Why a Few Awesome Scenes Are Not Enough in Sci-fi Flicks


Because the Internet is filled with wonders, the other day I found this: an 11,000-word scholarly exegesis of the “Duel of the Fates” scene from The Phantom Menace — i.e., the scene where Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi have their totally kick-ass lightsaber duel. For those of you who choose not to follow that link, the very short form of the piece is that, according to the author, from a formal and cinematic point of view the scene is “one of the most impressive action sequences of recent memory, the best of all the pure lightsaber duels in the Star Wars films and as strong a contender as anything else for the greatest movie sword-fight of all time.”

I have two things to say to this:

1. Wow, dude, way to entirely overthink a scene where quirkily dressed men with bad haircuts go after each other with glowing swords, but then that’s why we have the Internet.

2. Whether one buys the full exegesis, the conclusion is largely correct: “Duel of the Fates” is easily the best and most exciting scene in its movie — so good, in fact, that it seems lifted from an entirely different film, rather than the joyless, sodden expositional mess known as The Phantom Menace.

And this is what interests me: that lodged within a bad film — and The Phantom Menace is a bad film — is this really great scene. Not only a scene that is exciting and fun but is also formally well composed and in its way proof that the filmmaker actually has cinematic chops. He knows his medium and its potential and uses that knowledge to knock one out of the park for the audience. Which, of course, makes all the rest of the film even more frustrating in retrospect. If George Lucas (or any filmmaker) can do that for one scene, why can’t he do it for the rest of the film?
Lucas is far from the only science-fiction filmmaker guilty of
“bad film, great scene” filmmaking. In recent memory, the Wachowski
brothers have done it in both of their Matrix sequels: the freeway
chase in The Matrix Reloaded, which is one of the best chase scenes in science-fiction film, and the invasion of Zion in The Matrix Revolutions, which takes the cinematic language of anime and fuses it to live action in a way that’s very close to brilliant.

Another example: the opening sequence of Vanilla Sky,
in which the sight of Tom Cruise’s character in a empty Times Square so
smartly sets the scene for his problem that the rest
of the film seems almost entirely unnecessary. Even the lowly Resident Evil
has a grossly over-performing scene: the laser-filled hallway and its
imaginative slice-and-dice qualities. There are other examples — we could be here all day — but the point I think is amply made.

It’s
not just science-fiction filmmakers who are guilty of the “one great
scene” thing — look at horror films sometime — but it does crop up in
this genre more than most others. Why is that? One reason has to
do with the nature of science-fiction filmmaking itself. Science
fiction is in general a more spectacularly visual genre than others; right from the beginning, it’s primarily used special and
cinematic effects rather than story and character to wow its audience.
If you don’t think science-fiction filmmakers know this and capitalize
on it, consider the fact that in each of the scenes I mention above
the actors are silent or very nearly so. By
stripping away the things these films and filmmakers generally do
poorly or at least less well — character, plot, and dialogue — they
can focus on what they are excellent at and dazzle us thereby.

But another reason is that science-fiction audiences let filmmakers get away with it. The people I know who came out of The Phantom Menace
tended to say that the film had only two scenes worth watching — the aforementioned and the pod race (another low-dialogue visual
scene) — but that those scenes were really cool. As bad as Phantom was,
these two scenes were sufficient in some ways to excuse the rest of the
film. Lucas would use this “Well, the movie was bad, but that scene was
cool” rationalization that science-fiction audiences employ in the other two
films of the prequel trilogy as well, banking on Yoda’s spinning-lightsaber acrobatics in Attack of the Clones and Obi-Wan and Anakin’s climactic duel in Revenge of the Sith to give folks their required jolt. It’s a crutch, in other words. But inasmuch as audiences give science-fiction filmmakers that crutch to
use, I don’t know how much you can blame the filmmakers when they use
it.

Be that as it may, watching the “Duel of the Fates” scene
again reminded me both of how much I enjoyed that scene and how much I
wished the film lived up to it. Awesome scenes are awesome, but
I go to the movies to see movies, not just scenes.

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