It is the common refrain of the sole defender of the Star Wars prequels. “The movies may have sucked, but that Darth Maul fight was awesome.” It’s easy to see why. The scene was visual, fresh, kinetic, and unprecedented. Star Wars lightsaber duels to that point had been relatively straight forward sword fights. Adding Darth Maul, played by actor and martial artist Ray Park, helped show audiences something new for these iconic scenes. Unfortunately, many fail to realize that this fight is also an example of the prequels at their worst.
The Star Wars prequels are such divisive films that there isn’t any clear consensus on what is their chief flaw. Any film professor could point to one element of the movie and write a paper on why it doesn’t work. The acting was wooden and lifeless. The story took what should have been a tragic character and instead made him a angst-ridden and surly teen – that is when the story wasn’t focused on tax policies and trade disputes. Jar Jar Binks and other vaguely racist alien species. THE DIALOGUE. The list is endless.
The one thing most seem to agree on is that George Lucas focused on style over substance. Much like Steven Spielberg’s troubles on the set of Jaws, George Lucas faced innumerable challenges on the set of Star Wars. But like Jaws, these challenges proved to be blessings in disguise and Star Wars was a better film because of these struggles. But by 1999, Lucas had begun his descent into madness with a focus on special effects and world building over actual storytelling. Two years prior, the original films had been rereleased in theaters for the “Special Editions” release. Lucas already had been adding in unneccessary CGI elements to change scenes fundamentally (Han shot first) or to add depth (the arrival at Mos Eisley).
What Lucas failed to realize was how much the films worked despite the technical limitations. Star Wars is the cultural event of the 20th Century, and it became so almost instantaneously. While nerd culture has gone mainstream in the past decade, Star Wars still grew a fanbase overnight in the 70s. The films worked as they were. If anything, these changes have only hurt their status among fans and critics in the decades since.
But George Lucas’ problem for the prequels was so much more than that. Lucas’ vision was always bigger than what he put on screen, and seeing him make creative decisions on The Phantom Menace is grating. Watching Lucas say that “Jar Jar is the key to all of this” is just wrong. But you can’t fault too many people for not speaking up. This is George Lucas. The man who made Star Wars. Who’s to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about? The crew working on Episode I didn’t have the authority or balls that Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford did – to outright tell Lucas that his dialogue is crap.
Which brings me back to Darth Maul. As I said, The Phantom Menace is a bad movie for a variety of reasons, and there clearly the film was pandering to a younger audience. Jar Jar is a misguided attempt to make a lovable CGI character to sell toys to kids as well as provide comedic relief. (Or if you believe,Jar Jar is the evil Sith Overlord.) So when Darth Maul comes on screen, it feels as if the film is finally sobering up. Maul is intimidating. He doesn’t speak much, which tells us that he’s got not time for bullshit – the polar opposite of Jar Jar. And he clearly is skilled with his dual lightsaber. Not only that, but as the internet is quick to point out, he is the only movie character to succeed in killing Liam Neeson.
The fight itself is entertaining enough – at first. I’ll be the first to admit that as a kid I looked forward to that scene mostly because of Darth Maul. He is the strong silent type, and he has an appeal. He’s an scary looking guy, and from a visual standpoint I see the appeal.
But it’s all wrong.
The chief problem with this fight is that the entire scene is so choreographed that it feels like a dance and not like a fight. This is a problem that only got worse as the films went on. Ray Park is an accomplished martial artist, so it made sense to play to his strengths. Hell, samurai films were a major inspiration for the original Star Wars and the Jedi are clearly samurai analogs for the movies.
Yet, while it is an impressive technical display, it has no depth. Qui-Gon has no real personality other than being a wet blanket. His Jedi sensibilities of stoicism and quiet nobility come off more as passive aggressive and lucky. Most would argue this makes him unlikeable, so his death doesn’t inspire an overwhelming sympathy. But Qui-Gon’s personality really only is a product of the fact that he has scenes in the film at all whereas Darth Maul doesn’t.
Darth Maul is in the film for just 12 minutes. And he isn’t even the main villain. He is just a skilled henchman (debateable) for Darth Sidious. The movie shows his reveal, him spouting off revenge against the Jedi (for what?), him tracking down the Jedi and Queen once, and his final ill-fated confrontation with the Jedi. He may be a legendary Sith, but his record in the films is as deceptively impressive as Boba Fett’s.
Maul does succeed in killing Qui-Gon, and in this moment we should see an emotional turning point for Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan should be so overcome at the death of his mentor that he lashes out. Throughout the film we see him as learning, not yet in control of his emotions. He does let out a “Khaaaan” yell to indicate his frustration, but as soon as he is reintroduced to the fight it continues with the same sterile choreographed fighting that rang so hollow minutes before.
Emotion is a critical element of every lightsaber duel. If characters are ready to kill one another, there needs to be an emotional throughline. Vader vs. Obi Wan wasn’t impressively choreographed, but it’s the dialogue in that scene illustrates this is their final confrontation. In Empire, we see not only the big reveal, but how Luke is woefully unprepared and getting knocked around by someone far superior. In Jedi, we see Luke nearly lose his cool and give in to his emotions, which is exactly what the Emperor wanted. In Phantom Menace, after Qui-Gon dies, it feels like nothing has changed. None of this is helped by the fact that the scene is viritually free of dialogue.
In Phantom Menace it looks cool just because. Darth Maul is a disposable henchman and his scenes carry little weight. If he killed the Jedi, what would change? The outcome of the droid army confrontation isn’t tied in any way to the results of the duel. Maul hates them simply because they are Jedi – though he has no emotion either, so hate might be a strong word. It all feels bland, and the CGI backdrops add to an uncomfortable sterility. Audiences need an emotional tie, and there just isn’t any. It’s all flash, and no substance.
So no, the Darth Maul fight is in no way a redeeming factor of The Phantom Menace. It may be an impressive technical feat, but so are the CGI battles that we all complain about as being the worst parts of the films.