I want to like the Star Wars prequels. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are great. John Williams continued to compose good scores. The cinematography and the location designs are beautiful. But two things continually trip me up: the dialogue and the performances of Anakin Skywalker, Jar-Jar Binks, and Padme Amidala. (Natalie Portman is hit-and-miss throughout the trilogy) Even the Machete Order doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t matter what order I watch the films in, the dialogue and bad performances don’t change. I’ve tried a few fan re-cuts, and those don’t work for me either because, while they may reduce some of the performance and dialogue issues, they introduce awkward cuts or pacing. Like it or not, as-is the movies are edited well.
I wouldn’t have spent so much time evaluating alternate versions of the film if I didn’t care. Again, I want to like these movies.
But recently, I took inspiration from foreign films and anime. What if I treated the Star Wars prequels like they are foreign films? What if I changed the audio track to another language, and turned on the English subtitles. Would that create enough distance between me and the dialogue to enjoy it? Would the voice dubbing provide different performances? A foreign language dub would also preserve the sound effects and the music. So I picked up The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, both of which have Spanish language tracks. I’m going to try each of the prequel films to see how they hold up. If they don’t, there’s still Rifftrax.
Here is part one: Spanish Phantom Menace.
I’ll touch on this in the story section, but this movie tries to do too much, and with that, gives us too many characters to keep track of and connect with. And I don’t think we really connect with any of them. This movie essentially introduces a new world. It is a new era of Star Wars, and it looks different from anything we have seen before. We need a character to ground us, and that would obviously be Obi-Wan. But, if I had to pick a character that seems to be the focus of this movie, it is Qui-Gon. We see his journey. But we don’t get much indication of who Qui-Gon is. We need more moments to get his backstory, to connect with him emotionally. None of the characters really have a moment where we get to see who they are or what motivates them until very late in the movie. The biggest character moments are when Anakin goes back to hug his mother, when Qui-Gon defies the Jedi Council to take on Anakin as an apprentice, and when Amidala kneels before Boss Nass. And all of these happen very late in the movie. There are hints of antagonism between Qui-Gon and the Council. Why? What did Qui-Gon do in the past? Sidious and Maul talk about a plan that has been long in the making. How long? What is the plan? And, for that matter, what, exactly, are the Sith? Why do the Sith and Jedi fight each other? None of this is established in this film. We don’t get clear motivations for any of the characters, good or bad.
Now, I had difficulty watching The Phantom Menace in the past because of performance and dialogue. The Spanish performances are better. Much better. Spanish Anakin provides a good amount of emotion that wasn’t present in Jake Lloyd’s performance. I thought I would miss Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor’s performances, but I quickly got over it. And Jar-Jar is tolerable. There’s something about not having to HEAR the bad dialogue. In fact, the subtitles attempted to recreate Jar-Jar’s dialogue as much as possible, which looks like gibberish when you have to read it. In fact, it was easy for me to just not read it. I could easily skip over or skim his dialogue. I could even pretend that Jar-Jar was attempting to speak English (Basic, if we want to use the in-universe term), but frequently slipped into his original language, a type of Gunglish, if you will. The Spanish actor does attempt a Jar-Jar imitation, but not hearing the English dialogue made me able to tolerate it better.
What amazed me about watching the dubbed version is that it actually engaged the analytical side of my mind. Previously, I was too distracted by the bad performances and dialogue to be able to think about the movie beyond my emotional reaction. With the Spanish actors providing good performances, I could engage with the story in a new way. And, honestly, the story doesn’t quite work. I think it was an ambitious one, but this movie tries to do way too much. I think George Lucas made a mistake by starting this new trilogy with a highly political story. There isn’t adequate context for what he is trying to do in this movie. Everything is new. Despite this being the fourth Star Wars movie, we really don’t have a context for the Jedi Order, the Republic, the Sith, the Trade Federation, and pretty much every other thing in this movie. The only familiar things are Yoda, Obi-Wan, the Droids, and Tatooine. And it would make perfect sense to make Obi-Wan the focus of this film since he has the most reason to be on an adventure, and we are already familiar with him. As stated before, the main character, the character that we connect with as Lucas builds his world, is not evident in this movie. And honestly, in world building, it is better to move from simplicity to complexity. The Star Wars prequels should have started simple and become more complex as they went along. Oddly, despite not liking the derivative nature of The Force Awakens, by rehashing many plot points from previous Star Wars films, the movie actually becomes simpler. We’ve seen this before, which grounds us in this new paradigm. Now that we know the characters, we are ready to move into new, more complex territory.
But The Phantom Menace tries to do too much, and in doing so, it confuses the viewer, creates emotional distance between viewers and characters, and muddles the stakes. Since we have no context, we have difficulty caring about the stakes. I think this is why people find this movie so boring. Political maneuvering can be entertaining. We have a movie about Facebook and litigation that is extremely engaging and tense, so don’t tell me we can’t have an exciting Star Wars movie that is both political thriller and sci-fi action. The movie is boring because the stakes aren’t clear. I think Lucas should have started this trilogy with a different story, one that introduced us to this Star Wars era and these characters first, a simpler story that held hints of the complexity to come.
In Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is the idea that victory comes from unlikely places. Power and might lead to overconfidence. This is why a group of seven (and then two) had to destroy the Ring rather than send an army. It was an unlikely plan, a foolish plan, but one that Sauron would not have expected. The same thing lurks deep underneath The Hobbit, the idea that a group of 14 destroying a dragon and restoring the dwarf kingdom of Erebor would be inconceivable to the Necromancer, that this action would smash his influence in the North.
The idea of the arrogance of power and victory through unlikely sources appears in multiple Star Wars movies. A single exhaust port can destroy a battle station. A group of teddy bears can take on a trained military. A young boy can destroy a droid control ship. A bumbling klutz can accidentally be a good fighter. Victory from the unlikely. It is obviously an idea that resonates with George Lucas. In following the Force Qui-Gon recognizes that we cannot see how actions will play out, how an unlikely hope can turn the tide of war and re-shape the universe. Put another way, the Force works in mysterious ways.
Not being distracted by the characters let me see how rushed this story was. Again, the movie tries to do too much. It still looks good, the effects are great, the music is good, and the final lightsaber battle is fun. George Lucas can still direct a great space battle. But the stakes are confused. It is hard to keep up with what is going on and why I should care. Better performances by the Spanish actors made it more evident that the characterization was unclear. Sadly, the very fact that I had to listen to the Spanish dub to enjoy this movie is a huge strike against it, though huge praise to the Spanish actors and actresses. There is a good story underneath this movie, but it just wasn’t told well. At one time we had the Legends novels and comics to fill in the context, but now those are gone and this movie currently has to stand on its own as an introduction to the prequel era.
Personal Enjoyment: 7
With The Phantom Menace, I felt like I came in to a movie that was already in progress. Even though Disney and Lucasfilm have currently shown no interest in fleshing out this era, I would love to see them do something to provide context for The Phantom Menace. Okay, ideally, I would love for them to do a complete prequel-era reboot. In fact, I’m writing a three-film outline that I will post here soon. I want to re-imagine the prequels and try to tell the story that George Lucas was trying to tell. I don’t want to give my ideal version of the prequels. I want to find a way to tell Lucas’s story in a way that would be engaging, clear, and not contradict the rest of the canon. (I love The Clone Wars animated series, so I want to preserve that as much as possible.) But as it stands, TPM tries to do too much. It doesn’t do good world building. It doesn’t give us characters we can connect with who have clear motivations. That said, I enjoyed watching The Phantom Menace for the first time. I have never enjoyed this movie, but the Spanish dub works for me, and I can actually see myself revisiting it in the future.
Final Rating: 6.4/10
I hope to update next Friday with Spanish Attack of the Clones, then the Friday after that finish up with Spanish Revenge of the Sith. I’ll round off my Spanish Prequels experiment with my pitch for a Star Wars Prequel revision.
In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your thoughts. I’d encourage you to try out a dubbed version of TPM. Let me know if you do. Also, there have been a lot of negative words written about TPM. So, let me know what, if anything, you like about the movie.
Thanks for reading.