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May 28, 1999: the gun in the first act

Friday

Contains spoilers for The Phantom Menace

I saw The Phantom Menace today. I was quite disappointed. I think the biggest thrill of the movie was finally seeing "Episode I" scroll up the screen.

And, no, the problem was not that it didn't live up to the hype. I studiously avoided any exposure to any of the hype (which was easy, since I eschew exposure to most traditional media). I studiously avoided any exposure to any spoilers, great or small. Movies are a nonstop sequence of little surprises--encountering scenes that you've never seen before--and just watching a trailer would have robbed me of getting those surprises in context.

Also, I studiously avoided exposure to other people's opinions. I wanted to make sure I formed my own. I wrote all of this up without ever reading anyone else's comments. (This is a big deal for me, because I always wonder how much my opinions are my own and how much they are influenced by hearing the opinions of others.)

In the following discussion, you will have to forgive me for not getting the character names correct. Blame the scriptwriter, who didn't go to sufficient effort to hit us over the head with the character's names.

Effects

Let me get one compliment out of the way. This movie has great special effects. I couldn't decide whether Jar-Jar was a guy in a suit, a guy in a suit with a digitally composited head, or just entirely digital. The combat droid was a clever design--humanoid yet blatantly not a person in a droid costume--making the fact that it was an effect obvious--and yet, the effects are so good that it was easy to suspend disbelief and not spend all my time thinking about the fact they were an effect. I never really even bothered thinking about the flying trader guy--I just accepted him as part of the world.

But great-special-effects movies are a dime a dozen these days. (I admit, though, that this is the first one I've seen; I passed on the Jurassic Park movies, and only saw one of the Star Wars special edition movies.)

Context

One very satisfying element of the movie was the way Lucas "made good" on some of the context of the original movies. Most notable was his attempt at realizing the Jedi Knights in all their glory. Jedi Knights aren't the old feeble guys you might think from seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first movie and Yoda in the second movie. Luke Skywalker was on his way to becoming one, and the epic battle between Luke and Darth Vader in the The Empire Strikes Back was the closest we'd seen to 'true Jedi action'.

That the Jedi were respected and feared was only hinted at in the first movie; in The Phantom Menace, it is carried to an extreme. Oh, sure, the intricate lightsabre combats between the Jedi and the Sith are to be expected--a souped-up version of what we've seen before, and lovely in their own right--but I refer instead to the way in which they simply decimate "ordinary" troops. When the Trade Federation members start panicking about the Jedi Knights wiping out the entire ship, your first instinct might be to think they're just a little overawed, but Lucas has managed to deftly create a nearly-workable situation: lightsabres lack ranged capabilities, but in return are powerful enough to cut through blast doors. The sight of the two Jedi Knights wiping out a squad of combat droids settles the issue once and for all; and Lucas wisely puts this experience at the very beginning of the movie.

On the other hand, the movie relies far too much on the other movies for context. For a movie set in their pre-history, this may seem surprising, since of course we get all the necessary introductions since we've never met these actors before.

But, for example, when the older Jedi tells the trader something to the effect of "Republic credits will be fine", the scene is borrowing heavily on the previous movies and our experience with "Jedi mindtricks". Moments later, the trader makes the necessary comments to explain what was going on to someone who hadn't seen the previous movies, but I don't think the scene will work. Like Harrison Ford reaching for his gun in the second Indiana Jones movie, the value of the scene comes from the audience expectations, letting the audience feel the same surprise when things don't work out as expected.

Also, the movie makes a careful, studied attempt to never allow you to identify the hooded Sith lord with Senator Palpatine. This is foolish, since the story constantly relies on the audience to know this fact for there to be any sense of pacing (e.g. a foreboding dread as you watch his plans in the Senate come to fruition). [Maybe this was actually explicitly revealed at some point and I'm forgetting.]

This bugs me, because I think the movie should work on its own. There can be little subtle bits that are only meaningful to people who've seen the others (e.g. all of the implicit tension about Anakin), but I don't think the basic plot ought to depend on them.

Characters

People seem to think Star Wars was an action movie, but I think they're fooling themselves. No doubt Star Wars was an epic space opera full of action and adventure. But what made the movie was the characters and their dialogue.

Perhaps the fact that you can retell nearly all of Star Wars using motionless comic strip panels suggests a weakness: that Star Wars violates the show-biz rule "show, don't tell". I don't think so, though. We care about the characters, we care about their interactions. Yes, they're all stereotypes: the farmboy, the wise teacher, the rogue scofflaw, the spunky princess, or the wacky robots. But they have interesting conversations sparked by compelling performances from the actors. Perhaps Meat Wars only works because everybody's seen the movie four or five times, and reading the script conjures up the performances from the movie in our head. And maybe if I saw The Phantom Menace four or five more times, I might think The Red Menace would be just as effective a parody. Surely there must have been some memorable bits of dialogue, but my impression as I walked out was that they were far fewer. The Phantom Menace abandoned strong characters and dialogue for effects and plot.

Consider Darth Vader. Darth Vader was evil. He walks on, confronts a rebel ship commander, and kills him. Soon after, he nearly kills one of his own generals. You believe in him as a bad guy; he's not just bad because somebody says he is. You've seen it. Darth Goober just has funny paint on his face, and maybe he had a line or two. (While we're at it, George Lucas may have always intended 'Darth' to be a title, but for three movies it was associated with a particular character, and used in non-title ways, such as Obi-Wan's lines "You can't win, Darth" or "a young Jedi named Darth Vader". It just doesn't work anymore to use it as a title, even if that was his original intent.)

Also, it's nice to see that the only room for women in George Lucas' universe is as spunky royalty. Er, not. Female Jedi? No. Female senators? Not that we noticed. Female aliens? No, not obviously amongst Jar-Jar's warriors or the Trade Federation's people anyway. Of course there were the alien slaves (?) fawning over the pod racing champion. And the Queen's handmaidens.

It's also nice when he kills off the only character who I liked. I thought the older Jedi had that Sean-Connery-as-James-Bond charisma going.

Plot

So let's just accept that The Phantom Menace was an out-and-out action movie, an attempt by George Lucas to tell a story. How good was that story? How well was it told?

The Gun in The First Act

I won't find it fantastic or think it absurd
When the gun in the first act goes off in the third

to be written: comments on failures to establish first-act "guns", and situations where he did establish them needlessly

Luck

The good guys rely far too much on luck.

There are situations where it's ok for a writer to let chance cause the story to go where it does--generally just at the beginning, setting up the story that will be told. A few other situations are acceptable. If someone tells the story of someone who happens by the end of the story to be the last person alive on the earth, then it's ok if there are chance events that lead to this character's survival, since the implication is that somebody would end up being last, even if that was decided by chance.

In Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels, it is the nature of the universe that the three central characters are lucky. Events constantly transpire around them--they get lucky or unlucky by turns, but events are often far more extreme than they would be on average. But this is an explicit device, an aspect of the universe, and other characters do not make use of it. One gets the impression that Lucas might intend for The Force to have a similar effect, but it's never stated, except for the comment about them not finding Anakin by chance.

The most extreme example of this is Jar-Jar, who is constantly screwing up but getting lucky as a result, mainly in the climactic battle between his people and the combat droids. There is something entirely unsatisfying about a victory gained entirely through the luck of an inept leader. (Lucas sidesteps this a little by having them lose anyway.)

Another is Anakin's "lucky shots" which manage to wipe out the enemy droid-control ship.

And there seemed no skill to the success at running the blockade, just good luck that that last droid didn't get blown away by the laser fire. Jedi Knights and their powers seem especially poorly suited for ship-to-ship combat.

Bad Plot, Bad Story

There's also just a fair amount of bad plotting and bad storytelling. The following list is in chronological order; trust me, they get better after the first few.

I think there were more but I'm getting bored. I'm going to post this even though I haven't written the "gun in the first act" section. Maybe I'll finish it later.

I guess this just may sound like I'm being picky--that I disliked the movie and am looking for reasons to pick on it. I don't know. I have trouble even getting started with a list of things like this for the first Star Wars movie.

Again?

I wouldn't want to see The Phantom Menace a second time. Just thinking about it makes me impatient about the idea of having to sit through:

Unless I miss my guess, six of those seven items are entirely computer generated. The evolution of movie special effects may have enabled George Lucas to tell the stories he really wanted to tell, but they're not the stories I want to watch.


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attribution dammit: Frankenstein Aimee Mann