So I went and saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace tonight in 3D. It made me a liiiittle emotional to think that I was thirteen when it was in theaters originally, especially when I put it in context of how excited I had been to see it at that age (and all of the sneak peeks we saw at Celebration I in Denver). There are some aspects of the movie that held up pretty well, namely how beautiful the set design and costumes are. I think having some experience writing and really analyzing literature (never mind just coming at it from a more mature viewpoint) has helped me realize why the movie is so terrible.
Let’s just establish the fact that the dialogue is stilted and most of the acting, with rare exception, is wooden. These are huge issues, obviously, but I think if other pieces of the story had come together, we would have been able to overlook them.
1) The story set-up is overly complicated. There’s plenty of room for layering and conflict in Star Wars, but did anyone really have a clue WTF was going on the first time they saw Episode I? Did anyone give a rat’s ass about an economic blockade/trade conflict that was never fully explained? Obviously we later find out that it’s Palpatine/Sidious trying to get himself elected Supreme Chancellor and the Trade Federation is just a means to that end, but it’s such an convoluted means to that end. There’s nothing actually all that elegant about his plan, because it lacks simplicity. So all the while the viewer is trying to figure out a) what the hell is going on and b) what the actual stakes are. The original trilogy avoids this because you know from the very beginning that the conflict is centered around the very basic good vs. evil (both in terms of the Rebel Alliance/Empire and the light/dark side of the force). There are just too many conspirators. I still don’t get who/what the Trade Federation is, but they never should have been brought into the story.
2) Who’s the main character? One of my friends asked me that exact question when we saw the commercial for Episode I in 3D during the Super Bowl. You’d say Anakin, right? Anakin doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie. If you remember, Episode IV also starts away from Luke, but do you have any doubt that he’s the main character? No. He turns up about fifteen minutes in, and from that point on, you’re seeing and experiencing the universe for the first time alongside him. Did you notice that Episode IV never really strays from Luke’s POV (except to go to Vader’s)? The viewpoints only really split after the characters have been established and we, you know care about them—especially since we leave Luke to spend time with Han, Leia, and Vader. Still, there’s no doubt that the backbone of the three original movies is Luke’s journey from farm boy to Jedi Master.
You could argue that the prequels are centered on Anakin’s journey from slave to Sith Lord, but they just… I think there are too many other characters and storylines vying for attention. You lose track of him. Worse, we don’t ever get to know him all that well in Episode I in the first place.
The really interesting thing to me is that Star Wars IS Anakin’s story. If it had been up to me, the central viewpoint character wouldn’t have been Anakin in the prequels—it would have been Obi-Wan. I think Lucas missed an opportunity here, not only because Ewan McGregor acts circles around the other main characters, but because it would have been so much more meaningful. Obi-Wan is the only true father figure that Anakin has; the prequels should have fixed firmly on the failure of the father to save the son, which is later inverted in the original trilogy when the son redeems the father. And hellloooo, Lucas, then your scene in which Obi-Wan and Luke meet for the first time in IV would have had yet another layer of meaning, because it would have been the point where the two story arcs converge.
(By the way, the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan at the end of Episode III is still so heartbreaking to me, but not because Anakin’s gone dark side. It’s the way Obi-Wan just gives up on him and accepts that he’s evil, and that he can’t be saved. Compare that to Luke refusing to give up on Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi.)
3) The romance. Oh my God, did they even do a screen test with Natalie and Hayden? I get so much secondhand embarrassment from those two. They have about as much chemistry as a rose and a brick. The romance was so forced and awkward, especially the hints of it in Episode I. You see Padme comforting Anakin in a very motherly/sisterly way, and you just can’t forget about it in the later films, when it still feels like some part of her registers him as that little boy. I almost wish they had waited and introduced her character in the second film, when the age discrepancy wouldn’t have been quite so obvious.
4) Jar Jar. What was the point of him? Comedic relief? Something for the young’uns? This is a serious question. Was it just to introduce the gungans, who come into play later and do battle? Why did he have to travel with them, then? While I was watching it tonight, I started wondering if maybe he was supposed to fill the Chewie role, or echo him—the non-human sidekick. Chewie, as you may recall, owes a life debt to Han (which is why they start traveling together in the first place and later become BFFs), and Jar Jar apparently owes one to Qui-Gon?
5) Pod Racing. Cool concept. About ten minutes too long and frustratingly repetitive.
6) Too many villains, not enough character development for any of them. Why kill off Darth Maul so quickly? Wouldn’t it have built so much more suspense over the course of the series to keep him alive, and have Obi-Wan struggle with his need to avenge Qui-Gon? No?
P.S. I love this image—it comes from a fantastic article in Vanity Fair, just before the film was released. As you may recall, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul don’t actually fight on Tatooine, but I feel like it reinforces the point I was trying to make above—these films are visually stunning, but they could have been so much more.
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