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That One Scene…

You know the one I’m talking about. It’s the one scene in a bad movie that really got you, that managed to suggest that maybe there was a bit more to the film than met the eye. If it came towards the start of the film, it probably built up expectations that the finished product couldn’t meet. If it appeared in the middle, it made sure that you didn’t quite nod off towards the end. If it closed out the movie, you probably left feeling more satisfied with the movie-going experience than you really should. Often, however, these sequences are just frustrating because they just end up teasing what could have been.

Mauled by critics...

There are a lot of these that come to mind. I remember watching Green Hornet and loving that scene with Kato and the Green Hornet on patrol, listening to Gangster’s Paradise, only to panic when they accidentally drove into “the hood.” There was so much perfect class commentary in that scene, perfectly capturing the mood that the rest of the film seemed to struggle to convey. Watching The Chronicles of Riddick, I thought of how entertaining the concept of the escape from Cremetoria was, as compared with the rest of the mess of the film.

I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace during the week. I don’t hate the movie with the same passion that most fans do, but I concede it’s a very flawed film, and the weakest in the cycle. However, towards the end, it occurred to me just how impressive the climactic lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and the two Jedi was. It’s energetic, sprawling, exciting, energetic – all adjective that should, by right, extend to the rest of the film. I think there’s a case to be made for that fight as the most elegantly choreographed confrontation in the entire series.

Light entertainment...

That short sequence, part of a four-thread climax, was bristling with the short of energy that the series needs. It was one of those rare moments in the prequel series where the audience can suspend their disbelief and not get too caught up on the somewhat bothersome logistics of it all. However, the presence of that sequence just illustrates what was wrong with the rest of the film – including the three other threads in the climax of the film. John Williams’ powerhouse Duel of the Fates, probably his second best Star Wars theme (behind The Imperial March), matched the pace perfectly, but the other three sequences were hideously out of sync.

Williams’ music had to ebb and flow to match the four different emotional points in each of those sequences, as Lucas seemed unable to pace them together properly. Padmé had reclaimed the palace (her high point) while Jar-Jar had surrendered (his low point) and Anakin was on the Trade Federation ship (his climax). Those threads should develop in harmony, sharing the lows to enhance the audience’s reaction, so that the collective high point is more powerful for that. Only the lightsaber battle seems perfectly paced and edited, even though it is out of sync with the rest as well. It seems perfectly in-step with Williams’ overture.

Sparks fly...

As Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Maul brawl their way through the Imperial Palace, we get a firmer grasp on their characters than pages of exposition have afforded us. Divided by a force field, Qui-Gon meditates in a moment of tranquility; Maul paces like a caged animal; Obi-Wan watches helplessly. It underscored the problem with the rest of Lucas’ script, succinctly capturing the archetypes in one brief sequence as the rest of the film struggled to find a comfortable role for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.

Indeed, Maul himself almost stands as one of the few redeeming aspects of the entire film. In fact, the character seems to be at the front-and-centre of Fox’s advertising campaign for the film. Played by stunt artist Ray Park and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz (aka Pete from Shaun of the Dead), the character is remarkable for his relative lack of screen time and dialogue. He mostly appears menacing, and spouts ominous evil-sounding dialogue like “at last we will have revenge.”And yet, despite being little more than a footnote in the saga, he has managed to gain quite a following.

Getting the Sith end of the saber...

Of course, Maul can’t single-handedly redeem the mess of a movie, but he’s a fascinating creation, because he provides one of the prequel trilogy’s truly memorable bad guys, and the only character who manages to appear nearly as ominous as Darth Vader must have looked back in A New Hope all those years ago. He looks alien, and sinister, and completely outside the bounds of civilised society. His silence, a rarity in Lucas’ later scripts, marks him out as something akin to a force of nature. In fact, the character was reportedly based on nightmare imagery, perhaps explaining his stark appearance.

It’s reasons like this that Maul works so much better than any of the characters around him. He isn’t lumbered with pointless exposition or dialogue. He is a pure archetype, a creature of nightmares and a force of evil. Though Lucas would develop Darth Vader, he wasn’t much more than that in his first appearance, and that’s why he was so effective. The only other remotely interesting character in the film, Qui-Gon, struggles because he lacks that elegant simplicity. Rather than being as simple an archetype as Luke (the hero), Han (the rebel), Obi-Wan (the mentor) or Leia (the princess), Qui-Gon is cast as the hero rebel mentor – a hodge-podge cocktail that Liam Neeson does a heck of a job wrestling into a manageable performance.

Blades of glory...

These elements are as frustrating here are they are in other films. I find it curious how one good scene can so effortless make me sympathetic towards an otherwise weak or disappointing film, while I can’t recall too many great films ruined by a single bad scene. (Of course, the ending is arguably the exception to that – I think M. Night Shyamalan has demonstrated how a weak ending can ruin an otherwise entertaining film.) After all, I’m more likely to remember Maul than I am a villain in a film that is (on average at least) better, or to recall that epic lightsaber fight in a disappointing film than a serviceable finalé to a perfectly acceptable movie.

On the other hand, perhaps it doesn’t bode well for the film. I think it’s easier to forgive a bad film if there isn’t the faint scent of potential around it. After all, there’s no reason the other characters couldn’t have been almost as fascinating as Darth Maul. He isn’t exactly multi-dimensional or exceptionally complex. If that lightsaber brawl made my pulse pound, it’s even less explicable that the space battles could leave me so cold.

Soon Qui-Gon will be gone...

So, enough from me, what are your great scenes and moments from otherwise disappointing and depressing movies?

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