Star Wars: The Fantastic Menace

The Phantom MenaceThere’s little that I love more than a controversial eulogy.  Particularly for something that’s more than unpopular, but is even something you are not allowed to like.

[Oh, and warning: very long read…]

So I thought I would write my first Eulogize This piece on the first of the Star Wars prequel films that came out around the turn of the millennium.  And the consensus is that it’s a little bit of a monstrosity.

Like Jar Jar Binx, the bumbling camel-faced character it is chiefly remembered for, it is generally thought of as being childish, dumb, corny, lacking in any nuance of character, and basically a complete betrayal of everything that its creator George Lucas achieved with his first three Star Wars films.

And I would agree with all of that.  Except the last bit.

Because I believe Lucas deliberately intended it to be childish, dumb, corny and lacking in any nuance of character.  In fact, I think that was always his intention through all of the Star Wars films, and I’m going to go on a bit of a long rambling crusade here to give my thoughts on why that was, and why I love him for it.  Every once in a while, these films proved to be subtle, dark, scary and intelligent… but that was almost by accident.  That was only because of the demands of storytelling.  I think it was Lucas’s intention to create a very particular kind of B-Movie entertainment.

In fact, I believe that this original intention has been in the middle of a tug of war that Lucas has had with the fans of my generation for the heart of the franchise.  And in the end, Lucas lost.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me take you back to the giddy days of 1999.

‘A long time ago…’

So apparently they were going to make a new Star Wars film.  One that took place a generation before the three films that formed such an integral part of my childhood.  One in which we saw one of cinema’s greatest villains, Darth Vader, before he acquired his famous mask and respiratory problems.

And my reaction was… meh.

Because I was in my twenties and, frankly, I didn’t give a shit.  Sure, when I was at primary school there was just about nothing in the world that I cared about more than my Star Wars figures – enough so that I was told that when I went to big school I ought to keep quiet about my obsession, because it was basically just playing with dolls.  But that was a long time ago, in what felt like a galaxy far far away.  By this point I was watching films by David Lynch and Sergio Leone, and although I had a great amount of affection for A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi I felt that they were, essentially, kids films.

So I saw the adverts for The Phantom Menace, and it all seemed a bit… well, childish, dumb, corny, lacking in any nuance of character, and possibly even a complete betrayal of everything that its creator George Lucas achieved with his first three Star Wars films.

The film opened with a splashy release, and I didn’t go to see it.  After a few weeks, a friend eventually persuaded me to go, and we saw it in a gigantic tacky plastic multiplex in London, which somehow seemed appropriate.  I can still vividly remember sitting in the dark theatre and seeing a green spangly title card saying “LucasFilm”, and sulking to myself: “Well, that title card was never spangly in the old days…”

And then something remarkable happened.

It said: “Along time ago, in a galaxy far far away…”

For any non-Star Wars fans, all the films in the franchise start like this.  And suddenly, I could remember exactly what it was like to be 8 years old again.  Suddenly I was hit by a wave of excitement that the rumours that I had been thrilled to hear in primary school were not only true but right in front of me!  Because I had absolutely no expectations, I felt I ‘got’ the film right away, and I loved every second of it.

Before I get into why, let’s just get the bad stuff out of the way first.  As film critic Mark Kermode would say, it is ‘not without flaws’.  Oh lordy no.

‘I have a bad feeling about this’

First of all, the dialogue is crap.  Everyone agrees on this.  Everyone has told George Lucas this.  I think even his mother has told him this.  When he shot the first film in the 70s he would apparently give the actors just one direction: “faster, and with more intensity”.  And that was it.

One proper mistake Lucas made this time, I believe unintentionally, was to offend people with the attribution of certain recognisable accents to his characters.  Lucas had used real languages to get some linguistic colour in the first films: for example, the language that the cuddly Ewoks speak is actually a very rural Chinese.  This time, I think he misjudged it: everyone assumed that Jar Jar was a comment on Jamaicans, and the Trade Federation villains were a comment on the Japanese.  Looking closer, you can see a mishmash of styles which suggests this wasn’t deliberate (the Trade Federation villains, for example, are wearing what looks like clothes from Renaissance Florence), but I think it just didn’t come off in this film.

Anyway, aside from this, yes, Jar Jar Binks is a bit annoying.  But not as annoying as the child actor who plays the young Darth Vader.

Ewan MacGregor is totally miscast.  (He even admitted this in interviews, but offered the defense that “You don’t say ‘Would I like to play Obi-Wan Kenobi? Oh, no, I’m fine thanks…’”)

So why do I love it?

‘The Force is strong with this one’

Let’s start with the characters.  This is really Liam Neeson’s film.  I’d actually never seen him do action before, which sounds crazy now, given his famous ‘very particular set of skills’.  I actually thought he was a rather dull Daniel Day-Lewis wannabe.  But here, he alone is worth the price of admission.  In his youth he was Ulster’s amateur senior boxing champion, and it really shows. No one looks like they are absolutely taking somebody apart in a fight quite like Liam Neeson.  That said, this part demanded a lot more than just repeatedly punching someone in the face (something that can’t be said of all his parts now).  He manages to switch between gravitas and lightness at a moment’s notice, and he’s able to technobabble about ‘midi-chlorians’ and not look like he’s just waiting for the cheque to cash.  His character is single-minded, stubborn, occasionally a pain in the arse, but very wise and an absolute moral centre to the film.  He reminds me of William Peterson’s portrayal of Gil Grissom in CSI : Crime Scene Investigation, and that for me is high praise indeed.

Also, I think Darth Maul is great.  He barely says a word in the film, but he is a genuinely sinister presence, and – like Liam Neeson – the actor who plays him actually knows a thing or two about winning fight championships.  The two of them have an epic face-off at the end, and it’s really refreshing to see an intelligent fight scene (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms) performed by two actors who know from experience how the tactics of combat actually work.  It’s such a refreshing change from the standard Hollywood fare of grown-up child stars fighting like they’re having a temper tantrum.

Natalie Portman is the other person who, along with Neeson, really carries this film.  In A New Hope the action revolved around rescuing a princess who proved to be more capable than her rescuers.  In The Phantom Menace, Portman plays the queen whose decisions basically dictate where the plot is going.  She does look a bit uncomfortable all the way though.  This might be because, like many actors, she was struggling with just being told “Great! Now… faster! And with more intensity” all the time.  But that unease actually works with the character, I think – a queen who is bound by a very formal code of behaviour but still needs to work out who she can trust.

Perhaps my favourite character in all the Star Wars films is played by the wonderful Ian McDiarmid, who just has an absolute ball as the evil galactic emperor who makes Darth Vader his henchman.  McDiarmid is a highly respected Shakespearean actor, and he is able to go way way way over the top in gleeful gloating palm-rubbing evil, yet somehow making the character believable.  But in The Phantom Menace we also get to see him as a charming and charismatic senator on the make – indeed, you could see this film and not realise that he is a villain at all.

Aside from these characters, I really loved the imaginative design and the way these new worlds seemed to be put together with real intricacy.  There was a mock Renaissance city that was beautiful to look at, a planet that seemed to be covered entirely by Los Angeles, and an underwater city that I still want to live in.  There were also undersea monsters and battles with robots and all that lovely stuff.

I loved the sheer daft space-opera B-movie adventure of it.  Yes, the dialogue was crap as always.  And really crap, crapper than usual.  But I love B-movies, and B-movie dialogue isn’t supposed to be realistic.  It’s supposed to be quotable.  And although the dialogue in The Phantom Menace was crap, I was quoting it for days.

I realise now that I was exactly the audience that Lucas had intended for this film.  Or, to be more specific, I was one third of the intended audience: I was an original fan who had grown up and no longer gave a shit, but was happy to dip back in as an adult and appreciate a new adventure along the same lines.  The second third of the intended audience was… George Lucas.  And the last third, the crucial third, the audience it was clearly intended for, was…

Children.

I recognised that straight away when I was watching The Phantom Menace.  This was a kids’ film.  Star Wars films were always kids’ films.

But alas, what I think George Lucas hadn’t realised was that the most vocal group of people who went to see this film didn’t fall into any of these three categories.  They were fans of the original films who had never let them go.  They were not prepared to go in a completely different direction, even if it had some new strengths, and especially not if it had a considerable number of flaws.  They did not want to see someone play with Star Wars, even if that someone was George Lucas.  Because this was serious.  This was f***ing Star Wars.  It was their comfort blanket, an oasis of innocent joy in an otherwise gritty and hard-edged VHS and DVD collection.  They did not want a clumsy computer-animated clown with a face like a camel who kept getting his tongue stuck in things.

And I really don’t blame those fans, or George Lucas.  The film just became a victim of its own success. And if you watch the latest cinematic Star Wars installment, The Force Awakens, you’ll see what the follow-up to a sacred film looks like: a basic retelling of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, but with some of the fans’ criticisms of that film ironed out.  The Force Awakens has villains battling complicated issues that teenagers and young adults will recognise.  It has lots of the Han Solo character, and fewer quirky creature sidekicks.  It has two lead characters with genuine romantic chemistry.

And that’s great.  But the original Star Wars films were kids’ films, and none of that was as important as monsters and explosions.

But before I get too far down the path of analysing a different film (i.e. The Force Awakens, which I thought was fine, by the way) I’d like to just reinforce my point about what George Lucas’s original intentions were in making the Star Wars films by looking at the film that he was originally going to make.

Because, before he ever thought of Jedi knights and Imperial princesses and Darth Vader, there was another film that George Lucas had originally wanted to make.

And that film was Flash Gordon.

‘Flash, I love you, but…’

George Lucas only ended up writing the Star Wars films because he couldn’t get the rights to make a film of Flash Gordon.

And when you go back and see the black and white Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s and 40s, it all makes sense.  Right from the beginning you notice that they start in pretty much exactly the same way, with scrolling text rolling up the screen revealing ‘the story so far…’

George Lucas was part of what is sometimes referred to as the New Hollywood wave of film-makers – the first to have studied cinema at college – and their films are littered with references and homages to the Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ of the 30s and 40s.  Lucas’s friend Brian De Palma (who helped to edit Star Wars’s rolling text) references Alfred Hitchcock so often he’s practically a tribute act.  And both Lucas and his close friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg return time and time again to these trashy adventure serials (it’s no coincidence that the first of their Indiana Jones films is set in the 1930s).

The Lucas / Spielberg era of Hollywood is often given the blame for dumbing down the whole of cinema.  The question of whether you can blame an artist for poor and greedy imitations is one for another essay, but Lucas and Spielberg really just did what film-makers have always done: lovingly recreate the films they loved as a child.  And perhaps the reason why these films proved so successful is because Lucas and Spielberg were going back to Hollywood at its best.

‘It was the pictures that got small’

Most things that have a so-called ‘Golden Age’ haven’t been around long enough to deserve the term, but there really was something special about Hollywood in the 30s and 40s.  The initial awkwardness of the ‘talkies’ (seen at the time as vastly inferior to silent films because the technology meant characters couldn’t do things like walk and talk at the same time) had been fixed.  The fashions and the cult of celebrity were globally popular like nothing before, and perhaps even since.  And the people who ran the studios had the good sense to really invest in the medium.  Cinemas were built to look like palaces, and were given names like ‘The Rialto’ and ‘The Regal’, and no expense was spared.

More importantly than any of this, the studio bosses made sure that, with a combination of charm and bullying, they had the best talent under contract: the best playwrights, the best composers, the best cinematographers.  Then they got them to write populist entertainment.  (Quick one-sentence-eulogy: if you haven’t seen it already, see The Bad And The Beautiful – a great film from 1952 about how they used to do it.)

This could be classy populist entertainment based on critically acclaimed work, such as The Philadelphia Story.  Or it could be Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.  But even with the latter, the studios did their best to do it properly.

By the time Lucas and Spielberg were in film school, the classic films of the 30s and 40s were already celebrated as classics.  (Trivia: if you’re interested in how influenced by Golden Age Hollywood the Star Wars films are, listen to the similarities in the music between the main Star Wars theme and the score to the 1942 film Kings Row.)  But I imagine not many people thought much of the Flash Gordon fare.  I think that Lucas wanted to make his own version of that film because he felt that there was something wonderful about those adventure serials that people were missing.  Something that wasn’t educational or morally complex.  Something that didn’t rely on people talking to drive the story forward, but that was more cinematic.  Something that was just thrilling for its own sake.  (Lucas originally wanted to be a racing driver until he flipped his Italian mini and nearly died.)

Bizarrely, I remember watching the black and white Flash Gordon serials on TV as a child in the late 70s / early 80s, and I think that might be why I found it so easy to snap back into that mentality when The Phantom Menace came out.  (Looking at them now, they are pretty ropey: Ming The Merciless is basically Fu Manchu, and Dale Arden is just there to be looked at – but they’re still darn good adventures.)

And this is why I think Lucas and Spielberg have been blamed unfairly for Hollywood’s shift to a ‘blockbuster’ mentality.  They showed the possibility of making enormous box office hits if you were prepared to use the film-making skills of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But the studio execs interpreted this as meaning that there were certain formulas you could follow that could guarantee a hit, which is missing the point entirely.

What made matters worse was that George Lucas became fascinated by the writings of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, particularly the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which found extraordinary similarities in many of the world’s myths.  Lucas has said this book profoundly influenced the Star Wars films, and Campbell once called Lucas the greatest student he ever had.

‘Great!’ thought the studio execs.  ‘Now there’s a manual!’  The book is a tough read – I tried it about twenty years ago and didn’t get very far.  But I would strongly recommend it if you’re an aspiring film director or script writer.  Read the whole thing through once, and then forget about it.  Don’t do what the studios did, and still do, which is to treat it as a series of specific instructions.  To begin with, the book was passed round the Hollywood bigwigs.  And then, very quickly, they realised that this was never going to work: even if it was a secret recipe, you couldn’t expect a studio exec to read an entire book, particularly an academic one.  So a 12 page summary did the rounds.  And now… it’s simply a diagram.  And here’s what it looks like:

 the-heroes-journey

Look familiar?

‘People are going to read too much into it…’

What it fails to capture, though, is that the joy of these stories is in the little details, the individual touches of imagination that each storyteller brings to the pot.  These are where the personality of the story come through.

And it was the little flourishes of Golden Age Hollywood that George Lucas was always so good at.

It’s easy to forget that Lucas came to prominence as an art-house director.  He was originally going to direct Apocalypse Now.  But I think he saw in those Flash Gordon serials a sort of innocent childlike wonder that only cinema could produce, and seeing as no one else was doing that anymore, he thought he’d give it a try.

Alec Guinness, who played the wizard/mentor figure in the 1970s/80s Star Wars films, recognised this right away, as you can see from this interview on the Michael Parkinson show just after the very first Star Wars film was released.  In it I think Guinness sums up much better (and, frankly, much quicker) than I have what the film is really about:

I believe that The Phantom Menace was George Lucas trying to steer the Star Wars franchise away from the darkness of The Empire Strikes Back that so many fans loved best, and towards his original intention of a bright, upbeat fantasy adventure along the Flash Gordon / Buck Rogers lines.

And when the backlash started, he felt that maybe if he made the following Star Wars films – Attack of the Clones and Return of the Sith – a bit darker whilst still keeping the kids’ film aesthetic he might win his fans back.  But no, most fans resented any sense that the films were primarily for children.

Finally, Lucas moved the Star Wars franchise into animation, making a series of cartoon films and television series (The Clone Wars and Rebels) that were clearly aimed directly at a younger audience.

Eventually, I think Lucas just gave up, and accepted that Star Wars now belonged to a fanbase that wanted something different.  He sold LucasFilm to Disney studios, and now they are producing Star Wars films that seem to be much more in line with what the fans today want.  And perhaps the first thing on those fans’ wish lists is: don’t be The Phantom Menace.

The Phantom Menace is a film with niche appeal, definitely.  If you get bored by Fantasy/Adventure, I don’t think your life will be wasted if you never see it.  If you love the franchise but just wish it could be a bit darker and more grown-up, maybe with Christopher Nolan directing, then avoid this film at all costs.

But if you love old Hollywood, and you like adventure stories, and you can appreciate that a story can be dumb in a tongue-in-cheek way and yet still be executed with a great deal of skill, wit and intelligence… why not give it a try?

To me, it’s like the joy of rediscovering an old 1970s kaleidoscope on a summer’s day.

Only faster.  And with more intensity.