Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Phantom Menace (Star Wars Week!!!)

We're back for Day 3 of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to Monday's review of The Empire Strikes Back.

Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy
Premise: (from IMDB) Two Jedi knights uncover a wider conflict when they are sent as emissaries to the blockaded planet of Naboo.
About: It is said that Lawrence Kasdan was approached to write the script for The Phantom Menace but that Kasdan felt Empire and Jedi were a step away from Lucas's vision and believed that Lucas should write and direct the prequels so that they would remain in his voice. Hmmm, that personally sounds like a clever brushoff to me. Other rumors include Frank Darabont and Carrie Fisher being approached to write the script. But in the end, we got George Lucas. Hooray.
Writer: George Lucas

The Phantom Menace is such a poorly told story that as I started compiling the screenwriting mistakes to highlight in this review, I realized there were too many to choose from.

I guess we’ll start at the top. The first problem is the backstory. In the backstory for the original films, rebels were trying to defeat the Empire. It's simple. It's powerful. It's focused. In this movie, we get the taxation of trade routes. In other words, it's complicated. It's confusing. It's unfocused. Now complicated can be good if you have a screenwriter who knows how to navigate complications and who's dedicated to the extra work required to write something of this magnitude. But George Lucas is neither. He's openly stated that's he doesn't like writing. And since writing even a simple story can take 20-30 drafts to get right, you can only imagine how much effort and how many drafts something complicated would take. And if you’re not committed to all that extra effort, your screenplay’s going to suffer. And this is the main reason the prequels are so bad. Everything here is a first draft idea that was never developed.

Something feels wrong about The Phantom Menace right from the start. We’ve talked about storytelling engines all week and there is an engine here. But unfortunately that engine lacks horsepower. The goal is for two Jedi's to convince the trade Federation to leave Naboo. In the opening of Star Wars, Darth Vader storms a rebel ship in search of the stolen Death Star plans. In the opening of Empire, Luke Skywalker is kidnapped by a monster and must be rescued. These are both strong and clear engines. Removing a trade blockade from a planet? Borrrrrrrr-ing.

Now to Phantom’s credit, there is one point in the film where things get kind of interesting, and that's when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discover an invasion army. This creates mystery. And it gives our characters purpose. They must now get down to the planet and figure out what's up. When they get there, they realize the Naboo people are going to be attacked and therefore have to save the Queen. Okay, we actually have a little bit of story going on here. Saving queens is exciting. Right?

Unfortunately, once they escape, they get marooned on Tantooine and things start falling apart quickly. They do actually have a goal on Tantooine, and that's to get off the planet. But you'll notice there's something missing from this sequence that’s been present in every single Star Wars movie up to this point. Urgency. Star Wars added it by making sure the bad guys were always on our tail. Empire did the same, with the Empire always right behind Han. Nothing is chasing them here. We feel like they could be here for months and there would be no consequences.

The thing is, George has a ticking time bomb for the Tantooine sequence – they need to get to the Senate to tell them what's going on on Naboo before it's too late. But he doesn't do a very good job of reminding us of this urgency and the goal itself is so muddled and confusing, that even if he did, we still wouldn't feel the importance of it. I mean, hasn't the Trade Federation already taken over Naboo? What does it matter if they get there now or two years from now?

But The Phantom Menace truly dies when our characters arrive on Coruscant (the city planet). This is where I'll be introducing a new term on Scriptshadow: Scene Of Death.

The Scene Of Death is any scene that exists only to…

a) Convey exposition.
b) Have characters talk to each other about their feelings.
c) Have two people talk about another person.
d) Have two people talk about their views or opinions on things.

Now let me be clear. You can have all of these conversations in your movie. But you have to have them during scenes where the story is being pushed forward. If the only reason the scene exists is to show one of these four things, that scene will draw your story to a complete stop. Now if you've had an incredibly intense stretch of really solid storytelling, you can sometimes get away with one of these scenes. But I wouldn't recommend it. I think there's always a way to get this stuff in while the story is being pushed forward.

Now your screenplay is in trouble if you write just one of these scenes. But imagine if half the scenes you wrote were scenes of death. Welcome to The Phantom Menace.

This is what happens on Coruscant. The main characters convene in a room and talk about the upcoming discussion they're going to have with the Senate. Then we go to the Jedi Council where Qui-Gon Jinn says they need to teach Anakin. Then Anakin goes to tell Amidala that he's saying goodbye. Then we have a boring Senate meeting. Then they go to the Senate committee to ask permission for something. Then Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn talk. Then Anakin gets tested by the Jedi Council. Then Amidala talks to Jar-Jar about their planet. Then Amidala talks to the Emperor about going back to her planet. Then Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon and Anakin talk to the Jedi Council yet again. Then Qui-Gon Jinn explains what the force is to Anakin. I might nominate this as the worst stretch of scenes in a big-budget movie ever. Out of these 11 scenes, maybe half are scenes of death and the other half so barely move the story forward or are so muddled in their execution, that they destroy any bit of momentum the movie had left. There is no engine underneath this sequence driving the story forward. And there is definitely no GSU. I mean what happened to the storytelling of the first two films?? If somebody wanted something in Star Wars, they went after it themselves. They didn't go to a Senate committee. Choices George. You have to make interesting choices. Debating anything in a Senate is not an interesting choice.

And the scariest thing? That's not even the worst part of the screenplay. The worst part of the screenplay is the characters. Even if Lucas had cleaned all this plot stuff up and made each sequence as tight and focused as Star Wars and Empire, it wouldn't have mattered because we don't like the characters. Let's take a look at the six key characters and why they suck.

Qui-Gon Jinn - The mentor character is rarely flashy, but that doesn't mean he can't be interesting. I'll admit that the Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first films wasn’t exactly the coolest character ever. He didn't do anything outrageous or shocking. But he had this intriguing mystical quality about him and he was very warm. Qui-Gon Jinn is as cold and as boring a character as you'll find. Part of this is the way Lucas set up the Jedi. He implied in the original films that Jedis were sophisticated and ordered and honorable. Unfortunately, those are all traits that make a character boring. I would probably want Qui-Gon Jinn mentoring me in real life. But I definitely don't want to put him in my movie if my goal is to entertain people.

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Much like Qui-Gon Jinn, there's very little going on with Obi-Wan Kenobi. He doesn't seem to have any character flaws. He listens to and attentively follows everything his mentor tells him to do without argument. And that's where this dynamic falters. Whenever you pair two people together for an entire movie, you need there to be some sort of unresolved conflict between them. Without conflict, the characters aren't struggling to find balance. If the relationship is already balanced, then there's nothing for the characters to fight. That's going to equal a lot of boring scenes. So you have two characters, both of them with no internal struggles, and no conflict between them. How the hell are you going to make that interesting?

Amidala - Queen Amidala is the worst character in this movie and may be the worst character Lucas has ever created. George tries to create this whole disguise storyline where Queen Amidala disguises herself as a handmaiden. The problem is, there's absolutely no point to it whatsoever. Had she never disguised herself, absolutely nothing would have changed. This goes back to the use of stakes. If you're going to disguise someone, ask yourself, what are the stakes to them getting caught? If there are no stakes, then there's no point in disguising them. If it any point Amidala is discovered when, say, they’re hanging out on Tantooine, what happens? Maybe Qui-Gon Jinn smiles slightly and says, "Wow, you got me." And that would be it. Look at a movie like Pretty Woman. Watch the scenes where Julia Roberts goes out with Richard Gere to a high-class dinner or a polo match. In those scenes, Roberts is masquerading as one of them. If she gets caught, and somebody realizes that Richard Gere is with a hooker, there are real consequences to that. Maybe the other businessmen don't deal with Gere. Maybe his reputation takes a shot. Julia Roberts will be humiliated. The fact that George doesn't realize the importance of stakes in this situation shows how little he understands storytelling.

Anakin – Anakin is a tough character to dissect. Much of our thoughts regarding Anakin have to do with our knowledge of what's going to happen to him in the future (dramatic irony). Lucas is hoping that just seeing this young happy kid who we know will later become one of the most sinister dictators in the galaxy is going to stir up enough emotions that we’ll be interested in him. And the truth is, Anakin does have some stuff going on. He's a slave. He ends up having to leave his mother. The seeds are here for a good character. Unfortunately, Lucas really botched the casting. The kid who played Anakin wasn't a good actor and therefore we just never believed him. I do think that a better casting choice would've helped this film tremendously. But it's also a reminder of a screenwriting tip I've mentioned before. It's probably best not to include a major character under 10 in your script. Finding a good actor who can play a major role at that age is the equivalent of trying to win the lottery.

Jar-Jar – This is going to shock you. Jar-Jar is actually the deepest character in the story. Or I should say, the character whom George Lucas intended to be the deepest. He's the only character in the group who has a flaw. He doesn't take life seriously enough. And he doesn't believe in his worth. That's what's led to all of the problems with his people, and why he was ultimately kicked out of the clan. So when you're talking about unresolved conflict, there's actually a lot of unresolved conflict going on with this character. Unfortunately, George undercut this with such a goofy annoying character that it didn't matter. We're not going to care if a character is able to overcome anything if we don't like him. So remember, just adding a character flaw isn't enough. You still have to make that character someone we’ll root for.

Darth Maul - A huge critical mistake that George Lucas made was not including a dominant villain. Not every movie needs a villain. However, if you're going to write a sci-fi movie, you need a villain. And Lucas actually created a really cool villain here, but ended up portraying him as a nuisance more than a genuine threat to the Republic. The guy barely spoke. He didn't do anything unless he was told to. He was a weak villain. And if you don't have someone to point to as the ultimate threat in this kind of movie, then you're never really scared for the characters. Lucas really should have made Darth Maul a major character with a lot more power. It would've helped this movie a lot.

Like I said, I could go on forever with this movie. I didn't even get to the ending where the bad guys were destroyed by a baffling series of lucky coincidences. I'm just shocked at how much time and effort and money was put into something that was so poorly constructed. If there's any lesson to come out of this, it's that this is what happens when you don't commit to rewriting your script until it's great. As I struggled to figure out a rating for this film, I realized I couldn't recall a single moment in the script that worked. For that reason, I have no choice but to give it the lowest rating.

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is why you shouldn’t try and write a complicated multifaceted multi-character epic with politics and secret objectives and dozens of vastly different locations. These are the most difficult movies to write by far. And this is often the result. A bunch of muddled objectives in a muddled plot that’s desperately trying to seem important but none of that importance comes through because it's all so sloppily executed. To me, The Phantom Menace is an argument for the power of a simple plot. Keep the character goals clear. Keep everybody's motivations clear. Keep the story goals clear. The first two films were basically bad guys chasing good guys. Even Empire could be boiled down to that. As long as you have that simple structure in place, you can try to find the complications within it. But if you start with an overarching complex story that lacks focus, it's likely doomed from the get-go.