Elevator Pitch: Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace
Which of these characters I’d cut will probably surprise you

As September rapidly draws to a close, you have might have been worrying that this month’s installment in The Pop Culture Studio’s Star Wars-themed series of articles wasn’t going to materialise.

Well, fret no more, as a new post focussed exclusively on everyone’s favourite galaxy far, far away has now arrived, in the form of an Elevator Pitch.

Those of who have misgivings after the last self-indulgent, meandering, just plain no good Elevator Pitch (you know – the one about the Daredevil TV show), I promise I’ve learned my lesson, and my pitch for a reworked version of Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace should make for a much better read!

BACKGROUND

Before we get started, let me just say that I’m a fan of George Lucas. Seriously, I am.

Whatever questionable changes he’s retroactively made to the original Star Wars trilogy, and whatever issues I have with his creative choices in the more recent prequel trilogy, the guy still knows a LOT about storytelling and moviemaking, and to suggest otherwise is, frankly, ludicrous.

In addition to his work on Star Wars (and Indiana Jones!), Lucas also co-wrote and directed one of the all-time great coming of age films, American Grafitti, and his more adult sci-fi effort, THX-1138, is now rightly regarded as a classic.

So yeah, I’m never going to say I know more than George Lucas about how to make a good movie. That said, I don’t think I’m alone when I argue that Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace wasn’t really what many fans wanted it to be, so I thought I’d have a crack at reworking the story, to see if I could come up a something I think might have been more satisfying.

For this Elevator Pitch, I’m assuming that I’ve somehow managed to travel back in time to 1997, and that I’ve cornered Lucas at Skywalker Ranch to propose my take on how Phantom Menace should be done…

(I guessing that if you’ve read this far, you’ve already seen Phantom Menace, but just in case you haven’t and plan on watching it later, consider this a spoiler warning)

THE ELEVATOR PITCH

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace should take us back to the last days of the Galactic Republic’s Golden Age, right before the outbreak of civil war. It should be a fun adventure in the spirit of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope.

“That said, it should also contain hints of tragedy and impending doom thanks to Anakin Skywalker’s entrance into the Jedi Order and the return of the evil Sith, both of which the audience already knows spell disaster for the future.”

THE FULL PROPOSAL
Plot

OK, so the Bearded One cries out “Eureka! This boy gets it!”, invites me onboard as his co-writer, and we get stuck into reviewing his latest draft of the screenplay, as well as his basic outline for the next two films to follow (important to have handy, when you’re trying to lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy).

The opening crawl
Taxation? Trade routes? Alright, who’s been screwing with this thing?!

First things first, I’d move the events of the story forward, to somewhere between what we see in the actual Phantom Menace and the events of Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Star Wars (and all storytelling, for that matter) works best when the narrative commences in medias res, and a lot of what happens in the existing screenplay is redundant in the context of the wider trilogy.

As part of this, I’d ditch the trade blockade angle Lucas uses to create the central conflict in Phantom Menace. I get that this makes sense from an allegorical point of view (showing how large scale war is often the result of seemingly mundane political manoeuvring), but centring the big first big showdown between good and evil in the saga around a taxation squabble is boring for adults and baffling to children.

It also sets the stage for a weak overriding threat throughout the prequel trilogy, with the Trade Federation of this film followed by the thinly developed Separatist movement of Attack of the Clones and Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which pales in comparison to the Empire of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Better to just make the enemy in this film the Separatists, and have one consistent and better fleshed out threat for the entire trilogy. In my mind, the movement would be in its infancy in Phantom Menace and not yet ready to publicly split from the Republic, but even so, this pushes the narrative much closer to what will come later on, and adds to the sense that the Republic is hanging by a thread.

Qui_Gon
Cutting you from the movie hurts me more than it hurts you, Liam Neeson

Next, I’d scrap the Qui-Gon Jinn character from the story entirely. Look, no one loves Liam Neeson more than me, but it’s an inconvenient truth that Qui-Gon spends the whole of Phantom Menace doing and saying almost all of things that Obi-Wan Kenobi should be doing or saying.

Not only should Obi-Wan be playing a more central part in proceedings, his character needs to be more fully established from the get-go. There’s a general sense in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith that Kenobi can be a tad reckless on occasion, and this is something I’d build on further.

I used to think that Anakin Skywalker should be the Han Solo-type character of the prequel trilogy, but I’ve since come around to the idea that it should actually be Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan Kenobi
So dashing, he can rock a mullet like it ain’t no thang

Anakin is really there to be a mirror for Luke, to show what happens when an essentially decent human being makes all the wrong choices; by comparison, Obi-Wan works as the throwback to Han – he should be brave, heroic, witty and dashing, but also someone arrogant enough to think that he can do a better job than Yoda of training a damaged goods prospect like Anakin.

Speaking of Anakin, I’d bump up his age to around 12 – 13 years old, which still allows for the compelling element of seeing Darth Vader when he was child, but helps him to more convincingly fill out the role of a young pilot too. Despite some second thoughts, I’ve also decided to keep his dear old Ma on the scene, simply because she helps set up Anakin’s fatal flaw: his inability to let go of those he loves.

Mace Windu
You keep saying “Bring balance to the Force” like I know what you’re talking about…

She’s also needed to establish the whole “virgin birth” element of Anakin’s backstory (which I can’t see Lucas jettisoning, no matter how much his desperate co-writer begs). On the subject of the more mystical element of things, the fact that the prophecy is never really explained in Phantom Menace is a big issue I’d set out to resolve.

I’m not saying we need to know who made the prophecy, or even what the exact wording is, but it’d be good to know what it means. We’re told The Force needs to be brought back into balance, but neither this movie nor its sequels ever really explain what this entails.

From what I gather, Lucas uses the word “balance” as a substitute for “harmony”, so it’d be good to make it clear up front that the Force is currently out of whack, and that destroying the dastardly Dark Side users is how Anakin will ultimately restore balance to the Force and fulfill his destiny as the Chosen One.

Darth Sidious
Seriously, dude: you’re fooling no one with that disguise

Just while we’re talking about the nastier side of the Force, I’d have the Sith characters shed a little more light on the history and practices of their secretive order too (by way of conversation between each other, and perhaps even good old fashioned monologuing at the good guys!), as much of this isn’t covered in the films themselves, and the key aspect – the Rule of Two – is told to us by Yoda, who really shouldn’t know anything about it!

And I’d also like to add that I’d make it explicit in the screenplay that Darth Sidious, the eponymous spectral threat of the movie, keeps his ENTIRE FACE shrouded in shadow, just so that, you know, his secret identity isn’t revealed two films too early to EVERYONE.

Oh, and one last big amendment? Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans need to be given a pretty major overhaul. I know what you’re thinking: “Dear God, why would you even consider keeping Jar Jar or the Gungans?!” But as with the whole “virgin birth” thing, I just can’t see Lucas agreeing to excise everyone’s least favourite digital sidekick or his fellow frog-people from the story.

So I’d do what I could to make them less slapstick (not to mention fighting long and hard against that irritating, some would argue racially insensitive, dialogue pattern) and more noble. The way I see it, the Gungan race should be depicted as warlike and xenophobic, with Jar Jar representing a more peace-loving outcast, banished for his fascination with human kind rather than for clumsiness.

Those are all the major changes I’d make, but other than that, my version of Phantom Menace would actually follow the general shape of the real-life film’s plot, just tweaked to include the above.

Queen Amidala
Queen Amidala would do pretty much exactly the same things in this version of the movie

As such, things would kick off with Obi-Wan facing an assassination attempt on his life, after arriving on a battleship to negotiate peace between the Queen Amidala, monarch of the planet Naboo, and a militant Separatist faction trying to force her to join their planned rebellion against the Republic.

Sneaking down to the planet’s surface, he encounters Jar Jar, and together they make their way to the royal palace (stopping off at the underwater Gungan kingdom along the way, to establish the tense relationship between the Gungans and the humans, and Jar Jar’s outsider status).

Once at the palace, Obi-Wan rescues the Queen from the Separatist forces which have since invaded the planet. After leaving a decoy to cover her tracks, the Queen and Kenobi, along with an entourage including Jar Jar and the Queen’s handmaidens, flee the planet on a stolen starship.

R2_D2
The real hero of the series (you know it!)

The entourage barely manages to break through the battleship blockade, and their ship is badly damaged despite the efforts of repair droid R2-D2. Unable to make it to the Republic capital, Coruscant, the entourage lands on nearby desert planet Tatooine, chosen by Obi-Wan because, well…it’s a bit rubbish and out of the way, really.

Meanwhile, the Separatist leaders find themselves on the receiving end of a less than friendly intergalactic Facetime call from Sith Lord Darth Sidious and his apprentice Darth Maul, who are really running the show. The Sith Lord is less than thrilled that the Queen has scampered and the treaty remains unsigned, and he dispatches Darth Maul to retrieve her (and presumably kill everyone else to boot).

Back on Tatooine, the Queen’s ship is still in a right state, and Obi-Wan decides to head into town incognito (which means “wearing a poncho”) to buy the appropriate parts. Fascinated by the chance to see more new, non-Gungan lifeforms, Jar Jar tags along, and despite Kenobi’s protests, so too does the Queen’s handmaiden, Padmé.

Watto
I have no regrets about keeping Watto in the story. None.

Upon entering a nearby settlement, they manage to track down the parts they need, but their Republic cash is useless in the Outer Rim, and Obi-Wan’s Jedi powers won’t work on the alien trader, Watto. Just as all seems lost, they make the acquaintance of the trader’s human slave, Anakin, who whisks them away to the hovel he shares with his mother and their homemade droid C-3P0 (I kept this part too, deal with it), where he outlines a plan to help them make the money they need.

Anakin explains that the local pod racing championship is approaching, the prize money for which would cover the cost of the parts they need. He proposes to enter the race as an unnamed pilot, using a pod he has built in secret, and once he has won, he will donate his money to Obi-Wan (Kenobi cannot enter the tournament for him, as he is too large to fit in the small cockpit of Anakin’s pod racer).

At this point, Obi-Wan asks what Anakin wants in return, and the boy refuses any payment. Realising that what both mother and child desire most is their freedom, and sensing incredible Force potential in Anakin, Obi-Wan recklessly promises to use part of their winnings to free the Skywalkers as well.

Out on the desert plains, a lot of doings are also transpiring. The Queen continually receives messages from her subjects, pleading for her to contact them, and eventually she succumbs to the temptation. This is all Darth Maul needs to trace the party to Tatooine, and he arrives under cover of nightfall to begin probing the planet for his quarry.

The day of the race arrives, and despite some stiff competition from his rivals, Anakin wins the race. Everyone is thrilled (including Padmé, who wasn’t a fan of the plan, but has grown fond of the boy), and after the handmaiden and Gungan return to the ship with the parts they need, Obi-Wan returns to Watto to free the Skywalkers. But there’s a hitch: he only has enough money for one, and aware of Anakin’s youth and his immense untapped abilities, he chooses the younger Skywalker.

Darth Maul
Can you say, “Recurring antagonist?”

This leads to a tearful separation between mother and child, ending when Anakin’s mother encourages him to leave her and not look back, which he does, but not before promising to someday free her too.

These heartbreaking goings on are so forgotten, however, as en route to the Queen’s ship, the Jedi and his new ward are attacked by Darth Maul. After fierce duel, Obi-Wan is able hold off the Sith apprentice long enough for himself and Anakin to board the ship, and the group jubilantly head for Coruscant, although Obi-Wan is clearly troubled by his encounter with an evil practitioner of the Jedi arts.

Arriving on Coruscant, make like a banana and split – the Queen and the main entourage go to visit her representative in the Senate, Chancellor Palpatine, whereas Obi-Wan takes Anakin before Yoda and the Jedi Council for assessment.

In the Senate, the senators aligned with the Separatist cause manage to use their bureaucratic guile to stifle any immediate aid for the people of Naboo and cover up the role of the Separatist movement in the hostilities. As a result, the Queen calls for a vote of no confidence in the present leadership, which allows Palpatine to become elected Chancellor. Even with her guy in power, the wheels of political progress still end up moving too slowly for the Queen, and she decides to head back to Naboo to liberate her people any way she can.

Senator Palpatine
Now where have I seen that chin on this page before?

Across town in the Jedi Temple, the Council is impressed with Anakin’s latent power, although Yoda senses grave danger will follow if the boy is trained as a Jedi. There is debate as to whether or not Obi-Wan should be allowed to take Anakin as his pupil, especially after the entire Jedi Council flip their collective wig when it’s suggested that Anakin is the Chosen One of prophecy.

The discussion is eventually postponed, in light of the news that the Queen will be returning to Naboo, which is likely to draw out her attacker, whom Obi-Wan earlier identified to the Council as a member of the supposedly extinct Sith Order. Kenobi is ordered to escort the Queen to Naboo in order to confront the Sith Lord again, and ascertain his origins. On the sly, he takes Anakin with him, so that he can begin subtly teaching him the ways of the Jedi.

Upon making their way through the Separatist blockade surrounding Naboo once more, the Queen and her party seek out their only chance for re-taking the palace (and the planet): the Gungans. Having been driven from their underwater kingdom by the Separatists, the Gungans have taken refuge deep in the swamps.

There, the Queen pleas unsuccessfully for the aid of the Gungan army, until Padmé steps forward and reveals herself as the true monarch, who has been in hiding behind yet another decoy.

Gungan Grand Army
These guys could have kicked ass, given the chance

By pointing out the mutual threat faced by both the people of Naboo and their Gungan neighbours (not to mention showing respect for the Gungan Elders by being the first human ruler in the planet’s history to bow before them), Padmé is able to win the aid of the Gungans and their Grand Army, and a plan is soon hatched.

Setting things in motion, Padmé, Jar Jar and the Gungan Army will assemble on the plains outside the palace, to draw the attention of the Separatist forces. Then, Obi-Wan and Anakin will infiltrate the now lightly guarded palace, free what pilots they can, and then escort them safely to the palace hanger. Once there, the pilots will fly their fighters against the blockade and take out the main control ship, deactivating the mechanised Separatist army by cutting off their signal.

Things mostly go according to plan, although Anakin (along with R2-D2) ends up flying the fighter that destroys the control ship, and Obi-Wan ends up throwing down with Darth Maul once again in a lengthy swordfight which ends once Padmé and her forces arrive and the Sith apprentice beats feet accordingly (but not before Kenobi determines that the Sith have indeed returned, a report which will later cause further wig-flippage among the Jedi Council).

Which brings us at last to the epilogue. First of all, Anakin’s heroic actions elevate him to the attention of Palpatine, who promises to keep tabs on the boy in the future. Secondly, Yoda arrives and advises a still-defiant Obi-Wan that the council is divided on whether the boy should be trained, and the final vote rests with Yoda, who reluctantly gives his permission (but not his blessing). Lastly, the Separatist movement seems to have suffered a fatal blow, and peace has been restored to Naboo and the galaxy overall. Roll credits!

So that’d be my plot revised plot for Phantom Menace. Sure, you could bring events forward even more, and it’s tempting to start off with Obi-Wan and Anakin already in a master-student relationship, but I think you need to establish the world of the Republic as it was just before the fall in order for its collapse to mean something, just as you need to actually see the moment that Kenobi single-mindedly demands to mentor Anakin to understand just how things really went wrong.

Themes and tone

As with the plot, the themes in my take on Phantom Menace aren’t a million miles away from those of the actual film. I don’t want to drag this post out too much longer than I already have, so I’ll briefly run through them.

Obviously, duality is a major thematic concern in this version of the story, both in the Queen/ Padmé character, but also in Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (although this wouldn’t be clear up front) and all the way through to the Republic/Separatist conflicts and Jedi/Sith dichotomy.

Out of this grows the next major theme, symbiosis. This is apparent in the relationship between the humans and the Gungans on Naboo, as well as through to elements like the master and apprentice relationships of the Jedi and Sith alike.

Lastly, and most importantly, balance is probably the key issue at the heart of this version of Phantom Menace. Not only is Anakin allegedly to bring balance to the Force, but a lot of the actions of the characters in the film relate specifically to attempts harmonise or destabilise the universe, be it the humans and the Gungans uniting for their mutual benefit or the Sith and Separatists trying to sow dissension throughout the galaxy.

Moving on from themes, tone-wise, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’d be shooting for the Saturday matinee-style fun adventure feel of A New Hope, but undercut with a surprisingly dark vibe, due to the audience’s pre-existing knowledge of what the future holds for these characters and their world.

For instance, we might want to cheer the news that Obi-Wan has triumphed in his quest to mentor Anakin, only to realise that this is young Skywalker’s first step on the road towards becoming Darth Vader. Astute viewers might also take note of Palpatine’s role in events, which all worked out quite swimmingly for him, and suspect that something fishy is going on…

Sequel

Before I wrap up, I thought I’d close with some stray thoughts on how things would unfold following this film.

Unsurprisingly, in my Attack of the Clones, we find out that the Separatist movement wasn’t destroyed in the events of 10 years prior, and roughly half the planets (or systems, whatever) in the senate will announce their intention to secede from the Republic. The Jedi will admit that they can’t possibly contain the impending conflict, which will lead to the creation of the Republic’s clone army (ie the future Stormtroopers).

We get to see Obi-Wan start to mature and become a more stable role model, even as Anakin grows more impetuous. After all, we often pass on to our children (biological or otherwise) the very traits we despise in ourselves…

On the plus side, we also get to see the three-way duel from Phantom Menace in this film (with Anakin taking Qui-Gon’s place), and this would be the first time that Darth Maul (who returns as villain, in place of Count Dooku) would unveil his double-bladed lightsaber.

And finally, I’d set Jango Fett up as a recurring secondary antagonist for both this film AND Revenge of the Sith (culling General Grievous), and tidy up/completely remove the convoluted mysteries of just who Sifo-Dyas was, and what the deal is with Force Ghosts, which are both plot threads that completely misfired in the actual prequel trilogy.

Conclusion

There you have it, that’s how I’d have made Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Your turn now! What did you think of my changes? What would you do differently? What would you keep the same? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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Elevator Pitch: Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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