IV. Crush Us, Grind Us into Little Pieces,
and Blast Us into Oblivion

Jar Jar Binks “Mesa haten crunchen. Dat's da last ting mesa wanten.”

— Jar Jar Binks,
The Phantom Menace

Man, people sure do hate The Phantom Menace. I mean, they hate it a lot, with a level of ferocity and vitriol normally directed only against child molesters or Nazi war criminals. Just about every component of the movie that can be attacked has been attacked.

The Phantom Menace has been roundly accused of having a bad plot, bad dialogue, bad acting, uninteresting and annoying characters, disappointing and/or overdone special effects, a general lack of the human warmth and feel-good pizzazz that was the hallmark of the classic trilogy, and of course, a very bad director. Even the John Williams score, an asset whose universal acclaim is like money in the bank, has been dismissed as lackluster. The single element of the movie that most critics will grudgingly admit to liking is the final lightsaber battle, but they've complained even about it for being too short and not having any mid-fight trash-talking.

Although I oppose these sentiments, I think I understand the basic reasons why people are so negative about the movie. The Phantom Menace is very much like the cave of evil that Luke had to confront during his training on Dagobah: you will find inside it only what you take with you. And a lot of people marched inside with their weapons loaded for bear and their minds clouded by the dark side.

If you're a kid, you'll go in and see a big, colorful roller-coaster ride that's great for all ages. If you're an adult with no knowledge of Star Wars and an open mind, you will find an entertaining action-adventure movie, if perhaps lacking in depth and substance. If you go in with a love of Star Wars, a familiarity with its characters and story background, and an understanding that this is just the beginning of a much bigger tale, then you will discover a grand and wonderful movie that is rich with resonance and hidden meanings.

On the other hand, if you go in with disdain or apathy toward Star Wars, or the expectation that this movie has to be just like the classic trilogy, or ignoring that there's a whole lot of the story that's yet to unfold, then you will most likely find a shallow and empty movie with a boring plot and a bunch of uninteresting characters that you care nothing about from beginning to end. Whose fault is that: George Lucas's or your own?

The Prequel Predicament

Any sequel to a successful movie automatically faces a hard time earning the audience's acceptance. People are going to complain if it's too much like the original, and they're going to complain if it's too different from the original. There will always be the cynical assumption that the new production is motivated solely by an attempt to cash in on the success of its predecessor. A sequel looks even more suspicious if it comes along many years after the original, when it looks like the filmmaker has run out of ideas and got desperate enough to fall back on a tried and true moneymaker from his glory days. And with a few notable exceptions, the plain truth is that most sequels aren't very good.

A prequel faces an even harder time of winning people over. When a sequel tells the events that happened before the first movie, people have a hard time understanding why they should care. If you already know how everything's going to turn out in the end, why bother? If the prequel goes back in time any considerable span, the movie may have few if any of the same characters or actors as the first one, which alienates the audience ever further.

Now, it's tricky enough to do a single prequel, in which all the characters and plot threads cleanly match up to the story the audience already knows. But imagine the challenge of embarking on a series of three prequels, over the course of which the audience will be left disoriented in a precarious state of dramatis interruptus, having the beginning and the end but waiting for the middle. The whole story won't be apparent and won't make sense until the end of the third prequel... assuming the audience still cares by then.

This is the pickle that George Lucas is in for the long haul of his Star Wars prequels. I believe just about all of the complaints, bitterness and fury directed at The Phantom Menace are a product of this basic no-win conundrum. Let's take a close look at how overwhelmingly the deck is stacked against Lucas.

The classic Star Wars trilogy is the most successful film series of all time. It is perceived as a finished story, and not necessarily in need of further sequels. The notion of a new Star Wars movie at this point is sure to be greeted with both cynicism and sky-high expectations.

Sixteen years passed between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. Aside from the Indiana Jones series, Lucas has had no major successes during that span. He is perceived as an out-of-touch has-been, who came limping back to his old cash cow after his creative powers have all dried up. (Most people don't know or don't care that Lucas has planned on eventual prequels all along.)

Audiences demand that a new Star Wars movie has to be like and feel like the classic trilogy. But there's no Luke Skywalker, no Princess Leia, no Han Solo, no Chewbacca, and no Darth Vader (not in the mask and suit, anyway). The only familiar characters are Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by a different actor), the droids, Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, and the guy who becomes the Emperor. All these other characters aren't part of the universally known and beloved Star Wars family.

Audiences demand that a new Star Wars movie has to be the most visually astounding and most action-packed movie of all time. But over the years audiences have become accustomed to monumental special effects in every big blockbuster, so they're much harder to impress. The intense expectation for action and effects also makes people impatient with dialogue-heavy dramatic scenes, which come across disproportionately as seeming boring and out of place.

Audiences demand immediate gratification and stories that are all tied up at the end in neat, easy-to-digest little packages. They don't have the patience to wait for two more movies before they get the complete story, and they don't have the foresight to envision how the first prequel will ultimately fit into the greater scheme. If everything was revealed and spelled out for us in the first one, there wouldn't be much surprise left to keep the next two interesting. But audiences don't care about what tomorrow may bring -- they want it all now, now, now!

All right, I imagine a lot of critics would agree with my assessment of the built-in obstacles and prejudices stacked against the prequels -- but that's all beside the point, they'd argue, since The Phantom Menace was simply a bad movie. So now let's look at the reasons why people think that. I'm not making excuses or apologies for Lucas, I'm trying to explain why Episode I was good, so I'm not going to hide from the critics' charges of why the movie supposedly sucked.

The Plot

Let's start with the plot. The storyline of The Phantom Menace has been called stupid, boring and juvenile. Some say it's simplistic, and others say it's overly complicated and indecipherable. Whether you think it's good or bad, it's definitely the most complex and subtle story presented in any of the Star Wars movies so far. The ostensible main plot of the movie is all just a cover for the real story going on completely beneath the surface, and the two most important characters in the movie are deceptively positioned as mere supporting players.

By way of comparison, the plotlines of the classic trilogy are very linear and easy to sum up. In A New Hope, the rebels have to get the Death Star plans, Luke begins his journey to becoming a Jedi, and he destroys the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, the rebels are on the run while Darth Vader hunts down Luke, who gets training from Yoda before confronting and getting some heavy news from Vader. In Return of the Jedi, the gang rescues Han from Jabba the Hutt, Luke has a final showdown with Vader and the Emperor, saves his dad from the dark side, and becomes a Jedi, while another Death Star gets blown up.

It's not nearly so easy to sum up the plot of The Phantom Menace that way, but here's my best attempt at it: Anakin begins his journey to becoming a Jedi, and Darth Sidious, a.k.a. Senator Palpatine, becomes Supreme Chancellor of the Republic by secretly manipulating a bunch of smokescreens, including a trade blockade and planetary invasion, that distract everybody from his grand scheme for the Sith to rule the galaxy and destroy the Jedi.

I think it's an ingeniously crafted plot. Lucas was faced with the challenge of establishing Anakin and Palpatine's beginnings, two unrelated story threads which are not really suited to fill the forefront of Episode I's action, since they're both in embryonic stages at this point. So Lucas concocted a dramatic entanglement of invasions and battles that he overlaid on the Anakin and Palpatine developments, and actually creates an indirect cause-and-effect relationship between those two crucial plotlines.

That's a hell of an accomplishment. The Phantom Menace tells an exciting action-adventure story while surreptitiously setting all the pieces into place for the eventual horrific advent of Darth Vader and the Empire. Most people don't even notice the greatest tragedy in the movie, which is the collapse of the Republic. If you missed it, it's in there, all right, toward the end of the movie -- but it happens offscreen. It's the election of Palpatine as Chancellor. That's the really significant thing that's going on while we're watching a minor skirmish on Naboo. Most people think The Phantom Menace has a happy ending, with the Naboo celebration parade and all the smiling faces, but it most certainly does not. Many people think the movie has a silly, dorky, little-kiddie plotline. They just aren't paying attention.

For an in-depth examination of the symbolism and finer complexities in the movie's plot, see my textual analysis in Part III.

The Dialogue

Now let's talk about Lucas's oft-reviled "tin ear for dialogue." I know this is gonna sound like a cop-out, but folks, this ain't Shakespeare, it's Star Wars. All the Star Wars movies have vast stinking passages of goofy dialogue. That's part of the package, and for true Star Wars fans, that's part of the charm.

I mean, mostly all of Luke's lines all the way through A New Hope are lame as crap, but we like it that way. How could the movie possibly be as great without him whining about going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters? And try listening to Han and Leia's quasi-romantic bickering in the Hoth rebel base: "Han, we need you!" "We need?" "Yes." "Oh, what about you need?" "I need?" Yeesh! You can't imagine two adults actually saying that stuff to each other, but somehow, it's a great scene anyway. And what's up with Vader's outlandish and repetitive ramblings? "The circle is now complete." "Your skills are complete." "Now his failure is complete." "It is your destiny." "If that is your destiny." "Then you will meet your destiny." It's as if we accept that societies in the Star Wars galaxy have evolved their own peculiar, non-Earthlike patterns of verbal communication, and it seems completely natural.

That's an allowance that many people seem to have withdrawn over the years. I guess they went into The Phantom Menace expecting the incisive discourses of a David Mamet screenplay, but instead they got "If they can't get those shield generators fixed, we'll be sitting ducks," and "Sandstorms are very, very dangerous." It all sounds like good old vintage Lucas-speak to me, but a lot of people just don't get it.

One critic commented that the classic trilogy had bunches of memorable lines that have become part of the modern lexicon, but there's not one line in The Phantom Menace that will be remembered twenty years from now. There is some validity in that observation. The Episode I screenplay lacks any new catchphrases in the same league as "May the Force be with you," or "These aren't the droids you're looking for," or "I am your father." It does have a number of very good lines whose impact is so dependent on the context of the scene that they don't stand alone very well. For example, "We'll handle this," and "We'll take the long way," when Darth Maul appears in the Theed hangar. Awesome lines in the movie, but not exactly T-shirt material.

But that's not to say that The Phantom Menace is bereft of catchphrases. These are the lines that I believe will ultimately be remembered, especially in the greater context of the six completed movies:

Rune Haako: "Have you ever encountered a Jedi Knight before, sir?"

Darth Maul: "At last we will have revenge."

Queen Amidala: "I pray you will bring sanity and compassion back to the Senate."

Qui-Gon Jinn: "You still have much to learn, my young apprentice."

Palpatine: "And you, young Skywalker -- we shall watch your career with great interest."

Anakin Skywalker: "No one can kill a Jedi."

The Acting

Much of what I said about the Star Wars tradition of dialogue also goes for the acting. Star Wars movies call for a certain degree of theatrical Velveeta from their performers, and I think the cast of The Phantom Menace fulfilled that duty admirably. It's not anything remotely approaching what these actors have accomplished in films like Schindler's List or Trainspotting, but it's not supposed to be.

Even within the dramatic limitations of a Star Wars movie, it's still possible to turn in a fine acting performance. Sir Alec Guinness had his genuinely superb moments in A New Hope, and Harrison Ford single-handedly transformed a smart-ass supporting character into the popular favorite of the classic trilogy. I think Liam Neeson did a comparable job in The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn comes in as a new character we've never heard of before, but thanks to Neeson's thoughtful performance, he seems immediately familiar and right. I completely believed that he was a wise Jedi Master capable of going toe-to-toe with Yoda. Neeson's presence lent a necessary dramatic weight to the entire movie. His very best scenes were his intimate fatherly conversations with Anakin -- yes, including the dreaded midi-chlorian scene.

Now let's talk about Jake Lloyd, a.k.a. "Mannequin Skywalker." I am so goddamn sick of hearing how his "wooden" performance torpedoed the movie that I could vomit. The character of Anakin is a nine-year-old boy. Jake acts like a nine-year-old boy. He's believable and likable and speaks flawless Huttese. What more do people expect from the poor kid? I think Jake was great. I was worried he would be all cutesy and sweet, and give one of those sappy, self-conscious, "hey-look-at-me" Macauley Culkin performances like you always see from kid actors in sitcoms and moronic family movies, but to his credit, he definitely did not. He was natural and real as Anakin, and he made me care about the character. Your average Hollywood child actor could not have done that. If you want to see bad child actors, take a look at Kitster and Anakin's other little friends who make fun of his podracer. God, they suck. Jake is like Sir John Gielgud compared to those no-talent pipsqueaks. And would somebody please tell me: what the hell is so objectionable about a little kid yelling "Yipeee!"?

The other surprise standout acting in the movie came from Ian McDiarmid. He never quite sold me as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, where he was basically just a cackling caricature of the wicked old evil wizard. He was a cool bad guy, mind you, but rather lacking in depth. We never got to see him doing anything to make us hate him, except when he started frying Luke with his lightning bolts at the end. But I think Palpatine's become a much better character now that we've gotten to see him in his younger days, with McDiarmid giving us plenty to boo and hiss at this time around. There's his cold brutality as Darth Sidious, but much more important is his hidden conniving as the smiling, avuncular senator from Naboo. Now we know what a total bastard Palpatine is, and McDiarmid is to be congratulated for expressing so much evil in a such a subtle and understated performance.

As for the other main actors, including Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson: their acting was fine, but admittedly not earth-shattering. That's really not the fault of the actors -- it's just that the circumstances of the story have not given their characters a whole lot to do just yet. Be patient, because things will be progressing in the next episodes. Which brings us smoothly to the next category...

The Characters

In classical storytelling terms, the protagonists and antagonists must undergo change during the events between the beginning of the story and the end. So it's fundamentally unfair to judge the character development in a story when you've only got the first chapter to analyze. That basic fact hasn't stopped people from declaring the characters in The Phantom Menace to be flat, boring and undeveloped. This is just the beginning, folks! Anakin, Amidala, Obi-Wan and the gang have got a whole mess of dramatic conflict left to go through -- two movies' worth, in fact -- and I can assure you there'll be big bucketloads of character development in there.

Even so, I like Anakin a lot already. I'll admit, I had my doubts about starting off the saga with Anakin as a nine-year-old boy. I was afraid his youth was going to turn this very important movie into something cheesy and childish. For a lot of people, that's how it turned out -- but not for me. I don't think the story could have been nearly as effective if it had begun with Anakin already 14 or 18 years old.

Lucas was admirably restrained in his characterization of Anakin. It would have been tempting to shade Anakin's sweet personality with some sinister little touches, like having him secretly steal from Watto or lie to his mother. Stuff like that could have been real crowd-pleasers: "Haw! There, now you can tell he's gonna grow up to be Darth Vader!" But a deceitful little stinker was not the character Lucas had in mind. Similarly, Lucas could have done the obvious thing and had Anakin using the Force in explicit ways, such as doing levitation and amateur Jedi mind tricks. Lucas chose the more subtle path of portraying Anakin as a powerful but unrefined prodigy whose use of the Force is not yet so overt, except for his superhuman podracing abilities.

Another thing that trips up the critics is that many of the main characters are stoic and reserved in nature, or else hiding their passions behind a cool facade. The Jedi are a deeply calm and serious people, trained from birth to shun the emotions of anger and fear. Queen Amidala rules her planet with a regal air of aloofness, which serves as a mask for her true compassion and vulnerability. Add in the royal court of Theed, the politicians of Coruscant, and even the Sith Lords when they're chilling out, and it seems as if the majority of the characters are fuddy-duddies who speak in carefully modulated tones and hold their feelings in check. To some people, this equals boring and flat characters. But if the characters are supposed to be restrained and unemotional, as dictated by the story, does that automatically make them bad characters?

I think it really bothers people that there's no Han Solo in The Phantom Menace. It's got a Luke figure in Anakin, a Leia figure in Amidala, and Qui-Gon as the old Ben Kenobi figure, but there's no cocky, lovable cynic in there to crack jokes and take the edge off all the heavy seriousness. It's true, the movie could have benefited from a presence like that. A lot of people were disappointed that young Obi-Wan wasn't more of a smart-alecky rogue. That might have been cool, but it wouldn't really be right for the character. In Episode I, Obi-Wan is just a Padawan learner, and it's not his place to be rocking the boat or clowning around. People complain that all he does for the whole movie is say "Yes, Master" and stand obediently in the shadow of Qui-Gon, but that's his job. Obi-Wan definitely does not remain a static character, as many people have claimed: by the end of the movie, he has suddenly lost his master, been made a Jedi Knight, and been granted the massive responsibility of training the chosen one as his Padawan. It'll be a very different Obi-Wan that we see in Episode II.

Who else could have been the Han Solo figure? You know, it might have helped things considerably if Qui-Gon had run into a sassy, wisecracking Gungan instead of a bumbling innocent. I think Jar Jar Binks would have been much more popular if he mouthed off with his opinion that the Force is a load of crap, and called Qui-Gon a damn idiot for betting their ship on Anakin. That could have been interesting, but believe it or not, I actually like Jar Jar the way he is. Lucas was going for something different with Jar Jar, tapping into the mythological archetype of the wise fool. In ancient legends and stories (King Lear being a good example), there's a fool who tags along with the heroes, getting in the way and annoying everybody, but his innocence and good heart ultimately provide the heroes with some crucial insight or assistance that saves the day.

Jar Jar Binks is the wise fool. Yes, he's annoying. Supremely, ultimately annoying. But repeat after me: HE IS SUPPOSED TO BE. If everybody in the movie loved him and thought his wacky antics were adorable and precious, that would suck. But take note: they don't. Nobody likes Jar Jar. For Pete's sake, his own people banished him because he was so damn aggravating. Critics accuse Lucas of sticking Jar Jar in the movie purely for kiddie appeal, and yet the kid in the movie doesn't even like him. Anakin only bothers to speak to Jar Jar once, to warn him away from his podracer's energy binders, and steers clear of the Gungan the rest of the time. Only Qui-Gon seems to see any worth in Jar Jar's existence, and whatever it is, he keeps it to himself.

Ultimately, Jar Jar is directly responsible for setting in motion the entire third act of the movie. When all seems lost and dark, he inspires Queen Amidala to shed her dependence on the ineffectual bureaucracy of the Republic, and he gives her the courage to go back and fight for their home planet, on her own terms. He is the liaison who facilitates an alliance between the Gungans and the Naboo. He doesn't manage to lead his troops to victory over the battle droid army, but he does his best. Jar Jar the fool is indispensable to the plot, and a fine character. Okay, I could do without him saying "Ex-squeeze me," but nothing's perfect.

There's one more character who merits discussion: Darth Maul. Even the Phantom Menace bashers tend to admit that he is one cool bad guy, with just one reservation -- there's not enough of him. He doesn't fight enough or have enough lines, he doesn't do anything except let Darth Sidious boss him around, and he gets killed too abruptly, wasting all his potential for future movies.

These complaints of course bring to mind another fan-favorite character from the classic trilogy. Lucas needed a bounty hunter to capture Han and take him to Jabba the Hutt, so he created Boba Fett. That is the whole of Fett's purpose in the scheme of things. But he seemed so cool that we all wanted him to play more of an important part, and it was a bitter disappointment when he simply got knocked into the Sarlaac pit and croaked.

Darth Maul is the new Boba Fett. Lucas is extremely good at creating minor bad guy characters who are so captivating and charismatic that the fans want them to be a lot more important to the story than they really are. Darth Sidious needed a bad-ass apprentice who reveals the Sith to the Jedi and then gets killed, thereby leaving vacant a position to be filled ultimately by Anakin Skywalker. That's all that Darth Maul adds to the plot. As cool and fascinating as ol' Hornhead may be, we can't fault Lucas for not doing any more with him than what the character was designed to do.

The one Darth Maul criticism that really gets me is when people whine that Maul isn't anywhere near as powerful and scary a villain as Darth Vader. Well, no shit.

So is it right that The Phantom Menace has its own Boba Fett, and yet no Han Solo? No. There is another. You could say it's Qui-Gon Jinn... from a certain point of view. He's a maverick who challenges the status quo and does things his own way. Qui-Gon is both the wise old mentor and the lovable rogue, rolled into one. But then again, maybe it's not productive in any way aside from geeky satisfaction to hunt for forced parallels between the old and the new Star Wars. The prequels are a whole different story, and we should be pleased if the two trilogies bear more differences than similarities.

The Special Effects

The groundbreaking special effects are one of the best things about The Phantom Menace, but they've also played a big part in the backlash against the movie. The most obvious problem is the audience's impossibly high expectations. Star Wars movies are primarily thought of as special-effects extravaganzas, and people are widely aware that Lucas waited years and years to do the prequels because he wanted special-effects technology to catch up with his vision. So a lot of people were expecting Episode I to deliver a visual spectacle to dwarf the works of God Almighty. As great as the movie's special effects were, they couldn't hope to live up to all that. Disappointment was inevitable.

But a more devious dilemma with the special effects is that they distract people from the story. Audiences have grown accustomed to the big action blockbusters that ask you to turn off your brain and be dazzled by the stunts and fights and cool explosions. If you view The Phantom Menace as if it's just a mindless roller-coaster ride, you'll miss out on a lot. You'll get bored and impatient during the dialogue-driven scenes and overlook the finer subtleties of the plot, if you're just anxiously waiting for the pod race or a lightsaber fight to start. I think that's one of the main reasons why people think the movie doesn't have a good story -- the story's absolutely fantastic, but they're too focused on the special effects to pay attention to it.

The complaint you hear a lot is that The Phantom Menace is too preoccupied with CGI effects and CGI characters, much to its neglect of human warmth and human emotion. That's bullshit. It's not the movie that's preoccupied with CGI, it's the person watching. The effects are realistic enough that you can forget they were created on computers and just think about the story, and yet some people can't help but fixate on the CGI, and thereby take themselves out of the movie. It's true that Episode I is populated with stoic and unemotional characters, an intentional element in the script as I've described earlier, and people conflate that with the heavy amount of CGI characters to arrive at the quick and easy -- and unfair -- conclusion that The Phantom Menace is all computer, no heart. What a crock. The movie has plenty of heart and soul, mainly in the very human characters of Anakin, Qui-Gon and Padmé. Yeah, and even Jar Jar.

Since he's the walking embodiment of CGI in The Phantom Menace, I have to say a word here about Jar Jar Binks. Poor Jar Jar has been made the scapegoat for everything that's supposedly wrong with The Phantom Menace, including the special effects. As I've already explained, Jar Jar is meant to be an annoying character. People equate Jar Jar with the movie's CGI. Therefore the special effects themselves are perceived as annoying, and disappointing. People can't conceive of "wasting" expensive effects on a character who's not very "cool": "Lucas spends billions on special effects and computer-generated characters, and the best we get is that idiot Jar Jar?" If it had happened that the movie's primary CGI character was a heroic, crowd-pleasing Han Solo-type, I bet people would judge the CGI effects to be forty times better, on that basis alone. (As a corollary, if Jar Jar had just been played by a guy in a suit, I bet people wouldn't hate him quite as much.)

The Writer/Director

Sigh. I've heard it all a hundred zillion times since The Phantom Menace came out. George Lucas sucks. He has no talent, vision or storytelling ability. Episode I has destroyed Star Wars forever and the prequels are a horrible idea. Lucas can't direct worth a damn and his writing is even worse. He should hire some good screenwriters and good directors to do the other prequels for him so they'll have some scant hope of being semi-decent movies, or else he should forget about doing the prequels at all. Lucas has clearly lost his mind.

Well, I'm not having that at all, mate. Star Wars belongs to George Lucas -- not just in the legal sense, but because he's the only person who knows and understands the whole thing. No one else can tell this story. If you want to see what Star Wars is like without the direct involvement of Lucas, just try reading some of the sludge in the licensed novels and comic books. Blecch. It's a blessing that the Flanneled One is committed to writing and directing all three prequels himself, and so far he's doing an incredible job.

George Lucas is a brilliant director and a consummate storyteller, and a true genius. And if you don't think so, you can kiss my ass.

V. I Am Ready to Face the Trials
My rebuttals to the frequently repeated specific criticisms.

Why I Love The Phantom Menace

Cinema