How To Make The Phantom Menace Not Suck

The Observation Deck blog on IO9 is asking a thought provoking question: what would it take to make Star Wars: Episode I not suck? I have a few thoughts on how one of the most anticipated movies in cinematic history could have ended up being one of the most beloved.

First, if you have the time and you don’t mind the NSFW language, the Mr. Plinkett review for The Phantom Menace actually delivers some really good commentary on why the film does not succeed from the perspective of a filmmaker. The video is worth watching, but the points are boiled down thus:

  • Too much exposition/not enough explanation: A lot of exposition comes from dialogue and characters talking about important things rather than showing them, such as was done in the original trilogy. Even with this over reliance on talking heads, core concepts like what the Trade Federation is are never explained. The blockade of Naboo is over vague “trade disputes.” Darth Maul has zero depth as an antagonist. We don’t really know why any of the events are happening.
  • No Every-Man Character: it’s important for the audience to have a character that is a surrogate for the audience’s own lack of knowledge and can ask questions like “what are the Jedi” and “what is the Force?”
  • No central protagonist: who’s the main character of Episode I? It’s not Anakin, considering how late he appears in the movie and his inability to control events around him. Things just happen to him.
  • Too much reliance on special effects.
  • Dissolution of tension: scenes that should be exciting aren’t, because the audience doesn’t know what’s going on or they don’t care. Compare the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul to the ones in Episodes 5 and 6 against Darth Vader.

It’s too late now, of course, but how could it have been done differently? Let’s assume that we need to keep the core movie the same, so we can’t just throw out the entire script and start fresh. Is the Phantom Menace salvageable under those conditions?

I think so. I think we could fix Episode I (and the prequels in general) in just two steps.

Step 1: Make the main character likable (and figure out who the main character is).

If the prequels are supposed to be Anakin’s story, it’s sort of problematic that he’s a nine year old kid in this one. It really limits his ability to have any sort of agency. If the idea is supposed to establish his callow youth and relative innocence to contrast his dark fall later, that can be done with an older Anakin. You’ll notice that Luke Skywalker is a naive, somewhat whiny wet-behind-the-ears kid in Episode 4, but still has the age and agency to be the protagonist.

Since that deviates too much from the established script, I think the protagonist lens needs to shift to Obi-Wan.  We’ll keep Kid Anakin, but focus on Obi-Wan. He’s the protagonist for this movie. What does that mean?

Qui-Gon Jinn needs to go. Let’s set aside the fact that I liked Liam Neeson as a Jedi Master. Dropping Qui-Gon removes a lot of the problems with Obi-Wan’s narrative arc in this movie. It eliminates the inconsistency from the original trilogy, in that Obi-Wan was supposed to be trained by Yoda and failed to mention the man that actually taught him how to be a Jedi.

For the purposes of the prequel, we don’t need to see Obi-Wan as a padawan, let’s just say he’s already a Jedi Knight. If we need a supporting character for him to play off, we can give him an apprentice of his own. That would do a lot for Obi-Wan’s narrative. It would fill the need for a supporting character.

We wouldn’t worry about why Obi-Wan might not have mentioned to Luke that Anakin wasn’t his only apprentice since that apprentice will end up getting killed by Darth Maul. We already know that Obi-Wan is a big fan of the “certain point of view” style of neglecting to mention relevant details when it comes to his own failures. It doesn’t make sense that he’d neglect to ever mention to Luke the name of the man who “really” trained him, but would would he cover up an apprentice that he failed to protect from the Sith? Yeah, I think so.

We need to do this for Obi-Wan because in the current version, it’s Qui-Gon who ultimately ends up getting all of the character development that would have made Obi-Wan more likable. It’s Qui-Gon who believes in the young Skywalker, it’s Qui-Gon who effectively tells the council to “eff off” when it comes to training the boy, and it’s Qui-Gon who takes action and gets things done throughout the movie.

Obi-Wan, in contrast, is the by-the-book guy who does what the council says and stays with the ship.

Hmm, imagine this; the maverick Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi trains an apprentice against the wishes of the council and that apprentice grows up to be reckless, headstrong, and ultimately falls, because although Skywalker makes his own choices down the road, the man who trained him had many of those same flaws.

We also need Obi-Wan to actually like Anakin so that when they duel to the death two movies from now, it’s heartbreaking rather than unsurprising. We need the Obi-Wan that doesn’t scoff at Anakin Skywalker and quip that they’ve picked up “another pathetic life form.” Imagine an Obi-Wan who believes in Anakin so strongly he’ll do anything to make the boy a Jedi. It’s an Obi-Wan who is a surrogate father figure to the boy who never had a father of his own. It’s an Obi-Wan who actually loves Anakin like a son, rather than just some unfortunate burden that he’s stuck with and has to train, ’cause my dead Master was gonna, so why not.

Qui-Gon ultimately serves to muddle the narrative arc for Obi-Wan’s own character. He gets the best developmental moments (such as they are) which are then wastefully spent upon his demise because he never matters to the narrative again.

What if it was Obi-Wan the Jedi Master who watched his first apprentice die to Darth Maul? Couldn’t you imagine how that would drive him to not fail with Anakin? Wouldn’t that create exactly the kind of passion and fear that leads to the dark side?

Remember, when we see Obi-Wan later in Episode 4, he might be the wise old mentor figure, but he’s also having to deal with the fact that he failed Luke’s father and created the monster that is Darth Vader. He done fucked up. 

It would fit his arc to show that Anakin wasn’t his first failure and it would make him that much more tragic as a result, but also that much more vindicated when Luke (his final apprentice) turns out okay.

Step 2: Create a compelling villain

Boba Fett might get away with being a fan favorite despite having only four lines of dialogue, but he’s not the main antagonist of his films. Your antagonist has to have a presence that fills the movie in a classic “good vs. evil” struggle like Star Wars. Episode 1’s dependency on the “ominous figure lurking in the background” means that we have no real idea who he is or why he’s scary. He’s never developed. Thus, he’s boring from a narrative perspective, even if he looks cool.

Vader goes through several stages of development. In the first boarding scene, he picks up a Rebel by the neck and chokes him, thus establishing his raw physical power. Later on, when he demonstrates the Force, we see that he’s also some kind of sorcerer and more than just a big brute. And so it goes. Scene by scene, Vader is constructed as a character. We see that he’s physically dominating and he also has magic. He takes care of matters personally. He kills people on his own side. And so on.

The entire prequel trilogy seems to be searching for its antagonist by creating one character and then disposing of him before he can really do anything meaningful. We go from Darth Maul to Count Dooku to General Grievous, with each character getting introduced and dispatched before they can develop into a meaningful threat.

The argument could be that it’s Darth Sidious who is the real antagonist all along, but he’s in the background for too long to fill that role. He’s the man behind the man, not the primary antagonist in terms of narrative structure. Which, you’ll notice, is exactly what he did in the original trilogy. He was the man holding Darth Vader’s leash. He’s the Emperor, but we don’t see him (aside from one brief discussion) until the last movie. But rather than search vaguely for a threat to fill the void created by the Emperor’s absence from the action, we have Darth Vader stomping around, choking dudes and scary-breathing and just generally being badass and terrifying.

Our antagonist has to be a Sith Lord, of course, so let’s go back to Darth Maul. Let’s rebuild the character like we did for Obi-Wan. We’ll keep his insane lightsaber skills and lethal agility as well as the scary appearance. Those things are good; they make him a physical and visual threat.

Let’s remove the borderline-mute characteristic. Sure, it worked for making Boba Fett cool, but it won’t work here for our antagonist. Instead, let’s give Darth Maul the charismatic presence that Count Dooku was supposed to project. What? You can’t imagine a guy with yellow teeth and scary face tattoos being charismatic? This is Star Wars! There are weird looking aliens all over the place. I’m willing to believe that in a universe filled with so many strange aliens that obese, immobile slugs can rule criminal empires, no one would look askance at a guy with tattoos and horns.

In fact, let’s not even worry about the physical appearance, because we already know it doesn’t contribute to a character’s charisma on the screen. We know this because Darth Vader wears a mask for almost the entire trilogy and his presence still dominates every scene he’s in.

I should note that I’m using charisma to define one’s force of personality, rather than just how likable the character is. Vader isn’t kind, he isn’t charming, and he isn’t likable, but he has a presence on the screen. He fills a scene both visually and vocally. Maul . . . doesn’t.

Hell, if Ray Park can’t deliver the lines with a forceful presence, just overdub him with someone who can. Let Park be Maul’s physical presence and a skilled voice actor be his vocal one. Once again, it worked for Vader.

Let’s give Maul all the scenes where he’s the one working the angles, driving the Trade Federation into conflict, terrorizing the Viceroy with what will happen if they fail. We will show Maul to be the driving force rather than the silent enforcer. Let him demonstrate his own power as a Sith Lord somewhere along the lines.

We won’t establish that he’s working for someone else yet. Let us speculate that he’s the true Sith Lord. We know that Palpatine is eventually going to be the Emperor, but let us wonder about how that will happen. We won’t reveal a “Darth Sidious” who just happens to wear a creepy hood just like the Emperor does/will. We’ll  make it a mystery. We know it’s eventually Palplatine who will become the Emperor and command the dark side, not Darth Maul, but how? How does Palpatine fit into this? Does he learn from Maul?

Let’s imagine the lightsaber duel with our rewritten characters Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Sith Lord Darth Maul. They have their first duel and Qui-Gon (the young apprentice version, not the older Jedi Master version) is killed. Obi-Wan is heartbroken that he failed his first apprentice.  Obi-Wan wins the duel, but Maul escapes.

The Jedi are spooked by the emergence of a new Sith Lord. Where did he come from? Clearly, he has to be hunted, setting up the next movie.

Obi-Wan vows to train Anakin in defiance of the council, partly motivated by his own failure to prepare his first apprentice for the fight against Maul. His own need to absolve himself as well as bring Maul down gives him a drive that causes him to overlook the flaws in Anakin’s training later on. From Obi-Wan, Anakin will eventually learn to pursue the greater good at all costs.

This creates a narrative structure that will pay off dividends across the next two films. Eventually, when Darth Maul is killed in Episode III, we learn the horrifying truth: that he wasn’t the Sith Lord at all, but the Sith Apprentice. Oh shit.

Episode I tried to dangle this tantalizing thought at us during the funeral scene when the Jedi speculate whether it was the master or the apprentice that was destroyed. The mystery is wasted, though because the audience already knows that Maul was just the apprentice, just like we know that Sidious is the Emperor.

But what if we thought Maul was the true Sith Lord? It would fulfill the premise of there being a “phantom menace” since everybody would be focused on Maul even though he’s really still working for Sidious. It would fix the problem of escalation that occurs in the prequels, when you try to go from Maul to Dooku to Grievous. After the double-bladed lightsaber and the scary face, Dooku is almost disappointing as a visual threat, even with the dark side lightning. And then you have Grievous and his four lightsabers and you can just see they’re trying to top themselves from what Maul did, and not really succeeding at it.

The prequels need an antagonist with as much power and lethality as Vader, but isn’t a carbon-copy of Vader. Maul could have been that. He was agile rather than hulking. Vader might have been able to strangle dudes with both his hands and his Force power, but Maul is practically a ninja with his movements. Vader was strength; Maul is speed. In this way, we create a character that establishes himself while still playing to the archetype created by his predecessor.

Maul already has a lot going for him. He has a unique visual appearance. His double-bladed lightsaber is exciting. All he needs is a voice and an actual presence within the narrative the way Vader has and you have a solid character.

Would this fix everything? Of course not. But it’s important to remember that there are a lot of flaws with the original trilogy as well. From silly lines like “scruffy nerfherder” to Luke and Leia kissing, not everything about the original trilogy is perfect. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be perfect, so long as the characters are fun and interesting to watch. That’s how I’d go about fixing Episode I.