A Response to Janet McNulty re: TPM

Some context, as in the original post, wherein the audience is asked to just get over how awful The Phantom Menace was in preparation for The Force Awakens.

I’m posting this response here because for whatever reason, I can’t post it as a response on the author’s blog, and it’s too long for an FB comment, so here goes. You are STRONGLY advised to read the original post for context.

Here goes:


I want to offer some responses, with the full disclosure that a) I’m not expecting to change your opinion on the film and b) I’m not really asking you to suddenly forgive all the people who didn’t give this movie a fair shake.

1) Jar-Jar: To a great extent, it’s a combination of factors that makes Jar-Jar so hated. First, he’s easily the most ridiculous character introduced in a Star Wars film to date; no character in the original trilogy was as prone to pratfalls, nor had as nonsensical a manner of speaking. Jar-Jar caught a lot of people off guard because they had no context for him from the original trilogy. Ultimately he made a very poor first impression and never recovered from it, if you were coming to TPM from having watched the original trilogy.

On the other side, if you’re watching the film without that prior context, Jar-Jar might still come across as infantile in his humour, but even then, he’s there for comedy relief in a film that was largely dealing with a fairly complicated plot. If you’re George Lucas and you want the film to excite a young audience, someone like Jar-Jar is almost necessary so the kids don’t have their eyes glaze over at all the politics. And that was the reaction for Lucas and his crew while making the film: Jar-Jar was testing well with kids (especially Lucas’ own kids) and no one found him too distracting from the rest of the flm. The problem ultimately comes from fans of the original trilogy getting whiplash from how unexpected Jar-Jar was.

2) Lack of emotional attachment: I feel like this is a more nebulous issue, but again it has to do with how expectations of people coming from the original films conflicted with what Lucas ended up putting on screen. In the original trilogy, our model for a Jedi is old Obi-wan Kenobi, replaced later by Yoda. A lot of the dogma around the Jedi Order, and how they straight-up abstain from emotion to avoid the Dark Side, was never expressed by those two characters: Obi-wan, as played by Alec Guinness, was warm and amiable when it served him and manipulative when it served him, and Yoda was an old trickster first, and a wise warrior second. Qui-gon Jinn, and later the rest of the Jedi Order, came across as cold and unfeeling, and especially as the trilogy continued, there was a lot of work done to tarnish the idea of the Jedi that had been set-up in the original trilogy so effectively.

I say all of this to indicate that I don’t think the negativity is necessarily about the audience not feeling attached to Qui-gon, or the audience being upset that Qui-gon doesn’t seem to have an emotional interest in Anakin, but more that with Qui-gon being presented as the iconic Jedi Master of this film, he leaves people feeling cold, which is not at all the sense we got from old Obi-wan or Yoda in the original trilogy. Additionally, the midichlorians concept came completely out of left field, and similar to Jar-Jar, it felt like it upended a lot of preconceived notions about the Jedi that had never really been challenged prior to that point.

So it’s not really about Qui-gon, but about the portrayal of the Jedi as a whole, and Qui-gon gets most of the bad rap for that because he’s the iconic Jedi who is on the screen for most of the film.

3) Anakin: I think when it comes down to it, no one bought Jake Lloyd’s character. He’s eight years old, he’s a mechanical genius, speaks multiple languages fluently, is the only human who can pilot a podracer, came about through immaculate conception, charms a queen who’s twice his age, and all of the scenes demonstrating his anger issues were edited out of the film. Anakin came across as unfailingly perfect, and that was just too saccharine for anyone to take seriously.

When Luke pilots an X-wing against the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, we feel like we’ve been on a journey where he’s built up to that moment pretty well. By contrast, Anakin gives a poor first impression and, by the time he stumbles into a setpiece space dogfight at the climax of the film, he doesn’t feel like he’s earned that moment. Making him older would have helped with some of that sweetness, but a lot of what Anakin did was act as an avatar for the setpieces in the film that gave Lucas the opportunity to showcase his special effects innovations. Anakin ultimately didn’t feel like a person.

4) Plot holes: I’ll try to take these one at a time.

  • a) Midichlorians: As I said earlier, I don’t think the issue is as much that people didn’t understand the concept of midichlorians, but instead that it didn’t fit with how the Jedi had been characterized at any point in the entirety of the Star Wars universe up to TPM. To an extent, it’s the way that it dispels part of the magic of the Force that’s more aggravating than the concept of space bacteria.
  • b) Palpatine as a manipulator: You’re right that Palpatine manipulating people really shouldn’t be that unbelievable. I wonder if people were upset about it because it again deflates the effectiveness of the Jedi when they couldn’t sense the great disturbance in the Force that Palpatine himself would be at the center of.
  • c) Anakin’s mechanical hobby: This feels like another expression of how much of a Mary Sue character Anakin comes across as, in addition to shoe-horning C-3PO into the film. Put another way, I don’t think the complaint is as much that Anakin, being a slave, wouldn’t have had time for his hobbies, but instead that no one bought the idea that 3PO started as a garage-built protocol droid that we saw identical mass-production models of multiple times in the original trilogy AND earlier in TPM. Part of 3PO’s entire character was predicated on him being an assembly-line constructed interpreter, but it seems dissonant that Anakin would be able to construct a perfect replica of that from junk on a backwater planet.
  • d) Lack of continuity: This seems like an odd complaint. There would have been no dramatic reason to reveal Vader being from Tatooine in Episode 4. It’s not something that fit into Luke’s arc, and Luke was really the star of that show.

5) Darth Maul: There’s two responses when it comes to Maul. First is that he encapsulates a ton of surprises about the Dark Side of the Force (“an evil ALIEN dark Jedi?”) but he’s also incredibly cool, because martial arts and double-bladed lightsaber. I imagine a lot of the people who are upset with the lack of Maul’s character are coming from the position of “we wanted more Maul in the movie and it sucked that he ended up dying to Obi-wan.” Which helps to explain why Maul ends up coming back in the Clone Wars TV series.

The other response is more behind-the-scenes. Ray Park was hired because his skill with wushu allowed for a very cinematic and crowd-pleasing performance, and because adding this dimension to the lightsaber duels would dramatically up the ante from where they’d been in the original trilogy. The difficulty was that Park’s accent made him difficult to take seriously (and from seeing his speaking roles in later works, he’s really not a particularly good actor when it comes to drama) so it was much more effective to make him this nearly-mute antagonist who was just something of an evil force of nature. Again, because Maul popped off the screen so wonderfully, people were disappointed to see him come to an end so readily, especially when it was a bit of a big deal when Vader was able to just fly away from the destruction of the Death Star in Episode 4. Maul appeared poised to be the new Vader for the prequel trilogy and that just didn’t happen.

6) Too much CGI: To an extent, yes, there are people who just get taken out of their immersion when the film just looks completely unreal. And you’re right that getting bent out of shape because a director went for digital effects over practical ones in the modern era is basically shouting at the waves at this point.

That being said, Lucas was always a special effects innovator first and foremost. The special effects in the original trilogy were part of what really rocketed that part of the film industry to the forefront in the late 70s/80s, and Lucas and ILM were always a huge part of that. The part where I feel like the “too much CGI” argument holds some water is that there are certainly moments in the prequel trilogy where it doesn’t feel like we’re looking at something that’s real anymore: everything from the actors to the sets to the props is digital, AND LOOKS LIKE IT, so the artificiality of everything becomes too much to bear. And if we’re not hooked into the film because of an emotional bond to the characters (and we’re not, because so few of the characters in this film give us anything to connect to) then it feels like we got all hyped up for an ILM tech demo, and not the rolicking space epic we were expecting.

7) Lucas did it his way: I’ve never heard of the notion that Lucas didn’t like giving up creative control for Eps 5/6. My understanding (and sadly I don’t have a direct source to link on this) was that both writing and directing Episode 4 was too exhausting and he simply didn’t believe he could pull off doing it on another film at the time. Overall, though, you’re right that Lucas basically had no one telling him “no” while he was making the prequels, and the results are what they are.

Closing Remarks

All that being said, the purpose of film critique (or any kind of critique, really) is generally centered on whether a film contributes something beneficial and/or new to the world. The fact that an entire generation had been groomed on the original trilogy meant that there was no way that the films could have lived up the expectations of the audience, but I think there were a lot of critiques that came from a honest craft standpoint, asserting that there were functional problems with how the films were structured, cast, and written. Lucas is in his element when it comes to shot composition and special effects, and he knows who to trust when it comes to music, sound design, costuming, make-up, and editing, but the performances and the script are where the soul of the film comes from, and those ended up coming across so poorly that the films felt soulless.

It’s from that soullnessness that a lot of the amateur critique and fan outrage comes from, and that tends to drown out all of the other more reasonable critiques of the films. People are trying to find anything they can to express why these films left them feeling so empty, and they’ll latch onto continuity problems or Jar-Jar’s awkwardness or an immersion-breaking amount of CGI as vehicles for doing that.

I guess the best way to wrap this all up is to say this: you’re not wrong for liking TPM or the prequels as a while. If they worked for you and fed your creativity, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

By the same token, I don’t think people are wrong for disliking the films either. There’s a lot of reasons to be disappointed with them, and while some of those reasons are ill-informed, some aren’t. Ultimately, if the film fails to entertain when you watch it, that first impression is never going to leave you, even if you come to appreciate elements of the film later. There’s value in coming out of a film feeling like you could have done better; maybe that feeds your creativity to write an original work, or it feeds your desire to write your opinions for the benefit of others (because as the film critic industry demonstrates, people listen to critics, for better or worse).

That said, there’s value in coming out of a film and feeling like you went on a fun ride.

Thank you very much for writing this critique, and I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response, which I hope did not come across as condescending or ignorant of your sensibilities as a creator or consumer of content. I look forward to the Force Awakens and will be interested in your thoughts on Abrams’ interpretation of the story. Take care. ^_^


How Much Dungeon Is Too Much? Too Little?

The core issue I have with this response is that from a design perspective, it appears to ignore the principal reasons why the “superdungeon” design used frequently in Classic WoW was replaced by the “instance hub” design used in Burning Crusade and afterward.

  1. Players got lost in superdungeons like Blackrock Depths. It wasn’t laid out in an intuitive way.
  2. Spending 3-5 hours clearing 5-player content wasn’t conducive to a playstyle where a normal dungeon was something you could do casually over a lunch break.
  3. The art assets and encounter design manhours invested in creating 5-player content were similar to the resources invested in a 10/25-player raid, and yet raids were intended to offer greater staying power as content.

Hence, the instance hub design in BC addressed all of these problems at once.

  1. Dungeons were inherently more linear, and the frequency of divergent paths or optional bosses was far lower.
  2. Constraining boss counts to less than 3-4 made lunchbreak runs more feasible for a somewhat coordinated team.
  3. Reusing art assets allowed encounter design to be the chief delineating factor between the dungeons rather than visual style, which put more pressure on the encounters team to churn out unique fights but freed the art teams who generally seem to have a longer turnaround on generating deliverables.

Because we’re talking about a paradigm shift that has largely been maintained in expansions since BC, I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably the paradigm that Team 2 intends to stick with for the rest of WoW. To be fair, though, asset reuse has been set aside in lieu of making fewer dungeons that are nonetheless unique in their visual style AND encounter mechanics. The fact that this has resulted in fewer dungeons proves the point of the instance hub concept, which is that art resources are expensive.

I think the concern about the world feeling stitched together is completely valid, but I’m willing to accept that feeling principally because it means the developers have to strike a compromise somewhere between an immersive and believable game world and a world where players don’t have to spend a lot of time traveling before they get to gameplay.

Put another way, the sense of being in an immense and immersive world isn’t the core objective of the game; instead, the core objective is combat on a diverse set of stages, and in providing a mostly seamless transition between those stages, the game world must shave some corners. I still think Blizzard does a great job with the scope and fidelity of their zone/instance design, but I know not everyone agrees with how much they choose to invest (or not invest) on that particular aspect of the overall design.