Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thoughts on the Phantom Menace

   New Star Wars is out. And, as any fan does, I watched a few of the earlier Star Wars films in preparation. As a child of the 90's, I have a particular fondness for the Prequels. So I started with The Phantom Menace. Sadly, it's not as good as I want it to be, or even as I remember it being. I've been mulling over it since, and I decided I need to get my thoughts out rather than allow them to stew in my head. So here I go.

    The plot here is pretty up-and-down. The set up is pretty simple (the Jedi are there to solve political problems on Naboo), but the overall story takes rabbit trails and wanders around before finally resolving in the end. Because, really, what does the big Pod Race do other than solve a minor issue in the plot? Sure, it's an amazing action beat. But the exhilarating race is only about halfway through the movie. Too much time is spent building up to it, and the win is such an adrenaline rush, that it should be staged more as a part of the climax. The strange scene between Qui-Gon and Watto after it does a nice job of showing that this action beat is only a passing section of the story, but in a 3-act-structure (or any modern story), this really doesn't quite fit. Of course, this section brings Anakin onto the crew, and serves as a point for character development, but as a plot beat it doesn't really fit.
   The other issue with this film is the dialogue, direction, and acting. The dialogue has issues, for sure, but it's not as bad as Attack of the Clones. The acting and direction are sort of a single point. From what I understood from the Film Commentary, Lucas has almost a documentary-like style of filming. He sets up a camera and allows the actors to do their thing. (To me, this almost makes me view the film differently: because it's not really a story, but just a glimpse into the lives of people in this other part of the universe. But that's a pretty far-flung theory.) This is why Jake Lloyd is so bad-to-average, because he doesn't really know what he is doing (due to his age). Though, as I watched, Lloyd is suitable when he is on screen with other actors. It is really only when he is by himself ("Spinning! That's a neat trick.") when he falls. However, some of the excitement he shows while flying, or the pain he shows when leaving his mother, is touching. Even a few of the scenes between Padme and Anakin are quite well acted. Qui-Gon, Darth Maul, and Obi-Wan are good actors, but they have very little character development, so the audience has very little connection with them.
   After I watched the film, I tried to think of any character that actually had an arc, and I could only come up with one that I felt sure about: Padme. She starts as a queen who is trying to work within the system (going to Coruscant to request aid from the Senate). Yet, when her crew gets trapped on Tatooine, Padme sees Qui-Gon willing to take chances and work outside the system (Qui-Gon only loosely follows the Jedi Code, which in itself is a fascinating character point, and vital to the entire Prequel trilogy). Padme initially rejects this disregard for the system ("The queen wouldn't be happy with this!" she says about allowing Anakin to pod-race). However, when she gets to Coruscant, she sees that the system itself is corrupted, for they will do nothing to aid Naboo. So she follows Qui-Gon's path and votes to change the system, declaring her lack of faith in Chancellor Valorum. Yet, even here Padme finds that the system has failed her, for the Senate would allow Naboo to perish because it must follow its rules. So she goes back to Naboo to again work outside the system by partnering with the Gungans (through the aid of Jar Jar, which might, might be the only other character with an arc in this film).
   Padme starts as a Queen who is more or less living within the system, but because she sees a Jedi who is willing to break the rules when the rules are wrong, she changes. Padme grows from a paint by the numbers queen to a leader willing to do that which is best for her people, even if it means working outside of the corrupt, legalistic government. In my mind, this is a wonderful set up for the entire theme of the Prequels: the destruction of Anakin, and the Jedi, due to legalism. Does this make up for a lack in writing or acting? No. However, it does show to me that the Prequels aren't just dumb fiction: they are thoughtful films that have their themes bogged down by poor writing and directing.
   So... with all that said, what is my view of The Phantom Menace overall? It probably deserves somewhere between one and two stars for story/characters. However, while listening to the Film Commentary, I became awed by how amazing the effects are in this film. Yes, they are CGI. But for what Lucas and Co. had to work with, these films are a work of art. In my mind, that raises the film to at least a 2.5 to 3. Maybe 3 stars overall because of the music, visuals, and because it's an enjoyable remembrance of my childhood? Maybe I'm too generous, but if Star Wars has taught me anything, it is that I should err on the side of grace and love, rather than on the side of anger and hatred.

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