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Tirade of the Week


5.16.99

Phantom Menace: The Illustrated Screenplay


I'll be damned if I'm going to stand in line for hours, a week in advance, for fucking movie tickets. (As a friend said, "I won't even do that for a concert any more.") And I'll also be damned, after reading Newsweek's wonderfully cynical cover story, if I'm going to make Lucasfilm seven dollars richer. (I feel bad enough having bought two action figures - hey, they're Natalie Portman figures, I justify it that way.)

So what's the next best thing to seeing how bad it is for myself? Reading how bad it is. So, I picked up the Illustrated Screenplay. I figured this would be a good opportunity to assess the movie's bare bones, its spine, its dialogue and story, without the distraction of 23 CG effects per minute.

The book itself is typical Lucasfilm hype, free advertising from Ballantine as usual. At my library, the children's librarian told me she went to K-mart to check out the various PHANTOM MENACE kid's books and left very unimpressed and virtually empty-handed (she did cave and buy the movie storybook so that she'd have something representing the movie for kids who will be demanding it). The same goes for the PHANTOM MENACE books for "adults," which are basically puff. The Illustrated Screenplay is like any other published script you've ever seen, with storyboard sketches on most every page (no photos). Rather than thinking of the storyboards as a nice bonus, I came to think that the script needed the storyboards because it couldn't stand alone. There is also a typically ass-smooching foreword by PHANTOM MENACE producer Rick McCallum, who explains why poor George needed to storyboard the entire movie before he even took it to the floor, so that he wouldn't have to answer "an endless stream of questions from the cast and crew." Gee, isn't that kinda sorta the director's job? "Do not question Emperor Lucas. If you seek the truth, look deep into the storyboards."

So, all that said, what's the verdict on George Lucas' screenplay?

As Cartman might say, "LAAAAAME! We're talkin' NIGHT COURT-in-its-fifth-season laaaaame."

Harrison Ford once took a dig at Lucas on the set of STAR WARS: "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it." And it's true. Compared with the wittier, somewhat more urbane, and definitely more conversational dialogue in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (written by veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett and then-newcomer Lawrence Kasdan), the dialogue in STAR WARS is basically unsayable. And the dialogue in PHANTOM MENACE isn't any better; sometimes it's even worse. There is a certain breed of stilted talk that one finds only in fantasy and science fiction; the rather cruel explanation for bad dialogue in sci-fi may be that its writers and readers don't get out enough to know how real people talk. So they recycle old, pulpy, pompous dialogue under the pretext that nobody really knows how people in the distant future (or distant past in a distant galaxy) actually chat. George Lucas is one such recycler, as is obvious whenever the evil Darth Sidious opens his pie-hole:

DARTH SIDIOUS
You have been well trained, my young apprentice, they will be no match for you. It is too late for them to stop us now. Everything is going as planned. The Republic will soon be in my control. (Illustrated Screenplay, p. 55)

Hasn't Lucas been to a movie in the last ten years? These days, we like our villains witty and sarcastic. The bad guys in PM aren't villains you love to hate; they're villains you love to collect or wear on a T-shirt. In short, they look cool but talk dweeby.

Lucas didn't make Darth Vader witty either, but he made up for it with the cynical Han Solo, who had a Bogie-like, combative rapport with Luke, Chewie, and especially Leia that concealed his respect and love for them. Those looking for similar repartee between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn will look in vain:

QUI-GON
Don't center on your anxiety, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now where it belongs.

OBI-WAN
Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future...

QUI-GON
...but not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan. (Illustrated Screenplay, p. 5)

Boy, that exchange sure crackles, doesn't it? (And what the hell's a Padawan?) Earlier in the same scene, when we first meet the two heroes, the first words out of Obi-Wan's mouth are a familiar Lucas-ism: "I have a bad feeling about this." This points up another problem with PM: Original, it ain't. That Lucas-ism is strategically placed right at the beginning to jazz the fans, but then everything else in the movie is, too.

Once again you have a young Jedi whose destiny is to leave his family and rebel against fascist forces. Once again you have a royal chick in trouble. Once again you have a Jedi Master who gets killed by Darth Someone-or-Other. (Liam Neeson shouldn't worry, though - getting killed in the first STAR WARS didn't stop Alec Guinness from showing up as a ghost in the next two films.) Once again you have a vagina-dentata, fear-of-women scene: the heroes narrowly escape the gaping maw of an underwater beast. (Lucas seems to equate holes with mortal danger - look at all the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES movies, each of which feature heroes either threatened by a big-mouthed beast or trapped in a claustrophobic room with repulsive critters. These movies reflect nothing so much as a nerd's fear of sex.) Every major character in the movie echoes characters in the first trilogy.

There are other touches to tickle the fans, too: C-3PO, R2D2, and Jabba make token appearances; Anakin gets in a scuffle with a familiar-looking young green alien, and someone says to the alien, "Keep this up, Greedo, and you're gonna come to a bad end"*; and so on. As written, the movie has the same insecurity as some of the weaker STAR TREK films - it never quite becomes its own movie; it has both eyes on what worked before.

Yoda makes an appearance, showing none of the elfin personality he demonstrated in EMPIRE, and poor Mace Windu - the first new human character to get his own action figure - just sits at Yoda's side and says deep stuff, like Morpheus in THE MATRIX. In fact, given the parallels between THE MATRIX's Neo and Anakin (both are described as "the One" or "the chosen one"), Lucas may find that his thunder has been stolen; we've been there and done that, just a couple months ago.

Getting back to Mace Windu: Sam Jackson once joked that he would play Luke Skywalker's slave just to be in a STAR WARS movie; at least that role might've gotten him a little more screen time and maybe some dialogue worthy of his talent. As it is, Mace seems like an afterthought, the token black guy, an opportunity to give black kids an action figure to play with. Which is noble, I guess ... but give this character something to do in the next two movies!

And what about Anakin Skywalker, the slave boy who will become Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith? He says things like "Yippee!" and "Mighty blasters!"* and "Great gobs of bantha poo-doo!" Yeah, it's a real small step from that to "Asteroids do not concern me, Admiral, I want that ship." As David Ansen in Newsweek pointed out, there seems to be no connection between this goofy little kid and the definitive movie villain of late-20th-century cinema. Somewhere, David Prowse is grinding his teeth. Anakin (often called "Annie" for short in the screenplay - is he going to burst into "Tomorrow"?) also seems to have been immaculately conceived, as witness this exchange between Qui-Gon and Anakin's mom Shmi:

QUI-GON
The Force is unusually strong with him, that much is clear. Who was his father?

SHMI
There was no father, that I know of...I carried him, I gave birth...I can't explain what happened. (Illustrated Screenplay, p. 61)

What is this, "Anakin's Mom's a Dirty Slut"? Are we going to have to watch Anakin search for his father for the next two movies? Will he have little tea parties in the back yard with his stuffed animals: "Anakin, you are the coolest guy in the world! This is tremendous tea! Hurray for Anakin! Anakin kicks ass." The search for a father is a primal search in mythology, but Lucas seems to be recycling it the same way he recycled it before. And SOUTH PARK did it funnier. (Unless, as Qui-Gon says on page 96, "it is possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians." I won't even get into the idiocy of the midi-chlorian concept - Lucas is out of his fuckin' tree on this one.)

The standard line by now is that PHANTOM MENACE is for kids, but will kids give a shit about a trade treaty? That's the central conflict here. The familiar opening crawl informs us, "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute" - and I can just picture six-year-old eyes glazing over all across America. At times, the structure of the screenplay seems to be: Fight Scene / Debate about Trade Treaty / Fight Scene / More Debate about Trade Treaty. -snore-

The other major plot thread has to do with Anakin the slave boy who's destined for greater things, and Anakin has probably been made nine years old so that the kiddie audience will have someone to identify with. Which is nonsense. I was 7 when I first saw STAR WARS. There are no seven-year-olds in STAR WARS. I was 11 when I saw RAIDERS. There are no eleven-year-olds in RAIDERS. (They threw Short Round into TEMPLE OF DOOM, of course, and I'll bet any money that was Lucas' idea. A bad idea, as it turned out, because parents expecting a kiddie movie got a dark tale of torture, child slavery, and hearts being torn out.) The point is, I enjoyed the movies anyway; kids don't need to watch kids on the screen in order to enjoy a movie. What they do need is a compelling plot and well-written characters. They won't find that here, and I have serious doubts about the movie's potential for repeat business. At best, people might see it once for the story and again for the eye candy, and you'll get the usual shitheads who see it fifty times, but I won't be surprised if PM turns out to be this year's GODZILLA. Especially since there's a major GODZILLA-type backlash brewing against the GODZILLA-type hype.

Someone said to me that PHANTOM MENACE doesn't look to have much humor in it, but that's not quite the problem. It has tons of humor, but it's all pitched at six-year-olds and it mostly has to do with Jar Jar Binks. Alas, poor Jar Jar - destined to be the summer's most vilified movie character. He annoyed me from his first appearance on page 15, and he kept on annoying me till the bitter end. Little kids may giggle at him, but older fans will be praying for his preferably painful and messy death inside of five minutes; it's as if Chris Tucker were in the bulk of THE FIFTH ELEMENT instead of only marring 20 minutes or so. At this writing, I haven't actually heard his voice, but in the screenplay his dialogue is typified by such gibberish as "Mesa cause-ed mabee one or duey lettal bitty axadentes ... yud-say boom da gasser, un crash Der Bosses heyblibber ... den banished" (Illustrated Screenplay, p. 23). Anyone who preferred Chewie's incomprehensible but somehow soulful and eloquent roars and howls, please raise your hand. For laughs, Jar Jar also gets shocked (as you saw in the trailer), steps in shit, etc. No wonder he was banished. If the critical response to Jar Jar is any indication, expect the market-research-conscious Lucas to banish the long-eared galoot from the next two films.

I'm not holding up the previous three STAR WARS movies as great art, or even great entertainment (though, like many, I consider EMPIRE a beautiful spectacle and easily the best of the trilogy). But when early critics compare PHANTOM MENACE with RETURN OF THE JEDI (widely considered the trilogy's weak leg), they're not kidding. Barely a scene goes by without some weird critter or robot or both; as a result, the human characters are fighting for elbow room with CGI effects. (I get this impression from reading the script and visualizing it as I read - those who have actually seen the movie have made the same complaint.) Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have the occasional wry one-liner, Anakin's your typical wide-eyed Disney kid, and Queen Amidala - I never pinned her character down, mainly because I was never sure whether I was reading about the Queen herself or one of her decoys. Apparently the real Queen is Padme, but what difference does it make? Padme has as little personality as the decoys. Hell, Padme has only slightly more personality than the battle droids - she has none of Princess Leia's brittle spunk.

Speaking of battle droids: Has anyone else wondered why the technology within the PHANTOM MENACE world (as opposed to the technology used to create it on the screen) seems more advanced than the world of the first trilogy, which takes place about 30 years later? Why did Darth Vader use those clunky human Stormtroopers, who need to be trained and fed, when he could've used battle droids, which according to the new film were in use 30 years before? (Yeah, Anakin destroys all the droids at the end, but the point is, the technology was there to create them. Vader could've recreated them like he recreated the Death Star, and made them more efficient than the klutzy battle droids we see here.)

And how come Darth Vader didn't use Darth Maul's already-popular double-bladed lightsaber? Vader's methods now seem rather quaint and outmoded. Speaking of Darth Maul, what a waste of a powerful graphic. This horned Satan-Sith gets the blandest lines, very little screen time, and an ignoble death in a melting pit - which may be yet another parallel to the first STAR WARS, in which Vader seemed defeated but came back for EMPIRE. Essentially, Darth Maul is an empty vessel of evil; he exists to go after the Queen and cross sabers with our Jedi heroes every once in a while. And sell action figures and T-shirts, of course.

The biggest mistake in PHANTOM MENACE is a very basic one. I call it the PSYCHO IV Syndrome, named after the prequel in which we saw Norman Bates as a teenager and discovered how he was driven crazy. Similarly, this projected trilogy of prequels promises to deprive us of our imaginations. What was Obi-Wan like as a young man? What was Vader like before he turned to the Dark Side? I think many of us would just as soon not be spoon-fed the answers; we'd prefer to imagine for ourselves. The STAR WARS characters have gained stature and resonance over the past 22 years, which is why the new movie is so eagerly awaited ... and why it can't help but disappoint. It can't possibly live up to the backstories in our heads.

George Lucas struck gold with the first trilogy. He should've simply left well enough alone, and walked away, and been satisfied. The critical reaction, even from fans who were rooting for the movie to be great, suggests that PHANTOM MENACE is less EPISODE I than STAR WARS 4 - and we all know how shitty a movie series usually gets after the third entry.


* These were in the published screenplay but not in the released theatrical film.