Monday, April 5, 2021

How I Would Have Done STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Although the film podcast Myopia Movies covered Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith awhile ago — listen if you want to see my fan-rage in all its glory — we didn’t critique earlier prequels. So at the request of regular guest Evan, we did an episode on Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Although I remember liking it when it came out (I was at the very tail end of eighth grade), watching it again I see why it got mocked. Daniel recommended I do another one of my “how I would have done it” write-ups, so here we go…

In General

*Other than Jake Lloyd, the casting is good. However, I’m not sure whether it’s Lloyd, the script, or both, but I don’t really like him as young Anakin Skywalker. I know they’re trying to emphasize the tragedy by depicting one of cinema’s great villains as an adorable little boy who wants to help people, but he comes off too much as a 1990s precocious kid. I would probably go with both — a different actor (and an older one too so it doesn’t, per a podcast colleague, come off like a nine-year-old crushing on his babysitter) and cut dumbest lines like, “This is podracing!”

*Make the Jedi Council more overbearing. This article from shows how one really needs to watch the animated Clone Wars cartoon to really understand why Anakin turned like he did and apparently the show depicts the Council at its worst — mistreating Anakin’s apprentice Ahsoka Tano and refusing to admit fault, jacking Anakin around, etc. However, although the Council in TPM is rather pig-headed and annoying, they’re all bark and no bite. Obi-Wan repeatedly chides Qui-Gon for refusing to follow the Jedi Code, but Qui-Gon has apparently been doing this for years and all the Council does is…not seat him on the Council. After Qui-Gon’s death, Obi-Wan flat-out tells Yoda he’ll train Anakin even if the Council forbids it…and they let him.

Why did Anakin and Padme have to keep their marriage secret if that’s all the Council would do if they got caught? Anakin might have liked the honor of a Council seat, but the bureaucratic stuff would bore him to insanity. If they caught him and decided his punishment would be that he’d never sit on the Jedi Council, he’d probably be relieved they aren’t turning him out onto the street.

It would have been better if the Council were more cultish, Qui-Gon’s relative free-spiritedness is only barely tolerated, and that Obi-Wan is more in line with the Council than with his master. Remove the one influential Jedi who doesn’t have his head up his own ass and have the Jedi marinate in their own nonsense for a decade and by Attack of the Clones, Anakin has very real reason to fear the Council. According to people who know the old Expanded Universe better, Obi-Wan was a martinet who was unduly harsh with Anakin and fond of threatening to kick him out of the Order. This might be in-character for an inexperienced teacher whose first pupil is a gifted but also troubled youth who isn’t much younger than he. Add that Obi-Wan is drinking the Council’s Kool-Aid because his own mentor is no longer around to moderate it and you have a recipe for a not particularly healthy relationship. This would in turn make Anakin more vulnerable to Palpatine’s manipulations, since he’d have a much greater reason to resent the killjoy Jedi Council in general and Obi-Wan in particular.

*Jar-Jar. Episode II shows how a well-meaning but not very smart person could be easily manipulated (he’s the one who convinces everybody to give Palpatine emergency powers), but he’s so annoying. I’d tone down the accent, although the clumsiness and well-meaning ineptitude are a major part of his character and an occasional source of legitimate comedy.

Act One

*When we first come to Naboo and see the Trade Federation blockade, there’re 10-20 carriers, but by the time the final battle rolls around, there’s only one. If Palpatine had ordered the Trade Federation to weaken the blockade and then the heroes pull this amazing come-from-behind victory, they’d never trust Palpatine again and Clone Wars of canon would have never happened. I would depict only two or three, since this is an age of peace and so Naboo simply might only have ten to twenty fighters, the equivalent of a police force. Three military-surplus carriers carrying hundreds of drone fighters can easily blockade the planet. That the Republic can’t slap the Trade Federation down shows how weak the central government is — either their military has withered in the millennium since defeating the Sith or like the United Nations of today it never really had much power of its own to start with.

*More variety of Neimodian accents. I’m not going to complain about them all dressing like Confucian officials, but the fact they all have stereotypical quasi-Chinese accents too? Racism aside, we’re also getting into Planet of Hats territory. An entire species is unlikely to be monocultural, even if there’s a single dominant group. If there was some kind of human space empire today, it might be American-dominated, but you’d see contingents from China, the European Union, etc.

*I had no problem with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Their conversations do a good job depicting their differences in philosophy and illuminating their characters. And when the time comes for fighting, they’re great.

*However on the matter of fighting, Palpatine is supposed to be this mastermind whose convoluted plots turn out just how he likes. Ordering the Jedi killed to prolong the crisis to his own benefit makes sense, but I would imagine he would explicitly order the Trade Federation to make it look like an accident. Although the Trade Federation’s desire not to escalate would explain why they use poison gas in the meeting room rather than go in with guns blazing, it wouldn’t explain why they destroy the Republic cruiser. That’s not just an escalation, that’s an act of war against the galactic government and even a weak one wouldn’t tolerate that. I’d have depicted the poison gas and then then droid attack, but Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have to flee because they simply cannot fight their way back to the cruiser, not because the cruiser’s been destroyed.

*Ditch the elected middle-schooler queen. If Padme is a hereditary monarch it could explain why a 14-year-old is in that position, but nobody in their right mind is going to elect a teenager. Some of the old EU said it was a Naboo custom to involve children in public service from a young age and the downside is they could be manipulated by ill-intentioned adults, but there’s a difference between Padme the legislative page and Padme the chief executive of a planet. I’d have her inherit the throne recently (i.e. still mourning her father or mother) and depict her advisors squabbling among themselves as to whether they should fight the Trade Federation or continue diplomacy. If Padme leans in the peaceful direction due to personal temperament, that would lend weight to the peace faction whose support for a diplomatic solution is more pragmatic (the Trade Federation would crush them) rather than ideological.

*When the Jedi meet Boss Nass, make it clear the Gungans and the Naboo are historical enemies rather than just his resenting the Naboo for (allegedly) thinking they’re smarter. In the novelization, a character (Jar-Jar?) references past fighting and now the Naboo stick to the plains and the Gungans the swamps, something when combined with how widespread humans are in the Star Wars galaxy implied the Naboo are not natives. The Gungans are the indigenous race who, like the Native Americans, have lost most of their lands to outside invaders. That would make Padme’s humbling herself before Boss Nass later and the ending parade much more meaningful. However, I’d make sure it was handled subtly — this is Star Wars, not Dances With Frogs. Maybe I’d just have Boss Nass say something like, “now they-sa know what it’s like” and let the audience figure out the implication.

And while I’m at it, Boss Nass’s verbal tics and Nixonian face-waggling is really annoying.

*A planet core is full of water and monsters? Naboo is pretty normal-looking, so I would imagine there’s a molten core generating a magnetic field and all that. I’d have made it a little more subtle — Boss Nass is sending them through an underwater cave system connecting Otoh Gunga with a lake or river near Theed. There’ll still be the cool monster chases and what-not, but it’s less ridiculous. Bonus points if we see obvious Gungan remains near where the submarine surfaces, further hinting Theed used to belong to them. The queen is rescued and off they go.

Act Two

*I liked the Tatooine connection with the original films, so Padme and the Jedi fleeing there to evade the Trade Federation can stay.

*Having C-3PO being built by a young Anakin was a little too much, given how Star Wars takes place over an entire galaxy. Although this allowed for a well-done moment in one of the comics, it makes the world seem small. Having Anakin build a robot to help his mother shows his technical genius and helpful character, but it doesn’t have to be C-3PO. I’d have had Anakin have built a similar robot, possibly a simpler design a skilled child could manage.

*I’d have tweaked Watto’s design. Someone online reported children seeing the movie called him a “weird little Jew guy with wings.” Although making Watto into a Borscht Belt comedy figure (the constant complaining) might be funny, I’d have ditched the giant nose and later on, the skullcap. Aaron Freedman did say that as a Jew he identified with Watto and this could be given a more positive spin, even though Watto is a minor antagonist given his greed and owning slaves. Maybe just keep the voice and mannerisms?

*The dinner at the Skywalker home and the romantic subtext between Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker were fine. We also get to see Padme’s naivete breaking when she sees that slavery is legal and Watto, who seems to have a bark worse than his bite (the way Anakin argues with him and how the Skywalkers have their own home away from his shop), has surgically implanted bombs in Shmi and Anakin in the event they try to escape. The podracing was generally fine, although per fellow podcaster Daniel that could be tightened up to save time. Reduce the number of racers?

*I would have our heroes making some effort to free Shmi’s too. Even if Qui-Gon doesn’t want to push his luck given how they’re dependent on Watto for the ship parts, perhaps the humanitarian Padme (in her persona as the queen’s representative) offers to trade some of the queen’s wardrobe or jewelry? Watto, however, refuses since slaves are a status symbol in Tatooine society and without slaves he’s just another junk dealer. The naïve Padme tries to make an issue of this, but it’s Shmi who shoos them away and tells the tearful Anakin not to look back.

*The first duel with Maul was pretty cool. I’d have kept it as-is, since Maul is clearly getting the better of Qui-Gon and it foreshadows his eventual defeat. However, it’s a pretty big jump for Qui-Gon to tell the Jedi Council that a Force-using goon with a red lightsaber is a Sith when the Sith are supposedly extinct and there are lesser Dark Side users, fallen Jedi, etc. I’d have thrown in some comments about how he needs to meditate on this or depict him reviewing some of his Jedi books.

*I liked the arrival on Coruscant, especially since this is the first time we see the legendary city-planet outside the Expanded Universe. It’s also a good character moment for Padme, who shows compassion for the lonely Anakin despite the fact her people are suffering vastly worse, and Anakin himself who cares for Padme despite the fact he misses his own mother.

*When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan come before the Council and reveal their suspicions that Darth Maul is a Sith, I’d have the Jedi leadership more skeptical. The conflicts with the Dark Side were long and bloody and it’s an article of faith that the Jedi triumphed, proving the superiority of the Light over the Dark. The possibility the Sith survived is almost heretical. Although they promise Qui-Gon they’ll look into it, it’s more pro forma and they don’t seem to take it particularly seriously. And I’d make “more to say” a bit more sarcastic, although I wouldn’t go so far as to make Yoda a complete asshole. The Jedi are individually good people — it’s the ossified system and their rigid thinking that’s the problem. Qui-Gon represents what the Jedi should be, and it’s a sign of the failing of the late Order that they only tolerate him rather than listen to him. I’d depict Obi-Wan as being torn — he saw Maul getting the better of his master in a way that some random fallen Jedi shouldn’t, but at the same time he has the Council’s rigid mindset and is skeptical of Qui-Gon’s freethinking ways. The Council agrees to see Anakin, but it’s clear they don’t take this seriously.

*I also liked how Palpatine maneuvers Padme into calling a no-confidence vote in Valorum’s leadership. The way they cut to his face when she calls for the vote shows that this is one of his evil plans and it’s falling into place nicely.

*The Council tests Anakin and acknowledges his potential, but rejects him due to his age. “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate lead to suffering” has to stay because that foreshadows Anakin’s fall later in the trilogy — fear for his wife’s life leads to anger toward the Jedi, that leads to outright hatred when he kneels before Palpatine, and after the duel on Mustafar, the rest of his life is suffering. Having some of the Council looking uneasy at “bringing balance to the Force” would help — with the Sith gone, the Light is so predominant that any rebalancing would likely be very bad for the Jedi. They aren’t going to send him back to Tatooine given the risk he might be re-enslaved, but they order Qui-Gon to make arrangements for him on Coruscant. Anakin is heartbroken by this rejection and is comforted by none other than C-3PO, a Jedi protocol droid who somewhat resembles the droid Anakin made for Shmi.

*Although Valorum has been voted out as Supreme Chancellor, who will replace him hasn’t been decided. Growing bored with the political games and knowing her people are suffering, the Queen decides to return to Naboo. As her assigned bodyguards, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan go with her. Having not found a place to safely leave Anakin, Qui-Gon decides to take him, having a feeling from the Force he might be useful.

Act Three

*The return to Naboo and the alliance with the Gungans was generally fine. Panaka’s belief the Trade Federation “wiped out” the Gungans shows the Naboo snobbery Boss Nass griped about. However, on the way in I’d have had someone remark about why there’s only one Trade Federation ship. Maybe someone theorizes the Trade Federation is overconfident that they can control Naboo with the queen having fled or the vote of no confidence in Valorum prompted the Trade Federation to withdraw some of its forces to protect its core holdings from possible Republic reprisal. Padme, Captain Panaka, or both decide now is the time to humble the Trade Federation themselves, especially if they know that Viceroy Gunray and the other top leaders are still on Naboo and can be taken hostage. However, no “bombad general” Jar-Jar. Boss Nass isn’t stupid. He gives Jar-Jar a lesser military rank and makes him an aide to Captain Tarpels, the gray-skinned Gungan officer who spends most of the canonical battle trying to protect his “general.”

*When the land battle of Naboo begins I’d have given the Gungans more mixed equipment. If they’re a less-advanced, occupied people their using more “traditional” weapons like horse (or in this case vaguely dinosaur-like) cavalry, catapults, infantry phalanxes adapted to fight blasters, etc. would make sense, but they should have blaster rifles too. After all, the Native Americans had guns as well as bows and arrows and Otoh Gunga looks like a modern city rather than an impoverished Indian reservation. They probably have at least some ability to make more advanced weapons, plus they could have gotten blasters from the Naboo resistance movement or looted Naboo military depots during the invasion.

*With the Trade Federation’s droid army leaving Theed to engage the Gungans, Padme, her guards, whatever resistance is left in the city, and the two Jedi seize the guarded hangar where Naboo’s small space force is. Although they couldn’t realistically defeat two Trade Federation carriers, they might be able to defeat one. Things get complicated when Darth Maul appears and the two Jedi engage him. The battle with Maul will stay roughly as-is…not only is it one of the most fun parts of the movie, but one reason I bought the soundtrack when it came out was because I loved “Duel of the Fates.”

Emphasis on roughly — there’s no reason for random energy fields to keep the combatants separated when convenient. I’d still have Maul separate Qui-Gon from Obi-Wan (which seemed to be his strategy from the get-go) and mortally wound him, then Obi-Wan defeat Maul. However, I’d use the fighting style Obi-Wan is known for in the Expanded Universe — defend until your opponent tires and then strike — rather than have him essentially get lucky against an arrogant opponent.

*The Naboo pilots, not knowing what to do with Anakin with his Jedi babysitters busy, hide him in a damaged fighter while they launch against the Trade Federation carrier. However, Anakin starts playing with the controls and between the fighter not being as damaged as they think and something that’s pretty obviously the Force, Anakin is able to launch. The Naboo pilots engage the enemy carrier and although they’re able to damage it, the droid fighters are too much. Meanwhile, the ground battle is starting to go against the Gungans, although being better-armed they don’t break and run so easily. However, then Anakin gets a lucky (or perhaps “lucky”) shot on some power systems exposed by earlier attacks and the carrier shuts down, disorienting its waves of fighters and shutting off its antiaircraft batteries. Having something as big as a small asteroid blowing up because one reactor near one hangar got blown up was stupid. The Naboo fighters are able to finish it using something resembling a WWII torpedo strike mission.

*The fact the droid army shuts down after their control ship is destroyed makes no military sense. If I remember right the Trade Federation in later films even acknowledges that and redesigns their systems accordingly. I would have made it so the droid armies default to their local commander-bots, but the process doesn’t go smoothly and this allows the Gungans to defeat them. With their carrier destroyed and field army defeated, the Trade Federation’s cowardly leadership essentially throws themselves at Padme’s mercy.

*I would definitely keep Palpatine becoming the Supreme Chancellor for obvious reasons, as well as how he would be “watching [Anakin’s] career with great interest.” However, I would add that given recent events, Padme has decided to abdicate in favor of someone more experienced in order to learn public service from the bottom up. Palpatine uses his “great interest” comment to Anakin to segue to offering Padme an entry-level position on his staff with “the possibility of advancement.” That would explain why in Attack of the Clones she’s the Senator from Naboo in her own right. It could also impact her romance with the adult Anakin in Episode II — Palpatine is her political mentor and possibly a father figure (if she’s queen because her father died) and he’s encouraging this to alienate Anakin from the Jedi Order. However, before she leaves office there’re a couple more things to do…

*Obi-Wan is granted the rank of Jedi Knight for defeating Darth Maul and to honor Qui-Gon, requests the honor of training Anakin himself. However, I would have toned down Obi-Wan’s insistence on training him even if it means defying the Council. This would contradict my more authoritarian depiction of the prequel-era Jedi and the characterization of Obi-Wan as the good boy as opposed to the rebellious Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan lobbies to train Anakin to fulfill his master’s dying wish and the Council reluctantly allows this, although I would have Yoda comment on the importance of training him “properly.” Obi-Wan nods, clearly taking Yoda’s desires to heart. Anakin is going to be trained by the orthodox try-too-hard Obi-Wan and not a more experienced or more flexible teacher and this is going to have consequences. It also emphasizes Yoda’s role in Anakin’s eventual downfall — something else for him to feel guilty about and push him to send himself into exile rather than play a more active role in resisting the early Empire.

*Everybody is appropriately respectful at Qui-Gon’s funeral, but Yoda and Mace Windu are more secretive about Maul being a Sith. I liked Yoda’s “always two there are” because I find the whole concept of The Rule of Two pretty cool, but I’d make it clearer that Yoda and Mace are keeping their suspicions secret. They plan to covertly find and kill the other Sith Lord themselves rather than cause a panic or call into question the Jedi’s past claim to have destroyed the Sith and saved the Republic. This would sully the Order’s reputation — although Yoda and Mace think this would result in legitimately bad things happening with the community no longer trusting the Jedi, there’s still the more selfish PR angle. You could imply a similarity between the Jedi concealing the return of the Sith with the Catholic child molestation scandal — the leadership doesn’t grasp the gravity of the situation, they’re too concerned with their image, they bungle their own attempts to solve it,  and it comes back to bite them big time. This would be another show rather than tell in regards to the late Order’s incompetence. And we definitely need to keep the shot of Palpatine when Yoda and Mace are talking about how they don’t know if Maul is the master or the apprentice, especially if they conclude the surviving Sith “must” be in the Outer Rim, hidden from their sight. This wouldn’t take long — just another sentence or two.

*We keep the Theed parade, since it sets up Anakin as a Padawan and the solidifies his crush on Padme. You could even hint at reciprocal interest — someone online read into her smiling at him that Padme was some kind of pedophile. I thought that absurd but would be more sensible with an older Anakin. And if we go with the Gungans and Naboo as ancient enemies, a Gungan army permitted to parade through the capital is an even greater sign of friendship than Padme giving Boss Nass a fancy trinket.

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