Oh, our poor expectations…
Star Wars Episode I is an interesting film…it’s one of the most important films ever made, actually. That’s not to say it’s great, mind you…it’s not even really good. But is all the hate towards the film unwarranted? Maybe so. While the film is not as beloved as the originals, it’s fascinating to look back on. Die-hard fans of the Original Trilogy may wish this film was never made, but through the lens of retrospect and franchise filmmaking, The Phantom Menace provides us with an intriguing series of topics to discuss.
Like I said, die-hard fans may say that they wish the prequels were never made. Here, now, in 2015 that may be true, but was it the case in 1997? At the time, we only had three films released over the course of the preceding decade…we were hungry to revisit the galaxy far, far away and the series had a good track record to boot. In 1997, what reason did we have to doubt the quality of the film?
Similarly, the special effects involved, that is to say the heavily CG’ed characters and environments, were also not red flags. Lucas and ILM had a history of pushing the envelope on visual effects, and at that point we were all still dazzled by what computers were able to do. It was only natural to assume that continuing down the path of technology would be the best move for the series.
With the appetite for Star Wars alive and well, the technology available for limitless effects, and a creative vision uninhibited by the constraints of time and money, this film, on paper, should have been fantastic. So where did it all go wrong? Why isn’t the film loved? What happened?
What it all comes down to is a basic misunderstanding of the film. George Lucas and the creative team simply didn’t know just what it was about Star Wars and the entire mythology that made us love the series. There was an air of confidence about the process, bordering on arrogance, that led to the project going unchecked.
Making fun of Jar Jar Binks is easy. Even the most ardent “Prequel Apologist” would have a hard time defending the character. Yes, he is annoying, pandering, and worthless to overall story, but he represents something larger. He is the physical manifestation of a filmmaker’s inability to understand what makes a likable character. His humor isn’t what’s bothersome, it’s who he is. Star Wars has always had jokes and characters have always been funny. The humor was there, but it came as a result of likable characters and their interactions with one another. Dialing up the humor was overcompensating for having a character that wasn’t compelling or relatable in any other dimension. The slapstick humor wouldn’t have been as cringe-inducing if it came as a result of the interaction with the other characters in the film, assuming we liked them as well.
That lack of character depth was not limited to Jar Jar Binks, either. The filmmakers operated under the assumption that bigger and faster was better. Unfortunately, this, too, was not the case. The final light saber battle, a fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, was an impressive feat in swordplay choreography, but lacked the raw emotion that defined the earlier battles. Darth Maul had a solid four lines up to that point in the film, so there weren’t any emotions tied up in the battle.
Both of these issues, and many more, can be chalked up to the difficulty of revisiting a film after so many years…the technology is different, the audience has changed, and expectations are much higher. If it was JUST an annoying character and a few stoic performances, we may have given the film a pass. However, there is one lingering point that succinctly sums up filmmakers’ misunderstanding of Star Wars’ role in cinema.
Midi-Chlorians. This may not seem like a big point. I was, in fact, an ardent defender of midi-chlorians for years. After all, with laser guns, faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, and countless other technological marvels, it only makes sense that people within the universe would understand the science of The Force. Really, it does. It’s a perfectly logical thing for a science fiction film to introduce. The problem is: at its core, Star Wars is not a science fiction series…it’s fantasy. What do I mean by that?
Science fiction takes many shapes and sizes, but when you boil it down to a few basic traits, most science fiction films have these things in common: they take our fears or aspirations for the future and visualize them on screen. They feature exploration of the unknown and find ways to translate current issues into otherworldly stories. They explore the consequences of our actions, here and now, and ask questions about the paths on which we are traveling. For example, in the 1950’s, nuclear war was a common fear, so naturally many films capitalized on this. It gave us some great films and led us to question many of the decisions that were being made in our day-to-day lives. As society moved beyond the threat of nuclear war, science fiction took on other topics, questioning social and psychological norms, often addressing issues of cultural and racial tolerance.
Fantasy, on the other hand, quite often deals with notions of magic, mythology, and archetypes. The fantasy genre is commonly an outlet for authors who want to build worlds and cultures from their own imagination. While characters can be complex and ambiguous, there are many that fit within the schemas that have existed in our minds for generations. The themes and stories are often timeless.
I’m not saying that every work of fiction in these categories must operate under all of these rules, and certainly there is a bit of overlap between genres, but many films in these genres take advantage of at least some of these tropes. Genre is less about the tools used in the film (a.k.a. the hardware) and more about the conventions of the story. That’s why Star Wars is more of a fantasy film than a science fiction film. Luke is on a personal journey, learning the magic of The Force, and meeting several archetypal characters along the way. In the original trilogy, we never get a veiled metaphor minority rights or the Vietnam War…the main story beats are timeless topics that appeal to the emotional side of our brains. Love, duty, betrayal, etc.
The Phantom Menace, and its two sequels, operates more as science fiction films than fantasy. Palpatine’s rise to power directly mirrors Adolf Hitler’s, the ethics of war is frequently discussed, political ideologies are at play, and taxes are mentioned ad nauseam. Midi-chlorians are the most basic manifestation of the tension between magic and science. By opting to scientifically quantify The Force, the series made a jump from fantasy to science fiction.
And science fiction isn’t bad, mind you. But it’s not what audiences had come to expect from Star Wars. It was a jarring contradiction to what we had previously come to love about the original films. Mix in the unrelatable characters and the wooden delivery of exposition and action, and it’s not hard to see why this film didn’t work. I’m NOT saying that if you take out midi-chlorians, the film works, because that would just be crazy talk. But since the problems with the film are broad and far-reaching, like the Force, it helps to break down the topic to its very core unit of measurement, which is what a midi-chlorian is. I hate that I just used that analogy.
There are other issues with the film too…villains that come and go without any development, convoluted plotlines, confusing character motivations, an over-reliance on computer graphics, poor direction, wooden acting, etc., but at the end of the day, we have since come to learn that it was an issue of understanding expectations. The filmmakers simply gambled on all the wrong things. We didn’t want to see bigger battles, new aliens, faster fights, harder science…we wanted to love our characters. We wanted a blossoming friendship between Obi-Wan and Anakin, a magical adventure, and to feel like kids again as we ventured into another world. Everything else is just an added bonus.
While we didn’t get that from this film, or, to be honest, its two successors, we did learn a lot about franchise filmmaking. Remember, in 1999 the giant-mega-legacy blockbuster wasn’t as commonplace as it is now. There were no MCUs, no Harry Potters, no interconnected universes. Sure, you had James Bond, but that series was so varied it was viewed differently in its own right. Star Wars was the first franchise that was beloved in this way…so in a sense, Episode I was an experiment that, unfortunately, went awry. Now, like any other failure, as admirable as it may be, it offers us an opportunity to learn.
The film taught us a lot about tone, characters, and storytelling. We learned not to take for granted the classics with which we grew up. And we can only hope that Hollywood learned to listen to fans when it came to franchises. We know what we love and why we love it.
“Are you an angel?”
For a more in-depth look at The Phantom Menace, be sure to check out Red Letter Media’s review of the film.
Alex Russo loves Star Wars more than he loves members of his own family. You can read more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.