Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fixing the Prequels - The Phantom Menace (part one)

Long-time readers will know that I am a member of that terribly small, but incredibly zealous, band of folk: those who admire and enjoy the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, each one of them, and I refuse to view them as disastrous films done in by George Lucas's money-grubbing hubris. The Daughter and I just watched The Phantom Menace this past weekend, and damned if I still can't see what it is about that movie that everybody hates with such fury.

But while I do openly admit to loving these films – long posts about each film can be found linked in my sidebar – I do also admit that the films are flawed. Not fatally flawed, in my view, but there are things in each prequel film that could have been done better. So, in this series of posts, I'm going to set out exactly what I think should have been done differently. We'll start, obviously, with The Phantom Menace, and then proceed on to Attack of the Clones and, finally, Revenge of the Sith.

First, a couple of points about this fairly Quixotic project. One, I'm not going to be bitching a lot about who should have been cast in this or that role (well, with one exception, but that's less about the actual performance given and more about the character in question) or directed. This isn't going to be a “Lucas is Teh Suck as a director!” kind of thing, OK? Two, I'm not going to vastly rewrite the prequel stories, because I think the stories and plotting of the prequels are quite solid and well done. What I'm more about here is fleshing out the stories themselves so they work better, not tossing them out entirely. I'm not doing fanfic here. Lastly, for the sake of brevity, I shall employ the following abbreviations:

TPM = The Phantom Menace
AOTC = Attack of the Clones
ROTS = Revenge of the Sith
ANH = A New Hope
TESB = The Empire Strikes Back
ROTJ = Return of the Jedi
PT = Prequel Trilogy
CT = Classic Trilogy

So, on to The Phantom Menace. Here's how TPM would look if I'd made it.

Intro scenes.

I remember when the backlash started against this film, quite a few commentators complained about the text of the opening crawl, about trade routes and taxation and whatnot. “The film's thirty seconds old, and I'm already bored!” went the refrain, and frankly, what a stupid refrain that was. The American Revolution, after all, had its routes in clashes and quarrels over taxation and trade routes and the like, and yet no one complains about American Revolution stories on an a priori basis. So the opening crawl stays.

Next, the sequence with the Republic ship landing on the Trade Federation cruiser. I actually like this opening too, and I wouldn't change anything about it, save one small detail: the accents of the Trade Federation guys. Not because of all that idiotic stuff about them looking and sounding “Chinese” (for my money, they always sounded less Chinese and more like Count Dracula – I kept waiting for them to express their desire to “sok your blod”), but because they're frankly hard to understand much of the time. The only time in TPM that Darth Sidious is actually referred to by name comes in one of these early scenes, and the accent makes the name almost unintelligible.

There's also a bit in the original script where two worker droids in the landing bay note the arrival of the Republic ambassadors; one says something like “A Republic cruiser! Do you think that's trouble?” And the other replies, “I'm not made to think.” I like that exchange and I wish it had been included in the movie.

So, the Republic ship has landed, and the two Jedi ambassadors have been escorted into a waiting room. Here's where the first thing I'd correct about the prequels crops up: the relationship of Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn. What's wrong here is that the script, as filmed, doesn't really draw the student-teacher relationship strongly enough. This is the young Obi Wan, the impulsive one who would make some bad decisions later on; this is the young Obi Wan on whom the older Obi Wan in the Classic Trilogy would look back somewhat ruefully. We don't get enough of a view of Obi Wan as the student who doesn't know everything.

This scene has Obi Wan noting that he feels something strange out there in the Force, something “elsewhere...elusive”. This should have been given to Qui Gon; his greater experience with the Force should make him the one feeling that something is amiss with this otherwise simple-looking matter of a trade dispute. It should have gone like this:

QUI GON: I have a bad feeling about this.

OBI WAN: I don't sense anything.

QUI GON: This is supposed to be a simple trade dispute, and yet there's something elsewhere...elusive. Learn to listen to the living Force, young Padawan, and it will tell you things that are not readily apparent.

OBI WAN: Master Yoda has said that I should focus my attention on where I am, and what I'm doing. The future is always in motion.

QUI GON: Yes, well...Master Yoda and I have had our disagreements.

OBI WAN: How do you think the Trade Viceroy will react to the Chancellor's demands?

QUI GON: These Federation types are cowards. Blockading a planet with minimal defenses is one thing, but defying two Jedi ambassadors? The negotiations will be short.

Something like this would establish Qui Gon as the clearly superior Jedi in this scenario, as well as plant the notion of Qui Gon as something of a Jedi rogue. One of the underappreciated aspects of the entire Prequel trilogy, in my view, has always been the extent to which the Jedi are depicted: many commentators seem to miss the fact that the PT depicts not the Jedi in their prime, but the Jedi when they are in serious decline as an order, when their focuses have become too inward and when they have become too arrogant and decadent in their own power. Here we'd highlight the notion that all is not perfect in the Jedi world, by establishing the notion of a Jedi Master disagreeing with Yoda, who at the time TPM came out was the only true Jedi master (along with Obi Wan Kenobi) with whom we were familiar.

I also like the opportunity to have Obi Wan's lines reflect a bit of dialogue spoken to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. In truth, I think that the PT did a fair job of harkening back to the CT, but I'd make the parallels even stronger.

Next, we have the Trade Federation guys confer with Darth Sidious. This scene works pretty well, I think, except that again it's undermined a bit by the thick accents of the Federation baddies. Also, there's some dialogue from the original script that didn't make it into the final scene. Additionally, I'd have the Federation guys show some fear and fealty to Sidious when his hologram appears, something like this:

A hologram of DARTH SIDIOUS appears before Viceroy Gunray and his lackies.

SIDIOUS: I instructed you to not contact me except in the event of emergency, Viceroy.

GUNRAY: Forgive me, Lord Sidious, but the Chancellor's ambassadors have arrived, and they are Jedi knights.

SIDIOUS: The Chancellor involved the Jedi? That was unexpected.

DOFINE: [this is the other Federation guy] Your plan has failed, My Lord. We cannot go against the Jedi.

SIDIOUS: You fear two Jedi more than you fear me, Dofine? Viceroy, I don't want this stunted slime in my sight again!

Dofine slinks away.

GUNRAY: Then what shall we do, My Lord?

SIDIOUS: Nothing has changed. A confrontation with the Jedi was inevitable, so we must act now. Begin landing your troops on Naboo.

GUNRAY: Invasion? So soon? Is that...legal?

SIDIOUS: I will make it legal.

GUNRAY: And the Jedi?

SIDIOUS: The Chancellor should never have involved them in this matter. Kill them immediately.

The hologram fades. Gunray turns to his subordinates.

GUNRAY: Begin jamming the communications from the planet, and prepare the armies for invasion.

DOFINE: Yes, Viceroy...but how will we kill the Jedi?

GUNRAY: Droids. Lots of droids.

Then cut back to the rest of this sequence as it unfolds in the film; I've always found this whole sequence pretty effective. The only change I'd make is that when the destroyer droids arrive, I'd draw attention to Obi Wan's suddenly being overmatched: he would try to hold them off himself for a moment or two while Qui Gon continues to cut through the door. This would highlight the notion that he's young and impulsive. Qui Gon would thus have to stop cutting through the door in order to bail out his young Padawan.

There's also a line that I like in the original script; Obi Wan remarks, as they're fighting battle droids, "Offhand I'd say that this mission is past the negotiation phase."

Oh, and the business with the two Jedi suddenly displaying super speed in escaping the destroyer droids? I'd ditch that and have them escape in some other way – maybe by cutting open a coolant pipe or something to make a distraction. The super speed thing doesn't really work; it's a Jedi ability that is only seen this one time and never really comes into play again even though there are times when it seems just what the doctor ordered. The less of that, the better.

Finally, the two Jedi arrive in the landing bay, where they discover the droid armies boarding their ships for the invasion of Naboo. Here I'd highlight the Jedi's surprise that the Trade Federation is actually invading.

OBI WAN: Battle droids?

QUI GON: It's an invasion force. They're invading Naboo.

OBI WAN: From a dispute over trade routes to invasion? I don't understand.

QUI GON: Nor do I. They destroy our ship, try to kill us, and now an invasion...something else is at work here. We have to warn the Naboo and contact Chancellor Valorum. Stow aboard separate ships, and we'll meet on the planet.

OBI WAN: Yes, Master. At least you were right about one thing: the negotiations were short!

And then we're on to Naboo. Next up...the rehabilitation of Jar Jar Binks.



Punning Pundit said...

Bold. Audacious! I like it.
Also: if the Republic was having turmoil because 2 members couldn't figure out how to have free trade with one another, it had already fallen. Promoting internal trade is one of the main points of a government...

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Interesting choices. You makes some strong points, especially with the opening exchange between Obi Wan and Qui Gon. Personally, I've always thought the film would be much better served with a reshuffling of the Darth Maul/Sidious dynamic. Go back to the Star Wars model, in that Vader was the only one seen dealing with the underlings, trouble, and the enemy. The impression was that HE was the badass in charge. Having everyone cowering before Maul would up the tension, and leave the whole question of "Who's the master?" up in the air (even though us geeks knew the Palpatine connection). I feel that'd add to the dramatic tension and make better use of Darth Maul, one of the most enduring elements Lucas brought to the series with the first movie.

Unknown said...

After reading many of the books that take place before the PT, you develop an appreciation for what a rebellious loner, yet strong and dedicated Jedi, that Qui-Gon was. TPM never takes the opportunity to show what a respected and powerful Jedi he was.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought about trying a little rewrite on the prequels myself, so I'm very interested in the choices you're making. I look forward to seeing how this progresses...

One of my biggest hang-ups with the prequels has always been that the ages of the characters don't quite sync up with what we see in the classic trilogy -- Alec Guinness and Sebastian Shaw as the unmasked Vader both seem much older than Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen would be 20 years after the end of Sith, at least to me. I think my solution to that would be to merge Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, have Obi-Wan be a well-established, middle-aged Jedi Warrior rather than a padawan, a man who has had his issues with Yoda and the council, exactly as you suggest for Qui-Gon, and who really, really messes up Anakin's training, just as he tells Luke in Star Wars. Also, I'd make Anakin a teenager when we first meet him, thus lending a little more credibility to his piloting skills and capitalizing on the "already know everything" stubbornness of all teens everywhere to help explain his fall. (This would also generate resonance with Yoda's claim that Luke is too old to train.)

I'd also lose the "Anakin made 3PO" angle, and play up the roles of the droids, who were always supposed to be the true heroes of all this, or at least the witnesses to history.

And Maul... oh, wow, would I expand his part. I'd make him a continuing threat throughout the prequel trilogy and basically give him all the action that Lucas split out among Dooku and Grievous.

Obviously, I'd do a lot more heavy lifting than you seem to have in mind, though. I'll shut up now and let you get on with your own reinterpretation... :)

(Oh, and for the record, I really did like the prequels... I just think they could've been much, much more effective than they were...)

Anonymous said...

Hi! I just discovered your site, and being a hardcore SW fanatic, I just had to chime in. I am always pleased to encounter a fan of the prequels, as I personally think they rock in all kinds of ways. (Yes, I've read up on all that Joseph Campbell type stuff ;)). I like your ideas on how you'd "fix" the prequels. On this particular post, I must express two quibbles:

1) I disagree that Qui-Gon should be the one to detect the "elusive, out there" disturbance that Obi-Wan detects in the film. What Obi-Wan is detecting is, in effect, the "Phantom Menace" of the title, i.e. the subliminal machinations of Darth Sidious and the looming threat of Darth Vader and the Revenge of the Sith. No other Jedi detects this in Ep. I, including Qui-Gon. Granted, Obi-Wan doesn't seem to pay much heed to his own apprehension in later episodes, but remember that Qui-Gon is just as heedless of the true "phantom menace" as the other Jedi, and it is he who unquestioningly accepts the idea that Anakin is the Chosen One of the prophecy. If Qui-Gon had detected the disturbance that Obi-Wan felt at the beginning of the film, I believe he would be less inclined to put his full faith in Anakin, and indeed, it is Obi-Wan who is distrustful of Anakin's proper role in TPM.

2) You object to the use of super-speed by the Jedi as the power is never seen again in the films. Not true. Luke uses it in ESB, combined with a super-leap, to escape the carbon-freezing chamber. Notice that the special effect definitely conveys the impression of super-speed.

Hope no offense taken, I just love talking SW. :)