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May 28, 1999: the gun in the first act
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
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
- The blockade is deployed in a circular orbit around
the equator, rather than a sphere surrounding the entire planet.
- The two Jedi Knights just happen to randomly run
in the same direction after planetfall.
- The reasoning for heading to the underwater city seemed
a bit trumped-up.
- The references to modern popular culture were jarring.
"Ex-squeeze me" and the pod racing announcer(s) were the most
blatant of these. They should never have been in the movie.
Also, there were too many goofy accents.
It took me a long time before I could make sense of
what Jar-Jar was saying.
- "Giant fish deep underwater" totally lacks the imagination of
"giant monster in an asteroid that looks like it's just
- When the Jedi Knights free the Queen, their assault
is still somewhat believable. One can imagine that nobody
gets hurt because the droids only shoot at the Jedi, who are
able to defend themselves. From then on, the combats are no
longer believable. Other people now have blasters but no
way to defend themselves from incoming fire. One would expect
the droids to shoot at them as well. If we are to believe
that the Jedi have sufficient reach to shield everyone with
their lightsabres, we need to see it.
- I guess the first act of The Phantom Menace is
them getting to Tatooine. If so, it's just too long.
Too much action, too little meaningful character interaction.
Because the two Jedi have been together for some time,
their interaction isn't particularly dramatic. Even
on Tatooine, it's slow. Anakin becomes the central
character, but because he's a kid, it just doesn't lend
itself to real drama, e.g. his interactions with the
the "handmaiden". Not until the initial meeting between
R2-D2 and C-3PO do we get an intersting interaction,
and even that is a bit tedious at this point. (Indeed,
there's no apparent reason why R2-D2 was brought along
except to allow for this meeting. Given its slow rate
of movement, it made no sense.)
- The older Jedi gambles everything on Anakin
succeeding at the race. Given Anakin's past failures,
this seems in the end to be relying on luck again.
Sure, the character may be fated to eventually pull
it together and win one race... but why this particular
one? In general, characters are too easily convinced that
some particular approach is the only right one. The
trader claims he's the only one with the necessary
parts; but he's a conniving trader, why should we
believe him? A similar situation occurs later with
the Queen's reliance on Senator Palpatine.
- So who ended up sending a message back to Naboo
which got traced? Arguably, it's not important who did
it, since "someone was bound to", and it's not important
to see exactly how Obi-Wan failed to prevent it. On the
other hand, having somebody particular do it, and having
that person forced to admit it later, and having that
character learn why it was the wrong thing to do, and
letting that character grow and change would have
actually been a bit of character development. And what
were they doing, anyway? The Queen wasn't there--she
was off at the settlement; so who would have taken it
upon themselves without her around to decide? (Arguably,
this is a plot hole that is likely to slip by the audience
since they don't realize the Queen is not who she seems
to be at this point.)
- Part of the way Star Wars achieved an epic scope
was by making you believe there really were "little
people", using Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru to give you a
sense of the "ordinary" citizenry. The jawas served this
role, too, to a certain extent. The Phantom Menace
has none of this. The prime opportunity was with
Anakin's mother, but instead of being an ordinary
caring mother, she was super-philosopher-mom, not to
mention having apparently immaculately conceived Anakin.
All her scenes rang false for me because of this.
- What did the apprentice Sith lord see in his
binoculars? The settlement and the spaceship? I saw
two blobs. Then he sent out his droids, but we never
got any closure on what exactly his droids found.
- The race. Ho hum. Video game. Boring. It
was just lame in so many ways, I can't even attempt
to describe it in complete sentences linked together
- Anakin's pod is sabotaged, and then has trouble starting.
Was this because of the sabotage or just a coincidental
problem? It turned out later that the sabotage caused
another problem, so this was apparently unrelated. That's
stupid, since it ruins the pacing.
- Why were the Tuskin raiders only shooting at Anakin?
- Why did the sabotage just happen to go wrong during the
final end bit of the race?
- How can being sent up the service ramp save time? The
fastest route between two points is a straight line.
- Random petty slaughter.
- No human dimension. (Think of Luke's struggle (and failure)
to pull his harpooner from the snowspeeder before the oncoming
AT-AT crushes them both.)
- Anakin's ability to hack around the sabotage and then
to go even faster than before made no sense. (Moments
before the breakdown, he was having trouble keeping his
lead. Races are always problematic for being both
realistic yet dramatic because of this sort of thing.)
- The older Jedi collects his winnings (the engine
part), takes it out to the spaceship, then goes back
to pick up Anakin. There is no reason apparent fictional
reason why he takes two trips; he simply announces he'll do it.
The reason becomes apparent: it allows him to have a
climactic solo encounter with the Sith while allowing the
engine to already be prepped and ready to go, thus allowing
an inconclusive resolution to their battle.
- Jumping onto a (slow) moving spaceship seems like
it would be a pretty obvious dramatic move. I'm not going
to buy into it fictionally, especially that the Sith didn't
see it coming and block the move or make the jump himself,
unless you actually show the event to me so it makes sense.
Instead it seemed to happen subtley off-camera; he had made
it onto the ramp by the time the camera switched to show it.
It almost looked like they had cut out a crucial shot from
the scene, perhaps because they couldn't make it work.
- Somebody should have explained sooner that Senator
Palpatine was the Naboo's representative. I was too busy
thinking of him as a crazy power-mad guy who was just sticking
his nose into their business, which made me wonder why
they were so trusting of him. (And, really, being
somebody's representative doesn't make them trustworthy.
Why didn't the Queen ask the Jedi's advice? They had
said they were the representatives of the Chancellor/Councilor
whatever they called the leader of the senate, so they probably
would have had an opinion on the wisdom of the no-confidence
- Uh, I'm not sure when the best time to launch into
this spiel is, but, uh, what's the deal? The true Queen
reveals herself to Jar-Jar's people, but she lets the decoy
speak to the Senate?! Or was she sometimes the real Queen?
Which one did Anakin talk to when he showed up at her quarters
to say goodbye? (Continued below.)
- As a story, it's unsatisfying. The Jedi escape with
the Queen, take her to the Senate, she gets no satisfaction
from them and goes home and solves everything on her own.
The end result: a wasted trip which just managed to get
Palpatine on his road to power. Obviously, if this were a
tragedy you could accept that as the point of the story,
but it's unsatisfying for them to manage to resolve things
on their own in the end, then. And let's not forget that
this was apparently nothing like what Palpatine had planned.
It would have been a brilliant plan--cause trouble in your
home sector, undermine the authority of the existing leader,
and get the job for yourself--but there's no evidence that
this was his plan. He didn't want the Queen brought to
the Senate. Oh, you could argue that that's what he told
the Trade Federation, but he knew they would fail, but all
the evidence implies he really was trying to stop her.
After all, he sent his apprentice to recapture her.
- The fictional programmers of those combat droids did a great job
at making them walk in perfect synchronization over uneven
outdoor terrain. Nice job. Maybe they should have spent some
time getting them to fire their weapons with the same accuracy.
Stormtroopers were more convincing this way, since at least
they were supposed to be humans underneath the armor.
- What was our plucky real Queen doing out there on the front
lines shooting her blaster and relying on the incredibly poor
aim of those combat droids for her survival?
- How much like the decoy Queen was the real Queen supposed
to look? (I couldn't really tell because of the Queen makeup.)
One would tend to assume "not very much" from the way the plot
unfolded, until the Trade Federation guy "recognized" her as
the Queen (and then moments later changed his mind). The fact
that the minute she's been revealed to us she becomes recognizable
to others was a horrible plot move; even if there is a fictional
justification (e.g. she was never apart from the Queen around people
who knew of the Queen before then), it's just not something to take
chances with confusing viewers about.
- Why was Anakin's fighter auto-pilot programmed
to take him to the enemy space ship? There was no evidence that
they had previously pre-programmed the fighters, e.g.
through a computer break-in. The fact that one of the
other fighters bumped the hanger door while taking off
suggests that they were taking off under manual control.
- The timed force doors in the big light saber battle
were goofy mainly because I didn't know what they were.
At first I thought it was some sort of trap.
- The choreographed light sabre battles aren't actually
very convincing. Too many dramatic spins, too many big
swings which leave an obvious opening.
- Obi-Wan's climactic move is totally unsurprising--where
else could he go? Of course he can make superhuman leaps.
With reflexes like that demonstrated by the older Jedi on
Jar-Jar's tongue, the apprentice Sith lord had no excuse
not cutting Obi-Wan in half during that jump. His surprise
and shock and failure to block the attack were entirely
- Gee, let's blow up yet another big spaceship that's
threatening to destroy all of the good guys by flying
a fighter inside it and blowing up some critical component.
Since the rehashed Death Star is my biggest complaint about
Return of the Jedi, it shouldn't be surprising that seeing
it rehashed yet again was a disappointment.
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.
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:
- special effects scenes showing lots of swarming flying craft
- the giant fish encounters
- the pod race
- Anakin's mother
- the big battle between Jar-Jar's people and the droids
- the fighters versus the droid-control spaceship
Unless I miss my guess, six of those seven items are
entirely computer generated. The evolution of movie
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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Frankenstein Aimee Mann