Star Wars Day: What J.J. Abrams can learn from 'The Phantom Menace'

Many 'Star Wars' fans are doing their best to forget the prequel trilogy and look forward to the upcoming 'Star Wars' film 'The Force Awakens.'

The 'Star Wars' films star Natalie Portman.

As Star Wars Day is celebrated today, fans are tweeting out quotes from the films, posting lines and photos from the movies on Facebook, and generally honoring the universe seen in the phenomenally successful “Star Wars” films.

Or most of the films, anyway. A few “Star Wars” films that mostly aren't being celebrated today – especially as fans look forward to a promising new “Star Wars” movie being released this December – are the movies known as the prequel trilogy, which were released between 1999 and 2005 and which told the story of how Jedi Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd and, later, Hayden Christensen) became the infamous villain, Darth Vader. 

The movies were certainly a success at the box office. The first film, “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” is the fifth-highest-grossing movie domestically of all time, according to the website Box Office Mojo, while the third, “Revenge of the Sith,” is the 22nd-highest-grossing. (“Attack of the Clones” trails at forty-third, but that’s still not too shabby.) It was with critics and with fans that the movies didn’t hit. Story and effects choices were criticized by many.

So I will begin with disclaimers. The prequel trilogy is, of course, not as good as the original “Star Wars” series. Hopefully they won’t be as good as the upcoming movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” by J.J. Abrams, either. 

However, I think the first film in the prequel trilogy, “The Phantom Menace,” is the best of the group (again, not an especially good movie – just the best of the group), and I think it even has some (not all cautionary) lessons for those making “Force.”

“But Jar Jar Binks!” you’re saying. “Midi-chlorians! Darth Vader saying 'yippee!'”

I know. Sit down. I’ll explain.

I’ll begin with Liam Neeson. Mr. Neeson, who portrays Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn, is reliably great in movies and, while he has some clunkers of lines like everyone else in the film, he still imbues the movie with gravitas. Similarly, Ewan McGregor would turn out later to be the saving grace of the later prequel movies – if they indeed have one – and while he’s a little stiff this early, especially as he’s not given much to do in this movie besides disagree with his teacher, his Obi-Wan is serviceable.

So this may seem counterintuitive, but another thing “Phantom” did right: killing off Qui-Gon Jinn. While it makes sense in hindsight, as we've heard no mention of anybody named Qui-Gon being Anakin's teacher, it’s surprising the first time through. Take a page from “Game of Thrones,” J.J. Abrams. Make no one safe and thus deliver real surprises. 

Another lesson those working on the new “Star Wars” movie can take from “Phantom”? Keep your villains mysterious. Darth Vader’s redemptive arc in the original films was all we needed to know about the villain. No moviegoer cares that, as described in “Revenge of the Sith,” Anakin became evil because he had a possibly-prophetic dream and he just liked evil things and the Jedi didn’t appreciate him and five other reasons I’m probably forgetting. Stop the over-explaining. Darth Maul showed up, spoke about five words, and fought the Jedi. Why was he evil? What did he really think of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan? We don’t need to know. Some villains can be left an enigma.

Interestingly, I think “Phantom” also made the most effort of any of the prequel movies to create a new “Star Wars” universe we knew nothing about. Obi-Wan, the character we knew from the original series, is a bit player in this movie. Darth Vader is a young child. C-3PO and R2-D2 come back, but they’re also off to the side. We mostly focus on newbies Qui-Gon and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Yes, the plot line involving the blockade is boring as all get-out. But the story begins on a new planet, with characters we mostly haven’t met before, and that’s admirable.

Yes, “Phantom” may be a good re-watch for the current “Star Wars” crew for lessons on what not to do. But while it will never be an admired entry in the “Star Wars” canon, some parts of “Phantom” can also inspire those behind the new “Star Wars” movie to make their film great.

(No, I  didn’t like it when Darth Vader said “Yippee!” either.)

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