The Phantom Menace

Everyone knows that The Phantom Menace doesn’t work.  My 5-year-old Star Wars-obsessed son knows The Phantom Menace doesn’t work (two hours into the movie, he asks “Does Darth Maul ever actually fight anyone?”).  But the question I must face as a screenwriter is why.  And, after seeing the movie a half-dozen or so times, I believe I have an answer.

The problem is not Jar-Jar.

Let’s go back to first principles.  What does the protagonist want?  I thought about this for a long time, and then I realized something — I wasn’t sure who the protagonist was.

So I thought, as a public service, I would run down the most obvious characters and examine their motivations.

Qui-gon Jin: He’s tall, handsome, carries a lightsaber.  He leads, others follow.  He’s in a lot of the movie.  He’s probably the protagonist.

Well, let’s think about that for a moment.  What does Qui-gon want?  In the first act of the movie, Qui-gon wants to solve the mystery of the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo.  How far does Qui-gon get in unraveling this mystery?  Not far at all.  Qui-gon gets chased out of the Trade Federation’s battle station, flees with his apprentice to Naboo, meets up with the Queen, tags along with her to Tatooine and then Coruscant, all the while stroking his beard and saying “Hmm, something about this invasion isn’t quite right.”  Along the way, he gets distracted from his purpose by this little kid Annakin Skywalker, whom he is convinced is The Chosen One.  He spends a lot of time trying to convince the Jedi Council of this, and they tell him to buzz off.  He tags along with Queen Amidala as she goes back to Naboo to be with her people.  He plays a role in the liberation of Naboo, but a Sith gunslinger who’s been pursuing him kills him.

So, Qui-gon, master Jedi, how did you do?  You never figured out why the Trade Federation invaded Naboo, even though the Sith Lord responsible for it sent his apprentice to kill you and the Queen, and you did not succeed in trainingthe little boy who you thought was the Chosen One.  You couldn’t even put the whammy on a big-nosed junk dealer.  This, dear readers, is not the arc of a compelling protagonist.

OBI-WAN: He’s white, he’s young, he’s good-looking, he carries a lightsaber.  Maybe he’s the protagonist.

What does Obi-wan want?  Well, mostly he wants what Qui-gon wants, but sooner.  He’s impetuous, daring, impatient, bold and a little snippy.  But he’s the apprentice.  He has no clearly-defined goals of his own.  He’s Qui-gon’s baggage-carrier.  Quite literally, as he is forced to take on the burden of the little kid when Qui-gon dies.  With dire results.

ANAKIN: he’s cute, he’s blond, he’s a slave boy with big dreams and a charmed way with a pod-racer — a perfect model for a protagonist.

What does Anakin want?  To get off Tatooine, preferably with his mother, but he’ll settle for less if he can get it.  Anakin achieves his goal, but his plot line has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.  The Trade Federation did not invade Naboo because Anakin wants to get off Tatooine.  And even though Anakin ends up saving the day on Naboo, he does so by accident — a disaster in plot structure.  It’s as though Luke blew up the Death Star without meaning to, he just happened upon the Death Star battle and accidentally shot some photon torpedoes into the crucial ventilator duct (or whatever it was).

QUEEN AMIDALA: She’s young, she’s pretty, she’s white, she’s a ruler, she can handle herself in a battle, she’s the focus of the narrative, she drives a good chunk of the story.  Is she the protagonist?

Let’s put it this way: she’s close.  What does Queen Amidala want?  To get rid of the Trade Federation’s invasion army.  How does she go about it?  She puts her trust first in Qui-gon (who has no idea what’s going on), then in Chancellor Valorum, then in Senator Palpatine.  She’s driving the story, but her naivety and passion for her citizens cause her to make some disastrous decisions.  Even though she takes what could be considered decisive action, she is in fact a reactive presence in The Phantom Menace.

JAR-JAR BINKS: An important, secondary character, a comic reflection of many of the themes of the movie, but sorry, not a protagonist.

NUTE GUNRAY: How ’bout this guy?  What does he want?  He’s the leader of the Trade Federation (whatever the hell that is).  He wants — what?  To take over Naboo?  No, alas, no.  Nute does not want to take over Naboo, that is a secondary goal.  Nute wants to please Darth Sidious.  He’s made some kind of deal with the Sith Lord, one that keeps changing for the worse (as deals with Sith Lords tend to).  The invasion of Naboo is a massive distraction (The Phantom Menace is filled with them — while a plotting disaster, it is, admittedly,  quite thematically rich).

DARTH MAUL: He’s striking, he’s good in a fight, but he’s a tool.  He’s no Obi-wan, he’ll never question his master.  He’s no protagonist — he’s barely even an antagonist.  He’s a plot point.

DARTH SIDIOUS: Now we’re getting close.  Darth Sidious is the reason all this is happening.  Appears to be, anyway.  Darth Sidious holds all the cards in this narrative has plotted with Nute Gunray to invade Naboo.  When Qui-gon interferes with his plans, he sends his apprentice to kill him and capture the Queen.  He has no effect on the subplot involving little Anakin, but that’s okay.  The question is, who is Darth Sidious?

SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN PALPATINE: Here he is, the protagonist of The Phantom Menace.  What does he want?  To become Chancellor.  The entire movie, the invasion, the droid army, the lightsaber battles, the pod race, everything in the movie happens because Palpatine wants to become Chancellor.

Now then: let’s look at Palpatine’s plan.  Palpatine puts on his dark cloak, calls himself Darth Sidious (it is apparently his alter ego), makes a deal with Nute Gunray, which leads to the invasion of Naboo, which leads to Queen Amidala fleeing to Coruscant, which leads to Palpatine pressuring her into forcing a vote of no confidence in Valorum.

Four things wrong with this:

1. Palpatine does not show up until the beginning of ACT III, a major plotting disaster.  How can we feel the dramatic tension of an evil plot if we don’t know who has formulated it?  All we know is there’s a guy in a black hood who seems to hold the Trade Federation in some kind of sway, we have no idea what he wants or why he wants it.
2. His plan makes no sense.  If he wants to become Chancellor, and his plot to become Chancellor involves Queen Amidala’s vote of no confidence in the Senate, why does he try to keep Amidala on Naboo?  He needs to get her to Coruscant — she goes there, but without him causing it to happen.  What kind of evil plan is that?
2. Qui-gon, Obi-wan, Amidala and Anakin never know that he’s their antagonist, a plotting disaster of the first magnitude.  They never even know that Sidious is their antagonist.  They spend the entire movie in complete ignorance of their antagonist.  Think about that for a moment.  A protagonist who spends the entire movie in ignorance of his antagonist — it’s like if Neo spent all of The Matrix learning to manipulate the Matrix while Agent Smith sat in a room somewhere watching him, rubbing his hands together and saying “Some day, Neo, some day…”
3. Worse, the audience doesn’t know he’s Darth Sidious.  Unless they’ve seen the other Star Wars movies.  Which is why it’s imperative to watch them beginning with Episode IV — The plot of Episode I makes no sense otherwise.

So there you go.  Here is why The Phantom Menace fails — it’s not Jar-Jar, it’s not the acting, it’s not the sets or the editing or the production design, or the pacing or the effects, all of which range from passable to excellent.  It’s the utter lack of a compelling protagonist.  Everything else wrong with it flows from there.

A NOTE ON THE POD RACE: the pod race is a remarkable set-piece in its own right, but comes out of nowhere and, worse, doesn’t mean anything.  It is quite obviously based on the thrilling chariot race in Ben-Hur, but let’s compare the two for a moment.  The chariot race in Ben-Hur is, narratively speaking, the culmination of a lifetime of tension, sexual and otherwise, between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, his boyhood friend.  The two of them have been best friends, worst enemies and almost lovers, and the stakes of the chariot race are unbelievably high.  That’s what gives the sequence its charge.  What are the stakes of the pod race?  The stakes of the pod race are we need a part for our spaceship and a boy we just met wants to get off Tatooine.  It’s worse than slender, it’s actually contrived.  We don’t need a pod race there, if Qui-gon is so sure the boy is the Chosen One, why doesn’t he just steal the parts he needs and take off with the kid?  Who’s going to stop him?
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69 Responses to “The Phantom Menace”
  1. seamusd says:

    I think the problem with this movie is that Lucas, after waiting for years for special effects technology to catch up to his vision, simply forgot about what made the original trilogy work: good story telling. The Phantom Menace is about special effects.

    • Todd says:

      I disagree. I think The Phantom Menace is “about” something, but that something is very oblique, hard to grasp and extremely poorly stated.

  2. Episode I is a movie written with the full knowledge that the audience has already seen Episodes IV-VI several times. A lot of it is fan service, and that results in the muddled screenplay. Lucas seems to think that our main interest is seeing what these characters were like in thier younger years, but the effect wears off quickly.

    Although Binks certainly isn’t the cause of TPM’s problems, having a black caricature walking about a 1999 movie does take away from whatever it had.

    • Todd says:

      But Chewbacca and the Ewoks fulfill the same functions in the original trilogy and we barely even notice it, because their scripts are so much more compelling.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t think that’s a fair comparison at all. Chewbacca is much less annoying than Jar-Jar. Obviously, if Jar-Jar took Chewie’s place in The Empire Strikes Back, the movie would be worse. And Chewbacca and the Ewoks, while playing roles often ASSOCIATED with black actors, are not in and of themselves racial caricatures.

        It would be more accurate to charge Hollywood with casting black actors in the “Chewbacca role” than to charge Lucas with putting Chewbacca in the “black role”. The role filled by Chewbacca is older than the Hollywood practice of assigning it to black actors.

        But as for Jar-Jar… he is unquestionably one of the worst things about Phantom. Even if it were scripted as well as Empire, Jar-Jar would be a shitty character. I admit that he isn’t the main problem, but he’s a big problem anyway. He’s an emblem of the movie’s lousiness, its selloutishness. The Ewoks cast a similar pall over Return of the Jedi, but they were much less prominent and flagrant than Jar-Jar.

        • teamwak says:

          Amen. Bloody Ewoks! I hated them as a kid.

          But the Gungdins or whatever, were slouched, jive talking, racial charactures. And some others were speaking in pidgin japanese. Disgraceful really.

          I thought the whole movie was a mess.

        • Todd says:

          If Chewbacca and the Ewoks are okay but Jar-Jar is a racist caricature who ruins movies, does that mean you’re okay with Watto, the hook-nosed, money-obsessed alien?

          • Anonymous says:

            And don’t think I haven’t noticed how YOU remain suspiciously silent about the Japanese-accented Trade Federation insectoids. For shame, sir. For shame.

            Yes, Watto and Jar-Jar and the Trade Federation aliens were racist caricatures. I never suggested Watto wasn’t, so I don’t know where you’re getting that.

            But no, Chewie and the Ewoks were not racist. The Ewoks were stupid and obnoxious and greatly damaged ROTJ, but were no more racist than the Care Bears.

            And Jar-Jar, for the record, is far and away the worst character Lucas has ever created, racism or no. His scenes are unwatchable.

            • Todd says:

              And don’t think I haven’t noticed how YOU remain suspiciously silent about the Japanese-accented Trade Federation insectoids. For shame, sir. For shame.

              Ah yes, the Charlie-Chan aliens. In the avalanche of badness I overlooked them.

              However, their role is different from the Gungans, Chewbacca and the Ewoks. In Hollywood Past, the “noble savages” were played by minorities, and Lucas has given all those roles to monsters and animals. In Menace, the Trade Federation being Asian doesn’t make any sense, unless one thinks of the Japanese as dupes of, say, the Nazis (as Spielberg suggested in 1941.

          • teamwak says:

            Wow, I’d missed that one!

            Bloody Hell!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Protagonist: Lucas’ bank account.

    Antagonist: the audience.

    Lucas Bank Account 1, Audience 0.

    • Todd says:

      But Lucas’s bank account and the audience, like the Naboo and the Gungans, like the midiclorians and everything, are locked in a symbiotic relationship. They need each other. The audience needs Lucas’s bank account to make good Star Wars movies, and Lucas’s bank account needs the audience to keep feeding it.

      Although I will say that if there is a “phantom menace” hanging over Episode I, it is, indeed, Lucas’s bank account.

      • gazblow says:

        Although I will say that if there is a “phantom menace” hanging over Episode I, it is, indeed, Lucas’s bank account.

        Do you mean to suggest that

        1) It was Lucas’ greed at fault in creating a sub-standard picture i.e. “I could write a PHONE BOOK with special effects, slap that Star Wars logo on top and make a mint! The fools!”
        2) Lucas’ money meant that he didn’t have to listen to any “notes” and thus surrounded himself with yes-men thereby creating a sub-standard picture i.e. “What do you guys think of the new Jar Jar character?” “GREAT, GEORGE! WAY BETTER THAN CHEWBACCA, GEORGE! MAYBE BETTER THAN HAN SOLO, GEORGE! AWESOME JOB! AND HAVE YOU LOST WEIGHT?”

        • Todd says:

          It’s probably closer to:

          3) Hey! Steven has a whole fleet of helicopters and I only have a half-dozen or so! WTF! Grrrrr…I’ll show him…I’ll show them ALL

  4. mikeyed says:

    And even though Anakin ends up saving the day on Naboo, he does so by accident — a disaster in plot structure.

    I completely agree. The worst thing to happen in all three of the new movies. They had the most excellent space battle set up. The audience loves space battles. Remember Return of the Jedi? I’m sure everybody who loves star wars or even just sci-fi could barely stay in their seats when they first saw the string of star destroyers in the distance and heard “it’s a trap!”

    So you have the Naboo fighters heading for what seems like a suicide mission into the heart of a Trade Federation battleship. They’re fighting, a few nice little bits of dialogue between the pilots, and then what does Lucas do? Skywalker hobbles along not knowing how to pilot the ship he currently occupies, slams his way into the docking bay, and accidentally fires a torpedo into the droid control thingywutchamucallit, which simultaneously somehow destroys the battleship and ends what could’ve been a really amazing dog fight.

    Most disappointing scene in the whole trilogy.

  5. eronanke says:

    Amidala was my hero; even the subterfuge in which she switched places with her handmaid endeared her to me. But her putting trust in Qui-gon and then the senator shows her veneration for the status quo; the establishment, that the Jedi are good and always victorious, and that the Senate is effective and not corrupt. Her realization that all is not as it seems NEVER comes. Not even in the last movie. She continues to believe that the universe is static and unchanging, that Anakin *can* become good again, and all can go back as it was, the Jedi and the Senate restored. I… I wanted to like her so much… The first movie, her speach about preventing war on her homeplanet, her dresses and her sure-shot aim… But then the sequels made me die inside.

    I think, really and honestly, Lucas hates, or, at the very least, infantilizes women.
    He did the same thing with Leia; in the first movie she’s badass, then, slowly and surely, she becomes nothing but a damsel in distress… To Jabba no less. A BLOB WHO CAN’T EVEN FIGHT BACK.

    • Todd says:

      Another problem with Amidala is the people of Naboo — mainly, they don’t exist. We hear about them but never see them. They are, apparently, dying in record numbers from starvation, even though Amidala is gone for, I think two days.

      • eronanke says:

        I agree- all we know is that she is Empress Elect, so *someone* must have voted for her.
        Another character flaw? She doesn’t *stay* empress. She buys into the Senate BS *way* too much. It’s bull. It is stated in Ep II that the entire planet WANTED her to remain empress, but she declines in favor of the Whale Rider. If she loved her people so much, why not accept their nomination? Stupid girl. 🙁

        • eronanke says:

          That would have cut out the whole Love Story all together, which would make me jubilant.

        • greyaenigma says:

          It is stated in Ep II that the entire planet WANTED her to remain empress

          But I think that would require rewriting the planet’s constitution or something — they also say that the queen had to be under a certain age. Which makes no sense, but it’s Naboo, what can you do?

      • And another problem with Amidala…she is a 15 year old elected queen. Never mind the fact that they elect queens on her planet, who then serve for I guess a couple of years before moving down to Senator. But they chose a 15 year old girl for the job, and replaced her with another, apparently basing their government on the Menudoan model.

      • mr_noy says:

        The whole plight of the Naboo is so contrived as to make sympathy and identification with them impossible. It’s the most verdant planet ever depicted in the Star Wars universe, an Art Nouveau Eden, yet its people are starving? Are they lazy? Incompetent? Have they become so decadent they can no longer survive on their own? Was the Trade Federation once a genuine trade partner, or just intergalactic room service for a race of spoiled elites? A planet of Paris Hiltons, as it were.

        If people from Tattoine can eke out a living on that arid hell-hole of a planet surely the Naboo can manage to feed themselves. If so, then the Blockade would have been limited to frivolous luxury items like plasma TVs, cognac, and fine chocolates instead of, apparantly, their basic dietary staples.

        It’s possible that the Gungans and the members of the Queen’s court live in a priveleged haven (a Green Zone, if you will) and the rest of Naboo is parched and inhospitable but since we never see it or its people its hard to shake the feeling that maybe the Naboo had it coming.

  6. dougo says:

    First of all, I don’t see why there has to be only one protagonist. Who’s the protagonist of Nashville, or any episode of “The Love Boat”? Okay, maybe those aren’t epic sci-fi action movies. But I don’t think it’s a requirement that those can’t have multiple protagonists too.

    Also, clearly Lucas wants you to think of all 6 parts as one long story, in which case the protagonist is probably Anakin (or R2D2, as some wags have noted). If there had been episodes 7-9, I guess the nonology would have been split between Anakin and Luke, who overlap in the middle 3.

    I don’t see how “the guy who causes things to happen” (which indeed is Palpatine through all six movies) has to be the protagonist. That’s like saying Voldemort is the protagonist of the Harry Potter books. Then why aren’t they called the Voldemort books?! What’s the word for what Harry and Anakin are, if not protagonist?

    Regardless, I agree that this is all crappy storytelling.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree. The protagonist, especially in action-oriented films, is usually not the one causing the action. It’s almost always the villain. The action protagonist is characterized, I would say, by his relationship with the villain – whether or not he is a threat to him.

      In the original trilogy, Luke is a perfect protagonist because of his unique relationship with the collective villain, Vader/Palpatine, a relationship not shared with, say, Han. Throughout the prequel trilogy, but especially in Episode I, there is no obvious UNIQUE relationship between the villain and anyone in particular. The villain is promiscuous.

      I think perhaps Lucas’s intention was to be “realistic”, hence the rather dull and uninspiring Trade Federation. Had I been Lucas, I would have established a clear and early link between Sidious and Anakin. Perhaps Sidious, using his Sith mojo powers, had detected Anakin years before Qui-Gon did, and had posted agents on Tatooine to keep watch over him. Perhaps Maul was sent after Qui-Gon in order to prevent Anakin from ever developing his skills and thus becoming a threat. There are a million ways to make Anakin into an actual Luke-like protagonist, with a central significance that is obvious without even watching the original trilogy. Why Lucas didn’t plant that seed I can’t imagine, but once again, I suspect he was operating according to some incongruous and ill-advised “realism principle”, which might also explain that midichlorian nonsense. Its fantastic unrealism is what distinguishes Star Wars from all other major sci-fi franchises, but I think Lucas forgot that, or never realized it to begin with.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Perhaps Sidious, using his Sith mojo powers, had detected Anakin years before Qui-Gon did…

        I always got the sense that this is what was going on, that Lieberman is carefully tipping things this way and that to ensure is ultimate dominance. It’s made abundantly clear throughout the series that he’s willing to sacrifice pawns in order to gain more powerful ones.

        And it would have been so much more interesting if we got to watch that, instead of Lucas trying to keep half the audience in the dark, while relying on the other half alreay knowing who the Senator really is.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t see why there has to be only one protagonist.

      There does not. The problem with The Phantom Menace is not that there are multiple protagonists, it’s that there are no protagonists, there are just a bunch of characters with unfocused or flawed goals. A movie like Nashville is compelling because you’re following the clearly-stated goals of a dozen different individuals. In The Phantom Menace you’re watching a bunch of stuff going on and, ultimately, none of it makes any sense.

      clearly Lucas wants you to think of all 6 parts as one long story

      Lucas has also said that he wants future generations to begin with Episode I, which seems absurd to me. Who beginning with Episode I would feel compelled to continue on to Episode II?

      I don’t see how “the guy who causes things to happen” (which indeed is Palpatine through all six movies) has to be the protagonist.

      Well, that is, basically, the definition of the word, although it has come to mean “hero” or “main character.” And while it is true that, say, Indiana Jones or John McClane are reactive, the fact is they react to the antagonist, something that none of the characters in The Phantom Menace do.

      That’s like saying Voldemort is the protagonist of the Harry Potter books.

      The main dramatic problem with the Harry Potter books is precisely this: Harry Potter is not the protagonist of his own stories. He’s astonishingly reactive, passive even, relying on all kinds of devices and deus ex machina to save his bacon throughout the stories. You’ve hit the nail on the head, sir.

      What’s the word for what Harry and Anakin are, if not protagonist?

      Harry is a passive protagonist (which Hollywood generally refers to as a “bad” protagonist, and which, believe me, they would change in Harry’s case in a flat second if JK Rowling dropped dead tomorrow). Anakin in The Phantom Menace is crafty and desirous, but his character arc depends on luck and accident, not the pursuit of his desires.

      • I’ve got it: the protagonist is…The Force.

        But aside from that, one of my biggest problems with Episode I was its lack of an anti-hero. Han Solo served a more important role than comic relief or sidekick in the original trilogy, particularly once Luke started getting all seriously wrapped up in his Force cult. And his courtship of Princess Leia had a (admittedly ham-handed)His Gal Friday repartee compared with the soap operatic Anakin/Amadala romance in the latter trilogy. There are absolutely no human beings in Episode I. How do you relate to the stoical Jedis? Or an equally stoical queen? I suspect that’s why Lucas threw the overt Jar Jar comic relief in there–he had to be completely over the top because nobody but nobody got a funny line or a vaguely human moment in the whole film. He even started giving one-liners to Obi Wan after that. Jesus, Yoda actually became the warmest character by the series’ end.

        • Todd says:

          the protagonist is…The Force.

          Qui-Gon would probably agree with you — the protagonists of The Phantom Menace are the mysterious single-celled organisms that live inside all of us.

          I could relate to a stoic Jedi, but Qui-gon is an incompetent Jedi. He’s got no problem slicing up hundreds of droids and damaging Trade Federation property, but he toes the line with a greedy junk dealer and an idiotic duck-billed minstrel. He sees great promise in a little boy but does nothing to develop that promise. He gets killed by the apprentice of a guy he never meets — his death is meaningless.

          I think Lucas was trying to do something genuinely different with this movie, something about the complexity of world affairs or something, I just don’t understand why he felt he had to do that, since it means that Episode I sits so badly next to the other movies, and I don’t understand how his sense of storytelling could have such a catastrophic falling-off in quality.

        • mcbrennan says:

          The anti-hero is so important in drama, especially fantasy drama. Somebody has to be reluctant to go along with things, no matter how noble the cause. Someone has to get in there and voice the skepticism of the audience, the natural human reticence to get into a big complicated dangerous mess. Casablanca is the ultimate example of this–Bogart’s Rick Blaine won’t even fight the Nazis, that’s how much he doesn’t give a rat’s ass. And that is what’s so compelling about his transformation, that’s where the tension of the story is, and the cathartic redemption at the end. It was the same in the original unaltered Star Wars; Solo begins the movie as a true mercenary, a Greedo-murdering bastard, and eventually realizes there’s something greater than himself.

          The wry, sardonic humor’s pretty vital, too, antihero or no. The entire Star Trek franchise died because nobody involved with the project has been able to write a decent joke since 1986.

          • Todd says:

            Obi-wan makes gestures toward being a Han Solo character in Menace — he’s sassy, impatient and rude. Why, I wonder, didn’t they take it all the way? They could have made him a bad Jedi, the bored, hotshot loser that Qui-gon got stuck with, who discovers the little kid and thinks he’s finally got something to give his life meaning.

      • rennameeks says:

        On the subject of Harry Potter, he becomes a more active character as the books/films progress, but you’re quite right that he starts out with a terrible case of passivity.

        Hollywood has plenty of other ways of destroying the books, unfortunately. I don’t mind cuts being made for filmic adaptations of books, but I am terribly bothered by characters not being interpreted in the spirit of the original work.

      • mattyoung says:

        Whoa… my lack of patience for the entire Harry Potter series comes into focus. I’ve been sloughing through two of the books and movies now, trying to figure out why I just don’t give a shit. Suddnely, it’s all so clear.
        I’m sure this passivity does great for helping kids watching to identify with him (Kid in audience: “Whoa, what’s going on!?” Harry: “Ginnie, what’s going on?”), but I’ll go read “Bone” instead.

      • adam_0oo says:

        Yes! You sir, seem to share my opinions filmwise but are able to expound upon them with much greater clarity than I. So what we now need is you talking about Harry Potter, the special boy who is not so special.

    • thunder24 says:

      I personally, have always thought that R2D2 was the protagonist for the entire Star Wars story. He’s clearly the most competent member of the troupe, is there for the whole story, and seems to be the only one privvy to most of the secrets.
      Besides, he’s the most likable character, IMO.

  7. mcbrennan says:

    I sense Dooku

    You’re right on the money. Whose story is this? I kind of chuckled when mentioned “Nashville” in the comments, because on the surface it’s similar–a bunch of tenuously related characters bumbling towards some seemingly ill-defined goal. But the characters in “Nashville”, of course, are actually headed towards a life-changing moment, each subplot informing the others, and more to the point, they’re compelling characters whose individual stories combine to tell a greater story about an America falling apart. If there’s a greater meaning here, I don’t see it. Maybe in Revenge Of The Sith (informed as it is by our illustrious President and his pet war), but here?

    Even as a lifelong Star Wars fan, I found nobody to root for in this thing. Qui-Gon seemed bored, unfocused and inept, not wise or powerful. Palpatine was a non-entity and Amidala was a droning bore. Anakin lacked everything one looks for in an interesting character. By my way of storytelling, his mother should have been the soul of the thing. A lone slave on a hostile, barren world, fighting for her child’s life against impossible odds, knowing he’s destined for a better life and willing to do anything to get him there. That’s a story. But no, she was a cipher, just as much of a drip as everybody else. And Darth Maul, who was obviously intended to be this dangerous, edgy, breakout character, was a two-minute throwaway, all marketing and no menace. After the first movie Lucas turned his iconic, archetypal characters into plastic action figures. In this movie, he tried to turn plastic action figures into characters.

    Here’s where I think The Phantom Menace (and indeed the entire “new” trilogy) went wrong. The foregone conclusion of the original films–Anakin must turn into Vader, kill the Jedi and destroy the Republic–drags the plot into tedious, inexorable predictability. The scene in “Star Wars” where Luke stares out at the setting suns, Joseph Campbell’s “call to action”, is compelling. When Anakin has the same moment, it’s meaningless; he’s just thinking “sigh, oh what a mess I am in.” One never truly believes his struggles with right and wrong because we know which one he’ll choose. We know Amidala will die. We know the Jedi are toast. We know Yoda and Obi-Wan will survive. There is no dramatic tension, because we know the outcome. And by the end of The Phantom Menace we no longer care.

    This is storytelling by checklist. “Clone war”. Check. “Exterminate the Jedi”. Check. “Lava pit”. Check. “Put Obi-Wan in Tattooine cave.” Check. “Build Death Star.” On and on. The entire trilogy, especially the ending of Revenge Of The Sith, is way too on-the-nose. It was like he felt the need to explain every tiny thing, he left no space for the audience to imagine anything, and imagination is what breathes life into a fantasy universe. And his “explanations” made the audience sorry they heard it. Find me one person who thinks it’s “cool” that Darth Vader built C3P0 (and then they both mutually forgot it for 30 years). Instead of the Force being a mystical energy field surrounding all life, open to all who would willingly seek its council and guidance, it’s a fluke biological infestation that occurs only in select individuals. Who thinks eugenics is more compelling than the infinite mysteries of God and the meaning of life? Was that “clone war” anywhere near as fascinating as the one you imagined 30 years ago when you first heard it mentioned? It certainly wasn’t for me.

    None of this was necessary. Lucas could have taken the story off in new and surprising directions, exploring new parts of the myth. Unexpected alliances, revelatory twists, transcendent questions about what it all means. Life does not march in a straight line the way these movies do. The extermination of the omniscient knights who have protected the galaxy for a thousand years against all enemies could have taken more than ten minutes, for example. There are 20-something years between episode 3 and episode 4, room for plenty of mystery and story twists and audience speculation–but by the end of Sith, everybody’s in place for “A New Hope”, patiently waiting on set for two decades. Such a waste.

    • ghostgecko says:

      Re: I sense Dooku

      >>>Instead of the Force being a mystical energy field surrounding all life, open to all who would willingly seek its council and guidance, it’s a fluke biological infestation that occurs only in select individuals.

      I consider that one of the stupidest bits of backstory. David Brin ( wrote an excellent article on what this says about Lucas’s politics – that we should be led by a small, select group of the chosen, the superior. Essentially antidemocratic, despite all the stuff about scruffy, scrappy rebels.

      • mcbrennan says:

        Re: I sense Dooku

        Given the way the “democratic” institutions are presented in the new trilogy, it’s pretty obvious that Lucas doesn’t hold the democratic process in high regard–ineffectual at best, venal and corrupt at worst. Come to think of it, I don’t know that Lucas’s rebels were fighting for democracy at all. All I know is what they were fighting against: the Empire. I never heard anything about free elections, “the will of the people”, human (or sentient) rights, and so on. For all I know they were going to turn the galaxy into an iron-fisted monarchy (ruled by the Princess?) or let the Jedi assume control. It’s never clear. All I see are Princesses, Jedis and Generals. And the occasional Muppet. And Bea Arthur tending bar at the Cantina.

        Also, considering I meant counsel but absently typed council, perhaps Lucas is right, perhaps I am too dumb to have the vote.

        • dougo says:

          Re: I sense Dooku

          The rebels are like the Shia, they want to overturn the secular (or Dark Side, i.e. Sunni) dictatorship and become a theocracy. Okay, nevermind that Saddam was our friend (and the Shah was still in power) when Star Wars was written, Lucas is obviously a believer in the succession of Ali.

          • mcbrennan says:

            Re: I sense Dooku

            The scary thing is I’m not entirely certain you’re kidding. There is a cultish, holy-war aspect to the Rebel Alliance. Originally–as a kid–I assumed this was the conflict between organic man, the “soul” if you will, and the machine (as represented by the Empire and Vader). But Lucas’ hamhanded retconning has turned it into a battle between religious sects, Jedi v. Sith. The emperor wasn’t even in the best movie in this series, and was barely in the second-best movie in this series. He was a major presence in the other four, dogs all. Just like Iraq, I could really give a rat’s ass about different slobberingly pious religious factions fighting for control of anything.

        • Todd says:

          Re: I sense Dooku

          I too have wondered how things were different or better under the Old Republic and how, if at all, they have changed under the Empire. We never really see how anything changes at all — the Ewoks still rummage around their woods, Tatooine is still a crummy backwater. Where is it shown that the Empire was brutal and oppresive? Maybe they are capitalism, and the Jedi represent a theocracy. Although I got the impression that the Jedi were less leaders and more of a marshall system, knights if you will, doing the will of the Chancellor. Kind of like the Templars, but answering to a freely-elected Chancellor instead of a church-controlled king.

          Oh, except that the Chancellor isn’t freely elected. Never mind.

          • mcbrennan says:

            Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

            See, Todd, this is exactly what I’m saying about Lucas totally missing huge dramatic opportunities in favor of rote connect-the-dots storytelling. Under the “benevolent republic”, Anakin Skywalker and his mother were slaves. The Republic had–or at least tolerated–slavery. This is what the Rebels were fighting to restore? Now, if it were me, I might write Anakin (or his mom) as possibly a bit angry about being slaves to a supposedly free republic. I might make Anakin’s bringing that republic down an intentional act–for revenge, for what he sees as a more just order, who knows. But no. Everything he does is blamed on Palpatine. Who the hell needs Palpatine? Under the old republic, the galaxy is a lawless, savage, unjust, callous, incompetent mess, run by lazy idiot sorcerers, scheming bureaucrats and howlingly racist film-noir alien caricatures. How does the Empire make any of that worse? By polluting the galaxy with clipped British accents?

            With the single exception of blowing up Alderaan, the Empire pretty much never does anything evil (and conversely, except for fighting the Empire, the Rebels never do anything “good”). The only people the Empire ever regularly attacks are the Rebels, and that can’t be objectively defined as bad. Unless you think devoting your government’s entire resources to occupying foreign territory and putting down a violent religion-fueled rebel insurgency is bad, in which case…hmm. Perhaps Lucas had a point, after all.

            • ghostgecko says:

              Re: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

              Yup, that’s pretty much the conclusion Brin came to. The article starts here:

            • rennameeks says:

              Re: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

              As a side note, Tatooine isn’t part of the Republic, so slavery wasn’t tolerated by the Old Republic. In fact, I believe this came up when Qui-Gon, Padme, and Jar-Jar were eating dinner at the Skywalkers’.

              However, yes, the Old Republic was flawed. The Jedi Temple on Coruscant symbolized the corruption of the Jedi Council. Jedi weren’t supposed to want material things, but they had a gorgeous headquarters that contradicted their beliefs.

              To add to the “how was the Empire actually evil?” discussion, no one associated with the Republic or the Rebellion used torture as a means to an end.

              • Todd says:

                Re: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

                no one associated with the Republic or the Rebellion used torture as a means to an end.

                What about when Qui-Gon grabbed Jar-Jar’s tongue to get him to stop zapping food at the table? The inhumane bastard. Who knows what pain, physical and psychic, Jar-Jar endured as a result?

                • rennameeks says:

                  Re: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

                  But more importantly, who cares? We all wanted to do that (or worse) to him at that point. 🙂

                • mcbrennan says:

                  Re: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

                  The Rebellion: Tauntaun-slaughtering, Furry-enslaving, Gungan-tongue-torturing, Hutt-robbing, mind-controlling, mass-murdering* Droid-segregationist fanatics.

                  This message paid for by Palpatine/Vader ’08. Karl Rove, chairman.

                  *not one but TWO moon-sized Death Stars full of hapless Brits in plastic helmets who were never even offered a chance to surrender or get to the escape pods. We report–YOU decide.

                  Also, the Ewoks and their little happy Fraggle song at the end of Return Of The Jedi absolutely constitutes torture by any objective measure.

                  • Anonymous says:

                    Re: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

                    Consider that the Stormtroopers would most likely be drawn from the galactic proletariat, while the rebellion is an enterprise undertaken by pampered aristocrats and self-righteous Jedi.

                    And of course, as Kevin Smith noted, the destruction of the second Death Star would have been an environmental disaster for the Forest Moon.

  8. rennameeks says:

    So many things I agree with, both in the original post and in the comments….

    What it comes down to, ultimately, is that Lucas should have gotten more established screenwriters to attack the prequels. If anything, the prequels needed more structural help simply because episodes I and II were just setup for III.

    Originally, Qui-Gon did not exist. He was added later, presumably to give Obi-Wan something to do and perhaps to draw more of a parallel between Obi and Luke. However, I don’t think that’s where the problem truly began.

    In episodes IV, V, and VI, Leia and her rebellion drove the plot. In episodes I, II, and III, Darth Sidious/Senator Palpatine’s lust for power drives the plot (or it’s supposed to, at least). However, there is a major problem with this. If his (presumably) evil plot is kept “hidden” from the audience, then there is no visible driving force to the story until it’s all brought out into the open, starting in episode II. If the audience *is* allowed to see him scheme, then there’s no suspense. We already know that he succeeds. We already know which characters have to survive. Of course, the way things turned out, the scheme was kept “hidden,” but since anyone who’s seen the other movies already knows that Palpatine and Sidious are the same guy, there’s STILL no suspense. Basically, the story is flawed from its very conception: “Evil guy sneakily comes to power.” It wouldn’t make sense to suddenly center the plot around the antagonist, especially since said antagonist doesn’t even appear in episode IV.

    The only four of the main characters who made it through every single Star Wars film are Obi-Wan, Anakin/Darth Vader, C-3PO, and R2-D2. They should have been the protagonists throughout the prequels (Anakin becoming a tragic hero in the end). Say that we hadn’t gotten to see Threepio being built or Obi-Wan maturing: the focus could have been more on Anakin, with the other three supporting him. The political storyline could even be shoved further into the background – tell more by showing less. Luke was certainly isolated from the war while he was growing up on Tatooine. If less of the plot of episode I had involved Palpatine’s plans and focused more on young Anakin, it would certainly have been more character-driven. Of course, he couldn’t be a reluctant hero, like Luke, since we’ve seen that before – besides, we know that the two of them made very different choices.

    Why bother introducing Watto as Anakin and his mother’s owner? Make Jabba own them, then play up the difficulty of obtaining freedom. Even though podracing is a deadly sport, yadda yadda yadda, it’s still too easy for Anakin to gain his freedom. Watto himself is hardly a threatening character. But if Jabba had said no or decided to reneg on a deal, it would have been harder to challenge him. There also would have been a neat parallel between Leia’s grandmother and father being enslaved by the Hutt who later laid a claim to her. The podrace could stay, just don’t have Anakin be an incompetent or lucky pilot – have him be the incredibly talented boy he should have been. Jabba could have been using him for entertainment as well as making money off of his talents. Now his cameo appearance in episode I is fully fleshed out. So Anakin wins freedom for himself and his mother, then Jabba says no, I’m not giving up the boy. Then let Qui-Gon somehow trick Jabba into going for the dice game (or something) and win Anakin.

    One of the greatest appeals of the original trilogy is that we were thrown into the middle of the action rather than being bogged down in the political side of the story. It would have been much more interesting to learn along with the characters that the whole war with the Separatists had been rigged. After all, as an audience, we already knew that Palpatine would rise to power, but we didn’t know just how much he had manipulated the situation to work in his favor.

    I’d better stop here before I restructure the entire prequel trilogy. To make a long story short (too late), the Palpatine storyline was doomed to fail, but if other things (involving character rather than special effects) had taken center stage, it might have been salvageable.

    • Todd says:

      I’m starting to see a more viable Menace come into focus, one that involves all the same characters and situations, but one in which Qui-gon, instead of farting around with Anakin on Tatooine, goes after Darth Sidious. He can do this alone, and against resistance from Obi-wan, Amidala and the Jedis themselves, and there could be dramatic irony as he faces Darth Maul and then Sidious (and dies) and no one else knows about his struggle and death, but he stuck to his guns and found out the truth, even though it killed him. That would be a totally cool structure, watching Amidala be “good” while screwing up the galaxy, watching Obi-wan find the kid and take him on as his apprentice, watching the Gungan/Droid battle being fought for no reason, but one man knows the truth.

      • rennameeks says:

        I like this – and it would provide the perfect opportunity to flesh out in the movies that communicating with the living as a dead Jedi is a learned skill. (I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve heard that this is covered in the novelization of episode II.) Qui-Gon was the first to attempt/succeed at doing this, at least to my knowledge. Even Yoda didn’t know about it, and he knows pretty much everything. That would also add to Qui-Gon’s status as an honorable rogue Jedi who actually knew what he was doing (at least some of the time). Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon were separated on Tatooine; why not split them again on Naboo and keep Obi-Wan in the dark about much of the mystery?

        What’s interesting about Obi-Wan is that he contradicts Qui-Gon, but because Qui-Gon has a habit of defying the Jedi Council, Obi-Wan comes down squarely in the same corner as the Council….so he’s not actually rebelling at all. He’s in agreement with the old guard and their way of doing things. Discovering that his mentors were wrong before they were all wiped out by Darth Sidious would have put Obi-Wan in an interesting position. Of course, this falls more into episode II than episode I, but it’s something that would change as a direct result of changes to episode I.

        Had the detection of the Sith remained a lingering problem at the end of episode I, then Obi-Wan could have discovered Darth Maul and the Sith on his own in episode II. Then there’s no need to justify the Jedi Council farting around for ten years unable to find the Sith that they know exists in their own backyard (something which never was justified, come to think of it). Picture Qui-Gon contacting Obi-Wan early in episode II to tell him that a Sith killed him. Suddenly, Obi-Wan has a quest (convincing the Council that the Sith are back, in addition to finding them and avenging his fallen master). He and Anakin can still discover the Separatists together. Darth Maul could even turn out to be the one who hacks off Anakin’s arm. Then only Anakin or Obi-Wan would be able to kill him for revenge, which works out nicely for the beginning of episode III, as Jedi aren’t supposed to take revenge and that marks the beginning of Anakin’s real downfall. Additionally, why not merge Darth Maul and Darth Tyrannus to make Maul the fallen Jedi? Then the parallel to Anakin’s downfall remains and Maul becomes more than a senseless killing machine. Palpatine could still betray his apprentice in favor of Anakin, so nothing would be lost by the change, except the casting of Christopher Lee.

        Addressing the concept of Padme screwing up the galaxy while trying to do the right thing, instead of making Jar-Jar a politician (ugh), have Padme or her successor as queen make the call to give Palpatine emergency powers. We all know Jar-Jar is an idiot, but if one of the ladies had made this grave error, then we would truly understand how effectively Palpatine had duped the galaxy. If Padme had made the call, then her reaction of “oh my god, what have we done?” in episode III would become that much richer. Had it been her successor, Padme could have voiced her misgivings and been powerless to stop the change that was coming. It’s win-win.

        Of course, while all of these changes to the prequels would make them better movies, they would make all of them darker…which is likely the main reason we ended up with the movies we did in the first place.

        To Lucas’s credit, he *did* make the more entertaining/fun trilogy first…the one that interested him more. I won’t say “better,” as optimism and pessimism shouldn’t dictate the quality of a story (even though they generally do anyway). Oh well.

        • Todd says:

          This is a stunning comment — would that you and I get some editing software and figure out how to fix TPM for good.

          • rennameeks says:

            Sounds good to me! Then we could mail it to Lucas and he could release it as the real prequel trilogy. The original ones he released could reappear on DVD as the Just Kidding! edition.

          • dougo says:

            Do a remake! Make it a Western or something.

          • adam_0oo says:

            The Phantom Menace have been re-edited by some fans before I belive, they made a Jar-Jar-less version and released it online.

            • rennameeks says:

              Yes, they have, but we’ve already established that Jar-Jar is not the problem with TPM

              • Anonymous says:

                No, I got that fairly clearly, but it was just an example of something people were talking about, how you would have done it, or how you could re-edit it. Other people with a similar, but much easier dream had tried it as well is all.

  9. teamwak says:

    Semi serious question now.

    So what should the protagonist want? Should they always have a sucessful arc, or should it just be a clear arc, if not sucessful, like Arlington Road? What about The Man Who Knew Too Much? Could you say he doesnt know what he wants until the final act?

    I take your point on coincidence. Surely accidentally destroying the baddies cannot good for your story!

    • Todd says:

      “So what should the protagonist want?”

      Each film narrative presents a “problem.” A shark is attacking a town’s beaches, a crime family is attacked by a mysterious enemy, the Civil War starts, so forth.

      The protagonist exists within the world of the problem and, generally speaking, must act to restore the balance thrown off by the problem. Sheriff Brody must try to get rid of the shark, Michael must avenge his father, Scarlett must deal with her life getting thrown out of whack.

      The protagonist may succeed or may fail. Plenty fail; many of our greatest narratives get their greatness from the protagonist failing in one way or another. Often, the protagonist wants something, but in the pursuit of his goal learns new things that make him not want the thing he was pursuing any more. The end of the story either comes when the protagonist gets what he wants or is utterly defeated.

      In putting together the above list of folks, what I discovered is that not one of the characters in The Phantom Menace does a single thing to address the problem at hand, the problem being that Darth Sidious is making a power grab. None of them even know that the problem exists.

      Qui-gon senses that something is up. Fine; he should spend every moment of his arc finding out what’s up, battling the obstacles put in his way as he gets closer to the source of evil, facing resistance from his own friends who try to get him to give up his mad pursuit of a phantom, so on. It could be that they get to Tatooine and Qui-gon says “You guys screw around with your political solution, I’ve got a bad guy to catch!” and he could steal a spaceship and take off after Darth Sidious. Then you’d have a protagonist, and great irony, as Amidala does what she thinks is “proper” and instead blows it for the whole galaxy. Then it could be Obi-wan who discovers the boy and takes him to the Jedi council, bla bla bla.

      Or, as suggested above, tell the whole story from Anakin’s POV. Why not? Nobody cares about the political bullshit in the story. The movie could be about this little kid who knows he’s special and wants to get the hell off this godforsaken rock. It could be about his mother teaching him that anything is better than living as a slave, and little Anakin could carry that message with him through to adulthood.

      The Man Who Knew Too Much has an extremely clear protagonist arc: the parents want their boy back. They don’t care who’s getting assassinated, they don’t care who the terrorists are or what they want (and neither does Hitchcock) — they just want their boy back. When the boy is back the story is over in nothing flat.

      • teamwak says:

        Thanks for that. TMWKTM certainly has a clear arc, hasnt it. I was thinking of the big conspiracy, but if course thats the MacGuffin 🙂

        It proves that a sucessful screenplay must have the protagonist acting naturally and in their own interest. Food for thought.

  10. craigjclark says:

    The main reason The Phantom Menace fails is because Lucas the director didn’t kick Lucas the screenwriter off the project. Of course, the fact that Lucas the producer didn’t kick Lucas the director off the project also had something to do with it.

    Has nobody ever pointed out to him that the best film in the whole series is the one where he got a story credit and that’s all?

    • rennameeks says:

      That’s arguable. Empire doesn’t stand on its own as a film.

      There are two main ways of constructing a filmic trilogy. Take Spider-Manand Shrek as examples of the first. Each film stands on its own. They all connect to each other, but they don’t depend on each other to exist. You could watch the films in any order and have a pretty fair idea of what’s going on, though obviously, watching them in order would give the later films more depth. The other way of creating a movie trilogy is to have the first film stand on its own, then link the second two. Pirates works like that, The Matrix works like that, and, yes, the original Star Wars trilogy works like that. The middle film ends on a cliffhanger, often a downer, which is resolved in the third and final movie. Some people prefer a downbeat ending, so they like those movies more. However, from a writing standpoint, these are incomplete films.

      So yeah, “best” is subjective. 🙂

      • Todd says:

        I think what Craig is getting at is that, from a screenplay perspective, Empire arguably has the best — or at least the most sophisticated — script.

        It seems clear that Star Wars (that is, Ep IV) has the stronger script, it’s classic and extremely well-executed; but when you look at the plotting, character development, story development, all that, Empire is a more daring, riskier script. It could have really been a disaster, a real Matrix Reloaded, but instead it really soars.