Thursday, April 22, 2010

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Anikin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The idea for this blog came from a desire to watch all the Star Wars movies + the 2D animated Clone Wars series in chronological order.

The first interesting thing I noticed was how long it took for Anakin Skywalker to appear. By contrast, you see Darth Vader in the first 5 minutes of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Of course, in ANH, Vader has a much smaller role. It isn't until Empire that Vader moves from scary enforcer to The Villain.

Enter the Protagonist

Of the whole six movies, it is Palpatine that drives the plot, but it is Anakin that is the most interesting. He shows the most emotion. His actions are given more screen time. His motivations are more complex. And it is his actions that end the Empire.

And yet, in four of the 6 movies, he is not the protagonist. In the this movie, he is a part of an ensemble cast. If I were to give say the movie has a protagonist, I'd say it's Qui-Gon Jin. Qui-Gon drives the action more than any other character but Palpatine. (Indeed, this is the case for most of the movie series, the characters are merely reacting to Palpatine's actions, often without knowing it.) This is because Qui-Gon is sent in to end the blockade, and that is exactly what his actions end-up doing.

Plot Points

One of the more interesting things about the movie is the behind the scenes machinations of Palpatine. It's clear to anyone watching the Phantom knowing the rest of the movie to know that Palpatine is playing both sides against the middle to get what he wants, supreme control of the Galaxy. The gloriousness of the movie though is that the plot runs so deep. The movie is almost entirely presented from the Jedi's point of view. Generally speaking, through out the prequel we learn noting about Darth Sidious that the Jedi don't learn by the end of the movie.

For example, when we first see Darth Maul, the Jedi don't know about him yet. But they find out by the end of the movie.

This gives the movie a kind of dissonance that isn't resolved until Revenge of the Sith. If the viewer literally didn't know any better, Darth Sidious and Senator Palpatine are different characters, and the Jedi are the good guys. In reality however, the Jedi are completly ineffectual (it's not clear what Darth Sidious' time line is, but given that it included growing a clone army for 10 years in secret, one can infer that the events in Phantom probably didn't alter it to drastically), and Darth Sidious is slowly taking over the government. His plans go deep. And we only ever see glimpses of his overall strategy.

Obviously, the most important plot point is that Queen Amidala calls for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. This sets off the chain reaction that leads to Palpatine becoming Chancellor. However, I'd say the most important political aspect is Sidious' order to kill the Jedi at the beginning of the movie. In some respects, it was a dumb move: it cause the Jedi to question the attack and ultimately lead to the death of his apprentice. But it also lead to the discovery of Anakin Skywalker, who held Sidious achieve things I doubt Maul would been able to accomplish. Had Sidious simply order the Trade Federation to refuse to negotiate, he might have had a more stable apprentice and not have been thrown down that shaft a few decades later. (Not that Maul wouldn't have tried, I just don't think he'd be as successful. Vader had the element of surprise.)

The Old Guard

One year, I got to attend WorldCon. There someone mentioned that the reason she didn't like the prequels is that it turned a lot of the characters she looked-up to into bad guys. It's hard to argue with that. She specifically pointed to the fact that Obi-Wan and the Jedi kept Anakin from seeing his mother. This didn't sit well with her. Frankly, I don't blame her. While I like the movie, Phantom Menace doesn't have a lot of heros to root for. The Jedi are the pawns of a corrupt government. Really, the only person we can root for is Queen Amidala. All she wants is her planet back to normal. This isn't, I think, what people were expecting. Jedi are supposed to be the good guys, right? I think the question is, how do we know that? Because, back in the original trilogy, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda say they're the good guys. They call the side of the force they use the "light side". Their enemies use the "dark side". This sounds like propaganda.

The Phantom Menace exposes the Jedi for what they really are, an old fraternity that's started to buy it's own PR. And lets face it, most of us from the original trilogy days drank the Kool-Aid. I know I did.

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