Plotting Along – “That Star Trek Movie” (Part 2)

This is actually a pretty hard one for me not to break my own rules on.  As you may or may not know, part of the idea of this series is to look at how a story can be fixed rather than rebuilt.  The Phantom Menace series, for instance, stuck with more or less the same plot while tinkering with the characters in such a way that would have allowed for more audience investment in it.  And that worked because while Phantom Menace was bloated and at times meandering, there were good ideas behind all of its scenes that just failed to materialize due to poor direction and dialog.

Star Trek Generations, on the other hand, does not have quite the same weight in its core ideas.  The film is ostensibly about coming to terms with the passage of time and the change it brings.  We know this because characters often stop the movie in its tracks to tell us all about it.  But for a movie in this particular franchise, I honestly feel it’s too small of a concept to build an entire film around on its own.

Wrath of Khan had arguably the same arc for Kirk.  But that wasn’t the entirety of what the film was either.  You had Khan’s revenge, the Genesis program, the trainees, and I could go on but won’t because there are still one or two people who haven’t seen the film yet (and the rest don’t need me to.)  Not to mention having what are still the best scenes of starship battles the franchise has produced.  It was a pretty full movie.  Generations though…  Well, it could have been a great episode, but as a film it’s hard for me to get excited about the idea of Picard being worried that he’s too old to be interesting anymore.

So this leaves me with a problem: how do I take a script whose biggest problem may be that it’s just too small for the big screen and broaden its scope without replacing the ideas that form its core identity?

Read More »

Advertisements

Plotting Along – The Phantom Menace (Part 3)

Darth Maul really got a pretty raw deal.
I know, I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it bears repeating nonetheless. Consider the marketing that lead up to the release of this film. Darth Maul was freaking everywhere, glowering down at filmgoers in a grim promise of how uncompromisingly awesome he was going to be. The guy had a cadre of devoted fans before the movie even opened.
Given how it turned out, I sometimes have to wonder if perhaps they went so far overboard with the marketing as an apology to Ray Park for how little screen time he actually ended up getting.

Unfortunately, I can also see why it happened. Darth Maul’s not actually the villain of the film. Palpatine is. Darth Maul’s just an enforcer. And he actually fills that role pretty well. Audiences don’t expect the two hundred pound gorilla who serves as a bouncer/bodyguard for the mob boss to be a richly developed character. But, like Boba Fett before him, Darth Maul looked really cool. Thus everyone really, really wanted him to be more awesome than he actually was.

So how do you fix this? Basically, you do it by almost completely cutting Palpatine out of the film. Which you may be surprised to hear I almost hate saying.

Now, I am a big fan of Rod Hilton’s machete order for viewing the Star Wars films. If you haven’t read the original article yet, go there now. It’s worth a look, and is an excellent demonstration of how making relatively minor changes to the plot structure of the story as a whole can actually improve both trilogies. And one of the things that he highlights in it that makes the whole concept work is the fact that Palpatine is actually a really freaking scary villain in the prequels.

Think about it: the guy not only managed to engineer a war, he managed to engineer it in such a way that he was actually leading both sides. In addition to that he managed to get the Jedi to break their long-standing prohibition against getting actively involved in military conflicts, leading to the corruption and ultimate destruction of the entire order save for a few stragglers who went into seclusion, and he did it all without ever being so much as suspected of being a Sith. Even at the end when he was revealed it was because he flat out admitted it to a Jedi. This is the villain we really wanted. But sadly many people rejected him because, well, he was an old guy in a robe. He didn’t look cool, and no amount of awesome evil voice work was going to sway people’s minds in that regard.

By letting Darth Maul have Palpatine’s (or more accurately Darth Sideous’s) scenes and lines though we achieve two goals. The first is that we are no longer disappointing fans looking for a scary and awesome looking villain. The second is that Darth Maul can now actually be present in person at Naboo, running things directly. Which is greatly preferable to just having Sideous sending instructions via hologram the entire time. There’s a reason Darth Vader always lead from the front, and it has everything to do with how the audience reacts to seeing a menacing super-powered badass ready to step in when the army of useless stormtroopers inevitably fail.

So would this change diminish Palpatine? Well, maybe. Frankly though I think it would be worth it and possibly only serve to make him more threatening in the second and third films if you mostly cut him out of the first simply by letting the threat of him loom a bit. After all most Star Wars fans knew he was the emperor going in. Letting him be there but apparently not doing much would set everyone wondering just what plans he might have in place, or even if he was actually a sith yet. It would also help close the plot hole formed when the captured Trade Federation leaders didn’t immediately turn around and announce that, yes, they were taking instructions from a creepy guy in a cloak who referred to Darth Maul as an apprentice, and could we please not get shot now? In fact you could even capitalize on it by having a scene where the Jedi are questioning them about Maul trying to find if he was the master or the Apprentice. All of them say that he was running the show, except perhaps for one who offers an opinion that he thought Maul might have been getting instructions from somewhere else. Or if that’s too much just give him some last words, perhaps a barely coherent plea to his master for help. In short, give us a little bit of mystery here as to what the balance of power is.

And with that out of the way, that only leaves the side characters… oof.

So first off, R2-D2. In an early draft he was actually supposed to be the POV character, recounting the history of the Skywalker family from his own experiences to an advanced being hundreds if not thousands of years after the battle of Yavin. And, even though that was dropped, he actually fills that role really well. He’s the perfect fly on the wall character – always present yet usually ignored. To paraphrase the awesome HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic, “Droids are like furniture. No one thinks much about them. Which makes it the perfect surprise when the lamp in the corner pulls out a high powered blaster combine and liquidates them.” So how does the quirky little astromech do?

Actually, pretty well. R2-D2 is more or less perfectly handled in The Phantom Menace. This time he’s brand new, and obviously a bit more capable as a result of it, but frankly what else did we expect? I imagine he’s pretty far out of warranty by the time A New Hope rolls around.

And C-3PO. The overly polite slightly prissy protocol droid who really has no business being in a war. In this movie, he’s presented to us as a naked do-it-yourself project in some kid’s bedroom.

And again, I really don’t have a problem with it. I actually think it’s kind of a good twist on the character that 3PO, who always made a point of bragging about the features he had to everyone he met, was actually cobbled together from spare parts and junk. As for the alleged plot hole of why Vader never recognized him… should he? How often did they actually interact in the original trilogy? And, if you think about it, how many identical protocol droids are out there? The fact that C-3PO and R2 were able to pretend to be droids belonging to the Death Star in a New Hope suggests that there were probably quite a few gold-plated protocol droids and blue astromechs on board the station, so seeing a droid that was identical to C-3PO was probably a daily occurrence.

Which leaves… which leaves…
(sigh)
Jar-Jar.

Okay. Well, first off we should be asking a very important question: does he even need to be here?

No, he doesn’t. At no point are his actions vital to the plot. Taking them to the Gungan city? Naboo has been populated for long enough that I’m pretty sure that the humans know the Gungans are there. Leading the Gungan forces? We’ve already got a Gungan officer character who can do that. Comic relief? You do realize you have a naked C-3PO in this movie, right? And a sarcastic snarky Obi-Wan? Enough said.

So yeah, my thoughts (unsurprisingly) is that this is a character that simply does not need to be here. If you really wanted to keep him though, I would actually suggest taking a page from the Clone Wars series currently wrapping up on Cartoon Network. There they make the simple change of having the disaster that follows in his wake due not to him being mind-numbingly stupid and cowardly, but simply profoundly unlucky. In which case you could make his introduction more the result of the Gungans trying to snub Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon by offering them a guide that they feel will be a hindrance. But honestly, the movie would be well served by just getting rid of him completely.

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.