A philosopher reviews “The Phantom Menace”, a great film with hidden depths

Summary: Today we have a review of The Phantom Menace by philosopher Kelley Ross. He looks beyond the CGI and Hollywood glitz to see the underlying themes. There is much to examine. The depth of the Star Wars films accounts for much of their enduring popularity.

The Phantom Menace
Available at Amazon.

 

Review of Star Wars: Episode I,
The Phantom Menace

Staring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Jake Lloyd.
Directed and written by George Lucas.

Review by Kelley L. Ross,
Posted at Friesian.

Re-posted with his generous permission.

 

…It is the first movie since Titanic to move me to tears — over the death of Qui-gon. But I must be a sentimentalist, since I also recently found The Sixth Sense just as moving.

Liam Neeson (as Qui-gon Jinn), Natalie Portman (as Queen Amidala), and Jake Lloyd (as Anakin Skywalker) are perfect and convincing in their roles. Neeson is what we always needed to see about a mature, functioning Jedi, going about the business of defending peace and justice. He does it most convincingly, right from the beginning, as we might expect from the man responsible for the portrayal of Oscar Schindler. We see quite a bit more of Neeson in Phantom than we did of Alec Guiness in the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). Qui-gon is basically present and in charge of most of the action for most of the movie. We become familiar with him in many circumstances and come to know him as a tall, commanding, confident, and noble but also fatherly figure (note the graying hair).

Perhaps after many years of Homer Simpson, Ed Bundy, and contempt for the 50’s ethos of Father Knows Best, it is hard for critics to recognize a real father figure again. This is no buffed up Rambo and certainly no “wooden character,” nor, as McCarthy says, “a basically stolid guy with only moderate charisma.” No way. At key moments Qui-gon is even notable for his affection:  touching on the shoulder with concern and protection Anakin’s mother (caressing with his thumb), Anakin (with both hands, twice), and Padme (during the pod race), and in the end, while dying, lovingly touching the cheek of Obi-Wan. In our day, we might even be afraid to show such affection for fear of being accused of …

  • sexual harassment,
  • child molestation, or
  • being gay.

Jedi Knights in action

Qui-gon’s death at the climax of the film is stunning and moving, the loss of a father figure for both Obi-Wan and Anakin. He is the first person killed in a sword fight, against his will, in a Star Wars movie — Obi-Wan, as all will remember, allowed himself to be killed by Darth Vader. (Luke lays about with his light saber, especially against Jabba the Hutt, but never kills anyone in a sword-to-sword fight.) This is the frightening nadir of the fortunes of good in Phantom. Obi-Wan, obviously agitated, with feelings we have no difficulty understanding, dramatically rises to the occasion, killing Darth Maul in turn, with about the most decisive sword strike imaginable. Thus, the “battle of the fates,” as the sound track calls it, begins with three and ends with only one. We have not seen anything like this in other Star Wars movies, and the sword fight itself is probably one of the greatest in the history of cinema, hard on the heels of the great fight between Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

Louis Menand’s thesis is that in the original Star Wars series the relationship between Luke and Han “make those first three movies essentially what Hollywood calls ‘buddy pictures’.” This is nonsense. “Buddies” in “buddy pictures” are peers who hang out together and do things. Luke and Han are not even friends before the end of Star Wars, and they are not even together for the entire length of The Empire Strikes Back after Han saves Luke from the cold at the beginning. This does not make for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Menand himself inadvertently puts his finger on the problem, referring to the “earnest young whiner Luke Skywalker.” Luke is no peer for the experienced and cynical Han Solo. He is a teenager. What he needs is a father.

This, indeed, is the theme of the Star Wars movies: fatherhood. Luke’s foster father, “Uncle Owen,” is totally worthless as a real father for Luke: he cannot even protect himself from becoming the only grisly, horror-movie-like corpse shown in the entire epic. Meanwhile, however, Luke has found a true father figure, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who immediately bestows on him his paternal inheritance:  the light saber of a Jedi. While Obi-Wan gets Luke started, his status is not permanent. Losing him, Luke gains another father figure in The Empire Strikes Back in Yoda. This is then complicated by the confrontation with and revelation of his real father, Darth Vader. Surviving that, Return of the Jedi soon dispenses with Yoda. Why? This does not seem dramatically very necessary. But it is, for Yoda was never more than a father substitute. The task of Jedi is to restore Luke’s true father, which is what happens. Darth Vader is redeemed by the love of Luke, kills the Emperor, and is transported to the same plane as Obi-Wan and Yoda. Luke, now fully mature, can see at the end all his fathers (except the luckless Uncle Owen).

This is the force of Qui-gon’s character in The Phantom Menace:  He is a true, albeit spiritual, father in the full, confident exercise of his powers at their height. Obi-Wan is not, as Menand says, Qui-gon’s “side-kick,” but his apprentice. Menand complains that the movie “most glaringly omits” friendship, but he doesn’t seem to notice the regard and affection that Qui-gon and Obi-Wan have for each other, or of Anakin and his mother for each other — something rather more than friendship — or the actual friendship that springs up between Anakin and Padme. But this is not all: Anakin does not have a father at all, and Qui-gon and Obi-Wan become, in turn, fathers for him.

This picks up the search-for-fatherhood theme in the first three movies, as the death of Qui-gon echoes the deaths of Obi-Wan and Yoda. So it is hopeless looking for Butch Cassidy in Qui-gon. He is, indeed, far more like the Robert Young of Father Knows Best (a “stolid” fellow, to be sure). In his eagerness to dismiss Star Wars as “entertainment for eight-year-old boys,” and little more than a license to print money for George Lucas, Menand applies a Hollywood cookie-cutter (“buddy movies”) and overlooks the powerful, consistent theme of all four movies.

Before moving on, I might ask:  Does Qui-gon “know best”? Did he do the right thing? After the Jedi Council refuses to train Anakin or allow Qui-gon to train him, Obi-Wan says to him, “They all sense that he is dangerous, why can’t you?” Qui-gon then flatly says that he is not dangerous. We seem to know better, since we know that Anakin will become Darth Vader. We already have a sense that Obi-Wan can see things that Qui-gon cannot, since Obi-Wan’s very first line in the movie — a familiar one from the previous films — is, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Qui-gon senses nothing of the sort. We thus might think that Qui-gon is simply deficient in his clairvoyance and consequently makes a catastrophic mistake when it comes to Anakin.

On the other hand, Qui-gon is substantially responsible for the victory of good in Phantom. Because Qui-gon takes the trouble to free Jar Jar Binks from the Gungans, despite Obi-Wan’s objection, a connection to the Gungans is established that later is exploited by the Queen, bringing the Gungans into the conflict. Qui-gon’s rationale for this at the time is that Jar Jar would be valuable as a navigator, but then he tells Jar Jar himself that the Force will guide them through the planet core. Qui-gon can only have sensed some other need for Jar Jar. Even on Tatooine, Obi-Wan is still thinking of Jar Jar as a “pathetic life form,” putting Anakin in that category also. Qui-gon corrects, if not rebukes, him for that, and, as it happens, it is Anakin alone who is later able to destroy the Federation battleship and render the Federation ‘droid army useless. Whatever happens to Anakin in the future, he is essential to the success of the action, on both Tatooine and Naboo, in Phantom. So, it seems, Qui-gon does see some things that Obi-Wan and others cannot in Phantom.

So what goes wrong in the future? In Jedi, Obi-Wan blames himself for what happens to Anakin. Exactly what happens remains to be seen. Anakin is eventually the one, it must be remembered, who is able to kill the Emperor. Qui-gon, in that respect, was ultimately right. Whether that could have been done more promptly and with less grief (like the destruction of Aldaran) is a question that can only answered in terms of the next movies.

Queen Amidala

What may confuse some critics about Natalie Portman is the majestas of her character as Queen Amidala, numinous (i.e., a spiritual quality) and commensurate with the incredible, kabuki-like costumes she gets to wear (which some seem to think are ridiculous, having, I supposed, missed Elizabeth and Shakespeare In Love). One reviewer dismisses her lines as “pained pronouncements,” but they are in tone and content entirely appropriate to her position, responsibility, and determination. Portman has said that the costumes almost made her become the character.

She does it perfectly, and the movie really depends on her, since the payoff results from her assertion, initiative, and decisiveness. Queen Amidala, to put it without overstatement, saves the day. She makes the crucial decision to abandon reliance on the Republic and the Senate and to go to war; and when no one else can imagine what she can do, she has learned from Jar Jar Binks (or just been reminded) that there is an unexpected army she can appeal to for help. She surprises the underestimations of Lord Sidious, the ultimate “Phantom Menace” (who is never revealed to the protagonists in this film).

Amidala’s character compares favorably with Queen Elizabeth in the recent Elizabeth (1998). It takes some time for Elizabeth to find confidence and command (“I am my father’s daughter”), and all she ends up doing with it is to accept advice, resulting in the Godfather-like ending of that movie. On the other hand, Amidala is confident and commanding from the beginning; and, although at first she just accepts the good advice of Qui-gon, it is she alone later who makes the crucial decisions.

Her willingness to follow Qui-gon’s judgment is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s maxim, “A prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled.” Amidala displays nothing but wisdom. Confucius says (The Analects XII:11), “Let the ruler be a ruler.” This is Amidala. At the same time, we also see her without the majestas, when she is incognito as her “handmaiden” Padme. We get to know her both as Queen and as an ordinary person — the two only really come together in the last scene, when Padme’s smile finally lights up Amidala’s face. That supplies some more of the conspicuous warmth in the movie, since she takes to the boy Anakin and later tries to comfort him for the loss of his mother. …This sisterly affection, as we know, later becomes more serious, since Amidala and Anakin are going to be the parents of Luke and Leia in the later Star Wars stories.

Queen Amidala
All queens are warrior queens in modern sci fi.

At the same time, it puts Amidala in a further favorable light that, although Padme complains more than once about Qui-gon’s actions on Tatooine, she maintains discipline and does not blow her cover, revealing that she really is the Queen, to try and command Qui-gon. It is hard to imagine most monarchs, or anyone accustomed to command and obedience, to so restrain themselves. Note that Amidala is also a good shot, personally dropping three androids during the shootout in her throne room.

Jake Lloyd’s Anakin …also does a perfect job of getting the character right. Anakin is a good kid. He is smart and says so, but he does not come off as a smart-aleck. He is not the “standard-issue” wise cracking kid. A revealing moment is when he is nearly run over by Darth Maul and Qui-gon shouts to him, “Anakin, drop!” and the boy, without a question or a wise crack, simply does so. He does not want to leave his mother, and much later tells Qui-gon that he doesn’t want to be “a problem.” This does not make for the kind of irritating or insolent child that has become all too familiar from recent movies, but for a very sympathetic boy, whom we can well imagine as a worthy mate for Queen Amidala. His dream that he would return to Tatooine as a Jedi and free the slaves, including his mother, is sure to mean that he will do so in the next movie.

The plotline of Phantom is not {as some reviewers say} “murky” or “impenetrable.” It is as simple and straightforward as the plots of all the other Star Wars movies:  We go from Naboo, to Tatooine, to Coruscant, and back to Naboo. On Tatooine, we are delayed by the problem of parts, which is solved by Anakin, who is also added to the company. At Coruscant the Queen decides to return to Naboo and fight. This not confusing. Exactly what the original dispute was about (trade and taxes) is never really explained, but then it doesn’t need to be:  That dispute was just a pretext for the blockade and attack on Naboo.

There is, indeed, greater complexity in the ending than in other Star Wars movies. Where the final action of the original Star Wars was just the fighter attack on the Death Star, with everyone else just watching, Phantom ends with

  • a fighter attack on the Federation Battleship,
  • a land battle between the Gungans and the android army of the Federation,
  • the Queen’s attack to capture the Federation Viceroy, and
  • the sword fight between Qui-gon and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul.

This is a lot of action, but not anything that is confusing or hard to keep track of. Instead, it is masterful movie making and story telling. It is also an improvement over Return of the Jedi, where the Ewoks did not make a very convincing battle force against a “legion” of the Emperor’s crack troops, and where the confrontation between Luke, the Emperor, and Darth Vader contained a bit more talk than action.

Mace Windu
Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu. Best of the Jed. Killed by treason.

The warmth and “emotional pull” of the film has been noted, just how it could be called “humorless” is unbelievable. The Jar Jar Binks character is comic relief from the beginning, but then, as we later discover, he is much more than that. The two-headed announcer at the “pod” race on Tatooine has got to be one of the most inspired bits in recent memory. Anyone who failed to see the humor of the movie thus must have been out talking on their cellphone.

“Overly reverential” must just mean that the characters are taken seriously. This not a fault. We have not seen anyone quite like Qui-gon or Queen Amidala before in Star Wars, but they are as they should be. They are paragons of virtue, which is to be expected in a story about good or evil. That is what Star Wars was always about. There are not a lot of morally ambivalent protagonists or antagonists here. No anti-heroes. This is the kind of thing that the critics didn’t like in the first place. Cynicism and ambiguity is what we have come to expect in movies. Star Wars was not the place for it, though it has before it the considerable difficulty of representing how the young Anakin can later “turn” to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. Meanwhile, it is challenge enough to just to deal with people who are as good as Duddley Do-Right but are not meant to be a joke. Instead, there is a depth to what they are.

“Depth” is probably not a word most people would associate with Star Wars. But the religious elements of the story are unmistakable. That Anakin is the result of a virgin birth is at once too obvious and must seem at the same time of unclear significance (it was apparently part of the prophecy about the “Chosen One” — and now we can see that, in terms of the fatherhood theme of the Star Wars movies, it eliminates the need for a “false father,” like Uncle Owen, and sets the story on its path to true fatherhood).

Less obvious but much clearer is the theory of the “Force” and the nature of the discipline of someone like Qui-gon. The Jedi hold their swords like samurai swords, and their views and discipline sound like nothing so much as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, which have influenced the ideology of the martial arts. The nature of the light saber, which reflects back laser shots to the shooter, is characteristic of the “Submissive Way” (Chinese , Japanese judô) theory of Taoism, by which the attack of an opponent is turned upon them. This can all be bastardized and misrepresented (almost unavoidable when dealing with Zen), and we certainly would like some more details and background than we get in the movies, where much of the talk about the Force has become a bit repetitious, but three things stand out.

  1. The “Force,” even if impersonal, rather than a personal God, can be traced to legitimate, historical, religious ideas (i.e. the Tao, the Brahman, the Buddha Dharma, or the Heaven of Confucius).
  2. Something of the sort can be taken seriously, even if Lucas himself may not necessarily believe in the supernatural powers of its adepts.
  3. The “Dark Side” of the Force is something definitely present in Taoism and Zen but which those traditions have not been very good at acknowledging.

The Dark Side of the Force probably owes more to Jung and his theory of the “Shadow” than to the more obvious antecedents. Indeed, the “Dark Side of the Tao” should be taken as an important novel metaphysical theory and religious conception. Further religious overtones of Phantom include Queen Amidala’s name, which looks suspiciously like the Japanese name of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit Amitabha), and this suspicion is reinforced when we realize that the name of her alter ego, Padme, is Sanskrit for “Lotus” (in the locative case), taken out of the famous mantra Om mane padme hum, “the Jewel is in the Lotus.”

The constant exhortations of Yoda to avoid anger and hatred are consistent, not only with Buddhism, but also with Christianity and with much of the ethics of Hellenistic philosophy. Jesus says, “I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” [Matthew 5:22]. The Buddha said that what he has taught, “has to do with the fundaments of religion, and tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana” (Buddhism in Translations, Henry Clark Warren, 1987, p. 122). The Stoic ideal was apátheia, “without passion” (or suffering). In the middle of the great sword fight between Qui-gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, when each of them is separated by the working of the power station where they are fighting, Qui-gon kneels down calmly, with an “absence of passion,” and seems to go into meditation. He is, indeed, a warrior monk. Yoda’s description of how fear leads to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to suffering, and suffering to the Dark Side is very much like the cycle of “dependent origination” in Buddhism.

Now, as it happens, I think this theory is mistaken, and I do not believe that an “absence of passion” is a proper ideal. There is nothing wrong with anger or hatred in themselves, as long as they are directed to their proper objects, injustice and evil, and expressed in proportion to the magnitude of the wrong or the evil. Obi-Wan clearly fights Darth Maul with a great deal of passion. To think that these passions are wrong in themselves is a case of judicial moralism of feeling. Nevertheless, it is not a serious criticism of Star Wars to find fault with that theory, since it is well within the traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, and the history of philosophy. That it expresses the theory at all is astonishing enough in movies that are not taken seriously for a minute by the intelligentsia, or the move critics. Instead, we have the subtle and popular presentation of ideals of religious and moral nobility, instantly recognized by the naive, if not by the sophisticated.

The path to the Dark Side is not through fear or anger but through a vicious will. Such a will may be from an innate character (what Schopenhauer thought), from an improper upbringing, or from bad ideas. It is still not clear whether some people are innately vicious, although sometimes this seems like the only explanation for the behavior and attitudes of certain people. Improper unbringing fails to instill those virtues of conscientiousness, prudence, manners, humanity, etc., that are the proper matters of custom and habit, as described by “Aristotle’s virtue ethics.” Or, a well behaved child can fall in with bad company, especially at adolescence. This may also reflect innate propensities.

Bad company, however, can also mean bad ideas, which corrupt reason and judgment. American military observers with the German Army in World War I (before the United States entered the war), heard a great deal of the sort of social and political Darwinism that had been popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, enthusiastic Communist functionaries would strip the Ukraine of food, leaving the people to starve, all with the confidence and self-righteousness characteristic of Leftist politics. Thus, the Emperor should not have been telling Luke to let go with his hatred, he should have been telling him, like Nietzsche or Thrasymachus, that justice is the will of the stronger, or even like the Nietzschean Voldemort, that “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

Unfortunately, it would not be politically correct of Geroge Lucas to go in that direction, since talk about nothing but power, from a conceputal mash of Nietzsche and Marx, is all too popular among academics and the intelligentsia. Indeed, the economic ideas in the Star Wars movies are bad enough that Lucas in general looks like a willing adherent of the fashion, despite the sins that are occasionally spotted in the triviality of his themes and their [gasp] fantastic commercial success.

The other two Star Wars prequel films.

Attack of the Clones
Available at Amazon.
Revenge of the Sith
Available at Amazon.

 

Kelley L. Rross

.
About the author

Dr. Kelley Ross retired in 2009 after 22 years as an instructor at the Department of Philosophy of Los Angeles Valley College. See his LinkedIn profile. He joined the Libertarian Party in 1992 and has run several times for the California State Assembly and Congress.

Heis the editor of The Proceedings of the Friesian School website, which has a wide range of fascinating material about philosophy, literature, film, and art.

For More Information

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  4. “Mockingjay” shows us a path to reform for America. A great movie, but bad advice.
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Trailer for The Phantom Menace

25 thoughts on “A philosopher reviews “The Phantom Menace”, a great film with hidden depths

  1. I have always thought that the prequel trilogy got an unfair amount of heat. They have flaws as films of course, but Lucas has always had a great visual strength. Not every story has to be a modern novel.

    I do think one of the interesting ethical points about the films in general is that the Jedi order (and thus, the main moral thrust of at least the original six films) is rooted heavily in something closer to Buddhism than anything else, and while this is not some terrifying alien moral code, it does make assertions and claims which seem strange to Western eyes. That strangeness is part of its allure, of course. But it is interesting that now, in this age of international markets, the two new “Star Wars” films have been almost completely free of reference to the Jedi ethical perspective.

    Given Ross’s closing arguments, I’d be interested to read his responses to the other two prequel films, given that they are both clearly critical of exactly what he talks about… even if the details point most specifically to the era where they were made (early Bush years) than to either of the groups he mentions. (As for the economic matters, I hardly see any of them present, except that the stalking horse for the bad guys has reference to taxes and trade…)

  2. Also, giving it a second re-read, I think Ross is extremely right about how Qui-gon presents himself as a father figure who is positive and has authority, gravitas, but also compassion and other such positive aspects. There is a real issue in our society with how masculinity is presented and performed. I sure don’t have any solutions, although I would say you could do far worse than Qui-gon for an example.

    I also suspect this is the root of a lot of the popularity of the Star Wars films – or at least one big root. You have Qui-gon, Obi-wan, Yoda, Mace Windu – Han moves into the role quite well in The Force Awakens – and of course you also have the real “Dark Father” with the Emperor.

    (There’s also the problems with how a lot of these stories present mothers but that’s a topic for another day.)

    1. Dana,

      American TV and films love to show strong father-figures leading pseudo-families at work (e.g., the endless claims at work in TV shows that “we’re a family”) — but actual fathers are usually shown as weak, foolish (taught lessons by their wives and kids), criminal, or evil. For example, see NCIS — in season 14, spawned 3 spin-offs. Gibbs is the strong and wise pseudo-father of the work “family”. Most of the actual fathers we meet are deeply flawed (e.g., Ziva’s, DeiNozzo’s, and McGee’s).

      We modern Americans are one very odd set of puppies.

    2. I wonder if this comes from the post-war period, where you had a huge crop of kids who grew up in relative social isolation (suburbia) and who had fathers who were often quite busy and may have been dealing with the traumas of WW2.
      Of course, some degree of this is probably just drama. A character who had a wholesome mother and father who are both alive and not involved in crime, interstellar drug smuggling, etc. — well that just won’t come *up*.

    3. Dana,

      “where you had a huge crop of kids who grew up in relative social isolation (suburbia) and who had fathers who were often quite busy”

      I don’t believe that is accurate. The kids growing up in social isolation are those in low density rural areas – especially those in pre-WWII (and even more so, pre-WWI) where the children worked long hours on farms.

      As for dads being busy, again that was less so in the post-WWII era — with strong unions, mandatory 1.5x or 2x overtime pay. In 1890 the US government began tracking workers’ hours. The average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was a whopping 100 hours (see Here’s how the 40-hour workweek became the standard in America). How much time did those dads have to spend with their children?

  3. Good to go against the grain here and some interesting stuff. I think the film was fine thematically, it just failed in every other respect.

    For the best of the countless examples of the opposing viewpoint, I have to wholeheartedly recommend independent filmmaker Mike Stoklasa’s famous / infamous Red Letter Media reviews of the prequel trilogy. Despite the fact that 1. they are in video form, 2. Stoklasa does some schtick to liven up the voiceover and it can be a little off-putting at times, they comprise a master class in how _not_ to do genre film. Unusually for the format, they are nearly as long as, and far more entertaining (IMO) than the films under review.

    1. Mike Stocklasa is a hack. Every single one of his complaints is either

      1) answered in the movie, such as why the Senate didn’t accept the testimony of the two Jedi knights (for the record: it’s because the Jedi were sent there in secret, without Senate approval with the intent to bully the Trade Federation into cooperation, by a Chancellor accused of corruption. Revealing this would’ve backfired on the Jedi, the Chancellor and the credibility of the Naboo delegatio would’ve evaporated, therefore the Jedi could not give a testimony) and/or

      2) blatantly hypocritical, such as when he speaks at length about how liking a movie doesn’t make it good, and a few videos later makes a dumbass joke about how TESB is such a perfect movie he f***s with it, and

      3) show a phenomenal lack of understanding or real life concepts such as economy when he makes the assumption that Naboo being a lush planet means there’s no way being suddenly cut-off from trade can cause wide spread famine, which is fucking bullshit.

    2. Bazs,

      All great points (albeit made in an awfully abrasive way, since we’re talking about a film review). Thanks for posting them.

    3. Hi Bazs,

      I don’t mind the abrasiveness — I imagine that both remaining fans of the prequel trilogy are feeling pretty harried and isolated these days. ;-)

      Mike Stoklasa is certainly a hack — I doubt you’d get much disagreement from him on that count. We’re talking about the director of “Oranges: Revenge of the Eggplant” and “Gorilla Interrupted”, after all. Which is why its ironic that he ends up delivering such an astute critique of the celebrated George Lucas’s work, and George Lucas has revealed himself to be just as much of a hack, just one with a far larger budget.

      But If you think that the substance of his criticism consists of various elements of how a made-up space economy would work – then I don’t think there’s anything I can add. Film is an art form and, like any art form, it’s one that works primarily on the subconscious.

      Just to touch on one element of this, obviously a key element of action-adventure movies is the action sequences. Lots of money was spent on the computers that generated these in the prequels. But action scenes are only exciting if
      1. the audience cares about what happens to the characters and
      2. the audience feels that there are real consequences at stake — that is, that the characters could actually fail, get killed, etc, even if consciously they know that this is unlikely to happen.

      In the prequel trilogy the characters are flat, boring and unlikable (in stark contrast to the original trilogy) and the action is shot (or, more accurately, computer-rendered) in such a weightless and cartoonish fashion that neither of those two requirements is met — you just end up with flashing lights on the screen. I struggled to stay awake.

      In illustrative contrast, I watched episode 8 of Stranger Things 2 last night. It actually brought to mind how well ST2 pulled this off in comparison to, say, the Star Wars prequels. In case you haven’t seen it, most of episode 8 is a big action set piece. Now, it’s far from the most sophisticated in terms of choreography, cinematography, or even the quality of the computer-generated antagonists. It’s even somewhat cliched. But it feels real, and by the time episode 8 rolls around the audience has a huge emotional attachment to all of the characters (well, except for Paul Reiser) — an investment that was carefully built up in the preceding seven episodes through subplots, dialogue, establishing relationships, etc. As a result every moment of tension is ratcheted up to the breaking point and the emotional payoffs carry tremendous weight. It was one of the most thrilling (and exhausting) 47 minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen.

      You have to eat your vegetables (establish stakes) before you can have dessert (the razzle-dazzle action scenes with lots of computer things in them).

    4. phageghost,

      I agree on all points (nicely said). More broadly, I think that CGI has allow Hollywood’s storytelling skills to atrophy. On the few occasions I watch a film these days, I tend to doze during the light shows — and am uninterested with the actions of the boring characters that occupy the minutes between the light shows.

    5. phageghost Hi.
      Facepalm. I’m abrasive? When you’re making recommendations for quite possibly the most abrasive guy on the internet? I wonder how isolated Mike Stocklasa must feel to be as abrasive as he is, and I’m not just talking about his Plinkett character.

      Also, no, I don’t think his rants only extend to how economy would work. I just brought up an example of how one of his critisism in regards to the plot of the movie, doesn’t hold-up to educted scrutiny at all. I could easily dismante every single one of his complaints in fact I have done so in the past. See here http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/remarks.php?trope=YMMV.ThePhantomMenace

      Now regarding your assessment about how action-scenes work. You’re correct. The characters have to be likeable, and there has to be real stakes.

      So let me ask you: what makes for example Mr “I’m only here for the paycheck” Guiness Kenobi likeable? The phonied performance? The fact that he lies to Luke for two movies straight, about the kid’s father, because he doesn’t trust him to handle the truth? The fact that by doing so he was effectively setting the kid up to unknowingly murder his own father?
      And this is the second most complex character on the Holy Cow OT, after Darth Vader! The main trio of the OT is actually painfully flat and one-dimensional. We know exactly that none of them will die, we know that Leia will end up with Han, long before the it’s revealed Luke is her brother, we know that Luke won’t turn to the Dark side. So what’s at stake?
      So ultimately what makes you care about them? Nothing beyond nostalgia.

      And yet, after you’ve just read a great article that sums up how deep and complex the characters in TPM are, you call them flat and boring (oh wait, you didn’t actually read the review, did you? My bad.). Qui-Gon Jinn is the character who could’ve prevented the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Empire. And not by being an undefeatable Jedi, and not by being a master politician. But simply by being the mentor and father-figure Anakin needed. Just compare how Qui-Gon treats both Anakin and Obi-Wan, to how Obi-Wan treats Anakin in AOTC: where Qui-Gon would hear Obi-Wan’s concerns out, give him some explanation to chew through and let him come to his own conclusions,

      Obi-Wan on the otherhand is a stuck-up, stick-in-the-mud, “you do as I told you, because I said so” guy as Anakin’ mentor. And this is not a fault in the prequels, because it’s perfectly consistent with how he, Owen and Yoda all treat Luke in the OT: Luke’s father-figures all lie to him about his actual biological father. They have no trust in him, eventhough they raised him.

      Qui-Gon is willing to bet his mission on a kid he befriended a few hours ago. And no, this is not stupid. It’s who the character is: someone who sees the possibility in everyone, in everything, in every situation. If he raised Anakin, Anakin would’ve become the Jedi he was meant to be, the one ultimately Luke had become, and a whole lot of suffering could’ve been prevented. That’s the tragedy of Qui-Gon’s death, and it’s faaaaaaar more compelling than Ben Kenobi letting Vader to strike him down, in the most inopportune moment, because let’s face it: if Vader didn’t intend to let the Millenium Falcon escape, they would’ve been captured then and there, all because Obi-Wan decided to die in plain sight of Luke, knowing that the kid’s reaction would alert the stormtroopers who’s attention his fight with Vader diverted.

    6. Bazs,

      There are 50,000+ comments on the FM website. Thousands are about our 250 reviews of books and films. You’ve kicked off one of the best threads, by deeply questioning how we see these films and their characters. You should write this up into an essay (700-1400 words). I’ll publish it.

      My top question: why did Ben Kenobi let Vader strike him down? I love the first Star Wars (#4), but that never made sense to me.

    7. Hi Bazs,

      Joking about the “abrasive” — those were Larry’s words originally, not mine. I don’t mind people speaking directly. I often do the same.

      You bring up a lot of good points and had me thinking more about the prequels vs. the OT, characters, etc. I will say that it’s difficult to be objective regarding the OT at this remove, since its been so burned into pop-culture consciousness and tinted with nostalgia.

      My overall feeling is that bullet point outline of the story of the prequels is not bad, it just seems to suffer from poor implementation in the writing and direction. Good strategy, bad tactics, if you know what I mean. And one of the problems seems to be that Lucas was trying to make a more sophisticated, adult story with more complex characters but didn’t have the directorial toolkit to pull it off. With the exception of Anakin, if there was some sophisticated characterization going on it was so subtle as to be nearly undetectable. That, or I’m just thick-skulled, I won’t argue with that.

      The characters in OT are basically one-dimensional, but because of that they’re memorable and easy to grok, which is a plus in the genre of Flash Gorden-esque space opera for children. They’re all basic archetypes that need a few brush strokes to fill in, and then the audience has consistent mental models of them: Luke: naive but cocky, seeking excitement and destiny, loyal to a fault. Han: sarcastic and cynical, world-weary smuggler with a heart of gold, Obi-Wan: the mysterious wise old man, grandfatherly mentor.

      In the prequels they are either unconvincing (young adult Anakin) or complete ciphers (Queen / Senator Amydala).

      “We know exactly that none of them will die, we know that Leia will end up with Han, long before the it’s revealed Luke is her brother, we know that Luke won’t turn to the Dark side. So what’s at stake?”

      Well, again, this is hard to be objective about, but the Vader-Skywalker duel at the end of TESB really feels like it could be the end for old Luke, there, even if we consciously know that the protagonist is probably wearing plot armor. Not only does the action seem grounded in the real, physical world, but besides Luke’s training on Dagobah the rest of the movie leading up to it is a string of setbacks and defeats for the rebels. The Leia-Han thing wasn’t set up until TESB, at which point it became inevitable, but it wasn’t central to the stakes — it seemed there mostly for some light-hearted comic relief.

      But you bring up an excellent point regarding Luke turning to the Dark Side. I thought this was handled well in TESB — Luke is motivated in large part by loyalty to his friends (part of that simple but consistent characterization we differ about), and Vader seems to have set a perfect trap to play on that. And the audience by this time are burning with anger at Vader, themselves, so they identify with Luke struggling to contain that anger. IMHO it does a good job of making the danger of a turn to the dark side credible. But in ROTJ, the Emperor’s plan is to tempt Luke to the dark side with . . . power (and then falling back to the anger gambit as a last resort). But Luke has never shown any interest in power to this point, so there’s no tension that he’ll fall for it, and therefore a big element of the climactic scene is undermined.

      And even as little a kid I didn’t understand how Obi-Wan’s sacrifice was necessary. Wouldn’t it be even more distracting to Vader to keep him engaged in a duel? Today it just feels like lazy scripting to set up the dramatic loss of the mentor figure (though Luke has only known this guy for what? A week or two?) and allow him to tell Luke to “use the force” from beyond the grave.

      It’s funny — reading your account of the story of the prequels regarding Qui Gong, Obi-Wan and Anakin reinforces what I alluded to earlier as the core problem with the prequels. My initial reaction to your summary is “that sounds great! I want to see that movie!” but then I remember the real, existing implementation of that story and I get sad again. None of that (for me, of course, this is where it’s hard to argue about subjective reactions) comes across in anything more than disconnected bits and pieces.

      I did re-watch the first part of the RLM TPM review (believe it or not I’ve read a lot of the PDF “rebuttal” document that was floating around too) and he does gets hung up on a lot of plot points that I don’t really care about — similar critiques can be made of nearly any movie and you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking like that. As long as credibility isn’t strained too much I’m willing to give a pretty broad pass, otherwise you end up like The Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. And yeah, his nonchalance regarding a total planetary blockade was pretty stupid. But his critiques of the tone, the direction, cinematography, the characterization, are well worth heeding, IMO.

      For example, who is the protagonist of TPM? Who is the audience supposed to relate to?

      And I love the overall prequel themes of the Republic -> Empire transition, and intentionally fomenting crises to gain power, but none of that felt earned. Like, the Clone Wars are supposed to be the big crises that allows the Emperor to sieze power, but where do we see the effect of this war? Where are the bombed cities? The blackouts, the rationing? Coruscant just looks exactly the same, bright and shiny, throughout the trilogy. Show me the suffering, don’t tell me about it. Obi Wan and Anakin talk about the great adventures they had together that made them great friends. OK, how about we see some of that, instead of just hearing about it. Show me the good friends having space adventures — that sounds a lot more interesting than what did make it to the screen. Where’s that movie? And the plot sure makes sense if you’re taking notes in the theater, but from the beginning it is communicated very poorly to the audience what’s going on and why they should care. Death and space taxes, apparently. Contrast with the set-up of ANH in the opening scene: We’ve got clear villains, the powerful evil empire and a guy who likes to choke people, clear good guys (the plucky but outmatched rebels plus some gay robots) and the MacGuffin (the death star plans). Boom, space adventure, let’s go!

      Again, I get the feeling that Lucas really set out to make a deeper, more nuanced and mature work that he hoped would transcend the juvenalia of the original trilogy, while still appealing to its core audience. I just think he was betrayed by his own lack of ability to actually make that happen, on multiple levels, and for whatever reasons.

      Thanks for some thought-provoking discussion. To each their own, ultimately. Cheers.

  4. Very hard to follow Dr. Ross here. Perhaps because the subject itself is complex and perhaps because Dr. Ross himself is still trying to work out his understanding of the complexity we now find ourselves living.
    Be that as it is I’m motivated to go see this film.
    in many ways the entire mythical narrative of Western Civilization is about the transcendent Hero, male, who arises and redeems humanity. The female has the miraculous place even in Genesis and the fruit of the Tree.
    Ross tells me enough here in that regards with his good discussion of the “father” to pique my curiosity.
    Are we Americans one odd or curious set of puppies? Perhaps but we are the result of old European narratives and counter narratives. Witness the complete loss of a the primacy of values and guidance of the Judeo Christian traditions (except possibly in contemporary Spain). The Cathedrals are rarwly used except as historical artifacts.
    The nihilism of Post Modernism came to us from Europe. Look no further. Where are the men…the fathers?

    Breton

    1. The funny thing to me is that the biggest source I see for implementing and advancing post-modern arguments in the “real world” (as opposed to things like interpreting films and novels) is… the people who like to talk about Judeo-Christian values in the West a lot in the political arena.

      “As an empire, we create our own reality.” “There’s no such thing, any more, as facts.” These are extremely post-modern statements!

    2. Dana,

      Great point about that quote attributed to Karl Rove. I’ve wondered what that meant. His statements have to be carefully parsed. Is this his post-mo thinking, or just his belief that the American people are among the most gullible ever, anywhere? So our leaders understand that they create our reality thru skillful full-spectrum propaganda.

      “the people who like to talk about Judeo-Christian values in the West a lot in the political arena.”

      That has to be put in context. He said that he does not believe the US is a Christian nation; he finds that notion “offensive.”

      “We are based on the Judeo-Christian ethic, we derive a lot from it, but if you say we’re a Christian nation, what about the Jews, what about the Muslims, what about the non-believers?” (Source here.)

    3. That’s a wonderful thing to hear about Rove. I’m no fan of his but I’m always glad to hear positive things about people – and I’d agree with him, sort of, but I think “Judeo-Christian ethic” may not be the right word for what a lot of people seem to actually mean. I don’t have a better one, but it usually doesn’t have much connection to Jewish ethical thought that I’m aware of – unless you count a support of Israel.

  5. One of the themes of the Prequels is the blindness of the Jedi order, and their arrogance as acting as warriors and generals for the Grand Army of the Republic immediately at the start of the Clone Wars. By accepting the disposable clone army (which is humanized in the CGI show as normal if very dutiful and capable human beings) the Jedi fall into the plot of the Sheev Palaptine, the mastermind of the conflict on Naboo and future Emperor. The Jedi accept more and more power, which has been accumulating for so long that the Senate relies heavily upon them, even in Phantom Menace for negotiations with the Trade Federation, that they already possess immense resources before the Clone Wars even begin. That is the general narrative purpose of TPM in the Star Wars saga, to show the time before the Jedi fell and the hints of why they fell in the first place.

    I enjoy your analysis of Qui-Gon Jin, since he’s generally ignored in most fans discussion of TPM, especially since you see him as a father figure. Count Dooku, the villain of AotC, was actually Qui-Gon Jinns master, and the apprentice of Master Yoda. He’s like a break in the chain of good Jedi knights that helps bring down faith in the Jedi Order, like a villainous grandfather to Obi-Wan and Anakin. He betrays the Jedi Order, leads in a dictatorial fashion a collection of Separatists against the Republic, and sets the example of what a Jedi does when goes awry.

    I’d like to see your analysis of Sheev Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, the Emperor, and his plots that span the entirety of the prequels

  6. We seem to know better, since we know that Anakin will become Darth Vader. We already have a sense that Obi-Wan can see things that Qui-gon cannot, since Obi-Wan’s very first line in the movie — a familiar one from the previous films — is, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Qui-gon senses nothing of the sort. We thus might think that Qui-gon is simply deficient in his clairvoyance and consequently makes a catastrophic mistake when it comes to Anakin.

    No. Qui-Gon didn’t make a mistake. When Obi-Wan pointed out that the Council regarded Anakin as dangerous, Qui-Gon responded that they do not know what the future would bring for Anakin. And he was right. They didn’t know. Not really. As Yoda once said, the future is always in motion.

    What if Qui-Gon had survived? Would Anakin had still given in to evil? We don’t know. And how could we rely on the Jedi Council being right about Anakin, when they had failed to ascertain the danger that Count Dooku would pose? He played a major role in the downfall of the Republic and the Jedi Order, even if he was not around in the end. I think the Jedi and Obi-Wan’s own fear of Anakin as an unknown factor may have played a role in Anakin’s downfall. However, Anakin is MAINLY RESPONSIBLE.

    1. CTrent29,

      Lots of insightful points in that comment! I added paragraph breaks to make it easier to read.

      You touch upon something seldom mentioned, so far as I know. The Jedi were pretty clownish by the time of the prequels. The first two are mostly a succession of mistakes driven in part (as Yoda says) by arrogance. Such as Mace Windu confronting the future Emperor by himself (it wasn’t an occasion to demonstrate machismo). Or their decision to fight it out with an arena of disposable robots, instead of confronting the leaders.

      Lots more examples in those films.

  7. Such as Mace Windu confronting the future Emperor by himself (it wasn’t an occasion to demonstrate machismo). Or their decision to fight it out with an arena of disposable robots, instead of confronting the leaders.

    Mace had confronted Palpatine with three other Jedi Knights or Masters. By the way, according to the “Making of Revenge of the Sith” book, Mace was one of three Jedi powerful enough to face Papatine alone. The other two were Yoda and Anakin Skywalker. And he did confront the Trade Federation leaders and Dooku, but Jango Fett’s attempt to shoot him forced Mace to join the others in the arena.

    Do you have something against Mace Windu?

    1. CTrent29,

      Thanks for clarifying that! I had forgotten that part of the film. It looks like bringing 3 JK’s was not enough. He should have followed the practice of US police. When they raid an old lady, they bring 4 cops. When they raid a place with 3 bad guys, they bring 30 officers.

      “Do you have something against Mace Windu?”

      I don’t have relations with fictional characters.

  8. It looks like bringing 3 JK’s was not enough. He should have followed the practice of US police. When they raid an old lady, they bring 4 cops. When they raid a place with 3 bad guys, they bring 30 officers.

    We’re talking about STAR WARS here, not real life.

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