Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas) B-
Warning: Even though I provide a brief plot synopsis, most of this review will assume that a) the reader has seen the movie and b) the reader is familiar enough with the Star Wars saga as to not start asking questions when I casually drop names like, for example, ‘Senator Palpatine.’
It’s quite remarkable how certain films become ingrained in popular culture. Throughout the years and decades, the lasting power of these films is not merely limited to a hard core fan base, but is etched in the memories of many, many people in our society. People can quote lines, they can correctly guess which elements are being borrowed when spoofs and rip offs are created (the mere fact that a spoof of a film exists is already a strong indication of its popularity) , they even recognize references to said films in other films! What it boils down to though is how they continuously entertain us, regardless of how many times we’ve seen them. Whether it is our first viewing or our seventh, we are transported to the fictional worlds of those movies and follow the memorable travels of our protagonists, especially when they occur a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
Like many mentally sane boys and young teenagers, I too was a big Star Wars fan back in my day. I owned the original trilogy on VHS, I owned a few novels, I owned a few video games, I even recall taking a crack at what is commonly known as ‘fan fiction’ whereupon an admirer of a franchise will write a poorly constructed and embarrassingly shallow story inspired from the universe of said film, purely out of admiration. All guts and no glory, as they say. However, as I grew into the later stages of my teenage years and eventually into adulthood, the intensity of my appreciation for the Star Wars franchise waned somewhat. Gone were the novels that populated my bookshelf, gone were the video games I no longer played (with perhaps an exception or two) and my career as a Star Wars fan fiction story teller proved to be short lived (1 story, and not a very good one at that if I even remember what it was about). My enjoyment of the films always remained however. Today, in 2010, if you say ‘Star Wars’ I think about the films only and not the hoard of merchandising that comes along with the territory. I may not watch them as frequently as I had during my youth, but till this day I still think the franchise is massively entertaining, strengths and flaws both taken into consideration.
It was with excitement that me and Bill from Bill’s Movie Emporium (and the Filmspotting message boards) agreed upon watching the 6 film saga and writing reviews for each instalment. The last time I watched any of the films must have been about the time when the final one released, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, came out on DVD. 4 ½ years ago at the earliest essentially, and that would only count for Episode III. The last time I had sat through any of the others was surely 5+ years ago. And so after a long hiatus (and I’m serious when I say this. If I don’t watch a Bond film for 4 months I’ll consider that a long hiatus), I dove back into the world created by writer director George Lucas so many years ago.
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, released a full 16 years after Episode VI, turns back the clock in the Star Wars universe and begins to show audiences where our favourite characters such as Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and C3PO come from and how they came to be who they are in the original trilogy. Sounds like an exciting prospect? It most certainly does, especially if you enjoyed the original trilogy as much as I did. But as some other film franchises would demonstrate a few years later, it is mightily difficult to return to form after so many years. 16 years between instalments is a heck of a long time, not to mention that audiences already know the outcome since the new film tells a back story rather than a continuation of what we have already seen. With this massive endeavour resting squarely on George Lucas’s shoulders (in the sense that he wanted to go back and tell the prequel stories, he wrote them and he directed them), could Star Wars fans such as myself ever be satisfied with the results?
The galaxy in which The Phantom Menace takes place is vastly different from the one we knew in the original trilogy. Rather than the evil Empire ruling with an iron fist, it is a Republic attempting to govern as a democracy from the galaxy’s core planet, the very metropolitan Coruscant. Instead of Stormtroopers being the policemen of choice, it is the Jedi. Instead of constant war, there is mostly peace. I shan’t delve into a lengthy plot description because, firstly, I don’t think anyone reading this hasn’t seen the film, and secondly, I think the plot is fairly complex and convoluted enough so that a short paragraph to provide a synopsis would amount to nothing more than ‘The characters do this, then they do that, then they do this, then they do go there...’. Very, very generally: a fabricated trade dispute aimed at the peaceful planet of Naboo, orchestrated by a mysterious Sith lord named Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) with the help of a massive and surprisingly well armed company known as the Trade Federation (although come to think of it, maybe they specialize in armaments) causes panic in the Republic, who send two Jedi delegates, Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor respectively), to settle the matter and protect Naboo’s queen, Amidala (Nathalie Portman). This wild adventure will take them to Coruscant, but also the desert planet of Tatouine, where a fateful meeting between Qui-Gon Jin and a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Loyd) takes place.
Enough of this prancing around with exposition already. Is the movie any good? We need to know what Edgar thinks of it! Well, even after all these years since I last watched it, I think the movie is decent but still not what I had hoped for. It’s also a strange film in that many of the elements I like are also hampered by things that annoy me to a certain degree. Take for instance the mechanized soldiers utilized by the Trade Federation to conquer the planet of Naboo. It lends a completely different feel from what we had back in the day with the Stormtroopers. These are sophisticated battle droids who look sleek and even have personalities to an extent (I even felt that many of their lines as well as the delivery of said lines were quite funny). But when faced with a considerable opposition, such as two Jedi, they are terribly feeble, dare I say pathetic. Another element was when our protagonists arrive at Coruscant near the middle of the story to meet up with Senator Palpatine (also Ian McDiarmid) at the Senate to plead for Naboo’s cause. Now, I majored in Political Science, so talks of Senates, delegates and votes of no confidence interest me, and I will admit as much that seeing Palpatine, who we know will eventually become the gruesome Emperor Palpatine, play the bureaucrats like puppets in his attempt to slowly ascend to ultimate power is interesting in many ways. Whether he is using the Force on everybody’s mind or whether everyone really is being duped I’ll allow the reader to ponder on, but it is an important element to want transpires in this prequel trilogy. On the flip side, I did think the pacing of the movie, which already showed troubled signs up until that point, was hurt during this 10 or 15 minute sequence. Scenes of politicking are intercut with scenes at the famous Jedi temple where Qui-Gon Jin tries to convince the Jedi Council that the young boy he has discovered on Tatouine, Anakin Skywalker, is especially gifted in the Force and must be trained to become a Jedi Knight. Both of these story elements are important, but neither prove be very terribly interesting on film. My feelings regarding the political scenes of Episode 1 are indeed ambiguous, but I can’t hide the fact that while that aspect of the prequel stories is relevant, they feel out of place in a Star Wars film. It felt as though I was watching a different movie suddenly. In the original trilogy, we knew there was an Empire and an Emperor, but we never saw Palpatine sit on his thrown debating about what he was going to do next. We just saw the results of his actions and decisions. It was then up to the Rebel Alliance to fight back against the injustice done to the innocent. Episode 1 seems to want to show us everything, and as a consequence stretches itself too far and slows down to a crawl at times. I like the world in which the characters live in, but I didn’t need to see everything in it or have so much explained.
I think that is a major concern which plagues much of the film. The hosts of a favourite podcast of mine often remind us that directors should ‘show us but not tell us’ what’s going on or what elements in a film refer to, and I do think George Lucas, certainly a visual story teller if there ever was one, attempts that but sadly fails on many accounts. Not only are a ton of things shown and explained, I feel that there is a stale quality to Episode 1 which I cannot abide by. The setups of many scenes, various dramatic beats that should resonate, revelations which are meant to surprise the audience (such as when Padmé reveals herself to be the actual Queen of Naboo), so many of them feel as though a certain energy was lost in the translation from script to screen. The most glaring example of this is in how dry much of the line delivery is. There are moments when I feel the actors are still preparing to get into character on set and are not actually having conversations with their opposites in the film’s world. Ewan McGregor and Nathalie Portman, who have both, in my opinion, given good performances throughout their careers, seem to suffer the most from this. A lot of what they say sounds really, really boring. I’m a believer that a good performance can make a terrible line sound fun, or interesting, or at least passable. Such is not the case with the acting in PhantomMenace. I suspect that was the first time many of them found themselves on humungous sets for a film of unimaginable proportions. They felt lost and Lucas, who is known to for his prowess regarding editing and special effects supervision but not his moulding of performances, probably didn’t help much. Liam Neeson is one of my all time favourite actors, and even he has some poor line delivery in the film. I mean, come on. When Liam freaking Neeson sounds a bit stiff in a movie, something’s up. With poor line delivery, it becomes difficult to invest one’s emotions into the characters. Obi-Wan in A New Hope is a person. Obi-Wan in the Phantom Menace is a pretty face with a lightsaber. Things only become stranger when fine actors like Terrence Stamp and Samuel L. Jackson are just there for decorating the set with accomplished performers and not much more.
I imagine that, given the importance of Anakin Skywalker in the saga, Jake Lloyd’s performance should be assessed. Evaluating child performances always troubles me. On the one hand, I feel I shouldn’t be too hard on a kid because he or she clearly lacks experience, but on the other hand I know the director chose them for a reason, and therefore I expect a result. Much like the other performances in the movie, Llyod’s is a mixed bag. I find it interesting how he seems more engaging earlier in the movie, but he grows more uncomfortable as the story moves along. I don’t mean that in the sense that Anakin is taken out of his element and therefore feels lost as a person. I truly mean that Jake Lloyd’s acting grows worse the more we see of him in the movie. His character isn’t given many favours either. I just don’t think the Episode 1 Anakin is very interesting. Nice kid, good at pod racing, seems to have been bitten by the Force bug. That’s it. I think Lucas knew how to introduce him (slavery on Tatouine, a touch I actually like) but wasn’t sure what to do with him afterwards. His involvement in the climax is rather groan inducing if you ask me. I also find his innocent and pleasant demeanour a bit off putting considering that he will eventually become a complete monster later in life. I can understand that he is but a child wishing to be free from slavery, but good luck finding hints that this boy will become Darth Vader at some point.
I can’t go on indefinitely about the hoards of characters which populate the film, but it would be a shame not to touch on Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and Darth Maul (Ray Park), Darth Sidious’s apprentice. Jar Jar is such a bizarre creation in that he ended up being a rather significant milestone in filmmaking. His existence in a movie showed how good computer generated imagery had become. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if when Peter Jackson, who I’m sure was preparing his Lord of theRings trilogy in 1999, saw Jar Jar, his immediate reaction was ‘well, now I know we pull off Gollum!’ Having said that, the character of Jar Jar per say is more than a mild annoyance. I know perfectly well that he has been scolded countless times on the internet, so I won’t spend time creating new insults for him. Suffice to say that he isn’t funny, isn’t useful to the story (Lucas could have easily, easily created a more likable sea-lizard creature to accompany the protagonists) and speaks very poorly. I swear, till this day there are lines I don’t understand! It’s not Jamaican, it’s cheap imitation Jamaican. As for Darth Maul, he sadly ends up being nothing more than a curiosity in the story. I remember being so pumped up in the weeks leading up to the film’s release back in 1999. I somehow believed the villain would play a greater part in the story, so to see him for about 20 minutes in a 120 minute movie was quite disappointing. There is absolutely going on with this guy. He literally just stands around and waits for orders from Darth Sidious. He looks soooo cool, but hardly does anything at all. Feel free to disagree, but that was one of oddest decisions made for Episode 1 if you as me.
Speaking of looks, that is one department in which Episode 1, 11 years following its theatrical release, never ceases to impress. The film is gorgeous to look at. There is an attention to detail that is truly wonderful to behold. The set design, with the exception of perhaps the interior of Trade Federation starships which look rather drab and uninspired, is beautiful and clearly shows off the hard work the crew invested into the project. Every place looks different and adds a new flavour to the scenes which unfold. While the costume design for the Jedi may not be very memorable, it’s the polar opposite with Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. Holy cow, those costumes are elaborate! They certainly strike a perfect balance between fantasy royalty. But probably more so than any costumes or set design, it is the visual effects that carry a lot of weight. Some movies made several years ago feature CGI that might not hold up very well by today’s standards, especially in our post-Avatar world, I’d wager that The Phantom Menace still boasts some massively impressive shots. Time and care went into the creation of the effects in this film I truly appreciate such craftsmanship. This in turn spruces up a lot of the action sequences. The pod race near the middle of the film still blows tons of action sequences we see today right out of the water. I honestly don’t think it’s close. Everything about that sequence feels different and unique. Notwithstanding the few minutes involving speeder bikes in Episode VI, we hadn’t seen anything like that in a Star Wars up until that point. Not to mention that the actual design of the pod race vehicles is impressive and unique in their detail and structure. I really think that is an excellent, excellent sequence, not to mention that is one of the few times when the story elements come together in the right way, what with Qui-Gon Jin having placed a bet against Watto (a slave owner who currently has Anakin and his mother under his ownership) to win the boy’s freedom in the event that the young lad emerges victorious from the race. Qui-Gon knows Anakin is far too gifted with the Force to rot away on Tatouine and must use this final resort to get the boy off the planet and to the Jedi temple.
And while I’m on the topic of the action in the movie, the eventual lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at the end of the film is still rather cool after all these years. Much like with the podracing sequence, I think the story elements come into play nicely during this battle. The Sith have mysteriously reappeared, taking the Jedi by complete surprise and forcing them to show off some epic skills. It also goes back to what I said earlier about liking the world in which the film takes place even though the film gets bogged down into too much detail at times. It’s interesting to finally see an era when the Jedi were in their prime.
Finally, I would just like to mention the John Williams score. As a great admirer of film scores, I think this is some of Williams’s best work, and not just in the Star Wars franchise. I think it’s some of his best work, period. The emotional cues are terrific (to the point where they almost make up for the dry line deliver by the actors), the actions cues are rousing and instantly memorable, and finally the score is impressive in how it melds together both new themes for the prequel trilogy and some of the older themes heard years ago in the original trilogy. I encourage anyone with an appreciation for film scores to have a listen to the music of The Phantom Menace.
The film’s place in the franchise
This is a special section of the review created specifically to discuss how The Phantom Menace fits into the overall story arc of the Star Wars saga. Seeing as how till this day people, including myself, still see the original trilogy as the benchmark by which the more recent films are judged, I thought this might be an interesting tool.
Overall, I believe The Phantom Menace’s connection to the rest of the franchise is very average at best. Because I keep forgetting that Palpatine is a senator from Naboo (it always feels like an afterthought to me) the entire plot of a trade dispute opposing the Trade Federation and Naboo seem pointless. There is nothing very epic about that storyline and following Episode 1, Naboo is not at all important in the saga. The notion of Palpatine, as a senator from Naboo, using this crisis to gain power is interesting in a way, but it feels like a rather wishy washy Star Wars plot. Trade disputes? Really?
Ah, the midi-chlorians. Yeah, that’s pretty different from we saw in the original trilogy. Before Episode 1, I thought the Force was a gift, an energy you could control or you couldn’t, which made you a Jedi...or not a Jedi. Its description in the original trilogy was vague enough to keep its mythology interesting, but enough was said for the viewer to understand sufficiently what it was and how it was used. Much like with the politics of this prequel instalment, a heck of a lot about the Force is explained in Episode 1. I’m not among the rabid fans who felt the mythology of the Force was completely butchered. No, I just thought it was a boring explanation. I just didn’t care for it. To be perfectly honest, I now find it interesting that this more scientific explanation of the Force is never mentioned in the original trilogy. It’s as if Ben Kenobi, Yoda and Darth Vader agreed that the midi-chlorian proof behind the Force sort of killed the ‘cool factor’ of their powers so pushed it under the rug. More to the point, it’s sounds silly and boring.
So what we’re left with is a 120 minute film to show the viewer how Palpatine becomes Chancellor and how Obi-Wan becomes Anakin’s mentor. That’s a lot of beating around the bush if you ask me. The counter argument to that might be that George Lucas wrote a story, whether closely or loosely connected to what happens later, in order to introduce the characters we know and love as well as some newer ones that we know will probably die at some point. Fair point, I get it. I just don’t think he told a particularly interesting one and, if I may be picky for a moment, yes I would have liked a story that was more closely connected to the original trilogy. Without giving too much away on my thoughts about the next two prequel films, when I view the saga in its entirety, I can’t help but feel as if Episode 1 is the odd one out in terms of relevancy and story. But of course, more on that in my reviews of Episode II and III in the coming weeks.
For me, the best aspects of Episode 1’s place into the Star Wars mythology was finally seeing the Jedi during their glory days as well as space battles made with special effects to wow audiences.
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is often hurt by wooden acting, some pacing issues, as well as story elements which simply don’t feel necessary. However, there is little doubt regarding the quality of the sights and sounds of this more modern looking Star Wars world. There are some fine action sequences (there is pleasure to be had in finally seeing the Jedi slice through a room full of enemies) and, despite some story-specific problems, I enjoyed that overall setting in which the story occurs, that is, the Old Republic in which democracy is breaking down and the Jedi are the sheriffs. Now if dear George can give us a cooler story that fits into the overall saga as well as some more interesting characters, things might be really interesting...
I wrote this review at my own pace without consideration with what Bill has done, so whether or not he went all out and into as much if not more detail than myself, I do not know at this time. I think I’ve gone on long enough, but even if there are certain elements you, the readers, believe I should have touched on but didn’t, remember that next Sunday is for our rebuttal posts, which could easily open the door to deeper analysis of Episode 1.