The Phantom Menace is one of those movies that baffles the mind. It’s very much a Star Wars movie yet with few of the things that made the original trilogy so beloved. It is a bad movie, perhaps trying to meet humanly impossible expectations. Let’s take a quick moment to say a prayer for J.J. Abrams.
Like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it suffers from a severe case of prequelitis tasked with explaining why things end up the way they do. It’s almost never as interesting knowing the exact endpoint to your story and it renders a lot of the good guys’ efforts throughout the prequel trilogy rather pointless. It doesn’t matter how cute young Anakin is or how decisive the victory on Naboo is, we know this will end badly for everyone involved.
That fact alone doesn’t account for the many flaws of the movie. Of course the internet has dissected these issues to death, including but not limited to:
These are some of the issues many people have pointed out but our question today is are they the universal issues? Are these the ones that a wide audience take issue with?
I think not. These are just nitpicking. The past week I’ve been trying to pinpoint what key factors turned this particular movie into a turd, but I can really only come up with two overarching problems, two story tumors that are both widely noted and utterly detrimental to the audience’s enjoyment of the movie. As a bonus, there is also one major flaw just under the surface that we will address at the end of this essay.
Story Tumor #1: Jar Jar Binks
This is the most obvious one and definitely the most destructive one. Every time Jar Jar is on screen he takes away from the story. His mere presence dropkicks the audience out of movie enjoyment into confusion. Why is he there? Why is his tongue sticking? Why can’t I understand what he is saying?
Unfortunately Jar Jar shows up 11 minutes into the movie, beginning with inhuman shrieking and unintelligible rambling. I’m pretty sure he says, “Esqueeze me” at one point. Designed to provide comic relief ala the droids from the original trilogy, his role totally backfires except possibly with young children who find him amusing. There may be a few Jar Jar defenders out there, but surely they do not speak up publicly to their eternal shame.
After this jarring introduction, oddly the bumbling Gungan becomes an essential piece of the plot. Somehow he is a permanent and pervasive part of the story! He guides the Jedi underwater through to the capital. He accompanies them to Tatooine, even getting to leave the ship while Obi-Wan stays behind. He leads the Gungans into battle. He is everywhere yet he is needed nowhere.
If you literally just cut every scene with Jar Jar the movie would be much much better. His very appearance on screen is egregious. He has caused more fan hatred than almost any other character I can think of. To think that a single character featured sparingly could actually sink a whole movie, but he almost singlehandedly pulls it off.
There’s a simple explanation for this. When the audience finds themselves repeated offended and taken back by a recurring element in a film, they begin to lose faith in the story’s coherency. They start to suspect that the filmmakers don’t have their best interest in mind and that they are attempting to pull a fast one on them, handing them a lazy unpolished story rather than something nurtured with care. We begin to doubt. And eventually that doubt turns into outright displeasure and eventually faultfinding. Instead of suspending our disbelief to experience cinematic magic, we home in on the bold liberties and storytelling shortcuts taken. Once trust has been broken and the cycle begins, it cannot be undone.
Story Tumor #2: Midichlorians
Clearly this is a much more minor issue, a mini-tumor if you may. Yet it is incredibly important to the overall mythos of Star Wars. Midichlorians are not so much a problem for narrative flow as much they are a lingering virus that multiplies over time. Long after the memories of senatorial debate and cross-eyed Yoda puppets fade, your brain will be tickled by the inner workings of Jedi technology that measures Force particles in your bloodstream. Or as Qui-Gon puts it, a vergence.
There’s really only three quick scenes. Anakin’s initial test results, Qui-Gon’s report to the council, and Qui-Gon’s educational lesson to Anakin. It all happens so fast, taking up just a few tiny minutes of screen time, and yet the damage is immense. The problem harkens back to the original 1977 film which introduced the magical spiritual philosophy of the Force. Though vague in its religiosity, the Force managed to be profound without trying to be serious, imitating spirituality without being offensive to spirituality itself. Through the Force, Star Wars gains a mythic language and accessible ethos which provided additional layers of depth to an otherwise straightforward hero quest.
By explaining how the Force works, The Phantom Menace does the thing that prequels always try to do but that never works: take something cool and give it a backstory. By taking the spiritual non-rational metaphor of the Force and presenting it in terms of rational scientific processes, it automatically robs the device of its effectiveness. Never explain your magic trick if you aim to impress.
Out of all the flaws in the movie, the mishandling of the Force qualifies as a story tumor because not only is it a mistake, but it is a mistake that reverses one of the best things about the original Star Wars movies. Seriously, this is now canon for diehard fans everywhere. Apart from Jar Jar, this is probably the simplest most effective way to enrage your core fanbase.
The Critical Flaw: Luke Is Missing
Although those two story tumors above are the most notable external flaws, The Phantom Menace has a deeper underlying sickness: it has no main character. Who is this movie about? According to Dramatica theory, a story has an overall plot (in this case, the crisis on Naboo) and a main character plot.
The overall plot provides the setting for the story and a platform for the major themes. But just as critical is the main character plot. The main character, the protagonist, is our primary lens through which we experience and evaluate the story. We attach ourselves to them and hope for a positive outcome for them by the end of the story.
But who is our main character? For the original trilogy it was obvious that Luke Skywalker was our go-to guy. He was just a regular dude (like us) and then crazy stuff went down. Through his eyes, we experienced a war raging across the galaxy and the rebels’ cause.
Although I doubt people left this movie talking about which person was the main character, it is a huge story crutch. By failing to pick a main character, the audience is left with guessing who they should be following or constantly having to switch from person to person without any real payoff. Some movies juggle multiple main characters, but they tend not to be straightforward space adventures either. One of the best ways to kill your story without knowing why is to unintentionally forget to pick a protagonist. It’s really a great way to avoid having to deal with character growth and it works surprisingly well at preventing the audience from connecting emotionally with your story.
Still, if we had a gun pointed at our head and had to come up with a protagonist for The Phantom Menace, we do have some options available to us. It’s rather hard to choose but this is what he have:
Possible Protagonist #1: Qui-Gon
Qui-Gon leaps to action at the very beginning of the movie. Ultimately he is the one who believes that Anakin is the Chosen One and that he should be taken back to the Jedi Council. His decisions determine several key decisions in the story and as our main Jedi he is the obvious choice. However he’s dead before the end of the movie and things seem to work out fine without him.
Possible Protagonist #2: Padme Amidala
This story is really about Naboo and more personally it is about the effect of a planetary invasion on Naboo’s political leader, Queen Amidala. She accompanies the Jedi to Tatooine and forms a key relationship with young Anakin. She is also the one who gets Palpatine elected altering the entire destiny of the galaxy. However her chances of being the main character diminish when we find out the huge twist that she is really two characters and it all gets confusing. Also too many outfits and hairstyles. Really, way too many.
Possible Protagonist #3: Obi-Wan
Obi-Wan is the young Jedi apprenticed to a great master yet still in need of mastering the ways of the Force. He is fully present on Naboo, avenges his mentor’s death, and promises to take the young Anakin as his padawan. Yet conspicuously he spends the entire middle section of the movie sitting on a ship in the desert. Hardly the stuff of legend.
Possible Protagonist #4: Anakin
Despite all the pretense about Naboo and the Senate, really we know this is a movie about Darth Vader. This is about how an innocent young boy ends up as an asthmatic Sith Lord with anger issues. Maybe this is really Anakin’s story, showing his rise from obscurity to future Jedi. But his quite late introduction (32 minutes in) and lack of story decisions makes him a most unlikely choice for main character.
Possible Protagonist #5: ????
Perhaps there is yet another character who could possibly serve as protoganist. It would have to be someone intricately tied to events on Naboo. They would need to appear toward the beginning of the film, maintain a key role through the middle, and have an important place in the climax. There is one character who fits this description nicely. It is after all their planet under siege. They must grow and change as a character, even if their ultimate motives remain hidden. They could serve as an important political bridge for Naboo society. They could assist the Jedi and Amidala in the liberation of Naboo and yet also play a more behind the scenes role at the same time. That could potentially be our protagonist. Of course the person I’m talking about is the true focus and unexpected protagonist of the movie: Jar Jar Binks.
Join us Monday as we dissect the worst superhero movie of all time: Batman and Robin.