Friday, July 1, 2011

Second Opinion: Star Wars Episode I

As I write this, I'm going through a little Star Wars phase, re-watching the movies and all that.  Not that Star Wars has ever really been my favorite or defining fandom, but I've enjoyed, if not appreciated, it in whatever form I've experienced it in.  And yes, that includes Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  I tell you what, it feels unsettling having been born too late to catch Star Wars in its prime, like most of its fans on the Internet seem to be.  Before seeing The Phantom Menace in theaters, I was only mildly familiar with the original movie, A New Hope, as well as Shadows of the Empire, the N64 video game which took place parallel to part of the original trilogy.  As time went by, I became more willing to accept at least some of the so-called flaws of the newer movies.  But the relentless three-part lambasting given to each of them by the Distressed Watcher really rubbed me the wrong way and, for my first experience with the guy, tainted my impression of him.  I won't be tackling his reviews of Episodes II and III, because in the case of II, I actually agree with him.  At best, that movie was kinda blah.  As for III, I thought it was kind of good, but it falls apart at the end.  But his comments on I shall not escape my wrath.  Let's hear what he has to say:
Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
"It looks like Star Wars.  It sounds like Star Wars.  But The Phantom menace doesn't feel like Star Wars. [...] This is the Star Wars universe as a desolate husk, now devoid of all that made it magical and endearing.  Instead of character development, we get elaborate costumes.  Instead of a coherent plot, we get a mess of special effects.  Instead of visual integrity, we get an absolute mess, where every frame is stuffed to the brim with as much [...] as possible.  The space battle is no longer a carefully-paced struggle in the stars, full of suspense, but an incomprehensible jumble of lasers and ships. [...] The lightsaber duel is no longer a fight to the death with a real sense of urgency behind it, but a choreographed ballet, where every move looks practiced, polished, and sterile."

I said it with Sonic 4, and I'll say it again here: is Star Wars only supposed to be like the first movies?  Has the absence of new material for over 15 years since Return of the Jedi numbed fans' willingness to adapt?  Apparently, but that doesn't mean I have to play like that.

In the case of the space battles and Jedi duels being too overstimulating, as far as we know, this was George Lucas's intention from the very first movie.  In DVD commentaries and other material, he himself says he was limited by the filmmaking capabilities of the 70s and 80s.  By comparing The Phantom Menace next to the pre-existing sequence of movies, as if the long gap of time never happened, we can see this progression.  Moving from the Death Star battle in A New Hope, to the Death Star II battle in Return of the Jedi, up to the battle above Naboo in The Phantom Menace, each battle has more and more units on either side.  Apart from this being what I'm sure real-world armies would do in real-world wars, this was no doubt done to up the spectacle factor.  Whether or not it succeeds here is another story; they never focus on any of the pilots other than Anakin, who doesn't even know what he's doing.

The same goes for the lightsaber duels between various Jedi and Sith.  Having all the Force-fueled acrobatics you see here wouldn't make sense in the older movies.  In them, Obi-wan was old, Darth Vader was old and part-mechanical, and Luke is young and relatively untrained.  On the other hand, the prequel trilogy presents a world where the Jedi are active and at their prime, until... you know.  (Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith.)  As for whether or not it's better, I'll leave that for the readers, but as far as I can tell you're just throwing around those words as disapproval for the movie as a whole.  By hating enough of it, you start to hate everything else about it as well.  And that's no good.

"The witty quips of Han Solo have been replaced by the mirthless griping of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The wisdom of Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan Kenobi has been replaced by the vacant platitudes of Qui-Gon Jinn. The naivete and charm of Luke Skywalker has been replaced by the high-pitched, sitcom-style [...] yammering of Anakin Skywalker.  Everyone in this movie is as flat as can be.  Amidala has no personality whatsoever.  Obi-wan is relentlessly like a PMSing Bantha."

I'll yield you this: the acting in The Phantom Menace was pretty terrible.  It seems as if nine-tenths of the cast was under-acting; Keira Knightley as the not-queen of Naboo has it worst in my book.  You know you're in trouble when you're out-acted by a battle droid.  And just to remind you that I have "standards", part of what made the original trilogy fun for me to re-watch was the playful bickering between Han Solo and... pretty much anyone else he came in contact with.

Going back to The Phantom Menace, it's a shame some of the better actors were horribly underused.  For one, there's Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi chief Mace Windu, although blessedly, he was given much more screen time in Episodes II and III.  And how can you not love a movie with a cameo by BRIAN BLESSED!?  ...Seriously, though, among the other actors, I personally enjoy Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, whose stoic temperment attempts, with variable success, to evoke Alec Guiness's Obi-Wan.  More often than not he seems wise until you think about the suggestions and plans he makes, as evidenced by your "What Would Qui-Gon Do" segments which I'm not even gonna touch.  *sigh* And then there's the two most widely-reviled performances in the film, maybe the entire franchise, which I will take on one at a time:

"The Trade Federation aliens are slanty-eyed, ornately-dressed, imperialistic, and they talk in broken English.  Watto is big-nosed, cares only about money, and talks in a raspy voice.  Jar Jar is lanky, stupid, and subservient to his masters.  And the way he talks is reminiscient of a Southern black man in the slavery era."


Wow.  I had never thought about them that way, I said in sincerity mode.  And to think this movie came out of the 1990s, the least racist decade of all time!  I know George Lucas drew from classic film genres when writing earlier entries like A New Hope, but to draw from character stereotypes - and racist ones at that?  ...Now, to be fair, Lucas as well as Jar Jar's actor Ahmed Best (who is, himself, of African descent!) have gone on the record and stated that they did not have any racist intentions regarding the creation and portrayal of these characters.  And on a personal level, when I first watched this movie, I hadn't learned about these kinds of stereotypes, so I couldn't have made the connection.  Good for me.

While we're on the subject, I seriously used to like Jar Jar Binks.  Yeah, I just broke you.  His voice, high-pitched as it may be, just never happened to annoy me.  Speech quirks like his set of slang also seem to hit my funny bone for some reason.  He may also be clumsy, but at least his actions don't screw up the good guys too badly, like I wish I could think of some ideas...  Guess I've blocked them all out.  Good, because I really hate those kinds of things.

"[Anakin Skywalker's] every word is hollow and filled with 50s-sitcom style exclamations.  And he's a goody-goody. [...] How about making Anakin a real person with an actual personality?  Little kids are selfish, they play tricks, they disobey adults, they get angry."

You're right again.  Anakin, as portrayed in this movie, seems to be what we in the Simpsons fandom call "running for Jesus".  Basically, he does no wrong and goes out of his way to do good.  There are very few times when one can pull it off successfully, and suffice it to say this is not one of those cases.  What I think Lucas was trying to do was paing Anakin in such a positive light now so that his fall to the Dark Side of the Force - something we know will happen already - is that much more tragic.  Whether he succeeded or not I'll let you guys debate about, but context aside, he's just not that relatable.  Use character flaws wisely, budding writers, and you will go far.

"Metachlorians, metachlorians, meta-****ing-chlorians. [...] Finding out that the Force is really just a bunch of parasites in your bloodstream is traumatic. [...] Finding out that the Force, the mythical power Yoda spoke of with reverence, is really just a form of bacteria, is like finding out that pixie dust is fungus which grows in the brain, and stimulates a form of telekinesis whereby the subject can levitate their own body.  Science, especially pseudo-science, doesn't belong in a work of escapist fantasy, which is what Star Wars is."

OBJECTION!  ...Sorry, I was imagining this review as an Ace Attorney-style debate.

It's just that I have evidence that - first of all, it's 'midichlorians', not 'metachlorians' - midichlorians and the Force are two separate entities.  Apparently, midichlorians exist inside the body and can, in high enough amounts, somehow allow said persons to channel the Force, which exists outside the body.  Qui-Gon himself makes this distinction when describing them to Anakin, before leaving Coruscant to return to Naboo.  Certainly some of us have wondered how people in the Star Wars universe interact with the force on a technical level, and why some can do it and some can't.  Apparently... not enough.

I can understand the backlash to it all, though.  When viewers were first exposed to the Force in the 70s/80s trilogy, it was presented as this mystical... thing that could be used to do anything.  By not learning too much about the specifics, we came to have faith in it, and faith can't exist when knowledge fills in those gaps.  What I guess happened when those people learned about midichlorians was that their faith was shattered by fact.  It's just like in the Special Edition of A New Hope when they made Greedo shoot first instead of Han Solo.  It took away from the awesome (in both senses of the word) image projected by the character.

Going back to midichlorians, it doesn't help that a fictional entity without much explanation was explained in turn by another fictional entity without much explanation.  And I should probably take it as a sign that they're not mentioned again in episodes II and III.  Looks like even George Lucas can get the message sometimes.  But come on, who doesn't love a good power level count?  (Yes, Anakin's midichlorian count is 20,000.  Fill in the joke if you want to.)

"R2D2 was owned by Luke Skywalker's mom?  C-3PO was built by Luke Skywalker's dad?  These droids came from Naboo and Tatooine respectively and were both ultimately tied into the lives of Luke's parents?  Then, after decades of just kicking around in the galaxy, they fall into Luke's lap in A New Hope?  You know, there's some things I can chalk up to 'the Force binds destines together', and there's **** like this."

It's points like this, and later ones below, that make it obvious that you haven't seen parts II and III before making the videos for I.  R2 and 3PO were given to Senator Organa - Princess Leia's adoptive father - by Obi-Wan at the end of III.  She eventually takes posession of them herself until the beginning of IV, when she sends them out to Tatooine and meet the heroes of the next trilogy.

"The clear connotation of Obi-Wan's words [during his first meeting with Luke in A New Hope] was that Obi-Wan and Anakin were war buddies.  But in The Phantom Menace we see they meet in peace time and that Anakin is just an annoying little kid."

Ignoring Anakin's annoyance for the minute, they do indeed fight in the Clone Wars during Episodes II and III, and everything in between.  Just be patient.  Besides, you wouldn't exactly call the Trade Federation invading Naboo unprovoked "peace time", would you?  ...Okay, so that didn't happen on the same planet where they met, so forget about it.

"'Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to sufferring.'  That is the worst hypothetical causal chain in the history of hypothetical causal chains. [...] Furthermore, it's not even true!  Fear doesn't always lead to anger.  Fear sometimes leads to sound judgement. [...] Fear is good.  We evolved fear for a reason.  But Yoda never seems to acknowledge this fact.  He was more wise, and more emotive too, oddly enough, when he was a puppet."

It's ironic that you say that last bit, because the Yoda character was still a puppet during his appearance in The Phantom Menace.  I know, next to the all-CGI characters they created for this movie, it's weird, right?  But enough about that.  One could do far, far worse than that hypothetical causal chain... depending on the context.  And yes, the example you provided is a valid case in which fear can be a good thing.  But take racism, for example.  Fear is a possible underlying cause of racism, or hate.  We act out on that hate as anger.  And at least in the long run, the anger we have lashed out with brings us the suffering of not treating the other person like we should (or at least I hope).  Although I doubt Yoda was referring to racism when he said that.  No, it's probably just a transparent attempt to connect this film to the pre-existing trilogy, since we know what happens to Anakin already.  I see what you did there.

I don't have any plans to do a full formal review of the movie any time soon, so tentatively I'm inclined to give it 2 or 3 lightsabers.  While its technical quality is not up to the level of the 70s/80s trilogy, or many other outside films for that matter, but I just don't think everyone's complaints are entirely founded in anything but pure hatred.  That's certainly not what I walked in to these movies with.  For now, we can only hope that the passage of time will give rise to a generation that remembers this stuff more fondly than the vocal minority does now.

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

1Michael Okwu (1999).  "Jar Jar jars viewers, spawns criticism".  CNN. Retrieved 2011 Jun. 29.  <>.

2Daniel Dinello (2005). Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 211. ISBN 0-292-70986-2.

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