Saturday, May 17, 2008

In praise of "The Phantom Menace"

No, I haven't come to praise the whole of the movie Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Mind you, I think its failings, such as they are more complex than most reviewers and fans have quite captured in their rants, but that's the exact reason I won't be dealing with that lengthy subject today.

Today, I merely want to make a note of the title, "The Phantom Menace".

There was quite a storm of absurd vitriol when the title was announced. Most fans, it seems, did not really understand the pulp and movie serial tradition from which George Lucas was drawing at all and many of the rest didn't quite grasp that he's clearly well beyond the kind of surface fan that so many modern writers, artists and directors are, using some bits and pieces of the look but not wholly buying into the tradition, lock, stock and barrel.

That, however, is a larger subject: "George Lucas and the love of pulp", which would explain some of my unholy love Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the pulpiest of that series, thus answering the call given to me by Greg Ferrara in the But How Strange the Change From Major to Minor comments, and perhaps in conjunction with The Indiana Jones Blog-a-thon or at least my eventual thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

But more important than the pulp/serial tradition from which the style of the title comes is the story.

Does anyone have a better name for that story? Forget your opinion of whether the movie itself told the story successfully. Frankly, the title pretty much is a nice distillation of a very important element of that story, and would seem appropriate to any telling of it, at least assuming an audience understands the various shades of meaning the word phantom carries with it, a place where Lucas may have actually overestimated his audience.


Jonathan Lapper said...

I have always thought the actual title itself, The Phantom Menace, was the best title of the lot. It would be a great title for a noir, a dramatic psychological study, a horror film, etc. It's really a great title. But the best pulp title of the lot: That's got to be Attack of the Clones. The Empire Strikes Back running a close second.

Now write up your support of Menace and Temple of Doom. I must read them.

Neil Sarver said...

Oh, I have no interest in writing up my detailed thoughts on The Phantom Menace anytime soon. Basically, I think it's problem is that Lucas took two kinds of movies, the story of the discovery of young Anakin and those adventures and the really wonky story of the political intrigue, and hoped they'd balance each other out, but instead they constantly clash up against each other.

I think either movie by itself would have been received better, including the wacky adventures of Anakin and Jar-Jar and their racing and whatnot that everyone complains about. I don't think those would have still been complained about and not unjustly, but I'd bet not nearly with the same ubiquity and vehemence. Seriously. Oddly, I even charge that many of the most vehement of them would have been most likely to be, at worst, indifferent to that version.

Then there's the rather dull political intrigue. Actually, it's not bad at all, and provides us with the title, which I agree has potential for many things, as you say. I think with more focus this actually could have been the basis for an absolutely terrific movie, but I think he chickened out on it. I think all of the "kiddie movie" trappings are specifically intended to hide this wonky politics from us... candy coat it, as it were, but serves ultimately only to make it seems weird and boring.

The movie with an actor already near the age he becomes in Attack of the Clones and everything starts to work better. The obssession over his age works better, taking him away from his mother is less creepy (and his eventual love affair with Amadala does as well).

The movie doesn't quite work, although, for me, it has a quite a few moments, but the problem isn't that the story isn't good, but rather that Lucas didn't have enough confidence in it to tell it for itself.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I think a lot of Star Wars fans feel the same way. I remember even before The Phantom Menace came out me and my Star Wars conversers were baffled by Lucas' decision to start out Annikin as a tyke and not a teen. In the first movie Luke is in his late teens. That's where Annakin should be.

One of the things we made fun of as a result was the complaints of the Jedi Council that he is "too old to learn". Too old? Jesus fucking Christ, what do they start them at in the Council, four months? I really think Lucas should have written out the basic story and turned it over to someone else. I think he had incredible potential for this story and let it slip through his fingers in effort to make it more kiddie friendly.

And you know, right now it seems unthinkable that someone would ever remake the Star Wars movies, but really, after Lucas is dead and someone options the Estate for the story (we're talking decades from now) I'd love to see it happen. At least the last three. I'd love to see all three one day, done right.

Neil Sarver said...

Yes, and something that's a concern with a much older Luke in Empire becomes an even bigger issue with a much younger Anakin in Phantom Menace. Not that I can't intellectually get that there are substantially more Jedi candidates in that earlier era, blah, blah, blah, but it doesn't resonate proper in cinema terms, which previous was something Lucas had a solid command of.

And I really think the "kiddie friendly" thing is intended to balance the rather dry quality of the political wonkery, and I think both could have been solved in better ways.

I agree. I'd actually love to see the whole thing started from scratch. For one thing, I'm frankly constantly intrigued by remakes, even at times such as now when I agree there are far too many generally, I still think new and fresh looks at things are fascinating and rife with potential.

And in this case, it's a series in which the two weakest links are the beginning story and the ending story. In fact, I continue to argue that Return of the Jedi with its beat for beat replaying of the ending of Star Wars is the worst movie of the series. In fact, after all I've said about the massive flaws in The Phantom Menace, I still think Jedi is easily the worst in the series.

That said, I've still not revisted the movies at all, since I read Adam Ross's Reconfiguring the Saga, but I still intend to see how that works. I'm specifically interested in the idea of that viewing order improving Jedi.

As a footnote to my own comment in which I note that Palpatine's rise to power is titular phantom menace. I wish to note that I recognize that there is a dramatic irony in Anakin also being a phantom menace in terms of the saga as a whole, leading to an interesting ambiguity, which frankly only makes the title better. But since the title uses the definite article, I will hold that Palpatine is The Phantom Menace.

Ali Arikan said...

Neil, I hope you're enjoying the blog-a-thon. Funny you should mention the eloquent aptness of the title The Phantom Menace. I've got you beat, however, and here is my spirited defense of the whole film. Let me know what you think.

Neil Sarver said...

Thanks. I am.

That's a wonderful defence of The Phantom Menace, I'm not wholly convinced myself, but I'm pleased to have it linked off here.

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