Jar Jar Binks …. pod racing … there are a lot of reasons to not watch this movie, but is there anything it can teach us about storytelling?
1. Every character needs a role
People hate Jar Jar Binks. That’s common knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the plot of The Phantom Menace would have developed in exactly the same way had Jar Jar Binks not existed at all, which is pretty damn infuriating since the majority of Star Wars fans wish that was the case!
Perhaps he would have been better received had he actually contributed to the story in some way. Even just a little bit. Even in just the slightest way, like a butterfly flapping its wings. But he doesn’t. He briefly attempts to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan navigate the planet core on Naboo, which was a completely unnecessary sequence of events anyway; and fearfully and clumsily participates in creating a diversion, which also could have been written out of the story effortlessly. If Jar Jar had a more significant role in the movie, it might have been a lot less unpleasant to watch.
2. Character roles are better shown, not just told
The “show, don’t tell” rule applies not just to things on a writing level, but things on a storytelling level as well. If you can show, not just tell, the audience what each character’s place in the story is, they’ll have a much easier time sinking into your story.
The Phantom Menace does this well … to begin with.
When Nute Gunray is informed that the Supreme Chancellor’s ambassadors are Jedi Knights, his friends freak the hell out. First is the line “We dare not go against the Jedi”, which tells us that the Jedi have a fearful reputation. Nute’s response is to attempt to gas the Jedi, then send droids in to finish the job of killing them. Clearly, he’s not as afraid as his comrades, which gives the movie an opportunity to show us, the audience, why one would “dare not go against the Jedi”. In the following scenes, Qui-Gon and his apprentice (i.e. not a even fully qualified Jedi Knight) effortlessly take out a handful of droids with their Jedi abilities. It’s not mind-blowing, but it reinforces the line “We dare not go against the Jedi”. This sequence continues to drive this point home, with lines like “[Sealing off the bridge] won’t be enough!” and “We will not survive this”, reinforced by Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan continuing to rip through the droid reinforcements before changing their plans and hitching a ride to Naboo. Further, the actions of Nute and his colleagues, along with the brief introduction of Sidious, shows us that the Trade Federation are only part of the Bad Guy collective, and are part of a greater antagonistic force. Because these roles are reinforced by the actions of the characters, rather than just being stated by the characters, it’s much easier to get behind their story (for now).
3. Good stories are more than a series of connected events
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan took out the Trade Federation’s droids like it was easier than swatting flies (which it probably was). Your move, bad guys.
In storytelling, conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces. One force is presented as the “good guys” and the other is presented as the “bad guys”. A good story gives the audience a reason to root for the good guys; therefore, their struggle with the bad guys creates tension. Tension keeps the audience engaged in the story, as they want to see the good guys succeed in what has been a difficult struggle. For the tension to remain at a level that keeps the audience engaged, the story must develop over the course of the events. Stakes get raised. Obstacles get more difficult to overcome. Etc. Etc.
The Phantom Menace is a great example of a plot with very little story. The entire movie is made up of a series of connected events: the conflict between the Trade Federation and Naboo is established -> Jedi are sent to resolve the conflict -> interference of Jedi prompts Sidious to call for the Trade Federation to invade Naboo to force the Queen to sign a treaty -> the Jedi free her, and she needs to report the invasion to the Supreme Chancellor. Since the Trade Federation have knocked out Naboo’s comms, they need to travel to Coruscant -> their ship is damaged as they flee (the shield generator should be protected by the shield, no?) so they land on Tatooine for repairs -> Darth Sidious sends Darth Maul to capture the Queen -> Qui-Gon enters Anakin in a pod race to win the funds that will pay for the ship repairs -> fifteen minutes of pod racing, including a completely unnecessary introduction to every racer -> they arrive at Coruscant. No one pushes Jar-Jar Binks off the landing platform. The senate won’t act without evidence, so the Queen returns to Naboo. The Jedi accompany her, hoping to cross paths with Darth Maul again -> the Queen captures Nute, Obi-Wan kills Darth Maul, and the day is saved.
So, how exactly does the story develop as the events unfold? There’s hardly any struggle between the opposing forces throughout the middle, as it’s almost entirely focused on the characters getting off Tatooine, which should have been a minor obstacle (or, you know, not an obstacle at all since shield generators should be protected by shields). With so much nothing happening, the good guys lose the edge they established in the opening scenes. After Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan serve it to the Trade Federation in the beginning, it’s up to the Trade Federation to up the ante, to come back with a vengeance, but they do nothing throughout the middle. And the best Darth Sidious has is to send Darth Maul to have a very, very brief fight with Qui-Gon. The bad guys didn’t have an edge to begin with, and didn’t develop one when it was their turn, so what conflict am I watching here? Where’s the struggle between two opposing forces? It’s off-screen on Naboo!
To make matters worse, they arrive at Coruscant only to turn around and return to Naboo because they couldn’t get what they wanted, which makes the first hour and a half of the movie feel completely pointless, and everything that occurred only did so because they couldn’t make a phone call. When they finally do rescue Naboo from Trade Federation control, I’m left wondering why I should even care, as the movie didn’t spend the middle cultivating my interest in the conflict.
So while the backbone of a story should be made of a series of connected events, it still needs vital organs to give it life. Stakes, tension, conflict, character development … these things should all be fleshed out throughout the middle of the story if the middle is to be interesting and the ending satisfying.
So now that we know why The Phantom Menace generally sucks, we can avoid making the same mistakes.
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