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.