SWD: Through the Planet Core

I have moved into the next ten minutes of the Phantom Menace. I really appreciate the music of John Williams throughout the Star Wars saga. When the Jedi arrive in Otoh Gunga and stand before Boss Nass and the Gungan elders, Williams’ score is haunting and beautiful. He adds emotion to each scene, so masterfully interwoven with the visuals that the film is enhanced far beyond anything Industrial Light and Magic could create. Not that ILM is found wanting. Each time I watched these ten minutes, I saw something else happening in Otoh Gunga: Gungans swimming, herds of animals, fish – and I will never forget the first reveal of the city itself. Otoh Gunga perfectly captures the exoticism of the Star Wars universe, and its revelation evokes similar wonder to the first glimpses of the City in the Clouds in Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.10.00-00.20.40)

The Trade Federation invasion fleet descends upon Naboo and then lands in the most isolated parts of the jungle/forest (00.10.19). Why? Captain Panaka already alerted his queen (and viewers) to the fact that Naboo don’t have an army, only “security volunteers” so I wonder why the Federation didn’t simply land outside the cities and march inside. Viewers don’t even see any resistance to the invasion (which is culminated in the next ten minutes) so why this an outback invasion? I think that Lucas is thinking that the army would need to form up before it actually marches on the city, and this would make sense with a flesh and blood army, but with a bunch of droids, they don’t need to be organized, just activated.

But, the massive droid carriers end up crashing through trees and chasing small forest animals and almost killing Qui-Gon Jinn (00.11.04). No, actually, that was Jar Jar Binks. To be fair to him, this is a circumstance completely outside of his experience. The encounter between them leads to Qui-Gon’s only good line in the film: “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent” (00.11.28). This simple exchange, however, highlights a much bigger issue: the questionable morals of Qui-Gon Jinn. From the very beginning of Jinn’s relationship with Jar Jar, he alternates between being amused by his antics, or being very very annoyed. In this instance, he makes a snide remark (which is understandable: I would be short with someone who almost got me killed). Later, he will use a rather intense mind-trick/Vulcan neck pinch to calm Jar Jar during their encounter with a third underwater monster (00.20.10). In between he will save him from being punished by Boss Nass (00.16.42). The way that we treat those who are beneath us, in status or intelligence/ability/power, says a great deal about us. At this point with Jar Jar, Jinn manages to be balanced, but later his morality crumbles.

After his close shave with the grave, he and Kenobi take off running (towards a Naboo city one supposes) only to be halted by Jar Jar’s mention of his home town. The Jedi seem not to hear the fact that Jar Jar is talking about a refuge, and only react to the word city, and demand to be taken there, even after Jar Jar admits that he has been banished and will be in a world of hurt if he returns. Nevertheless, he is indirectly threatened and submits (00.12.49). Since when do Jedi threaten innocent people? What disturbs me more is that Jinn and Kenobi don’t seem to care about Jar Jar’s fate, only their own mission, and more than that, this move doesn’t seem to have anything to do with their mission. Assuming they got a pre-mission briefing, they should already have an idea where the closest city is and would want to head directly there. Jar Jar is only interested in hiding from the droids, he calls Otoh Gunga “the safest place” when he first mentions it, and doesn’t say anything about how to get to the Naboo. The way things unfold, with Jinn asking Boss Nass how to get in contact with the Naboo, it seems like the Jedi have little information on the Naboo. This makes no sense, and points to bad writing from Lucas. This whole exchange seems geared towards getting them to Otoh Gunga and into their bongo and into peril with undersea monsters which is the definition of bad writing in a film: characters do things simply to get to a fight/explosion/or next scene. Nevertheless, Jar Jar leads them to Otoh Gunga and is immediately taken into custody for breaking his banishment.

The Jedi talk to Boss Nass, the leader of the Gungans, and while Nass presents a reasonable dislike for the humans of his planet, Jinn ignores him completely in his efforts to get what he wants, which is to contact the Naboo and warn them of the invasion, which they already know about. Seriously, Jinn’s insistence on warning them makes it seem like the Naboo have absolutely no way of knowing what is happening in space, with is ridiculous. Any nation that develops space travel can see what is happing in the space around their own planet. Lucas’ bad writing makes Jinn look stupid. It also makes Jinn a jerk: he uses a Jedi mind trick on Boss Nass to get a transport. I could understand maybe using it if Nass had ordered them imprisoned for tresspassing or something, but he doesn’t, and Jinn doesn’t even try to ask normally for help. He just waves his hand. Of course Nass capitulates, and Jinn turns to leave.

I mentioned previously that Qui-Gon’s redemption in these ten minutes is the salvation of Jar Jar, but even that act isn’t as pure as it seems. Jinn (and Kenobi for that matter) seem content to walk right out, take their stolen bongo, and leave him to his fate. But, Jar Jar, out of desperation, asks for help. Kenobi is exasperated that they might be held up even longer in their quest, but then Qui-Gon lies about why he is interceding for Jar Jar. At least, I hope he is lying, because otherwise he is a moron: Qui-Gon mentions “we need a navigator to guide us” and suggests maybe Jar Jar could help. Given that later when Binks wonders how they will get where they are going, Jinn assures him by saying “the Force will guide” them (00.19.26). When he doesn’t ask Jar Jar for help, it implies that he never intended to, making him a liar. So, why doesn’t he own up and tell Nass “look, we asked Jar Jar to lead us here, so don’t punish him on our account”? Instead, the venerable Jedi uses another mind trick. If it was only this scene, I might go easier on Qui-Gon, but instead he will try it on Watto several times when they make it to Tatooine. Kenobi used a mind trick once on some stormtroopers to get them out of a bad situation, and Luke used a mind trick once to rescue Han Solo. Those situations differ from this one because there is nothing at stake here, certainly not the wrongful imprisonment of Solo nor death for billions at the end of the Death Star’s laser. I more think Qui-Gon simply believes himself superior and is grossly impatient.

I will gloss right over Qui-Gon’s stupidest line, “there’s always a bigger fish” and wonder instead how he would have actually dealt with being lunch if not for convenient (ie bad) writing (00.18.31). I like very much that Jar Jar calls him to the carpet for acting like he has read the script to the movie: “when yousa thinkin’ weesa be in trouble?” (00.19.55).

To finish, there is a cut scene in the middle of the Jedi’s trip through Naboo’s watery core, in which Nute Gunray is on the phone with Sidious again. I dislike this scene for several reasons. First, a evil bad guy is way more evil when you barely see him. The Emperor is only ever mentioned in a New Hope and he has exactly one scene in the Empire Strikes Back. For six years Star Wars fans got increasingly creeped out by the galaxy’s big bad. But in Phantom we have already seen him twice. Second, and worse still, this scene does not contribute to either plot or character development. Sidious mumbles something about the Senate, underestimates Amidala, and in response Nute Gunray tells him absolutely nothing, but on purpose. In this case, Lucas should have listened to his own advice: “no need to report that to him until we have something to report” (00.19.18). It is very bad writing to include a scene that has no purpose.

Meanwhile, the Jedi are still on their way to tell the Naboo that they have been conquered.


SWD: Disrupted Communications

I had originally intended to cover ten minutes of screen time in a single post, but judging by how my previous post went, I can see that my plan needs tweaking. In preparation for this post (and the previous one) I watched the first ten minutes of the Phantom Menace about ten times. On each viewing I have paid attention to different things. On one viewing I turned down the sound and watched in silence. It is amazing what I notice when I am not distracted by auditory signals: body language, for one thing. Even with uncomfortable masks and prosthetics, the actors portraying the Neimoidians (Trade Federation agents) did an amazing job portraying their fear of both the Jedi and Darth Sidious. Ewan McGregor also stands out with his facial expressions, perfectly channeling Sir Alec Guinness (check out A New Hope, when Han makes his outrageous Kessel Run boast, and you will see what I mean). With that said, I am still working in the first ten minutes of the film.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.02.00-00.10.00)

I mentioned in the previous post that Chancellor Valorum’s choice to send Jedi to handle the blockade of Naboo seemed puzzling. It appears I am not the only one. When TC-14, the silver Threepio clone, informs his masters that the ambassadors are Jedi, Nute Gunry is surprised and immediately thrown off his game (00.03.44). He is clearly scared, and immediately wants to contact Sidious. It is reasonable to assume, like me, he expected to deal with a bureaucrat or agent of the Republic Tax Office. Valorum, for all the possible illegality of sending Jedi, is no fool, and clearly understands how to deal with the Trade Federation. However, it still doesn’t explain why the Jedi are unaccompanied.

Next, after the Jedi take their tea, Jinn mentions that he senses an “unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute” (00.04.16). I wouldn’t want to live in a galaxy where trivial disputes involve military blockades. I chalk this up to bad writing because it is a direct contradiction of the opening crawl seen just minutes before, where the galaxy was in “turmoil” and the Senate was debating “alarming” chains of events. They should have relaxed, sipped some tea a la Jinn and realized that this actually was just a trivial matter. I could be majoring on a minor here, but this bad writing is a serious flaw throughout the film. Anything that causes a viewer to surface from the experience of watching a film and scratch their head is a failure, because all movies demand a level of willful suspension of belief, but there is a breaking point, and the Phantom Menace reaches that point several times.

My claim about the “coerced cowards” that the Trade Federation are is vindicated as soon as Sidious picks up the phone. Gunray’s lieutenant has already crumbled, and does not want to “go against the Jedi” (00.04.35). That makes sense. What doesn’t is Sidious’ response a few seconds later. He says that this turn of events is “unfortunate” and that the Chancellor should never have involved the Jedi. Now, given that Sidious is almost always lying through his teeth to almost everybody he could just be manipulating the Trade Federation further. But, given that when he hangs up here and calls Amidala, he tells her that he has “assurances from the Chancellor” that the Ambassadors arrived (00.09.09). My assumption is that Palpatine, for all his scheming, didn’t know that Valorum would ask the Jedi to be his ambassadors. This, if true, makes his decision to have Gunray snuff them confusing. Killing a few tax lawyers would be one thing, but assassinating Jedi is a much bigger deal. I know that eventually Sidious’ plan is to murder every last Jedi, but starting with Jinn and Kenobi is clumsy and premature. Surely it would alert the Chancellor to the fact that something bigger is happening here, the Council would launch an investigation, and this becomes a liability. If Gunray is brought to justice, he would be called to answer for the death of two Jedi, and could possibly expose Sidious. It seems a much better plan to simply lock them up, force them to return, or simply stall them with more tea. Ultimately, I think this is poor plot planning. Besides, we haven’t gotten to see a lightsaber yet, and by this time in A New Hope there was already a battle, so perhaps Lucas just wanted to get to the eye candy.

Gunray follows Sidious’ command and destroys the Republic cruiser in the hold. Why? This is simply more evidence that the blockade is not legal or trivial. In any case it immediately alerts the Jedi that they are in danger, though not really because they can hold their breath long enough to outwit a few dumb droids who are hopelessly outmatched anyway. Also somewhat amusing here is that Gunray apparently has poison gas already placed in the vents to his conference rooms. Perhaps that is how he routinely takes out rivals. Hostile takeover indeed. I also like that his new lieutenant has a very healthy respect for Jedi. However, the Jedi soon run for cover, crawl through some ventilation shafts, and arrive at an unlikely conclusion. Dropping into a hold of the Federation battleship, they see a whole lot more droids. Jinn identifies them (Good work, Sherlock. Seriously, this guy has some of the dumbest lines ever. More bad writing.) and Kenobi assumes that they are “an invasion army” (00.07.35). Despite this being another dumb thing to say (are there different types of armies? invasion, defense, pretend?) how does he come to make that assumption? All he knows is that they were being stalled, then being threatened and then suddenly “invasion”? Except for the fact that I know he is right, I see no way he could possibly know that. If I see a bunch of droids right after I see a bunch of droids try to kill me I would assume that they are being organized into search and destroy parties. But, the head-scratching doesn’t stop there. Jinn recognizes that if it is an invasion, it doesn’t make sense (hooray! someone else gets it!) but then he wants to “stow aboard separate ships” to “warn the Naboo and contact Chancellor Valorum” (00.07.47). Um good idea, but by the time the invasion ship lands, won’t the Naboo already know making it too late? And, what real good would it do to warn them anyway? Surely he knows they don’t have a standing defense force (it is absurd to think that he didn’t get a briefing before he left). Given that he is going to spend about 15 minutes of screen time trying to warn the Naboo this makes this more bad plotting. This has echos of Artoo trying to take the Death Star plans to Kenobi, but his mission made sense. This one does not.

While Jinn and Kenobi are stowing away, Amidala calls the Trade Federation. She mentions that she knows the ambassadors are there and that they should be negotiating, not answering the phone (00.08.22). Gunray lies about the ambassadors and lies about his blockade being legal. It obviously isn’t, and Amidala has been and will be talking to Palpatine about it, so why say nothing at Gunray’s lies? Odd, but then, she is a young queen. Again Gunray’s lieutenant is the voice of reason, stating that the Senate would not approve something as blatantly illegal as their blockade. I like this guy.

Lastly, there is this whole business of disrupted communications. Gunray seems to think it is a good idea (00.08.53) and as soon as the phone lines are cut, Sio Bibble assumes an invasion, in fact, such failure can “only mean” invasion (00.09.25). I guess the Naboo palace has never experienced a blackout, bad storm, faulty equipment, or any other of 100 other things it could be. Like Kenobi, people just assume invasion. There is no reason for them to think this, everyone from the Jedi to the Federation themselves have said that this whole situation is odd, so I see little precedent for them to draw on. I know that Palpatine is trying to force a crisis so that he can usurp the galactic throne, but surely there must be a more elegant solution (like Order 66) that relies on a lot fewer parts and a lot less entanglements. The more I analyze this, the more I think that Lucas just never thought twice about what he was writing. I think the great strength of the Original Trilogy is simplicity. There are very few complications to what happens in A New Hope, particularly, and that film makes so much more sense than this one.

But, Amidala vows to avoid war at all costs until she decides to wage it at high cost, and the invasion fleet descends.


SWD: Opening Crawl (TPM Part One)

I want to tackle a deconstruction of the six-film saga of Star Wars. I have decided to start with the Phantom Menace. I have always been one to begin with the most unpleasant of options and move towards the most pleasant. I am expecting to have my work cut out for me, in terms of dealing with tangled threads of story and convoluted logic, and I hope that cutting my teeth on the relatively simple first episode will be just the way to do that. In another note, I am not intending for this to be an academic-level work, though what I write could certainly be geared that way at a later day. It is also not my aim tear apart these films with malicious glee: I personally believe that the Prequel Star Wars are not as terrible as people imagine. In order to assist those who would want to watch/follow along, I will give the time stamp of the specific clip that I am talking about in hh.mm.ss. I will cite the film in terms of a specific timestamp when appropriate.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (00.00.00-00.02.00)

The familiar opening crawl of Star Wars begins at 00.00.28 and already I have a slight feeling of discomfort. The film is titled “The Phantom Menace” and my problem is this: it is non-specific. This could be dismissed as a minor problem, except that it will be indicative of a serious flaw in the film as a whole: there is no clear protagonist or antagonist.

I believe that George Lucas is trying, with each of the prequel films, to parallel the original series. This will be an ongoing point, but the first instance is seen at this time, with the titles. Episode Four is entitled A New Hope. This is also a non-specific title, but throughout the film, the audience comes to understand that Luke Skywalker is the Hope for the Rebellion. Here, there really is no clear Phantom Menace, unless it is Darth Sidious/Senator Palpatine, but the audience sees Darth Maul being a clearer antagonist. I think it would be more accurate to say that the Phantom Menace is actually the rise of the Sith or the onset of “dark times” in the galaxy, but that implies that the main character of the film is the “bad feeling” to which members of the Star Wars galaxy are prone. Hardly the best choice of a main “character”.

But, that is a small quibble. The first paragraph of the crawl says that “turmoil has engulfed the Republic” and that turmoil is the “taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems” (00.00.58). Really? I live in America, and to me, this is the equivalent of saying “turmoil has engulfed America due to the taxation of freight flights to Alaska” and I find it difficult to believe that the entire nation would be in turmoil over that. Certainly the entire business world would be, and maybe the residents of Alaska, some of whom live in remote places and are dependent on supplies being flown in. Magnify that situation to a whole planet, and it seems truly preposterous. I don’t even have any idea what tax burdens exist in Russia, or China, and frankly, I don’t care. Magnified again to a galactic scale, and this becomes a truly ludicrous statement. Maybe the Senate is in turmoil, but even in America, unless you watch C-SPAN, you really have little idea what is turmoiling the Senate.

Again, one could say that this is a minor point, but this opening crawl is crucial to the film. This is Lucas’ way of setting up everything that comes after. This is the foundation upon which the action, intrigue, and story are built. If it is not rock solid, it does not bode well for the rest of the film. Read A New Hope’s opening paragraph, and you get “civil war…Rebel spaceships…evil Galactic Empire”: one hundred percent solid.

Next we read “hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all trade” (00.01.11) To return to my previous illustration, this would be like UPS deciding to send tanks up and stop all shipments into Alaska. I wonder what makes this the Trade Federations’ fight? With the Empire, they didn’t really need a reason. Most people already think that imperialism is bad, and are familiar with evil governments. Most importantly, there isn’t much evidence to support the claim of a “greedy” Trade Federation. In fact, within the first ten minutes, they will be shown to be coerced cowards who are ready to surrender at the first mention of Jedi. Furthermore, this grossly illegal action seems like a very dumb way to try to protest, or even combat, the taxes. Most legislation hinges on voting support, and not many senators will get away with voting against helping Naboo when pictures of destitute, blockade-weary Nubian children are plastered over every single news station. As far as I can tell, this is simply the wrong choice. But, this is just the first hint that things occur during the narrative of Phantom Menace simply to get to a future occurrence, as will be demonstrated. There is another thing that troubles me about a planetary blockade: assuming that Naboo is anywhere near as large as Earth, and given what we see of Naboo, I question how dependent on outside trade Naboo really could be. I chose Alaska in my illustration because most of the state is tundra, isolated, and unsuitable for much farming. Naboo is verdant, green, and covered with farmable land. Maybe the Naboo people would be annoyed at not getting their iPads from Dantooine, but that is hardly going to be a super big deal. During the world wars, citizens of many nations lived with rationing, but life was endurable, especially because the rationing was directly assisting in the war effort. A similar psychological dynamic would be at work here, and given the rescources of Naboo, I am sure enterprising individuals would start making their own iPads anyway. I just don’t see a blockade having the intended effect here, making the foundation to this film even more tenuous.

Finally the crawl soars to a close, but the last paragraph is just as shaky as the first two, though it is better (00.01.28). I completely understand a galactic Senate being consumed with “endlessly debating” these taxes. As far as I can tell, politicians exist to lie and argue. I smirk at an “alarming chain of events” because the Federation’s move is alarmingly silly, but given that Sio Bibble (an advisor to Queen Amidala) will later state that there hasn’t been a full-scale (I assume he means galaxy-wide) war in a very long time, the sudden use of a large army would be startling. But, confusion comes when the Chancellor “secretly” dispatches two Jedi to resolve the matter. Why is this secret? If the Jedi operate as “guardians of peace and justice” this would appear to be part of their Republic duty. Most of the Extended Universe (and the current Clone Wars show) bears witness to this duty. So, why secretly? And also, why just Jedi? Surely Jinn and Kenobi are not experts in Republic tax law. And why isn’t Senator Palpatine part of this delegation? This is his planet. I find it extremely hard to believe that the populace of Naboo would not be screaming for their elected representative to be personally involved in getting the Federation the heck out of their sky. Isn’t this his job? I can understand why the Chancellor would want Jedi, they are the definition of shock and awe (especially judging by the reaction they soon get) but why not also some experts and definitely Palpatine? I understand that if I was watching this movie cold, I wouldn’t know that Palpatine exists just yet, but he is introduced within the first ten minutes, making this a very valid point.

The crawl soars to invisibility and the star field pans down, to catch a Republic cruiser flying towards a blockaded planet.


Star Wars: Deconstructed

Lucasfilm recently divulged its plan to re-release all six Star Wars movies in 3D format. Since the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, Lucasfilm has done little but constantly update and release the Star Wars films. Some of these updates were extremely necessary, such as the remastering of the original analog/mono mix into a crisp digital/surround mix. Other alterations included added or altered scenes (Han Shot First!). In the midst of all of this, the prequel trilogy came into being while video format evolved. Recently, DVDs have started to give way to BluRay and 3D is back in style. In the endeavor to keep Star Wars current, Lucasfilm is currently remastering the films again, bringing them up to BluRay quality standards, before embarking on this six year, six film 3D conversion project.

While the effort that George Lucas is expending to preserve his films is certainly self-serving, it is also commendable. Star Wars will continue to be eternally loved. Almost. Some of the films’ fandom hates the alterations made to the original trilogy, while harboring a multiplicity of issues with the prequel trilogy, mostly in terms of story, plot, and characterization, though a few harangue endlessly on petty issues. The Original Trilogy (episodes IV, V, and VI) are revered as the groundbreaking, exceptional cinema they are while the Prequel Trilogy (episodes I, II, and III) are panned (at best) or truly despised (at worst). Most intriguingly, the love/hate divide has generational aspects to it: those that were born just prior to the release of A New Hope (IV) (say, in 1967) remember the cinematic history of Star Wars first hand and love the old while hating the new. Those who were born just prior to the release of The Phantom Menace (I) (say, in 1989) Tend to prefer the new to the old. The rest of us, born somewhere around the release of Return of the Jedi (1981-1988), remain more ambivalent.

I was born in 1987, a mere five years after Return of the Jedi and 12 years before The Phantom Menace. I grew up with the original trilogy, and eagerly anticipated the prequels. Most of my childhood I actually wondered if they ever would be made, and was very excited when they were announced. Though I was slightly older than the 10 year olds who were to undergo a similar experience to that of their parents, I was still caught up in the fervor of Star Wars’ revival. Well, almost. During the time before the theatrical release, I remember seeing an image of the main characters from the movie (sans character names), and thinking that Ewan McGregor must play an older version of Jake Lloyd’s Anakin while Liam Neeson must be Obi-Wan Kenobi. I was shocked (and confused) to find things otherwise when I saw the movie (not to mention annoyed at the character of Jar Jar Binks). While I could’ve done more research, my point is that even at 12, unsophisticated and almost ready to hail anything Star Wars as purely awesome, I was experiencing some cognitive dissonance between what I saw and what I thought I should be seeing.

Going into the 2002 release of Attack of the Clones, I was ready to move on from the little-kid Annie and into the adult world of Anakin. I hungered for the conflicts that would inevitably transform him into the evil Darth Vader. What I saw, however, was more a prolonging of the story and only a taste of the true darkness within Luke’s father. I was forced to wait until 2005, and the Revenge of the Sith, before I saw anything close to the storytelling of the Original Trilogy, and even that was lacking. In the five years since I have watched all six movies many times. With the prequels I have tried to ignore the cringe-worthy bits and enjoy the better parts, and try not to think about how far below Empire Strikes Back they remain. However, in this atmosphere of renewed discussion about the horribleness of the prequels (in light of their 3D conversions) and with the background of my newly earned college degree (in literature) I can no longer view the prequels through rose-tinted lenses.

I am therefore going to engage in a step-by-step critical deconstruction/analysis of all six Star Wars, as fairly as I can possibly manage. My current plan is to take one movie at a time, divided up into ten minute chunks for close analysis, with occasional references to the film (or trilogy/saga) as a whole. In this way I hope to be able to pay attention to some detail, without getting mired in minutiae. Anyone who creates anything at all, if honest, will admit that there is always a marked difference between the imagined work and the finished project, and the real world imposes limitations that often cannot be overcome. With that in mind I will try to ignore minor inconsistencies or idiosyncrasies and turn my attention instead to plot, character development, narrative, and structure.

This is being done, like Lucas’ remastering, for my own purposes: I want to examine the films critically for my own enjoyment/edification, but I hope that anyone reading this blog can enjoy the process along with me. I seek not to destroy, but to understand and appreciate.

All that is gold does not glitter; not all those who wander are lost.