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.