Jan 8, 2016

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Mistakes to Avoid in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

It's a new year, and a new set of Watch & Learn posts are coming! Having already looked at the lessons writers can take from the original Star Wars trilogy, I'm going to delve further into the Star Wars saga, and look at the prequels. As I've previously mentioned, I have no love for the prequels, and they are widely regarded as bad movies that miss the point of what Star Wars is all about. But just because something is bad, doesn't mean we can't learn from it. So for the prequels, we're going to look at the mistakes made, and why it's important for writers to avoid these in their own work.

We start with the beginning.

Remember when we thought this movie was going to be good?
Disclaimer: I'm aware that some of the issues I'll be raising in these posts are addressed in comics, books, tv shows, or video games. However it's important as a writer to never assume that a reader has any information other than what you present them with. That assumption can lead to lazy writing, and leaving readers confused and unsatisfied. So we will be examining these movies without the context of additional media, judging them on their own merits. That being said, as these are prequels released out of chronological order with the original trilogy, we will also assume that the intended audience will have seen the original trilogy.

Time for some hard lessons. Class is in session.

Imagine yourself back in 1999. It was a different time. People were saying the world would end when computers' clocks reset to zero. You could still bring a bottle of water onto a plane. The biggest advancement in mobile phones was being able to play Snake. We were quoting The Matrix like it was the teachings of Buddha himself. And we had a new Star Wars movie for the first time in 16 years.

The hype for this was about as crazy as the hype for The Force Awakens. This was going to be the biggest movie ever. It had modern special effects. It had Liam Neeson! It had Samuel L Jackson! What could go wrong?

Everything. Everything could go wrong.

Mistake 1: No central character
Mistake 2: Not starting at the beginning of the story
Mistake 3: Scenes and characters with no purpose or impact
Mistake 4: Infodumps and over-explaining
Mistake 5: Going too easy on your characters
Mistake 6: Forgetting about themes and motifs

Mistake 1: No central character

Ensemble casts are difficult to pull off, especially in a shorter story medium, and even more so when the characters are being presented for the first time. So for the first installment in a series, your audience is going to need a main character to connect with and root for. Someone whose story they will follow.

Whose story is this?

But who is that in The Phantom Menace? It could be Qui-Gon, since he's the most active of the characters, but he has no character development and no real stakes in the plot. Obi-Wan would have made a good choice, being a younger character with a lot to learn, as well as connecting the audience to the original trilogy. He also gets to finish the fight scene with Darth Maul. But he's removed from the middle portion of the story completely and takes a very passive role in events. A protagonist must be active and engaged with the plot.

Our protagonist can't be Anakin. Despite his role in the podrace sequence and in destroying the droid command ship, he doesn't appear until nearly halfway through the movie, and again is carried along by the plot, rather than actively engaging with it.

Queen Amidala would have made an excellent protagonist, since she's the character with the biggest emotional and personal stake in events. She also has a connection to Senator Palpatine, who audiences will know is destined to become the Emperor. However up until the story reaches Coruscant, she is sidelined by other characters.

So we're left with a story that has no central character for the audience to relate to. This makes it difficult to become emotionally involved, as there is no central character arc to follow.

Mistake 2: Not starting at the start of the story

We're going to look at this mistake in two contexts. First up is the story itself. Your reader doesn't need to be hit with a lot of backstory and preamble right at the start of the story, so don't lead them on for several chapters before things start to get interesting.

Look at Phantom Menace. We start with the Republic ship docking aboard the Trade Federation command ship, have a rather meaningless, but mercifully brief, action sequence, and the two Jedi slip away to the planet while the invasion takes place. It then takes another 20 minutes or so before the Jedi reach Queen Amidala and make their escape and anything that is truly relevant to the rest of the story is introduced (Yes, the Gungans need to be introduced so they're established for the final battle, but that is something I'll address below).

The real story starts with Queen Amidala's escape through the blockade. Think back to A New Hope. We didn't see the Princess Leia's ship receive the Death Star plans or get discovered by the Empire. We opened with her ship already under attack.

Starting here would also keep up the pattern of the series starting with the droids. Narrative symmetry? What's that?

In the larger context of the overall series, The Phantom Menace is completely unnecessary. As with the Gungans, I'll explore this in more detail below, but consider the events of the movie and the point of this series. The prequels were intended to show the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader and the Empire rose to replace the Old Republic. Nothing in The Phantom Menace in any way sets up Anakin's path to darkness, and the elements that show Palpatine rising to power are so minor and ultimately forgettable in their execution that they could have been easily transplanted into a later movie, or relegated to backstory.

A challenge of starting any story, especially a series, is in making sure the start is both engaging and relevant to the rest of the story. With a prequel, you have the additional complication of making sure it remains interesting and relevant in spite of the fact your audience will know that certain events must come to pass. We know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader. We know that Palpatine becomes the Emperor and brings about the "dark times," as Ob-Wan phrased it. The conflict and tension comes from finding out how these come to pass. Anything that doesn't drive the story to that question only derails the plot.

Mistake 3: Scenes and characters with no purpose or impact

Question for you: Who is the coolest character from The Phantom Menace?

How many of you answered "Darth Maul?"

Okay, so answer me this: What purpose does Darth Maul serve?

He tracks the Queen's ship to Tatooine, where he fights Qui-Gon briefly, failing to stop them reaching Coruscant. But, the audience knows that Palpatine is playing both sides and uses Amidala to get the vote of no confidence passed against Chancellor Valorum. So either Palpatine was risking that his plan would be messed up if Darth Maul stopped Amidala from reaching Coruscant, or Maul was in on the larger plan and allowed the queen to escape.

In either case, the only thing that can be achieved by sending Darth Maul after the queen is to either ruin Palpatine's own plans, or (as happens in the movie) to reveal the existence of the Sith to the Jedi. Neither of these outcomes benefits Palpatine, and should logically make things more difficult for him.

The most pointless character in Star Wars (even Jar Jar became a dupe and let Palpatine seize supreme power)

Of course, even the revelation of the Sith makes no impact on events, as the Jedi Council dismiss Qui-Gonn's claims completely. So nothing actually happens as a result of Maul revealing himself to the Jedi.

Darth Maul's only other role in the movie is the fight scene with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. This fight likewise has no purpose. Maul isn't defending any strategic area. He's not trying to keep the Jedi from achieving any particular goal. It's a lightsaber fight for the sake of a lightsaber fight.

Darth Maul could be removed from the movie and the plot would not change.

Similarly, Jar Jar Binks serves no purpose. He doesn't aid the heroes or cause any meaningful complications. He's just present in the movie, intended as comic relief, and falls flat as a character. Apply this thinking to all of the underwater scenes with the Gungans and the journey through the Planet Core, to C-3PO, and you'll see how much there is in the movie that is unimportant to the plot. Remember the old advice, "kill your darlings." Just because you like a particular character, line, or scene, doesn't mean it serves the book. And if it doesn't serve the book, it should be cut.

We can even make the case that the entire section on Tatooine is not relevant enough to justify the amount of screentime it gets. All that matters to the story is that they pick up Anakin. Everything else; Watto, the pod race, the fight with Darth Maul, is treated like padding.

The final battle is the perfect example of this. I've already mentioned that the lightsaber fight was unnecessary, but so are the battle with the Gungans and the space battle. The movie justifies the Gungan attack as a distraction tactic. And the need to make sure the Gungans win is the justification for the space battle. But it doesn't matter if the command ship is destroyed, because Amidala captures the Trade Federation viceroy, and can order the surrender of his forces.

If, instead, the climactic action sequence was a small team infiltrating the royal palace, hoping to avoid open battle, then you don't need the Gungan/droid fight, and you don't need the space battle. A simple change, which has little impact on the story, and would make the climax far more focused and effective.

What's worst of all, is that this mistake applies to the movie itself, and its place in the series. When you look back at the prequel trilogy, how much of what happens in The Phantom Menace really matters? How much can be glossed over and seeded through dialogue between characters? The movie itself serves no purpose in the grand scheme of the series. It doesn't even provide a decent recurring villain to challenge the heroes, because Darth Maul is never seen again.

Mistake 4: Infodumps and over-explaining

One of the biggest fan criticisms of The Phantom Menace is the introduction of midichlorians as an explanation for how the Force works. It's a fair criticism. Part of the attraction of fantasy (and yes, Star Wars is fantasy far more than science fiction) is the mysticism, the idea that there can be more to the universe than we can see and touch. By explaining away a core element of the setting with awkward technobabble, The Phantom Menace strips away a little piece of the magic of Star Wars.

Other criticisms have been leveled at the dialogue about trade disputes and politics. While "trade dispute" certainly lacks the impact of A New Hope's fleeing Rebels and world-destroying battlestations, what really kills any sense of tension surrounding the events is the dull dialogue used to explain the plot to the audience. Phantom Menace *tells* us what is going it; it never *shows* us. It never lets us feel that these events are important.

If there's important information your reader needs, you've got to find exciting and engaging ways to get that information across. Having characters sit or stand around explaining the plot to each other will kill any sense of drama or urgency.

Mistake 5: Going too easy on your characters

Several times when we looked at the original trilogy, I pointed out the importance of making your characters suffer. Phantom Menace does the opposite. Every time the characters are faced with a challenge, it's overcome quickly and without consequence.

During the underwater journey to the city of Theed, the Jedi are attacked by a giant fish monster. This is then eaten by a bigger fish. This fish then goes after their vehicle, and is eaten by an even bigger fish. Qui-Gon quips "There's always a bigger fish," and it's supposed to sound wise, but it just underscores the fact that the movie used the exact same gimmick twice in the same scene, and the heroes suffered no setbacks as a result.

The queen's ship escapes the blockade, and the only damage it receives forces them to land on Tatooine, where they meet Anakin. It's a contrived way to insert Anakin into a story that has nothing to do with him and which is not meaningfully affected by his presence.

As an aside here, does anyone else notice that when the Queen orders Padmé to clean R2 after the escape from Naboo, it's one of the decoys posing as the Queen? Out of all the handmaidens present, why would the decoy order the actual Queen to perform menial labour?

On Tatooine, everything seems to have been set up to help the heroes get what they need. They don't have the money they need for new parts, but they just happen to meet a friendly slave, who just happens to be the only human who can pilot a podracer, and just happens to have built, in secret (but out in the open where everyone can see), a podracer to use in the big race.

Later, the negotiations with the Gungans go so quickly you could blink and miss how they convince the Naboo's former enemies to lay down their lives.

The final battle does an all right job of showing the characters struggle trying to overcome the Trade Federation forces, but all of that is spoiled by Anakin apparently being able to launch a starfighter and destroy the command ship completely by accident.

If you watch closely, you'll see that they just repeat the same moves over an over for most of the fight

Finally, one of my own personal issues with the prequels is how the movies always set it up so that two Jedi fight one Sith. While this makes sense from the point of view of the setting (there are far more Jedi than Sith) and is a tactically smart way to approach a fight, it's not exactly heroic, is it? We don't cheer for our heroes because they gang up on someone and beat them down. We cheer because they overcome the odds and win despite being at a disadvantage.

Mistake 6: Forgetting about themes and motifs

One of the most wonderful things about Star Wars has been the themes it uses. We looked at how effective these were in the original trilogy.

Unfortunately, The Phantom Menace seems to forget that. We're left with some basic visual concepts; the Jedi wear earth tones, while the Sith wear black. The battle droids look vaguely skeletal. But aside from that, there isn't a whole lot to delve into. While deep themes are not essential, least of all in an action story, when previous installments in a series made such effective use of them, it's disappointing to see a story that doesn't carry on that tradition.

That's something very important to remember; when writing a series, any mistakes you make don't just affect the reader's experience with that one book, but with the entire series.

Hopefully you can all take some good advice from these mistakes, and avoid them in your own work. Next up we'll be looking at Attack of the Clones, so things are just getting started.

Class dismissed.


  1. While reading this post, I had a realization:
    If the opening scene of the movie had been Qui-Gon trying to smuggle food to Naboo (against the Jedi Council's orders!), it would make the trade disputes more visceral. They could be captured early- exactly when they dock in the actual film- and the movie proceeds from there.

    The fact that members of the Republic are involved in trade disputes that turn into active warfare is an important part of the prequels. From the first moment of Menace, we are shown that the Republic is falling apart. It's as if Arizona had invaded Nevada over water rights. This dynamic needed to be brought forward a bit more.

    1. That definitely would have gone some of the way towards making the audience really engage with the characters and the plot. There's still a need for a personal connection, though.