The Breakdown: Are the Star Wars prequels really as bad as we remember?
Part 1 – The Phantom Menace.
As Episode VIII begins to bear down on us like a thirst trap descending upon a Supreme outlet, I thought it’s probably a good time to look back through the archives and get a sense of how Disney’s foray into the Star Wars universe compares to Lucas’ swansong.
Born out of an argument I had with my brother regarding Episode VII, this series of articles will try and examine the critical components of each scene and breakdown dialogue, acting, visual effects and overall mise-en-scene to get to the bottom of our like, or dislike for Lucas’ prequels.
Did Lucas royally screw the pooch and are the prequels REALLY as bad as we remember? Or is the populist movement of hating George Lucas and the sting of Jar Jar Binks tainting our enjoyment of a series of movies that really weren’t that bad?
To answer this, over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be critically breaking down each of the prequels. Like any researcher I want to nitpick the elements that were fashioned together to make each movie in an attempt to see if they genuinely hold up to scrutiny. All my years in software development and testing has taught me a valuable lesson: try and break it, if you can’t, it’s a quality product.
So let’s start at the beginning, which ironically for a first time Star Wars watcher is definitely not something you should do. Episode 1, here we go.
Meesa sorry, George
So, 18 years later, is The Phantom Menace really as bad as we remember?
Oh boy, that’s a short article.
Look, there’s definitely more to my decision than just an overall dislike for Jar Jar or incredulous knee-jerk reactionary arguments about my childhood being ‘raped’. On the whole, it’s just not a very good movie.
There are some excellent takeaways from Episode 1 however – Without question it is the MOST Star-Warsey prequel movie Lucas made. It’s fun, aimed at a younger audience and like any good 80’s adventure movie it put the part of the child protagonist in the midst of all the action like Goonies or Monster Squad. I likened it more to a movie akin to Raiders of the Lost Ark than an operatic Sci-Fi movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or War of the Worlds.
Let’s be clear here too, Episode 1 was definitely aimed at kids. I was an adult when this movie came out so I clearly remember the sordid marketing that went into pushing this dung pile around. Trust me, Lucasfilm didn’t shy away in their resolve to target child friendly brands. Beyond the toys, there were collectible figures and medallions from fast food restaurants, exclusive Tazos and Pog like discs in packets of Doritos, Happy Meals, Pez dispensers, Slurpee cups, limited Pepsi cans and even the movie even had its own cereal.
But on the other end of the spectrum it does also have an adult orientated grand scale. Like Game of Thrones or a Tarantino historical drama there is no main character, or even a known protagonist. We follow a gamut of characters, good and evil, meaning our focus is never on the exploits of one person but instead on an expansive narrative that’s slowly revealing itself scene by scene. Qui-Gon Jinn is just as important as Obi-Wan, who is as equally as pivotal as Padme or Anakin Skywalker. I genuinely enjoy this kind of narrative writing, because it means the audience isn’t boxed in following a paint-by-numbers instructional colouring book. The Phantom Menace feels honest in its story writing and its portrayal of a young innocent boy that loved to help strangers who eventually goes on to destroy the foundations of peace in the galaxy.
Our assumption has always been that Luke Skywalker is the most important character in the Star Wars universe, however with Luke’s diminished role in Episode’s VII, VIII and IX it’s slowly coming into focus that perhaps Luke, like Padme or Obi Wan, is just a key player in an ever evolving narrative. If Disney’s new movies have taught us anything, it’s that every Star Wars trilogy is a cog in a greater machine, pushing us towards our eventual goal of seeing the stars align and “balance in the force” returning to all people and things.
For this reason The Phantom Menace genuinely feels important. I’m reminded of a monologue from the television show Spaced, where Tim tells his friends the most important character in all of Star Wars is the Star Destroyer officer that decides to not shoot down the escape pod at the beginning of Episode IV. It’s the earliest pivotal moment in the entire franchise where the events of all three original movies can be traced back to a single source. If C-3PO and R2-D2 were destroyed at the beginning of the movie the Death Star plans would have been lost. So too the Rebellion.
Without the sandstorm that forced Qui-Gon Jinn and his party to find shelter at Anakin’s house, none of the events of ANY Star Wars movie would have come to pass. If there’s a defence to be mounted for the importance of Episode 1 it’s this factor. The story of the Phantom Menace and its importance in the Star Wars universe is pitch perfect, it’s just the movie itself that kind of sucked.
In all there are definitely things to LOVE about The Phantom Menace: that expansive narrative, the space battles, the introduction of droid armies and some pretty bad-azz Lightsaber fights.
But of course there’s also things to despise. So let’s begin the breakdown and pull apart the movie. That way when we put it all back together we can see if we’re dealing with genuine trash or a film that’s able to transcend the shonky components in its own construction.
Exposition, exposition, exposition
This movie seems to beat the audience over the head with unnecessary exposition, even to the point where on screen when we’re being shown something, oddly we’re being TOLD about it too. This is usually done by a character either as a voiceover, or in some cases via a bizarre and jarring half second cut-away to another person in the scene. At one point on the Trade Federation ship at the beginning of the movie, after the characters zoom off like the Flash (I’ll get to that bit) they disappear, only to re-appear in the cargo hold. The exposition here comes from a Trade Federation lackey who screams “They’ve gone into the ventilation shaft”. I get the feeling that’s why Lucas gave us so much on screen audio exposition, probably because huge swathes of the movie was either cut or so much simply wasn’t filmed that during editing they thought, “We really need to explain this”. At one point while fleeing Naboo, the pilot of Armidala’s ship points to a row of ships in the distance and screams “There’s the blockade”. We know bro, we can see them. Of course, he then immediately flies STRAIGHT TOWARDS IT. I’m not sure we needed that explanation. What other ships could we have mistaken them for? People could argue, “Look, fine, but the pilot doesn’t know he’s in a movie, he’s saying what he’s saying because that’s what he would probably shout in that particular scenario”. Yes, but the completely fictional and scripted character IS in a movie, a movie that isn’t playing out for the benefit of the protagonists, it’s for the enjoyment of the audience. It has a whiff of B-Grade movieness about it, like a witless red shirt in Star Trek getting snared in the tentacles of a mysterious beast while horrified locals scream, “Oh no! It’s the pan-dimensional snarl beast of Alpha Sigma four!” Lucas’s overuse of exposition was truly infuriating.
My other theory is that Lucas realised that his young audience may have a hard time trying to understand the mechanical workings of the grand narrative, or they may find difficulty when the movie makes swift and sudden gear changes. Never-the-less the overwhelming use of audio exposition is incredibly frustrating and does little but cheapen the value of the plot.
Things that are never mentioned again, ever
The Phantom Menace introduces a lot of new and previously unknown elements into the Star Wars universe. The most obvious is the concept of ‘Medichlorians’. However there are a few concepts that get thrown around in Episode 1 that never seem to resurface at any other point in the prequel movies.
Early in the movie we’re given a glimpse of a new Jedi power that the audience had never seen before – super speed. When confronted by the Droideka’s outside the ship’s bridge, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan serenely zip down the corridor with all the swiftness and nimbleness of The Flash zooming off to arrest bank robbers. While Jedi’s possessing super human abilities isn’t farfetched in the Star Wars universe, it’s a power that never seems to surface ever again anywhere in any Star Wars movie. It’s a power that would have come in handy in some pivotal moments throughout the series, like Anakin chasing after the bounty hunter in Episode 2, or I dunno, RUNNING AWAY FROM THE DROID TRANSPORTS JUST AFTER THEY LAND ON NABOO IN A SCENE ONLY 2 MINUTES LATER.
Anakin’s origins are also a mystery and it’s an issue that’s never resolved. Apparently he was the result of some kind of Immaculate Conception, as his mother explains “there was no father”. Continuing on, “I carried him. I gave birth. I raised him”. At the time you could kind of understand where Lucas was going, in his mind he seemed to be heading towards a “The force conceived him for the purposes of balance” kind of deal. Of course, this would make Anakin’s conception quite possibly the most important piece of Star Wars history to date. It implies that the force isn’t impartial and that it has a will, even if that will is simply to bring order upon itself. This is an incredibly interesting concept and one that Lucas definitely made a right choice in implementing, but like the hopes of a New South Wales State of Origin supporter, the excitement was quickly dashed. It was never-revisited and Lucas has made no attempt to explain it further.
Anakin’s shithouse mother
I really have a problem with this woman. Not the actor and her acting, not even the slave angle that Lucas went for, but more so for her absolutely rubbish parenting skills.
At one point everyone is sat around the dinner table musing over how they could earn enough money to buy a new hyperdrive so they can escape Tatooine and get Armidala safely into the protection of the Republic. Upon offering his services in a pod race, Qui-Gon repeatedly tells Anakin, “No, there must be another way”. At this point his mother decides to chime in and say,
“There is no other way”. Rightio. Go on. Take your only son, a son that was IMMACULATELY CONCEIVED BY A GHOST OR SOME SHIT and put him into the care of complete strangers. Strangers that want to fling him through the air at colossal speeds in the most dangerous sport on the planet no less. For their OWN gain. She seems so nonchalant when it comes to placing her son in the firing line, something that comes up again after Anakin wins the race.
Qui-Gon confidently strolls through the door, throws money on the table and exclaims, “Your son is free”. At this point instead of bursting into tears of joy, hugging her son, or even just saying “Thank you”, Anakin’s mother forlornly looks at the ground and asks, “Is he going to be trained as a Jedi?”. Surely that’s up to you, you are his mother after all. It’s not up to a complete stranger to demand what is going to become of your only child.
Fuck you George Lucas
Medichlorians. Fuck you George Lucas.
“That’s so wizard ani”. Fuck you George Lucas.
Wacky self aware robots. Fuck you Geroge Lucas.
I’ve counted Warwick Davis 3 times in this movie. Fuck you George Lucas. Pay another actor for fuck’s sake.
Jar Jar binks
It was inevitable. We had to get to Jar Jar. While Jar Jar was certainly an interesting character (I use the term interesting in its loosest context), it would be remiss to not mention that Episode 1 would definitely have been at least a thousand times more enjoyable without him. The clearly obvious racial overtones aside, there are a cohort of eccentricities and bizarre dialogue choices that need to be addressed here.
The first item on my Jar Jar checklist is his indecipherable dialogue. Of course, there are people out there that enjoy watching ALL movies (including English language movies) with captions on. While I shy away from that kind of shenanigans, with all honesty I think Episode 1 could be vastly improved by having them on. There were times throughout the movie I genuinely didn’t understand what the character was saying. His introduction to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is completely unintelligible and culminates in what can only be described as a Looney Tunes style tumble and dive into a small pond. It was ridiculous. I half expected Bugs Bunny to appear off to one side and yank the water away while screaming “Ain’t I a stinker?”. I found myself pausing the movie at various points to make notes that simply read, “Honestly guys, what the fuck is Jar Jar saying here?”
Jar Jar’s self awareness for things outside of the Star Wars universe is also exceedingly frustrating. After leaving the Gungan city, Obi-Wan asks Jar Jar why he was banished and he was met with this reply, “It’s a long Othello”. How does Jar Jar know Othello? Further investigation reveals Jar Jar is actually saying, “It’s a longo tale-o”. But that’s not how it sounds. If you know people are going to easily get confused surely the first thing to do would be to change the dialogue. Especially considering it’s a voiceover dub and can be re-voiced at any time. Interesting footnote here – the screenplay has all of Jar Jar’s voice parts listed phonetically, that way during filming actors can give their reactions in real time. In this particular scene however the script simply reads “It’s a long tale”. At some point between filming and voiceover recording it seems the line was changed, probably because someone thought it would be funny if Jar Jar made a reference to Othello.
Seriously, fuck you guys.
There are a slew of other issues I have with this movie. Here is a list of some of the most prominent:
- Anakin and his mother are slaves, but their house looks bigger than most Sydney apartments.
- Anakin is the property of Watto and can speak his language. Presumably he speaks a lot of languages. He’s been on Tatooine and in the service of Watto for the vast majority of his life, and yet whenever he speaks the language he delivers his lines with all the vigour of an American tourist with a guidebook trying to order a meal in France. “Ess, Car, Gott, mercy”.
- What’s the point of a pit stop in a pod race that only goes 3 laps?
- These aliens are less alien and more like Mighty Boosh characters.
- The kid that plays Anakin keeps looking into the camera.
- All the extras in this movie are either walking together in groups or they’ve split off into two’s and three’s and are having conversations. It looks so unnatural.
- While being chased by the giant Goober(?) fish, Qui-Gon says to Obi-Wan “Head for that outcropping”. Why? How do you know where to go? You’ve never been here before. That outcropping could very well be an even bigger Goober fish (There’s always a bigger fish) that’s disguised itself as a harmless looking group of rocks. Shouldn’t Jar Jar be navigating?
- Also while we’re on the subject of the underwater scene, something dawned on me this time around while I watched the movie. So, the “Speediest way to the Naboo” is through the Planet’s Core? Wouldn’t that mean that they’re on the OPPOSITE side of the planet? That presents a few issues: Why would the robot army land there if the capital of the planet is on the other side, and how did the droid army and the Gungan army have their battle if they’re both located in opposite hemispheres? Fuck this movie, guys.
- In the Galactic Senate, apparently you can just fly your little space vehicle around and buzz the Chancellor anytime you feel like it, like a fly annoying people at a BBQ.
- On the Blu-Ray you could see how shoddy the horns are on Darth Maul’s head.
- Funerals in the Star Wars universe just seem to be people standing around silently staring at a burning corpse. How long does this go for?
- Giving the Gungan leader the ball of light at the end of the movie, was that to address the whole “Chewbacca never got a medal” thing? Why did he get it? He didn’t do shit.
- When Anakin jumps in the fighter it flies off on its own because it’s on auto-pilot. Wait, how did it know to go to a battle that THE SHIP’S COMPUTER DIDN’T KNOW THEY WERE GOING TO HAVE? C’mon guys.
- The Trade Federation Asian accents are ridiculous. The “Destroy what’s left” line is so stupid it has the inaugural pleasure of being the only line in cinema history to physically make my skin crawl.
- Again, I genuinely don’t know what Jar Jar is saying
So what’s the verdict? Is this movie really as bad as we’ve always believed? Or is it a case of finding joy or sharing common ground with people through our unwarranted hatred of a film that really isn’t that bad?
Ehhhhh *Waves hand around*
I honestly don’t think The Phantom Menace is really as bad as people say it is, it does however mark a turning point in the overall decline of the Star Wars franchise. I say decline because by giving us a glimpse of the Galactic Republic and its inner workings, Lucasfilm spent the next few years painstakingly building up the prequel storylines in books, games and cartoons.
Video games and books that previously were focussed around either the Galactic Civil War or its direct aftermath were pushed aside by official Lucasfilm media for projects that were Clone Wars centric.
While this sounds interesting, in the end it really wasn’t. We lost the dirty visuals of Mos Eisley cantinas and replaced them with clean, sterile super advanced Kubrick-esque white hallways. Star Wars just seemed, different. It was starting to remind us more of episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation than it was a George Lucas adventure series. While STNG has its place and is wonderful in its own kind of way, it’s not Star Wars.
The mystique was gone. We were put smack bang in the middle of Jedi territory and it devalued everything that came before. Suddenly Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi isn’t important, because there are Jedi everywhere. Look, there they go, walking down the street like cops arresting people in bars and working as drug councillors helping to get people’s lives straight.
Let him have his fucking Deathsticks. At least it’s gritty.
Coming up next - Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
- Andrew Archer