Look. I don’t hate the Star Wars prequels–in fact, compared to most fans’ feelings on the subject, I even like them. But in a world where alternative facts are a thing, there is no denying they are deeply flawed movies. I would argue the overall, bird’s eye view of the story is interesting and worthy of the Star Wars mythos, it’s just that for the most part, they are very poorly written and executed.
In honor of Darth Maul #1 being released this week (and because I am apparently a masochist), I rewatched The Phantom Menace recently, and while for the most part yes, it’s an unwatchable pile of dog shit, there are nuggets of potential strewn everywhere throughout the movie. It’s not quite as unredeemable as its reputation suggests, and it stands to reason that with a few basic changes (none even relating to Jar Jar!), it might even become a good movie. Off the top of my head, here are five:
Explain why and how the Force is out of balance
A central tenet of the prequels ends up being “bringing balance to the Force.” It’s Anakin’s calling as the chosen one to do so. But viewers are largely left in the dark about that balance. Why is the Force out of balance? How? What happened? What does that even mean? It’s explained by George Lucas in the VHS documentary for A New Hope that “bringing balance to the Force” means eradicating the Sith and essentially eliminating the influence of the dark side altogether, but this is not clearly explained in Phantom Menace (or any other Star Wars movie, for that matter).
Ditch the trade dispute storyline, and make the first third of the film about the Jedi Council and their business
This is what we wanted more of. Not a bunch of Gungans talking about doodoo.
While we’re on the subject of bringing balance to the Force, when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon find Anakin Skywalker, Qui-Gon believes that he is the chosen one to do just that. This is all well and good, but the problem is this isn’t mentioned until they just so happen to stumble upon the apparent messiah by accident. Why not make the chosen one Episode I‘s MacGuffin? Maybe instead of being dispatched to handle a snore-inducing trade dispute, Yoda has a vision of the chosen one and sends one of his best Jedi and his apprentice to Tatooine to investigate.
This could have made the first 45 minutes of the movie far more exciting than it ended up being–and yes, it could have allowed us to just skip Jar Jar Binks altogether. Instead of the trade dispute and hanging out with the Gungans, we could have seen Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fucking shit up OG Jedi style and allowed more time to explain the purpose and origins of the Jedi Council–yet another core principle of the Star Wars saga that is simply taken for granted.
Too many things in The Phantom Menace occur through sheer happenstance and, as a result, the movie feels meandering and out of place. The first episode of a six (now nine) part saga is monumentally important, and they couldn’t have bungled that starting point any more than they did.
Make the immaculate conception a bigger deal (and ditch the midichlorians)
“Master, what are midichlorians?”
“Fuck if I know son.”
Much like a lot of this movie, an absolute bombshell of a revelation is just sort of mentioned off-handedly to zero fanfare: Anakin was the product of a Christ-like immaculate conception and had no biological father.
Why the hell wasn’t this a bigger deal to anyone? Didn’t any of Shmi Skywalker’s family, friends or peers find this the slightest bit out of the ordinary? Maybe they thought she was a lying trollop and gave her a knowing wink and a “suuure, there’s no dad”. Or, worse, she was a slave after all, so it’s entirely possible she was pimped out by her master and raped. But regardless, Qui-Gon believes her and that’s ostensibly what actually happened. Isn’t this a bit more amazing to the audience than Qui-Gon saying, “wow, this kid has an usually high number of a type of germ that I, for all you know, could have made up completely on the spot”?
Ditch the midichlorians altogether. It’s a bizarre addition to the mythos that is difficult to shoehorn into canon as it’s never mentioned again outside of the prequels (and even then, it’s only spoken of once more in the prequels at all–during Palpatine’s telling of the story of Darth Plagueis to Anakin in Revenge of the Sith).
Flesh out Darth Maul (and the Sith in general)
Of all the missed opportunities in the prequels, Darth Maul is possibly the biggest. He looks like a badass, he’s an adept fighter, he has a sick name, and there is no cooler lightsaber in the galaxy. He’s also presented as nothing more than a pawn of Darth Sidious, with no intentions or feelings of his own. How did he come to become Sidious’ apprentice? Why? They don’t need to show all of this, but a little exposition would have gone a long way. Combine this with my suggestion of having the first third of the movie focus on Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, and suddenly their showdown becomes that much more impactful.
Darth Maul is an icon of the prequel trilogy, but if all the Star Wars you’re experiencing is the movies, you know next to nothing about him. Disney could easily make a fascinating standalone film entirely based around the character, but Lucasfilm could have started by making his character matter in Episode I.
Cut the podracing scene to a fraction of its run time and instead show Anakin’s progression as a Jedi
“Now THIS is an enormous waste of time!”
The prequel trilogy is the story of Anakin Skywalker. And while he gets a lot of screen time in Episode I, much of it is wasted. We do learn some things about him: he’s an expert engineer and a gifted pilot. He really likes podracing. He…uhh…did I mention he really likes podracing? I hope you do too, because an enormous chunk of the movie is dedicated to one goofy single race whose 1999 CG doesn’t exactly stand the test of time. Sure, the stakes are high, as Anakin’s freedom is on the line. But there are other ways to free him, and even if the podrace has to be how it’s done, the length of this scene could be cut drastically.
And with all this newfound free time, instead of ending The Phantom Menace with a medal ceremony that’s a mirror image of A New Hope‘s, I think it would be more valuable to show at least some of Anakin’s tribulations on his way to becoming a Jedi master, even if it’s in montage form. Anakin suddenly aging 10 years between Episodes I and II is pretty jarring, even more so because no one else visibly ages half as much. This could have been alleviated by showing Anakin gaining wisdom, experience and yes, age at the end of Episode I.
I don’t think these changes would have been too much to ask, and would have made The Phantom Menace much more worthy of the Star Wars name. Honestly, it’s not as far off as your memory may recall–Attack of the Clones, however, that’s an article for another day.