Five stages of The Phantom Menace

>> Thursday, August 06, 2009

I: Denial

1999, outside the theater: "That... that was pretty good, right? Yeah! Yeah it was! That was great! Awesome! I'm buying the soundtrack on the way back to the house!"

II: Anger

2001, arguing with friends over dinner: "It's good! It has its moments! I mean, it wasn't made for us, anyway! We were little kids when the first one came out, and this one was made for our kids! Fuck you! It does what it sets out to do! It's not that bad, so just shut the hell up, already!"

III: Bargaining

2002, after seeing Attack Of The Clones: "I'll concede that Phantom Menace could have been better. Lucas was kind of rusty after a long time away from the camera. Even so, you have to admit Phantom Menace has its moments--the lightsaber battles are pretty cool, the podracing sequence is awesome. Someone did this "Phantom edit" version where they cut out Jar-Jar Binks and most of the kid's dialogue, and I heard it was pretty good. Anyway, Attack Of The Clones is a lot better, I think it's better than Jedi; you have to admit it's pretty good."

IV: Depression

2005, after seeing Revenge Of The Sith: That... that's what I waited for for so long...? I shoulda known after Phantom Menace... I... I shoulda known....

V: Acceptance

2009, after finally giving in and purchasing the prequel trilogy on DVD, while watching Phantom Menace again in its entirety for the first time in ten years: "This is just awful. This is just fucking terrible."


Michael Rawdon Friday, August 7, 2009 at 12:38:00 AM EDT  

Okay, this is hilarious.

I thought The Phantom Menace sucked as soon as I walked out of the theater, though. :-)

Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were, well, borderline watchable. But I think I'd rather watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again, instead.

It's really amazing how fully Lucas seemed to miss every opportunity that the premise of the prequel trilogy seemed to represent. It could have been the tragic fall of the grand Republic into (dare I say it?) scum and villainy, but instead it's just a story of petty ambitions with weak motivations.

And lots of merchandising opportunities.

Nathan Friday, August 7, 2009 at 12:55:00 AM EDT  

Do I lose all street cred if I admit I've only seen two of the Star Wars movies...the first one and then, oh, I forget the name, but those fucking Ewoks made sure I never plunked down any money to see another one.


Eric Friday, August 7, 2009 at 7:41:00 AM EDT  

I still think Clones is better than Jedi but we'll see if that changes in the next few days--I plan on watching the entire series I-VI over the next week. I'm also not sure that's saying much, because while Jedi has a lot of added value from nostalgia, it really isn't very good, either.

Michael, I think your statement about Lucas missing opportunities unfortunately hits the nail on the head. There are times the prequels reach for the epic and just don't get there--a good example is the Battle Of Naboo, which could have been this amazing SF battle sequence if it wasn't interrupted by unfunny slapstick bits involving Jar-Jar Binks. The real problem with those scenes isn't Jar-Jar, it's more fundamental than that; it's that Lucas seems to think an epic battle between robots and aliens on a fairy-tale landscape could be improved if you keep cutting to someone dropping things on his feet or tripping over stuff. And I think your statement is sort of confirmed by the fact that the Expanded Universe stuff frequently succeeds where the prequels fail: Genndy Tartakovsky's two Clone Wars "microseries" were brilliant (especially the second) and a lot of the Dark Horse comics set in the era are quite good.

One more thing I should also probably add: Lucas actually does have talents as a director, and some of the sequences in Phantom Menace look good even when they're otherwise awful. Coruscant is the only film rendition of Trantor to date (and it's gorgeous!), and Tattooine remains the best film version of Arrakis ever put on film or video. (Later on in the series, Mustaffar, where Kenobi and Vader duel to the "death," is still the best version of Mordor ever put on film.) Naboo is a gorgeous locale. By and large, it's a pretty film, I just wish it had been the least bit good.

Nathan: yes, you lose credibility. Especially since you apparently missed The Empire Strikes Back, which most people consider to be the best movie in the franchise. But I think any serious SF/F fan probably has to sit through all six movies just to be on the same page as everybody else.

John the Scientist Friday, August 7, 2009 at 10:21:00 AM EDT  

My journey exactly. Except for the buying the DVDs part.

Still not ready to give that man any more of my money.

neurondoc Friday, August 7, 2009 at 11:50:00 AM EDT  

I refused to see any of the prequels, because I feared they would spoil my unadulterated love of Episodes IV-VI (minus the Ewoks).

Nathan -- TheHusband has only seen the original movie, so he has less street cred than you. :-)

Leanright,  Friday, August 7, 2009 at 12:34:00 PM EDT  

Eric, Watch "The English Patient" again. This will surely return the Phantom Menace to it's glory.

The former will make ANY other movie bearable.

Eric Friday, August 7, 2009 at 1:07:00 PM EDT  

Y'know, Dave, I still have never seen The English Patient.

Based on your sterling endorsement, I may wait a little while longer to remedy that.... ;-)

Michael Rawdon Friday, August 7, 2009 at 1:39:00 PM EDT  

All three prequel films have entertaining and well-constructed moments. The fight with Darth Maul in Menace, the arena battle in Clones, the Obi-Wan/Anakin fight in Sith. Of course, they also have moments which are intended to be awesome but are too cutesy by half, such as the pod racing scene in Menace, and the Yoda/Dooku fight in Clones. (Anything involving Count Dooku fails utterly just because of the name "Dooku", which seems completely inappropriate for the character and actor.)

But as a whole, each film is nothing more than a series of moments. The structure is shaky at best, motivations and strategies of the characters - especially the villains - are weak and/or bizarre. It's just one scene of fanboy wankery after another.

I'm not sure I'd say Clones is better than Jedi, although Jedi's claim to superiority is almost entirely based on the Jabba-the-Hutt sequence, which is the last great moment in the franchise. Clones has nothing like it.

I agree that Lucas does have talents as a director. So does William Shatner (the direction in Star Trek V isn't the problem). But when the writing fails to abjectly, I'm not sure any amount of directing skill could save it.

Staying within genre films, I'd say that Nicholas Meyer's direction in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Steven Spielberg's direction in Raiders of the Lost Ark are both better than Lucas' direction in any of the 4 Star Wars films he directed. Yet Star Trek VI (Meyer) and the later Indiana Jones films (Spielberg) are all pretty crappy, because the writing sucked.

Nathan Friday, August 7, 2009 at 1:54:00 PM EDT  


I don't fucking care if my cred suffers. If Return of the Jedi is on TV some day and there's nothing else on, I may watch it, but I'm not going to go out of my way. And the others...will just have to remain a mystery to me.

I'm sure you saw the argument on Whatever the other day about whether or not an artist (writer) has to suffer for their art. I agree with those who said, "No, they don't". And I'll take that step further by adding, "If an artist doesn't have to suffer for his art, I sure as fuck don't have to either.


Eric Friday, August 7, 2009 at 3:05:00 PM EDT  

Nathan: poseur. :-P

Michael: I can't agree with the Shatner comparison because I think in some respects Lucas actually is a very good director. The sunsets scene in the original Star Wars is a moment of real lyrical beauty, and there are a few more of those in the prequels (Lucas didn't direct Empire and Jedi); there are also visually powerful moments in THX1138, notwithstanding the sluggishness of the movie as a whole.

Lucas' original interests as a filmmaker, before he came under Francis Ford Coppola's wing, was in making documentaries and art films based around static images (there was a Canadian filmmaker whose name escapes me whose shorts were a massive influence on Lucas' student-short version of THX). So I think it's both revealing and expected that the strongest things in all of the movies Lucas has directed are setpieces and images--like Luke staring into the Tatooine setting Tatooine suns or the camera swooping down into Coruscant traffic, to cite two ready examples. Lucas' weaknesses, unfortunately, involve pacing and working with actors.

Spielberg is a notable comparison on that score because Spielberg combines visual gifts--a sense of what a scene should look like--with one of the best senses of how to deal with actors in film. Spielberg notably gets good performances not just out of children and bad actors, but also out of great ones, which can be ironically hard to do (Christopher Walken's contribution to Catch Me If You Can is possibly Walken's strongest, most sincere, least ironic acting in a good twenty years.)

Shatner doesn't really bring either to the table.

leanright,  Saturday, August 8, 2009 at 3:53:00 PM EDT  

Eric: If you're ever feeling particularly self-loathing, I DO recommend you rent The E.P. though. It's a real snooze-fest!

Eat some Brussel Sprouts while you watch.

Konstantin B. Monday, August 10, 2009 at 1:27:00 PM EDT  

When watching Episodes I-III a term comes to mind - Cash Cow. Nothing more. That is all those movie are, and I am not sure that Lucas has planned it any other way.

All he wanted to do was to prove to everyone that he can still pull off a blockbuster.

I do like about 90% of Jedi. Ewoks could have been replaced. I don't think that movie needed "cuteness". The final confrontation between Vader and Luke was very nicely done IMHO.

mattw Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 4:43:00 PM EDT  

While sitting in a panel on how to create a costume good enough to get you into the 501st or the Rebel Legion at Comic Con on Saturday, my buddy, a die-hard Star Wars fan, said if you go back and watch IV-VI from a non-fanboy perspective they're not all that good either. I don't think I can agree with that.

I was at least close to the age group that some people Phantom Menace was meant for when it came out and it was just as bad. Clone Wars was ok and the scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith when Vader is born (for lack of a better term) kind of ruined that movie for me.

Eric Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 5:18:00 PM EDT  

I watched Clones again last night and I'll stand by what I've said in the past: it's decent, and better than Jedi. The romantic bits aren't well-written, and Lucas has the same annoying tendency he shows in Menace (and in Jedi, though he technically didn't direct Jedi) to interrupt otherwise tense and interesting battle sequences with bits of irritating and unfunny "comic" relief (in Clones it's a bunch of annoying business involving C3P0).

But the "cop movie" and "mystery" plots in Clones--Obi-Wan and Anakin protecting the Senator, and then Obi-Wan tracking down the cloners and Jango Fett--really are solid. They're fairly tight, well-paced, feature some cool action sequences* and generate some tension. Yes, the movie loses steam whenever Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have to cough up lines about how they're dying inside and can't live a lie, blahblahblah, but it never really drags along the way Menace does. And the actors commit to all of it, even the stuff that doesn't quite come off, which is more than you can say for Jedi (as bad as the Ewoks are, I think they're less of a problem than the fact that the only actors in Jedi who commit themselves to it are Mark Hamill, who just isn't that good a live actor, and Billy Dee Williams, who's in the movie for about fifteen minutes and mainly serves as a cheerleader).

Anyway, Matt, your friend at the con was wrong, and I think anyone who was around in '77 could tell him that (however young they were--I was five). Star Wars was different, it looked and sounded unlike anything that had come before, even the things it ripped off (space opera serials, samurai movies, westerns, WWII air ace films, etc.). And if you avoid the Special Editions version, it still has some of that magic. Sure, there's a lot of crappy dialogue and people knew it at the time--there's a famous Harrison Ford quip, "You can write this shit, George, but you can't say it," I believe it goes. But there's a helluva lot of magic there that still sparkles thirty years later even after the cynics have had their way.

Empire was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, just for a starting point, is a helluva good movie. I mean--and this is why I'm namechecking the writers--this is a situation where it's not just differing tastes but where I think your friend is objectively wrong. He can say "I don't like Empire" and that's his right, but to say "It's not that good" is to pretty much lack a clue.

Jedi, though... your friend scores on Jedi, Matt. He's just wrong about everything else.


*And yes, I'm including the infamous "seismic charges" during the pursuit-through-the-rings sequence--they looked and sounded cool as hell in the theater (BWAMMMMMPPPP), and if you're still getting hung up about bad physics in the Star Wars universe, well... I mean, what the hell already.

Carol Elaine Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 5:26:00 PM EDT  

Leanright, you're absolutely right about The English Patient. I watched that in the theater the same day I watched Scream - Scream was the better of the two. The English Patient falls under the "When Bad Movies Happen to Good Actors" category - I love Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe and Kristen Scott Thomas, but none of them could get me to watch this snorefest of a movie again. Note to filmmakers: just because it's epic, long and beautifully shot does not mean it's good.

I've only seen half of The Phantom Menace - no desire to see the second half at all, despite my love for Liam Neeson. I watched Attack of the Clones only because of Christopher Lee and was actually annoyed that he survived it because that meant I would have to watch Revenge of the Sith at some point. That point has not yet happened.

Michael, you bring up a good point - Dooku? This is mother-fucking Christopher Lee! You do NOT give him a name like Dooku!*

* Someone needs to make something like this for Christopher Lee. I shall contemplate it.

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