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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - What Went Wrong?

(A scientific Investigation into a vital social issue.)

By Wil Forbis

Some months ago, I rather hastily threw together an article entitled Top Five Potential Star Wars Disappointments. The article was based on the then unseemly premise that Star Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace would not be a smashing success. The reasons I gave for this premonition were quite farcical but some might say that this cloudy forecast has indeed come true. Personally, I’m not particularly disdainful of the film, but upon ruminating with various chums and tapping into the internet have determined that there is there is a backlash swimming outward from the American public. With interest, I set out to examine why and arrived at a sound conclusion as presented in this article.

Ultimately, The Phantom Menace falls short for a reason so obvious that we all should have seen it coming: We know the ending. By presenting part one of a six part series in which we’ve already seen episodes four, five and six, George Lucas is effectively telling a story backwards or at least with an disorienting juxtaposition. Most great work, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Beethoven's 9th Symphony or Dan Clowes’ Ghost World would probably fail were they presented out of sequence.

But you may say "hogwash" to this argument, pointing out that we’ve all seen one film multiple times, fully knowing the plot twists, yet enjoying the second or third time more than the first (The first three Star Wars films come to mind.) To this I say, you misinterpret my argument. I’m not saying that Star Wars fails because we know its plot, in general we know the plot to most films: Good conquers evil, guy gets girl, blah, blah, blah (This is why Todd Solondz's Happiness was such a refreshing change of pace.) But with The Phantom Menace we are aware of microscopic elements of plot that we simply should not be cognizant of. We know what will happen to Obi-One. We know the Emperor’s schemes won’t work out. We know that C3-PO and R2-D2 will hook up to become the Laurel and Hardy of Hyper-Space. We know that after the credits roll there is still much story to be told... Unfortunately, we’ve become so intimately familiar with that story over the past twenty years it’s lost a bit of its sheen. Imagine sitting down to watch Mr. Smith Goes To Washington for the first time and have your friend say, "By the way, they made a sequel to this film and Jimmy Stewart’s character becomes an alcoholic child molester." Kind of takes the fun out of things doesn’t it?

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the character of Anakin Skywalker. It’s quite difficult to get past the fact that you know this kid is going to grow up to be evil. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking "Maybe the universe would be a lot better off if he just lost the pod race and plowed into a mountain and hideously died." Perhaps the best thing Obi-One could have done would be to slice off young Anakin’s head and used his skull to collect Bantha droppings. Whatever charming, noble activities Hitler might have engaged in as a child, we all agree it would’ve been better if he was never born.

I’m aware that the films are episodic and by their nature cannot have the moral finality we expect from our cinema. But episodic works a lot better with old Flash Gordon serials, where you only had to wait a week to see what happened as opposed to the Star Wars narrative, where we’ll all have lost control of our bladder functions before we’ve seen the whole story. And truthfully, Star Wars and Return of the Jedi did have that necessary moral climax and resolution that made them satisfying as single elements not related to a whole. (The Empire Strikes Back didn’t and people bitched then too*.) The other curse of episodic storytelling is the simple fact that if you wait 15 years between sections people are bound to build up some serious, perhaps unreasonably high, expectations.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I saw the film (twice.) While some people say a film needs more than great special effects, I’m quite content to spend two with cutting edge visual trickery. Believe me, dialogue and plot are quite overrated. And Star Wars was the main religion of my childhood, so seeing The Phantom Menace is a lot like reading the Old Testament: flawed, but with enough mindless violence to stick around for.

*Actually, I tend to agree with a growing number of cinemaphiles that Empire was the best of the bunch, perhaps because of it's unfinished ending. [BACK]