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Fun with Franchises: Final Thoughts on Star Wars Episode I — The Phantom Menace

All right… we’ve watched the film, talked about it, had fun with it, and then we went and listed our favorite images from the film yesterday. Now all that’s left is to finish up with what we actually thought about the film as a whole.

This is our space to go over what we liked and didn’t like about each film we watch for Fun with Franchises. We talk about specific things as we get to them during the articles, and we’ll mention our general thoughts during them, but we don’t really ever get to sit and do broad strokes during the articles. So this is why we do these Final Thoughts. We get to take a step back and talk about the films as a whole, rather than discussing specific scenes or images. We’ll talk about how we felt about the film, how we liked it as a film, how we liked it as a member of its franchise, and where we think it falls within that franchise.

Again, it’s not very complicated, but it is a place to find out what we actually thought about certain movies, since, while we’re having fun with them in the articles, it may get difficult to tell sometimes. Because we’ll just rip things to shreds for fun, even if we love them.

So here are our final thoughts on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Final Thoughts on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace:

Colin:

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was the most disappointing thing since my son a failed attempt at a return to the franchise. It’s pretty clear that somewhere between Return of the Jedi and the making of this film (although, quite possibly DURING the making of Jedi), George Lucas changed for the worse in several ways. Other than getting older and fatter, George got slightly full of himself and a little more obsessed with the business side of filmmaking. With the original trilogy, George was relegated to story work, which was focused by screenwriters, and to special effects stuff – which he excelled at. He was credited with the story and was a producer. This time? Story, director, executive producer, screenwriter, and I expect he probably swept up after hours. Who thought it was a good idea to let this man do everything?

So, I think we pretty successfully tore the plot apart during the articles. It’s poorly thought out, convoluted at times and simple at others, generally nonsensical and altogether wrong as an approach to the telling of the Star Wars backstory. I think George is a really good scope guy; that is to say, if you want your universe made bigger and more exciting, he can be the one to do it. But in the case of the Star Wars prequels, he went a little too wild on scope and didn’t focus the story nearly as much as it should have been. The original trilogies gave us a core character with buddies and enemies to follow. This movie immediately eschews the whole “main character” route and instead presents us with a number of different characters that we’re supposed to relate to or support based on little or no development. It’s like a bad soap opera inasmuch as the characters we encounter in any given scene have questionable placement at best, and are more often arbitrary additions to the action merely meant to appeal to certain focus groups. I don’t think I need to go any further than Jar Jar to establish the validity of this point. Why do people attack Jar Jar as a character? Because he doesn’t matter. Because his role in this film is ONLY for children and his role in the subsequent films is only as vital as it is because Lucas probably had a chip on his shoulder about fan complaints and brought the moron back out of spite. He defended the character by saying people were wrong to expect dark, serious action films rather than something that could be enjoyed by the whole family. First, I don’t think this film could be enjoyed by the whole family. And second, what happened to that philosophy by the time we got to Revenge of the Sith, in which we witness multiple child murders?

The real disappointment is how there are several characters who get more or less glossed over in favor of other characters that don’t…really matter. Qui Gon Jinn gets way too much screen time for someone who dies (unspectacularly and without eliciting an emotional response) and is almost never mentioned in any capacity during the following two films. Anakin, who should have been a main character, is introduced nearly halfway through the film and never appeals to the audience. I have no idea why Lucas didn’t start with a slightly older Anakin who could have acted better and transitioned into Attack of the Clones. I’m sorry, but when there’s a ten year gap between the first and second films, you’ve got two completely different characters, and you can be sure that we’ve missed some stuff. So for all intents and purposes, the “prequels” begin with Episode II, and this film is a pre-prequel. It tries to establish (key word being “tries”) the players in a narrative that is contiguous, if not continuous, during the following two films. In that respect, it mirrors the original trilogy; the first installment gets wrapped up neatly with a little bow, and we open the second film with shit gone awry once more. But in the original trilogy, we’re still focused on the same core group of characters. Phantom Menace clumsily lumps a bunch of characters together in extreme circumstances, but when the action’s over, they go back to their respective lives (or deaths, if you’re Qui Gon). They get together, but don’t STICK together. The mistake here is that it sets up Attack of the Clones to play out like a reunion tour or something. The group’s back together again, but the members have changed and the dynamics are a little different.

This should have been a film that was primarily about Obi Wan, Anakin and Padme. Limit Qui Gon’s role, get rid of Jar Jar (and possibly the Gungans altogether), give the Trade Federation a more concrete reason to be invading Naboo and use Darth Maul properly by not killing him and setting him up as a nemesis for Obi Wan. Actually, this guy on the interwebs has a pretty good take on how to make the film better, story-wise. I agree with him on most points. His approach is a damn sight better than George’s was.

I think one of the biggest mistakes in making this film was when it was made. Don’t you think it was five years too early? You hear about how James Cameron put off Avatar because he wasn’t satisfied with the animation technology available in the 90s, but George was fine with it. The sad thing about early adoption of new technologies is that for quite some time, you have to deal with something that has immense potential for the future, but doesn’t even measure up to the conventional methods of the day. Dudes driving the first cars ever were limited to 10mph, and got passed by people on horseback doing twice that speed. The same can be said for The Phantom Menace. The CGI was simply not good enough to pull off what Lucas wanted to do – a cursory glance at Jar Jar is the only confirmation you’ll need for that statement. If I had my druthers, I’d prefer a puppet that had some good stuff to do and say to a poorly-rendered CGI moron that steps in shit and reminds us all of the sorry state of America’s race relations. I know George must have been excited by the possibilities that CGI afforded him, but the quality isn’t really there until Revenge of the Sith, and even then it still pales in comparison to the masterful visual quality of Empire. Twenty years on, and it feels like a [major] step backwards.

The question that must be addressed is – is this the WORST Star Wars film? The answer is…yeah, probably, for all the reasons I just listed. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the most unforgivable Star Wars movie. That dubious honor has to go to Attack of the Clones, because apparently there were no lessons learned in the making of this piece of crap. I want to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and think that he went into this project with a vision [of dollar signs dancing in his head] that just didn’t pan out as well as he’d hoped. He prioritized the wrong elements, bit off a little more than he could chew in terms of creative control, and the product suffered for it. That’s not good. But while you don’t really get a mulligan after making a bad film, you should be expected to evaluate what went wrong and ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made twice. Instead, we got…well, you’ll see what we got in the next article of this series. It should have been a one-off failure with origins that could be easily justified on paper. Like Star Wars: New Coke, or something. Coca Cola figured out what they did wrong, though – Lucas did not.

 

My Final Thoughts:

I’m not really sure what I have to add here. My big problem with this trilogy is almost exactly what Colin said. Lucas does too much. He should have relegated authority more. He doesn’t direct most of his films. He hasn’t directed a movie since the first Star Wars. Why do you need to go back?

Well, the reason for that is the fact that most of this trilogy is green-screened and created entirely on computers. So he’s the de facto director because not much actual directing is happening. He’s just supervising the visual effects like he’s always done, so in a sense he is the director.

But that is the primary issue with George — he’s great with visuals, and he’s great with expanding a universe, but you can’t let him control a script or actually direct actors. Because the man can’t write a good scene. He just can’t. And that’s usually the case with purely visual filmmakers. They don’t care about the words, so the words end up being completely generic, as these are. The story ends up being a gigantic mess, and he seems to be completely on automatic pilot, because all he’s thinking about is visuals and business. He’s expanding shit, making it for the kids, and dealing with visuals. Plus he bought into CGI, so that’s also influencing him (and hurting him at the same time, since you don’t have to set up a shot from a computer, and that was his specialty in the first film). It’s a bad foundation for the start of a trilogy. He’s not trying to tell a story for the story’s sake. And then he did all this stuff himself — of course it was gonna turn out this way.

I think we all agree on the narrative issues here — too complex, makes no sense in context, and really has nothing to do with the other two films in the trilogy. So little of what’s in this film rolls over to the next one it’s kind of scary. You wasted an entire movie in which you could have told a really compelling story, building on some stuff that comes up later (namely Palpatine and even Anakin). I think we all understand what’s wrong with the characters — Jar Jar (and just… everything there), and Qui-Gon being useless and boring. Obi-Wan being relegated to nothing for most of this movie, even though he’s pretty much OUR ONLY LINK TO THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY. I think Darth Maul was wasted, as badass as he was. I think Padme wasn’t too bad, but was wasted because of the stupid story Lucas was telling. I think we pretty much covered all those problems with it. I don’t want to attack those. I want to try to understand them.

I do agree with Colin that this film was potentially made a few years too early. But even then, that doesn’t take it off the hook for any narrative deficiencies. I think Lucas was trying to tell too broad a story for something that, at its selling point, is a very specific, smaller story with broader implications. This trilogy should really be the Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, with the fall of the Republic in the backdrop, taking a bigger role as we move on. Things like pod races and Gungans and poop jokes — it’s taking away from the story he should be telling. That’s my biggest problem with this movie.

The one issue I did want to get into with these reviews is the one Colin brought up at the end of his thoughts, which is — what is the most unforgivable (not gonna capitalize the u, since we’re too far removed from 1999 to make that distinction) movie in this trilogy? My opinion is that it is, and will always be, this one. Sure, Attack of the Clones is easily the worst movie of the three, but to me, that doesn’t have anything to do with which one is the most unforgivable.

It reminds me of when I took my senior seminar for film in college, and Jeanine had us, one week, watch (it was on Scorsese, by the way) both Gangs of New York and The Aviator. And we talked about the two of them and whatnot, and then she said, “Which of you preferred Gangs of New York (show of hands), and which of you preferred The Aviator (show of hands)? Now… if you had to pick one movie to completely eliminate from Scorsese’s filmography, which would it be?” Which was a fascinating question, since when you look into a person’s filmography, you look at what films are the important films for a filmmaker, whether historically, or aesthetically, or culturally, or whatever. For Scorsese, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Those are pretty much his major films before the Leo era. Everything else is great and is important in its own way, but those are the real touchstones in terms of Scorsese. In terms of his career, and what they mean for him as a filmmaker, those are the ones.

Now, when you look at Gangs of New York and The Aviator — it’s an interesting choice to make. To me, The Aviator is far and away the better film there. It’s not even close. However, the moment she said, “Which would you eliminate from his filmography?” I didn’t hesitate for a second in taking that one off. Because The Aviator is more of an aesthetic movie, and doesn’t hold too many ties to who he is as a filmmaker. It’s more a celebration of an era and him playing his craft the way a classical cellist gives a concert. Gangs of New York is a much more personal movie to him, it’s about New York, he put his own money into making it (I’m pretty sure, right? I remember this being his other passion project aside from The Last Temptation of Christ), it’s his first film with Leo — it’s clearly the more important film of the two.

Which brings me back to The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. To me, it’s a similar distinction (only to the negative). Attack of the Clones is The Aviator in this analogy, in that it’s far and away the worser of the two films. However, to me, this one will always be more unforgivable and would be the one I’d rather Lucas did over, because this is the one that set the tone for the rest of this trilogy. This is the one that had 16 years of anticipation building up toward it. This is the one that he completely fucked up so badly that even the most hardcore of Star Wars fans went, “What the fuck was that?”

I can’t get on him too hard about Attack of the Clones because, to me, this is where he took a shit on his audience. Attack of the Clones is him rubbing our noses in it and dancing around, trying to hit everyone in the face with his dick. To me, that’s shame on us, not shame on him. This is shame on him. We shouldn’t have expected him to start over and suddenly make it better. Because that’s not in his DNA. That’s not who George Lucas is. Sure, you can hope, but when he doesn’t deliver on that hope, you’ll have to get yourself a… new hope you can’t blame him for that. So to me, this is the more unforgivable of the two films, and will always be, even though I think Attack of the Clones is the worst movie of the trilogy.

See that? Didn’t waste time talking about Jar Jar once. I bet your expectations for these final thoughts went right out the window.

Just doing my part.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow we start Attack of the Clones.

Get ready to drink.

(See the rest of the Fun with Franchises articles here.)

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