I have not made my distaste of the prequel films a secret to anyone. When I watched Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999, I loved it. There were some cringe-worthy moments, even that 12-year-old me noticed in my naive state, but overall I found it very entertaining, exciting, and fun. It wasn't until I got older, and I started to hear from others what I shouldn't like about it, and then I started to adopt the popular, hate-filled view of it.
Now, however, I've been thinking a lot about Star Wars: Episode One, and thanks to a podcast called The Star Wars Minute, I've come to realize that I don't hate The Phantom Menace. No, instead, it is actually my favorite of the prequels. Sure, there are some terrible moments in it. But there is a lot of good in it, too, a lot of moments and points that were so close to being exactly what we wanted and needed in a Star Wars film.
In this blog post, I am going to posit what I would do to The Phantom Menace to make it the true beginning of the saga that we all thought we deserved.
Problem One: No Clear Threat
It could be argued that the fact that there is no clear and present threat is the whole point of a film titled The Phantom Menace. However, this doesn't do the film any justice, and should instead show us something that clearly seems to be a threat all throughout the film until the final act. Episode One almost had this with Darth Maul, except that Maul lacked any real build-up for us to treat him as an actual threat. In my eyes, there are two major things that need to be addressed to fix this major problem.
The first is the Trade Federation. I like their inclusion, and I like the fact that they are being played as patsies in order for Darth Sidious/Senator Palpatine to facilitate his rise to power. The problem surrounding the Trade Federation is that it isn't clear to the audience what Palpatine's plan is for them (which is arguably fixed because by the time we get to act two, we've all but forgotten them). A few lines of exposition would fix this problem, explaining what the deal struck between Nute Gunray and Palpatine actually is.
The second thing to do to increase the presence of threat is to introduce Darth Maul much earlier and more prominently. Make him into a proper villain. Imagine this: we have our act one scene of Darth Sidious communicating via hologram to the Nemoidians. They ask what they should do to ensure that Queen Amidala signs the treaty, and Darth Sidious says something like "I can MAKE her sign it." Cut to some hidden place on Coruscant where we see Darth Maul training. His dual lightsaber and tattooed face were already teased in the trailers, so seeing him this early with the double-blade, sith robes removed from the waist up, would make him appear more like an active threat and less like a mysterious figure. Maybe even have him training against two holograms of generic jedi, to show he is able to take on multiple opponents. The audience knows he is serious business right away in Act One.
Problem Two: No Main Character
This may seem incorrect. It's a Star Wars film! Of course there's a main character! But seriously, ask yourself who that is. Is it Qui-Gon? Obi-Wan? Anakin? Padme? Any of these characters may seem like the right choice, except that in order to be considered a main character they need to command some of the most screen time, and they need to be making decisions throughout the story that effect the direction of the plot. They need to have consequence, and an arch. Qui-Gon has no arch, he learns nothing, and is removed from the story so he won't carry over. Obi-Wan is barely on screen. Padme is muted and dull. Anakin is hardly an active player except for two minor scenes, and is merely at the whim of the other characters. However, in the course of the film, it is obvious that two actors are both A) the most interesting to watch, and B) the most committed to delivering a serious performance in the film. These are Ewan McGregora dn Ian McDiarmid. And so I posit that these two should be the main characters.
As much as everyone hates on the space politics of this film, I will say that the scenes in which McDiarmid is walking around talking space politics, I am engrossed. He can take fake senate discussions and make them intriguing, and he plays Palpatine in such a way that I want to see more of him throughout the film. He needs to be more of a main character. Not only that, but in the original version of the script, Obi-Wan was the only Jedi present until the story was brought to Coruscant, at which point Qui-Gon came into play. This original version would present the other exciting actor with more meat and more consequence, and better establish Obi-Wan and Anakin's connection from early on in the saga.
The plot of The Phantom Menace should bounce back and forth between Palpatine's efforts to maintain diplomacy and save face while also setting the pieces for his plot as Sith Lord and Obi-Wan as the Jedi sent to investigate and act as ambassador to the Trade Federation's invasion. Also, according to the original screenplay, Anakin was supposed to be twelve years old, not eight, which I feel is a much stronger and more appropriate age for our first impressions of the young Darth Vader. By the time we reach Coruscant these two stories will converge, we get Qui-Gon as a more traditional Jedi Master to Obi-Wan, warning the young Kenobi about taking on the young Skywalker and defying the Council. And speaking of which...
Problem Three: The Lame Council
The Jedi have been the badasses of the galaxy in the original trilogy. Sure, Han and Lando are awesome in their own way, but Star Wars is ultimately about the force-users. In The Phantom Menace, we are seeing the Jedi at the absolute height of their power, when they could claim much more than a hut on a swamp planet. Sure, I understand that a big part of the prequel trilogy is the idea that the Jedi are fallible, with faults and oversights and arrogance. But they should still be a lot cooler and more impacting than Yoda, Samuel L. Jackson, and ten other nobodies in a circular room.
Put them in a Jedi temple, dress them differently. Sure, they can have the brown robes, but put something different beneath each of the robes, for the sake of COOL CHARACTER DESIGN. Give one of them more of an armored type of garb, give one blue and gray robes rather than brown and beige. And put them all in a Jedi training temple, like the Star Wars version of the X Mansion. Knock the Jedi Council down to five members instead of twelve; Yoda, Mace Windu, Ki-Adi-Mundi, and two other, weird aliens. Give all of the Council speaking roles when confronted with Obi-Wan and the training of young Anakin. Give Yoda more of an entrance rather than just appearing onscreen. Pretty much fix everything about the Jedi Council.
Problem Four: No Anti-Force Character
I know it's easy to hate on Jar Jar. There's a lot wrong with him, and he's the easy target in this film. But the real problem isn't that he was created simply to pander to kids in the audience. It's the fact that this is the character who is taking on the Han Solo role from the original trilogy. He doesn't really believe in the force, he is not a Jedi or a force user, and he is entwined in the plot simply because of circumstance and not because of any real character drive. I don't want to remove him entirely, but I do want to change his character drastically.
First of all we know that Gungans can be cool. One of the characters I latched on to in this film when I was younger was Captain Tarpals. I say we remove Tarpals from the film altogether, and instead make Jar Jar more like Tarpals. Gruff, gravely voice, rough around the edges, and best of all, make him more of a rogue, more of a loose cannon, and have that be the reason he was exiled from Ota Gunga.
Turning Jar Jar into an alien form of Han Solo solves a lot of problems at once. Remove his klutziness, his childlike attitude, and his outlandish voice and replace it all with a character you want to see, both as a kid and as an adult. Have him stand up to Sebulba in Mos Espa, forcing Obi-Wan to prevent a fight rather than prevent a beating. Have him become an actual leader during the battle of Naboo rather than fumble his way to success. Have his confrontation with Boss Nass be more of a spiteful exchange rather than one filled with shame and disgust. Boss Nass could then only agree to let Obi-Wan take the Gungan sub if he agrees to take Jar Jar with him, rather than a shoehorned 'Life Debt' plot.
It's not perfect, but I think that it speaks to what I would have wanted to see from the opening film in the Star Wars saga. What are your thoughts? Do you like these ideas, or do you have others? Let me know in the comments below!