Monday, May 04, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Phantom Menace Respect?

A regular reader, Jason, writes:

"For many years, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an object of derision: fans complained it was too slow, too talky, poorly characterized. Since 1979, though, the movie’s reputation has improved; you yourself rank it as one of the better Trek films, and many others have come to appreciate its unique style.

I wonder: will there ever be a day when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace will achieve a similar redemption?  

I've always enjoyed The Phantom Menace as a fun romp of a movie, not perfect but not the disaster many claim. 

In truth, I think both movies didn't get a fair shake because they weren't what fans were expecting after years of anticipation.  Will Menace ever get the credit it deserves?

What do you think?"

Fascinating question, Jason, and one well worth asking, and answering. 

My short answer is that The Phantom Menace will not likely earn respect from the fans who grew up with Original Trilogy...probably ever.  

The Motion Picture had the built-in advantage of featuring the Original Star Trek cast, at least, which made fans want to re-assess it, or like it.  

The Phantom Menace has few OT characters (unless you count Yoda and Palpatine..), and so for some OT fans, the desire or willingness to connect with it just isn't there. 

Contrarily, the generation that grew up with The Phantom Menace and views the prequel trilogy as real Star Wars will, in time, seek to redeem and rehabilitate the film's reputation to some degree.

That generation is coming of age personally and professionally right now, and it will be intriguing to see how they parse the upcoming The Force Awakens, which looks perched to appeal primarily (and cravenly?) to OT generation nostalgia. 

Yet the Prequel generation doesn't give a hoot about Han or Chewie...they didn't grow up with them. And they don't feel the nostalgia about the Millennium Falcon, either.  

And yet, they are Star Wars fans too. Fully half of Star Wars, cinematically-speaking, occurs in the Prequel Era.

Accordingly, we may soon witness a great disturbance in the Force, and I don't envy J.J. Abrams his task.  He has three audiences to make his new film for.  

First, mine: who grew up with the Original Trilogy and would like to see a return of those characters, and that format in terms of storytelling.

Second, the generation now turning twenty or so, which grew up with the prequels, and puts those films right beside the Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings franchises in terms of childhood nostalgia. 

I'm an instructor at a college here in Charlotte, and guess what? When this generation talks Star Wars, the films they discuss with enthusiasm are the prequels.  The OT, rightly or wrongly, seems to bore many of them. Though they have seen it, they don't prefer it. And they definitely don't attach the golden glow of nostalgia to the films circa 1977 - 1983, but to the works of 1999 - 2005.

And third: a new generation of kids, age 5 to 10, perhaps, who have heard about Star Wars but don't yet have a personal attachment to it, and are looking for "their" take on the myth.  

Appeal to all those generations successfully? 

That's a slightly more complicated task than bulls-eyeing womp rats in a T-16...

My long answer about The Phantom Menace is more complicated and detailed.

My very first "Ask JKM" in on June 26, 2012, explained in detail the reasons I don't despise the film, and appreciate many artistic aspects of The Phantom Menace.  I think, Jason, we see the film in much the same way, based on your description.

You can re-read that piece in full via the link above, but my reasons for enjoying the film boil down to the fact that the production and art design describe visually (and thus symbolically) the Golden Age of the Republic, before the Dark Times, before the fascism of the Empire.  

We see a lot of Art Deco futurism and chrome in The Phantom Menace, for example, to suggest that apex of civilization. This artistic canvas reflects, uniquely that the inter-bellum period (1918 - 1939) on Earth was a span of technological and artistic advance and yet, underneath, lurked the shadowy (or phantom?) menace of dawning fascism in Europe.

Similarly, through visual symbolism, the film operates as a kind of allegory for Earth politics (particularly the 1930s and World War II), and suggests that, circa 1999 - 2005, we lived in not dissimilar times. 

Valorum is Bill Clinton (a scandal-ridden politician with good intentions whose corruption and foibles pave the way for someone much, much worse), and Nute Gunray...well, that's not a tough one to figure out, is it?  

Also, The Phantom Menace gives the saga one of its finest villains other than Darth Vader in Darth Maul, and the very best -- bar none -- light saber duel of the six films.  

This is not to say that the film is without (many considerable) flaws. The pacing is uneven, some performances are wooden, and the comic-relief (as represented by Binks) is wince-inducing. 

But those who wish to dismiss The Phantom Menace, out of hand, without at the very least considering it virtues, evidence the very brand of Manichean-thinking that Lucas's saga tried to discourage. 

You're either with us, or you're against us. 

The more nuanced truth of The Phantom Menace -- once anger is removed from the debate -- is that as a work of art it possesses intriguing virtues (along the line I delineated above), and some catastrophic draw-backs too. 

Why do I think  that, by-and-large old school Star Wars fans will never come around, even a little, to appreciating the good amidst the bad? 

Before a  work of art can be re-evaluated, someone must be open to the process and possibility of re-evaluation. 

Looking around the web, I don't sense a lot of open-ness to that process or possibility, at least as of yet.  The time has not yet come, and neither has the inclination, except by a few brave or perhaps foolhardy folks.  

A couple of articles mining the virtues of the prequel trilogy have appeared, it's true, and I expect that, over time, they will become more common.

But we haven't arrived, fully, yet at the era of re-examination and rehabilitation. 

Ironically, it may come after The Force Awakens.  If the audience that grew up with the prequels dislikes that film, or doesn't consider it true Star Wars, expect a backlash, and a full excavation of those things the prequels got right and Abrams got wrong.

And if you don't think this is a possibility, I have four words for you. Star Trek: Into Darkness.  

That film fiercely divided fans, pleasing some, irritating the hell out of others.

Begin, these fan wars will?

Don't forget to ask me your questions at


  1. Your analysis about the "The Phantom Menace" is so spot on. The visual design of this movie (and the entire prequel trilogy) is so carefully considered and every aspect from the costumes (and as you pointed out the ethnicity) to the Palpatine's beginning use of Imperial guards can be tied into a historical event or regime, the era in which the films were written (late 90s to early 2000s), and serve as foreshadowing markers for episodes 4-6. Granted, this may have been done at the expense of pacing and the pulpy thrills of the original films, but TPM and the prequels are far smarter and complex than they are given credit for.

    I agree, TPM will never be re-evaluated or not-hated by most fans who grew up on the original. And no matter what anyone says or would like to think, they are part of "Star Wars" and did come from the mind of the same creator.

  2. Not a huge Star Wars fan at all, yet I agree with the analysis. Darth Maul and the ensuing light saber is the best villain/duel of the franchise. The movie went hard at that moment.
    But Jar Jar Binks, imo, is hands down the absolutely, most annoying character in the history of film. Outside of the "comedian" Gilbert Godfried, Binks is the most annoying entity in the known universe. For that reason alone, this movie is unwatchable twice.

  3. Anonymous12:49 PM

    I think that maybe once these kids grow up a bit more at least some will find the original trilogy intriguing in its own ways. Even though I'm a fan of slow (boring?) movies, with age I get so much more from them.


  4. I think you are spot on with this one John. Us old time fans will have a hard time seeing past the fact that the Star Wars prequels we imagine were not the films that Lucas wanted to make. It is really hard for me to step back and see those films for what they are. Many if the issues I gloss over in the OT get no quarter when I watch the prequels. I suppose the fact that I'm aware of this issue means I'm on the road to recovery. "Admitting you have a problem is the first step." :)

    That said, the visuals of PT have always been one of the high points to me. I also appreciate the political and mythic structure that Lucas sets up in that film. It all flows nicely (on paper anyway) into the the OT. I found it interesting that the novelizations of the prequels worked really well, but fell flat on the screen for me.

    Part of it is the pacing and overall structure of those films. PT is especially cumbersome and awkward. It isn't a very engaging film at all. So while I can appreciate many elements of it, I find it really hard to like the film.

    That said, I think Abrams is a better fit for the Star Wars universe, then he was for the Star Trek universe (although I enjoyed both of his efforts for that franchise). I'm looking forward to this new film, and especially John Williams new Star Wars score. That is one element that has been top notch in all six films, and I doubt the Maestro will disappoint this time.

  5. Anonymous11:50 AM

    Part I

    This is an interesting question. I'm in a fairly unique position of being relatively objective because I was never a huge fan of Star Wars in general, and my childhood also fell in between the two trilogies so I never really got too caught up in either one.

    Tellingly, the sci-fi franchise that most caught my interest appeared in 1994, five years before Star Wars became a big deal again - it was Stargate. I also quite enjoyed Star Trek at the time, but Star Wars... the original trilogy was almost forgotten by then, and the prequels were still far off in the future.

    Admittedly, my childhood was hardly typical - I grew up on a steady diet of John Ford westerns, courtesy of my father - and my favorite movie was "The Godfather". I was an anomaly, to be sure. Perhaps that made me more open to experiencing movies from before my time, which, I'm beginning to see, is hardly a trait that many share.

    The other day I was talking to a 20 year old, and was shocked to hear that he has absolutely no interest in watching movies made before 2010. After some wrangling he agreed that maybe 2000 would be a more fair cut off point, but everything before that seemed dated to him, and talking to some other members of his generation I came to the conclusion that he's not exactly in a minority. For a lot of them, '80s and '90s special effects are completely unconvincing, and quite honestly, rather ridiculous.

    But for me, someone who grew up regularly watching films made 40-50 years before his time, this kind of attitude was rather incomprehensible. However, as I came to realize afterwards, perhaps I was an exception in my own generation. Still, I'd like to think that enabled me to better appreciate film as an art form.

    Now, I know that this was a rather long and rambling preamble, but hopefully it will help explain where I'm coming from.

  6. Anonymous11:51 AM

    Part II

    In 1999 I was a bit too old for the prequel trilogy to become my holy grail of cinema, but I did see "The Phantom Menace" when it came out, and I thought it was alright. Not great, not bad. It had some things going for it, including my favorite Star Wars setting - Tattooine, as well as Darth Maul and Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn.

    I'm not sure that I completely agree about the lack of a nostalgic connection for fans of the older trilogy. Yes, there's Yoda and Palpatine, but there's also Boba Fett, Jabba, R2-D2, C-3PO, wookies, the sand people and even Darth Vader makes an appearance in the final film. I'd say that there was plenty of ways to make a nostalgic connection for fans of the older films.

    The problem was in the CGI. Suddenly, there was simply too much of it in a franchise that had, thus far, been very much based on practical effects. As a result, the movies felt fake.

    The other problem with the prequel trilogy, for me, were the Gungans. Not just Jar Jar - ALL Gungans. Every single one of them. They looked and sounded dumb. The Ewoks were cutesy, the Gungans were dumb and annoying.

    Then there were the ridiculous battle droids. Yes, the stormtroopers were equally ineffective, but at least they looked cool and seemed like they might actually be a threat to our heroes. The battle droids, on the other hand, looked about as threatening as Calista Flockhart and their voices were, well... cartoonish to say the least.

    Another mistake that Lucas made was killing off Darth Maul and replacing him with another non-threatening robotic villain in general Grievous. It was almost as if Lucas was afraid of having actual human beings on screen. Although, having seen the atrocious acting of Jake Lloyd, perhaps Lucas had a point there. I almost wanted to replace Lloyd with an Ewok. Even a CGI Ewok would do. There certainly aren't many child actors worse than Lloyd out there.

  7. Anonymous11:54 AM

    Part III

    But in retrospect, I think I see what my main gripe with the prequel trilogy was. It was not the CGI or the wooden acting - it was a total lack of interesting characters. There's only a few characters unique to the prequel trilogy that I can even remember offhand, and bear in mind that I've seen the prequels multiple times.

    The original trilogy gave us a lot of cool or likeable characters; the sequels - not so much. Sure, Qui-Gon was pretty cool, and there's Darth Maul, maybe Padme, and, uhh... I guess, Watto? There's not much else to choose from. Most of the other characters are the younger versions of the characters we knew previously, but almost always they're the inferior versions. Boba Fett was a bit of a let down, Anakin was awful in every incarnation and Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan was pretty good, but in no way comparable to Alec Guinness.

    I hate to drag out the old Hobbit trilogy comparison, but in this case I think it's necessary. The reason why The Hobbit films worked better, in spite the overabundance of CGI, and got a far more positive reaction, were the characters. Young Anakin was almost universally hated no matter who potrayed him, but I've yet to hear of anyone disliking the younger Bilbo.

    What made The Hobbit a success, however, were the new characters: Thorin, Bard, Balin, Thranduil, Smaug, Tauriel, Kili... heck, even Alfrid and Radagast worked for me. Not to mention Bofur, Beorn, Azog or the Gobling King - and I'm still leaving out some interesting side characters! Compared to that, the prequel trilogy was truly bare bones.

    In my opinion, the lack of interesting characters unique to the prequel trilogy is the main reason why it failed so badly. If it had its own Han Solo, maybe it would have gotten somewhere, as it was, it just had a petulant child in Anakin.

    There really isn't much room here for reassessment, except to say that the prequels weren't truly bad films, just misguided ones.

    As for the new film, it might work well if it introduces a lot of interesting new characters, but to do that it can't be a film about the new adventures of Luke, Leia and Han - they need to become background characters with Luke taking on the Obi-Wan role - and the focus must be mainly on the new cast.

  8. Anonymous11:56 AM

    Oh, and I forgot to sign the previous posts. Ratko H. here.

    Thanks for letting me stand on my soapbox for a minute!