Star Wars:The Phantom Menace (a 15-Minute Force production): Chapter Three: Chekhov’s Pod Racer (or, Mack Daddy Ani)

30:01 – 45:00

Qui-Gon and Jar Jar are beginning their trek to the spaceport across the all-too-familiar desert terrain of Tatooine when Captain Panaka comes after them with the handmaiden Padmé in tow (we’re still pretending that she’s not Queen Amidala). Panaka tells Qui-Gon that the queen commands that he take her handmaiden with him. Qui-Gon says that’s enough with the commands, and then the captain softens his approach and Padmé puts in her two-credits worth, and Qui-Gon, of course, relents, even though he’s sure it’s a bad idea. This is the same man who thought Jar Jar made a good traveling companion, I must point out. His decision-making abilities are suspect.

Incidentally, R2-D2 comes along as well. Why? Because astromech droids are awesome in the desert. And, because the plot demands it, that’s why. Qui-Gon Jinn didn’t question it, so why are you giving me a hard time about it?

The script tells me that this is Mos Espa, not that hive of scum and villainy Mos Eisley, but it apparently had the same city planner. The CGI effects are full bore in this establishing scene. The streets of Mos Espa are busy, there’s giant lizard-like creatures being used as beasts of burden. A sand speeder goes by. Impressive.

And then we’re at Watto’s Junk Shop.

Qui-Gon tells Watto he needs parts for a J-type 327 Nubian (that snazzy chrome Naboo cruiser, you’ll recall). He also adds that his droid has the schematics for what they need. See? I told you there was a good reason for R2-D2 to come along. And Qui-Gon needed Jar Jar for…well, reasons.

This is the scene where we meet Anakin Skywalker for the first time. This is Lil’ Anakin, of course. I think he’s supposed to be 9-years-old and Padmé is supposed to be 14. There’s a five-year age gap between the two. Natalie Portman was actually 16, I think, so the gap looks larger and you really can’t imagine these two as romantic partners. He’s a little boy and she’s a young woman.

Anakin is a little mack daddy, though. He asks Padmé if she’s an angel, which are supposed to be the most beautiful creatures in the universe. Pretty slick, Ani. She also finds out that he and his mother are Watto’s slaves. Anakin just works that into the conversation. I think the Force is telling him all the right emotional buttons to press. Sure, he’s a little boy now, but when he’s 19 and she’s 24 the age gap won’t seem like that big a thing.

He also tells her that he’s a pilot and has been all his life. And we hear about pod races, which is something that people, such as Anakin’s former master Gardulla the Hutt, bet on. This foreshadowing is as heavy-handed as the gun hanging above Chekhov’s mantel. (That’s the writer Chekhov, not the Russian guy from Star Trek: that would be blasphemous in a Star Wars project.)

Jar Jar distracts us momentarily with some of his comic-relief antics. Padmé thinks he’s funny. I still don’t.

Watto happens to have a T-14 hyperdrive generator and is ready to haggle with Qui-Gon. The Jedi has only Republic credits, which Watto says they don’t accept. He needs something more real. Qui-Gon waves his hand and says the Republic credits will do just fine. Guess what? The Jedi Mind Trick doesn’t work on Watto, or on any Toydarian, it seems. Qui-Gon’s Republic credits won’t buy him a thing. It must be like having confederate money after the Civil War.

Here’s where we should talk about Watto for a bit. I’m pretty sure that 1999 was the year that Americans started getting offended by everything. The character Watto, with his coarse voice, hooked nose and greedy ways, has been deemed offensive, notably by critics J. Hoberman and Bruce Gottlieb, because he resembles a stereotypical Jew. Patricia J. Williams added that Watto was an Arab stereotype as well, which would make the character both anti-Jew and anti-Arab, or just broadly Anti-Semitic.

If you are playing along on the home game, we’ve now had offensive black, Asian and Semitic stereotypes, if you accept the opinions of everyone else.

I’m neither Jewish nor Arab, so I was offended by Watto for entirely different reasons. While the special effects are once again amazing, they seem to be wasted on this pot-bellied little creature with tiny wings that impossibly manage to keep him aloft. It is a cartoon brought to 3D life, an unlikely fantasy creature with jacked-up teeth who is impervious to the Jedi Mind Trick. That the character seems to have no redeeming personality traits is secondary to his unlikely existence to me. Even though I metaphorically spit in his general direction, I still like Watto more than Jar Jar. ‘Nuff said.

So, Qui-Gon is rejected. Jedi ain’t got no money. He, Padmé, R2-D2 and Jar Jar leave Watto’s junk palace. Along the way, Jar Jar continues to try to amuse us (and fails) with his imbecilic antics. And he makes an enemy of a character named Sebulba, whom I think once appeared in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races. Maybe that was Muttley. Lil’ Anakin steps in and keeps Sebulba from killing Jar Jar, which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing in hindsight. It would have been like Rocky’s guy Mickey getting killed by Mr. T. It would have provided more character motivation for revenge. As an added bonus, Jar Jar would be dead. Just sayin’.

During Anakin’s exchange with Sebulba, we find out he’s also a pod racer. What are the odds that we will see him again later? Perhaps in a pod race?

A sandstorm is coming up and our would-be T-14 hyperdrive buyers won’t have time to make it to their ship on the outskirts, so Anakin invites them to come to his home. Here we first see Anakin’s mother, the Blessed Virgin (more on that in another chapter), for the first time, but before we are allowed to hear her speak, Anakin has already grabbed Padmé by the hand and is taking her to his room, on the pretense of seeing a droid that he is building. As I said, Lil’ Anakin has got moves.

Showing your droid to a handmaiden could be a euphemism on Tatooine.

But it isn’t. The droid he’s building is none other than C-3PO, who Ani activates to show off for Padmé. C-3PO is unfinished, with all of his wires and internal parts showing. A few things occurred to me while watching the scene again. First, I noticed that C-3PO keeps introducing himself as C-3PO, Human-Cyborg Relations. Wouldn’t this mean that he’s designed to assist humans in relating to cyborgs? My understanding of cyborgs is sketchy, mostly informed by The Six Million Dollar Man and DC Comics, but I thought that cyborgs were beings comprised of both organic and mechanical parts. General Grievous is apparently a future example in the Star Wars universe. Come to think of it, so is Anakin himself. Hmm…Was C-3PO being designed just to relate to Darth Vader in the future? You don’t see many other cyborgs running around, do you?

The second realization I had was that, until the introduction of Jar Jar, C-3PO was the Star Wars character who annoyed me the most. Jar Jar has made me appreciate the comparatively subtle comic relief provided by C-3PO.

The scene also serves further purpose in the Star Wars mythos. In addition to showing the budding relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala, a romance necessary for everything that comes afterwards, it also shows the beginning of another great Star Wars couple—R2-D2 and C-3PO. Others have suggested that the two droids represent a gay couple, which I think is offensive to both homosexuals and droids. Not me; I just think they represent the Star Wars Odd Couple. I’m not suggesting that R2-D2 is slovenly and crass, but C-3PO is undoubtedly Felix Unger.

Anakin also works the fact into the conversation that he’s building his own pod racer. The kid’s a mechanical genius. We get it. I don’t recall this ever being a notable part of his character later on, but we’ll see. He builds droids and pod racers. I vividly recall the scenes that are still coming up, and not that fondly. But even the first time I saw this, I knew we were going to see a pod race before it was all over. This is at least its third mention. Anakin and his mother became Watto’s slaves because of a pod race bet. Sebulba the Hanna-Barbera dog is a famous pod racer. Anakin is building his own pod racer. A-to-B-to-C.

At this point, it would have been hilarious if pod races were never mentioned or seen again. My cut of Phantom Menace would have been much shorter. No Gungans; no pod race.

Next, we see Obi-Wan, Captain Panaka, the faux-queen and her handmaidens viewing a hologram of Governor Bibble telling them that people are dying and they need to contact him. I was wondering why Bibble didn’t come along for the ride. This is why. Obi-Wan uses his communicator to talk to Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon is convinced that the Trade Federation is just trying to use Bibble as bait to get them to responds and establish a connection trace, which is the same thing Obi-Wan just said to the others. Great minds think alike.

Quick cut to Coruscant, where Darth Sidious is walking along an outside balcony railing with his apprentice, the visually-interesting Darth Maul. Meanwhile, the night sky of the city behind them is bustling with skycar activity. The scene reminds me of Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and probably a hundred science-fiction stories and movies, in the same way that Tatooine always reminds me of Frank Herbert. The main purpose of this scene is a visual one, I believe. The exchange between Sidious and Maul is forgettable and boils down to basically we’ll get that queen back to sign that important treaty.

Meanwhile, back on Tatooine, the first words out of Shmi’s mouth (this would be Shmi, Mother of Ani) are about all slaves having transmitters embedded somewhere on their body. These are used not just to locate slaves but to blow them up if they attempt to escape, because having bloody slave chunks is the next best thing to having an actual living, breathing slave.

Naturally enough, the conversation turns from the unremitting oppression of human slavery to pod racing. Anakin, the little braggart, says he’s the only human who can pilot a podracer. Qui-Gon says he must have reflexes like a Jedi if he can do that. Which prompts Anakin to ask Qui-Gon if he’s a Jedi Knight, because he saw his laser sword. Qui-Gon suggests that maybe he killed a Jedi and took his sword, which now strikes me as a rather creepy and menacing thing to say when you’re a guest in someone’s home. Anakin doesn’t believe him anyway, and apparently his mother never says anything unless its about transmitters or the Republic having no power in Tatooine. Anakin says he had a dream that he was a Jedi and he returned to Tatooine to free all the slaves. Is that why Qui-Gon is there? Nope, says Qui-Gon, I ain’t no Moses. Or something to that effect.

Then Qui-Gon, the ambassador sent by Chancellor Valorum on a secret mission, spills his guts to two slaves he just recently met. He says their ship is in need of repair. Anakin says he can help; he can fix anything. Qui-Gon says he’s sure he can, but they are in need of parts that they can’t afford to buy. The junk dealers must have a weakness of some kind, Padmé offers to the conversation.

Shmi says that the junk dealer’s weakness is underage nookie and tons of blow.

No, that’s not right. Their weakness is gambling. On what, pray tell? If only we might have heard about some popular form of racing that goes on around Mos Esta. Something that junk dealers and Hutts might like to gamble on, sometimes using human lives as currency.

As it turns out, Anakin has built the fastest pod ever and there is a big race tomorrow on Boonta Eve. That would make the day after tomorrow Boonta, I suppose. I wonder if the post office is closed on Boonta? I need stamps. Anakin says that Qui-Gon can convince Watto that the pod is his, since Ani has somehow managed to build a podracer without anyone noticing, and let Anakin pilot it for him in the race. Shmi objects feebly, but relents when Ani reminds her that she said the biggest problem in the universe is that no one helps one another. I mean, right? How could any mother stop her only child from entering a deadly race when she’s presented with such a cogent argument?

Rather than sacrifice a child for a spaceship part, I might have considered selling a couple of handmaidens who seem to be little more than set dressing. I mean, slavery is legal on Tatooine after all. Again, maybe that’s just Sith thinking. Then again, willingness to sacrifice a precocious child is pretty evil, too. Qui-Gon may be easily seduced by the Dark Side of the Force as well.

As this interminable stretch of fifteen minutes draws to a close, Padmé seems to be the only character offering any objections to allowing Anakin to enter this race. She says the queen would not approve. Qui-Gon, who may secretly be a Sith Lord after all, says that the queen doesn’t need to know. Then he proceeds to offer Watto the pink slip on the Naboo silvergirl ship as his entry fee into the race. Why not? It’s no use to them without the part they can’t afford anyway. And Watto doesn’t seem to care if the ship doesn’t belong to Qui-Gon Jinn. Neither does Qui-Gon.

Watto wants to know what the kid’s going to fly in the race, especially since Anakin wrecked his pod in the last one.

We’ll have to wait until next time to get the answer we already know to this question, because our time is up.

There was a lot of exposition in this fifteen. A lot. And some heavy-handed foreshadowing, most of it about podracing, with a gentle reminder that Darth Maul is out there as well. There’s going to be podracing and Darth Mauling in our future, I bet.

But, we bring Anakin (and C-3PO) into the story. We also see that even Darth Vader had a mother. Where’s his father? Oh, that’s a story for another day, and it’s a humdinger, believe me.

I’m still impressed with the CGI effects. They just aren’t enough to maintain my interest, as this section of the movie seemed to drag. There was no action at all, unless you count Jar Jar’s hi jinks (which I don’t). We can only hope that things pick up in the next fifteen.

Until then, May the 15-Minute Force Be With You.

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