Ok ok, so you saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and now George Lucas sits down to film Episode II. And you’re sitting there, trying to get George Lucas to take what is a shallow and reference filled cartoonish script to the camera lens and make a successful second prequel film. What do you see in the script. You see Anakin Skywalker, our supposed hero who will eventually be placed in the unenviable position to make a decision that will doom a galaxy into darkness for 25+ years, until Skywalker’s son, Luke, helps him redeem himself by demonstrating the bond of family and the challenges it must face. Ok, that was pretty cheesy, but we’re not here debating what was going through Darth Vader’s mind as his son was getting electrocuted by organic lightning. We’re debating on how to depict our hero, Anakin Skywalker, in an adventure that will demonstrate: (1) How engrained and powerful Palpatine/Darth Sidious is in the galactic government, (2) the flaws in Anakin’s character that are ultimately understandable and more importantly, human, and (3) what the hell the ‘Clone Wars’ actually were.
What is interesting is that, while we all hate Phantom Menace because its the moment that we realize: “I have a bad feeling about this”, I honestly think that Attack of the Clones was a worse movie, cinematically speaking. Its a tougher task to take Lucas’ cheesy script and turn it into something that would be loved by all audiences, and not just the ones watching on a video player with a remote ready to skip every single scene with Natalie Portman and Hayden Christiansen. Anyway, we’ll have time enough to replay the “I hate sand” moment in our heads. Let’s get to making the movie that George Lucas would have written, and we would have filmed….and how freaking far away from one another those two works would be.
Anyway, after you yell at George Lucas after reading his final draft, or first draft, or even if he had a damn draft of the script, let’s get to saving a movie that somehow is supposed to incorporate a hero in Anakin, a love story, a Fett, a clone army, another Christopher Lee villain and Palpatine’s behind-the-scenes evil genius.
The movie starts off logically, explaining Padme’s opposition to a civil war and militarization. Of course, its a complete mystery to us as to who is actually pushing for war in the Galactic Senate. Palpatine is portraying a pretty passive Chancellor, not really pushing back against the ‘Pacifists’ led by Padme and Bail Organa. If there was actually an antagonist in the galactic government, we’d be more emotionally involved in what Padme is trying to stave off. I mean, really, what is assasinating Padme going to accomplish? The senate is barely acting as it is. There’s just no weight to that conference scene with the Jedi and Palpatine. Count Dooku, who we’re supposed to be afraid of, is mentioned in passing in exposition dialogue with no rhythm and no importance. We have no idea of who we’re really supposed to fear. ‘Civil war’ is a construct that doesn’t really work unless we get a glimpse of it. That’s what Dooku is supposed to be. So how about actually showing Dooku in that scene? Whether by hologram or in-person, actually discussing peace or conflict with his former Jedi colleagues and Palpatine. If Christopher Lee is going to bring anything to the table, let him be that evil son-of-a-gun in the opening scene. A perfect cynical and semi-sarcastic line to Padme about:
“My deepest sincere condolences to you, Senator, for your obviously terrible loss, if there is anything that the Seperatists can do for you…”
in the best Christopher Lee snark….oh man, that is way better than: “Oh yeah, he used to be a Jedi, so, um, I guess he’s not a murderer, or something”. It would be a nice addition to a scene that ultimately adds nothing to any character or plot or any damn thing. Speaking of characters, aren’t we also supposed to be enthralled with the Not-Quite-Boba Fett but Still-Referencing-Boba Fett character? If Jango Fett is this incredibly impressive bad ass, why the hell is sub-contracting a hugely important political assassination to another hapless bounty hunter ? To be blunt, NO FETT SUB-CONTRACTS ANOTHER BOUNTY HUNTER ON HIS BOUNTY CONTRACT. Seriously, just have him punch something pretty, like a galactic cosmetic ad, when he realizes there was a decoy. That’s the freaking Fett we deserve.
So, to sum up the first 5 minutes of the movie, there are two major changes: (1) Show Count Dooku in all his snarky glory and (2) JANGO FETT DOESN’T SHARE HIS BOUNTY WITH A SUB-CONTRACTED HAPLESS BOUNTY HUNTER (yes, the caps button is necessary). Now, on to the entrance of the love story……hope you’re still there.
I’m not a screenwriter, and I’m pretty damn sure you’re not either. But, for the sake of sanity, just say that somebody wrote a better script for Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman here. Still, how stupid is Padme? Yeah, we’re trying to be safe, but let’s go and investigate what’s going on with your family back on Tatooine, the backwoods of the galaxy run by gangsters. No, we’re not forced to do it, we’re just going to go there because Anakin hates sand. I can’t even…..just….good lord. But whatever, keeping with the theme that Anakin’s past is sure to determine his choices in the future, or whatever goodie goodie plotline George Lucas sets up here, let’s try to get them to Tatooine. And let’s make Anakin be somewhat necessary on this ‘super secret escape from the public eye to somewhere safe’ for Padme.
One of the not so disastrous lines from Anakin in this movie is his explanation and rationale about love and compassion and how it relates to being a Jedi. Its actually a beautiful rationale and contradiction regarding Jedi teaching, and something that definitely serves the narrative of Anakin’s story. Love is forbidden but compassion is essential. That is an interesting concept. Therefore, let’s keep that exchange on the refugee transport and scrap everything that happens on Naboo. Screw Naboo. Its a stupid planet of pacifists that fell prey to electing Palpatine to the office of senator who played them to the very end. ‘LOL’ to that. But if Anakin, a powerful Jedi hero, is really required to have on this super secret mission to smuggle Padme out of the capital, let’s have him actually save Padme from something.
I propose an assassination plot by two lowly, starving and desperate refugees who recognize Senator Amidala on the refugee boat. If Anakin will be pissed at somebody, let him be pissed at the downtrodden refugees, who try to kill the love of his life. So insert a short action scene where Anakin has to improvise and get Padme off the refugee transport and into a smaller transport, without a hyperdrive, so that they have to land somewhere safe. Is it a repetitive plot mechanism? Yeah, but we avoid the sand line. And we must, for we value our sanity. We also show Anakin as a capable Jedi – something that George Lucas apparently forgot to do in this movie. So yadda yadda, they get off the refugee ship and have to travel – cautiously – to Tatooine to hide Padme.
So we successfully get Anakin to where he doesn’t want to be, confronting a good family who just lost his mother to a bunch of Tusken Raiders. He tracks them down, kills a bunch of them BEFORE getting to his mother’s side, where she dies in his arms. Them’s the shakes, kid. And if George still wants to film that scene where Padme shrugs off Anakin’s complete admission to the genocide of a tribe, then we put Jack Daniels in his coffee and tell him to take a freaking nap. Some pacifist senator Padme turns out to be. Marrying a Jedi who is also an admitted genocidal maniac. Yes, I’m taking that scene out. An emotional scene at his mother’s grave is all that is needed here. Written better, it will set the tone for Anakin’s frustration going forward. Let’s just take that writing out of George’s hands.
Oh, what’s that you say? The actual real action of the movie is about Obi-Wan and Jango Fett? Yes. It is. And thank god. Let’s get to that. Let’s get to JANGO FETT being chased through the streets of Coruscant by a Jedi apprentice and his master. Because seriously, Jango Fett ain’t getting caught because he’s a bad ass. But, alas, he loses a blaster which Obi-Wan is able to trace back to Kamino. How he does it is not important. He gets there and gets an explanation that is never actually explained by George Lucas save a mini-story arc in the last season of the Clone Wars television series.
I sincerely to apologize to the writers and talented people who worked on the Clone Wars, it really was a better depiction of Anakin than what George Lucas threw at us in the prequels – but I’m scrapping the entire Sifo-Dyas character. Its just a name to separate Dooku and Palpatine from the creation of the Clones. Palpatine would be deposed for going behind the back of the Senate and the Senate wouldn’t have used clones ordered by Count Dooku against him in a war (or maybe with George Lucas’ logic circuits, they would, can’t be too sure).
So we have a hole to fill. Actually we have two holes to fill. An actual opposition for Padme’s pacifists in the Senate, and a buffer agent between Darth Sidious/Palpatine/Dooku and the creation of the clones. Let’s fill both holes with somebody. Eh, what the hell, let’s do the Lucas thing and shoehorn somebody in there. Somebody with the guile to order a whole army behind the Senate’s back but somebody who Palpatine can credibly blame it on. How about somebody in the Senate or the galactic government who would take a hard line on security issues? Somebody like…..THIS GUY:
Seriously. Tarkin’s a psychotic nationalist neoconservative, ‘might is right’ type dude who would definitely try to go behind the Senate’s back to create an army because Tarkin crushes threats before Darth Vader even takes a look at them. He’s the boss. He held Vader’s leash. Put this freaking dude in charge of something. Maybe he’s a senator, maybe he’s some sort of security advisor or minister of security or something. Maybe he’s informed by Darth Sidious or not, but either way, Tarkin orders the clones, Palpatine is free to use them to defend the Galactic Senate but has to put Tarkin away in jail, laughing all the way. So that when he’s in charge of everything in Episode IV, you know this dude means business. And that feigned deal with Princess Leia over the fate of Alderran….BWAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA, you don’t know who this Tarkin dude is. He’s blowing up your planet because his alarm clock was one decibel too loud, and maybe the Star Wars Galaxy’s version of the Spice Girls are from Alderran. Either way, introduce Tarkin as the voice that’s telling the numbskull Jedi and Padme’s pacifists that they’re idiots from the very beginning. And no, I don’t care that the damn cloners can’t speed up the growth of the clones that fast. But apparently they can put pre-determined orders in their head and completely make them into docile cannon fodder? So yeah, we’re going to shoehorn in the Grand Moff into this to at least give us some notion about how much power Palpatine really has, either manipulating behind-the-scenes or putting the pieces in place to rule the damn galaxy.
So decent things happen after that exposition about Tarkin ordering the clones. Decent scenes between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett, an ok script saved by pretty good actors playing off one another. The only not-so-decent thing is Boba Fett being a clone. Just….no. Boba Fett is the illegitimate child of Jango Fett and one of Jango Fett’s numerous galactic hookers. Because its that kind of outlaw that’s going to disintegrate people and not care what Darth Vader’s trying to do to Luke Skywalker, he just wants his damn bounty. Other than that, we’re good up until that horrible, last minute factory scene added by George Lucas after wrapping up filming. I just wonder what the hell Hayden and Natalie were thinking when they got that email that said they have to return to the set to run away from a bunch of blue blocks.
Get rid of that damn cartoon. I’m not saying get rid of that particular plot device, just that factory. Just have Anakin and Padme run through the caverns of Geonosis, killing termites until, here comes that man, Jango Fett, grabbing Padme, putting a blaster to her head and saying: “Cut the bullshit”. OK Ok ok, maybe not that. But what will get Anakin, this powerful young brash Jedi, to immediately drop his lightsaber? Threatening Padme like only a Mandalorian can? Oh yes. Oh yes. And will Anakin somehow come full circle to this later on? YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT HE WILL!!! So Jango Fett arrives to the slaughter of his termite brethren and catches Padme, thereby persuading Anakin to accept capture, without the cartoonish crap in the factory. And without R2-D2 flying around like a weather balloon.
So what’s left to change from here on out? Unfortunately, A WHOLE DAMN LOT. Everybody has questions about the last act of Attack of Clones. From the uselessness of the Jedi, to Yoda fighting, to the Death Star plans that apparently have seen more hands than a Red Hook hooker. So let’s take a breath and tackle this hodgepodge of Jedi, termites and droids. <Insert ‘Let the Battle Begin Cliche here>
So, yeah, there’s a gladiator type scene that gets interrupted by Sammy L. Jackson threatening to cut Jango Fett’s head off. Dumb because Dooku has no reason to care about Jango and Jedi probably shouldn’t do those types of things. But its Samuel L. Jackson, so its cool. But let’s visit the Jango Fett-Mace Windu thing.
SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME WHAT JANGO FETT WAS THINKING WHEN HE ENTERED THIS BATTLE FOR NO REASON?!?!?!?!
Ok, now that that is off my chest, do you remember that whole, Jango threatening Padme thing? Well, Anakin doesn’t forget that when the battle begins. He gets a lightsaber and goes full tilt on catching the fleeing Separatist leaders. Cutting down termites, droids, Trade Federation lackeys, and whatever else with Obi-Wan, both of them pursuing Dooku and Jango Fett through the tunnels of Geonosis. At some point, Dooku tells Jango to slow them down. And, boy, is it on. Anakin and Jango confront each other. Anakin’s rage about Jango’s previous capture of Padme makes this an intense fight. As good as Jango is, he can’t face down an enraged, soon-to-be Darth Vader, and well, he loses his head. But as you imagine that fight taking place, we’ll have to cut to the Dooku-Obi-Wan showdown with concerned Yoda patiently commanding the battle. Obi-Wan, our hero counterpart, is not the swashbuckling Jedi that Anakin or Mace Windu is. Dooku takes care of him and tries to drop a column on him, but that column is held up by a shadowy minature figure in the corner. The H.N.I.C. of the Force himself, Yoda. Yeah, Dooku will try to force lightning him into oblivion, but Yoda is too good for that. He deflects it, all while still holding up the column, forcing Dooku to block the powerful counter-attack from the indomitable Yoda. Dooku, coming out of his amazement with Yoda’s power, and with a Christopher Lee smirk and glance at the heavy column, Dooku puts away his lightsaber and retreats to his now-ready ship, escaping, as Yoda calmly places the column down next to an injured Obi-Wan.
Dooku’s ship flies away, past a recovering Anakin, revealing a scene where Anakin notices his fallen opponent’s head, being lifted by Jango’s young son, Boba Fett. Anakin is reminded about his own upbringing on Tatooine, without a father, taken from his mother 5 or 6 years ago, and knowing how it is to lose a parent. All this, foreshadowing what will befall the galaxy.
The epilogue will proceed as it did, with one difference. Padme and Anakin won’t be on some secret honeymoon masquerading as a trip home for Padme. As two young leaders in the Republic capital, they have something to do. Something that will reinforce Anakin as the soon-to-be fallen angel. Padme and Anakin drop off the young and begrudging Boba Fett at an orphanage. Padme trying to reassure Anakin that Boba Fett will be cared for, just as Padme kisses and embraces him as their speeder lifts off the ground and into the Coruscant horizon.
And now you know why I have previously said that The Phantom Menace was probably an easier film to fix. Boy is my saber-hand tired.
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.