The Phantom Menace 3D

This afternoon, my daughter Isobel and me went to see The Phantom Menace in 3D. Strangely, it was my first experience of 'real 3D' and we both found it very tiring. The film is too, of course; while not as exhausting as the romance scenes in Attack of the Clones, Phantom Menace also has its longeurs. Part of the film's problem, I think, is that it isn't well structured, and the point-of-view is erroneously focused. It may be heresy to say this, but the film needed to be focused much more clearly on Anakin himself, and really, the film could lose that part of the film prior to the Jedi's arrival on Tatooine, and sketch in what has happened on Naboo in a very economical manner - because it doesn't really matter. Why are the Trade Federation blockading Naboo? We are never told. Why does Palpatine/ Darth Sidious want to invade Naboo in the first place? Why the pretence of legalism with the need for Amidala to sign the treaty? Who cares?

It doesn't make sense, never has done, and never will. Lucas, I think, lost sight of the crucial conflict that he needed to set up and motivate in this film, to see the narrative through the prequel, and to really make sense of why Darh Vader comes to be, why Anakin turns to the Dark Side. The central conflict here isn't between the Jedi and the Sith, but between the Jedi and Anakin. Anakin's words to Obi-Wan in the middle of their light-saber duel in Revenge of the Sith, 'From my point of view, the Jedi are evil' makes no sense in terms of what we have seen in that film and his relationship with Palpatine (or even his desire to forestall Padme's death). However, it might seem to make sense in a narrative where he's taken away from his mother by a guild of 'knights' whose very code of emotional detachment is demonstrably unethical, or even hypocritical (see Obi-Wan's reaction to the death of Qui-Gonn). We get hints in the Phantom Menace that Qui-Gonn has been at odds with the Jedi Council, that he has even transgressed the 'code'; in my own 'what if?' re-write of the film, I would make Qui-Gonn much more transgressive and emphasise the paternal emotional closeness to both Obi-Wan and Anakin; and in his role as Anakin's 'father', I would have suggested some kind of liaison between him and Anakin's mother, who remains a slave (and is not freed at the end of the film), suggesting a much more direct betrayal and ethical difficulty when they leave her behind on Tatooine. You see Qui-Gonn with his hand on her shoulder several times; it would not have taken much to suggest that this physicality goes much deeper. It might also suggest that Qui-Gonn would not be above using sexual attraction to complete his mission.

The problem with Anakin's rejection of the Jedi, as I discussed in a previous post, is that the Jedi are portrayed as heroic, by and large. But one can see in The Phantom Menace the high-handed, arrogant behaviour of Mace Windu, Qui-Gonn's stubborn and errant behaviour, and even Yoda's rather brutal handling of the boy Anakin in his interview with him. Lucas needed to go further, I think, in shading the ethical and political problems of the Jedi role in the galaxy, and the behaviour of some of their order. Anakin's reaction against it would then seem much less like a teenage snit and more a visceral rejection of the hypocrisies of an order who paint themselves 'pure', but who are knee-deep in blood (and shit).

The other structural problem that watching the film again drove home was the badly thought-out climax. There are 4 concurrent battles: the Gungans against the droids; Padme's attempt to seize the Viceroy; Anakin's inadvertent destruction of the orbiting droid-control ship; and the light-saber duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gonn and Darth Maul. It's at least two too many, a lesson learned by the time Lucas made Revenge of the Sith, where the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel is given full rein without too much in the way of cut-aways. In Star Wars, Lucas paced the action much more effectively: the Obi-Wan/ Vader fight was followed by the escape of the Millennium Falcon from the Death Star and the TIE fighter attack spectacle sequence; this leads in short order to the X-Wing attack on the Death Star. There is a simplicity about this that creates narrative impetus and rewards the viewer at regular intervals. Star Wars has rhythm; The Phantom Menace has none. Prior to the 4-in-1 battle sequence in Phantom Menace, we are given the 20 minute hiatus of Padme on Coruscant and the manoeuvrings in the Senate. Between leaving Tatooine and returning to Naboo, the film falls asleep, and so do the audience - today, I found myself consciously bored in this sequence. Lucas might have cut all this out - if Palpatine turns up at Naboo as a newly-crowned Chancellor, the point about the disconnection between Republic politics and struggles 'on the ground' would have been made well enough. The 'distress calls' from Naboo would have provided enough motivation for a direct return there by the Jedi, Anakin and Padme.

I should say something about the 3D. To be honest, it did not affect the viewing experience that much: Isobel made a few 'oohs' at the beginning, but these faded away. It made me realise the The Phantom Menace doesn't actually have much in the way of flat-out space-spectacle sequences to compare with Star Wars or Return of the Jedi. What we did see of this in 3D was nicely rendered and you could appreciate the depth of field (as with the introductory scroll of writing), but the attack on the droid-control ship competes fro attention with the 3 battles, and doesn't really get that much screen-time. The Pod-race looks ok, but not really that much different to 2D. In all, I thought it made negligible difference to the viewing experience.

The Star Wars prequels aren't bad films, really (although Attack of the Clones is only half-watchable), but they're cluttered where they should be direct and simple, concentrate on politics when they should focus on human motivation, and think they're offering a 'sophisticated' narrative of the fall of the Republic while shying away from offering real ambiguity or complexity. In an ideal world, you'd give the prequel trilogy materials to Coppola and Walter Murch and say, 'make me a really dark epic out of this, lads'. For Michael Corleone, read Anakin Skywalker.

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