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Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 2)

So tweaking Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon was really mostly an exercise in fine tuning. While there may have been a few areas where the script stumbled, their characters were actually handled pretty well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Anakin Skywalker, aka the reason everyone was watching this mess of a film.

For the three people in the world who don’t know how this turned out, Anakin Skywalker in the Phantom Menace is the most adorable cherub of a future despot ever born into slavery. The only reason he’s not constantly highlighted as the film’s greatest mistake is the fact that he so often shares screen time with Jar Jar Binks.

Now I get what George Lucas wanted to do here. He wanted us to see that Anakin was a good kid, that evil can come from anywhere, etc. And you know what, he’s right, it was important to establish that. With subtlety. This Anakin is about as subtle as driving a screw with a sledgehammer. So how do we address this issue?

First off, and this should have been a no-brainer, Anakin needs to be older. Making him so young was a huge misstep that ended up making every single character who meets him into a horrible person. The responsible Qui-Gon becomes a self-centered mess of an adult willing to endanger a kid at the drop of a hat so long as he can get something out of it, Padme becomes uncomfortably pedophilic in every romantic scene that she has with him, and Obi-Wan ends up looking like the single worst Jedi Master to ever pick up a lightsaber for somehow managing to turn the living personification of cuteness and light into Darth Vader. Even R2-D2 takes a hit for letting the kid fly straight into what is essentially a suicide mission.

Adding another ten years or so would have immediately fixed so many of the problems with Anakin’s characterization that I’m almost tempted to stop there. But that would be ignoring the other problem with him – namely the fact that he’s got to be the most cheerful slave child ever shown on screen.

Slavery in the Star Wars universe has always been a bit of a sticking point with me. Not only because it’s just casually there, but because even the people we are supposed to view as the enlightened good guys are perfectly happy keeping slaves in the form of droids. And yet this is never confronted in the movies. And given that, I feel that making Anakin a slave was actually a rather brilliant move, both because it explains where Anakin’s fall began and provides the perfect excuse to finally confront this massive elephant in the room.

Anakin as he is does neither. He and his mother, slaves of a master who’s shown to be rather poor, live in a home that seems rather nice by Tatooine standards and apparently have enough disposable income to share food with whoever happens by and build droids and pod racers in their spare time. Lucas’s version of slavery doesn’t seem that bad. I trust I don’t need to explain how monumentally screwed up that is.

Anakin needs to be damaged. He needs to have been shaped by his experiences. In short, he needs to be angry, resentful, and what’s more the audience has to see that he has good reason to feel that way. And you can’t do that if you’re not willing to show the ugly side of slavery. If you’re not willing to show that, you really are better off just dropping the entire slave premise.

My Anakin would be much closer to Vader from the start. Show him as brash, overconfident, and fully willing to abuse the tremendous power he’s discovered he has to try to right the wrongs he’s seen in his life. Let him have grown up hearing stories about the Jedi from his mother, about their supposedly magical abilities and dedication to justice. This way it’s not a innocent boy that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discover, but a young man who is already trying the hardest he can to be a Jedi even if he is getting so much of it wrong.

As for his mother… honestly I wouldn’t change much. In fact I’d even let her keep her house. I’d just explain that the only reason she has it is that Anakin basically mind-tricked her master into setting her up with a more comfortable life. Let her be the idealistic good hearted woman we saw on the screen, seemingly the one person on that miserable dustball who still believes in the Force and the Jedi. Because this, ultimately, would be the redemptive element for this darker, more dangerous Anakin. The woman who serves as his moral compass and initially inspired him. Only take it further.

The Shimi I envision is part prophet, part social worker. Show her taking care of the rest of the slaves, tending to their wounds, teaching them about the light side and goodness. Bringing hope that they desperately need. Basically just commit to the virgin Mary allegory they fumbled with in the original script. A woman who’s already experienced a miracle and knows that her son will go on to do even more. Which gives her the perfect reason to stay behind when Anakin goes off to become a Jedi.

These changes would not only help this movie, but the following ones as well. Having Anakin already powerful and knowledgeable in the force even before his formal training began gives a reason for his arrogance in Episode II, and having been raised on idealized stories of Jedi nobility would explain his disillusionment with the order by the time Episode III rolls around. And it gives a legitimate reason for the Jedi Council to show hesitation at training him.

From their perspective he’s already started down the path to the dark side, too set in his ways to ever fully embrace the Jedi code. Perhaps even have them conclude that while it may be his destiny to bring balance to the force, he will do so as something other than a Jedi. At which point the story could go one of two ways. The first would be if Obi-Wan, young, supremely confident, and willing to believe that anyone can be redeemed steps forward and announces that he will train him. Not Qui-Gon, which robs Obi-Wan of the responsibility for Vader’s fall. This moment would not only restore agency to Obi-Wan, but also give added weight to his warnings to Luke in the original trilogy that Vader may be beyond redemption. The second option is that he stands back, holds his silence, and then after Qui-Gon’s death comes to Anakin and offers to train him in secret. Ideally after a scene where Qui-Gon suggests to him that there is more to being a Jedi than being a member of the order.

I can see advantages to both sides, and honestly am torn on which would make for a better story, but I find myself more drawn to the latter approach. Having Anakin trained in secret would have the advantage of explaining why his name wasn’t common knowledge in the time of the original trilogy. It would also further establish him as an outsider with perhaps an overly idealized vision of what the Jedi were, one they ultimately failed to live up to. Finally it would give him an out for his relationship with Padme. As he was not a member of the order, the requirement of celibacy was not imposed on him, thus he could pursue the relationship without compromising his vows, only to have it become a point of conflict for him later when, as an adult, he is recognized as a Jedi and properly inducted into the order.

And that’s pretty much it for Anakin. Only one more part now, focusing on the Villains, the side characters, and the most challenging thing of all… Jar-Jar.

Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 1)

Ah, Episode 1. Possibly one of the biggest disappointments cinema has ever produced. The film that actually made people nostalgic for the days when the most embarrassing things about Star Wars was the Ewoks, and we thought that C-3PO’s lowest point was having his ass handed to him by Salacious Crumb.

And this is the first movie I’m going to do in this segment. Well, I suppose there are weirder ways to find out that you’re an online masochist. I can’t imagine there are many though. Given the enormity of the issues with this particular film, I’ve decided to break it up into a few more manageable chunks. Fortunately the film lends itself rather well to this, as each character is pretty much given a discrete story arc within the movie.

Okay, so, let’s start at the most basic level. The premise. Let’s face it, the prequels are essentially just an origin story for Darth Vader. No secret has ever been made of this. And you know what, it works. I know a lot of people have complained that we shouldn’t know more about Vader’s backstory, but that’s not a view I’ve ever held. There’s some rich character development there. What’s more, Vader’s gradual corruption parallels the fall of the republic perfectly, particularly in the fact that it was the hubris of Obi-Wan, the man who literally first showed the audience what it was to be a Jedi, that allowed it to happen.

Which brings me to the first issue. The Obi-Wan in the film is introduced to us as a padawan. Not only that, but a surpremely humble one. Qui-Gon is the one who takes the center stage here.

Now I have no issue with Qui-Gon. In fact I like him a lot. But the unfortunate fact is that while he’s around, Obi-Wan really doesn’t have much of anything to do. He’s almost reduced to a supporting character, overshadowed by his master.

This problem isn’t limited to Obi-Wan either. Darth Maul, also, is completely overshadowed by Palpatine, which is problematic both because it gives Darth Maul nothing to do and because for Palpatine to act so directly is very much out of character for how he’s presented. He’s a puppet master, yes, but he uses extremely powerful and capable pawns to be his public front. Both can be addressed.

My version of the film would start much the same way with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan heading to Naboo, much the same as it does in the film except for a few changes. First, Obi-Wan is a full Jedi Knight, fresh from his trials, and perhaps slightly annoyed (though still respectful) at Qui-Gon’s presence, as he sees it as a sign that he’s not entirely trusted to handle what should be a simple negotiation. They arrive on the flagship and are taken to a conference room. Only this time instead of being outed by a droid, Darth Maul, already physically present and apparently in control of the blockade, is the one to detect them. As the force is a two way street he immediately orders them killed before they can reveal him, against the protests of his trade federation allies. They then escape, reach Naboo, and rescue the queen. Except this time while Obi-wan goes to escort the queen, Qui-Gon stays behind to try to protect the people of Naboo and investigate Maul’s involvement.

This serves two purposes. The first is to give Qui-Gon a plot that doesn’t require Obi-Wan to wait around on a starship doing nothing. Second is that it sets up a precedent useful for the rest of the series, as Qui-Gon’s investigation of the Sith has the unintended consequence of turning the Jedi peacekeeper into the general of a rebellion – further explaining how the Jedi transitioned into an officer corps by the second movie.

Which then takes us to the next issue in the script: Anakin Skywalker.
Anakin pretty much needs to be redone from scratch. A lot of people have said that he shouldn’t be likeable. I don’t agree. He should absolutely be likeable, otherwise you don’t feel anything when you see him fall. What he shouldn’t be is cute. And that’s exactly what Anakin is in the Phantom Menace.

The Anakin the film needed would be more like Han Solo. Arrogant, brash, and even a little evil from time to time. In a sense someone who is only as good as his surroundings will allow him to be. Next time, we’ll take a look at how the Skywalker family might have been improved.

Plotting Along – An Introduction

So I’ve seen a lot of bad movies in my time.  Sadly that kind of comes with the territory for sci-fi fans, which means that most of you can say the same.  And for years one of my primary coping mechanisms has been picking said bad movies apart and trying to figure out where the film makers or, more specifically, the writers went wrong.  In other words, I nitpick, lampoon, and riff mercilessly. 

That said not all of that riffing is negative.  Every now and then me and some friends like to sit down and actually work out what kind of changes would be needed to make a bad movie into a good one.  Usually in unnecessary detail. Which is basically what these bits, so far called “Plotting Along” (yeah, a pun, sue me) are going to be all about.  Mostly because I do want to put something on here other than just endlessly droning on about Shadows of Time.

There are a lot of movies that could be really, really good but for a few missteps.  The reasons for this are generally varied.  Sometimes it is incompetence, but even more often it’s just a lack of necessary resources, be they money, actors, or time, to do things the way the people involved want.  In this case it’s really not anyone’s fault if a film falls flat, it’s just reality.  Which is why before I start I want to lay down some ground rules.

First, this is all in good fun.  It’s what-if musings about how a story might have been tweaked, not an attack on anyone or their tastes. 

Second, this is not necessarily an exercise in real world film making.  A surprising number of sci-fi movies are filmed on a shoestring budget these days due to the cost of the special effects they require.  In the real world scripts get trimmed for budget, dialog gets tweaked by a star’s favorite writer, and scenes get dropped or added in order to hit a targeted running time.  All of these tend to play havoc with the scripting process and none of these factors are ones that will be regularly considered in these articles.  They exist in an ideal world where actors can do every role handed to them, producers write a blank check but otherwise are unseen, and the only schedule the director needs to stick to is “when it’s done.”  Like many of you I have a lot of opinions on these practices, but these aren’t a forum on any issues I have with the entertainment industry.

Third, all of this, of course, reflects my tastes.  And I enjoy a lot of stuff that others dub as overly cerebral or slow.  Obviously the changes I suggest wouldn’t please everyone.  This is not a value judgment or attempt to assess the quality of any particular style or genre, just a reflection of what I like.  So don’t take it personally if I come up with an idea that in your mind would ruin your favorite movie. 

Fourth, by the same token, there are films I like that a lot of people hate.  For example, I have a huge soft spot for Star Trek The Motion Picture, a film that is regarded as unwatchable by many.  I can understand a lot of the objections people have to watching it, I may even agree with a few of them, but I still don’t feel it’s a bad film.  And by and large this is going to spotlight films that failed to live up to their potential in my personal opinion.

And finally, just because the goal is to come up with a better version doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be original.  I know I’m not the first person to compile constructive criticism or alternate scripts.  I’m not setting out to copy anyone else’s ideas, but I have no doubt that a few of the ones I come up with will bear a resemblance to ones others have made public over the years.  If this happens just leave a comment with a link – I’ll try to look at it and possibly even edit the article to include it.  It’s always interesting to see someone else’s approach.  Should I ever actually reference another article on purpose though, it will be credited as such.

And that’s it for now.  First randomly selected movie for revision is… Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.


This is going to take a while.