I love Star Wars. I grew up with it. It was in my family blood. My brother was 6 when the original Star Wars broke the theaters in 1977. My sister was 5 when The Empire Strikes Back came out. And when the original trilogy was re-released in the early 1990′s (and subsequently the Special Editions), I was barely 10 years old, so yes, I’m the perfect demographic to be a Star Wars fan. That being said, we all know what happened in 1999:
Now, that being said, let’s just get it out of the way, you can debate it later: ‘George Lucas is a bad director.’ There, I said it. I’ll state why and you can debate it yourself (although the prequels should provide enough evidence). There’s a difference between storytelling, screenwriting, authoring, poetry, YouTube ‘sensations’, and filmmaking. Case in point, the outlandish lashing that filmmakers get when they change something or alter something about a comic book character or storyline. See: Iron Man 3′s Mandarin, X-Men:First Class’ Sebastian Shaw, and the more cynical depiction of Superman in Man of Steel. The same can be said about novels that inspire movies. They are often disappointments or certain plot points or characters are changed. There are various reasons and a wide range of outcomes from these types of movies. But the point is that the medium is different. The flowery depiction of an old storefront in a novel can bring about a huge appreciation and emotion for a reader. The same storefront placed on a movie screen simply does not (unless we’re talking about the Harry Potter movies, but that was fantasy borne closer to reality on a screen). Quite simply, things have to be altered when a certain piece of literature or storyline is depicted on screen.
Now, I’m not wholly discrediting George Lucas as a filmmaker or calling him a fraud. We all know, like few others, that he can reach the youthful innocence and belief in heroes with his imagination and creativity. But that is more storytelling than it is filmmaking. If George Lucas was speaking to a bunch of Star Wars fans, describing the basic plot of the prequels:
“Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan find Anakin on the way back from a mission that rescued a Queen, and Anakin helps them fix their ship. Eventually, after Anakin is met with skepticism from the Jedi Council, the two Jedi accompany the Queen back to Naboo and defeat the ‘bad guys’ with more help from the young talented and soon-to-be Jedi Knight, Anakin Skywalker.”
Sounds solid. All the elements of a space opera/fantasy genre piece that Star Wars has defined. Hero from an innocent background, somewhat of an outsider. Young Obi-Wan. Wise old wizard. Rescue of the female protagonist and warrior princess. A then-Senator Palpatine. All these things, as elements of a story and storyline, sound very good. But that story has to be turned into a film. A film that is to be enjoyed by general audiences, just as the originals were. And that is where George Lucas, the filmmaker, fails. He fails in thinking that certain characters that are described as ‘young’ should be 11 on the assumption that the 7 to 10 year old demographic won’t put a teenage Anakin Skywalker on their wall or T-shirt. Dumb assumption. My nephews followed the Jonas Brothers for christ sakes. Then there’s Jar-Jar Binks. No filmmaker not named Michael Bay, let me repeat, MICHAEL BAY, would put Jar-Jar Binks on screen for a general audience. When a filmmaker shows the judgment that Michael Bay does, that’s an indictment on them. Don’t get me wrong, Bad Boys and Transformers are two of my favorite films, but whenever Bay tries to duplicate that success, well, we know the results. And Lucas is no different.
I won’t get on a soapbox on how Episode I should have been written or what should have happened in it, blah blah blah. Everybody would love the chance to write 6 hours of Star Wars script. I’d much prefer to work with the story, as much as possible, that came from the creative genius storyteller like George Lucas. Therefore, the correct question is: ‘If you were hired by Lucasfilm to make the best possible movie, what would have you advocated for in production discussions with George Lucas?’ In other words, what would you have tried to change about the production of Episode I out of the storyline that George Lucas provided? Of course things can change. But let’s leave the main architect, our sometimes hero, George Lucas, in place as the storyteller. Now its our job to take that story and make it a compelling movie for young and old alike. On to the saving of the Phantom Menace!
Oddly enough, I still think that the Episode I: The Phantom Menace is probably the easiest to fix of all the prequels. Cynically, it really just starts with: ‘George, don’t be racist.’ Sounds harsh, I know. But honestly, raise Jar-Jar Binks’ IQ about 60 points and diversify the ‘Trade Federation’, and the movie is probably a very good movie. But I’ll leave the race issue alone.
I think we can all agree that the entire first 20 or so minutes of Phantom Menace are useless. George Lucas appeared to use this time just to give the audience a lesson into what Jedi do or can do when faced with toy soldiers. Well, that’s not the point, George. The Jedi are heroes. And like other heroes, their body of work speaks for itself at the end of the movie. Tony Stark isn’t Iron Man in the first half of that movie. We don’t really see an Autobot for about half hour into Transformers. Bottom line, they’re Jedi, we get it, they’re the heroes. The only significant things that happen are that we are introduced to the Trade Federation, who act stupidly and we’re not really given an explanation as to who the Trade Federation actually is. Are they a bureaucracy run wild, like the NSA? Are they a chartered private security force that run or protect trade routes and thus have a lot of power around the fate of Outer Rim economies? The only other things that happen is the discovery of Jar Jar Binks and a stupid one-liner from Qui-Gon: “There’s always a bigger fish.” Yeah, thank’s Jinn, I got that from the freaking TITLE OF THE MOVIE.
So, first, I would have edited that entire beginning out and started exactly where the 1977 classic began: The female protagonist attempting to escape from the bad guys in her spaceship. Except, of course, this time she is able to get away, with help from Artoo Detoo. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon could help too, somehow. Pretty simple.
The second change, or addition rather, is to show a scene that relays to the audience the strained relationship between the human population of Naboo and the Gungans, namely, Jar Jar Binks. A short scene that shows human crew members of Amidala’s ship verbally abusing Jar Jar, calling him ‘and his kind a bunch of thieving scoundrels and primitives’. And here’s an opportunity to introduce the level-headed, wise and just man that we all know Obi-Wan Kenobi was at a young age. Obi-Wan would enter the room and remind the crew that Jar Jar is the one who led Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon into the capital to save the Queen. Thereby, introducing Jar Jar’s history and the Gungan’s strained relationship with the human Naboo.
Now, lucky number three, let’s just kill this:
Make him older. Period. The problem with using a 10 or 11 year old actor is, there aren’t many good 10 year old actors, period. No matter what, you’re finding a diamond in the rough. And it seems that Lucas didn’t want to use a 12 or 13 year old actor to play his 10 year old whine-fest. Perhaps, as some think, Lucas just wanted to lock in the 7-10 year old demographic for all time. As said before, you’re not going to lose that demographic with a 14 or 15 year old main character, who adults would be able to relate to. An adult better understands the talent and frustration that a teenager can show from one moment to another. It would also make the relationship between the two teenagers a bit more believable and inevitable. On a more practical filmmaking level, its more probable to find a good young actor with likely more experience than to find a talented ten year old. Anakin should have been an older character for both practical and story purposes.
From the point where they land on Tatooine, I personally think the movie was fine. We all were impressed with the level of visual effects and sound that was demonstrated by ILM for the podrace scene. The only major other suggestions that I have for The Phantom Menace deal with See-Threepio and the Trade Federation. I would want a clarification on what exactly the Trade Federation is. If they are an overreaching bureaucracy, which, in 1999 probably wouldn’t have been a hugely interesting issue like it may be today, then say so. Clearly state that the Trade Federation and its Viceroy are government officers just trying to enforce their will. Personally, the Viceroy, considering he’s brought back in the subsequent 2 movies, should be the only one that knows of the ‘deal’ with the Sith. Wouldn’t somebody else on that ship, or in the entire Trade Federation, be kind of freaked out and whistleblow on this shady backroom deal that’s falling apart before their eyes with Jedi and Gungans running around attacking them as they try and abduct a Queen and invade a planet? Or are all the characters just that stupid?
However, if the Viceroy was making the back-room deal alone, only talking to Darth Sidious in a dark room, then it would define the Viceroy character as a seedy, power-hungry scumbag who is still getting played by a more insidious (hehe) character (the phantom menace if you will).
OK, enough with the puns and references. Speaking of references, See-Threepio was envisioned as an English butler. Well, that’s exactly what he should be. Threepio, as per my suggestion, should be a butler-translator-protocol droid working in Amidala’s quarters on Coruscant. As others have pointed out, why would a slave need a protocol droid that is trained in etiquette? That’s dumb. But a translator introducing a diplomat or political figure to the Senate on Coruscant, then learning the Gungan language from Jar Jar, thus getting him an invitation by Amidala to come back to Naboo and help translate between the two forces. Smart move, Amidala!
And that mere fact is basically what is needed to make Episode I: The Phantom Menace a way better movie. Just be smarter and know that you’re audience is smarter. Assume the audience is mature enough not to laugh at poop jokes. Poop jokes weren’t in the original trilogy. Too bad Lucas didn’t consider that.