Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Directed by George Lucas
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd

While I am not as fanatical as many, I consider myself a pretty big Star Wars fan.  And I am one of those fans who always adds the footnote, “just the original trilogy,” when describing their enjoyment of the series.  But with the recent releases of the Star Wars blu-ray box sets (of which I scooped up the Episodes IV-VI box right away) and George Lucas’ plans to convert all six into 3D, I began think about those damned prequels again.   When The Phantom Menace got its rerelease in 3D, I realized that it had probably been about 10 years since I actually watched it from beginning to end.  I remember loving it when I was kid then beginning to question its quality throughout my teen years.  However, I don’t exactly remember watching it during the time in which I had soured on it.   Therefore, I thought it was appropriate to revisit Star Wars:  Episode I – The Phantom Menace with as open a mind as possible, to see if it really was as bad as I was led to believe since my last viewing.  

Note:  I did not pay to revisit it via Lucas’ money-grabbing 3D presentation, but rather got the blu-ray from Netflix.

This review is going to be light on summary because by this point in time, I think you’ve either already seen The Phantom Menace or you have no plans of ever doing so.   Before describing my reactions in detail, I’d like to get my verdict out of the way:  objectively speaking, The Phantom Menace is a bad movie.   A bad movie with occasional moments of greatness, yet those moments only amplify its wasted potential.  

While watching The Phantom Menace, there’s no denying that George Lucas is a creative master of action sequences and visual effects.  Despite the 13 years since its release and the sometimes obvious CGI use, this film holds up well and is an absolute feast for the eyes.  The vast expanses of Naboo’s majestic tropical kingdom and Coruscant’s unfathomable cityscapes are mind blowing visually (and have likely never looked better than they do on blu-ray).  You are left awed by the talent that Lucas’ team of artists at Industrial Light & Magic possess.  When given an action set piece, George Lucas is also a man of considerable talents.  

There are two amazing scenes in the film:  the pod race and the final light sabre battle.   As the baby-faced Anakin Skywalker races for his freedom, Lucas is able to amp the tension with broken cables, smoking engines, fired gunshots, high speeds, and narrow canyons.  The stunning ten-minute sequence has you holding your breath until the very end (except when you groan over a terrible piece of Anakin dialogue – but more on that later).   The climactic light sabre battle with Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi fighting Darth Maul (Ray Park) is also a triumph in action.  The John Williams score is powerful, the choreography is exciting, and suspense is palpable (until Lucas cuts to Anakin flying some spaceship and you are reminded of its abundant flaws – but more on that later).  With good actors like Neeson and McGregor, I even felt some emotional impact when their fighting resulted in pain and suffering.  However, a successful movie (beyond financially) needs more than two great scenes and visual effects can only go so far.  There needs to be an interesting story and compelling characters as well, which The Phantom Menace sorely lacks.

My biggest problem with the Star Wars prequels is that the story of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall to become one of the greatest screen villains ever, Darth Vader, should have been epically tragic.  But that great tragedy is never felt because these movies fail to develop Anakin into any sort of compelling figure in the first place.  This problem all starts with The Phantom Menace.  As Anakin Skywalker, poor Jake Lloyd is so in over his head that you begin to feel sorry for him.  I know he’s just a little kid and I am not going to denigrate him for not delivering his line readings on par with thespians of much higher stature.   However, Lloyd’s being “just a little kid,” is precisely the problem.  Other than some bullshit explanation about a high number of midichlorians in his blood (add all the pseudo-science you want, Alec Guinness will forever explain the Force most aptly in A New Hope), a conveniently placed virgin birth, and the simple plot device that he’s really good with machines (somehow building his own pod racer and C-3PO on a slave’s wages without his master’s knowledge), there’s no reason to believe that there is anything special about the kid.  And all the “yippees” and “woahs” that Lucas wrote into the dialogue for Anakin only highlighted the issue he is merely an average, and kind of annoying, little kid.  For this tragedy to be effectively set up, the role of Anakin Skywalker needs to be weighty, and The Phantom Menace leaves you nothing but fluff.

Character problems extend beyond Anakin.  Even a good actress like Natalie Portman feels wooden and robotic.  Her Queen Amadala (or Padme because George Lucas felt it necessary to include some arbitrary body double plotline) lacks any majestic power that could ever inspire a nation or Galactic Senate.  Throughout the film, it feels as if she were just reading her lines off a page, all be it sometimes with some crazy (and distracting) hair and makeup.  When she shares a scene with Ian McDiarmid’s devious but charismatic Senator Palpatine, you can’t help but notice how she isn’t even in his same league.   My problem with the whole rise of Darth Vader storyline is especially apparent when Jake Lloyd shares the screen with Portman.  For this great tragedy to work, not only does Anakin have to be truly heroic and fall, but also the love between him and Padme has to be beautiful (they are Luke and Leia’s parents after all!).  When Padme meets Anakin and those first connections are made, all I see is a wooden actress talking to a little boy.  There needs to some sort of spark, perhaps if Lucas made Anakin a bit older that could exist.   The seeds of this love story begin awkwardly and cannot help but plant some uneasy feelings of pedophilia, which is not what anyone wants from Star Wars.  From the beginning, Lucas wastes the potential of a powerful tragedy through some bad casting decisions (or lack of direction in Portman’s case, who has proven that she can act).

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention The Phantom Menace most reviled creature, the entirely CGI-rendered Jar Jar Binks.  This creepy and unabashedly annoying mix of a tongue-tied Jamaican stereotype, Walt Disney's Goofy, Steve Urkel, and "Michelle" from Full House is flat out awful.  I get that his purpose is for comic relief, but such comedy has to be effective and used properly.  From his dialect to his mannerisms, Jar Jar Binks has no purpose beyond the worst kind of comedy, overly obnoxious slapstick coupled with incessant need to blab (oftentimes unintelligibly so).  Lucas once had the ability to seamlessly fuse comic relief into his films; one needs to look no further than R2-D2 or Yoda.  Those characters were often hilarious but had real purpose beyond the comedy.  Jar Jar has no purpose and no redeeming qualities.   Even the battle, in which Jar Jar was inexplicably made General that pitted his Gungun race against an army of droids, lacked any real stakes.  Whether Jar Jar performed admirably or bumbled around like a complete fool (it was the latter), the outcome was inconsequential when compared to the other battles going on in space and between the Jedis and Darth Maul.  Beyond being cringe inducing, the character of Jar Jar Binks is entirely useless.  All the criticisms pointed his way may even be understatements.

It is frustrating to watch The Phantom Menace because we are filled with the memories of the transcendent first trilogy and saw the great potential in the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker/rise of Darth Vader.  There are even some inspired moments in The Phantom Menace.  Darth Maul is a terrifying villain and incredibly cool, but deplorably underused.  As is our one link to the original trilogy (beyond a mere cameo), Obi-Wan.  Giving one of the movie’s best performances, Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine (or Darth Sidious, as he is secretly known) becomes just a role player despite his plotline being the most interesting:  he deviously plans to use the Naboo and the Jedi as pawns to gain the power to eventually become the evil Emperor we know so well.  What we get instead is far too much time with young Anakin and Jar Jar, too much pseudo-science to make Qui-Gon Jinn not look like a complete nut for thinking Anakin is actually special, and too many confusing details involving the Trade Federation and its leaders with the most blatant use of offensive Asian stereotypes since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Having recently re-watched the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, the tightness of those plots are some of their greatest strengths.  There is not a moment wasted in those films, but the same cannot be said of The Phantom Menace.  It feels as if Lucas had too much time to think about it.  What results is a bloated picture cramming in too much mythos and reaching too far into depths of his imagination.  With too much time to tweak his ideas, the viewers are left with some bullshit about intergalactic trade blockades, microscopic particles of the Force and countless creatures with so many weird mannerisms that they either become distracting or downright distasteful.   When dealing with so many flaws, state-of-the-art visual effects and eye-popping action sequences cannot do enough to save the film.

As I close this long and thorough review, I want to say that I have no real urge to revisit Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith any time soon, despite the feelings I had going into The Phantom Menace.  I have seen both of those films much more recently than the last time I watched The Phantom Menace, so my memories of them are much clearer (I actually like the third one despite its flaws).   The lasting impact I had from those movies was that my apathy toward the little kid version of Anakin turned to a distinct disgust for the temperamental and whiny punk he became when Hayden Christianson took over the role (the bad acting continued).  The supposedly epic love story remained just as awkward.  Going into the prequels, the audience knew there was potential for high drama (and great action, of course), as one of the greatest Jedis ever gives in to temptation to perform the ultimate betrayal.  Instead we were treated to an unlikable dude who gets sad, mad and then joins a gang; it was a colossal letdown and the makes the backlash it has since received feel earned.  The Phantom Menace is that first letdown.

Mark it 3.

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