Friday, 4 June 1999:

The Phantom Menace

I went to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace tonight, with Bill. I'll review it (with spoilers) at the end of this entry. In summary, though, I'd say that it was basically what I expected: Entertaining, but lightweight, and certainly not as good as the first two films.

This morning I went to the fitness center to go through my workout by myself for the first time. Going in in the morning is good: There's hardly anyone there, and better yet, the locker room has not yet steamed up from a day's worth of showers. I also just basically like feeling for the rest of the day like I've done something physical.

Doing the weight training exercises took longer than I'd expected: Nearly an hour. John thinks that with practice and as my body gets in shape and needs less rest between sets, that I can get it down to 40 minutes, which would be okay. My muscles did not feel as sore as they did after Wednesday's trip; not sure why that is. They didn't feel that sore on Wednesday, so after today's workout I felt tired, but my muscles didn't feel anything. It took about two hours for them to start feeling stiff.

After the weight training I put in 20 minutes on the elliptical walking whatsis, which told me I burned somewhere over 150 calories. During this, I started listening to a CD set I got last Christmas of interviews conducted in the 1960s with baseball players from the first couple of decades of this century. I think it's darned near the only firsthand account we have of baseball from that era. It was a very different era: Pretty much anyone could show up at a major league club for a tryout, and the whole atmosphere seemed much more casual than it is now.

Afterwards I felt happy I'd worked out. Exercise is good.

Oh, I also got the results of my blood test from a week and a half ago. The cholesterol results - which I was mainly interested in - were not surprisingly at (maybe a little outside) the extreme end of normal, but I was frankly a little surprised they weren't way outside. Maybe in six months or something, if I keep exercising and see results, I'll have another one done and see if there's been any change.

I've decided to can the idea of getting a G3 chip upgrade for my PowerBook. The current chip seems to do okay for running Starcraft, and I don't need the upgrade for anything else I do with the machine. So I'll save the money and put it into a PalmPilot or something. I can get a new PowerBook in a year or two and have a much nicer machine.

I did, however, get another 64 Mb of RAM for my desktop machine, from The Chip Merchant. Memory is now under a dollar a megabyte! Amazing! Anyway, I'd been having small memory problems since I upgraded to MacOS 8.5, and virtual memory wasn't a solution since Netscape started crashing more often when I turned on VM. So I figured more memory was in order; I'm up to 128 Mb now. Hopefully things will settle down.

By the way, comics writer/industry personality Tony Isabella ran a letter of mine in a recent entry of his on-line journal.
So, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. (SPOILERS AHEAD.)

My expectation for this film was that it would be entertaining. Lucas knows how to put on a good show. My hope was that it would be better than Return of the Jedi, which was the weakest of the first three films. Not only did it have those annoying Ewoks, but it was creatively bankrupt after the rescue-Han-Solo sequence. Another Death Star? Another Luke/Vader confrontation? Been there, done that. And the silly revelation that Luke and Leia are twins.

Well, The Phantom Menace was indeed entertaining, but it was substantially undercut by being an essentially trivial story. Everyone says that TPM is just setup for the next two films, and that certainly appears to be true. However, this seems like an essential failure of the writing, being unable to combine its essential setup for the future (which is actually fairly modest) with a rock-em sock-em plot. Instead we have an invasion of a planet of little apparent significance, and no evident threat at all to the Republic generally, with a side-stop on Tatooine to pick up Anakin, when Anakin could have come from anywhere.

A better approach would have been if the Republic itself were being invaded, and the stakes had been raised fairly high from the very beginning. Then we would have really felt the urgency of whatever our heroes were doing.

The accusations of weak characterization are largely true, albeit a bit overstated. I thought that Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi were both fairly well-defined characters, as was Anakin. Yes, their definition was fairly simplistic, but the characters in the original Star Wars were not any more so. Possibly what people are objecting to here is that there's isn't a rousing roguish character like Han Solo in this film; all the heroes are pure heroes, not shaded by much gray.

The biggest problem with the film, though, is that, despite the often stunning special effects, TPM is very low on "gosh-wow factor". The Pod Race comes the closest, but drags on way too long; all the drama has essentially been milked by the middle of the scene. And the battles at the end are terribly choreographed, compared to those in the original trilogy: It's difficult to tell what sort of plan the characters are following, and things seem to happen more-or-less at random. Like Anakin finding himself inside the robot control ship (gee, how'd that happen?). Most especially, whereas in Star Wars a big part of the story was Luke learning to "use the Force" to destroy the Death Star, it's not at all clear that Anakin does the same thing here; he seems just to get amazingly lucky, which pretty much makes his heroics as a pilot at the age of, what, nine?, seem entirely implausible.

Oh, plus there's the giant plot hole of all the robots being conveniently controlled by a single ship. Haven't these people ever heard of redundant or distributed systems? It's easy to win when the enemy is stupid.

Finally, a lot of time which could have been spent on better choreography or characterization is squandered on cute little "bits" which don't advance the plot: The Pod Race is needlessly complicated, the huge array of bizarre-looking aliens are given too much of the spotlight, and, of course, there's Jar-Jar Binks, who is filling the comical role previously held by C-3PO and R2-D2, which is peculiar since both of those characters are present here, as well. (I didn't find Jar-Jar nearly as annoying as some people did. If some of his "bits" had been cut out - like when he numbs his mouth and gets his hand caught in the pod racer - then I think he would have been fine.)

There are some good points to the film. I did like Anakin, despite his portrayal in the control ship battle. He was a little more mature than many portrayals of children in media (thinking of, say, Star Trek's Wesley Crusher, here), and strangely he seemed like the one genuine philosophical character in the film (as opposed to the often canned-seeming observations by the Jedi).

Also, Ewan Macgregor did a fine job as Obi-wan, seeming eerily like a young Alec Guinness in some scenes, although somewhat more emotional and less contemplative than in Star Wars.

And, although Queen Amidala was largely a non-character, I do think Natalie Portman is a babe. :-)

The special effects were often very impressive, although they were understated enough that they were rarely of the "gosh-wow" variety. The computer-generated aliens were all quite realistic (more so than the strange-looking Jabba in the Special Edition of Star Wars), but merely attaining a realistic appearance means that ILM has reached a sort of baseline, and needs a story to really do something with them. The effects along won't carry the film.

The most impressive effects involved the strange-looking droids, who moved and bent in peculiar ways, and were depicted by the thousands. The exotic landscapes were also quite beautiful to look at.

At its best, the action was exciting. The lightsaber battles were the best of the action scenes, although the final showdown with Darth Maul seemed somewhat pointless; Qui-gon and Obi-wan seemed a little too focused on defeating him rather than accomplishing their real mission of stopping the Trade Federation. The earliest scenes, with them battling to get off the Trade Federation ship, was far more satisfying.

Overall, this was not a bad film, but it seemed trying too hard to be alternately cutesy and subtle, when it should have been trying to go for the jugular, saying "This is the story of the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, and by god we're going to show it to you, right down to the end of the Jedi Knights!" That timidity is what prevents The Phantom Menace from being a film equal to its predecessors.

Have I told you before about my feelings on some of the plot twists in the original trilogy? It seems quite clear to me from the original Star Wars that Lucas had not intended Darth Vader to be Luke's father, and the explanation in Jedi that "what I told you is true, from a certain point of view" just didn't ring true. It was the ultimate contrivance, and making Leia and Luke twins was just another silly contrivance on top of that.

Some of the elements in The Phantom Menace don't quite ring true, either. For instance, in Star Wars, Obi-Wan says "I don't recall ever owning a droid before", but you'd think he'd at least recognize R2-D2 from the events of TPM. Obi-wan also tells Luke that Anakin "was already a great pilot when I met him", and though perhaps Obi-wan was just embellishing the truth a little, added to the previous contrivance, it seems like Lucas just decided to bend the rules a little bit more. It annoys me when writers do stuff like this, without presenting a reason for why the character was exaggerating in the earlier/later story.

Basically, I feel that writers, when writing a "prequel" to a story, need to adhere to a stricter standard of continuity than usual, or it just doesn't work. Yes, sometimes they write themselves into a corner, but being able to write their way out of that corner is what makes a story of that kind truly great.

I don't really believe the "party line" that Lucas had the whole (supposedly) 9-episode story plotted out back when he was filming the first one. I think he's made major modifications to the basic story all along, and it wouldn't surprise me if he were making it all up as he goes along. There isn't really anything wrong with that, but it bugs me (1) that he won't admit it, and (2) that he's not trying harder to make it look like he did think it all up ahead of time.

Oh, well.

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