VI. It's Not Disrespect, Master, It's the Truth

Lucas and the Jedi “Don't getta me wrongo! I have great faith in the boy!”

— Watto,
The Phantom Menace

After expending so much effort in deflecting all the flak that's been heaped upon The Phantom Menace, I'm kind of reluctant to turn around and start criticizing it myself. But of course, nothing's perfect. In the interests of presenting a complete and fair appraisal of Episode I, I'm now going to wrap it up with my carefully considered top ten list of the things I think could have been done better.

Hopefully this will prove I'm not a completely brainless Star Wars zombie who could hear George Lucas fart and think it was "The Star-Spangled Banner." And I think you'll find most of my criticisms are ones that haven't been expressed very often.

1. Show the suffering on Naboo

Mark Twain once offered this sage advice to writers and storytellers: "Don't write, 'The old lady screamed.' Bring her out and let her scream." In other words: show, don't tell. A story is more compelling when it lets readers see for themselves what's happening, instead of just stating it. Lucas is guilty of telling when he could be showing on a number of occasions in The Phantom Menace, and the biggest missed opportunity is in the blockade and invasion of Naboo.

Queen Amidala and Governor Sio Bibble tell us that the people of Naboo are suffering and perishing: "The death toll is catastrophic." "Our people are dying, Senator." But we never see that. The only signs of hardship we see are some minor battle damage in Theed and some people being led away to camps in orderly groups. How and where are all the people dying? Is it from starvation and a lack of medical supplies caused by the blockade? Did the droid army only kill people during the initial invasion and then take prisoners, or are they systematically killing thousands of people in the detention camps? We really don't know.

We need to see the people suffering. Lucas could have shown us one of the camps, possibly with Sio Bibble and some of the royal advisors imprisoned in filthy, inhumane misery, being brutalized or killed. This would give the Naboo invasion much more dramatic heft, and make us more sympathetic towards Amidala's plea for help. As it is, the calamity on Naboo is sort of an abstract issue, and we just have to take her word that her people are dying.

The same thing goes for the Gungans. They get run out of their underwater city and go into seclusion at their sacred place, but we never get to see what happened. The book of the illustrated screenplay reveals that Lucas at one point planned to show us, but this scene was cut from the movie:

JAR JAR enters the main square of the bubble city. He stands, stunned, in amazement and fear. He is nervous and shaking.

JAR JAR: Ello! Where das everybody?

The plaza is empty. He notices that many of the buildings are shot up as if there had been a battle of some kind.

Imagine what a powerful scene that could have been: the formerly beautiful and elegant bubble domes of Otoh Gunga, now blown apart and shattered into rubble, with some bubbles dark and flooded, and others with their lights dimmed or flickering out. Jar Jar enters the deserted main plaza to find it littered with dead Gungans. A brief scene like that would have given Jar Jar a much-needed boost of audience sympathy, and would have carried an emotional resonance with the classic scene of Luke discovering the charred corpses of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

Instead, all we got was Jar Jar telling us nobody was there. I think George blew that one.

2. Amidala owes Anakin an apology

The relationship between Anakin and Amidala is one of the most crucial elements of The Phantom Menace. Their love affair will possibly be the most important story of the prequel trilogy, and of course their twins grow up to be the stars of the classic trilogy. And it turns out that Amidala has been lying to Anakin all through Episode I. The entire foundation of their first meeting is built on her false identity.

Anakin and Padme When Padmé finally steps forward and reveals who she really is, she completely ignores poor Ani. She never says another word to him for the rest of the movie. Granted, she expresses her fondness for Anakin by flashing him that gorgeous smile at the very end, but is that enough? I think we're meant to understand there's a special rapport formed between Anakin and Amidala, and that she genuinely cares for him, more than just thinking he's a cute little kid. Amidala has betrayed that bond between them, and dammit, I think we need to see her apologize for misleading Anakin. The audience needs to know that their friendship wasn't just a part of the Padmé disguise.

Just a quick conversation between Amidala and Anakin would have done the trick. It could have been stuck in right along with the scene in which Amidala explains her assault plan to the Jedi and Boss Nass -- Anakin's right there, and surely it wouldn't have killed Amidala to spare him a minute. The crappy novelization by Terry Brooks does a halfway adequate job of it in the following passage:

"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you sooner," she said, apologizing for hiding her identity. "I know it was a surprise."

"It's okay," he said, shrugging bravely.

"I guess knowing I'm a Queen makes you feel differently about me, doesn't it?" she asked.

"I guess, but that's okay. Just so you still like me. Because I still like you." He looked over at her hopefully.

"Of course, Annie [sic]. Telling you who I really am doesn't mean my feelings for you have changed. I was the same person before, whether you knew the truth about me or not."

He thought about it a moment. "I suppose." He brightened. "So I guess my feelings for you shouldn't be any different now either."

Good Lord, people say Lucas writes stiff dialogue, but what about this cheesy hack Brooks? But at least his third-grade reading comprehension novel includes that conversation, patching things up between the future Mr. and Mrs. Skywalker and letting us know that she still likes him. And he still likes her.

3. They’ve got names, George — use ’em!

Lucas has always had a bad habit of not mentioning the names of supporting characters in the Star Wars movies, making it end up that only the devoted fans and action-figure collectors know what all these people are called. The famous example is Boba Fett, whose name was never uttered until Return of the Jedi. And more surprisingly, if less importantly, the word "Ewok" was never spoken at all. But in The Phantom Menace, the persistent withholding of names has gotten out of control.

Shmi Skywalker never tells her name. We don't get to hear the name of Mace Windu. Neither are we properly introduced to Governor Sio Bibble, or Viceroy Nute Gunray, or pilot Ric Olié, or royal bodyguard Sabé. And then there's all the forgotten geographical names: we visit Theed (the Naboo capital), Otoh Gunga (the Gungan city) and Mos Espa (the Tatooine spaceport where Anakin lives), but the script never bothers to tell us where we are.

I know this sounds like a geeky thing to complain about, and I know you can't interrupt the story to tell the name of every last person, place or thing. I don't expect the Jedi Council members to sound off in a Superfriends roll call. But names can help the audience relate to the important supporting cast, instead of just thinking of the characters as "Anakin's mom" and "that beardy guy," and make the locations more real.

Mace Windu Perhaps more of a problem is the major characters whose names are chronically underused. Qui-Gon Jinn's name is not revealed until halfway into the movie, when he introduces himself to Shmi (who?). And Anakin is talking at the same time, so you can hardly even hear Qui-Gon say it then. If Qui-Gon's name was clearly established early on, it would help the audience forget they're looking at Liam Neeson, famous actor, pretending to be a Jedi. That goes triple in the case of Samuel L. Jackson. Since we're never told Mace Windu's name, the audience has a harder time getting over the fact that the Jedi Council is headed by Yoda and the bad motherfucker from Pulp Fiction.

Another name that's easy to miss is Darth Sidious. The Neimoidians say "Lord Sidious" a couple of times, but we never hear the name "Darth Sidious" spoken. Lucas is trying to push the pretense that Sidious and Palpatine are two different people, but to the average moviegoer, Sidious is "the Emperor." The name "Sidious" doesn't register with Joe Popcorn, and the distinction between Sidious and Palpatine only has a major impact for the knowing fans. If the name "Darth Sidious" was used and stressed, it would also help people understand that "Darth" is a Sith title, not a first name. Right now, people are apt to think Darth Vader must have been named after Darth Maul.

4. The flatulent eopie

Hey, I love a good fart joke as much as anyone. When it's properly set up, and executed with skilled timing at a nice rude volume, there's nothing finer. But when the camel-like eopie creature rips a juicy one in Jar Jar's face before the podrace, it's just pointless and dumb.

If it had happened during a quiet interlude, and the eopie farted to break the dramatic tension, that could have been funny. But in a sporting arena packed with roaring crowds and revving race engines, this meager gaseous emission had no aural dynamics to work against. Amidst such a cacophony, a fart requires a clear story purpose in order to be funny. For example, let's say the eopie witnessed Sebulba sabotaging Anakin's podracer, and lacking any other means to register its disapproval, it blasted a big stinky poot right in Sebulba's ugly kisser. Now that's comedy.

The Star Wars saga is filled with extraneous gags that have nothing to do with the greater story, but the best of those bits are all spontaneous and genuine. The classic scenes of Chewbacca scaring off the Death Star's robot dog, and Han replying "I know" when Leia says she loves him, for example, were unscripted and improvised on the set. By contrast, a crew of animators equipped with zillion-dollar computer hardware labored for months to create the eopie fart. "Pee-yoosa," indeed.

5. Chancellor Valorum, we hardly knew ye

Supreme Chancellor Valorum is a key figure in The Phantom Menace, although he only appears for a couple of minutes. We're supposed to believe he's a decent and honest man who is regrettably "mired by baseless accusations of corruption." Amidala thinks highly of him, saying, "He has been our strongest supporter." But the movie doesn't really give us enough evidence to feel one way or another about Valorum.

I think Lucas should have given us more of a reason to like Valorum, probably by giving him an establishing scene early in the movie. For example, when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were waiting to meet with the Trade Federation in the opening sequence, they could have communicated with Valorum via hologram, to inform him of the delay in the negotiations. Remember, Valorum's the one who sent them there. He could have had a few lines to express his concern for Naboo, and mention what a bitch of a time he's having in the Senate. Or maybe Valorum could have appeared with Palpatine when the Senator was talking via hologram with Amidala and her advisors.

Anything to introduce us to Valorum would be a big help, to let us know for certain that he's a trustworthy guy who really cares about Naboo, and not some slimy politician. Then we would understand Valorum's pain when he's blocked from helping Naboo in the Senate, and it would be so much more tragic when Palpatine tricks Amidala into stabbing this good man in the back and throwing him out of office.

6. Where’s the blockade?

At the beginning of The Phantom Menace, Naboo is surrounded by a blockade of hundreds of Trade Federation battleships. When Amidala's entourage returns later on, the battleships are all gone except for one straggler. Conveniently for our heroes, there's only one ship to control the entire droid army on the planet, and no other battleships around to back it up. Why should that be?

There is a logical explanation for this apparent plot hole, but the audience shouldn't have to figure it out for themselves. Lucas should have kept this scene from the illustrated screenplay book, which only partially made the final cut:

The Naboo cruiser heads toward the lush green planet. There is only one Federation battle cruiser orbiting. OBI-WAN KENOBI and CAPTAIN PANAKA spot it on the view screen.

PANAKA: The blockade's gone.

OBI-WAN: The war's over. No need for it now.

RIC OLIÉ: I have one battleship on my scope.

OBI-WAN: A droid control ship.

PANAKA: They've probably spotted us.

OBI-WAN: We haven't much time.

So you see, now that Naboo has been taken over by the Trade Federation, there's no need for the Federation to blockade its own planet. They have chosen to keep just one battleship there to control the occupying army. A foolish tactical move, yes, but then Nute Gunray and his underlings are pretty much a bunch of morons. They probably thought it would be too expensive and wasteful to maintain additional battleships at Naboo when their resources could be pursuing profit elsewhere. Lucas should have made it clear that this error in judgment was theirs, not his own.

7. “Roger, Roger!”

I can handle a battle droid saying "Roger, Roger!" in response to an direct order from its commanding droid officer. It's goofy, but I will accept it. Okay, cool.

But at some point, honestly, I have no choice but to put my foot down, and allow sanity and reason to prevail. In the middle of a giant chaotic firefight, what the hell is up with battle droids running around gleefully chirping "Roger, Roger!" to themselves, for no apparent reason? Come on. That's just lame.

8. Let Anakin keep his cool in the cockpit

The first time we get to see for ourselves that Anakin ain't your average nine-year-old brat is when he takes off in the podrace. Behind the controls of his racing pod, this little kid suddenly transforms into a calm, cool and collected bad-ass. He got skillz, you know what I'm sayin'? No screaming, whooping or messing around -- just intensely focused determination that commands your respect.

Podracer vs. Starfighter I wish that same sort of transformation had taken place later when Anakin is piloting the Naboo starfighter. I'm not saying he should have flown into the battle without the autopilot taking him there, and I'm not saying he should have blown up the droid control ship deliberately. Those things happening "by accident" are proof that the Force is strong in him. But while it was all going on, he could have acted a little, well, cooler.

Granted, Anakin had never flown a starfighter before, and it's perfectly fine for him to panic and need Artoo's help when he's first figuring out the controls. But once he got the hang of it, I wish he had just shut up and acted like he did in his podracer: confident, serene and completely in tune with the Force, marked by a subtle hint of inhuman coldness. But instead? "I'll try spinning, that's a good trick."

Okay, George, have it your way. I suppose there's charm to be found in boyish recklessness, too. But I really wish you had scripted Anakin's combat mission with the same strategy you wisely chose for the lightsaber battles: less talk, more rock.

9. The Jedi Council’s ever-changing moods

On Coruscant, the Jedi Council is pretty darn decisive in its ruling on Anakin: No. He will not be trained. Too old, too much anger, too much fear. But at the end of the movie, the Council has reversed its decision -- against the wishes of Yoda -- and given Obi-Wan permission to take Anakin as his Padawan. Why the sudden change of heart?

This is such an important decision that I think the audience deserves an explanation. Apparently we're supposed to conclude that the Council is swayed by Anakin's deeds in the battle of Naboo. By destroying the droid control ship without even trying, and surviving through it, Anakin has proven himself immensely powerful with the Force. Some of the Council may even now be convinced that he is the chosen one. Thus have they reevaluated Anakin as being worthy of becoming a Jedi.

Obi-Wan and Yoda I wish Yoda had mentioned this reasoning in his private talk with Obi-Wan, telling how he disagreed with it. ("Blowing up ships not make one great! But impressed, the rest of the Council is.") Whatever the Jedi Council's flaws may be, the group is definitely not capricious in its decision-making, and I think the audience should know that this is not an arbitrary flip-flop undertaken just for the sake of a happy ending. There's also a more conspiratorial way to look at it. The Council might wish to use the Naboo incident as a cover for the truth of why they want to train Anakin: they're now more scared of the threat he might pose from the outside the Jedi than from inside. This way, they can at least attempt to control his unimaginable power.

It's interesting to note that Anakin's skills as a pilot win him both his freedom and his chance to train as a Jedi, without his even knowing it. Lucas seems to be sending a message here. I wonder if it's by flying a fast hot rod that Anakin gets his girl in Episode II?

10. “Ex-squeeze me!”

Now, I'm among the biggest Jar Jar Binks defenders you'll find anywhere on the planet, but that's one stinking, festering, tooth-achingly horrendous line of dialogue that I wish I could expunge from the Star Wars saga forever. God help us all. The natural order of the universe is that Mike Myers movies imitate Star Wars movies, not vice versa. Truly, an abomination of all that is holy.

Epilogue: From a Certain Point of View
Why Return of the Jedi is the Star Wars movie that sucks.

I. Your First Step Into a Larger World
The rise, the fall, and the return of the magic of Star Wars.

Why I Love The Phantom Menace

Cinema