"Luke, I am your father. And your mother was a Queen from Naboo, though for some reason they elected queens on that planet. Oh, and when I was a little boy, I built C-3PO and met R2-D2. In fact, Artoo was my astromech droid when I fought in the Clone Wars. I'm surprised those two haven't mentioned that before. In fact, why didn't your uncle mention it? Oh, well, lots of water under the bridge and all that. We've wasted lots of time, you and I, and sure, I've just gone and chopped off your hand, but that doesn't mean we can't start being father and son. What do you say? How about a game of catch?" ~ deleted dialogue from The Empire Strikes Back
Well, George Lucas is re-releasing The Phantom Menace to theatres this weekend (in 3D too, for those of you who like to feel nauseous). So I thought I'd take a bit of time to play around in the Star Wars sandbox for a bit today. While I might be inclined to see the latter two films of the prequel trilogy when they make their return to theatres (and avoid the 3D showings), I'll skip out on this one, as I'll explain as we go along....
I went with a title today that I can't imagine someone would have used in 1979. Back then, Darth Vader was the ultimate villain. It's said that in the very first showing of Star Wars, the moment Vader makes his first appearance, the audiences jeered and booed. They knew a villain when they saw one. The whole look of the character screamed malice and pure evil. The sheer size of him was threatening (David Prowse, who played him, was a rather tall fellow). And that menacing voice by James Earl Jones, accompanied by the heavy breathing, sent a chill down the spine. This was a guy who'd use the Force to choke you if you so much as looked at him funny.
By the end of the third film, of course, Darth Vader was redeemed, and died well, saving the life of his son, who promptly said goodbye by lighting his corpse on fire. And for years afterwards, the original trilogy was well regarded by its fans and the public in general as an accomplishment of film, science fiction, and special effects. Though the villain was redeemed, you still wouldn't go about describing Darth Vader as a whiny crybaby, would you?
Then along came the mid-Nineties. George Lucas had it in mind to do the prequel trilogy, which would document the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Before that, he tested the waters with the Special Edition of the original trilogy. This is when we, the fans, should have seen what was coming. Not only did he and his team add in lots of new special effects and deleted scenes into the updated films (perfectly acceptable to me), but he committed a retcon. Yes, in that first film, he had Greedo shoot at Han first.
This, my friends, is a definite retcon. In the original version, in that space saloon, Han Solo (still one of the best action heroes of all time, and of course played by the outstanding Harrison Ford) gets himself out of a tight spot in a confrontation with bounty hunter Greedo by shooting the ugly chap under the table. This establishes him as a dangerous sort of rogue, and in a way, the rest of the series for him is about redeeming himself and becoming a better man (and seducing a princess along the way and preventing her from entering a life of incest). Instead, Lucas changed that around in the Special Edition and made it an act of self defense. In doing so, it shifts the balance of the story in the wrong way, and suggests that Lucas wanted to clean up the character's reputation. It's the decision of an older man trying to right something he did as a younger man... something that didn't need to be righted.
Anyway, 1999 saw the original release of The Phantom Menace, with its origin story and plotline that hinged on the very dry topic of trade disputes. It also saw the rise of the ultimate evil in the Star Wars universe. Yes, of course, I'm talking about Jar-Jar Binks.
I suspect when Lucas was writing the story and fleshing things out, he must have been thinking of Jar-Jar as the ultimate movie merchandising opportunity. Here, after all, was a character who he thought would wind up becoming popular and selling lots of toys. He probably imagined Jar-Jar's curious way of speaking would become a catch-phrase among the fans. Instead, the character became loathed and despised. His chattering and nonsensical verbalizing gave us headaches. His behaviour was like that of a hyperactive lunatic on a mixture of crack, speed, and too much sugar. He came across like a stereotype. And it's not the character design; the other members of his particular race weren't annoying, just him. It's as if Lucas, and then the actor Ahmed Best, wanted to go over the top with the character and push him in everyone's faces. Instead it backfired and Jar-Jar became this roundly hated character. Someone must have taken George aside when the movie was out and quietly suggested that he back off using the character, because in the second film, Jar-Jar only appears in a handful of scenes (and commits an act that ensures the evil Palpatine will become Emperor, more proof of how evil he really is). And in the third film, most blessedly, Jar-Jar only appears briefly, and doesn't say a single word.
The Phantom Menace also introduced us to the young Anakin, and by young I mean young. We meet the boy, who turns out to be a somewhat mouthy but mostly whiny kid who talks about angels in space and getting away into the stars if only he can be freed from slavery. He spends his time at the beck and call of his owner when he's not pod-racing. Natalie Portman, playing Padme, the woman who will one day become his wife, looks at him as if she's wondering what she was thinking when she signed up for this. Jake Lloyd, playing the boy, is far too spunky and annoyingly kid-like (I have mentioned before that I don't like kids, right?) to be credible as the future Man In Black Armor Bad Ass. And his tendency to whine-iness and clingy traits are pretty much obvious straight off the bat. You'd think that Padme might have picked up on this, but apparently not. Maybe the desert heat played havoc with her judgment.
The film had its assets; Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor among them, and a rather nasty Sith villain. Still, with a whiny kid and a profoundly annoying creature named Jar-Jar showing up all the time, watching it has tended to be an ordeal.
The latter two films in the prequel trilogy obviously couldn't have a ten or twelve year old Jake Lloyd playing Anakin. It'd be kind of awkward having a kid romancing Natalie Portman, right? Besides, I'm sure it would have broken a few laws. And so Lucas in his short sighted not so wisdom cast Hayden Christensen, and so with that blunder, the whiny crybaby tradition continued. And for the next two films, we got ourselves the endless pouting, temper tantrums, awkward glances, and whiny Anakin over and over again. And this was the guy who'd end up becoming Darth Vader? The guy who won the heart of the former Queen of Naboo?
I leave you with this thought. The other day, this bit of dialogue crossed my mind. Anakin and Padme together at home (this before he goes all evil in Revenge of the Sith), and as usual, Anakin is all pouty and whiny.
"Padme, I'm so depressed. Those younglings won't let me play in the sandbox with them."
"Well, Annie, you are ten years older then them, you know..."
"But I want to! It's not fair!"
Darth Bleedin' Vader indeed. George? Just between you and I? It's time you go out to pasture. You've gone past your best before date.