The Negotiations Were Short: The Confounding Briskness of The Phantom Menace

While independent cinema of the 1990s marked a distinct artistic triumph for the American film industry, it was the CGI laden blockbusters that kept the lights on. Sure, films like Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), and a slew of others proved that edgier fare could prove profitable at the box office. But only the lavishly produced, mass marketed spectacles that more often than not relied on genre markers like action and science fiction ensured that moviegoers would trade a night at the video store for a night at the cineplex. When it came to blockbuster filmmaking, the 90s were hardly in short supply. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) saw Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise his quintessential role[1]to do battle with the uncompromising, liquid metal killing machine known simply as the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Steven Spielberg, with his landmark adventure epic Jurassic Park (1993), breathed life into prehistoric beasts, which simultaneously inspired wonder and horror. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) added a dash of historical gravity to the big budget disaster spectacular. This progression of digital assets into cinema’s increasingly immersive experience shows an art form as reliant as ever to the primal urges of both filmmakers and audiences. The ability of digital effects to achieve the mind’s own eye can make for technically ambitious work that leaves much to be desired narratively.

This lengthy preamble is quite simply an effort to recall the context that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) springs from. It seems almost poetic that this decade of effects-driven motion pictures would culminate with the return of the franchise that helped kick off this larger trend of spectacle-centered movies. The Phantom Menace’s arrival in the summer of 1999 inherently implies a work that has subsumed all its precedents while adding a few new tools to the toolbox. While the film was a rousing financial success (becoming the highest grossing film of the year), you don’t have to look far to find critics and fans mutually expressing disappoint in Lucas’s return to that galaxy far, far away. An over-reliance of special effects[2], wooden dialogue and performances, and canonically-damaging plot points prevent The Phantom Menace, and by extension the prequel trilogy, from living up to the monumental precedent set by the original trilogy. However, the vast majority of viewers have neglected to focus on the film’s place in the greater nexus of intensified continuity.

But what is intensified continuity? Film historian and theorist David Bordwell contends in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies that this vast classification of style is a modernization (of sorts) of classical Hollywood technique, which first and foremost aims to push story to the forefront. The advent of television has forced contemporary cinema to adopt a more televisual approach that emphasizes brisker editing, more camera movement, and a diminishment of medium shots in favor of close-ups. Bordwell argues that the transition of films being seen primarily through television than on the big screen has retrained how filmmakers and viewers alike interpret moving pictures. The relative newness of cinema as a only a century old art form makes such drastic change a quick fixture in how movies are made and viewed.

So how does intensified continuity manifest in The Phantom Menace? The average shot length (ASL) of the film clocks in at 3.3 seconds.[3] According to Bordwell, such a mark is normal for pictures reliant on action or special effects. These quick cuts, combined with camera movement, allow for the audience to experience a near maximal level of the movie’s spectacle. Notice how in the below scene from the beginning of the film quickly take us rapidly between the Trade Federation’s plotting against the Jedi, the destruction of their vessel, the Jedis’ fight against the battle droids, their escape, and decision to continue their mission on Naboo’s surface. It’s easy to take the speed of this scene for granted, especially since many other films contemporaneously move at a pace as uncompromising as this. However, this results in The Phantom Menace feeling like a series of short action scenes rather than having sustained sequences of build-up that later culminate in longer periods of excitement. Scenes of dialogue feel less like investments in character and more like brief ellipses between skirmishes.

Naturally, such a quick succession of plot allows filmmakers to fashion their stories with a great level of detail, since the audience is now better equipped to consume the various threads as quickly as possible. The Phantom Menace has a plot much denser than any Star Wars movie previous to it. On a base level, it concerns a pair of Jedi Knights (Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi[4]) who are tasked with resolving a trade dispute between the planet Naboo (represented by Queen Amidala) and the monolithic corporate entity the Trade Federation. Along the way, the group encounters a prospective Jedi trainee named Anakin Skywalker, an enslaved resident of Tatooine who assists them in obtaining the necessary parts to get Amidala’s ship back to working condition. While on Tatooine, the reemergence of the Sith (here in the form of the devilish Darth Maul) sparks great cause for concern in a galaxy already on the verge of political strife. The party eventually arrives to Coruscant (the galaxy’s central governmental and business hub), which gives way to political debates to the Republic’s place in handling disputes between planets and larger corporate entities. The group eventually returns to Naboo to retake the planet back from the Trade Federation.

Being the first film in a prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace has the unenviable task of establishing a universe that maps out an ultimate path to the original trilogy while taking some narrative detours along the way. Broadly, the film succeeds at this. The localized conflict between Naboo and the Trade Federation sets up the political context that the subsequent two films build towards completing. Additionally, Anakin’s relationships to Padme (the queen’s handmaiden[5]) and Obi-Wan, which connect to both the prequel and original trilogies, are founded. However, Lucas’s mistakes his plot’s volume for quality. He may have designed a beautiful car but its lack of a steering wheel just has leaves you flying down the interstate without any sense of direction.

How can we feel sufficiently connected to the characters if the film itself doesn’t know which one it should prize over the others? By the end of The Phantom Menace, we’ve gotten to know a collection of characters who feel more like walking personality traits instead of thought-out individuals. Many of these characters could have been worthwhile leads of a movie that inadequately tries pushing them all to the front. The story of Obi-Wan, an apprentice on the cusp of knighthood who is suddenly thrust in the midst of an interplanetary conflict, seems like the easiest fix. How about Padme, a young queen forced to deal with the attack of her planet and the Republic Senate’s political gridlock? Anakin’s background (a slave entrapped amongst a wretched hive of scum and villainy) would have given credence to who he later becomes and his upbringing’s poetic relationship to his future son. Even the struggles of Qui-Gon, a weary master pulled between loyalty to the Jedi Order and his own convictions regarding resolving Naboo’s predicament and training Anakin, would have worked. But instead, the possibility of imagining this lot as tangibly relatable is rejected in favor of a smorgasbord of samplings instead of a focused, labored over entrée.

podrace

It seems even Lucas was aware of the chaotic sense of pace that The Phantom Menace would inflict on the audience. Following a rough cut of the film, Lucas admits to a “disjointed” product that maybe went “a bit too far in a few places.”[6] Editor Ben Burtt also highlighted the film’s climax as tonally uneven at a rate that threatens to diffuse the narrative and emotional beats of the piece. The highly intricate plotting, which intercuts the various set pieces , irrevocably pushes the stories together in such a way that removing a portion threatens to derail an already unruly structure. Lucas, in a subsequent conference with Burtt and producer Rick McCallum, says that many of these problems were ones he faced when finishing the original Star Wars. He acknowledges that his most recent effort was a bolder advancement of his prototypical work and that if they feel a bit lost by the result, “a regular person’s going to go nuts.”

And nuts people went indeed. As previously stated, The Phantom Menace went on to become the highest grossing movie of the year, even becoming the second highest grossing movie at the time.[7] But in a turn of events that now seems inevitable, the majority of Star Wars fans felt the movie was a betrayal of a universe they had so passionately loved. Lucas himself seemed nonplussed by initial criticisms, plunging ahead with the production of Attack of the Clones. The director seemed much more interested in pushing technology and style forward rather than coming up with a convincing enough reason to return to the galaxy he had birthed twenty years prior. It’s easy to write him off as a great artist who at some point along the way who replaced his storytelling interests for financial ones. You can be disappointed in his handling of the prequels but you have to at least respect his desire to make a bolder brand of film that took the audience on a violently paced roller coaster ride. It’s just too bad the designer didn’t take greater consideration towards who you were riding it with.

jar jar

[1] This time as a face rather than a heel.

[2] Featuring lots of action scenes that seem directed on auto-pilot, as if Lucas ran his screenplay through a 3D printer and out came the movie.

[3] According to Cinemetrics: http://www.cinemetrics.lv/database.php?sort=asl/

[4] I wonder if he becomes Old Ben Kenobi.

[5] But really Padme IS the queen! In a movie with already a lot going on, these shenanigans just come off as a touch (or a shove) too much.

[6] The whole video gives a great overview to the production but skip to the 54:43 mark to see the cited exchange.

[7] After Titanic, of course.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s