Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Wars Memories 15: The Phantom Menace

It was the best of times. It was
the Worst of times.
When the word came down from Skywalker Ranch that Lucas was in seclusion, and working on the Prequels, the Star Wars Fan Block exploded. The Clone Wars? Are you kidding me! Young Obi-Wan? Anakin Skywalker as a Jedi Knight? Oh, boy, this was going to be great!

Unless, you know, it wasn’t going to be great. I was part of the small contingent of fans who took a head count of Lucas’ movies and came up with fifty-fifty odds on the prequels sucking. After all, we said as a collective, shrill voice, he couldn’t stick the landing back in 1983. And what did he follow it up with?

Howard the Duck and Willow.

Those two movies are like the secret of Miaygi-do karate. “No defense against.” Willow is just terrible, and I don’t care if you liked it. It’s terrible. It’s basically a special effects demo reel for ILM. The ‘morphing technique was the latest computer advance and showing it off in a movie would generate interest, and of course, it did. After 1988, you start seeing it everywhere, including in the Michael Jackson video, “Black or White.”

The less said about Howard the Duck, the better.

Still, the trailer looked good. When Darth Maul pops out his Lightsaber Staff, we wet our pants. The ships, the costumes, all of it. It looked like we were going back into Star Wars again.

Still, the question remained: what if it sucked? I was jaded, I admit. I had a real problem with the Special Edition trilogy, and then when the Prequels were announced, it came with a billion dollar deal with Pepsico to produce licensed merchandise for the movie. Go back and read that number. 500 million for the Phantom Menace, and 500 million for the other two movies. One billion dollars. Just so a corporation to slap that logo onto a Pepsi can. There was no way this movie would satisfy me as a consumer and also as a fan. Not with that much money on the table before anyone ever saw a shooting script.

Then we found out what, exactly, the Prequels were to be about. We’re going to go back in time now, to my initial comments on The Phantom Menace. They have not changed at all since I first saw the movie, and I’ve seen it several times, since—this last time, in 3D.

Here’s younger, skinnier Mark:

I cheated. I read the comic book adaptation three weeks ago. I did it because I knew there would be some things in the movie that would irritate the crap out of me, so I wanted to know how much, how often, and if it impacted the story in any way. 
 Well, to start the movie out with "I have a bad feeling about this" just smacks of a guy trying to recreate glory days. Why use it so quickly? Or at all? I mean, it was cute in the first movie. I think it was a fluke that it ended up in the second movie. By Jedi, he had to put it in. But really, did that trend have to continue? Right away, I was off to a bad start and the lightsabers hadn’t even come out yet. I kept reading and quickly hit Jar Jar
Binks. Jar Jar is just as irritating as you would expect. Sometimes, even more so. 
 Animator Hubris:  That’s my new term for scenes where the guy rendering Jar Jar is so damn pleased with his job at the Lucas Sweatshop that while all of the other actors walk up to their mark and say their lines, Jar Jar is seen in the background juggling bantha poodah. That character is in constant motion, like Bill Cosby breakdancing, all through the movie. In every scene. He even slept busily, for Christ’s sake! None of the other characters did that. Watto was quite effective. No wasted movement. Even the rest of the Gunguns (Jar Jar is a Gungun. Isn’t that nice nice?) weren’t overly busy. 
 Hey, Mr. Lucas, I know that every single nickel is precious to you, but could you spring for some acting classes for those yabos in CG, please? Or at least have them go look at what Ray Harryhausen did. Something, anything. 
 Then there’s the Star Trek sequence.  It’s the part where Qui Gon Jinn (played by Liam "Next of Kin" Neeson) takes a blood sample from young Annikan and pushes it into his communicator-cum-tricorder and tells young Obi Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan "Lipstick on your Collar" McGregor) to analyze it.  He comes back with a Midi-chlorian count of over 20,000.  "That’s more than master Yoda".  Wait, back up.  Midi-What?  Symbiotic bacteria that act as conduits to the Force?  Hey, maybe if you hit warp factor 10, you can have Doctor Crusher check Anakin out in Sickbay.  Come on.  What the hell -happened to the mystical energy field that controls an individual’s Destiny?  I understand that it was put in as a story device to quantify the fact that Anakin is the most powerful force-sensitive person ever...but did it have to be so...stupid?  What’s wrong with Qui-gon just looking through an eyepiece of some sort and checking out his aura? 
"It’s pure white!" 
"Not even Master Yoda's aura is pure white." 
Same effect, no Star Trek technobabble. 
 I have an idea on how to fix a lot of the problems in the movie. Have Anakin lose the Podrace.  Then Qui-Gon would have to take the boy, smuggle him out of the city (taking the tracking device out first), and be on the run from the local militia. Then when Darth Maul shows up, it’s a lot more tense, as they are about to get pincered. This does a lot for the movie.  It makes the podrace more interesting, as we all expect little Anakin to win, in spite of Sebulba’s machinations. Then Qui Gon displays the recklessness that everyone in the movie tells us about, but no one really ever sees, as he frees a slave and spirits him away (thus welching on a bet). It also makes that fight in the desert a little more interesting, and explains why the two of them are in such a hurry and on foot, when we saw Qui Gon earlier on those camel-thingies.  But hey, nobody asked me.  And if someone did notice it at Yes-Man Central, they damn sure wouldn’t have pointed it out to Mr. Moneyhead. 
 In short, everything all of the critics say is true.  The film lacks tension, character development, and so forth.  Unfortunately, everything the fans (and Roger Ebert) say is also true.  The ride is great, the CGI creatures are wonderful, and all of the stuff that’s supposed to be cool is very, very cool. But it in no way was worth the hype.  Already the fans are separating into three camps: 
 The Purists:  This movie sucked!  It’s a pale reflection of the original trilogy.  I’m disavowing all prequel knowledge. 
 The Apologists:  Come on, Star Wars was always a kid’s movie.  The movie was great.  I stood in line for two weeks and blew a month’s salary on the toys, so it has to be great, because otherwise I look like a fool! 
 The Rationalists:  Well, this movie was just a set-up.  The NEXT movie will be the cool one. 
 My take on those viewpoints is as follows. 
 For the Purists – yeah, it sucked, but so did Jedi.  What did you really expect?    Enlightenment?  Illumination?  If I had to prep myself for three weeks to see this movie and was still irritated by the inane stuff, then that movie should be considered a failure.  Who among us really watches the Ewok scenes in rapt fascination?  Well, that same zoning instinct drops into place quicker than the targeting scope on Red Five’s X-wing whenever Jar Jar is on screen.  I saw that one coming in the teaser.  No, I'm sorry, but I tried to warn some of you, and you just wouldn't listen. 
 For the Apologists – no, the trilogy wasn’t aimed at children.  Only the third one was.  The humor present in Star Wars was character and dialog driven.  It was chuckles, not laughs.  There were no pratfalls and no fart jokes in Star Wars.  And don’t you dare tell me that Empire was a kid’s movie either.  There was kissing, an outpouring of emotion, and Luke spent the movie getting beat to a pulp by everyone, including his own dad.  He got his hand chopped off with a lightsaber, don’t tell me that’s kid stuff.  Yoda was coincidentally cute and Kenner hyped that up.  He was the new favorite among the parents.  So, Lucas gave us a whole gaggle of furry Yodas in Jedi.  Everyone was stiff and the dialog was stilted.  That felt like a kid’s movie.  But it really wasn’t.  These movies just appealed to us because we were a generation of weird kids.  There wasn’t anything else to go see, and the movie didn’t have any nudity, so why not take us to see Star Wars?   Phantom Menace is a slow pitch towards the 8-12 year olds.  If that doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe it’s time to put down the lightsaber and (ahem) Get A Life.  When the Trekkies are laughing and pointing at you, maybe you should rethink the merits of a homemade Admiral Ackbar costume. 
 For the Rationalists – Well, you are correct about one thing. The next two can’t be any worse.  Or can they? The problem is, as fans of the original movies, we have a very strong, opinionated idea of what goes on in these three. Even if you say you aren’t, you will walk into this movie with a preconceived notion of what may go down.  And if the Phantom Menace doesn’t at least hint at what is to come, then you will leave feeling cheated.  Like most people are. That hint comes, but only in the last ten minutes of the movie.  By then, we’ve sat through 80 minutes of Jar Jar footage and are ready to go home.  That one little hint at the end of the movie is not enough.  Not nearly. 
 But it doesn't really matter if you like the movie or not. You will go see it.  Everyone will. It's the must-talk-about thing among the Geek Nation, and for all of the normal people as well who have children.  I guarantee there will be some ditch-diggers in Episode II that stand up in the middle of the movie and say, "DAMN! Darth Sidious is Senator Palpatine?  I never saw that coming!" So, there's a lot of folks out there who don't care as much as the rest of us. And really, who can blame them. The toys, books, food, and other bits of junk with the Star Wars logo on it are strewn about the countryside like pop-cultural Kudzu. You can't kill it, you can't get rid of it, you can't avoid it.  The only thing you can do is let it run its course and hope that it dies on its own.  Which it won't.  Not for six more years.  Hope you're braced for it. 
This sequence is sublime. It almost makes up for
Jar-Jar Binks by itself. Almost.
 Now, here’s the funny part. In my three week prep for the film, I figured out exactly what I wanted out of this movie. I wanted Jedi fu, lightsaber fu, podrace fu, Artoo fu, Senate chamber fu, two lightsaber deaths, multiple robot beheadings, and six costume changes for Princess Amadala.  And I got that. For what it was worth, I enjoyed it a lot.  But that still doesn’t make it a good movie.  Proceed with caution.

Back then, I was basically made of rage, but it didn’t mean I was wrong about this. Even when Star Wars movies are bad, they are still pretty good. We just trade substance for spectacle. The podrace scene is a perfect example of an eye-catching, awesome-looking sequence that goes nowhere and does nothing in terms of plot.

The prequels are the beginning of the Great Divide between Star Wars fans. Us first generation Star Wars fans felt that we were being disrespected, and the younger generation, who hadn’t seen the old movies anyway, started calling us bitter old cranks.  I suddenly knew exactly how the old Star Trek fans felt when Next Generation came out. 

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