Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In defence of The Phantom Menace

Okay, I promise this is my last Star Wars post.

Well, for a while at least.

Yes, I have written a fair few number of words about George Lucas' epic franchise, so maybe I need to ease off a bit and write something else. So, I will – I just gotta get this out of my system.

So, here's my take on The Phantom Menace, a film that has probably divided fans more than any other (me included):

I'll admit from the offset that I've been pretty mean about Episode 1. Ever since it's been trendy to tear films apart and rant about movie shortcomings, I've been on the side of the prequel-haters. I had a bit of an epiphany-like moment when I admitted to myself that the prequels (for all their shiny new special effects and lightsabre battles) were far inferior to the original films.

An entire industry has grown up online around dissecting movies – pouncing on their flawed logic and plot holes. To some degree this is harmless fun, and may serve to keep lazy directors and script writers on their toes. On the other hand, it's peeing all over movie magic and misses the point of movie storytelling: a bit of escapism for ninety minutes.

So, what has made me write this? I guess watching the Star Wars saga with my son, JKY. I made sure he watched the original trilogy first (the best place to start, obviously), and he loved it – in spite of the slightly old-fashioned style of movie making. We continued watching the rest and then, knowing Episode VII was approaching, I decided to go back to the prequels (Episode III required a few moments of fast-forwarding past the really dark bits, though) to fill him in on the backstory.

JKY didn't sit there pulling apart the dialogue and character motivations. He just enjoyed stuff going on in the Star Wars universe. There were laser fights, lightsabre battles, spaceships and weird aliens. It seemed to keep him happy.

Now, don't get me wrong, the prequels are not high art. They pale in comparison compared to the original trilogy (and episode VII). There are problems, yes – but I guess my point about this article is that they're not so bad that they should be completely disregarded. They are what they are, and should just be accepted as such.

I would like to add a sort of a caveat to that. Out of the three prequels, I think Episode I is actually the best in terms of story and characters. The rot really does start to set in for II and III. This is mainly because Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Anakin is wooden and unconvincing. His motivations are all over the place. You could accuse Jake Lloyd of the same, but I've got a soft spot for the young actor – I think for a ten year old kid he did a fantastic job. Don't forget he was starring in a multi-billion dollar franchise and was playing a pivotal character. No wonder he went off the rails growing up. The pressure must have been incredible.

One thing about The Phantom Menace that really stands out for me is John Williams' soundtrack. Man, is he on fire for this instalment. Williams' score is deep and varied with a huge range of emotion that manages to call back to the original films without copying them – you know this is Star Wars music, but it has an identity all its own. Some films are fortunate to have at least one recognisable 'theme' that people find themselves humming to themselves long after watching them. The entire Star Wars saga, however, has many: Anakin's theme, the Binary sunset theme, the Imperial March or Parade of the Ewoks (amongst plenty more).

Phantom Menace's music is incredibly rich, demonstrating that John is in his prime as a tunesmith. Duel of the Fates in particular stands out as one of Williams' best Star Wars themes such is its scope and drama. The subsequent prequels don't hit this mark as well, merely re-working the Phantom Menace music without really doing anything new. On a side note, I thought the soundtrack for Episode VII: The Force Awakens a bit disappointing. March of the Resistance, in particular, sounds like Imperial March-lite. The one stand-out theme – Rey's Theme – however, I absolutely love and makes up for that. It beautifully reflects Rey's character and Williams uses it to its full potential, being a recurring melody throughout the soundtrack.

But I digress.

I think it's worth bearing in mind that if we applied the same kind of scrutiny and criticism that has been directed at the prequels to The Empire Strikes Back, for example (regarded by many as the best of the three original films) you would actually find just as many issues with logic, character decisions and plot. It's just, those films are so ingrained in our culture and collective memory (well, my generation's anyway), that they have acquired mythic status and are therefore seemingly untouchable.

But they're still good.

What lets the prequels down is Lucas' inability to tell a story – the way he told them the first time was perfect. Unfortunately, he did away with the standard 'hero's journey' plot outline and did something else that didn't work. The Star Wars overall arc is, I believe, Anakin Skywalker's story of redemption. He starts out as someone incredibly powerful fighting for good, only to be tempted to the dark side and do evil. He finally gains redemption, however, by destroying the Emperor and putting an end to the Empire's reign. It's just, the way this arc unfolds isn't done very well over the course of the prequels and could have been so much better.

Considering the way the prequels are regarded by a lot of fans, it makes me wonder if Disney will ever be tempted to re-write Star Wars history and do a bit of retconning of the prequels, kind of like they did with Star Trek, creating an alternate timeline with new actors. Some people have attempted to re-write the prequels, taking the basic building blocks of the films (key scenes, characters and places etc.) and reworking them to fit a more coherent narrative. Time travel doesn't feel right when it comes to the Star Wars universe (apparently it has happened, just not very often), but – hey – if you can traverse vast galactic distances of the universe with highly advanced hyperspace technology then some kind of time-warping must occur, surely?

It would be interesting to see if these 'Newquels' do happen. Indeed, Disney has declared that the Star Wars universe will go on forever (Lord, help us!), so a bit of back and forth isn't far-fetched. If they do, I expect they will wait until George Lucas has popped his clogs, which I think would only be fair.

I don't think he would cope with such an all-encompassing rejection of his work.