Friday, February 10, 2012

Prequel Apologist Episode I: The Phantom Menace

"It's the one non-cynical spot in our culture at this point. It's not a cynical look at the world; it's not mean-spirited; it's not trying to tear anything down. The critics have all said it's corny, it's old fashioned, it's naive. But that's what attracts people to it, you know? They want something just...pleasant...It says, basically, we're all good. We have a choice."
--George Lucas, 1999.

The hate for the prequels is so loud and intense that it's easy to forget that it isn't universal; there's an entire generation of young people whose childhoods were shaped by them. Myself included. For me, and all the other kids on my elementary school playground, the prequels were Star Wars. I discovered the original trilogy just a year or two before the release of Episode I (which is to say, my parents bought me the trilogy VHS box set and I watched it to absolute death), so in my mind, and in the mind of every eight-year old boy I knew, there was no discernible difference between the old and new trilogies, save for the varying use of puppets. So imagine my surprise when, a little less than a decade later, I discovered that, hey, most people, especially those with any sort of voice in the media, actually despise these movies.

And so in the wake of the recent release of Star Wars Episode I in 3D, I submit to you an argument that suggests that Phantom Menace flick isn't as horrible as you think it is. What's this, now? You've never considered that the prequels don't completely suck? George Lucas ruined your childhood, you say? You've purchased several hundred Jar Jar Binks action figures, melted them into a clear orange gel and used said Jar Jar gel to mold an unflattering statue of George Lucas, which you use as a shrine of hatred and place of defecation? And you wish you'd just bought a statue of George Lucas in the first place instead of blowing all that cash on hundreds of Jar Jar toys? Well then you've come to the right place. You know why the prequels are flawed, and after you watched the Red Letter Media reviews (and if you haven't, you should) you think you know why they're terrible. But there's an entire generation of youngins that love these movies, and it's not necessarily based on nostalgia alone. The prequels aren't masterclasses of film-making, but if you go in with the right attitude, you might just come to find that there's actually a lot to like about these wonderfully flawed little movies. There are legitimate reasons for a person to hate these films. There are also legitimate reasons for a person to like them.

So let's get into this. Episode I: The One Everyone Hates.

“Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”

There is almost certainly no point in re-dissecting the shortcomings of Episode I. For one thing, we all know the shortcomings, and second of all, I'll never in all my days be nearly as perceptive (and creepy) a critic as Harry Plinket. The cons of this movie are practically pop culture phenomena unto themselves. So let's concentrate on the pros, here, shall we?

I do have to wonder briefly, before I start defending one of the most controversial and oft-hated film-makers of our times, if I should even bother. Is George Lucas—or rather, the idea, the public perception of George Lucas—so monumental, so unshakable in the minds of the loud majority that it is beyond further examination? There's only so much much you can say to defend an erupting volcano. It spews out lava that burns down houses, and people don't much like their houses getting burnt down. Never mind that the lava itself is actually pretty neat when you step back and study it. 
Okay...that analogy was reaching, I'll grant you. I'm just wondering if the people whose “childhoods have been ruined by the Star Wars prequels” would even listen to anyone daring to suggest otherwise; if they'd bother considering that maybe, in retrospect, the thing that supposedly ruined their childhoods wasn't quite so bad after all. Because, well, my childhood wasn't ruined by the childhood was the prequels. To be sure, it was certainly a lot of other things, but few things stimulated my imagination more than the release of a new Star Wars film. As a kid who liked to draw and write stories, no piece of entertainment was more dense with creativity than Star Wars, and none approached the child-like energy and optimism that surrounded it.

But there was more to it than that; the main reason was that George Lucas spoke my language—the language of eight-year-old boys everywhere. This is the key to his success, and one of things that makes him such an endlessly fascinating film-maker. He knew what stuff I'd find neat: the robots, the aliens, the vast array of planets and ships; and he knew if there had to be any boring talking scenes, then the people doing the talking had better be either super cool aliens, dudes with lightsabers or hot chicks named Padme. If the spirit of Axe Cop could be embodied in a movie, it would be The Phantom Menace; which is to say, if you were to give an eight-year-old boy a 150 million dollar budget to make whatever kind of movie he wanted, it would be this—a bizarre, action-packed imaginative flick with a whacked-out sense of logic and a plot that makes no sense. Frustrating if you're looking for a cohesive narrative, but utterly fascinating as a study of the person who made it.

Of course it's all good fun, too, and the man who made it does, in fact, happen to be smarter than your average eight-year-old. So let's get into specifics here, shall we?

The Good Stuff
The Phantom Menace is almost definitely the worst of the prequels, and for every positive thing about it there seems to be at least three more terrible things that spring up as a result. It's not a movie one can really "gush" about. But there are some under-appreciated elements, so let's get to the good stuff, here.

Wonderfully bizarre secondary characters and planets and stuff
George Lucas has a pretty crazy imagination. The Mos Eisly Cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie is perhaps my favorite scene in any movie ever, sheerly because it's so dense with creative insanity. Puppets! Puppets everywhere! The most amazing you've ever seen! The lack of this kind of creativity, by the way, is why I, and most non-Trekkies, can't stand watching all the Star Trek movies that aren't done by JJ Abrams: Yes, the characters are often "deep" and the stories may be "interesting", but sweet lord in heaven, they are impossible to like visually. It's like everything is drawn by a 14 year old who picked up a HOW 2 DRAW COOL ALIENS book from the library and kind of figured out how to copy the examples. There's just no life to the art design in Star Trek. Every one of those alien "races" just looks like a person, but with slightly bigger ears, or a more jagged brow line, or less hair. Or more hair! Wouldn't that be crazy? Oh and you tell me that this sterile, lifeless ship is built using real scientific principles? Boy, I'm excited! If I wanted poor character design and scientific principles I'd just watch my Chemistry teacher draw stick figures on the blackboard (Z-Z-Z-ZING!).

*Ahem*...anyway, the great thing about George and his team of artists is that they're not only able to come up with aliens that look completely unlike any you've ever seen before, but they actually think about how these aliens' physical attributes would affect their survival. Which is to say, they put them in equally stylish environments that actually play off of the character's visual style. That Jar Jar Binks character that you hate? He's actually a pretty cool alien, when you think about it. At first you think he's just a big talking rabbit with floppy ears, snail eyes and a platypus snout. But then it turns out those ears aren't just used for hearing--they're used like big flippers to help him swim underwater. Hey, that's pretty neat! And he swims under water why? Because he lives in a really interesting underwater city that has a gorgeous, translucent-jellyfish architectural design motifs. And wouldn't those big, vertically-hoisted, snail eyes be kind of helpful for peaking above the water's surface like a submarine? And hey, platypi live underwater, and they have snouts like that, too! That's like, super harmonious design when you think about it.

I like the aliens and planets and ships and stuff, is what I'm saying. And the great thing about The Phantom Menace is that we get to see a lot of those things. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, it's very much a thrilling, Star Wars-y ride. We get to see a shiny spaceship filled with funny pastiches of your generic "alien" creatures, hilariously inept robots that the Jedi cut through like butter, an even cooler spaceship, the grassy forest of Naboo, an amazingly realized underwater city filled with humorously bizarre underwater aliens, an even cooler ship (that's technically a submarine, but whatever), some frightening fish monsters, and an italian-inspired regal city. That'd be a lot of locations for an entire trilogy of movies. We get all that stuff in less than half an hour.

What's really impressive about all these locations is that they're ones we haven't seen before. It would have been easy for Lucas to just take us to places from the previous movies only this time in the past, but he went above and beyond, realizing that part of the fun of Star Wars is discovering fantastical new places. Amazingly, when he does take us to a planet we've been before, we get to see new parts of it. We all remember the dessert plains of Tattooine and its bustling marketplace of Mos Eisly, but we never got to see its totally awesome podrace track before, or its junkyard run by a funny flying ant-eater guy. As Roger Ebert once noted, "Lucas isn't just taking us to new places. He's taking us to new kinds of places." So when it came to creating a dense universe that felt creative, lived-in and exciting, Lucas unquestionably succeeded.

Different, yet the same
When Obi Wan shows Luke a lightsaber in A New Hope for the first time, ol' Ben describes it as "A civilized weapon from a more civilized time," and with that one line, George Lucas ended up setting the tone for the entire prequel saga. Whereas the original trilogy was gritty and dirty and "real", the world of the prequels is more shiny, clean and sterile. Maybe that's why you hate these movies, but it was a mostly intentional choice, and the catch-all, "CGI made everything boring" argument isn't necessarily true. What's interesting about the Star Wars movies, to me at least, is that it would appear that, in the Star Wars universe, the further back in time you go, the more advanced technology gets. You already knew this because you've seen the "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." intro five thousand times and wondered how this "past" technology is more advanced than ours, but you might not have thought about the fact that the prequels take place in an even longer time ago, and somehow the technology is more advanced than even the original trilogy. I'm not saying I have some grand theory as to why this is. It just makes the movies more interesting to watch when I think about this stuff.

You're probably noticing that a lot of the things I like about this movie have to do with purely eye candy, and you're not wrong. But this is particularly nuanced, meticulous and creative eye-candy, and the fact that it's not just recycled, spruced-up eye-candy from the original trilogy is impressive to me, especially in the current Hollywood, sequel/reboot-crazy climate. That goes for the costume design, too, which many say is over-the-top. I say, "why shouldn't it be over the top?" Sing the praises of the original trilogy if you must, but they were not known for their subtlety (especially where dialogue is concerned, but we'll get back to that later). Costume design is an under-appreciated aspect of movie-making anyhow, but this is especially the case in the prequel films. Most just see Queen Amidala's crazy hair and outfits and write them off because they're "strange," but few stop and think about how effectively such design choices let the audience know, without words, that this film takes place in an entirely different, more regal era than the other Star Wars movies. Just calling it "weird for weirdness' sake" is unfair--that's the kind of stuff Star Trek does. There's a real symmetry and sense of purpose behind all the hair styles and clothing in this movie--the fact that Obi Wan has that braid, for example, means that he's a padawan learner. This attention to detail in every aspect of the presentation is not typical. It's a cut above most space operas and Hollywood fantasies in general.

The action scenes are a lot of fun...well sort of.
So you've read that and thought to yourself, "What exactly does 'a lot of fun' mean? Isn't that kind of subjective? That's pretty weak criticism there, Mr. Whatever Internet Blogger!" and first of all, thank you for calling me by my preferred title. Second of all, you're kinda right: whether or not you find these action sequences "fun" does, in fact, depend a lot upon your personal opinion and feelings about what "fun" means. The action scenes in the original Star Wars are for the most part well-choreographed and tautly paced, but most of their fun comes from the characters and how they interact with each other during these tense, actiony situations. The film makers couldn't sit back and rely on the spectacle alone: without the characters, those were just scenes with guys in weird costumes and stop-motion toy robots. The Phantom Menace, unfortunately, could sit back and rely on the spectacle. It does this pretty much, well, all the time. The reason why we're bored by the parts of this movie where characters stop and talk is because we don't really care about who these characters are and what they're talking about. Trade dispute? Viceroys? Mini-Delorians? Huuuuuhhh???

Ah, but when the action does kick in, does it ever work well. This is in the Pro's column, after all. Red Letter Media commented on the over-abundance of Lightsabers in the prequels, and how the liberal use of them diminishes the dramatic effect they had in the original films. On this I disagree somewhat. Yes, in the original trilogy the use of a Lightsaber typically marked the climax of a dramatic action scene...but in the original trilogy, there also just weren't a ton of Lightsabers that, like, existed. The whole point of this prequel trilogy is to show the Star Wars universe in a past setting, and in the Star Wars universe's past, there was a time when Lightsabers were quite abundant. In the making-of documentary for Phantom, Lucas said that with the fighting in this movie, he wanted to showcase the "height of the Jedi." He notes that in the original trilogy, the only people using Lightsabers were either old, or inexperienced, and so he hoped to show in the prequels that in their heyday, the Jedi were incredibly well-tuned fighters. Which is to say that in the prequels, the lightsabers aren't used just for the heck of it, because Lucas didn't have any "good" ideas. They're used because they give us a certain amount of depth to the Star Wars universe, allowing us to get a sense of how far things had changed by the time the events of A New Hope came around. Not to mention it would be odd if, with all these hundreds of Jedis roaming around, they never whipped out their lightsabers. And of course, speaking of effective action sequences, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Pod Race sequence, which ranks amongst the most thrilling, personality-filled scenes in the entire Star Wars saga. A perfect blend of pacing, humor,visuals and sound design, the Pod Race scene is worth the price of admission alone.

And so
Seeing the midnight showing of Star Wars: Episode I [THREE DEE] was an odd experience. For one thing, it's a strange thing to go into the theater knowing exactly what's going to happen, and to whom, and when, and why; part of the fun of a midnight screening is getting to experience a brand new movie and react to it with a huge group of people; when you go into a movie that the entire audience has seen dozens of times, the whole "spontaneous reaction" part is lost. But the main thing that struck me at this screening was how utterly different this film is than anything than anything on the big screen right now, or that has been on the big screen since, well, Star Wars ended. This sort of giddily optimistic, naive, action-serial epic with meticulously designed visuals and a child-like sense of wonder is all-too uncommon these days. Yes, the plot is often incoherent, the acting often lifeless (with, in hindsight, the surprising exception of Jake Lloyd. In the midst of all these stuffy adults, Jake's enthusiastic delivery is a huge relief) and the characters, at this point in the timeline, are too undefined for us to care about them fully. Perhaps its unreasonable to brush those things aside, but for the duration of the screening, I was disarmed of my cynicism and completely sucked into George Lucas' boyishly idealistic action romp. Try and go into this movie as an eight year old, wanting to nothing more than to be swept up in a sea of colorful imagination. You might be surprised at how much you don't hate it.

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