sandman cometh

Sleeping feels like death itself.
It is the under time, the quiet time.
Hush, little baby, don’t you cry
the Angels pass the waking ones
to take the slumbered few.

The Sandman is the Devil’s man
draining the souls of the living
down through sleep to death
the underworld sucking down souls
as sand slides through a sieve

pillows soft as the hangman’s noose
silk woven love, and braided
slide around the neck
like covers pulled tight
slowly choking the life away

rock a bye baby
say goodbye to the world
close your eyes and hush now
baby, the end is quiet
nightingale sings your sweet lullaby

dying under the comforter
of a warm blanket
the coffin lid obscures the light
oh don’t wake now, keep dreaming
defiance, little one, tires the mind

harvest moon wanes
red blood dripping
into the midnight glass of water
delta waving away ripples
the sandman cometh

SWD: Fracturing the Space Time Continuum

Lately I have been re-reading Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars trilogy Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. Zahn is widely regarded as the best author of Star Wars fiction, and largely because of these three books. I have just finished the first book in the trilogy, Heir to the Empire, and one thing that interested/amused me was Zahn’s habit of picking a bit of fun at the way Return of the Jedi ended, particularly the fact that the Rebels win simply by blowing up the second Death Star and the Super Star Destroyer (and, you know, killing Vader and the Emperor). Captain Pellaeon happens to be the most frequent spokesperson for what must be Zahn’s thoughts. Consider: “Pellaeon issued the order to retreat. And wondered, once again, what the Battle of Endor would have been like if Thrawn had been in command.” (page 399 of the Bantam paperback). It appears that I am not the only one that thinks events would have transpired differently in the Star Wars movies if they had been written better.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (01.10.06-01.20.25)

The story continues with Anakin, our plucky podrace winner, being congratulated by everyone inside the pod hangar and Qui-Gon slipping off to ensure that Watto pays his debts. Watto suddenly realizes that he has lost “everything” and accuses Qui-Gon of “swindling” him. Jinn retorts “whenever you gamble, my friend, eventually you lose” (01.10.48). I don’t see how Watto lost “everything”. He actually won the winner’s purse, which must be a substantial amount. He only loses the resale value of the parts Qui-Gon needs and Anakin, but I am thinking it would not have been long before Anakin either found a way to locate his implanted bomb or killed Watto for his freedom. Either way, Qui-Gon is right: gambling like there is no tomorrow is a good way to lose a great deal. The Jedi may not have been smart to put everything on Anakin’s shoulders and win everything through a bet, but Watto’s overconfidence in Sebulba and his greed made him an easy mark. Although, had reality intervened and Anakin lost, the same thing could be said of Qui-Gon. I guess the moral of Lucas’ story is: don’t gamble. My moral is: don’t gamble, especially when important things are at stake.

Qui-Gon delivers his extorted parts to Obi-Wan, then leaves to complete “unfinished business”. Kenobi’s insight serves him well: “why do I get the feeling that we have picked up another pathetic life form?” (01.11.29). Kenobi is apparently amused/annoyed by Qui-Gon’s habit of picking up strays, perhaps feeling like he got the eccentric uncle of Jedi Masters and isn’t too impressed with Anakin Skywalker (it is hinted at here, but is made more explicit later on). This brings up an oft cited problem with the Prequel Trilogy: George Lucas, intentionally or otherwise, contradicts himself and his own history throughout the Phantom Menace and subsequent films.

The most glaring example of this is the character of Qui-Gon Jinn as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s master. Kenobi implicitly states that Yoda was his master. Then, 16 years later, Obi-Wan reappears under the tutelage of Jinn? I can understand the problems that Yoda, as a practical character, would have caused in a role that was more extensive than standing around a swamp, but little effort appears to have been made in reconciling this discrepancy. Kenobi does not even interact with Yoda in the film until after he becomes a Jedi Knight. In fact, the only move whatsoever to correct this mistake didn’t occur until Attack of the Clones when it is revealed that Yoda apparently trains all the little tykes in their first bit of lightsaber training (more on that when I get there). One could argue that because Yoda was the leader of the Jedi Council he was the de facto master of all Jedi, but Kenobi clearly implies the personal relationship that he has with Jinn, not some organizational concept. In this instance, my guess is that Lucas didn’t notice or care about the error until fans got vocal and he wrote the scene into Episode II. Furthermore, Kenobi mentions in A New Hope that Anakin was “already a great pilot…but I was amazed with how strongly the Force was with him” but so far in the Phantom Menace, they haven’t even met. He didn’t witness the podrace, and his only clue that Anakin can even use the Force is a midichlorian count, which Kenobi doesn’t even know is Anakin’s until Qui-Gon connects the boy to the blood sample. Furthermore, later in the movie, Kenobi will agree with the council that Anakin shouldn’t be trained and is dangerous. Kenobi, in Return of the Jedi, states that “I thought I could instruct him as well as Yoda” when in fact Jinn was about to teach Anakin, and Yoda wasn’t really involved at all. I maintain that if George Lucas had bothered to take a little bit more care in the writing of the Phantom Menace, this, and many other inconsistencies and illogical occurrences could have been easily avoided.

Qui-Gon returns to collect Anakin, and that occurs through a very realistic scene portraying the difficulty of a small boy leaving his mother and not knowing if he will ever see her again. The writing here is well done, I think.

Except there is another small problem brought to light by this exchange: does one choose to be Jedi? This is more of an ethical question and not a writing problem. Yoda is against Luke’s training because he is too old and too reckless. He is against Anakin’s training because he is too old, fearful, and angry. It is an accepted truism of the Jedi order that they take Force-sensitive infants to be trained to be Jedi (eliminating the age problem) although that isn’t explicit in the films. The only hint of this is a comment made by Qui-Gon to Shmi Skywalker, when he stated that if Anakin “had been born in the Republic, we would have identified him early” (00.47.10).

But what right do the Jedi have to do this? In this scene Qui-Gon makes a point of ensuring that Anakin knows what is involved in accepting membership in the ranks of the Jedi, and that such a decision must be a conscious choice. Kenobi mirrors this with Luke. The problem is: any conscripted infant never has a chance to make that choice. Even if you ask them later in life, they have already been indoctrinated in the Jedi way of thinking and will be very reluctant to leave it. In hundreds of years of history, only 19-20 Knights ever left the Order (even Qui-Gon, though he is very different than most Jedi, chooses to remain in the Order) giving credence to this fact. This could be a minor point because infant recruitment isn’t really touched on in the films, but the idea seems to be related to the Jedi sanction against attachment that becomes a major theme of both Episode II and III. Such a sanction doesn’t make too much sense, biologically or philosophically, but in either case, it backfires catastrophically with Anakin because no one ever goes back to free his mother, and apparently no one ever allows him to do so, and it is his marriage to Amidala that directly influences his lust for power. I will try to flesh this idea out more in my analysis of key scenes in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but I think that, while not directly bad writing, the recruitment of little kids and the forbidding of personal relationships is bad thinking on the part of the Jedi Order.

Lastly, Maul tracks down the Jedi and is too late to stop them, and Amidala comforts Anakin, but in sandwiched betwixt both scenes is a little moment between Nute Gunray and Sio Bibble back on Naboo. More than anything I suspect this scene exists to remind the viewer that Naboo actually matters when most of the characters seem to have forgotten it. However, Gunray implies that he is starving the residents of the planet. This makes no sense. I’ve said it before, but Gunray is making himself a war criminal and no war criminal will be allowed to retain control of anything, treaty or no treaty. Anybody who has any clue about history knows this. Also, Bibble isn’t much smarter because he claims that Naboo is a democracy “and the people have decided” that no matter what they will resist (01.18.25). Uh huh. I highly doubt the people would support the decisions of elected leaders that nobly decide to sacrifice their own populace because they have high morals about invasions. In general, oppressed, hungry people are not very reasonable. Bibble and other officials might be decided, but I have strong reservations about the resolve of their constituents. I just don’t think that George Lucas understands how invasions and occupations actually work and what their legal ramifications are.

Anyway, Queen Amidala, having finally gotten her car fixed, is on her way to Coruscant.

(01.20.25)

SWD: Superiority and the Force

Finally! I’ve come to my second favorite section of the Phantom Menace: the pulse-pounding, fast-flying, rocket-roaring podrace. Despite believing that the race itself is pointless, I love it. I simply cannot wait to see it in 3D in 2012.

Ahem. I will now ignore my inner fanboy and get back to the analysis at hand. Though the timestamps of this post cover 20 minutes of film time, I will only address the six minutes or so before the podrace, because nothing significant occurs during the podrace other than 15 minutes of pure Star Wars awesome.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.49.56-01.10.05)

This portion of the film begins with a quiet exchange between Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin Skywalker. I really like seeing the reserved and unassuming Jedi that Qui-Gon can be. It almost makes me like him, but a few nice scenes are not enough to redeem him from many scenes of blatant evil.

I have been accused of being hypercritical in my analysis, perhaps particularly geared towards my understanding of Jinn, and I have received a little bit of rebuking about the fact that I call him evil. In general I believe an abuse of power to be an evil thing. I won’t use a euphemism or excuse behavior because of a person’s status or title. I don’t in life, and I definitely will not in fiction. Therefore, when I see someone do something that is not good, I call it what it is: evil. If I see someone do more evil than good I assume that they are an evil person, and categorize them as such. Admittedly, this is way easier in fiction because people are so much simpler than in real life.

It follows, then, that because Qui-Gon Jinn repeatedly coerces people, tricks them, scams them, and belittles them Qui-Gon Jinn is evil. He is not a mustache-twirling uber-villain, but most evil people are not either. There simply is no excuse for bad behavior, especially if one is a member of an organization that is known for being the ultimate good in the universe. It will be revealed that Qui-Gon, while a member of the Jedi Order, is at odds with most of his Jedi brethren. In that case, I think he is a bit of a coward: he should have had the moral backbone to do what Count Dooku did and leave the order. Otherwise he is no more than a poser with a problem with authority. The reason why I even have a problem with his character is because I think that the audience of Star Wars is supposed to like Qui-Gon. He is not written to be a mostly evil coward with delusions of grandeur, he is written to be a likable, strong maverick. He is supposed to be the Old Ben Kenobi of the Phantom Menace when instead he acts like Han Solo. The difference is that Han never claims to be good. He repeatedly, in fact, resists any notion of the fact that he is anything other than a scoundrel, even when he reluctantly accepts a formal Generalship in the Rebel Alliance. From the beginning Qui-Gon demands respect as a wise and powerful moral leader and then resorts to influencing thought itself to get what he wants. On several occasions, he doesn’t even bother to ask. With his dying breath Qui-Gon Jinn forces Obi-Wan Kenobi into a rebellion that will doom the galaxy and cost the lives of every single Jedi except Luke Skywalker. (Yes, I know Kenobi and Yoda escape the initial purge, but Kenobi is killed by Vader eventually, and I think living in exile in a damp swamp shortened Yoda’s life span considerably.)

So yes, Jinn has a nice conversation with Anakin, but he is evil.

Next, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to check Anakin’s blood for midichlorians. Unlike most of my Original Trilogy loving fanboy pals, I don’t hate the idea of midichlorians. I have heard arguments that they cheapen the Force or contradict Yoda or shatter the Star Wars space time continuum or something, but the fact is they don’t. There is a wonderful line from the novelization of A New Hope that, I think, sums this point up rather nicely. Kenobi is explaining the Force to Luke and he says “There is as much magic as science in the explanations of the Force. Yet what is a magician but a practicing theorist?” (pg 99 of the DelRey paperback). Throughout most of human history early scientists suffered under suspicion of sorcery. If one were to take an iPhone back in time a few hundred years one might find themselves warming up in a heretic fire for their demon possessed little box, at least, so goes the cliche. In any case my point is that magic and science are sometimes two sides of a single phenomenon. In the Empire Strikes Back when Yoda is explaining the mystical energy field of the Force he focuses on the magical side and when Qui-Gon explains the midichlorians he focuses on the scientific side. In Yoda’s case it would hardly have mattered how he explained it to Luke because what mattered was that Luke learn how to use it, and rather quickly at that. Anakin is looking forward to a lifetime learning about the Force, so why not start with the more concrete side of things? I don’t think that microscopic symbiotic lifeforms are the most elegant way of giving the Force a foundation in “fact” but it works nonetheless and I don’t have a problem with it.

After a brief interlude in which Darth Maul shows up and sends his probe droids to pinpoint the Jedi, Jinn is back to his scheming, this time cheating in a dice toss for possession of Anakin. This works within the framework of everything else he is betting on the outcome of the podrace, but other than the Bad Writing explanation of needing Anakin Skywalker to win the space battle, I don’t see why Qui-Gon needs to do something about Anakin right now. He has already admitted that his mission with Queen Amidala takes priority over all else, and that he isn’t on Tatooine to free slaves, so there is no reason why he could not get Amidala to Coruscant and either send other Jedi back to buy Anakin with real money or come back himself at a later date. But, if you are already betting the farm, why not bet the car as well?

It is finally revealed that Anakin may be a great pilot, but he still hasn’t even finished a podrace. I would think that this is something to be found out before one bets everything on his winning. I love the look Amidala gives Jinn when Anakin admits that he has never finished a race and Qui-Gon dares her to object to his crazy methods (00.54.48). Really, any sane person would know this plan has an infinitesimal chance of succeeding. But, as Amidala says “You Jedi are far too reckless” (at least, Qui-Gon is) and Qui-Gon counters with more superiority, wrongly assuming that the Queen, like everyone else, should trust his judgment because he is Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Knight (00.58.48).

One last thing before the podrace: the flatulence gag (00.56.56). Really, this makes me gag. I hate it. So. Very. Much. For one thing, it ruins the awesome Flag Parade March music that John Williams has crafted for this scene: the trumpets are blaring, the music is rising, the mood is majestic and – fart, completely obscuring the resolution of the musical measure. Some part of me imagines John Williams watching the premier and getting to this part in the film, and being a little shocked, and then crying a little bit in the same way that a master painter would be hurt that a five year old spattered neon green paint on their Mona Lisa thinking that it was funny. Maybe the under 5 (in age/maturity) crowd that thinks farting is funny likes it, but I believe using bodily functions as a source of humor is the most low-brow form of bad writing possible. Even the timing of the gag is off.

Anyway…the podracers race and Anakin wins. Of course.

(01.10.05)

SWD: A Game of Chance

At the beginning of my last blog I made an unkind comparison between George Lucas and a woodpecker. I figure that Lucas may never read this blog, but there are people who do, and whether he does or not it is right to make amends. I began this analysis of the Star Wars films in order to objectively judge their value in terms of writing by the same criteria that any work of art is judged, be it literature, theater, film, or oral tradition. It is both unprofessional and illogical of me to judge the creator of the work, and on those grounds I apologize.

The past forty minutes and fourteen seconds of the film have built up to the next ten minutes, and while that statement seems inanely obvious, what I mean is that the next ten minutes of the film are a turning point, both in terms of plot and character development, mostly for Queen Amidala.

I have spent the last eight blog posts discussing why what is about to happen doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I will summarize: even given the unlikely course of events that brought the Jedi and the royalty of Naboo to Tatooine, betting their future on the outcome of race instead of expending every resource at their disposal to solve their problem is reckless and, quite frankly, dumb.

However, I really like the next ten minutes. They are honest, introspective, and momentous.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.40.15-00.49.55)

Blink and you will miss Darth Maul’s only lines of dialogue in the film. He confirms that he was in fact tracing the location of the Queen’s starship through Sio Bibble’s call for help, and Darth Sidious gives him leave to seek out the Jedi. Darth Sidious still seems intent on making Amidala sign the treaty that will supposedly legalize the Trade Federation’s illegal blockade, invasion, and occupation of Naboo. Again, I have already blogged about how this treaty doesn’t make sense, unless Palpatine is planning to heroically defeat it in committee, so I’ll leave it be.

However, this does raise another logical problem for me. Consider: Darth Maul apparently tracked the general location of the Queen’s ship via holotransmission; Qui-Gon is risking everything to repair the ship. Would it have not made more sense for the Jedi, who have figured from the first time they landed on Tatooine that transmissions were a bad idea (it is why they didn’t call for assistance), to have simply abandoned the Queen’s ship, or sold it as-is, and bartered passage off planet with an “independent freighter pilot” a la Kenobi hiring Han Solo? They couldn’t be tracked, and they wouldn’t have to bother with purchasing expensive and hard to acquire machinery. The whole business of acquiring Anakin aside, does that not make logical sense? It does to me, and would be, to my way of thinking, much better writing. It even parallels A New Hope, and Lucas is not above mining the Original trilogy for ideas in other places, so why not here? It would have even foreshadowed Kenobi doing the same thing later in life.

Back on Tatooine, the sandstorm still rages while inside a humble adobe dwelling Shmi Skywalker pours blue milk and helps Anakin describe an escaping slave’s punishment: explosion via automated transmitter. Such a device is barbaric, brutal, and a very good deterrent, exactly what one would expect on a planet run by a bunch of criminals. I very much like this little meal because it gives the audience a chance to live with Anakin and Shmi, and the discussion about slavery helps to widen Amidala’s gaze. I believe this conversation directly influences her later decision to fight back, even when she first declared her pacifistic stance (“I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war”). Without getting into the debate on pacifism vs war, I will say that there are circumstances in which justice can only be won through confrontation, and I think this little discussion on slavery helps Amidala understand that.

It is in this sequence that Qui-Gon Jinn shows a completely different side to his character that the audience rarely glimpses. Anakin selflessly offers his help in solving the Queen’s dilemma, even to the point of risking death to do so (I don’t care how quick his Jedi reflexes, he still risks death every time he climbs into a podracer cockpit) and Qui-Gon does not influence the discussion either way, except to agree with Shmi that he would rather not risk Anakin’s life on their account. Even though my natural reaction is to harp again on the fact that Qui-Gon has barely explored any other avenue of opportunity, from the perspective of “there is no other way” he is being backed into a corner. From that position, I probably would have done what he does: concoct a scam with Anakin once Shmi allows it.

Anakin’s solution to the problem is a deus ex machina solution: Anakin appears, unlooked for, with a solution that was not expected. He single handedly solves the problem: he built the podracer, he races the podracer, and he wins the podrace. He also wins his own freedom, allowing him to be a deus ex machina during the end space battle above Naboo. I have no problem with this, in terms of the story, unless Anakin is meant to also be the hero of the film. A hero who is his own dues ex machina is problematic and uncreative. I again reference Luke in the Death Star trench being saved by Han Solo. That scene would be totally different if Luke himself trashed his pursuers and then blew up the Death Star. The equivalent happens in this film twice. But if Anakin isn’t the hero, who is? I have yet to really see a character that fits the bill. Maybe Qui-Gon as a flawed hero, or Amidala as a heroine who rises above her situation, but this trilogy is about Anakin, just as the next is about Luke. George Lucas has cited this fact when explaining why there are no Episodes VII-IX, so I am reluctant to admit a different intended hero.

Meanwhile Qui-Gon returns to Watto’s junk shop to put his scheme into action. Amidala clearly does not like this plan, mostly it appears because the plan depends upon putting an 8 year old boy in extreme danger, and I would like to hope that, as Kenobi puts it, they could be “stuck here a very long time” if the plan fails (00.44.29, 00.46.24). For a brief second Evil Qui-Gon surfaces when he belittles the Queen, though in all fairness he still has no clue that Amidala is the Queen in disguise, and if he knew I have no doubt he wouldn’t have said what he did. Inside the shop he negotiates a fair deal with Watto, and he doesn’t actually lie about anything. I very much like this version of Qui-Gon over the mind-tricking arrogant version. Also, I must say again that I love John Williams’ score of Star Wars, especially during these ten minutes. Seriously, watch just this segment of the film and focus on the music. It is amazing.

Now, the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker: I don’t know, still, after many many viewings of this film and the saga as a whole, if I like the idea of the virgin birth or not. Such an idea fits with Lucas’ smorgasbord of religion that is Star Wars. He mishmashes philosophies and ideas to create this universe, and I would have been shocked if there wasn’t some overt Judeo-Christian idea somewhere. But Anakin as virgin born? I don’t know if it is necessary, really. Luke was incredibly special without being virgin born. Um, actually, everyone except Jesus (if you believe the talk) who was special was so without being born of a virgin. I know that the idea of midichlorians isn’t introduced until the next ten minute segment, but even if you give the Force a pseudo-scientific basis, it still does not necessitate a virgin birth. My verdict is still out, but even if I don’t like it, I don’t dislike it either. I accept it and move on.

Lastly, I really like the honesty of Qui-Gon Jinn in these ten minutes. Twice, to Anakin and to Shmi, he is forced to confront the reality of their situation as slaves and the possibility that there may be nothing that he can do about it. Amidala already was confronted with the ugly position of her benefactor, and both Shmi and Anakin were confronted with the truth that giving of yourself will not always suddenly make life better. Qui-Gon humbly acknowledges that he can do little to help them in return for their kindness and that is just the unfortunate business of living. This quiet exchange makes the world of Star Wars that much more realistic, and that is good writing.

Anakin Skwalker’s podracer roars to life giving rocket wings to the last hope of Queen Amidala and Qui-Gon Jinn.

(00.49.55)

SWD: Junk Dealing

There is a woodpecker who lives in the tree behind my apartment. Every late morning and early afternoon he spends anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours trying to peck his way into my apartment wall. Eventually the idea seeps into his head that it simply won’t work, and he flies off to peck a tree. This woodpecker has more imagination than George Lucas.

Such a statement sounds ludicrous in the face of the wonderful galaxy that Lucas created for people like me to live in, but it really is true. For one thing, most of the Star Wars design elements actually belong to the geniuses in the art department at Skywalker Ranch and the computer wizards at Industrial Light and Magic. Watch any of the Star Wars special features and pretty quickly it becomes evident that Lucas asked for “a Nemoidian” but didn’t tell anyone what that was and then simply approved the design that he liked. I have no idea what was actually in Lucas’ mind when he wrote a Nemoidian into the script, but it appears that on more than one occasion even he did not know what one was until an artist sketched it. The Art of… books prove this point also, showing all the rejected sketches for races, objects, and locals.

My point is this: the upcoming rigamarole about a hyperdrive generator and Qui-Gon Jinn’s long con of Watto only shows in stark detail Lucas’ lack of imagination. Because Anakin Skywalker lived on Tatooine, and because Anakin needed to be discovered by the Jedi, Qui-Gon needed to land on Tatooine, but making that occur meant that Lucas needed to contrive all sorts of events to get him there and keep him there long enough to ensure that Anakin be adopted into Jinn’s Traveling Circus, but not a single one of the upcoming events makes any logical sense, and the life of any narrative work is tied to the plot making logical sense.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.29.59-00.40.14)

The Queen’s damaged spaceship has landed on the outskirts of Mos Espa, a small town/spaceport on the edges of the Dune Sea (a place Luke Skywalker knew well). Jinn disembarks the ship with R2-D2 in tow, a good choice, and with Jar Jar, a questionable choice. I think this occurs for two reasons, only one of them necessarily bad. First, Jar Jar is the Chewbacca of Phantom Menace, so he needs to be in almost every scene. Second, Jar Jar is intended to be comic relief and the reason why all the little children will get hooked onto the new Star Wars (yes, I did just call Binks a gateway drug). The second reason is the bad one. There was not one single child in the old trilogy, unless you count the Ewoks, but as a kid, I always wanted to be the adult characters like Luke, Han, and Lando. Only people who misunderstand children think that children want to be the children in movies. All the toy isles in any major store prove this point: very few child action figures, very many adult action figures.

In universe, Jinn’s decision to bring Jar Jar along doesn’t make any more sense. He is a proven clutz, and an awkward person so far outside of his natural environment that I am slightly shocked that he isn’t huddled in a storage locker somewhere on Amidala’s ship. I think that Jinn is trying to blend into the diverse population of Tatooine, but in this case, he would have had better luck with Padme who orders herself along on the trip anyway (00.30.30). Jinn doesn’t think Amidala’s inclusion in the field trip is a good idea (but Jar Jar??) because the spaceport is not going to be “pleasant” (00.30.37). I know that is what he says, but what we see of Mos Espa is about as unpleasant as Mayberry. But then, Mos Eisley, the “hive of scum and villany” wasn’t all that bed either, except for a couple of drunken serial killers, but they assaulted all their unsuspecting farm boys inside the bar, not on the sandy streets. Maybe I am nitpicking, but when what is written/said doesn’t line up with what is shown, it is bad writing.

In any case, I do enjoy the ironic hilarity that ensues: Jinn, with irritating superiority, shows utter lack of respect and borderline contempt for the Queen while the Queen stands right there and says nothing. I admire Amidala’s restraint in not immediately taking Jinn down a notch, but his moment is coming.

To the main point in this ten minute segment: “we’ll try one of the smaller dealers” says Qui-Gon Jinn, beginning his search for the Queen’s car part (00.31.37). Given that everything in this movie is the result of some sort of happy accident, I would ordinarily be annoyed that Qui-Gon just happened to go directly to the small dealer in which Anakin Skywalker worked, but this is a minor point in the bigger problem of what happens next: Qui-Gon Jinn only ever goes to Watto’s shop. This is a very, very big deal. He is supposed to be finding a part to fix the Queen’s ship as rapidly as possible so that he can get her to Coruscant and the Senate so that she can plead her case. Every other concern should be secondary, and not a moment should be lost, and no stone should be left unturned. (At least, that is the urgency that Qui-Gon uses as justification for his evil.)

With that in mind, as soon as he saw that one shop didn’t have the part he needed, he should go on to the next, and the next, and the next. Then he should try the next town over. And the next. And then, if the truly inconceivable happened and he couldn’t find his car part anywhere on the whole entire planet, not even for ready money, he should try the next closest planet. Of course Watto says “no one else has a T-14 hyperdrive” but the ludicrous thing is that Jinn apparently believes him, as if that isn’t the oldest trick in the junk dealing book (00.34.32). Since when is that statement ever true? Also, why doesn’t he try to exchange his Republic credits for something “more real”? Jinn doesn’t try anything else because Lucas’ real purpose on Tatooine is to retrieve Anakin, and for that to work Jinn needs to be an idiot and Watto needs to not accept Republic credits so Jinn can scam Watto into freeing Anakin.

Really. Bad. Writing.

At least Jinn’s unconscionable mind-tricking ways don’t work here, because Watto happens to have more mental toughness than most people (00.34.13). This leads to another revelation about Jinn’s character: he has no idea how to deal with people that he cannot intimidate or mind-trick. (Wait and see what he does when the Jedi Council dares to tell him no.) I’ve said it before: Qui-Gon Jinn’s morals are definitely in question, and he definitely is more evil than he should be as a Jedi.

Scrunched in between the mind-bending junk dealing is a small touching scene in which Amidala, and by extension, the viewers, meet Anakin Skywalker. He is a “funny little boy” who has been podracing “all his life” and is not a slave, but a “person” (00.33.16). Well, he is slave, actually. Mostly this is good. It is only a little weird because a 14 year old Queen is starting to fall in love with an 8 year old slave/person. To be fair, he has more maturity than the average 16 year old boy, but it is still a little weird. Padme is the right amount of amused and endeared, but it is still weird. Romance should stay the domain of adults.

Next Jar Jar proves why he shouldn’t have been included on this field trip, and then something remarkable occurs: a natural plot device in the form of a sandstorm. Deserts tend to be prone to sandstorms, especially in Tunisia where these scenes were filmed. In fact, a sandstorm hit the set and nearly destroyed everything. So, this makes for a complete and total perfect sense making reason why the Jedi and Co stop over at Anakin’s house.

While there Anakin’s mother is introduced, along with C-3PO, who is being built by Anakin. Well, in typical 8 year old fashion he claims to be building him when he is probably just rebuilding him from spare protocol droid parts, being that protocol droids are about as common as toasters. But I buy that Anakin could be a mechanical genius.

Finally, the Queen’s ship receives a transmission from Sio Bibble who claims that the “death toll is catastrophic” (00.39.49). I agree with Jinn, for once. It would make no sense for the Trade Federation to be murdering people just to get Amidala to surface, especially since Sidious already said he would take care of the situation with Darth Maul. These ten minutes end with some unusual good writing.

Good thing too: lunch is about to be served, even though they are running out time by dealing junk only with Watto.

(00.40.14)

SWD: Running the Blockade

The baseball playoffs begin again tomorrow evening, but I anticipate that with only one or two games a day, instead of three, I will be able to post during the Championship Series. In the mean time, I am making use of the free day before game time to write about the next ten minutes of the Phantom Menace.

As is becoming a staple of this deconstruction, a few things happen in these next ten minutes that don’t make complete sense, but there are two scenes which are very good, in terms of acting and character development. I can’t wait to discuss them…

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.20.41-00.29.58)

The droid army finally marches on Theed, the Naboo capital city, and captures Queen Amidala, hardly a difficult challenge because the Naboo people appear to submit without any resistance whatsoever. The Jedi also finally arrive, and realize that they are too late to warn the Queen about the imminent invasion, so they skip that part and rescue her.

Before that happens, there is a little confusing scene in which the question is finally asked, “How will you explain this invasion to the Senate?” (00.21.38). An excellent question that is given a less than satisfactory answer. Gunray replies that he and the Queen will sign a treaty which will then be ratified by the Senate (00.21.45). Two things: first, any treaty which can be proven to be signed under duress (like invasion and suffering) probably can be shown to be null and void. It is like the concept of an age of consent. Under a certain age, coercion is assumed, and rightfully so; likewise, there is no way any thinking official would consider such a treaty legitimate in any way. Second, Gunray (and Sidious, who is ultimately behind this) is foolish if they think any such legislation will even be in effect for any length of appreciable time. It might be ratified as Gunray suggests, but then it would be appealed and debated and appealed and ruled on and counter legislation would be introduced and it would be appealed and debated…the cycle would be endless where the illegal occupation of a planet was concerned.

I live in America and presidents have been fighting over things like taxes and healthcare and abortion law all my life and haven’t really come to any concrete advances. One president signs a ban or something and tries to get a law passed but by the the time the next president comes along he signs a release of the ban and then the next re-bans it. And these are relatively trivial matters. This treaty idea seems to have been a hastily included rational for how this ludicrous operation could make sense, but as neither the invasion nor the treaty was well thought out it just compounds the bad writing inherent within the movie.

However, there is one thing that I appreciate in this exchange: Gunray treats it as a simple business matter and the Queen responds with quiet resolve and neither makes it melodramatic. Both seem somewhat content, at this juncture, to settle in for a long stalemate until something else happens. Fortunately for the Queen, that takes all of 45 seconds.

For a change, when he discusses things with someone, Qui-Gon Jinn does not use a Jedi mind trick. He merely “suggests” that Amidala accompany him to Coruscant, finally realizing that nothing here makes logical sense (00.23.32). For some reason, however, Jinn automatically assumes that because nothing makes sense the Federation’s next move will be to kill Amidala. I have no idea how he comes to that conclusion. He cites his feelings, and well, his gut must be wrong. Sidious himself won’t ever try to kill her, instead he will constantly try to have her captured so she can sign the treaty. Despite why he reasons as he does, having Amidala leave the planet for Coruscant happens to be a good idea. If nothing else, she can call a massive press conference and get public opinion on her side.

Next the Jedi easily dispatch a bunch of droids. Given that I anticipate discussing the legendarily horrible aim of the stormtroopers in the original series, I love that the droids are consistently weak and ineffective. Their aim is great, but true to their character as mindless and stupid drones, they are effortlessly overcome. An improvement, actually, over the rank and file clones/recruits that make up the Imperial forces.

Once the heroic little group makes good their escape from the planet, they next encounter the blockade. Inexplicably, the Naboo cruiser flies directly at a blockade ship, and only that blockade ship opens fire, resulting in a direct hit to their shield generator (00.25.47). What would make more sense is to jink erratically and not provide a stable target. What would also make sense would be for the Federation to scramble a massive amount of starfighters, open fire with more than one ship, and force the cruiser to turn around or land in a docking bay. Neither happens. Furthermore, if faulty star wars tactics were not enough, I have no idea how a shield generator could be hit causing the shields to fail unless the shields had already failed. This just makes no sense. Fortunately, R2-D2 saves the day, but before he does, the hyperdrive also gets hit, forcing a Tatooine detour (00.26.52). This was almost the first natural plot occurrence, but that whole bit about the shield generator kicks it out the window, along with any tension that might have been present in what is obviously supposed to be a suspenseful escape, though John Williams’ score tries mightily to help.

All of this happens just in time for Jinn to say something stupid. Apparently it would be “no different” if they landed for repairs on a gangster controlled planet (Tatooine) versus a planet controlled by a real enemy (00.27.12). What? The Hutts generally don’t get involved where they don’t have a reason to be, gangsters usually protect their interests and businesses. Even if they had any clue who Amidala was or why she was there, I don’t see how they would care, except maybe if the Federation levied a bounty, which they haven’t done. Later on, when Watto appears ready to renege on his bets, Jinn threatens to go to the Hutts for conflict resolution. Either he believes the Hutts are a threat, or he doesn’t, but most of what Jinn does is confusing or evil anyway, so I guess this fits with his character. Also, I don’t know why they couldn’t just head for a third planet controlled by neither the Federation or the Hutts (oh yeah: Anakin. See how bad writing ruins a film? they have to get to Tatooine so they can meet Anakin, but doing so makes no logical sense).

While they argue, Gunray finally admits that he lost Amidala to Sidious, who introduces Darth Maul, Sith bloodhound (00.27.49). This scene is totally backwards. I have already written about the overuse of Sidious and the lack of a clear villain. This scene would have been much better if Maul had been on the ship orchestrating the whole event (from granting the Jedi permission to land to ordering the invasion) and if this scene mirrored the Emperor’s phone call in Empire Strikes Back. Gunray could have told Maul that he had a phone call from Sidious, and Maul would have answered and Sidious could have said “there is a great disturbance in the Force. That idiot Jinn is about to discover Anakin” but instead we have this bad writing. Praiseworthy: Gunray’s lieutenant is still the cool voice of reason.

More bad writing leads to the next scene in which a big deal is made about a robot. (An extremely well put together toaster, your Highness. It even passed post-manufacture tests and was therefore for sale.) In the original series the robots were treated like the animate second-class beings they are and aren’t treated with much respect at all, especially by Han. The best part about this scene is the Queen-decoy snarkily making the Queen clean R2, complete with smirk (00.28.35). Good acting. Two other things to comment on in this scene: first, Tatooine cannot be “far outside the reach of the Federation” if it is within range of a ship that can’t go into hyperspace, and second, why “must” the Queen trust Jinn’s judgment (00.28.54)? Neither makes sense, other than to reinforce Lucas’ lack of knowledge about space and Jinn’s inflated opinion of himself.

The stupid act of assigning of the Queen to clean a droid, while deliciously naughty of the Queen-decoy, nevertheless leads to a good scene: Padme is forced to confront a living, breathing Gungan who thus far her society treats worse than droids. This is a key scene for advancing the growth of Padme’s character. This scene could have been achieved many different ways that actually made sense, but at least Lucas got here. This is a moment of good interaction that shows that Jar Jar is not a complete moron, and that Padme has the ability to connect with those her society ignores. I like this solace of good writing; it is the calm before the bad writing storm that is Tatooine.

The Naboo cruiser lands on the outskirts of Mos Espa, settling onto the sands of Tatooine.

(00.29.58)

SWD: A Step Back

I have taken a bit of a hiatus from minutely examining Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in order to direct my attention in the direction of another love of mine: baseball. The playoffs are in full swing, so to speak, and I was engrossed in the first round (the Divisional Series). I am happy to say that the two teams in particular that I was hoping would advance, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Texas Rangers, did in fact win. There is now a recess of sorts before the next round of playoffs (the League Championship Series).

Given this short break, I have had a chance to reflect on what I have written, and on my evaluative processes, and I thought it prudent to take a step back, and discuss in broader terms what I see happening in the Phantom Menace as a whole. I also wish to define a bit more precisely why I dismiss certain aspects of the film as bad writing, or shoddy creative workmanship.

Star Wars Deconstructed: A Step Back

Several things bother me in a broad way in this first episode. First up: The Phantom Menace lacks a clear, hate worthy villain. In the first 20 minutes of the film, two antagonistic characters have appeared: Nute Gunray and Darth Sidious. Gunray hardly seems to be that villainous, more easily-conned. It is clear already that this blockade/invasion is not his idea, and something that he would probably not do. He does appear to be getting something from this deal, but at worst that makes him an opportunist, not really evil. Sidious is the mastermind behind the curtain, but little is revealed about him. He does not actually do anything beyond telling Gunray to do things. The most anyone has done that is overtly bad is try to kill the Jedi and murder two pilots. But, far from evil, that move just seems stupid, as I have previously written.

I compare this to A New Hope because it was also the first of a trilogy, and is roughly parallel to this film. A New Hope has a hate worthy villain who we see in the first ten minutes: Darth Vader. In those first ten minutes, Vader attacks a mostly defenseless ship and then murders a man with his gloved hands. Throughout the entire film we are reminded again and again that Vader is evil. We seem him do, and order, evil things. We meet Tarkin, hear about an Emperor, and other various dark characters, but Vader is without a doubt the Big Bad. That is part of why his character is so iconic. He is immediately identifiable as evil, and is associated with evil.

No one in Phantom Menace fits the bill of Big Bad until Darth Maul shows up, but even Maul will fall short. I will say more about him during the piece-by-piece deconstruction of his scenes, but the main criticism I level against him is that he has almost no dialogue. What he does say is in a brief conversation with Palpatine. And while Vader confronted Obi-Wan at the conclusion of A New Hope, Maul does not say one single word to Jinn and Kenobi while they duel. The ridiculously ineffective droids say more to our intrepid heroes than Maul does. This does not make a villain, only a really quiet bad guy.

With no one to take on the role of the antagonist, the stakes of the film simply do not seem that important. Any good story needs a strong antagonist and a strong protagonist, or a villain and a hero. Which brings me to the second overarching concern I have with the Phantom Menace: a lack of a hero.

There are several heroic characters: the Jedi, Anakin, Amidala, and Jar Jar. A New Hope also had several: Kenobi, R2 and 3PO, Han and Chewie, Leia, and Luke. I have no problem with ensemble heroes, but even in an ensemble, you have the one who is The Hero. In Star Trek it is Captain Kirk who usually stands out from the rest of the crew. In the Lord of the Rings, because of structure, you have two: Aragorn and Frodo. In Ocean’s 11 you have Danny Ocean. In a New Hope it was Luke Skywalker. During the course of the film you spent more time with him than any other character. The audience lives in Luke’s life, and witnesses his pain, his struggle, his triumph. Solo and the rest orbit around him. The Phantom Menace begins with the Jedi, in much the same way that A New Hope began with the droids, but in that case it was a quick trip to Luke. The Jedi don’t encounter Anakin (who is meant to parallel Luke) until 32 minutes into the film. His introduction is as a secondary character, and the audience does not live in his life.

Anakin operates much more like a Dues ex Machina than a protagonist. Dues ex Machina is a Latin phrase meaning “God out of the Machine” and is a term for a plot device in which an unsolvable problem is solved by a contrived or unexpected intervention by a previously unknown character or object. Han Solo is a type of this when he rescues Luke from Vader in the Death Star trench. The audience had assumed that Solo had left completely, so that he could show up unexpectedly and save Luke from being blown into star dust. Anakin appears so that he can fly his podrace and win the Jedi the parts they need for their ship (he will also be a Dues ex Machina again during the final space battle). By definition the Dues ex Machina cannot be the protagonist. The problem is that Anakin is meant to be the Hero. There is already the Leia mirror in Amidala, and the threesome Han, Chewie, Kenobi mirror in Jinn, Kenobi, Jar Jar but Anakin is not the mirror to Luke. Anakin is more Han’s mirror. This is a problem that Lucas simply does not solve.

My final concern, beyond clear villain/hero, is that the Phantom Menace relies much too heavily on the Happy Accident, or coincidental occurrences. It starts with the Bigger Fish that saves the bongo on its journey through the planet core. It will culminate with Anakin’s destruction of the droid control ship, which is one long string of happy accidents. Coincidence is a huge minefield in writing a film, novel, or other narrative work. The cliche “Truth is Stranger than Fiction” only rings true because in the real world, stuff happens that is completely unpredictable. But in fictional worlds, plots and events (largely) need to be within the realm of predictability. Alice in Wonderland breaks this rule, but does so on purpose, to make a point. There can be surprises, and unexpected things, and twists, but those also, after the fact, must have clear causes and reasons for being.

For instance: the audience buys that Luke is able to destroy the Death Star because his piloting skills are well established, his Jedi training is underway, and he destroys the Death Star consistent with those two preceding events/facts. Han is able to save Luke and give him that chance because Han’s piloting skills have been shown, as has his heart of gold. What he does makes sense, even though it is unexpected. Alternately, the Phantom Menace goes to great lengths to prove Anakin’s piloting skills during the podrace, but later, when he climbs into the cockpit of the Naboo starfighter, everything that happens after is a result of accident, not his skill. He pushes buttons at random to start it, experiments to find triggers, accidentally flies into the control ship, and accidentally fires his torpedoes. He even repeatedly says “Oops!” so that we know he does not intend to do any of these things. This is Bad Writing.

So, when the Jedi don’t even start to come up with a plan to combat the first undersea monster, and instead seem to rely entirely on there being another unlikely huge undersea monster for their salvation, not once, but twice, then that is Bad Writing predicated upon Happy Accidents. And that is a serious flaw in the Phantom Menace.

These consequences of bad writing cast a shadow over the entire Phantom Menace film, especially because they become evident so soon. They do not make the film unenjoyable or unwatchable, but tend to make it harder to take seriously or become invested in.