Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #1: Why don’t I *hate* Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace?



This morning, I’m commencing a new-style post that will be informed and shaped by you, the stalwart and thoughtful readers of this blog.  

Ask JKM a Question” will allow you to decide -- at least some -- the content and shape of our online movie or TV conversation week-to-week, so I hope you’ll contribute.  

If you feel inclined or interested, e-mail me a question at my business e-mail, Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, and let me know in your correspondence if I can use your real name in the posted response.  Title your question “Ask JKM a Question” and then fire it off.  I would prefer you use a real name in the post, and I reserve the right not to post anonymous questions if they are out-of-line.

Pretty much any topic is fair game.  Ask me about a review I wrote, a movie, a TV show, my books, writing, publishing, The House Between, or collecting.  It’s your ball.

I'll start us off today with an e-mail question I actually received this weekend.

This particular reader sent me an e-mail that said -- now paraphrased to omit overt snark -- “Given the widespread critical condemnation and hatred for Star Wars Episode I, why don't you hate it?"

Okay, then: The Phantom Menace (1999).  It's not a favorite film, or anything like that.  But it's true, I did write it a positive review in my Star Wars blogging series way back in 2005.

Here is the quality I appreciate most about the film, and which I believe makes it a better -- or at least far more intriguing -- effort than some fans suggest:

The film's Art Direction and Production Design tell the story.  They convey the meaning behind The Phantom Menace in visual terms.  Thus, style and form reflect thematic content.

The Phantom Menace is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it is actually a film about life here on Earth in the early twentieth century, particularly the so-called “Inter-Bellum” or “Inter-War” period between 1918 and 1939.

This was a gilded age of Art-Deco-styled architecture and design, and apparent peace and prosperity in America. Yet if you remember from history what came next, economic ruin was on the horizon, racism still thrived, and the “phantom menace” of Fascism and tyranny lurked in the shadows.  

Through carefully-crafted, beautifully-rendered imagery, The Phantom Menace recreates this very age, but on other planets, and in another time.  We’re all familiar with the lived-in look of Star Wars (1977) where the universe is kind of…junked.  But by important contrast, The Phantom Menace is set at the apex of the Galactic Republic, an epoch of riches and wonders, a span when even the finned, chrome spaceships reflect the glory of an advanced civilization at its pinnacle.  

And yet, of course, it is not a perfect Republic, is it?  Slavery still thrives in far corners of the galaxy, and even the noble Jedi Knights turn a blind eye towards this corrupt institution.  And on the rise is wily Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a man who will deceive the unsuspected advanced society to achieve a completely despotic, totalitarian state.

In short, The Phantom Menace’s story is a perfect metaphor for the lead-up to World War II and the global fight against fascism in Europe.  Accordingly, the rich imagery in the film explicitly recalls this battle of civilizations.  Consider just for a moment the scenes set on the planet Naboo, a kind of quasi-European state in another solar system.

At least twice in the film, we spy a building in the capital city of Naboo that resembles the Arc De Triomphe (or Arc of Triumph) in France.  In 1940, Nazi troops invaded Paris, and marched the pavement of the Champs-Elysees as a sign of strength and domination.  In 1944, the Allies liberated the nation from Hitler’s troops, and on this occasion there was a parade of victory and freedom at the Arc de Triomphe.

The Phantom Menace features two similar moments at an Arc-like structure, once at the commencement of the Droid Army/Trade Federation occupation and then again after their expulsion, during a celebration or parade. If you gaze closely at the imagery, it’s impossible to deny the significance of these visual allusions or comparisons. 






If Naboo represents a foreign nation endangered by the outer space equivalent of an Axis power, then Coruscant clearly represents New York City of the same age...a popping hub of culture, diversity, and freedom.  As you may recall, Coruscant is a planet-wide metropolis, a city beyond all others.  This urban city-scape stretches to the horizon, and nearly right to the cusp of space itself.  In appearance and style, Coruscant conforms perfectly to the Italian architectural style of “Futurism” popular during the 1930s.  In fact, the Futuristic aesthetic -- an always-growing city upon a city upon a city – was in some corners considered a coded critique of Fascism, and that’s an idea visually reflected by the depiction of the Republic’s capital.

And yet, by the same token, Futurism is seen as stylistically compatible with Art Deco, a school of design often considered “purely decorative." It therefore represents the art of a people very satisfied with the social status quo.  The form is important for itself (for aesthetics), not for the social message behind it. This description not only describes Coruscant aptly, but her satisfied people. They don’t perceive the “phantom menace” in their midst, nor the threat to their very liberty.  They're too busy enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.




So this is Lucas’s selected thematic terrain: a metaphor in a galaxy far, far away comparing the last epoch of the Republic to the Inter-Bellum period on Earth.  But then Lucas stretches his comparison a step further and connects that period in Earth history and in the Star Wars universe to the period in which the film was actually made, the 1990sThe Phantom Menace was released at the end of the Roaring Nineties, a period of genuine peace and prosperity in the U.S., and a time – we now know – before the gathering storm of the War on Terror.  Lucas was prophetic in describing how American politics would soon change to face a grave and gathering threat. In Lucas's vision,  Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) -- a name which features the same number of letters as Clinton -- would see his leadership and plans for governance stamped out by pervasive accusations of “scandal” from his political enemies and the enemies of progress.   Accordingly, Valorum is impeached by the bureaucratic Senate when a vote of no-confidence is held.  That's what happened to Clinton too.  We were all focused intently on his scandals, and the very public investigation of those scandals, while overseas, terror grew...

And, of course -- as I’ve written before -- one important though subordinate villain's name in this film is Nute Gunray.  Nute = Newt (Gingrich), the leader of the Republican opposition during Clinton’s Presidency.  And Gunray = Ray Gun = Reagan.   So a villain here is Newt Reagan, essentially. You needn't agree with Lucas’s viewpoint or political slant to acknowledge that such an undercurrent is present.  And I'm not arguing that Lucas is either right or wrong in his statement, either.  I'm merely noting the existence of the pointed social critique.  As further evidence, I note that the social commentary in Phantom Menace as I've spelled it out in this essay is consistent with Anakin’s 2005 Bush-esque declaration in Revenge of the Sith that “Either you’re with me, or you’re my enemy.” 




Regarding the film's other lush visuals, I also wrote in my 2005 review that "The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates. But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment. And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature."


So why don't I "hate" The Phantom Menace?  My most important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with pictures.  And yet surprisingly few films these days effectively manage this (I think, necessary) feat; to truly deploy visuals in a manner that makes pictures convey thematic meaning. 

The Phantom Menace succeeds admirably in this particular aspect of its tapestry.  The images convey important thematic information about the film’s narrative, and how we should interpret that narrative. In other words, the visuals reinforce the comparison the director wants to make, the point he wishes to transmit.

At the very least, I believe that George Lucas embarked on a complex and ambitious visual aesthetic in this first prequel.  He makes the images of his fictional world connect to a time of apparent peace and prosperity (but phantom danger) in our past, and then makes modern audiences understand that we were at a similar juncture in the 1990s.  Were our eyes open to the "Phantom Menace" back then, or were we turned inward, mired in accusations of scandal and corruption?  If you consider the decade 2001 - 2010, I think you'll have your answer.

The rather unfortunate yang to this yin, however, is also encoded, at least partially in the films visuals.  Many character designs, voices, and characteristics in The Phantom Menace appear, in fact, based on racist stereotypes that existed and flourished in the Inter-War period. 

Watto the money-grubbing Toydarian with his hook-nose is an amalgamation of the offensive “money mad” Jewish stereotype. 

The Trade Federation representatives like the Viceroy speak pigeon English and have – literally – slants in their eyes.  They thus serve as the embodiment of negative stereotypes about the Japanese. 

And finally, the much hated Jar-Jar Binks with his Stepin Fetchit, “Feet-Don’t-Fail-Me-Now” routine is alarmingly representative of the prevailing caricatures of black men in the media of the same, between-wars age.

I’m not yet convinced that there’s an entirely worthwhile point in creating a universe in which characters apparently conform to offensive stereotypes from the Inter-War period.  While it’s true that these characters also hark back explicitly to that specific period on Earth and thus sub-textually remind viewers of that time, I’m not certain that’s a strong enough motivation to revive racist imagery. In this case, it's possible that Lucas overreached, or that his artistic conceit flat out failed.

I would very much prefer to believe that Lucas’s depiction of such “ethnic” characters in The Phantom Menace points out, again, that The Galactic Republic is not really the Utopian paradise of equality that many believe it is.  Not only is slavery present in some corners, but certain “pathetic” life forms (to quote Obi-Wan directly) are looked down up, explicitly…even by the Jedi.   Perhaps this is the reason the Republic falls.  There’s some level of hypocrisy and arrogance there.  Also, at least in terms of Jar-Jar and the Gungans, there seems to be a positive message underneath the racist-seeming stereotypes.  The Gungans are derided as primitive goofballs by everyone until they mount an army that saves Naboo from tyranny.  In this case, the pre-existing prejudice is proven wrong.  I wish I had a pro-social explanation for the role that Watto or the Viceroy play in the proceedings.

So is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the film I hoped it would be, on the eve of its release?  Not exactly. The film is poorly paced, and Jar-Jar's biggest problem is not that he's an annoying boob, but rather that the CGI artists who created him feel, for some reason, that they must show off, making him catapult and dive like a cartoon superhero when he should move a lot more...subtly.  Were he bound more directly to forces such as gravity, he might have seemed more acceptable.  And yes, some of the film's dialogue is incredibly wooden.  On the plus side, I'd argue that the final light saber duel against Darth Maul is the greatest and most impressive such battle in the franchise, and that Liam Neeson projects enormous dignity and grace throughout the film as Qui-Gon Jinn. Overall, I'd say he's the most likable Jedi Knight in the saga.

From the vantage point of a dozen years later, there is ample opportunity to gaze at the film again now, only without all the original expectations and pre-conceived notions that once surrounded it.  There's the chance to consider what the film does well, in addition to those many things it admittedly does poorly.  Given that rubric, I can discern, as I hope you might, that  – warts and allThe Phantom Menace possesses more than a modicum of artistic merit.  That's why I have no hate in my heart for this prequel.  After all, as disappointed fans have proven for a decade, hate only leads to suffering.  And we know where suffering leads, right?

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for an enlightening, informed critique of this movie. Lucas as prophet...! I wondered to my partner that you don't publish academically (that was not a criticism, rather an encomium).

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    1. Hi Unknown,

      You're very welcome.

      I don't exactly publish academically, but my books are often used in university programs, which makes me incredibly proud. Thank you for thinking of it that way, I know you meant it positively.

      I do think that Lucas was prophetic. If you look at his films, they show you how a society looking inward manages not to see important threats to a "union." And sometimes, there are even political advantages to not seeing it. He really nailed that whole dynamic, years before 9/11.

      I hope you continue to read the blog and enjoy it.

      Best wishes,
      John

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    2. You're giving Lucas a bit too much credit. I think it's pretty clear you've given this more thought than he has.

      Lucas isn't even responsible for the style or visual themes. The praise you are giving him here belongs to the various artists and craftspeople behind that aspect of filmamking. If those people were trying to attach deeper meaning to this swill in their limited capacity to do so, then who can blame them? Nobody wants to be stuck wasting their talents making valueless garbage, if they can help it. "E" for effort to those hardworking, creative people.

      Unfortunately, this film failed at the level where Lucas was responsible. In terms of story, characterization, plot, dialogue, scene composition, etc. It's an unwatchable mess.

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    3. Hi Proud Anselmo,

      Thank you for dropping by and commenting about my review of The Phantom Menace. I appreciate reading your thoughts very much, even if I don't agree with them.

      I don't think I gave this more thought than Lucas gave the film.

      I have visual evidence in the post, don't I, that the film forges a connection between our past on Earth and this galaxy long ago and far away?

      How can you look at the images of troops at the foot of the Arc de Triomph and on Naboo and not acknowledge a visual and thematic connection?

      And why do you think that Lucas isn't responsible for the style or visual themes of the film?

      By my understanding, he describes what he wants, artists create work based on his descriptions and he says yay or nay.

      However, I do agree wholeheartedly with your very important point that the artists and craftspeople who actually produced the fine work deserve credit too.

      I believe they worked at George Lucas's direction, but I also concur that individual artists labored hard on getting the visuals just right. Yes.

      There are indeed aspects of The Phantom Menace that are messy, as you rightly note.

      I agree with you about much of the dialogue, and some of the characterization, frankly.

      But "unwatchable?"

      That was sort of the whole point of this post. The Phantom Menace is an eminently watchable mess because the visuals reinforce and augment the film's themes and narrative.

      Anyway, food for thought! Thank you again for adding your voice to the debate, and for providing a contrary viewpoint.

      All my best,
      John

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    4. John, while it is true that George Lucas hires the right people and also casts the finest actors available it is interesting to note that The Phantom Menace is not a proud benchmark for them, especially Ewen MacGreggor who has been outspoken about it. All have delivered strong performances everywhere but in the Star Wars prequels. Hate is an easy word to pathologize and Yodafy so I'll say that The Phantom Menace is instead a misfire and a mediocre effort -- a personal expression from a corporate head who once had a little more humility. What amplifies the failure is the excellent simplicity and efficiency of the original trilogy. Emotional lines are more cluttered in TPM and instead of decisions being made by characters under the gun they are usually made after a perfunctory battle and discussions are usually discussions more than dialogue. The comments of Proud Anselmo are correct. I am curious as to whether you have watched Red Letter Media's entertaining video reviews of the prequels. Even Sith, which I did not mind except for the "Noooo!" and Padme's story continuity compromising demise, does not hold up to scrutiny. Also, the commentary tracks provided by The Phantom Editor on his infamous re-cuts of TPM and Attack of the Clones are film school worthy. He restores Padme's family visit deleted scenes to Clones, which should have been valued by Lucas more than extending the mindless chaos of certain chases and battles. Jar Jar is a misfire (and Lucas admitted he was a throw-back to Steppin Fetchit, which shows how out-of-touch we was, even before the backlash). But Jar Jar is also a scapegoat. If I were to cobble together one good movie from TPM and Clones it would have Palpatine in every scene. That is the one thread that isn't a complete mess.

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    5. I didn't say there wasn't a visual and thematic connection. I don't see how simply making such a connection makes something good. Especially if it's as clumsy and ham-fisted an attempt as Phantom Menace.

      Lucas is not an art director. He was never an artist or very creative when it came to design elements.

      Going back to the original films, the look of Star Wars, which has become so iconic, can be attributed to the work of visionary artists like Ralph McQuarrie and a whole team of talented set designers, prop artists, creature and costume designers, matte painters, etc.. If it had been up to Lucas, Jabba the Hutt would have been a fat guy in a fur coat.

      Lucas also had a great deal of help, from several sources, every step of the way writing the screenplays for these films. Star Wars has always been a massively collaborative creative effort.

      As to The Phantom Menace, Gavin Bocquet was head of production design and Peter Russell was the supervising art director. While Lucas undoubtedly had the authority to ok or reject design elements, this is a far cry from coming up with them himself.

      Especially during this stage of his career, George just wasn't the kind of hands-on micro manager that would concern himself with those kinds of concerns. I have never seen any evidence that Lucas had any of the thematic elements you mention here in mind when he wrote this stuff. I think it's very likely that a clever production designer would look at a screenplay containing a city invasion and include an Arched structure for the sake of such an allusion.

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    6. Proud Anselmo

      Thanks for writing again.

      You wrote: “I didn't say there wasn't a visual and thematic connection. I don't see how simply making such a connection makes something good.”

      This is what I wrote. I hope it clarifies the point: “MY [emphasis mine] most important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with pictures.”

      To expound on the point in the piece, film is its own unique art form and venue for communication, different from radio, literary works, or even photography. As a separate and unique art form, film boasts its own grammar. That grammar consists of elements like composition, angle section, design choices, and other elements as significant as are story or dialogue.

      A film achieves greatness, in my opinion as a critic, when the images and visual selections come together and enhance or deepen our understanding of the story and its themes. The choices that Lucas makes in TPM that I wrote about, specifically, conform to this philosophy. Hence I judge those aspects as net positives. I don’t expect all critics or all viewers to subscribe to my critical aesthetic, but it is one way I evaluate a film’s artistic merit.

      You also write: “Lucas also had a great deal of help, from several sources, every step of the way writing the screenplays...Star Wars has always been a massively collaborative creative effort.”

      Indeed, film is a collaborative, technological art form by nature, but in the final analysis, someone must make the final decision in terms of specifics. In the Star Wars universe, that auteur is George Lucas. I applaud you for naming here the individuals who worked in the art department to craft the accomplished visuals.

      I agreed with you about this in the last comment I made. I still agree with it.

      However, the logical rhetorical conclusion of this line of debate concerning collaboration is that if Lucas cannot be fairly credited with what went well in TPM because he was uninvolved artistically, then how can he, particularly, be blamed, specifically for what went wrong if he was creatively uninvolved?

      Don’t like the actors' work? Blame the casting department.

      Don’t like how Jar-Jar Binks looks and moves? Blame the digital effects department.

      Don’t like the screenplay? As noted in your comment, he had help “every step of the way writing” them.

      It can’t be that Lucas both gets the blame for what doesn’t work, and also no credit whatsoever for what does work in TPM.

      He can’t be both a guy who didn’t care about the visual component of his films, and the guy whose creative vision destroyed Star Wars.

      My opinion is that he made thousands of creative decisions regarding TPM. Some worked (the visual angle) and some did not (the wooden dialogue; the pacing.)

      Your last point,that a good production designer would indeed have included a historical allusion is a valid one, but one that doesn’t negate my point that TPM is visually adroit, and uses visual allusion to convey meaning sub-textually to support its themes.

      In fact, your conclusion proves it, acknowledging that the visual-thematic connection exists, and lends further meaning to the production. The point we quibble on is how much did Lucas have to do with it?

      The bottom line, for any work or art, perhaps, is that the critical point is established; the visuals do augment and reflect the theme. And that’s a cause to celebrate, rather than denigrate a film

      There are reasons to do the latter here, of course. This specific piece was about the former. Plenty of reviews dissect ably what’s wrong with TPM. My article describes something good about the film. I tried to explain an alternate perspective of the film, grounded in a film studies approach.

      Thanks again for adding to the discussion. I appreciate your participation.

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    7. Hi Jawsphobia,

      Thank you for writing and adding to this discussion of The Phantom Menace.

      I agree with much of what you said in your post, but without feeling that your points subtract from my specific point in this article.

      The failings of TPM (and they exist, of course...) are generally not in the visual category. They tend to be found instead in performance, dialogue and pacing. I don't quibble with that.

      Also, I find Attack of the Clones the least satisfying and most difficult to appreciate of the prequels. At some point, in my opinion, everything there becomes mindless sound and fury, instead of the tragic love story it could have and should have been.

      I'm a big admirer of Red Letter Media. I've watched several of the reviews, and get a tremendous kick out of them. I think the creators of those videos found a perfect brand or niche. RLM presents amusing, detailed, and visually-accomplished, well-edited shows. Cheers to them!

      My very real and enthusiastic appreciation of RLM, however, doesn't mean that I necessarily follow their lead or take their cues in terms of critical perspectives. I wouldn't expect them to follow my lead, either, so it's nothing personal. :)

      Frankly, I don't agree with many of the points the videos make, but again, I don't view an honest difference of opinion as a reason to bad mouth the organization or deride their product. What RLM does, it does very, very well, and I find the videos incredibly entertaining and interesting.

      What I have not seen RLM do, as of yet -- and perhaps this is because I did not watch their recent Prometheus video -- is take a side that goes against the prevailing convention wisdom in a controversial fan debate (Star Trek/Star Wars.)

      I'd really love to see a video from the outfit in which that kind of thing occurs, in which Mr. Plinkett don't preach to the choir, but instead forges a considered, reasonable argument -- grounded in film theory and criticism -- in favor of a movie that is controversial or derided in fan circles.

      Cursing the darkness is one thing. It's not always easy (or popular...) to shine a light.

      I'd really be on board for RLM to undertake that task in regards to a film.

      best,
      John

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    8. Having seen all of RLM's videos, preaching to the choir is not quite their goal. I'll give them credit for stating opinions that exist regardless of the consensus. No doubt their original Plinkett review of TPM was an inspired stunt which tapped into a popular rage. But it also raised the bar of the practical essay by showing evidence from the films. I have disagreed with them on Red Tails, which I enjoyed; that review seemed to have a taint of Lucas hate to the point of psychological tick. I also disagreed with much of their Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review, and the childish position that once a character is not young he or she should not be revisited. I think age can add a factor of vulnerability and a story X-factor that is not allowed when a character is in its iconic peak and invincible. I thought they were harsh on Karen Allen, who actually has a decent career in an industry that disregards women. As for the Star Trek versus Star Wars debate, I think that is more a matter of Coke versus Pepsi at this point. Plinkett has reviewed Star Trek films and I have been surprised by the problems he has found, which I admit not being bothered by when I had seen them. The level of thought in a Wars v. Trek debate is indicated by the claim, "In Star Wars there is no stun setting - they shoot to kill." This boast went unchallenged despite "There's one. Set for stun" being one of the earliest lines, before troops shoot Leia. And an evil stormtrooper says to his colleague, "She'll be alright." If the clash between sci-fi universes was ever interesting it might have been when there were only 3 Star Trek films and 3 Star Wars films. In which case, Wars had the better scorecard and I suppose I like the Originl Trilogy more than the excellent Original Star Trek series. But since the special editions and prequels, even though Clone Wars is well done, Star Wars is very broken. Better to move on and enjoy Firefly. RLM was pickier about Prometheus than justified, but I think even they had to admit it was at least pretty good.

      As for The Phantom Menace and the review under discussion, even though Lucas indicates with design the idea that "good guys" forces can eventually become "bad guy" forces and others have noted that Gavin and the crew have put effort into the various clean looks, there is also no gravitas. Performance, dialog and pacing don't happen to be elements that I consider quibble-factors. The Mes en scene of The Phantom Menace is hard to pin down because it is a catch-all and the one certain thing we feel in our gut is that Lucas doesn't really have anything to say. The corridors of power look lovely, everything shimmers, the battlefield is lush green, and there is no need for developing a character for Darth Maul and showing him do cruel things leading to his big fight because after all he has devil horns. Lucas was more of a supervisor than a director. Nick Gillard could be instructed to choreograph lightsabers un the yin-yang because they are porn action rather than stages of story. The SW prequels are to the OT what the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions were to The Matrix, purely superficial and empty while posturing as profound.

      Seeing Yoda fight the Emperor in Sith is fun and Christopher Lee can't be blamed for his own scenes, but the prequels were little more than tasks Lucas had to check in on with little enough guiding hand that Lucas took lots of notes from other writers and brought in Spielberg to help storyboard some of Sith because it is not a plan coming together so much as a deadline being met. Anyone who can look at the "Nooooo! in Sith and respond to criticism by stubbornly shoving that same sound into the Jedi BluRay is a person with a fragile sensibility to put it kindly. It is no surprise that the superficial aspects of TPM are solid. It is the big picture that Lucas lost sight of.

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    9. Jawsphobia,

      I missed this reply the other day. My apologies. Only recently did I transition to threaded commenting on the blog, and although I like it, it seems easier to miss comments this way. Not an intentional oversight.

      As I indicated in our earlier parlay I really do like RLM. I enjoy their productions enormously.

      I think you do an excellent job of impartially and objectively discussing the productions' strengths and weaknesses in your comment, indicating where they were spot-on and where maybe they went overboard.

      I honestly defer to your opinion on that regard, because I am not as familiar with all the reviews. At this point, I haven't seen the Indiana Jones review or the Prometheus one.

      However, my only point is that it would be great for RLM to pick a movie that it stands by as "great" but which many people and critics -- the conventional wisdom in other words -- dislike, and then make an affirmative, sincere argument for it.

      There are a lot of movies out there it could do this for. RLM could argue the merits of John Carter or Alien 3 or Tron or Dune...admittedly problematic, critically-derided films which nonetheless possess artistic/social value worth excavating and defending.

      I'd still love to see that. In other words, I'd like to see the company go out on a limb and really champion a film in a way that it already knows won't be popular with the swarms of internet naysayers. That's where my preaching to the choir comment comes from. It's one thing to join in with commonly held nitpicks, it's another to go against the grain.

      If RLM wants to be considered serious film criticism/commentary -- and I don't even know that this is its goal -- this is where the pedal meets the pavement: taking an unpopular stand but with solid arguments behind the reasoning.

      Otherwise, these videos are just very clever, very smart, and very entertaining nitpicking.

      Not that there's anything wrong with that, either. Like I said in my earlier post, I think that what RLM does, it does extraordinarily well. Nobody does it better.

      Thank you again for commenting, and once more, I want to apologize for missing your comment the other day. I appreciate your thoughts and insights.

      Warmest regards,
      John

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  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I've often argued the visual merits of Phantom Menace only to have people come back with, "But Jar-Jar was so annoying!" or "The characters are so wooden." I get all that, but you have to give credit where credit is due. Lucas had an interesting vision, but he needed to turn it over to a writer with some actual talent, like he did with Empire Strikes Back. Visually though, it is the most pleasing of all the movies, in my opinion.

    I also appreciate the lack of Hayden Christensen and the limited role of Natalie Portman. Those two are just plain horrible and drag down the other two movies like a 10-ton anchor. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are much more appealing as stars. There was so much potential behind the premise, but it feels more like a jumble of ideas rather than a cohesive story. Which is a shame, because the first chapter was the one place where he had some wiggle room. With Clones and Sith, he was locked into the legend we were already familiar with. Even that could've been handled better, but I guess that's another discussion.

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    1. Neal P,

      Yes! You really got the point I was trying to make here: You must give credit where credit is due.

      The visual merits of Phantom Menace are unimpeachable. Lucas nailed that aspect of the film. I do agree with you, as well, that Lucas should stay away from writing screenplays. His stories are good, but his dialogue (and some of the structure) feels clumsy.

      I largely concur with your assessment of the performances, too. Neeson and McGregor do very well in this film. They register as likable and interesting people. Although most Star Wars fans do not like Hayden Christensen, he is actually a fantastic actor. If you ever see the 2002 film Shattered Glass, you'll see what I mean.

      But somehow, Mr. Christensen and Ms. Portman -- great talents both - had a rough time in the Star Wars saga. I do feel that they both achieved the most with their characters in Revenge of the Sith, perhaps because the high drama of that film gave them something to hold onto.

      Great thoughts.

      best,
      John

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  3. Always great to hear your thoughts on a film that draws controversy, John. I saw it again when it came some months back in 3D. It certainly has its problems, but its strengths are often overlooked. In fact, that screening got me to read (in audiobook) STAR WARS: DARTH PLAGUEIS by James Luceno (who has done a number of the SW novels through the years). Released in 2012, it cleared up a number of things in PHANTOM MENACE, the Sith, and the pre-'dark times' . I also must commend character actor Daniel Davis (remember his Moriarty from Star Trek: TNG's 'Ship in a Bottle' (1993) and 'Elementary, Dear Data' (1988)?) for one of the great audiobook narrations I've heard this year. I do recommend it. Thanks.

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    1. Hi Le0pard13,

      Like Neal P, you say it well: the film certainly has its problems, but its strengths are often overlooked. That's an eminently fair assessment. For me, the visual component of the film -- and the way that reinforces and forwards the themes - is really brilliant. The wooden dialogue, not often so.

      I would love to read Darth Plagueis. I'm so intrigued by that aspect of the Star Wars history, and would really enjoy learning about the Sith in these dark times. Thanks for letting me know about Mr. Luceno's book. It sounds great, especially with Mr. Davis reading.

      Great comment, my friend.

      best,
      John

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    2. In time, I think people will be much kinder towards this film than they have been. It's the only film out of the new trilogy that I revisit moreso than the others. My main issues with the film remain two-fold:

      1. Lucas' introduction of concepts that are not mentioned at all in ep. IV-VI, specifically midichlorians.

      2. The virgin birth: the explanation felt lazy. More emotional weight could have been added to Anakin's purpose if there was a real back story presented.

      Fantastic post John.

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    3. Hello, Planet of Terror,

      Thank you for commenting on my post regarding The Phantom Menace.

      I agree with you that when the young generation -- which includes my five year old son -- looks back on this film, it will be in an entirely different viewpoint than the one of X'er Star Wars fans.

      To those kids, the prequels are STAR WARS through and through: magical, imaginative, and wondrous films.

      I have felt in the past that Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels, and yet -- like you -- The Phantom Menace is the prequel I revisit most frequently. Your insightful remarks here makes me think that perhaps I need to re-order my list of preferences. If I keep coming back to this one, there's a reason why. A part of me feels like it is the visual-thematic through-point. It enhances the viewing experience.

      You're are right in both your numbered points. The midichlorians don't get mentioned again in the other two prequels, dropped like a hot potato. I feel that they were a mistake, in a sense, since the turned The Force into something that is in the "chosen" blood, but not in the blood of the masses.

      On the other hand, watching the film this time, I saw how the midichlorians fit into Lucas's theory here about symbionts, and symbiotic circles. That idea gets much play in this first film, and the midichlorians thus fit in thematically. But as a concept, they feel like something out of 1990s Star Trek.

      The virgin birth explanation may indeed come off as lazy, but I think it also fits in pretty well with acceptable mythic structure, so I'm likely more forgiving of this particular point.

      I can't really argue however, that I would not have felt invested more deeply in Anakin if I knew something more of his background, or he had a "real" back story, as you aptly put it.

      Thank you for your excellent comment, and contributing so meaningfully to the discussion here about TPM.

      best,
      John

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  4. While I respect your opinion, of course, I don't buy it. The production design for TPM is uninspired... pure paint-by-numbers stuff. "Hey, let's look at picture books!"

    If the SW affiliation wasn't there, and I use the word "affiliation" very loosely, this film would not be given an extra thought.

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    1. Hi Barry,

      Well...fair enough. I appreciate your civility in stating your disagreement, and I'm glad you stopped by.

      I wonder, however, if the opposite is true, regarding your final paragraph. If there were no Star Wars affiliation -- and no history of love of the franchise -- perhaps the film would be given more, rather than less, thought. The burden of history and expectations would not rest so powerfully upon its shoulders.

      Thank you again for your comment, and for adding to the discussion. I appreciate it.

      Best,
      John

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    2. Hi John,

      You are right about that great paradox re the 'SW affiliation'. I was all too aware of that as I keyed in that "final paragraph". My fear was that I was going to convert the point into an existential question.

      Keep up the well-considered analyses.

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    3. Thanks, Barry.

      I really appreciate your willingness to talk about these aspects of the saga with me and so graciously support my work, even if we don't see eye to eye on this one matter.

      I truly feel that in reading other opinions, we all benefit.

      The worst thing in the world is to stay closed-off to alternative viewpoints, and I try to keep this notion keenly in mind. I can see you do. Thanks!

      Yeah, man -- can of worms there! The Star Wars affiliation seems to be both a blessing and a curse for the prequels.

      Much of the power I feel from a viewing of Revenge of the Sith involves that final flurry of images that hark back directly to A New Hope. In that case, the prequels clearly benefit in terms of emotional resonance from the Star Wars legacy and connection.

      But expectations were sky high for the prequels too, because we all love Star Wars so goddamned much.

      And there's no way even a very good film could have lived up to such high expectations.

      Could they have gotten closer to expectations? Some days I think, hell yeah!

      Other days, especially when I see my five year old son enjoy the prequels so much, I muse that Lucas did a great thing pitching the prequels at a different "frequency," to put it mildly.

      I don't know. I'm honestly conflicted about this point. I have no answer for this question, but as you indicate, it's worth exploring.

      Best,
      John

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    4. As a writer and filmmaker, I have two phases of Lucas inspiration in my life. Early on, I got the message that even if nobody else seems to understand your vision you stick with it and give people something they didn't even know they wanted. Later in life, mostly from 1999 on, I got the moral of the other story - that if everyone around you trusts and believes that you are a genius or they are afraid to question you then there will be nothing to prevent you from buying your own hype and getting lost in the details. The Phantom Menace gets lost in the details. It is one thing for Lucas to believe that the Force is passed in the blood; it's another to spell that out and remove the romance of the spiritual level. Such strides as departure, initiation and return seem to be replaced by a lot of little hops and no idea whose story we are following.

      On opening night of TPM I wasn't planning to see it right away because my expectations were already lowered thanks to quotes about it being made squarely for kids and that Jar Jar would only appeal to them. But I went for a walk and ended up outside what was then The Paramount in Toronto, itself also opening for the first time - and with it new admission prices. I chatted and joked with some people in the lines, ending up in the Rush line with no real expectation of going in. I mentioned to a stranger that they should have a scanner that just runs across each person to detect how long that person has been a Star Wars fan and they should get in free. Just then - and I am not joking - as if on cure an usher came out to look at the rush line and asked if anyone was there alone. I held up my hand. . . and he gave me a ticket and waved me straight in. I got an aisle seat and when the "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . ." came up it was a euphoric moment. Followed by a gradual sinking feeling and some denial mixed in until I found myself waiting for a bus at 2am talking to another stranger who was equally uncertain what he had just seen. I mean Return of the Jedi had big shoes to fill and high expectations. And some were not impressed, but I remember in 1983 changing seats and re-watching Jedi immediately. There was no doubt what I felt about it. The Phantom Menace was not so much a broken arm but a hairline fracture that you don't quite notice right away but it gradually gets worse as days pass. Scenes and shots may work fine autonomously, but nothing resonates in a significant positive way while some annoyances to throw the audience off enough that even the clever touches may not be fully enjoyed. The Tusken Raiders taking pot shots on the pod racers is such a genius moment that it seems to belong in a different movie. The shields that energy fields that block Qui-Gon from Maul and the way they each respond to the interruption is just fine and it is sad that such a mess of a movie surrounds it.

      Indiana Jones IV had an equal legacy to live up to, and I am one of the handful who just grooved on it and actually had no problem with whimsy of hiding in a fridge to escape a nuke. But the Star Wars prequels don't hold up against either the stature of the original films or the caliber of writers interested in Star Wars. And the one significant blind spot was Lucas' own assessment of his own writing. TPM depicts slavery as benign and not something to spur revolution. It is mainly a movie of negotiations and looks like Lucas has made peace with his deals with the devil. And to top it off it has the flat feel one expects from a movie populated by mainly robots, monks and politicians talking formally and making transactions instead of relating. And when one character is thrown into the mix who has "personality" it is in stark contrast to the point of being annoying. It is a miscalculated effort and with little room to breath.

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    5. Jawsphobia,

      Thank you for a great and detailed comment that provides a lot of good context for me, for my understanding of your point of view. It's very intriguing, and I understand it.

      For me, I must confess, my disappointment with Star Wars began in 1983, at the end of Return of the Jedi. It felt rushed and empty to me. I remember sitting there and thinking "is that it? Is that all there is?" It was a crushing disappointment to a Star Wars lover.

      I came to make my peace and enjoy ROTJ over the years, but I never forgot that feeling I felt in the theater when the OT ended.

      So, I suppose when I saw The Phantom Menace, some of the gloss was already off the series. I went in with expectations firmly under control, and found much to like and much to dislike.

      The purpose of this piece was to a.) respond to a reader who asked me a question directly) and b.) provide a coherent rationale for why I feel positive about the aspects of the film I like. I suppose if someone had asked me, "what don't you like about The Phantom Menace," we'd all be having a very different conversation today.

      Very interesting comment, and I enjoyed it tremendously.

      best,
      John

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  5. The visual references in the prequels don't tell a story. They highlight the absence of actual meaningful storytelling -- the hollowness of these movies.

    Whether it's the image of an arc referencing the Arch de Triumph or the racetrack referencing Ben-Hur or the Senate -- all these images do is show how thin and underdeveloped the prequel stories are compared to the power and emotion of the original images.

    This occurs throughout the trilogy: images that are supposed to remind you of other movies or other imagery, as if using these images will somehow cover what was lacking in the story of the prequels.

    And the political references (Raygun, really?) are hardly prophetic. They only highlight Lucas's childish attitude toward politics, and how the weak and empty the political in the prequels actually is.

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    1. Hi Micha,

      Thanks for dropping by to state your opinion. I enjoyed reading your remarks, although -- I'm sure you're surprised -- I disagree with them. :)

      Visual allusion universally adds meaning and context to a film narrative, not vice-versa. If you gaze at the original Star Wars, for instance, the Death Star battle is a dedicated, appreciative visual allusion to the dogfight in Twelve O'Clock High (1949).

      Many of the visual elements in Star Wars -- right down to the dimensions of R2 and C3PO -- are also direct allusions to Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958)

      So, in the case of a Lucas movie I presume you like, does Lucas's penchant for visual allusion reveal only "thin" and "underdeveloped" storytelling? Or do these allusions add to the story and reveal something deeper of the context?

      So far as the politics are concerned, childish or not, one can't seriously suggest that a name -- in the 1990s no less -- Nute Gunray -- doesn't carry a real life connotation beyond itself.

      Warmest regards,
      John

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    2. Visual allusions add to a story if there is an actual good story. But they can't cover for the absence of a story. The prequels had weak story and characters so the visual allusions are empty.

      The race in Ben Hur is powerful not only because of the visuals but because it's the culmination of a story about a character. The race in Phantom Menace is hollow - all visuals and no real substance.

      Nute Gunrey does have a connotation. But it is hardly prophetic. It's just Lucas making the party he doesn't like into the bad guys with a stupid and ham fisted story about taxes.

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    3. Hi Micha,

      In your judgment, the prequels don't tell a "good story," I understand.

      You feel that the stores were "weak," so that the visual allusions were empty.

      The fall of Anakin Skywalker, by my reckoning, is not a weak story, though it is weakly vetted at points, no doubt.

      So we definitely have a difference of viewpoint there.

      My interpretation of the story and theme, simply: a person who lets fear get the better of him starts to act in a way that harms the people he loves. Societies that vote or give away their rights because they are afraid -- in the name of safety and security -- eventually lose their precious rights.

      That's it right there, in a nutshell. And again, I argue that thematically it is a powerful and true story.

      And given what we saw in the 2000s and now in the 2010s (in the foreign polices of both Bush and Obama), I stand by the belief that this commentary by Lucas was prophetic in 1999.

      Thanks again for sharing your opinion. I appreciate reading your viewpoint.

      best,
      John

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    4. Micha7:01 AM

      Whenever I talk about the prequels it's the same misconception. There is a difference between a good idea for a story even a good blueprint and the actual storytelling. Just as there is a difference between nice and/or referential visuals and storytelling.

      On paper the prequels are a story about a society giving away democracy for security. It's not original but it's a classic theme. But how is this idea told to us Do we as an audience see the effects of war, the sense of insecurity, the fear, and Palpatine's maneuvering as he manipulates a fearful senate to give him more power? No. What we see is the comical caricature of the Republican party invade a planet with no population and without any actual war using their comical droids. We see the Amidala in ridiculous costume talking in a bored monotone voice. We see a CGI senate with many aliens but with no characters. Palpatine's manipulation occur off screen. Same in AOTC and ROTS. We are not actually given the story that the blueprint is telling us is supposed to be there.

      And that's why the visual references don't work. The image of the Nazis marching through Paris is powerful because of the weight of the historical event and the historical actors. In the original Star Wars, the Imperial soldiers' Nazi costumes were a way to make them Nazi-like. But the Empire was also established in the movie by actual actions and actual acting -- the capture of Leia, the confrontation between Leia and Tarkin, the destruction of Alderaan, the arrogant officers in the conference room, the acting. But what did we get in Phantom Menace? Did the comical and pathetic CGI Trade Federation have any presence in the story beyond pushing the plot forward? No. Which is why having an arch de triumph ads nothing.

      Same with Darth Maul. He looks great. He looks the way a Sith should look. He looks as cool as Vader, until we get to the actual storytelling. Recall all the memorable scenes with Vader from the beginning of Star Wars. Scenes that worked to establish him as a character. Now thing of Maul. He is nothing but a guy in a black costume -- a carton cutout that appears at the end for the big fight. The fight is cool, but it has zero of the substance that the much simpler fight between Obi-Wan and Vader on the Death Star. Because Vader and Obi-Wan were characters established throughout the movie, with emotional relationships to other characters.

      I could go on about pretty much anything in the prequels, any character, any scene, and background visual. You look at them. You expect there to be something. On paper there should be something. But there isn't. Because the storytelling that was supposed to fill the blueprint and visuals with substance was not there.

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  6. Oh John, when I first saw the topic for this on Facebook, I was prepared to provide a nice snarky reply. But after reading your points, I find I actually agree with you. Of all the elements I dislike about TPM, the visuals and design aspects are not on there. More then the other two prequels, TPM manages to fashion well visualized worlds that seem to resonate beyond the borders of the screen. As amazing as some of the worlds glimpsed in the next two films are, they don't feel as fleshed out or deep as these do. Much like the worlds of the original trilogy, there seem to be stories going on behind the buildings and people wandering around.

    Added to this, you get a great John Williams score (one of the best of the whole series), and what I agree is the best of the light saber duels. For all that is wrong with the film, those elements do make it superior to AOTC, which I agree with you ends up being a bigger slog to watch than this film.

    For me, none of these films matches the achievements of the original trilogy, and I know nostalgia plays a huge part in that. But I think in all the bashing on these films, people do overlook the good elements. They are there, sometimes you have to dig a bit to find them.

    In the end, I don't hate TPM any more. Yes, I was very disappointed for a long time, but these days I have fun with the movie (with the help of Rifftrax) and for all its flaws I still have a good time with it. But man, a little editing and a few more rewrites could have worked wonders.

    Thanks for the great read! Keep it up!

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    1. Hi Roman,

      Thank you, my friend!

      Thank you for reading what I actually wrote here, and not making larger assumptions about what I meant based on powerful emotions of disappointment.

      Accordingly, you understood exactly what I meant with this piece: "Of all the elements I dislike about TPM, the visual and design aspects are not there."

      That is my most important and relevant point, and I'm so glad you agree with me and see it too.

      I agree, by the way, that none of the prequels equal the achievement of the Original Trilogy, primarily Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

      My problem is that I don't feel Return of the Jedi is substantively or visually stronger than at least two of the prequels, TPM and ROS, and that's probably why I'm getting into so much trouble from those who don't enjoy the prequels.

      I'm glad you enjoyed reading this post. I enjoyed and appreciated your comment very, very much.

      Best,
      John

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  7. You said, "It can’t be that Lucas both gets the blame for what doesn’t work, and also no credit whatsoever for what does work in TPM.

    He can’t be both a guy who didn’t care about the visual component of his films, and the guy whose creative vision destroyed Star Wars."

    I think he is exactly that. Based on the many changes that have been made to the original trilogy, Lucas' unwillingness to remaster the original cuts, and his constant sidelining of what made the original movies great, it's clear Lucas doesn't even like the original movies. Nobody would put so much effort into destroying something they liked. If Lucas had free reign in those days, and had not been second guessed an redirected by people surrounding him with a better understanding of things like story structure, character motivation and the visual language of film, the original movies would have never been what they are.

    That was then. When I speak of having a lot of help with the scripts, I'm talking about the good movies. By the time Lucas made the prequels, he had the authority to make every creative decision in regards to the screenplay and direction, totally unchallenged and untempered by outside influence. While he can't get all the credit for how good the OT was, he does get the lionshare of blame for how terrible the prequels really were.

    And yes, if anything was done right on the periphery of these latter productions, I think it's safe to say it was in spite of, rather than because of, Lucas.

    And again, you can create all the historical connections and allegories you want. If the story and characters you are attaching them to are worthless, you may as well put a pig in a nice dress and call it a hot date.

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    1. Hi Proud Anselmo,

      I agree with you regarding George Lucas's shabby treatment of the Original Trilogy in terms of refusing to re-release them in unaltered form.

      I know it's not as popular a film as the Star Wars movies, but he's done the same thing to THX-1138 and it is also a crying shame. A couple of years ago he released a director's cut with all these (unnecessary) new digital special effects that look terribly jarring and effectively take one out of the film. It's a shame. I don't defend him on this point, believe me.

      What I'm defending here -- and certainly we've gone back and forth, so I know you get it -- is the visual aspect of TPM, which I feel adds to an understanding of the film's story and theme. And honestly, I don't hate all the characters in the film. I feel that Qui-Gon, R2-D2, Palpatine and Darth Maul are all rendered very powerfully in the film. They are memorable characters, and ones I feel are worthy of the Star Wars affiliation/history.

      All my best,
      John

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