Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fixing the Prequels - The Phantom Menace (part six)

part one
part two
part three
part four
part five

Marching on in our re-examination of The Phantom Menace, we resume the Tatooine section of the film.

But first, a digression of sorts is called for. In comments to the last post, Jason opined that in TPM Anakin is too young, and should have been older: ten or eleven, perhaps. I've actually waffled on this quite a lot, and I've generally settled on these thoughts.

First: Well, the general thrust of this series isn't to completely reinvent the Prequel trilogy, and recasting a major role would certainly be a significant step in that direction. My overall view is that the Prequels are unjustly maligned, and part of what I'm trying to do isn't just to kvetch about the stuff I didn't like, but also to call attention to the stuff that I think works very well in these movies. Aside from a couple of awkward line readings, I've not had a problem with Jake Lloyd as Anakin. (I have long held the view that given his long history of directing children with great results, if ever Steven Spielberg was going to direct a Star Wars movie, this would have been the one.)

Second: An underlying theme of the PT is that bad things can happen when people are forced into certain roles before they are ready to play them. Anakin's not ready to be a Jedi, he's not ready to be the greatest of all Jedi, he's not ready to be a magnificent war leader, he's not ready to be a personal confidant of the Chancellor of the Galactic Senate, and so on. He gets overwhelmed easily, and that's a big part of why he falls to the Dark Side of the Force. And why does he get overwhelmed? Because he's never really given a chance to mature. On that basis, I think it makes sense that we first meet him as a child. His love of Padme is never more than childish, and since that's the main catalyst of his embrace of the Dark Side, that's where it has to begin.

So yeah, I'd leave Anakin as he is in the movie. I can see the case for making him older, but I don't think that enough is really gained in doing that to make it worthwhile.

OK. When we left off, we'd just finished "Dinner at the Skywalker House", where it was decided that Anakin would race his new pod racer in an attempt to win the parts for the stranded ship. I actually like a lot of what follows, and I really wouldn't change much of any of it at all. Qui Gon arranges the race with some cavalier betting with Watto in a very nicely done scene. There's a good exchange between Padme and Qui Gon, where Padme attempts to use her royal rank to question Qui Gon without actually revealing her royal rank, and I've always assumed that Qui Gon had a good idea that Padme was really the Queen when he tells her "The Queen trusts me judgment, and you should too." Then the bit between Qui Gon and Watto, which is another well-done scene. I particularly like this exchange:

QUI-GON: I have acquired a Pod in a game of chance. The fastest ever built.

WATTO: I hope you didn't kill anyone I know for it.

Qui Gon's knowing smile in reply to this is terrific.

Next we're back at Casa Skywalker. Anakin's building of the pod racer, Qui Gon's discussion of Anakin's nature with Shmi, Anakin's growing fascination with Padme: I think that all of this stuff works pretty well, and about the only change I'd make would be to eliminate the bit with Jar Jar getting his hand stuck in the engine of the racer. (I'd keep the bit with his tongue getting zapped by the energy binders, because I actually think that's kind of funny, as is C-3PO's observation that "This Jar Jar creature is rather odd".) I particularly like how open Qui Gon is with Shmi as to his suspicions about Anakin and the Force, as well as Anakin's excitement when he gets his racer's engines going. It's scenes like this one, actually, that make me wonder just why so many people are so visceral in their loathing of TPM. There's really lots of good stuff in the movie, if you're willing to see it.

I would, however, make a small alteration to the dialog between Qui Gon and Shmi:

QUI GON: Where is his father?

Shmi hesitates.

SHMI: There...was no father.

Qui Gon cocks an eyebrow.

SHMI: I can't explain it. I was not with a man when – I conceived him, carried him, and he was born.

QUI GON: No one said anything?

SHMI: I am a slave. No one ever says anything.

QUI GON: Does he know?

SHMI: No. He thinks that his father was a navigator on a spice freighter. He is smart...perhaps I would tell him, but I do not know what to say.

QUI GON: Nor do I.

I always liked the way Anakin's birth was made mysterious like this. I remember some critics pooh-poohing the notion back when the movie came out, under the notion that it made Anakin's story too Christ-like, but virgin births are not unheard of in folklore and myth beyond the tale of the birth of Jesus, and George Lucas surely knew that. All I wanted to add here, really, was to explain a bit of Anakin's sense of who he really is. (And the lie as to his father's identity mirrors the lie later told to Luke by Owen Lars. Yeah, that's a little geek-moment.)

Then there's the little night-time scene when Qui Gon takes a scan of Anakin's blood and beams it to Obi Wan for a midichlorian count. What to do here? Well, we'll get to the meat-and-potatoes of the whole midichlorian thing later on in another post, but for now, I'd have Obi Wan react with some surprise here:

QUI GON: Analyze this blood sample I'm sending you.

OBI WAN: Yes, master.

QUI GON: And I need a midichlorian count.

Obi Wan hesitates.

OBI WAN: Master – did you say that you need a midichlorian count?


OBI WAN: But in the past you've said--

QUI GON: I know what I've said, but something is out of place here. Please analyze the sample.

OBI WAN: Yes, Master...scanning now...and the result is....

QUI GON: Obi Wan?

OBI WAN: This reading is off the chart. Over twenty thousand per million. That's a higher concentration than in any other Jedi on record.

QUI GON: Even Master Yoda and Master Windu.

OBI WAN: What does this mean?

QUI GON: I'm not sure yet. Keep the ship safe. I will check in tomorrow.

OBI WAN: Yes, master.

What happens here is that I hint a bit that the midichlorians are a bit of an issue with Qui Gon, for one reason or another. I always liked how in this little scene Lucas left the midichlorians unexplained for later on, and I'd do the same thing. My issue is the way he ends up explaining them, later on, and we'll get to that in good time. Note how I also give the reading result ("twenty thousand") a bit more context by providing a secondary figure to establish the concentration.

(Meanwhile, Darth Maul lands on Tatooine and sends out his probe droids. I wouldn't change this at all.)

OK, so now it's the next day, and Anakin and friends bring the pod racer to the hangar bay before the race. Again, I like this scene as well, particularly the bit where Padme discovers that not only have they put their hopes on this boy in this dangerous race, it's a race that he's never even finished. Qui Gon's cheating at the die roll is nice, too.

A bit of a digression here about the nature of the Jedi. I remember when the movie first came out, some people were disturbed that Qui Gon would lie to Anakin about the blood sample ("I'm just scanning for infections") and that he would use the Force to rig the throw of a die. Basically, Qui Gon isn't totally honest in situations that call for less than total honesty. There seems to be an idea among many that the Jedi aren't just noble warriors, but that they're basically, to borrow a bit of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons terminology, paladins. The Jedi are supposed to be pure as the driven snow, morally, and Qui Gon's actions look bad in that light. Personally, I think the "Space Paladins" view of the Jedi is incredibly faulty: they're not perfect individuals, by any means, and a recurring theme in the prequel trilogy is that the fall of the Jedi comes as much from their own failures at introspection as from the activities of the Sith. (This is actually a theme I wish Lucas would have pushed farther and harder, and it's a theme I'll be discussing in depth when this series finally reaches Revenge of the Sith.)

Well, anyway, we finally get to the central part of the whole Tatooine sequence: the pod race. Believe me when I say that there is exactly one major change I'd make to this entire chunk of the film. Yes, I'd remove the bit with Jar Jar and the flatulent eopie. I can't imagine what made George Lucas think that was a good idea. But as for the rest, I've loved the pod race in its entirety ever since I first saw the movie on opening day in 1999. Those racers are impressive vehicles, and I love the entire idea, as an action sequence, and as a logical bit of Star Wars lore. Tatooine is depicted as a world fascinated with going at great speeds over its wide vistas, which makes perfect sense since there's not much else to do there at all. Anakin's love of pod racing is later passed onto his son; not pod racing specifically, but Luke's own fascination with speed and accuracy. Pod racing is the clear antecedent for Luke's bulls-eyeing of womprats in his T-16.

Anyhow, yeah: I love the pod race. I love how the sequence starts with the usual brassy music one expects from a John Williams score, but once the race itself begins, the music vanishes, only to return at the very end when Anakin and Sebulba are neck and neck and Anakin's racer is succumbing to Sebulba's sabotage. And the whole sequence is very nicely edited, as well; everything that happens is perfectly clear, and when Anakin has to make a repair while racing, it's easy to see what he's doing as he's doing it. (First he snuffs out the fire, then he re-routes power so that he can fire up both engines again. It's all handled with nothing but visual cues and no dialog; Anakin doesn't start narrating his own actions for us.)

As the pod race ends, I'd make one small change: it's not exactly clear why Sebulba's racer fails spectacularly, especially on the DVD when the image is reduced to TV-size. His energy binders (those tendrils of electricity that keep the two engines aimed in the same direction) fail, but we don't really see why. I'd add something here, maybe something like Anakin chucking a loose tool into Sebulba's engine or something like that. In fact, I'd definitely make it something like that, or even have Anakin, in a moment of rage at Sebulba, inadvertently use the Force to snap off a key part of his opponent's racer. Something to suggest a little bit of the Dark Side waiting in this boy's heart.

So Anakin crosses the finish line, and the crowd goes wild. There's a terrific little moment here that always makes me smile, even though I think the effect may not have been intentional on Lucas's part. In Anakin's pit area, his two buddies (Kitster, the human, and Wald, the Rodian) are celebrating, but if you watch, it's terribly awkward. The two kids try to high-five, but they hilariously miss the coordination of it, and thus they end up slapping their hands into empty air while the other is standing there doing nothing. It's pretty obvious that the actors here weren't on the same page as to how they were doing their celebrating, and yet, there's the shot, in the final cut of the movie. I can't believe that this was Lucas being inept or bumbling; I suspect that he knew full well that he was putting a bad take into his movie when he made the final edit. Here's the thing: if you go to actual sporting events and pay attention to the behavior of the fans in the stands, this sort of thing actually happens. I've seen lots of guys awkwardly try to figure out in the heat of the moment if they're bumping fists or high-fiving or hugging or whatever when something really good befalls the side they're rooting for. Maybe this is actually just a mistake in the movie that nobody caught, but to me, it's totally true to life, and since Lucas made the pod race into an entire sporting event complete with announcer, I prefer to believe that this little shot is here intentionally.

As for the rest of the aftermath of the race, I think it, too, works pretty well. (I'd ditch the fact that Jabba fell asleep during the race, though.) Qui Gon's brief talk with Watto, in which he collects his winnings, is very well done. (Very nice is that one of Darth Maul's probe droids flies by in the background, and thus picks up the scent.) Also nicely done is the brief bit where Qui Gon meets with Obi Wan as the Queen's ship begins preparations for liftoff and repairs. Obi Wan's line, "Why do I suspect that we've picked up another "pathetic life form"?" would already be set up by the line I gave him earlier in the movie (during the submarine-through-Naboo sequence), and then Qui Gon goes to fetch Anakin.

This scene, however, is a bit problematic. Anakin's decision to leave is handled way too quickly, and he should really be a lot more conflicted about it. We should see him agonizing for a few minutes about whether he should leave his mother or not:

ANAKIN: But Mom, I can't just leave you here.

SHMI: Yes you can, my darling! My place is here. I will be fine. You know that aside from his gambling, Watto is a good master. And you know that this is the chance you have, right now, to leave this world and see the stars. There is a bright center to this Universe, Anakin, and this is the planet that it's farthest from. Who knows if a chance like this will ever come again?

ANAKIN: But --

SHMI: No, Ani. You must go.

QUI GON: We must be underway now, Anakin. Our task is still urgent. Go and get what you need.

ANAKIN: I don't have much.

He runs off.

QUI GON: I will look after him.

SHMI: I always knew that he would leave one day. I just didn't think it would be when he was so young.

QUI GON: This is when it is best. When the world still has wonder for him.

SHMI: He will be a very powerful Jedi, won't he?

QUI GON: He may be the most powerful of us all.

Something like that. (Shmi echoes a line that will later be uttered by Luke Skywalker.) Cut to Anakin's farewell to C-3PO (another bit I like a lot), and his departure from his home. I'd limit the final goodbyes to just Shmi's line, "Go now, and don't look back. Don't ever look back."

(The original script has a small scene where, as Qui Gon returns to collect Anakin, he comes across Anakin fighting in the street with a Rodian who turns out to be a young Greedo. This scene seems to have some geek love behind it, but I don't think it adds anything, so I'd leave it out. I'd also leave out some of the extended farewells Anakin has, such as the one with his buddy Kitster. I also recall vaguely – I might be completely wrong, actually – some fan speculation that Kitster would later grow up to become Boba Fett. Obviously that didn't happen, and I wouldn't make it happen here, either.)

OK. Qui Gon and Anakin are making for the ship when Darth Maul attacks them from behind. This scene thrilled my geek heart when I saw it, because a sequence very much like it was evident in a number of Lucas's first drafts of Star Wars, way back in the early 1970s. This all works pretty well, although I'd draw out the fight between Qui Gon and Darth Maul a bit, and I'd retain something from the script, where after Qui Gon jumps onto his ship's entry ramp, Maul would try to follow but only get knocked back to the ground as the ship lifts up and out into space.

In the final moment of the film's Tatooine sequence, we have the introduction of Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. This is yet another of those small moments in TPM that I love, and I wouldn't change it at all, not a single bit. I always appreciated how Lucas didn't take this portentous meeting and underline it with a huge magic marker for the audience; isn't it true in life that the people we meet who later become so important to us are people we meet casually, so much so that in some cases we don't even recall those first meetings at all? That's great stuff. "By the way, Obi Wan Kenobi, meet Anakin Skywalker." That's great (especially Ewan McGregor's expression of "Sure, hey, how you doin'").

And with that we're done with Tatooine. Next time we'll check back in with the doings on Naboo and look at the Coruscant section of the film.

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