love, and I'd still say that it captures a lot of the fun and even emotions from the first two well. "Sith," although not a bad movie, had the misfortune of following "Menace" and "Clones," so there was a lot less investment in the characters or situations; most of that actually still came from the original trilogy, and we already knew what happens in those.

Anonymous said...

(1) Jedi indeed makes no sense, and you might be happy to learn that the Rifftrax (ie, most of MST3K reincarnated) of ROTJ has your same complaints.
(2) On the other hand, the Emperor's sarcasm does not redeem the film. It's actual only redeeming quality is that it eventually ends.
(3) Jar-Jar only seems tolerable in comparison to the twin abominations of the Stepin Fetchit robots from Transformers 2.

Jeremy said...

I suppose I should add, though: "Phantom Menace" is no where near as horrible as the "Holiday Special." Dear lord, is that terrifying. Though probably less boring than Phantom Menace.

Seth said...

JHB, good point about Hamill. He's petulant in Episode IV, but he's most believable in that portrayal. It's when he tries to become wise in later episodes that he falls flat. I'm still undecided on Carrie Fisher. She's pretty lively in IV, but did you notice that she sometimes has an English accent and sometimes doesn't? She was much better in Empire, and brilliant in "When Harry Met Sally."

Jeremy, I agree with you. My greatest surprise when watching Phantom for the first time was that I was occasionally bored. That's a horrible thing to feel while watching the heir to one of the greatest action series of all time.

Anonymous, to say that Jar Jar is better than a character in a Michael Bay film is like saying that our torture chambers are more humane than Saddam's. It may be technically true, but you've lost the argument once you've made it.

Robert said...

Watch this for the definitive review of "Phantom Menace." You'll have to get past the reviewer's intentionally creepy voice and personality, but if you do you'll see Jeremy's points backed up to the nth degree and then some.

Robert said...

Whoops, I just noticed that Eric references the review I linked above in the first line of his piece. Call me the anti-Eric then. I'm more concerned that Lucas made bad movies than that he made movies that have a morally suspect worldview.

Jonathan said...

To Patton Oswalt's comments I would just add this: It's about Indiana Jones, but certainly applies to the Star Wars prequels also.

My Star Wars preference ordering would have to be (by episode) 5>4>6>3>1>2.

The more I re-watch them, the more I am struck by the huge gap in quality between the best two (eps. 5 and 4) and all the rest. It's easy to underestimate just how excellent those two are and how really horrible the rest are.

So, why are New Hope and Empire so good? Well, in the case of Empire, Lucas allowed the script-writing and directing to be entirely written by others. The greatness of New Hope is more puzzling. If you watch closely, all the Lucas trademarks that made the prequels so awful are visible in New Hope. But in this one instance, they don't destroy the movie. On the contrary, it all really works and the movie is intensely enjoyable, even in multiple viewings.

In retrospect, I think we have to see New Hope as analogous to a mediocre pitcher, who has one Cy Young season, or maybe pitches one perfect game. It's a performance way above the creator's typical ability level, but that shouldn't stop us from appreciating its greatness.

Anonymous said...

to say that Jar Jar is better than a character in a Michael Bay film is like saying that our torture chambers are more humane than Saddam's. It may be technically true, but you've lost the argument once you've made it

That's my point! The only possible reason JHB could find Jar-Jar, "bad as he is," so relatively mild that it's Little Anakin that ruins the movie is that he's seen Transformers 2 and the Racial Insensitivity Detector in his brain has died from exhaustion.

JHB said...


Nope, haven't seen Transformers 2. It's just that I can try to ignore "annoying sidekick," but if you're trying to annoy Anakin, why are you watching the movie in the first place?

Seth said...

Actually, JHB, I had that very same experience watching "13 Days." I found it to be an excellent movie if you ignore Kevin Costner, which seems challenging at first since it's a Costner film. But it's not impossible.

JHB said...


OK, I deliberately left out Carrie Fisher, because I'm not sure what to think. I'd say her worst moments in the three movies are in Jedi (the scenes where Luke tells her about Vader, and where she tells Han about Luke), but she's good with the Ewok (yeah, I know, but it's not because of her acting). I probably think she's just miscast, but not poorly directed, through all three movies.

Anyway, my main point is that if the big evidence is Mark Hamill, then Lucas (through his first three movies) wasn't bad with actors.

Jonathan (Glad I'm using JHB here!),

No, that won't do. Graffiti is a great movie, IMO. Even if you think THX totally stinks, the guy who directed Star Wars and Graffiti is just way better than the guy who directed the prequels. He really was talented, and then lost it.

JHB said...

On the first half of Jedi...

1. Even if it doesn't make sense, I think it's good fun, and it moves fast enough that you don't have to think about whether it makes sense or not until later. Jabba is a great character, and as far as I can tell it was deliberately set up so we could have fun greeting all of our friends after the three year wait.

2. OK, why it makes sense. Jedi aren't allowed to just go in and kill everyone; it's not moral. Plus, maybe Jabba has some energy field or something that Luke is worried about. So, he gives Jabba every last chance before he finally kills everyone. The whole thing is perfectly plotted down to the end, and it works out exactly how Luke planned it. Sure, he sort of risked his friends' lives that way, but that's the price you pay for Jedi ethics.

Jonathan said...


I'm actually not a big fan of Graffiti, but maybe I'm in the minority. And I've never seen THX. So maybe it's a case of a pitcher with one Cy Young season and two fifteen win seasons, but besides that basically a fifth starter.

Hans said...

Great discussion Seth. I completely agree that Phantom Menace has a lot of redeeming qualities, especially in that fight. Even aside from the storytelling, it's probably the best lightsaber duel in the six films. In fact, saber duels are better all around in the prequel films. Seeing Yoda fight pretty much saves even Attach of the Clones.

The main think I like is that the films have a lot of nice symmetry and connections. Some of it is ham-handed, some not, but it all tells a nice set of parallel stories. I wish it had been executed better, but I'm glad it's there.

Most of it you probably have noticed, but:

Phantom Menace == there is something bad afoot, but we're only beginning to see it
A New Hope == There is something good afoot, but we're only beginning to see it.

Both films involve a tow-headed young boy on Tatooine who has a destiny that is deeper than he knows. Both are taken away from home because of folks who were attacked and then seeking safety on that planet, all the while pursued by bad guys. Both go off into the larger world, where they end up being critical in a space battle.

Most of the reason TPM is irritating is because Anakin is too much of a brat. If he were older, he'd be, well, whiney Luke.

Attack of the Clones == A faceless force (for good?) is striking, (in response to that bad thing in the previous movie).
The Empire Strikes Back == A faceless force for bad is attacking, in response to that good think in the previous movie.

Both films involve extended chase scenes, with someone chasing Padme and Vader chasing Luke. Both involve the heroes being split up, and with a Jedi (Obi-Wan and Luke) engaging in a personal quest. Both involve a Jedi (Anakin and Luke) rushing off to rescue one of the other heroes, only to fall into a trap. Anakin and Luke both have their hands chopped off, both get prosthetic arms, and both stand at the edge of a picturesque view in the final shot, with Padme/Leia and the droids.

Revenge of the Sith == Return of the Jedi

Both start in the middle of a rescue. That opening sequence reveals that Anakin/Luke appears to be a full fledged Jedi. But it turns out both have more to do for full acceptance. Anakin/Luke willingly goes to the enemy, and Palpatine tempts both. But Luke resists. This is the divergence, in which Luke fulfills what Anakin started. Anakin does "bring balance to the Force," but he does it by killing off all the Jedi, and then birthing the Jedi who will kill Vader and the Emperor. It's like a classical Greek (or Shakespearean) prophecy.

There are other parallels. TPM and RotS both end with multi-level battles, a war on the ground between a primitive (and offensively cute) species and the enemy, intercut with a lightsaber battle and a space battle.

None of this is to say that the execution in the original trilogy isn't crap. It is. But there's something there to be ruined.

Jonathan said...

Hans, those are great points. It makes it more frustrating to think about how the prequels actually could have been quite good if they had been executed properly.

It's so depressing it almost makes you want to take up moisture farming :)

JHB said...


I agree. The problem with the first movie (the structural problem...would that it were all) is that because he's a kid, it winds up not being parallel at all. Luke is a frustrated teenager (w/great scenes setting that up wonderfully) who, at the decisive moment, chooses action (another great scene), and winds up being the hero, only to find out (next movie) that he's really way in over his head, leading to the (alas, not a great scene) crisis in the final movie where he has to make the final choice. The prequels *should* be parallel, but they aren't. None of that happens in the first movie...well, Anakin does get to be a hero, but only really in the same way that Jar Jar does, by accident. The frustrated teenager stuff (horribly disappointing scene, key failure of the whole prequel trilogy) doesn't happen until early in the second movie. There never is an initial "go to Alderan" (sp?) choice for Anakin (he sort of makes a decision in the first movie, but at least for me it doesn't even come close to working as a real, adult, decision), and while he's certainly way in over his head, as Luke was, there's no sign at all that he recognizes it, which to me at least takes away most of the oomph from the resolution in the last movie.

Anonymous said...


Seth said...

Good stuff, Hans.

Hey, Anonymous, you could at least identify yourself. If we're the dorks you say we are, we're not likely to beat you up.