Thursday, January 03, 2008

Fixing the Prequels - The Phantom Menace (part four)

part one
part two
part three

Wow, it's been a long time since I updated this series, so let's get right into it, shall we?

When last we left our heroes, they had just blasted their way out of the hangar bay on Naboo and are now heading toward space, in an attempt to get to Coruscant where Queen Amidala hopes to be able to gain the support of the Chancellor in the matter of her world's invasion by the Trade Federation.

Now, before getting back into matters of script, a brief digression about visual effects. I've never been one to lament the rise of computer-generated effects in place of photographing models and stop-motion animation and the like of effects-laden-movies past, but there's one area of TPM that's always bugged me slightly, effects-wise, and it's the movements of the ships. Well, one ship in particular: the Queen's ship, which for some reason never really seems to have any real weight about it.

I assume that the Queen's ship is roughly the size of the Millennium Falcon or the original Blockade Runner. But in the OT, when those ships were onscreen, they seemed like real, physical objects. The Queen's ship always looks to me like a construct instead of an object. Just the way it tears out of the hangar bay and streaks upward into the sky in a perfect curve, achieving velocity seemingly the second it clears the doors of the hangar. Contrast that with all those times we saw the Millennium Falcon lift off from various locales; it always had to gather up a head of steam, so to speak, as we might expect a large vehicle to have to do in a planetary environment.

Oddly, this problem of the ships having "weight" only seems to really afflict the chrome-hulled cruisers of Naboo in the OT (except for the ship that lands on Coruscant at the opening of Attack of the Clones, which also happens to be my single favorite ship from the entire PT; how sad that it was only in about a minute of screentime!). The problem doesn't even extend, in my view, to the Naboo starfighters, so why this one ship really stands out as moving in a totally unworldly way has always vexed me a little bit.

You know what else bugs me about the ships in the PT? The fact that none of them have names. Most of the really important ships in the OT had names: Millennium Falcon. Executor. Avenger. Slave One. Tantive IV. Not so the PT, unfortunately. Giving this ship a name would have really enhanced the personality a bit.

So anyway, back to the script stuff. The escape from Naboo always seems to take a bit too little time for me, with too little sense of desperation. It seems, frankly, too easy. Mostly, this is a matter of pacing, since all the elements are there: the ship is under heavy fire, the shields are knocked out, the astrodroids deploy to fix the shields but start getting picked off, R2-D2's first heroic moment in the Star Wars saga, the escape into deep space. There's a lot of good stuff there, and I like the sequence as is, but it frankly could be better. It's this sequence, actually, that to me represents the greatest evidence that when making TPM George Lucas was, frankly, out of practice as a film maker. The editing here lets him down, when it's editing that is Lucas's strong point. Comparing this escape sequence with that of the Millennium Falcon from the Death Star in ANH is illustrative.

So what does the sequence need? More heft, frankly. This is the first space-based action sequence in the movie, and as such, it should stand out more than it does. Here's also a place where a toned-down Jar Jar could be used for small comic effect. This is how my version of the escape from Naboo would take place:


The Naboo cruiser is powering through the upper atmosphere.


COMMANDER RIC OLIE sits in the pilot's seat, with two co-pilots flanking him. Standing behind him are QUI GON and CAPTAIN PANAKA.

RIC OLIE: They're still jamming our communications. Start calculating a course for Coruscant.


OBI WAN leads JAR JAR into a cramped room where six astrodroids are in sleep-mode. Jar Jar's color is way off, his ears are drooping more than normal, and he moans as he holds his stomach.

JAR JAR: Mesa sorry! Mesa never fly before.

OBI WAN: Well, we past some closets coming down here. The Queen has more gowns.

JAR JAR: Ohhhh....

OBI WAN: Stay in here, and keep quiet. And don't touch anything.

Obi Wan turns and exits, leaving a moaning Jar Jar to sit down on the floor and put his head between his legs.

JAR JAR: Disen not my day.



RIC OLIE: I see them.

PANAKA: What is it?

RIC OLIE: Federation ships, two of them. Moving to cut us off. (to co-pilot) Activate our shields.

One of the Federation ships fires a couple of warning shots at the Naboo cruiser, which lightly rocks under the fire.

QUI GON: Perhaps you should accelerate to attack speed.

RIC OLIE: Attack speed? This isn't a Jedi attack ship! You're flying aboard the Queen Marisma the Golden, the Capital Cruiser of Naboo! [I plucked the name "Marisma" out of thin air. -Ed.]

Another burst of fire from the Federation battleship rocks the Marisma.

PANAKA: Commander, fire all thrusters. We're never going to run that blockade like this.

RIC OLIE: Captain, this ship--

PANAKA: Commander, on my authority as the Queen's personal Captain of Naboo Security, I order you to fly this ship in any way you need to! Get us through that blockade, Commander!

Ric Olie stiffens, and now his inner "gritty war pilot" starts to come out. He turns back to his console.

RIC OLIE: Transfer all auxiliary power to the secondary thrusters. We need more speed. And put all power in our front shields. They're not shooting at us from behind!

The sounds of the engines, deep in the ship, become more powerful and insistent. The lights dim as the power is diverted, and everyone shifts stance as the ship accelerates.


The Queen's entourage is holding on for dear life. The Queen's gaze is locked on that of her earlier Handmaiden.


Jar Jar lifts his head, and then ducks it again.


The Marisma's thrusters fire anew, and the ship picks up speed.


DOFINE stands at the shoulder of a scanning operator.

DOFINE: They can't expect to run our blockade in that ship, can they?

SCANNING OPERATOR: They are accelerating to attack speed.

DOFINE: All guns fire!


Now the Federation Battleship starts blasting away at the Marisma. The Naboo ship is stuck several times.


Panaka and Qui Gon have to hold on for dear life as the ship lurches under heavy fire.


The Queen and her entourage are in fear as the lights flicker.

HANDMAIDEN: We're closing on the blockade.

The Queen nods.


Jar Jar is literally trying to become one with the floor.


Obi Wan enters and has to grab a handhold as a fresh volley of laserfire jolts the ship again.

RIC OLIE: Our shield generator's hit!

CO-PILOT: Activating astrodroids.

He presses a button.


Jar Jar is whimpering on the floor when all six astrodroids suddenly snap to life and begin. Now he has to leap up and get out of the way as the astrodroids emerge from their cocoons and begin heading for an exterior airlock.

JAR JAR: Ohhh, what next!

He stumbles on the leg of one particularly familiar blue astrodroid and falls to the floor. The astrodroid whistles at him as it enters the airlock, from where it is ejected onto the hull of the ship.


The six astrodroids are all clustered around an open portal into the ship's systems, where they are trying to repair some obvious blast damage. The Federation Battleship's bombardment continues, and one droid is blasted right off the hull almost immediately, quickly followed by another. The BLUE DROID is busily connecting wires while a third of his comrades is blasted away.


Obi Wan is watching the progress of the astrodroids via a video monitor.

OBI WAN: We're losing droids fast.

RIC OLIE: If we lose them all before they get the shields back up, they'll have us.

PANAKA: Keep flying, Commander.

The ship lurches again, particularly violently this time.


One of the astrodroids is literally shaken loose from the hull of the ship by the latest impact, and tumbles shrieking into space. Now only two remain.


Jar Jar is trying to pull himself up, via a handle on the wall. Unfortunately, the handle is to a parts locker, which pops open and dumps all manner of machine parts on top of him.


The Marisma is now flying across the surface of the Federation Battleship. The two droids are still working feverishly on reconnecting the shield generators.


SCANNING OPERATOR: I have them in range for precision cannons, sir.



A fresh volley of Federation cannonade blasts the fifth droid into atoms, leaving just the BLUE DROID working on the ship. Somehow the blue droid actually manages to evade several near laser blasts while he connects the last of the wires. Sparks fly as the power flow is restored, and the blue droid lets out a whistle of triumph.


RIC OLIE: Our shields are back up! The droid did it!


The Marisma streaks away from the planet, leaving the Federation blockade in its wake.


The Handmaiden glances at a computer screen and sees the Federation ships receding in the distance.

HANDMAIDEN: We're away!


RIC OLIE: Prepare for jump to hyperspace. Lay in your course for Coruscant.

CO-PILOT: We can't, sir! The hyperdrive took a direct hit. We don't have enough power to get all the way to the central systems.

PANAKA: We got through the blockade but now we can't get anywhere?

QUI GON: Obi Wan.

OBI WAN: Yes, Master.

Obi Wan sits down at a vacant screen and starts looking through navigational charts. He quickly hones in on one system.

OBI WAN: We can go into the Outer Rim, Master. There's a system called Tatooine. Small, poor, mostly out of the standard shipping lanes.

QUI GON: Which means no Trade Federation presence there. Excellent.

Captain Panaka glances at the screen and reacts strongly to something he reads there.

PANAKA: Tatooine is controlled by the Hutts! You can't take Her Royal Highness there! If the Hutts capture her--

QUI GON: A calculated risk, Captain. But the Hutts aren't looking for her, are they? In their eyes we will be as everyone else in their worlds: travelers who are looking to repair a broken ship and be on our way. They need never know the Queen is there.


Jar Jar is rubbing his aching head when the Blue droid comes back inside from the airlock. The droid surveys the scene – a sick Gungan and parts strewn all over – and whistles as he shakes his dome-head.

JAR JAR: Sorry.

The Droid emits a whistle of disdain.

OK, that got pretty long-winded, but I make no apologies. So there. The basic notion is that there should be a palpable sense of desperation here, of danger.

Next up comes another scene where the Trade Federation baddies report to Darth Sidious. In the original script, Sidious orders Nute Gunray to "destroy all of the Naboo high-ranking officials, slowly and quietly". I like that and would restore it to the film. Then he asks if the Queen has signed the treaty, and Gunray has to admit that she has not: the Queen has escaped and that they can't track the Naboo ship, but Sidious says that the Sith can, and here we meet Darth Maul. I've always liked this scene, and really the only change I'd make would be to restore the afore-mentioned line about the high-ranking officials and an addition to the exchange at the very end, after the two Sith have faded from view:

NUTE: This is getting out of hand. Now there are two of them!

RUNE: We should not have made this bargain. What will the Jedi do when they become aware of these Sith Lords?

What I like about a lot of this stuff is that it starts to become clear that the Trade Federation is also in the dark as to what's going on just why they're doing what they're being told to do. They're losing the plot as it were.

Also, I've always loved the way Darth Maul's hologram appears, looming over the shoulder of Darth Sidious; at that exact moment, John Williams's score has this ominous figure intoned by the low brass. It's a terrific entrance.

Meanwhile, back on the Naboo cruiser, we're officially introduced to R2-D2 and the Queen is briefed on what's going on now. I like this scene as is, and the only change I'd make would be to have the Queen in a different outfit, since my version of the escape makes clear that Jar Jar had thrown up on the old one.

And now, we arrive at what I hold to be the single worst scene in any Star Wars movie, and by a good margin. It's a very brief scene, really, but it's gobsmackingly bad. Padme (the handmaiden) is cleaning R2-D2 as ordered by "the Queen", when Jar Jar pops in and gives a brief summation of the day he's had. He's all cheerful and bubbly and it's basically just another bit of Jar Jar when, really, none is needed. Particularly bad, though, is Padme's line, "You're a Gungan, aren't you?" I always feel as though Jar Jar's response should be something like "Yousa know any other races of orange-skinned amphibians native to Naboo?"

The scene is nothing more than filler, to take up space between "We've got to get to Tatooine!" and "We're on Tatooine!". Nothing wrong with filler, per se; I've always felt, for instance, that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring could have used some kind of filler between the escape across the Brandywine River and the arrival at Bree. But this particular filler scene is just awful. I squirm every time I see it. This little scene is, to me, the best piece of evidence in favor of people who claim that George Lucas's problem in the PT is that there's nobody around to tell him when something in his movie is crap on a stick. And as much as I love Uncle George, there's just no getting around it: this scene is crap on a stick.

So, how to fix it? Simple: no Jar Jar. This scene should have Obi Wan in it. Here's my version:


PADME enters, now dressed in simple working garb. She walks toward R2.

OBI WAN: (offscreen) Watch your step!

PADME stops cold and realizes that she was about to stumble over a sleeping JAR JAR, who is sprawled across the floor. She smiles at Obi Wan as she steps over the Gungan. Obi Wan is sitting at a table, with his lightsaber in pieces in front of him. She sits at the table opposite him and takes up a cloth; R2 whistles and rolls over for his cleaning.

OBI WAN: I tried getting him to sleep in a bunk, but he says he prefers the floor.

PADME: Gungans like hard surfaces. Once when I was – with The Queen on a diplomatic meeting with them, we all had to sleep on their floors. Our backs ached for a week afterward.

Obi Wan cocks an eyebrow but lets her minor slip pass.

PADME: Did you make that weapon yourself?

OBI WAN: No. The making of one's own lightsaber is part of the final trials before one becomes a full Jedi Knight.

PADME: You are not a Jedi Knight?

OBI WAN: I am Master Qui Gon's Padawan learner. But don't fear, Miss...

PADME: Padme.

OBI WAN: Don't fear, Miss Padme. I am almost ready to undergo the trials myself, and Qui Gon is one of the greatest of all Jedi. You are in good hands.

PADME: Which is why we're here, instead of in a Federation prison camp on our own planet.

She sighs.

PADME: We must find a solution to this problem quickly. The Naboo are peaceful people, but we have been used to our freedom for a thousand years. Being imprisoned will destroy the spirit of my world in a very short time.

OBI WAN: What is the nature of your dispute with the Federation? I've been trying to understand what could have motivated them to a blockade and an invasion, but it makes little sense to me.

PADME: That's because it makes little sense. We are an old world, but we are not terribly rich. Naboo is known more for its artisans and its scholars than its traders. There is little the Federation stands to gain by taking control of our shipping lanes. It won't make them that much richer than they are already, and it won't put them in any better position than they are now to establish themselves in the Outer Rim. Perhaps there is something deeper at work here. Our Galactic Senator, Palpatine, has told us of intrigues in the Senate that have drawn even him, a relatively junior delegate from a small world far from the Galactic center, into various factions who are constantly competing for power and influence on Coruscant. I fear that Naboo has become a mere pawn upon a very complex game board.

Obi Wan has been listening to this in fascination, as he begins putting the last pieces of his lightsaber back together.

OBI WAN: I must say, you have a very keen mind, Miss Padme. The Queen chooses her handmaidens well.

She smiles at him, a bit mysteriously, and he rises from his chair and holds his saber at arm's length.

OBI WAN: Ah, that should do it.

He presses the button, and the saber ignites, with its brilliant blue blade. But the blade's hum is oddly high-pitched, and the blade itself is only about twelve inches long. He frowns as he deactivates it and sits back down.

OBI WAN: Well that's not right.

Padme laughs, and R2 expresses his mirth with a series of whistles.

Something like this would give Obi Wan some needed screentime in the middle section of the film, as he disappears a bit. (That never really bugged me, but still, the character does get slightly shortchanged.) It also keeps his role as Padawan learner in perspective a bit, as well as flesh out a bit of the progression from Padawan to Jedi Knight. The bit about a Jedi finally making his own lightsaber reflects Luke Skywalker's own lightsaber-making in Return of the Jedi: in the OT, Luke is never an "official" Padawan learner, and yet he still in some ways undergoes the same tests required of an actual Padawan making his transition to Jedi Knight.

(By the way, I've always wondered why all lightsabers are the same length. Why not a lightdagger? Or Jedis jousting from the backs of some big beastie while wielding a twelve-foot-long lightlance? Now there's an idle thought for another time.)

Also, this version of the scene establishes that there might be a bit more to this particular handmaiden than meets the eye, as well as gives a bit of background to the entire political situation. One of the things that always intrigued me about TPM was the way that the entire plot on Naboo, in the end, doesn't really matter that much at all; Palpatine is able to get what he wants whether his schemes for Naboo are successful or not. He is playing a game with Naboo as one of his pawns.

In fact, this is a larger theme throughout all of the PT, and it's one I'd emphasize a bit more strongly than George Lucas did. It tends to get missed a bit, but virtually all of the intrigues and battles and conflicts throughout the PT are basically diversions constructed by Palpatine/Sidious to keep the Jedi from seeing what's really going on until it's far too late for them to do anything about it.

And that's where I'll end for now, since this got more long-winded than I'd originally planned. Next time we'll meet the boy who over the course of his life will save the Galaxy, destroy it, and save it again. On to Tatooine!


Call me Paul said...

Just a comment about your comment on ship names. To the best of my recollection, the Millenium Falcon was the only ship in the OT that was ever explicitly named. The other ships' names you mentioned were only revealed later at, or in novelisations of the SW universe. Your knowledge of them is secondary to your original experience of viewing the films of the OT.

Kelly Sedinger said...

That's not entirely accurate. The Star Destroyer Avenger is specifically named in the films, for instance. And while not all of those names are directly from the films, they are used in other places, such as the screenplays themselves. In any event, I didn't have to wait until came along twenty years after the first movies to learn the names of those ships; every SW fan worth his or her salt knew those names back in 1977, 1980, and 1983. Not so now with the Prequels.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a latecomer here, but I'm really enjoying your rewrite.

I have a problem with the decoy queen assigning the REAL queen to polish R2-D2. The decoy queen knew exactly who Padme was, and would never assign her a menial task like that. There should be another reason for Padme to visit the others in the main hold!