Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fixing The Phantom Menace

Here we are. After a thirty-two year wait, finally, her eon December 17th, 2015, the world will finally be able to watch the sequel to Return of the Jedi. What a glorious day. The last thing anyone needs to do on a day like today is dredge up old wounds and talk about the last Star Wars movie that opened to massive, massive hype following a long break between films. You know, The Phantom Menace
No, nobody wants that.

But let's do it anyway.

Now I am not doing this to take another crap on the prequels. But, they are fresh in my mind, as I geared up for the new film by rewatching all 6. In doing so, I was struck by a surprising thought--The Phantom Menace isn't that bad. No, really. There are far worse movies out there. Believe me.

But it isn't that good, either. Now that I've written a book or two, and made some mistakes along the way, I've discovered a couple of things. One, I am more forgiving when things go wrong. Creating plots and characters that entertain and make sense is hard. Really hard.
Two, when things do go wrong, I like to brainstorm on how these plots and characters could be fixed. I have to do it with my own stories all the time, so it's only natural that the urge would strike me while viewing others. 

Which brings me to Episode One. How would I make it better? Can it be fixed? Could it have gone from mediocre to good, maybe even great? We'll never know. besides, my proposed changes probably suck, too. Even if they don't, George Lucas wasn't exactly going to call me up to serve as a script doctor.  I was like a freshman in college.

Nonetheless, here are five changes that I believe very well may have rescued The Phantom Menace from mediocrity. In the interest of fair play, I tried to hue close to what we were presented with. I don't think it'd be realistic to completely change the plot or remove characters. My hypothetical changes should be looked at as adjustments to the nearly-final draft, not the first.

The Voices
The first change I prose is a simple one--change the voices. Every single voice from a non-human character is horrid. The only exceptions would be Darth Maul--his voice isn't great but it works--it's used sparingly regardless--and holdovers from the original films like Jabba the Hutt, C3PO, etc. Those voices were locked in, whether they worked or not (they all do, though).

Unfortunately, all of the new characters had voices that didn't work. Every robot, creature wearing a mask, or CGI creation sound awful. They all seem to come straight from the cheapest of Saturday morning cartoons; not a single voice sounds like something from the real world. Doesn't matter that it's a fantasy film; verisimilitude is important. We don't have that. Instead, we've got robots that are supposed to be fearsome going "roger, roger" and tall creatures with bad caricatures of Asian accents.

Too Many Robots
Speaking of robots, there are too damn many of them. They are everywhere, filling the screen of every scene they appear in. This means that in order for the good guys to defeat them, they have to wipe them out quickly for "realism." If it took them too long to kill the robots, the audience is left to wonder why the robots didn't respond to the attack. The problem with this is that they come across as nothing but cannon fodder. 

How do you fix it? It's pretty easy, actually. Make the robots tougher to defeat, but have less of them. In other words, swap out quantity for quality, and the stakes are raised. The only exception to this would be at the end of the film, when the ships roll up and unload thousands of the things. It's a great image, but the scene has no teeth because we've seen over and over again that you can wipe them out with the flick of a wrist. Make them harder to destroy throughout the film, when waves and waves of them roll out, we will fear for our heroes in a way that matches the power of the imagery.

Mr. Binks
Poor Jar Jar. I mean it. Everyone hates him. He gets the blame for ruining the movie. Worse, fans have gone so far as to peg him as a Sith Lord. That's how much he is despised. Me? I feel sorry for him. Not only that, but I feel bad for the actor, the special effects crew, even his creator, George Lucas. Jar Jar was an epic fail before the term epic fail even existed.

So how do you fix him? Sure, it's easy to say "cut him out of the movie. Boom, done." But I don't think that is fair for my exercise. George wanted him around, so let's work with him.

But man, how do you fix this guy? I mean, look at him. This is tough. But as I watched the film and reflected on it, a few things stuck out regarding Mr. Jar Jar. First off, we learn early on that he was banished from his people for being clumsy. He seems a little down about it, but doesn't really act accordingly--moments after this revelation, he yells joyously and does some kind of crazy dive thing into the water. These actions do not align with someone who should be bummed about being banished and fearful about returning home. There needs to be some reluctance from Jar Jar here, and some acknowledgement that he doesn't mean to be a screw up, it just sort of...happens. We shouldn't feel sorry for this critter. No, we should feel empathy. After all, we all screw up, we all make mistakes, and we can get behind someone who means to do well, but they just can't. That's Jar Jar, or that should be Jar Jar. But Jar Jar is far too accepting of his lot in life and doesn't appear to have any desire to change.

If our characters are going to be screw ups, we want them to acknowledge it and show they are willing to try to change.

I would be naive to think I could fix Jar Jar with just that small tweak. No, there's much more to do. And this time, it's not entirely his fault--this time the blame falls on Qui-Gon, Obi Wan, Padme, and so forth. Oh, how you say? Well, throughout the film Jar Jar is causing disruptions, crashing into things, doing pratfalls, and none of the other characters pay him the least bit of attention. No, they ignore him and act like he doesn't exist. He serves no purpose at all to the narrative of the film. For this I blame Lucas--a character cannot exist solely to provide "comic relief." And if the other characters don't care about him, why should we?

Here's something else that bugged me. The reason Jar Jar is even palling around with our heroes is because he owes his life to Qui-Gon, yet not once does he ever mention this nor try to protect Qui-Gon. This is bad storytelling. Jar Jar can fail spectacularly in the act of trying to save his friend, but he has to at least make a good faith effort to fulfill his duties. The closest he gets is when he leads them on an underwater journey through the dangerous planet core (Qui-Gon even mentions that he can be their guide through this core, although Jar Jar never claims to have actually made the trek). This was a perfect opportunity to make Jar Jar at least competent in something, yet he's a passive character on that journey. How passive? When a monster attacks them, he passes out. It's funny, see? Except it makes it impossible for us to have a shred of respect for this critter.

I'm not going to pretend we're even close to rehabbing Jar Jar as he needs a ton of work, but hopefully we're on our way. However, I do want to make one last point. As mentioned, the other characters almost completely ignore poor Jar Jar. It is hinted that Anakin and him are friendly, buddies even, but we never really see this. This was a missed opportunity. Perhaps Jar Jar could've comforted young Anakin. They could've convalesced together as people who were away from home for the first time. Jar Jar would be able to show that he was more than a klutz; he was a being with feelings. But we never see this. Again, we're never allowed to empathize with this strange critter.

I could go on and on, but I do believe Jar Jar could've been salvaged so that he was at least tolerable, and handled rightly, he could've even truly become a favorite of children in the way Lucas intended.

Rebel Without a Cause
Inevitably, when you talk to people they will mention that one of things they did like about the film was Qui-Gon. These people are probably lying to you. They didn't like Qui-Gon; they liked Liam Neeson. Two different things.

I hate to say it, but Qui-Gon Jinn, as executed, is a terrible, lousy, rotten character.

Let me make my case. Ultimately, this will lead to the biggest change I've got, and it all starts with Qui-Gon. First, we are often told that Qui Gon is a rebel. He has differences with the Jedi Council. He is hard-headed. Stubborn. Obi Wan suggests at one point that his mentor is sabotaging his own career. But....we never really see this. They say he's a rebel, but we don't care about that--we want to see it. Show, don't tell. The rebel is a character that almost never fails in sci-fi and fantasy, yet Qui-Gon does indeed fail as a character. Why? Well, let's see--how does our big, bad rebel show that he is a big, bad rebel. There isn't much. He cheats at dice to tilt the odds in his favor, and he argues with the Jedi council as he wants to train a boy against their wishes. Oh, and at one point he draws some blood from Anakin to measure his "midi-chlorian count," but instead of telling the youngster what he is doing, Qui-Gon states that he is "checking for blood infections." Huh? Wow, some rebel. On the Han Solo scale, he's like a 2. In other words, Greedo totally would've shot this guy first. Keep this thought, because we'll circle back to it in my next point, which is...

The Pod Race
Look, I get it--the pod race looks kind of cool. Great effects work. It's a nice tribute to Ben-Hur mixed with George's boyhood love of hot rods. it even made a fun video game. One problem? It is boooooorrrrrring. And long. Without doing a shred of research, I estimate it takes up a good 450 minutes of the film from the setup to the finish line. Yet despite this running time and importance to the film, not for one second do we believe that anyone but Anakin will win this thing. Sure, Lucas gives it a good try by having him run into all kinds of problems along the way. Doesn't work. Worse, the whole storyline causes some major problems with our film.

How do you fix it? It can be done. Not only that, I believe that if you want to identify one area where it all goes wrong, where the film crashes and never recovers, it's right here. This is the sagging middle that needs propped up. But, I believe it could have been fixed, and done so in a way that can solve a lot of the issues I had with the film.

But how?

Here we go: when our heroes have engine trouble with their starship, they land on Tatooine, the desert planet. A few of the heroes, like Obi Wan, stay back on the ship. They completely leave the story at this time. A few others, like Padme, Qui-Gon, and Jar Jar, wander the desert and stumble into a marketplace where they meet boring people doing boring things. This includes Anakin, who does nothing exciting.

Instead of stumbling into something boring, why can't they stumble into a live pod race? Intrigued by this hot-paced action, Qui-Gon and company will watch the end of the race and react with astonishment as they learn that the winning entry was driven by a young boy. The force must be strong with him! While our good buddy Qui-Gon should be focused on getting their ship fixed, he can't resist learning more about this young man, being the rebel that he is, and so they meet. One thing leads to another, they learn that Anakin is a talented mechanic (this was mentioned in the film, but only as an excuse for him to invent C3PO and not in a way that helps our story). Qui-Gon wishes for the boy to fix their ship. Anakin, while young, is wise beyond his years, being a slave who lives a life of hard labor and dangerous pod racing. He declares that he would love to help fix the ship, but there's one problem: he's a slave, along with his mom.

Well, crap.

Qui-Gon and Obi Wan (none of the major characters would stay on the ship in my storyline), stunned to learn that slavery still exists out here in the boondocks, think it over and decide hey, not only will we save Anakin and his mother, we will help save every slave we can, because Jedis would never allow slavery to exist, even if their mission was to protect the Queen right then and leading a slave revolt could be risky. But Qui-Gon is just that kind of Jedi, a rebel, see, and so he is going to do what is right, consequences be damned.

So instead of a boring pod race to sink the middle of this film, we have a slave revolt of sorts, with the Jedis and friends saving the day. But during this revolt, something goes awry: while saving her son, Anakin's mom is killed in the escape. Devastated, Anakin manages to pull it together to fix the ship in order for our heroes to escape in the nick of time, Star Wars-style.

This development would solve a number of issues. It shores up the sagging middle of the film with a scene that would actually have some peril. It also removes stupid moments like Qui-Gon Neeson being willing to cheat at dice, yet not being willing to affect the outcome of the race with his Jedi powers. 

It also allows the Jedis to look like the types of people who stand up for justice, NOT slavery enablers. No, these are the guardians of peace and justice, and they have balls--they'll risk the queen and a galaxy issue if it means doing the right thing. 

This change would also remove the problematic idea that the Jedis leave Mama Skywalker behind in bondage. It also allows Obi Wan to do more than hang out on the ship for a large chunk of the film. And it paves the way to fix issues further on down the lines, like Luke's uncle buying C3PO while not recognizing that the droid once belonged to his step-mom (after all, why does Owen and Beru actually have to be Luke's actual relations? It creates more problems. Maybe Owen could've been a slave they rescued which is how Obi Wan comes to know him. Anyway, I'm off track.) 

Furthermore, by losing his mom, you've planted a better seed for Anakin to eventually become Darth, as the guilt of her death would always hang around his shoulders. It would be more tragic than feeling bad because you were freed and then ignored your mom for 10 or so years until she is murdered by sand people and you show up 30 seconds before she perishes. (Don't get me started.)

So there are my five ways of improving The Phantom Menace. We'll never know unless Disney decides to make some crazy funky Special Editions. Am I on to something? Crazy?

Yep. I just spent like an hour fixing a movie I had nothing to do with on the day a sequel that will gross a hundred bazillion dollars comes out. What exactly about The Phantom Menace even needed fixing? Apparently nothing!

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