Here’s a humorous 70 minute video review analyzing why Star Wars: The Phantom Menace didn’t work as film-making. (Don’t worry; it’s broken down into 10 minute chunks).
The review is sarcastic/silly/vulgar, but the critiques are valid: the film has no protagonist; the plot is too complicated, the Jedi’s powers are too unclear and arbitrary, there’s too much eye candy and the ending is too disjointed. (Also, he pointed out a lot of logical inconsistencies). I enjoyed the critique, but ultimately it did not dissuade me. Star Wars Phantom Menace wasn’t a disaster; although the plot was arcane and ridiculous, I had no problems following it and even enjoyed some plot tricks (like Queen Amidala’s switching places with her servant). The mistake the critic makes is that stories need to have one plot line (see Lost), that characters need to be individualized and that spectacle is intrinsically unsatisfying. The story is a good comic book adventure; I guess the film suffers from unrealistic expectations; I think Lucas aspires mainly to make an enjoyable and escapist B movie.
One problem is that it is a big budget film and needs to deliver the goods (visually speaking). If Lucas had aimed for something on a smaller budget but with more episodes, you wouldn’t face the pressure of having to make the good vs. evil struggle seem so portentous (and a Jar Jar misstep seem too fatal). But the Star Wars franchise aspires to be larger than life; Lucas Arts was paid precisely to make something that looked amazing on the big screen.
Let me refute a common complaint that Lucas’s dialogue was wooden. Not on your life! The dialogue is functional and sometimes overly formal, but that is the film’s style. (In fact, Jar Jar serves as a good counterweight to the overly formal conversational style). When watching Revenge of the Sith, I was reminded at several times of moments from Greek tragedy; The dialogue of Greek tragedy was kind of wooden too by the way, but no one seemed to notice ….
The two objections which linger with the overall Star Wars franchise is 1)there are too many characters onscreen at once, so there is little focus and 2)too much fighting! The film only knows how to create dramatic tension with fight scenes.
But if you examine both complaints, there are answers. First, Star Wars provides enough back story for audience members to follow these characters pretty easily. Second, these three films are about fighting and the struggle between good and evil. It is like criticizing the movie Platoon for having too much blood in it.
Actually my complaint with these swashbuckling films is that violence is not presented in a realistic enough manner. Nobody really dies; injuries always seem to be nothing more than flesh wounds and very rarely do we see people retreating or avoiding conflict. The first step to prevailing is to stay alive, and repeated engagement doesn’t seem to be a successful long-term strategy.
Lucas wants to immerse you in the middle of armed conflict. That’s fine. I wish that the stakes for his franchise didn’t have to be so high; a TV series is much better at presenting a series of incidents which reveal character. That’s one thing the show Lost does admirably. It builds upon individual conflicts until we reach some kind of climax at the end of season. One of my favorite Lost episodes is when Hurley discovers a Volkwagon minivan and tries to get it to work; there’s another episode about the survivors fighting over the Dharma rations. Totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but also fun. Unfortunately the Star Wars episodes are never allowed to have much fun (except perhaps the pod races).
I can’t find the URL, but one person wrote to Roger Ebert to complain that the problem with Phantom Menace is that there is no Hans Solo character. In other words, if the film had a character who didn’t take himself seriously or seemed to enjoy the adventure for its own sake, the film would be more of a success. As I said, Jar Jar sort of fulfills that role. But that criticism is not altogether fair. In the Star Wars universe, characters have a dramatic seriousness and rarely have simple aspirations. If you enter the Star Wars universe, you just have to accept that. Compare this to Star Trek which has just as much back story and mythology and yet does not get bogged down in melodrama (but has too much time travel, a common cliche these days).
One of my favorite sci fi series is Red Dwarf, a goofy satire on sci fi in general. Leave aside the show’s satirical aspects, I just loved the smallness of each show’s plot. Basically, the writers had to come up with conflicts which three ragtag characters could deal with. That constrained the plot possibilities (a good thing). The problem with Star Wars is that it is too big. Wouldn’t it be good to limit the scope of the action to one character?
A final point about character. The Star Wars critic makes a big deal out of the fact that characters in the Phantom Menace are not memorable. Fair enough. But even in sci fi TV series, characters start out flat and then grow over time. In Red Dwarf, Rimmer starts out as a coward (and basically remains one). But through the seasons we learn more about why he became a coward and how his cowardice manifests itself. Entire episodes are devoted to elaborating on a single personality quirk. Unfortunately, Star Wars works on a larger canvas and feels compelled to address larger social issues of justice and vengeance and evil…at the expense of exploring individual lives.
The problem with Star Wars (and alas, with Greek drama) is mythology. Mythology isn’t particularly entertaining; it doesn’t allow much definition of individuals. This magical/mythical/touchy-feely nonsense which infects the Lost/Heroes/Buffy/Angel universes (but NOT necessarily Star Trek) makes it easy to forget about characters and real life. Instead, we have to worry about the internal consistencies of the Force/vampires/Unobtainium/time travel and not really think about the significance of what we are watching. Red Dwarf comes closer to doing that because it asks existential questions: how will humans respond to millenial and technological loneliness? (The Answer: by watching old movies, bossing around robots and cultivating petty obsessions).
I love the Star Wars franchise – if only for nostalgic reasons. But at some point I have to wonder if a livelier film couldn’t have been made for a fraction of Phantom Menace’s budget…and LucasArts wouldn’t have to obsess over creating dramatic masterpieces and just make it easy to explore an alternate world with different rules and conflicts.