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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (3D)

In 1999, after decades of anticipation, George Lucas unleashed Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The response was… less than enthusiastic. After years of heightened anticipation, during which the original trilogy had been built up to near mythical status, anything less than the second coming was going to disappoint viewers. I think it is reasonable to say that The Phantom Menace fell well short of that particular target. That said, I’ve always felt a bit of sympathy for the first of the prequel trilogy. Not enough to label it as a good film (it really isn’t), but enough to argue that the fairly fundamental and central flaws do mask a number of virtues. Those virtues don’t quite redeem the film, but they do make the end result a lot more fascinating than most would concede it to be.

Schindler’s miffed…

First things first though. This is, after all, a 3D re-release. So what of the 3D? Well, what of it? I have to admit being quite disappointed with Lucas’ conversion of the film. I was expecting a movie at least as textured as James Cameron’s Avatar or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Given how Lucas has pioneered other forms of special effects technology, I expected him to be in the same league as the two strongest directors working in 3D, regardless of the fact we’re dealing with post-conversion. Even if he couldn’t match their depth, I expected the movie to appeal to the pulpier serial roots of the franchise, and at least give me robots flying by my head or lightsabers swinging into the auditorium.

While Lucas gives us a taste of each approach, he doesn’t feel consistent. There are wonderfully layered sequences, where Lucas and his team have carefully and painstakingly divided the fore-, middle- and background to give a sense of depth. These tend to happen in the most tightly cropped shots – Qui-Gon negotiating with Watto, for example, or those featuring the Boss on Naboo. However, the scenes that could benefit from the sense of scale – the wide establishing shots or the space battles – never seem to come alive. At points during the film, I could easily watch without my glasses.

Is it a bad sign that about half the pictures on the internet from this film feature the guy with less than a dozen lines?

It’s a shame, because the 3D dulls the wonderful colour saturation that Lucas employed for these films. In order to compensate for the glasses, the movie is projected even brighter than usual. As a result, some of the finer contrast is lost. It’s a shame, because the Stars Wars saga always tends to look good, even if there are some problems with the storytelling. It’s a shame, because we lose that sense of vibrant colour without gaining anything major in return. So the 3D conversion, at least on this film, is a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps it will work slightly better with the two naturally darker films that followed?

So, enough about the conversion, what of the film itself? After all, I have attended a cinema screening of it, so it would seem that there’s no better time to discuss the extremely flawed introduction to the saga. I have to confess, while I think it’s a significantly flawed film, I am a bit unhappy with the level of discussion about it – about the aspects that fans traditionally point to as key or crucial problems. Often, it seems that these issues are just cosmetic symptoms of more fundamental (and ignored) underlying problems. I think that there are several easy targets for criticism that do tend to cloud discussion on the film.

It’s also easy to overlook some of the strengths of Lucas’ work, while focusing on the parts of the whole that don’t quite come together. I think, broadly speaking, the prequel trilogy have outstanding production design. Purists might moan about the over-abundance of CGI, but I think that it’s handled remarkably well here – allowing Lucas to portray a huge number of diverse environments, each looking quite different from what came before. This helps create a sense that this fictional universe exists in some tangible sense, giving the stories a texture they might otherwise lack. In particular, speaking of sequences in this film, I am quite fond of the “bigger fish” scenes that see Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon travelling through “the core” of Naboo. Those monsters look like old-fashioned claymation, perfectly evoking the feel of classic adventure serials.

Let Qui-Gons be Qui-Gons…

John Williams also provides a powerhouse score for the prequel trilogy. Williams tends to attract significant criticism for occasionally recycling cues from other films – and you can hear a bit of his Harry Potter or even Raiders of the Lost Ark musical scores peppered through the soundtrack to the entire six-film collection. However, Williams’ music crafts an elegant continuity with the original films, often seeming to die in ideas and concepts much smoother than Lucas’ direction ever manages. You know you are dealing with a talented composer when he can connect the key moments and imagery in a long-running series with more elegance than the director can manage.

However, I’ll freely concede that these strengths don’t quite overcome the movie’s flaws, even if I think fandom tends to focus their hate on the wrong focal points – or, perhaps, on the right focal points for the wrong reasons. The most popular criticism of the movie concerns Jar-Jar Binks, the infamous comic relief character. He’s actually the perfect example of how people tend to miss the forest for the trees – fans are very quick to identify Jar-Jar as one of the movie’s biggest problems. However, logically, removing Jar-Jar would make the movie much better. The two films that followed significantly cut down on Jar-Jar’s screentime, but still have many of the same problems here. While Jar-Jar’s presence tended to highlight these problems, he didn’t cause them – so removing him led them to find expression elsewhere.

To be perfectly honest, there’s little difference between the role that Jar-Jar Binks plays here and C-3PO plays in the rest of the cycle. He is the comedic relief, the character who is completely unaware that he is to be the butt of all the jokes, while still managing a moment or two of (probably inadvertent) heroism. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of comedic supporting character, even one using tired jokes – C-3PO and R2-D2 weren’t exactly pioneers of sidekick comedy.

All good in the hood?

The problem is that Jar-Jar’s incredibly silly antics have nothing to offset them. The interplay between C-3PO and R2-D2 is grand because it happens in the background, with main characters driving the story forward and engaging the audience on their own terms. Jar-Jar becomes irritating because he’s almost the most developed character in the film. Sure, there’s Qui-Gon, but his character has his own problems we’ll address in a minute. There’s nobody with a central arc as strong as Luke’s character development, or even Han’s growth into a hero. Padmé fills the role of Leia, reprimanding the feckless rogue (in this case Qui-Gon), but she’s not interesting because there’s no chemistry between them (obviously because he’s several times her age).

Indeed, the movie suffers because there are really no roles like Luke or Han. I’m not talking about similar character, but similar plot functions. Luke Skywalker provided a window into an alien world of mysticism in the original trilogy, but we don’t get a sense of that here. In fact, all this wonder seems mundane, because most of the characters are used to it. There’s no strong supporting character like Han Solo either, although Qui-Gon almost counts. It is very hard to be a charming rogue when you’re a member of the ruling establishment.

The problem is that these interesting bits of subtext can only lightly shade the obvious void in the prequel trilogy’s characterisation of Anakin. The original film is used as the textbook example of “the Hero’s journey” and praised for the simplicity of the storytelling, making it even more frustrating that Lucas bungles it so badly here. Nobody in this movie has an arc. The movie itself doesn’t really have one either. The film ends with the blockade of Naboo resolved and Anakin in training, but there’s no real progress. The next two films tidy up a bit, but what is the consequence of the blockade? Are the Republic and the Federation now at war, even though the film ends with the Trade Federation chief in chains? We know there’s some ominous evil at work, but we know no more about it (it wants to destroy the Republic) than we could have figured from the original trilogy. To put it another way, if the original three films didn’t exist, and we didn’t know Anakin’s significance or that Palpatine would be Emperor, what would the end of this movie have accomplished?

Long live the queen…

It’s ironic that the film has such characterisation difficulties, because the movie so carefully homages the original. It is sure to borrow dialogue (“young Skywalker”) and even whole sequences (like awarding a medal), but it doesn’t seem to realise how important character arcs were within this. The reason that Jar-Jar’s comedic supporting character seems so frustrating is because he isn’t offset by another character we’re emotionally invested in. Similarly, Padmé fills a similar plot function to Leia, but isn’t nearly as developed because she doesn’t have anybody to play off.

Speaking of the original trilogy, I was always confused about how the prequels dealt with the Palpatine/Darth Sidious identity dilemma. I mean, anybody who watched the original three films knows that the Emperor is a Sith by the name of Palpatine (played in Return of the Jedi by Ian McDiarmid), so we have him pegged from the moment he appears here. However, it’s also possible that some viewers might see this film first (especially with this re-release), and so they won’t know Palpatine is a bad guy. Lucas tries to play both sides. He doesn’t explicitly identify Palpatine as a bad guy, instead creating the villainous Darth Sidious manipulating events from behind the scenes. The goal seems to be to conceal Palpatine’s nature from the audience.

However, while it makes sense for him to contact his allies with the hood hiding his face, I find it odd that Palpatine evidently wanders around Coruscant with his sinister apprentice, dressed in black. Why not meet in private, where there’s no need for an evil costume switch and no risk of a passer-by getting curious? If you want to keep his identity secret, just film him in shadow for that bit? Also, if the intent is to conceal his identity from the audience, why does Lucas give us a lingering shot of Palpatine as Mace Windu and Yoda wonder where the other Sith is. He may as well have digitally inserted a bright neon sign.

Not the droid they’re looking for…

This underscores a more serious problem. Lucas never seems sure whether the prequels should be able to stand on their own, or completely depend on the other three. There’s no correct answer, but Lucas seems to jump back-and-forth too much. The movies are efficient as back story to the original trilogy, with convoluted narrative tangents and dead-end subplots, but they don’t make sense on their own either. It’s a problem of identity, and I think the following two films do manage the problem better. (Attack of the Clones working mostly as its own film, and Revenge of the Sith the only one of the prequels that manages to tie in successfully.)

That said, there are other problems with Jar-Jar, but they also reflect broader problems with the film. He’s an extremely racist comedy character, using any number of exaggerated minstrel conventions. He’s described as a “primitive life form” and can’t seem to speak proper English, using a slang developed from stereotypes of black culture. “Yousa in big dudu this time,” he is warned by a fellow Gungan. However, Jar-Jar isn’t the only offensive racial stereotype here. The Trade Federation are obviously Chinese, and the greedy Watto is Italian-American.

Dual to the death…

I don’t think that these aspects of the production were intentionally racist – I think that it’s a sign of a more fundamental problem, and a sense that Lucas has lost touch with the root of the franchise. These characters exist because they draw on the pulp fiction roots of the franchise. They’re meant to evoke the old-fashioned sci-fi serials, a conscious throwback like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jar-Jar speaks like a minstrel character because he fulfils the role of the ethnic sidekick – like Ebony to the Spirit or Thomas “Pieface” Kalmaku to Green Lantern. Similarly, Watto is based on the role traditionally played by those stereotypes in these stories, and the Trade Federation evoke the “Yellow Peril”aspect of Ming the Merciless, for example.

This doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s all done in very bad taste, but it illustrates the difficulty Lucas seems to be having with his source material – in recent years he seems to have grown too unquestioning of those old-fashioned serials. The original Star Wars and Indiana Jones films poked fun at those classic conventions as much as they attempted to affectionately revise them. Indeed, the “Episode V” text at the start of Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was designed as a parody of the serialised nature of those old Republic shorts, where each was a “part” rather than a whole story.

These days, Lucas takes it all too seriously. There’s little of that cheeky sense of fun in the prequel films, and even the existence of these three earlier films renders the original (and quite clever) joke just a bit moot. There’s never a sense in The Phantom Menace that Lucas is winking at the audience, and instead he seems to insist that it all be taken at face value. This problem continues well past this first film, and the departure of Jar-Jar Binks. It would express itself in the way that Lucas undermines the most powerful scene in the prequel trilogy by insisting, po-faced, on the word “younglings.”

Opening a can of Mace…

Another aspect of the production that tends to draw a lot of fire is the “midichlorians”, which Qui-Gon explains as the basis of the mystical Force. The argument from fans is that this removes the mystery from the movies, but I can’t agree. After all, while we now have a word for what is basically “Force bacteria”, we still have little idea about how it works, or how some people can channel it and others can’t. The problem isn’t that Lucas ruined the mystery. The problem is that Lucas is a terrible writer.

To deal with the “midichlorians” example in a bit more detail, they serve a clear plot purpose. It’s obvious what Lucas wanted them to do. He wanted a way of proving, within the plot of the movie, that Anakin Skywalker was important – perhaps the most important Jedi ever to live. So he created the midichlorians as a sort of Jedi Geiger Counter, which is just bad writing – because it unnecessarily complicates a fairly simple fantasy concept, cluttering it up with exposition. A shrewder writer might just have had faith in Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon to “sense” a disturbance in the Force of such intensity it makes it clear there’s something special about Anakin. But that would be too easy.

He’s a great ideas man, to be sure. He deserves massive credit for his vision and his imagination, but it’s no coincidence that the most acclaimed film in the series (and my personal favourite) is the one that he had the least to do with. Lucas is a bit like Gene Roddenberry was to Star Trek. Roddenberry had a great core concept, a solid central philosophy and a vivid imagination. However, he couldn’t tell a story to save his life. His Star Trek: The Motion Picture almost sank the franchise, and there’s a reason that Star Trek: The Next Generation started to improve dramatically when he was shuffled off the front lines.

Sharp as ever…

Similarly, Lucas has a tremendous imagination, but he needs somebody to filter it. He can’t write dialogue to save his life. While the performances aren’t great, that’s compounded by the fact that Lucas has them effectively delivering stage directions to one another. “You look sad,” Anakin states. “This is tense,” Anakin later states. Is it any wonder that the worst scenes in the next film are those that ask us to believe that two young people in love could talk like that? Or that Darth Maul has managed to hijack this film’s popularity, despite having less than a handful of lines?

Another perceived problem with the film is the focus on intergalactic politics and taxation law. “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic,” the first line in the opening scroll informs us. That is good. Nice and juicy. “The taxation of trade routes to outlaying star systems is in dispute.” I know I hate it when the Republic ups taxes on trade routes. The argument is that kids hardly want to be wowwed by stories of the galactic senate and palace politics. I’m not convinced that’s the realproblem. In fact, the palace coup aspects of the next two films are probably their strongest storylines, and Palpatine is perhaps the most interesting character in this film.

Darth Sidious is so transparent…

Indeed, it’s possible to make a completely fascinating film about almost anything. Chinatown is a compelling study of greed and corruption that is about a reservoir. Raiders of the Lost Ark is about a college archeology professor. As Ebert said, it’s not what a movie’s about, it’s how it’s about it. It doesn’t matter that the movie dabbles in the intricacies of intergalactic trade law, it’s about how well Lucas manages to balance that with the pulpy narrative. And, here, he completely fails.

There’s too much time spent on exposition and laying out rules and procedures, but this is a problem that’s down to Lucas’ pacing. The entire adventure is fairly episodic. They begin on Naboo, rescue the Princess and find Jar-Jar. Then they go to Tatooine and pick up Anakin, because… why not? Then they go to Coruscant and get embroiled in the democratic process and a shedload of paperwork. To be fair, some of the other films in the series were similarly disjointed (The Empire Strikes Back, perhaps), with the cast moving from “point A” to “point B” to “point C.” The problem here is that there isn’t really a strong overarching plot to connect these sequences.

One villain to rule them Maul?

I mean, really, what is this film about? It’s the first in a trilogy, so it’s obviously about setting up the fictional universe. However, the entire plot stems from a blockade of Naboo by the Trade Federation. So one would assume that the over-arching conflict concerns either the Trade Federation or Naboo? The Trade Federation are ultimately quietly killed off in the third film as an afterthought, while Naboo loses its queen and… is never mentioned again. So, from the start, it feels a little pointless.

Is it about Anakin, then? That probably makes more sense, as he’s the only character to appear in all six films. However, he only joins this plot as a supporting character about a third of the way through. And then he tags along, rather than driving the action. He doesn’t even get his own character arc or set-up. There’s relatively little here of the villain Darth Vader. If you showed this film to somebody who didn’t know who Darth Vader was, I doubt they’d point to Anakin as the focal point of the film.

Peas in a pod race…

Which is a problem at the core of the prequel trilogy, but really obvious here. Quite simply, Lucas seems to have no idea how to navigate Anakin from “good kid” to “evil adult.” It’s even more frustrating, because one can see the rough outlines of characterisation developed as faint sand etchings, but nothing substantial is done. Take, for example, the fact that Anakin is a slave. One might imagine that a life of quiet resentment and physical abuse might take its toll on a young mind, and Anakin might not be able to get past that aspect of his past. It would actually be a clever contrast with Luke, who was raised in a loving home.

The movie hints very slightly at class resentment. When Padmé describes him as a slave, he insists, “I am a person!” He vows to return to Tatooine to free all the slaves. That’s not a bad basis, right? Except his slavery seems quite cosy. Despite, you know, being a slave, he and his mother have a nice home (with a backyard). Anakin has free time to make friends and play. While he misses her, he’s ultimately fine with leaving his mother to that life. Hell, even Watto seems like a “jerk with a heart of gold” boss instead of a literal slave driver. It actually seems like Lucas set up this rather powerful back story and then… wussed out completely on using it.

It’s going to be a long Knight…

On the other hand, and this is one of those interesting things I noticed this time around, there’s a rather fascinating Oedipal conflict at the heart of the film. While he’s clearly not worried about her, we focus on how much Anakin misses his mother. Indeed, interviewed by the Jedi Council, one of the order observes, “Your feelings dwell on your mother.” With his white beard, he even looks slightly Freudian. And, in the absence of his mother, he latches on to Padmé as a surrogate. “My caring for you will always remain,” she informs him as they approach Coruscant. “I care for you too,” he assures her, only to guiltily admit, “Only I…miss…” Padmé completes that for him, “You miss your mother.” That seems like a complication in their relationship right there.

Similarly, when they arrive on Coruscant, Padmé still takes the time to act like a surrogate mother figure, holding his hand while Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discuss the matter with the Jedi Council. It somehow feels inappropriate for the pair to hook up, and yet there are hints that Anakin is attracted to her. He’s keen to boast about his accomplishments (“I’m building a droid – you wanna see?”) and is almost flirting with her (“are you an angel?”), so it’s clear that he sees her as both a mother surrogate and something more.

Last sand…

It’s telling that the two greatest losses in Anakin’s life are his mother and his wife in childbirth, while he literally has no father. I think there’s some very interesting stuff to be written about the sexual subtext of Star Wars, and it’s clear that Luke and Leia inherited at least some of their sexual dysfunction from their father. It’s telling that, in Return of the Jedi, Luke would break the Freudian cycle by refusing to kill his father while Leia and Han begin a relationship. It’s been argued that Lucas works best channeling the most basic of myths, and here we get to see Anakin trapped in the Oedipal story. Strangely enough, all this went over my head when I first saw that film all those years ago. The things you miss when you are ten years old.

Similarly, there’s a nice little scene which foreshadows something in the next film, where Obi-Wan dismisses Jar-Jar as a “primitive lifeform” without a second thought. It’s clearly an example of casual racism – the type of thing that the young Jedi has never caught himself doing. Is it possible that the subtle racism was amplified through Anakin, leading to the brutal massacre of the sand people in the next film? After all, surely they are just “primitive lifeforms” by that standard? It’s interesting to chew over.

She won’t elect to have this continue…

Aside from these fundamental problems, there are issues of execution. Quite frankly, The Phantom Menace has a terrible cast. I know that it’s fun to mock Hayden Christensen, but at least his portrayal was consistent with Jake Lloyd’s. You’d imagine a kid would be able to convey some measure of emotion or excitement. Instead, he just seems sort of dull. Never has anybody made blowing up a ridiculously massive space ship seem like such a tedious duty. I feel a bit harsh because he’s a kid, but he is legitimately terrible. The problem isn’t that he’s bad, or he’s unable to channel the right emotions, it seems like he’s not trying at all.

Of course, the rest of the cast suffer as well, although I am more forgiving of those strangled by the script. Padmé is a terribly written character, but Portman can’t manage to give her any real sense of depth or complexity. She does slightly better in the next two films where she at least doesn’t seem like a creepy surrogate mother and girlfriend to an emotionally-void kid. Ewan McGregor is also more than a little bit limp here as well. He improves dramatically over the prequel trilogy, probably because he’s given better material, but here it feels like he’s part of the background.

Light ’em up!

On the other hand, the actors that do well by the material tend to be the ones who acknowledge its inherent cheesiness in a way that Lucas doesn’t seem to register anymore. Ian McDiarmid is the most consistent actor over the six films, revelling in his campy villainy. You can tell an actor’s caliber by the manner in which they deliver their cheesiest lines. McDiarmid makes my spine tingle while offering the most generic bad guy nonsense ever. “Wipe them out. All of them.” Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson acquits himself well in a small role, wrangling a bit of drama out of “but which one was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?”

However, a moment must be spared for Liam Neeson. I think that we can all agree the prequel trilogy would have been a lot better with more Liam Neeson. He has a way of spouting the most ridiculous techno-babble in the most serious of fashion, and he actually seems to be one of the very few performers who is having a good time. Seemingly spotting the mess the script is in, he manages to play a near impossible mix of crazy religious fanatic and feckless rogue, two character archetypes that seem mutually exclusive. He carries the movie on his back.

And here’s the thing about Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. Despite being the most interesting and reliable aspect of the film, the character is at least as flawed as the rest of the film. Despite being a Jedi Knight, he can’t seem to sense the glaringly obvious ambush on the Trade Federation ship – despite the fact you don’t need the Force to see that coming. He’s incredibly reckless and selfish. When his Jedi mind trick doesn’t work on Watto, why can’t he use it to trick a well-meaning stranger into giving him the money? Instead, he compulsively gambles on a pod race that places the life of a young kid in very serious danger, to prove a hunch. There is at least as much awkward mischaracterisation pf Qui-Gon as any other character in the prequels, but it tends to get glossed over.

Seeking Council…

The reason these flaws get glossed over is important: because Neeson manages to suspend disbelief. The entire series is packed full of inconsistent character moments, awkward coincidences and unbelievably forced set-pieces. The Phantom Menace (and, to a less extent, the other two prequels) aren’t alone in that. However, audiences forgive such logical loopholes because the films are compelling enough to convince us to suspend our disbelief. Only moments of The Phantom Menace can do that, and that’s why it feels so strange and stilted. Through Liam Neeson’s force of will, we ignore the plot holes around Qui-Gon and just focus on the loose and appealing archetype: the cowboy cop who plays by his own rules, rather than the idiot whose lack of foresight and compulsive gambling addiction doomed the galaxy.

Aside from the acting, there’s also a problem with how Lucas structures his film, most obviously in the grand and epic finalé of the film. There are four climaxes happening all at once: (a.) the Gungans against the droids, (b.) Padme’s assault on the palace, (c.) Anakin in space, and (d.) Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon against Darth Maul. To be honest, it’s not impossible to manage that many threads at once, but Lucas doesn’t seem to have the storytelling ability to keep all those balls in the air. You can tell because even John Williams’ epic scroe seems to lose step two or three times as we transition from one thread to another.

To use an analogy, it’s like a piece of music. You need the instruments playing separate notes, but coming together in a melody. You need the brass section to hit the climax at the same instant as the strings. You need the audience to hit a collective low before they can hit a collective high. At various points during the action-movie ballet, the four plots are out of synch. Each hits its lowest note at a different point, creating a disjointed effect.

Obi-Wan way to go…

It’s a shame, because this offers one of the better moments in the trilogy, buried amid the chaos. It’s hard to believe, given the amount of flack that the film gets, but I think that the climactic lightsaber duel is one of the highlights of the franchise, if only because it manages to perfectly capture a lot of what is missing from the rest of the film. That moment, where the doors part and Darth Maul is just standing there, facing Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, still makes me shudder. It’s one bad guy against two good guys, and he’s not worried at all. Smartly, given the quality of the script, his dialogue is kept to a minimum. Instead it’s Ray Park’s eyes that do the talking. “Bring it,” they seem to say.

And what follows is a frantic choreographed fight sequence that has more energy than the rest of the film. It’s an example of the fundamental va va voom that is missing from the rest of the first film. As the three Jedi duel, you notice the logical problems and the inconsistencies, but you don’t mind. That moment where, fighting two Jedi, Maul decides he wants to use a crate to open a door with an off-hand back-hand is awesome.

Swinging times!

The fact that the core of the palace makes little sense is irrelevant as the light sabres collide and the three characters dance. If you were bored, you might wonder who would design a palace with a power core so near a hangar. If it wasn’t as energetic, you might ask why there were no safety rails anywhere. If it didn’t have your heart beating in your throat, you might ponder what the purpose of that sequence of force-fields is. After all, it isn’t as if the designer figured they needed some suspense on the path to the mandatory bottomless pit.

But you don’t care about that because it’s awesome. Because it’s probably the most visceral lightsaber battle in the entire six films. Sure, the one at the climax of Empire has more emotional weight, and is surrounded by a much stronger film, but this one is the only aspect of the climax that feels intense. Characters fight. They don’t swing and evade, they punch and kick and headbutt and use all manner of dirty tricks. I remember that moment where the second blade on Maul’s dual-wield lightsaber hummed into action. After a disappointing hour-and-a-half, I knew it was going to be epic.

Queen of his heart…

In a way, The Phantom Menace captures the best and the worst of the films. That sequence is notable because it serves to demonstrate so perfectly the energy and verve that is missing from the rest of the film. I’m a lot fonder of the nest two films in the franchise than most, but I think that battle with Darth Maul might be my favourite sequence in the prequel trilogy. It’s a shame that it’s stuck in the most fundamentally flawed film.

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29 Responses

  1. You hit upon a lot of valid points regarding “The Phantom Menace.” I get annoyed when people just spew hatred toward the film simply because it seems to be the vogue thing to do. However, it is a very flawed film with some rather good sequences.

    You’re absolutely right about there being no protagonist to drive the story. Who is this movie about? Qui Gon? Anakin? Obi Wan? Padme? Jar Jar? Because Liam Neeson gets top billing and seems to have the most screen time, Qui Gon is the logical choice, but what exactly is his goal? At first it seems that it’s to keep the Queen safe, but then it’s to bring Anakin into the Jedi fold. Is that a strong enough conflict? The main action is to free Naboo from the Trade Federation, except that issue is only in acts one and three and is completely forgotten during the middle hour of the film.

    I disagree that the actors are bad (with the exception of Jake Lloyd)–they are great actors who give bad performances. For this I blame George Lucas’s direction. You can’t take several Oscar-winning and nominated actors and turn them into cardboard without a great lack of talent (I say this with utmost respect to Mr. Lucas, who is one of my idols). Lucas is a great visualist but terrible working with actors (he readily admits this).

    Little of Jar Jar goes a long way, and the mistake was to do so much with him. This was pandering to 10-year-olds, who Lucas says was the target audience. They didn’t need Jar Jar stepping in Bantha poodoo, as the original trilogy did without such scatological elements just fine. Personally, I don’t see the racism that is attributed to the characters. Simply sounding Chinese doesn’t make them a stereotype. Isn’t it logical that various aliens would have different accents, and some might sound like ones from Earth besides American or British? And I may be naive, but I can’t think of any time African-Americans were attributed with saying “yousa” (New Yorkers may say “youse guys”). I assumed Watto represented Jews rather than Italians, but there could possibly be other ethnicities that people see in him.

    It’s really too bad Lucas didn’t turn the writing over to real screenwriters who understood characterization and narrative structure and allow another director to call the shots with the actors. He could have still played the Executive Producer and oversaw all the visual and technical aspects of the film and would’ve given the world an awesome addition to his amazing universe that was truly worthy of the hype.

    • Thanks Jamie.

      I’m not sure about the acting remark. I mean, there is a way to get Lucas’ dialogue to work, but it’s to sort of reduce it down to an almost theatrical level. There’s no way to make his dialogue seem natural, and I think that’s where McGregor and Portman fall short here. I suspect that’s why McDiarmid, who has done relatively little film and television despite a long theatrical career, fits so perfectly, and I think that’s why the best performances (for me at least) in the films came from Samuel L. Jackson’s very conscious “B.M.F.” persona and Christopher “Hammer House of Horror” Lee. Yes, you can tell I liked Attack of the Clones more than most.

      I think McGregor seems to grasp this in the next two prequels, and starts treating Obi-Wan as an archetype performing on a stage rather than a three-dimensional character in a film. Portman is trapped, because she can’t play Padmé as an archetype, because she has to anchor the god-awful love story, and none of her two male so-stars (Lloyd of Christensen) are up to it. So she gets the heavier load and I’m sad to say, with the exception of a few excellent moments, she has nothing to work with.

      And you’re right, it’s a damn shame he didn’t hand over the reigns, both writing and directing. I imagine he could have got top talent to do both. Imagine if Spielberg and maybe Peter Jackson had taken a film, instead of Spielberg’s poorly considered Kubrick homages? (Though I think Lucas would have been reluctant to consider Speilberg and Spielberg would have been reluctant to accept.)

      • Regarding the acting, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman all have had their accolades, as you can see on the lists of nominated and won awards for each of them:

        Neeson – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000553/awards
        McGregor – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000191/awards
        Portman – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000204/awards

        With these three headlining a movie, you’d expect powerhouse performances, but instead we got rather wooden, lifeless mannequins who looked uncomfortable onscreen. Part of this is due to the dialogue, but as you correctly pointed out, they could have had fun with the lines and chewed the scenery with them as Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee did (you could even throw Ray Park in there for good measure, as he seemed to be having a blast as Darth Maul; Samuel Jackson was very subdued, but I liked his performance, too). The cast of the original triology had similarly stilted dialogue, but for the most part made it work. This is why I blame the direction. Lucas himself has admitted that he doesn’t work well with actors, but instead just relies on them to just do their job and interpret their roles. Well, that’s fine with some actors, but others need guidance (aka direction). If an actor doesn’t know what to expect or has to guess as to the tone of the movie without input from the director, they will flounder. I would love to see Neeson, McGregor, and Portman team up in a non-SF film (one with a good screenplay) just to see how well they would gel together.

      • Fair points, indeed. And I agree for the most part. I love all three actors you mention, and I don’t think they’re bad actors at all. In fact, I think Neeson did an astounding job with the material. I’ve come to believe that Liam Neeson is Nicolas Cage on a hypothetical good day. While Cage can make a terrible movie either enjoyable or agonising, Neeson has generally been a lot better than some of the dodgy concepts he surrounds himself with. That counts here. (And for the record, I also love his Batman Begins performance, for the same reasons I like him here.)

        I think Jackson is subdued, but he’s oozing that subconscious and effortless cool. Like he does as Nick Fury, for example. “What does this Skywalker look like? Does he look like a Sith?”

        The more I think about it, the more the stage metaphor is valid. Acting for movies and theatre are generally very different things. With the stage, there’s a heightened style to it – the sets with a wall missing, stylised backgrounds, a world you and the audience know to be fake, but given texture by performances. On film, generally, there’s a sense that even those filmed on soundstages could be real, like eavesdropping on something approximating reality. There are exceptions to both, of course. The skills in one don’t generally translate to the other. Aiden Gillen, for example, is stronger on screen than on stage, for example.

        Despite pioneering how we treat certain types of film, Star Wars feels more rooted – to me at least – in theatricality. The sets aren’t approximations of advanced civilisations (no place in the Star Wars universe would pass a routine health-and-safety check), but consciously stylised backdrops for grand opera and epic spectacle. Indeed, I’d argue that Lucas’ Star Wars is practically Wagner-ian space opera writ large, and the best performances realise that.

        Sorry, I’m rambling.

      • What’s funny is the other night I had a dream that I was watching a stage production of “Star Wars.” I keep thinking about how awesome that would be if they could pull that off.

  2. My girlfriend and I were discussing this when we were revisiting the original trilogy last fall. It is not a coincidence that the best Star Wars films is one that Lucas did not direct or write the screenplay. A truly imaginative man like Lucas needs a person to structure a film around him.

    • Yep, I think he really should have removed hismelf from the particular films and installed hismelf as “grandfather” to the franchise – that way allowing the prequels to sort of “be their own thing” while he curated all six films. Though I actually dislike his meddling in the original films less than most (I appreciate what he’s trying to do, and can concede certain cuts were necessary for rating reasons).

  3. I viewer all 6 Star Wars films cold recently, as I’d not seen them in years upon years. I expected the prequels to be total trash as I had been told, but I think they’re great films. I enjoy them as much as the original films.

    • I think the prequels are more interesting than they are given credit for. They attempt to do something different, which is to be lauded. And they have a very clear sense of visual identity, as opposed to just emulating the original trilogy. But I do think the plotting and scripting is just terrible, in a way that makes them hard to enjoy as films rather than as pop art, if that makes sense?

      • Oh, I think the plots are great, they’re just not as primal as the originals and require the audience to pay more attention.

  4. “(George Lucas is) a great ideas man, to be sure. He deserves massive credit for his vision and his imagination, but it’s no coincidence that the most acclaimed film in the series (and my personal favourite) is the one that he had the least to do with. Lucas is a bit like Gene Roddenberry was to Star Trek. Roddenberry had a great core concept, a solid central philosophy and a vivid imagination.”

    I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to compare the two. While Gene did create Star Trek, most of the things people liked about Star Trek came from writers like Gene L. Coon or D.C. Fontana. Like you pointed out in your reviews, the Original Series didn’t have a consistent philosophy. Even The Next Generation only really started getting good when they moved away from promoting Gene’s Utopian ideals into actual character development and drama with the rest of the franchise moving away from Gene’s vision, only suffering when they embraced it full heartedly without question (Like Voyager).

    By contrast, while Lawrence Kasdan and a few other writers did help a lot in the Original Trilogy, George Lucas was the one who created AND defined Star Wars. All the key themes, ideas and drama came from him. While he’s shit at writing dialogue, even the Prequels had some brilliant concepts and ideas in them. For better or for worse, Star Wars IS Lucas’ creation, to the point where his influence is still felt on works like The Clone Wars series and in The Force Awakens.

    While Star Trek got better when they moved away from Gene’s ideas, Star Wars was at it’s best when they embraced Lucas’ ideas and taking them further. At least, that’s how I see it.

    • I’m actually kinda curious about the Lucas legacy as it were.

      With the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve noticed a distinct recurring subtext to various reviews in sites that I frequent; there’s a subtle “the prequels weren’t so bad” revaluation that seems be taking place, certainly in contrast to Abrams’ blockbuster. Making the argument that the prequels attempted to do something different than the original trilogy, in contrast to the rigid regurgitation of formula in TFA. Even conceding that TFA is a far more enjoyable film, it seemed like its release afforded the opportunity for some backhanded compliments to the prequel trilogy. (That might not sound like much, but – given the general discourse on the prequels – it represents a lot of praise from the establishment.) I even made similar points in my own review.

      I’m interested to see if that opinion will take root in the larger internet community, given a little time. Will the visceral reflective reaction to the prequels soften in the year or so following the release of TFA?

      • Interesting thoughts.

        I guess with the prequels enough time passed that people could take a look at it somewhat fairly. Mind you they still have a lot of problems, and I absolutely LOATHE The Phantom Menace, but I think people over look their strengths too much (even if it’s completely understandable why).

        The Force Awakens is actually my favorite film in the franchise.

      • Personally, I’d probably rank The Force Awakens third in my own appraisal of the franchise. (I’m very conventional, so my favourite is very much The Empire Strikes Back and my second favourite is Star Wars.)

  5. Fantastic commentary, as always! Now that the sequel trilogy & spin-offs are in full swing, any thoughts on a full Episodes I-VI Saga retrospective series of reviews?

    • Who knows where I might go when I finish Star Trek? Looking forward to smaller projects. Star Wars would be a likely contender. Maybe even Hannibal.

      • Do Stargate, assuming you’ve seen the shows and don’t hate them.

      • I really like Stargate. It’s horribly underrated.

        But my next project, after The X-Files and Star Trek, will want to be something (relatively) small. Ideally under fifty entries. I’m thinking maybe Hannibal, maybe the Coen Brothers, maybe something comics related. Stargate is at least three hundred episodes, including spin-offs, right?

      • SG-1 is over 200 episodes, Atlantis 100 and not sure about Universe, not a fan of that one.

      • I think Universe only got a season?

        But still, we’re talking over three hundred episodes. I afraid I won’t be committing to a project on that scale for a while. (After The X-Files and Star Trek, I reckon I’ll have done about 1,000 pieces, including comics and tie-ins and crossovers.)

      • Universe got two seasons actually. The whole series is a funny, bizarre story of two leads destroying their own success and blaming fans for their mistakes

      • Interesting. I remember seeing the ads and thinking… “So they’re doing Stargate: BSG?”

  6. “I mean, anybody who watched the original three films knows that the Emperor is a Sith by the name of Palpatine (played in Return of the Jedi by Ian McDiarmid), so we have him pegged from the moment he appears here. However, it’s also possible that some viewers might see this film first (especially with this re-release), and so they won’t know Palpatine is a bad guy.”

    I completely missed the fact that the Emperor was in Episode 1 the first time I saw it. Part of this is due to the fact that he was only ever known as “The Emperor” in the original trilogy, and was only given a name in the novels. Episode 1 is the first time the character was ever referred to by a name. In fact, that’s one of the things I really liked about Episode 1, is that one of the most evil characters in cinema history was hanging around the background involving himself in the plot, and I hadn’t noticed, (being about 9, and not having ready access to the internet, I didn’t know what Ian McDiarmid looked like without the 184 year old man makeup.) Indeed, if you didn’t know that the Senator was the future Emperor, the movie becomes more interesting in retrospect. It even seems the movie is trying to keep the proto-Emperor hologram and Senator Palpatine as separate entities. The plans of the hologram go wrong, yet for the public figure of Senator Palpatine, everything is going his way, being elected Chancellor. It’s just such a shame that this ambiguity was jettisoned for episode 2 and 3, if the Emperor’s rise to power was handled subtly, it could have done a great deal to salvage the prequel trilogy.

  7. “Watso”? I think you mean Watto, and he’s a Jewish stereotype actually. In fact, apparently, he was based around Jewish caricatures in 19th century literature. Why, I have no idea.

    Good review, though I would be far more harsher, I mean these are the prequel Star Wars films, IMO some of the worst films ever created, and I saw Phantom Menace before I had ever seen any of the original trilogy.

    Also, just on a side note, as TheAmazingAtheist pointed out in his old reviews of the films, how do you tax a trade route, and why is it described as “turmoil” while the fucking Republic being split apart in the next film is described as “unrest”?

    • I wouldn’t describe the prequel trilogy as some of the worst films ever made.

      I mean, I’ve seen Independence Day: Resurgence.

      (That’s not to suggest that the prequels are good. But they are interesting in the ways that they don’t work. I do appreciate that Lucas didn’t just do “more Star Wars like the first three”, which would have been the temptation.)

      • I don’t know, to me they are surreal painful experiences, few films have ever done that to me (the only other one I can think of is Signs), but then again I don’t watch a lot of films.

      • I saw you said above that some are insanely stating the “prequels aren’t so bad” because The Force Awakens is more or less just a remake of A New Hope. I don’t understand how the prequels doing something “different’ makes them “not so bad” but regardless, the reason Lucas dind’t just “regurgitate” the original three blockbusters is because those weren’t the products of his unadulterated imagination, those films are the products of heavy constraints on his work and the works of many other people. The prequels are the result of George Lucas being allowed to do whatever he wants. For example, the hated “midichlorian” concept is something Lucas planned for A New Hope but was forced to remove.

      • Speaking as an enormous fan of Star Wars, I saw the Force Awakens once, and I have no desire to watch it again soon. I’ve watched A New Hope dozens of times over my lifetime, and see absolutely no point in watching a remake of a movie that still holds up extremely well today. I really hate it when people exaggerate that the Phantom Menace was the worst movie ever, the script felt like a first draft, and the acting a little flat, but they were clearly trying and taking chances. I appropriate the Phantom Menace like I appreciate Dune (1984), a beautiful movie with an outstanding soundtrack that is clearly it’s own thing, that their being complete messes is not a deal breaker for me. What does the Force Awakens offer me? I’ve seen A New Hope so many times that this “remake” put me to sleep. What’s worst is that they eliminated the EU so I don’t even know what’s going on, who is the First Order? How are they related to the Empire? Who is the resistance? Are they related to the New Republic? Does the New Republic even exist? Are they still the Rebel Alliance? When I’m not even sure what the good guys are doing and the bad guys are doing, how am I suppose to care? Oh their blowing up Death Star #3? Okay… Will episode 10 have a swamp planet, a cloud planet and a snow planet and an asteroid field too? Will episode 11 have Death Star #4?

      • I don’t know if The Phantom Menace is literally THE worst film ever when stuff like Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, and Sharknado exist (though all those films are infinity more entertaining) but the reason people generally dislike it heavily is because it’s a really, really bad movie, no amount of apologetics can change that. I’ve seen some hyper Star Wars fans actually try to argue that people just say they’re so bad because of public opinion, but this isn’t true. Any objective, critical eye toward this film and its two sequels would show it really is D level quality, from the stilted unbelievably bad acting to juvenile writing and horrific pacing and focus on the most boring shit imaginable (senate debates, podraces), you don’t don’t feel that way because of either the giant budget (which even then, produces some laughably bad special effects) or you’re so into Star Wars you have a soft spot for anything with the title.

        The movie truly is quite awful.

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