STAR WARS: EPISODE 1- THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
(Written and Directed by George Lucas)
(Starring Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor)
Plot: Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is a child slave who gets drawn into an invasion plot. This is not an accurate summary of the story, but it’s the closest I could do without writing an entire f@cking paragraph.
“Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace” probably commanded more hype than any movie ever made, forcing us fanboys to count the seconds even though the release date would be years away. George Lucas built up to the prequel trilogy by delivering the (now infamous) Special Edition versions of his original films and I was so thrilled to see Star Wars on the big screen that I overlooked how much he had ruined his own classics. When I finally purchased my ticket to go see “The Phantom Menace” in theaters, I remember…I remember…nothing, really. I know I didn’t love the movie, but I don’t really remember any feelings of hatred. It probably didn’t help that the universe forced this entry down my throat at such a tender age, as it was always being shown at my friends birthday parties, bus trips, flights and everywhere. I can only presume that I disliked “The Phantom Menace“, but wasn’t quite willing to admit it. How could anything related to Star Wars suck? I was in denial and for many years afterwards, I’d even half heartedly defend the flick, believing that the majority of its flaws were also present in the original trilogy. My logic was that nostalgia was the true phantom menace, blinding us from seeing any of these films objectively. I’ve always agreed that Episode 1 was inferior, but so are most science fiction flicks that aren’t “The Empire Strikes Back“. But I sit before you a broken fan, for I was…wrong…so…so…wrong. If “Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace” isn’t as bad as everyone says it is, that’s only because it is worse. Far…far…worse…
Ugh, this is going to be a difficult subject to critique. I remember hearing that as of 1999, “The Phantom Menace” had a record of the most special effects ever used in a film. Nearly every scene has at least one, although I doubt the numbers compare to the notes I took for this review. I’m not even sure where to start, although maybe I can begin with my theory that this suffered from a troubled production. I haven’t looked up any history, but even if everything went smoothly behind-the-scenes, “The Phantom Menace” feels like it was made in a hurry. I kept wondering if this was one of those scripts that demanded constant re-writes, as certain characters seem to have character arcs that are…off-screen…Other characters are built up, but only play minor roles. We have an awesome cast on display here: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed and Samuel L. Jackson. Yet all of them seem confused or bored, barely reacting to the excess occurring all around them. I kept thinking that they almost looked like they were in rehearsal, mumbling their lines with no energy or passion, because these were just the warm up takes that would obviously not be used in the film…right? RIGHT?! Everyone gives Jake Lloyd (Anakin) shit and he is admittedly pretty terrible, but amusingly he also seems to be the only one having fun. The rest of the cast look miserable, although Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine) and Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) probably do the ‘best’. I suspect that Lucas just wasn’t providing them with the right amount of direction. If you’ve seen “The Last Airbender” or “Percy Jackson and the Olympians“, you might recognize similar ‘acting styles’- where the cast have no clue what they’re supposed to be doing or seeing. It’s what happens when directors focus more on designing scenes around post production effects instead of the characters. I’m also presuming that the cast seems so lost because nobody was really used to acting amidst CGI quite yet and Lucas was experimenting with a new technology. But for whatever reason, if the characters always seem like they’re about to fall asleep, why shouldn’t I? At least the dialogue continues to be memorable, even if it’s because it’s so laughably terrible. The lines in this movie are so wizard.
The previous Star Wars flicks all had simple stories, but they told them effectively. The Star Wars prequels all have convoluted stories and told them poorly. I’m still not entirely sure how all of these various plots connected with each-other, although admittedly I was so bored that I probably wasn’t paying enough attention to the various political squabbles…because that is what Star Wars needed, f@cking politics. But how was I bored? Weren’t there a lot of action sequences? Well, let us discuss the narrative. The first 30 minutes are almost completely dedicated to action, so much that we don’t even learn Qui-Gon Jinn’s (Liam Neeson) name until around the 30 minute mark, even though he is supposed to be the main character…I think…The audience is never given a breather, nor do we really learn anything about anyone other than the fact that the Jedi’s are Jedi’s and the bad guys are bad guys and Jar Jar Binks is f@cking annoying. Every scene goes so quickly that I could never fully process the visuals, although that might be for the better. Even the score can’t seem to keep up, as I don’t remember the music standing out very much until later on in the film. By the time the first act ended, I was exhausted and most of the action wasn’t even necessary. So much time was wasted…and we haven’t even gotten to the biggest waste of time!
Once they arrive in Tattooine, the pacing stops dead in its tracks and I mean dead. The sudden shift between too fast and too slow was so abrupt that I seriously started to drift off during this period. This is where the pod racing comes into play, which exists to…sell video games. You can argue that it’s setting up Anakin’s pod racing abilities, which are so important that I can’t remember him ever using them again om any of the movies. Sure, he makes a comparison when piloting later on, but he had already said he was a pilot. This entire segment could’ve easily been written out, but by now George Lucas was a merchandise peddler more than he was a filmmaker, so we get the fillery pod race. Even as a kid, I didn’t like this because it just wasn’t Star Warsy enough. As a whole, I don’t think “The Phantom Menace” really resembles a Star Wars flick. The tone, visual style and story presentation are too different and would likely fit more comfortably within an original science fiction feature. This segment goes on way too long and I swear they were looping the same damn shots during the pod race, adding to the monotony. Thankfully, it finally ends and we can return to the primary storyline- of debating Galactic politics…riveting. George Lucas attempts to keep us entertained throughout this looooong….taaaaalky…and BOOOOORING segment by cramming in as many special effects as possible. The Senate hearing, for example, has characters standing on flying platforms which are constantly moving around for some reason, but I thought they were more distracting than entertaining. And yet do you know what is most bizarre about these past two segments? “The Phantom Menace” almost seems to know how tedious it has been, for immediately after the pod race they cut to a snoozing Jabba the Hut and once the Political Hearing segment is over, Jar Jar Binks cries out in joy…weird…The finale is broken up into four different stories- as if this plot wasn’t shattered in pieces already- and none of them are really engaging. Yeah, the ‘Jedi Vs Sith’ duel is pretty cool thanks to the novelty of the double bladed light saber and John Williams’s awesome music, but the strikes seem oddly gentle. It’s choreographed to resemble a well rehearsed acrobatic show, complete with lots of superfluous flipping, even though I think that the fight was intended to be an intense duel. But when there’s no emotional content and the fighters aren’t acting like they really want to hurt each-other, how am I supposed to take it seriously? You have the Jedi battle, the space battle, the Naboo battle and the infiltration battle, but some are intended to be dramatic and others comedic, so it’s hard to feel anything. Oh, *insert spoiler here* dies? Maybe I’d be sad if not only 2 minutes ago I was enduring the wacky antics of Jar Jar Binks.
Who was the main character anyway? I guess Qui-Gon Jinn is the closest to fitting the definition, even though he’s also filling the mentor role. But he doesn’t have any kind of character arc. The sad thing is…his characterization had room for actual development, as he is not the most benevolent of Jedi. I’d be interested in seeing him question his ways, but apparently Lucas didn’t share my sentiment. Some fans don’t like Jinn for his dishonest tactics and aloofness, but at least he has a personality. What can you say about Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor)? He’s young and…a Jedi. That is the extent of his character and this is why I think the script underwent many rewrites, because you see hints of a personality and potential character arc, but they’ve been edited out in order to make room for the stupid shit. He also vanishes throughout large chunks of the film, so he can’t be the main character. Anakin (Jake Lloyd) isn’t the protagonist yet because he functions as both a distraction to the plot and as an observer, even if he gets shoehorned into the action later on. Some have argued that Padme (Natalie Portman) is the true protagonist, but is she? I can certainly see a story being built around her, but most of her decisions are revealed off-screen and even then, she’s a puppet. She gets manipulated by everyone and while you can argue that she develops by taking the initiative for the finale, it wasn’t earned. At no point does she seem to realize how much she’s being controlled and was only going on the offensive because she had no other options. The villains are mostly interchangeable, although the (soon to be) Emperor is still cool. Darth Maul (Ray Park) looks awesome, but he’s just a living prop. In past Star Wars films, everyone had distinct personalities, engaged in fun repertoire and changed as people throughout the course of the film AND trilogy as a whole. But Lucas isn’t interested in characters anymore, he’s become interested in special effects, which will ideally lead to toys. Speaking of which…
Star Wars has always been such a big deal because of the iconic, eye popping designs of the special effects. Every race, vehicle, weapon, costume and location stood out. Surely, even with all the story, narrative, character and acting flaws, “The Phantom Menace” would at least satisfy in that department…right? RIGHT? Sort of? There are some cool designs with the ships, planets and droids, although the costumes are pretty bland when compared to what the original trilogy offered. But the editing is so tight that you never really get a good look at any of the highlights. I am glad that Lucas used actual sets, models and even miniatures, but they never mesh well with the CGI additions. If anything, the mating only drew more attention to the phoniness of…everything. The CGI has aged poorly, as CGI usually does and the alien races in particular look terrible. Their portrayals are also very, VERY racially insensitive, with Jar Jar Binks being the worst thing ever in the history of things. Strangely, even when old fashioned puppetry and animatronics are used, they STILL DIDN’T GET THEM RIGHT! The dubbing isn’t even coming close to synching with their mouths. It’s really embarrassing! “The Phantom Menace” just kept taking me out of the illusion and I was never wowed by any of the visuals. There are certainly some good moments, a nice shot here and there and a special effect that does not look bad. But this was supposed to be the one area that made “The Phantom Menace” tolerable! Instead, it was just another nail. To be fair, the CGI was cutting edge stuff during the time of its release. But as of 2015, “Return of the Jedi” has more enduring effects, despite being made about 16 years prior!
“Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace” is a trainwreck. Most of the audience would probably be young adults and yet the style of comedy was designed for kids. But it’s lazy comedy, like characters saying things in a funny way, making goofy faces or farting. Most of the humor will induce eye rolling (did that droid say “Oh No!“?), although some of it is offensive (Jar Jar Binks). I never laughed and it stripped the narrative of any tension. The script is bad and the tampering probably only made it worse, but everything else is pretty terrible too- particularly Lucas’s direction. You know the storytelling is bad when you abruptly cut to two characters running from a villain they don’t know is chasing them yet. Apparently a deleted scene explained this, but they obviously had to cut that out so Jar Jar Binks can act like a Jar Jar Binks some more…Ugh…”The Phantom Menace” is a bad movie, but it’s an atrocious Star Wars movie. The aesthetics, tone, everything…It just doesn’t work and I now am sad. I have become that bitter, resentful fanboy whom I used to make fun of! I’d probably be more indifferent to this flick if it didn’t share the Star Wars name, but the flaws would still stand. They’re just more aggravating when found within the Star Wars franchise.
But believe it or not, I can almost forgive George Lucas for this ‘falling off a cliff’ misstep. Lucas was obviously enamored with an untested technology and he was trying to break through boundaries of visual effects and explore new territory. He genuinely believed cinema would go digital and this would become more apparent in the sequels. Lucas also seems to have been aware- to an extent- how much he screwed up in certain areas, although he is prone to backpedaling. I can’t totally blame him for being defensive as his fanbase can be very unreasonable at times, although his skin should be thicker by now. It’s also tragic knowing how much Lucas of the 1970’s probably would not have cared much for Lucas of the 1990’s, as the old George was a rebel who hated the studio system. By the time of production on the prequel trilogy, he had become his own studio system, surrounded by ‘yes men’ who should’ve challenged him more. But while I might despise “The Phantom Menace“, I still believe the ‘Special Edition’ tampering of the original trilogy has done more damage to his legacy. We can choose to watch or avoid the prequels, but Lucas has tried to replace his beloved classics with CGI infested recuts. I’d be much more tolerant if the classic trilogy was more readily available in its original form, but if Lucas had his way, the ‘Special Edition’ would be the only edition. This is what I struggle with forgiving, as it is a blatant attack on my childhood. “The Phantom Menace” might be garbage, but it’s just a bad movie. “Jaws: The Revenge” is also a bad movie, but does it make you perceive the original “Jaws” any differently? Now imagine what would happen if they re-edited “Jaws” to make it more like “Jaws: The Revenge“. That would be a declaration of war on classic cinema!
Note: Everyone hates the midi-chlorian explanation of the force, although I can stomach it as I’d like to believe that the Jedi have different interpretations of what it is or how it works. Some would view the force with a scientific mindset and others would be more spiritual and follow it like a religion. I doubt Lucas had intended this, but at least I can fix the problem within my own mind.
Violence: It’s rated PG, but there is enough death and destruction to probably be PG-13 worthy.
Overall: “Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace” is a crappy sequel and I hope “Attack of the Clones” is better than I remember it being…