‘The Phantom Menace’ is the best of the Prequels

The Prequels are bad movies. Across the board, really. And no amount of distance between the immediate letdown and the present will change that.

If anything, time has been unkind to Star Wars — Episodes I – III. Their increasing overreliance on CGI removes much of the illusion from crucial characters like General Grievous. And with human actors, vital stunt work is extinguished by poorly rendered somersaults and fight combat. The Special Editions, while not without their positives, did little more than encourage George Lucas to tinker in his Industrial Light and Magic sandbox, providing a bankable field test for throngs of Federation Battle Droids whose utter ineffectiveness is reduced to a punchline in less than a trilogy’s worth of time. The digital technology revolution is greatly indebted to LucasFilm’s early pioneering, but cinema is not.

As far as the actual narrative of the Prequels, the epitaph’s been written for a decade. These scripts stretch and condense their stories in odd, often baffling ways. One would be hard pressed to explain why we needed to see Anakin Skywalker as a nine year-old slave at all, and Attack of the Clones indulges in a shaggy dog assassination plot while failing to deliver on the Clone Wars front. And despite Lucas’s intentions, Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil does not “rhyme” with his return to the light, cranking up the volume on his friendship with Palpatine to hide an otherwise hasty betrayal of the Jedi Order. Comparing this bungling of such a pivotal arc to Return of the Jedi‘s subtle changes in Vader’s psyche is borderline unfair. Revenge of the Sith might actually fare better were it released in 2015 rather than 2005, where a 5 minute compilation could capably summarize the sparse plot points for YouTubers and fans alike.M

Much of the Prequels’ 6+ hour saga is bloat, but that was apparent on opening weekend. What time and distance have come to show is that “The One With Jar Jar” might actually be the best of the bunch. No, you’re not misremembering anything. Jar Jar Binks is as intolerable and insensitive as ever, Lucas’s flat direction turns a solid cast into plasticine playthings, and I still can’t explain why the taxation of trade routes was so pivotal to intergalactic conflict.

But in addition to a recurring theme of interdependence and a good-if-not-great grasp of visual language, The Phantom Menace has another point in its favor: narrative proximity. A slave boy’s podracing exploits are a headscratcher in the grand scheme of things, but the Boonta Eve Classic’s distance from the Original Trilogy numbs its shenanigans. Midichlorians are dumb, but they don’t rewrite characters’ relationships. By and large, Episode I tells us what we already knew: Anakin was a good pilot. He was strong with the Force. He knew Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here, Obi-Wan can tell you:

The Phantom Menace has no lasting effect on Star Wars, and it’s a better Star Wars movie for it. If that seems like a low bar, rewatch that scene where Vader comes to in Revenge of the SithGo ahead. I’ll wait.

The Phantom Menace preserves a timeline where a compelling Prequel story is still possible. It’s a place where Leia’s memories of her mother still make sense. Where Boba Fett isn’t a stunted clone with a dodgy accent. Where the Galactic Empire wasn’t kickstarted by a Gungan senator’s emergency vote. Where Yoda doesn’t know Chewbacca.

To be clear, re-shaping perceptions doesn’t have to be bad. Rogue One shows how change can be done right. Change is bad when it’s done simply for the sake of change. In other words, whenever George Lucas does it.

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“And who gave you permission to remove that helmet?”

I was a little late on getting around to reading Phasma, one of 2017’s recent additions to the Stars Wars new canon. And as I like the Star Wars Explained YouTube channel a great deal, I’ll begin my thoughts in relation to channel head Alex Damon’s.

Damon was, predictably, positive on the book. I too appreciate a lot of what Delilah S. Dawson accomplishes. She makes Captain Phasma a threat, something The Force Awakens never succeeds at — because it never tries. Phasma‘s bits about Brendol and Armitage Hux are more than welcome in this nebulous post-Aftermath timeline as well, and the Mad Max: Fury Road nods by Dawson were refreshing ways of elevating the story universe.

Damon goes on to claim that “Dawson perfectly balanced revelation with mystery.” I’m not so sure. To date, the best new canon novels understand that psychology is vital to a quality character-driven book. James Luceno and Claudia Gray nail this in Tarkin and Bloodline, respectively. Save for a wonderfully forthcoming final chapter, Phasma’s interiority remains a riot baton’s length away, which is a problem when your book is titled Phasma.

What Dawson does offer is a sloppy oversimplification of Phasma’s tribal history on Parnassos. Lawlessness bad. Order good. First Order must be good, too. Phasma is all about the character’s surface elements. Combat prowess. Leadership. Cunning. Phasma and her Scyre clan’s home planet is just another backwater upbringing to add to the list of backwater upbringings: Tatooine. Jakku. Eriadu and its Carrion Plateau. Now, Parnassos. These are the same pieces that make up the backstories of the galaxy’s most notable fascists.

Dawson’s approach — or, for all we know, the Disney story group’s direction — wants to have it both ways, though, because we’re teased with the question of what could possibly motivate this ruthless warrior to begin with and never really given a convincing answer.

Phasma‘s structure is frustrating, in part, because the story itself is about that frustration. I get it. It’s what makes the search for truth between Resistance spy Vi Moradi and Cardinal so sharp and compelling. First Order Captain Cardinal’s desperation to dig up dirt on his rival makes for a clever parallel to fan intrigue over a character that, up until recently, has felt like kind of a letdown.

Boba Fett is the easy corollary here: the mysterious hard ass with an awesome set of armor. The lack of details on Fett are what made the character interesting. For the entirety of Episode V, he’s the silent type, the man with no name. And Phasma is to its subject what Attack of the Clones is to Fett. It portends to tell too much. It kills the illusion. Now, Captain Phasma runs the risk of becoming just like ole “Bucket Head.” He’s not a character but a product, a Kenner toy frenzy made literal.

But Boba Fett was screwed as soon as we left Kamino. If we give Disney and Lucasfilm and the Star Wars story group some credit, The Force Awakens and now Phasma are opportunities to build on. What begins as a shallow, shiny object has a chance for some real humanizing. As a First Order agent, Captain Phasma is a unique touchstone for young fans numbed by decades of doughy Stormtrooper impotence. This can still be more than some silly Clone Wars retcon. But will it?

I don’t like Marvel movies and neither does ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

“You’ll always be the God of Mischief, but you could be more…”

I gave up on Marvel Studios just before the end-credits sequence in Age of Ultron. As effervescent and celebratory as Joss Whedon’s first team-up felt, the second Avengers movie left me wanting more from this long-running, intricate franchise and its domino-stacking. That Kevin Feige, et al could kill the joy in a creator and his project felt a little like killing Superman. Wrong IP.

I may yet have faith, though because Thor: Ragnarok is the best Marvel Studios movie ever. For emphasis, let’s point out just how many creative liberties Taika Waititi’s new film takes with its material:

  • Thor loses his hammer
  • Thor loses his hair
  • Paternal godhead Odin is revealed to be a revisionist fraud
  • A revisionist fraud who used his daughter, Hela, as a weapon of destruction before imprisoning her forever
  • Now returned, Hela can’t conquer worlds because her incompetent executioner can’t find a magic sword
  • Her executioner is too busy impressing women with his assault weapons collection
  • And that magic sword is in the possession of Heimdall, who’s busy handling the MCU’s first refugee crisis
  • This refugee crisis sends all of Asgard onto a space ark
  • The space ark is delivered by a talking rock alien and Thor’s brother and arch-rival, Loki
  • Thor teams up with the talking rock alien, a self-aware Hulk, and a high-functioning alcoholic
  • Their team makes fun of The Avengers
  • Thor loses an eye
  • Their team defeats Hela by resurrecting a Norse demon that wants to destroy Asgard
  • Asgard is destroyed
  • The talking rock alien makes a joke about Asgard being destroyed

Perhaps the bar has been set so low. Maybe the needle budged an inch instead of a click this time. After nearly a decade of underwhelming, status-quo-affirming, masculine copypasta, Marvel has finally zigged instead of zagged. Sure, Iron Man 3‘s deconstructionism was a valiant effort for a potential MCU face-turn, but it never felt like an honest takedown of a guy who had already invoked Ozzy Osbourne at a press conference. Ragnarok is unexpected and quirky and reflexive in all the ways Guardians of the Galaxy so desperately wanted to be — and at a fraction of the effort.

There’s a throwaway moment when a de-Hulkified Bruce Banner is steering a stolen orgy ship into an interplanetary gateway nicknamed “The Devil’s Anus.” Yes way. Desperate for a weapon, he jams an important looking button, which lights up the cabin with sex strobes and a hologram of Jeff Goldblum’s The Grandmaster singing “It’s my birthday!” Kenneth Branagh directed the first one of these, guys.

For years, I’ve wondered what exactly people mean when they describe a movie as “fun.” Apparently it involves making thespians look as ridiculous as possible. While Marvel hasn’t always admitted it, there’s an ugly side to its heroism, and flaunting it can be beautiful in its own way.

Endings

I chose to shut the doors to LakeFrontRow today.

To be candid, I felt a growing disconnect between the time I was spending and what I — and at least part of this community — was getting out of it. Serving on the festival awards jury and hosting a successful panel were surreal, validating experiences, but ones that felt like a plateau rather than big steps.

The bigger takeaway is that I owe a great many people my gratitude for their support and advice over the last four and a half years. I’ve linked to the site’s last statement below:

http://lakefrontrow.com/the-end/

It’s been a fun ride. We’ll see what comes next.

Validation

Despite how inebriated I look on the Wisconsin Film Festival’s Instagram, the experience of serving on this year’s Golden Badger Jury was a sobering one. I still remember hesitating to apply for a press credential in 2013. (They gave me one.)

For those who don’t know, each year’s Golden Badger Jury selects a handful of exemplary films with ties to the state and while I can’t announce this year’s winners, I couldn’t be more proud with the choices Kristin Catalano (dir. Clarence), Eric Nelson (dir. SiszillaForest Products) and I made.

Doing anything for four years straight is hard, and when that thing only interests a small number of people, feedback loops and encouragement are often in short supply. Writing about the tremendous work that artists in this state have put together has had its ups and downs, but it’s these kinds of moments that remind me other people care, too.

(And for the record, I had nothing to drink that night.)

‘Rogue One’ and the Gospel of Star Wars

(Spoilers from Rogue One.)

Rogue One is much better after a second viewing. Much better. I may end up liking this more than Return of the Jedi when all is said and done.

It’s funny how that works. Rogue One is clearly an Original Trilogy film despite not being a stand-alone. There are no prophesies or major revelations, and the featured rag-tag Rebels are all exterminated by film’s end. Gareth Edwards, etc. are showing us a different side of something we already like, adding very little that’s “new” to the saga — and I suspect that for many, that’s OK.

Of course, it’s easier to swallow more of the same because this pill is a comfortingly familiar one. Rogue One‘s world looks like it exists. Destroyers hover above Jedha City, streets bustle with hooded sleaze bags and bubble with alien languages and whatever that squid tentacle dish was. It’s the absence of arrival shots that plagued the Prequels. It’s the return to Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork. It’s Rogue One‘s production designers focusing on how things feel rather than how they function. (On this last point: I couldn’t name half the characters in Saw Gerrera’s band of extremists, but they all seemed more alive than those five minutes with Dexter Jetster ever got us.)

More Imperial culture too, please. The glimpse we get of Vader (despite the cringeworthy pun that seals Krennic’s fate as a middle-man) tells us more about how the Dark Lord exists alongside Imperial hierarchies rather than within it, something that A New Hope never had the time to tackle in its broad strokes. Tarkin is also fascinating here and his three-steps-ahead-of-you scheming is a blast to watch. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is an afterthought to the Emperor’s top dogs, and his sandwiching between higher powers is a hilarious motivation for his groveling. He’s a bureaucratic afterthought, and that’s perfectly okay. If nothing else, Rogue One should be all about exploring the interstitial spaces between the stuff we’ve already seen. Extrapolate Krennic’s plight across each and every no-name lieutenant onboard the half-dozen bridges we see and then multiply that figure by some undetermined magnitude. It’s comedy, really.

(Yes, yes, yes, Peter Cushing’s mouth doesn’t always move right; at least ILM commits to their resurrection. It would have been far more offensive to recast the role for 30 seconds of fan service. Again.)

With the far more obvious CGI in the final shot as the glaring exception, Lucasfilm and Disney have done a marvelous job streamlining the new into the old, and Saw Gerrera is our unexpected paragon for this balancing act. Contrary to his status as a compelling secondary figure out of Star Wars Rebels, Gerrera need not come with any backstory to understand how he encapsulates the far reaches of Rebellion measures. Still more man than machine, Gerrera is a wheezing vestige that clonks across his Jedha hideout with metallic feet. He’s a holdover from the post-Clone War period, like a certain Jedi yet to come in A New Hope. This galaxy has changed too much, and it’s time put down the aspirator. (Just imagine the metaphors the Prequels could have turned out, if they’d wanted to, with Darth Vader.)

Under both the Death Star’s literal and metaphorical shadows, Rogue One is all about our response to change. We’re all familiar with the Empire’s superweapon by now, but it’s essential to acknowledge just how irrevocably changed the galactic status quo became in the wake of Alderaan’s destruction. What may be jarring to audiences today — and what separates Rogue One from The Force Awakens — is how it treats story canon. The hallowed grail of Disney’s newest cinematic universe, Rogue One is beside itself in elevating the previous films as Gospel. Repeat viewings will surely sweeten the sourness of blue milk references and soften the head-scratching appearance of Dr. Evazan. Harder to reconcile is the exact reason Lucasfilm would go out of its way for a C-3PO one-liner. Why does it matter that Gold Squadron was indeed at the Battle of Scarif? These are the small-fried details that plagued George Lucas’s later contributions, confusing familiarity with feeling, and repetition with “poetry.”  A Star Wars cinematic universe should add dots to the existing mosaic, not just connect ones that are already there.

Only time will tell, but I suspect Disney’s plans for future anthology stories will generate two cultures of fandom: 1) Those that cling to every new Skywalker chapter about the balancing of the Force and 2) those who prefer more of the same, likely with much less hand-wringing and hair-pulling. That’s both flawed and fine. Like this grubby war film has shown us, these things can be complicated.

Sideshow Sound Theatre: ‘Attack of the Clones’

My tireless colleagues at Sideshow Sound Theatre invited my opinions on the music of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy for their “Score Guide” series of podcasts.

I was more than happy to share my love for “Across the Stars” from Attack of the Clones, which I believe to be John Williams’s strongest contribution to the franchise in the last 15 years. Of course, the entire episode is well worth a listen.

Score Guide – Star Wars Attack of the Clones (2002)