Sunday, January 26, 2003

I wrote last week about a peculiar result of my rewatching a film that I didn't like even though most other people did (Dead Poets Society); last night I did the reverse. I watched a film that I've loved since it came out, even though it may well be the single most reviled film, judging by the vitriol its mere mention seems to elicit, of the last ten years. I am talking, of course, of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I can grant some of the flaws in the film. I really can. The dialogue, while not remotely as bad as many would insist, could have used some touching-up. While I am most emphatically not a Jar Jar hater, he could most definitely have been toned down a bit. While I think Jake Lloyd did a fine job as nine-year-old Anakin, I do think that he might have benefitted from the directorial hand of a director more attuned to working with children. (If ever Steven Spielberg was going to direct a Star Wars film, this would have been the one.) And so on and so forth. I do think that The Phantom Menace is probably the most obviously flawed film in the series, with the most blatant creaking spots in the narrative, but I've been mystified by the sheer level of dislike the film has generated. I remember one of those "Top Ten" lists on the MSN Entertainment page a year or two ago that listed the "Worst Sequels Ever Made", and guess what film made the Number One spot (on a list that somehow managed to omit Superman III, for God's sake). Weird.

I was going to write a lengthy defense of The Phantom Menace, addressing just about every negative about the film I could find, but I got a bit lucky in that someone's beaten me to it. I agree with about eighty-five percent of what this guy says about the film. (I also disagree almost one hundred percent with his assessment of Return of the Jedi, but that's for another time.)

It's probably inevitable that there should be so much comparison right now between the Star Wars saga and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, since both are unfolding on the screen these days. The generally held view -- although not by me -- is that the LOTR films are everything that the current crop of Star Wars films are not, and that Peter Jackson's work shows by its very greatness just how far George Lucas has fallen. Well, OK, I guess, but I disagree entirely -- I still love both equally. But the current primacy of LOTR suggests to me an analogy, because the way Tolkien originally created his stories of Middle-Earth is in a way similar to the way Lucas has brought forth his own saga. First, Tolkien wrote his great trilogy, the one with Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and the War of the Ring and all the rest of it; that's what captured so many imaginations. Likewise, George Lucas captured imaginations with his trilogy of films about Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Princess Leia and all the rest of it.

Later on in their lives, both Tolkien and Lucas felt it was time to go in and tell some of the backstory to their universes. Tolkien did this with The Silmarillion, a work which is also held in some high regard, although not as high as his original trilogy (mainly because of its more archaic tone, and the fact that Tolkien died before the work was complete). The Silmarillion tells the stories of how the Elves came to Middle Earth, and how the Rings of Power were forged, and all the rest of the stuff hinted at in The Lord of the Rings. I've never read The Silmarillion, so I can't comment much on it, but it's a vast epic story on its own. So, when George Lucas announced that he was at long last making the first three episodes of Star Wars, filling in the details of Darth Vader's life, I think that most fans assumed that they were going to get the Star Wars equivalent of The Silmarillion. Thus their disappointment, at least in part, when Episode I finally arrived, and fans discovered that Lucas had not made The Silmarillion at all. He had made The Hobbit.

The Hobbit, to my way of thinking, stands in relation to The Lord of the Rings in much the same way that The Phantom Menace stands in relation to the remainder of the Star Wars saga. It's not really a full part of the story; much of its action is peripheral to what is to come, and it really serves to introduce some of the characters who will play a part and to give a glimpse of this world in which the great drama will later unfold. The Hobbit is a smaller, more intimate work that has very little of the epic scope that would mark The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is never mentioned in The Hobbit, nor really is the fact that the Third Age may be ending; the Ring is just a magical trinket that makes its wearer invisible; Gollum is a creepy little monster; et cetera. It's a straight-forward adventure story, and not much more than that. That's also what The Phantom Menace is: a small introduction to the Star Wars story, which I think explains a lot of the film's structure. This explains why Anakin Skywalker is not even the primary focus of the film. The Hobbit is not essential to the story of The Lord of the Rings, and likewise The Phantom Menace really isn't essential to the Star Wars saga, except to show a few key events. In The Hobbit, it is the finding of the Ring, an event that in the book is not particularly momentous at all; in The Phantom Menace, it is a similar finding: the finding of Anakin Skywalker, even though his finding is likewise not momentous, in that it doesn't have the kind of huge import on the events surrounding it that I think many Star Wars fans anticipated.

I'd also like to discuss the issue of heroes and protagonists, viz. the Star Wars films. A complaint I've seen made in different places -- I think David Brin voiced it, in his famous article for Salon attacking The Phantom Menace, and I saw the complaint raised elsewhere by others -- is that The Phantom Menace is fundamentally flawed because it is lacking a clear protagonist character. "Whose movie is this?" goes the refrain, and at first glance this seems fairly damning. But I don't think it holds up.

At some point, I think it dawned on many people that the true protagonist of the saga is not Luke Skywalker but Anakin/Vader; the whole saga becomes the tale of this one Jedi's rise, fall and redemption. Orson Scott Card made the point very well in his book How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which he outlined how in the "classic trilogy" we see Luke, Han, Leia and friends have a bunch of neat adventures, where all the while it is Darth Vader whose actions shape those of the heroes. Vader is the one setting the agenda; everything the heroes do is in response to Vader, and the saga's key emotional moments come when Vader's son rejects the Dark Side, and then Vader himself does the same. Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, turns out to be the main character of the saga; and yet, he's not the hero, we don't identify with him, and the story is not told from his point-of-view.

Much has been written over the years about the influence of Joseph Campbell on George Lucas, and how the Star Wars saga is a science-fictional, space-opera rendition of the classic "hero's journey". One can start with A New Hope and tick off the proper events: Luke's "call to adventure", his "refusal of the call", his "meeting of the mentor", his "supernatural aid", his descent into "the belly of the whale", et cetera. The hero journey of Luke Skywalker pretty much determines much, if not all, of the structure of the classic trilogy. But then, along comes The Phantom Menace, set years before Luke's birth; but since we know that the entire saga is really Anakin's story, we are tempted to expect The Phantom Menace to be Anakin's story, and we are a bit surprised to find that it is not. At least, not overtly. Thus, we have David Brin, complaining that George Lucas is apparently making a Campbellian-style epic without a Campbellian hero at its heart.

But is he, really?

Keep in mind that, while the structure of the classic trilogy is undeniably Campbellian, it is so in the service of a character who is not the main character. Luke Skywalker may be the Campbellian hero, but Anakin is the main character. This particular counterpoint suggests that we are not meant to really follow Anakin's struggles in the same way that we are meant to follow Luke's, and thus it is entirely appropriate that The Phantom Menace does not set Anakin at its core the way we might have erroneously expected it to do.

Still, the "Whose movie is this?" question is interesting to me, on other grounds, because there are two ways to view The Phantom Menace in relation to the entire saga, with each way suggesting a different answer to this question. If one views The Phantom Menace as a stand-alone chapter, telling its own story -- which, in many ways, it is -- then the question of whose movie it is may seem initially damning. After all, Anakin -- who we're told is the main character of the entire saga doesn't show up until an hour's gone by, and even then he's a mere participant in the story and not its clear protagonist. Obi Wan Kenobi, the other character whom we might expect to be the focal character, is clearly not; he even drops off the screen for the most part during the entire Tatooine section of the film. It could be Queen Amidala's movie, but since the film obscures her identity, it can't really be her (even though it turns out that it might be). That leaves Qui Gon Jinn, who ends up dead. Is it Qui Gon's movie? Maybe, but it seems to me that the film is more of an ensemble film, with a group of heroes all sharing the role of protagonist.

The idea that a story must have a single, clear-cut hero really doesn't hold up. Consider some of those "disaster" films of the 1970s. Is the Gene Hackman character the clear hero of The Poseidon Adventure? Not really. He has the most screen time, and his actions drive much of the story, but I wouldn't necessarily say that it's his movie. Consider two of the finer works of fantasy literature of recent years: Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry and George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Neither of these works has a single protagonist, opting instead for a large cast of characters. Martin's work, in particular, so blurs the line between hero and villain that even now, with three of the series's eventual six books in print, we don't know really who the good guys are in the first place. Consider, even, The Lord of the Rings. It seems so obvious, at first glance, that Frodo Baggins is the main character. But is he, really? I could make a definite case -- and some scholars actually have done so -- that Aragorn is the true main character of LOTR. (The third installment's title -- The Return of the King -- directly refers to Aragorn, for example.) So, the fact that The Phantom Menace lacks a strong central hero character doesn't seem to me to be a fatal flaw. Or, if I may invoke a cliche-to-be of I've ever heard one, it's not a bug. It's a feature.

There is another view we can take, though, to answer the question of whose movie The Phantom Menace is. We can say that it's still Anakin Skywalker's movie, even though he doesn't show up until well into the proceedings, because it's only the first chapter of his entire story. Returning to The Lord of the Rings: if Aragorn is the main character, and he may well be, then it seems strange that he doesn't show up until well into The Fellowship of the Ring, unless we realize that Fellowship is not intended to be viewed as a stand-alone work. Thus, to give The Phantom Menace demerits because it doesn't introduce the main character until an hour's gone by is wrong-headed, for precisely the same reason that it may be wrong-headed to fault Fellowship for not introducing Aragorn earlier. Of course, this seems a bit unsatisfying on other grounds; it means that we have to hold The Phantom Menace in abeyance until the second and third episodes are complete. This doesn't strike me as a problem. I don't think that The Empire Strikes Back was really appreciated for the great film that it is until after Return of the Jedi arrived, and not because ROTJ is a worse film but because it shows just where all that stuff in TESB was going in the first place. I think that Harry Knowles said it best, in his review of Attack of the Clones: "This movie makes The Phantom Menace a better movie."

Of course, I thought it was a good movie in the first place. I was not disappointed in 1999, and I'm still not disappointed. I don't hold The Phantom Menace as a guilty pleasure; I feel no guilt about it. As far as I am concerned, it's a good movie.

(I do wish Lucas had left out the fart and poop jokes, though. And that scene between Padme and Jar Jar, when she's cleaning R2-D2, is probably the most godawful scene in the entire Star Wars saga. But other than that, I love this movie.)

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