Lately, I've been working on a fun little mental exercise: "re-writing" the Star Wars prequel movies to "fix" those aspect of them that I find troublesome. This has got me thinking about some of the criticisms leveled at the movies . Some of them were rightly earned. Some of them were simply fanboy whining. And on the flip side, a lot of people stood up to defend aspects of the movies, with arguments of varying validity. One of the more intriguing (and almost defendable) arguments I've seen is the one regarding the extended pod-racing sequence in Episode I. As I recall, this takes up close to 15 minutes of screen time. A lot of people (including fans) thought this was excessive. To this gripe, someone responded that the chariot race scene in Ben Hur was just as long/even longer and nobody complained about that. Some people even went on to say that the Pod Race scene was, in fact, a homage to Ben Hur.
In my initial 'really wanting to love the prequels' emotional state, I totally bought into this argument. I mean, the parallels are there, right? And most folks agree that Ben Hur is a classic. Thus, the pod-racing sequence is equally valid. Yeah. That's the ticket. Unfortunately, it wasn't too long before my 'beginning to see the cracks in the facade' emotional state kicked in. As I've stated before. I don't think, even on my worst day, that any of the prequel movies are BAD, just that they could have been more than they were. And so it is that the Ben Hur argument began to crumble for me. Why? Well, I'll explain below—but please note that I am by no means a film expert, I just happen to have seen the films in question on many occasions.
In Ben Hur, the entire story had built up to the climax of the Chariot Race. Here, the hero (Ben Hur) finally faces off against his former friend and rival (Messala). But instead of a sword or fist fight, the two of them are battling in a dangerous chariot race. Previously, Messala (a Roman officer) had essentially framed Hur for a crime, sentencing him to slavery and imprisoning his family. Hur survived his ordeal, only to find that his mother and sister had (apparently) died in the Roman dungeons. Thus, going into the chariot race, there are years of pent up hate on both sides of the equation—making it not only visually exciting, but emotionally charged. In the race, Messala is mortally injured in an accident that is largely of his own making—setting the stage for a final meeting between the two former friends on the Romans' death bed. So, to recap, here we have essentially the culmination of the entire film, a unique way for a "final battle" to be fought between the protagonist and antagonist. It brings a close to that chapter of the hero's life.
In Episode I, the pod race takes place at about the midpoint of the story (or perhaps a little after). In this case, the rivals in the racer are Anakin and Sebulba. Evidently, the two of them have clashed before in previous races. Sebulba is shown to be a mean-spirited guy and demonstrates even before the race that he's willing to cheat and/or kill to get ahead. The whole reason for the race is so the heroes of the movie can get the parts they need to continue their journey. Without them, they could be stuck. The race plays out in suitably exciting fashion, with Anakin having to overcome not only the natural hazards of the race, but sabotage and bad sportsmanship from Sebulba. In the end, Anakin wins, Sebulba crashes (but lives) and the heroes can continue on their journey. As you can see, there is some dramatic tension in this race, but not NEARLY on the level there was in Ben Hur. Anakin and Sebulba are rivals, sure, but not lifelong, mortal enemies. And even if Anakin were to lose, I'd hate to think that the Jedi couldn't figure out some way to continue. Simply put, there just isn't as much going on emotionally in the pod racing scene as there was in the chariot racing scene.
Yes, the pod race does seem to be a homage to Ben Hur. There are too many similarities for it not to be. But I don't think it has the emotional weight behind it to account for such a large chunk of screen time—especially when you factor in the general lack of character development moments in the rest of the movie. To me, the rest of the movie seems almost rushed to get from set-piece to set piece, leaving little time for small moments or banter. And yet in the middle of this, Lucas indulges in a huge, lengthy scene that does relatively little to advance the emotional aspects of the plot. In all honesty, that's what I think the pod race was. An indulgence. George Lucas is a fan of racing and fast cars. It is no secret. And here was a chance to not only indulge that, but to 'show off' special effects wise.
So in closing, I'd like to say that I enjoyed the race, even as long as it was. But if I were the director or editor, I would have tried to cut it down in length to allow more time for other aspects of the movie. Exciting it is, yes, but Ben Hur it aint.