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|Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace
by Brett Gallman
For an entire movie-going generation, May 19th, 1999 is a day that still lives in infamy; it was the day that paradise was lost, that the music died, or whatever manner of tired metaphor you want to trot out. Masses of ï¿½Star Warsï¿½ fans emerged from theaters dazed and confused, deflated by Gungans and trade blockades, wondering if the past sixteen years had been spent in vain. I was not one of these people.This is probably an odd (and presumptuous) thing to say, but I think I was pretty much the right age when ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ was released thirteen years ago. At fifteen, I can safely say that I had been a ï¿½Star Warsï¿½ fan for at least twelve of those years, so the build-up was still enormous, having heard Lucas obliquely refer to the ï¿½Prequel Trilogyï¿½ a thousand times in those pre-feature interviews with Leonard Maltin on the worn-out VHS tapes that took up permanent residence in my VCR. Thereï¿½s little doubt that I too could have suffered from the crushing disappointment experienced by so many, but I think I was still just young (or dumb) enough to still enjoy the first prequel. You wonï¿½t hear me claim that Lucas raped my childhood because I still was a child (no matter how much I probably tried to deny it at the time). Still, this didnï¿½t prevent me from acknowledging its irksome qualities: Jar-Jar, Jake Lloyd, the stilted dialogue, the overwrought, serendipity-laden climax, etc.).
"I always liked it. Still do."
All of this stuff is still very much present thirteen years later, and perhaps all the more obvious now that itï¿½s being thrust at us in 3D. As someone who actually can still look back upon the initial theatrical experience quite fondly, I headed into the re-release with some trepidation and even half-joked that maybe I was finally due to have my childhood defiled after all. And since Iï¿½ve (hopefully) become wiser in the years hence, I figured Iï¿½d finally see it with the blinders off (but ironically under the cover of some nifty Darth Maul 3D glasses). One might say that I even had a bad feeling about this.
Despite going in as objectively as possible, I still couldnï¿½t help but be swept away by the bombast of the soaring opening number; no matter what episode number accompanies the opening crawl, thereï¿½s still something magical about seeing ï¿½Star Warsï¿½ blast onto the screen. But as the text crawled its way up the screen, I suddenly remembered that this was the light, most child-friendly ï¿½Star Warsï¿½ film thatï¿½s inexplicably centered around taxation routes and intergalactic blockades, a fact thatï¿½s sort of indicative of how the film gets bogged down by its dense narrative mechanizations that are at odds with its swinging tone.
I found myself nitpicking the plot more than I ever had before, particularly the mid-movie detour to Tatooine, where the film should really come alive since weï¿½re in one of the more colorful places in the galaxy. This is also where the most important plot thread is taken up, of course, as Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) discovers young Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), the boy who will become Darth Vader. This is somehow one of the more soggy sections of the film, though, and it doesnï¿½t help that the eventual scheme thatï¿½s hatched is overly complicated and reeks of an early instance of Lucas wanting to turn the prequels into a tech demo.
Qui-Gon and company are in need of some parts for their ship, and heï¿½s more than willing to essentially swindle shop-owner Watto by paying him with Republic currency thatï¿½s worthless on Tatooine, only his mind trick doesnï¿½t work. So instead of just hatching some other slightly nefarious means to and end (and because George Lucas loves drag racing), we see Anakin compete in an annual pod race to help his newfound friends win the parts that they need.
While the resultant pod race is thrilling and expertly crafted (though not without its detractions, namely the jangling two-headed race announcer), it never quite feels organic to the plot. I probably found this more forgivable in the past since Anakinï¿½s presence in the story is so inevitable; now, it almost feels like heï¿½s shoehorned in even though he is essentially the reason this story exists. Lucas attempts to gloss over this by highlighting Anakinï¿½s messianic qualities and by having Qui-Gon insist that this is all fated by the will of the living Force. In reality, things just sort of happen in ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ in complicated fashion, the narrative overstuffed with Lucasï¿½s attempts to start connecting the dots.
Weirdly enough, Episode I should be the most streamlined; whereas Episode IV famously hit the ground running, dropping audiences right into the middle of this grand space opera, this supposed ï¿½firstï¿½ entry is much more turgid in introducing its world. Alec Guinness sells Lucasï¿½s concepts more adequately in fifteen minutes than ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ does in two hours, and you can most easily see this in the treatment of the Force itself. In ï¿½A New Hope,ï¿½ Obi-Wanï¿½s description of the mystical energy field is elegant and succinct, delivered with the assurance of a sermonizing priest. Here, however, Lucas deflates the mystical properties, reducing it all to mere science and tongue-twisting terminology. As it turns out, the Force is actually comprised of Midichlorians, symbiotic life-forms residing in everyoneï¿½s cells; Jedi Knights arenï¿½t so much chosen Zen masters so much as winners of a genetic lottery, and Anakin hit the jackpot. He will be the prophesized Chosen One that will bring ï¿½balance to the Force.ï¿½ He sounds less like a messiah and more like a galactic Petri dish. If this werenï¿½t enough, we arenï¿½t even given this explanation until later in the game, further proving just how befuddling ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ is as an introductory chapter.
It only figures, then, that this would eventually climax in the most overwrought final act of any ï¿½Star Warsï¿½ film. As the saga wore on, so too did Lucasï¿½s ambitions for elaborate set-pieces; the original film famously only featured a simple space battle with ragtag rebel ships assaulting the Death Star; by ï¿½Empire,ï¿½ we had both the Cloud City escape and the Luke/Vader duel occurring simultaneously; ï¿½Return of the Jediï¿½ upped the ante with three criss-crossing theaters. ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ balloons it up to four, as the Gungans battle a droid army in a weightless CGI battle, star fighters attack a droid control ship, troops try to retake a capital city, and Qui-Gon and apprentice Obi-Wan duel Sith lord Darth Maul. This is all paced rather well and is cut together fine; itï¿½s just that the latter two are the only one really worth caring about, as the Gungan and starfighter bits are mired by silly humor and a couple of protagonists in Jar-Jar and Anakin that accomplish everything by accident. If Anakin is truly meant to be the Chosen One, it feels like he should be more in control to highlight his virtuoso abilities.
But this is just indicative of how the prequelsï¿½ most important character is a bit bungled right out of the gate; I always felt the Anakin was too young here, and Jake Lloydï¿½s portrayal never did much to sway me from that position. Right in the middle of this overtly political film about trade disputes and senatorial bureaucracy, you have this insular little adventure film that feels a bit removed. It doesnï¿½t help that Lucas has a tin ear for dialogue in general (even the Original Trilogy has some clunkers), but itï¿½s rendered even more cringe-worthy in the more tender moments between Anakin and future wife Padme (never mind how weird the age disparity is--another reason this film works better if Anakin is in his early teens). I certainly understand Lucasï¿½s intent here, as he needs to portray the character at its most innocent and furthest removed from Darth Vader--itï¿½s just that it comes across as excessively jocular, drowning the audience in "yippees" and "woo hoos."
The other elephant (or Gungan) in the room has always been Jar-Jar Binks, a character that goes hand-in-hand with the overly cloying tone of ï¿½The Phantom Menace.ï¿½ Heï¿½s always been a bit grating, a silly mush-mouthed clown, but, this revisit revealed how heï¿½s almost the antithesis of good comic relief; itï¿½s not so much that he steps in feces or gets farted upon--itï¿½s that this stuff almost always undercuts something better around it. Even an important dinner conversation about weighty topics like slavery are interrupted by him flicking his tongue like a buffoon. As Lucasï¿½s career wore on, I think itï¿½s apparent that he became more interested in creating mascots rather than characters, and Jar-Jar Binks epitomizes this; ironically, he did become the face of disappointment, the albatross around the Prequelsï¿½ neck. Again, this is a case where I can see Lucasï¿½s mark--itï¿½s just that he so wildly misses it; the combined powers of Jar-Jar and Anakin are like rays of forced sunshine that are more blinding than the twin Tatooine suns.
These are a lot of complaints that Iï¿½m sure amount to a snowball in the avalanche of similar criticisms lobbied at ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ over the years. I think theyï¿½re more than fair, but I also think a fair amount of goodwill has also been unfairly buried beneath them. Thereï¿½s still a lot of wonder to be found in Episode I, wonder thatï¿½s been diluted by the excess of digital wizardry that Lucas ushered in; thirteen years ago, though, some of this stuff was down right awe-inspiring. Everything you can say about Jar-Jar Binks is true, but you never doubt his actual presence as a completely CGI character interacting with live actors. Likewise, Lucas crafts some amazing digital environments in the form of the underwater Gungan city and the galactic capital of Coruscant, both of which hum with activity and business. This is the type of stuff we take for granted now, but Episode I (along with ï¿½The Matrixï¿½ earlier that same year) was a game-changer in many respects, and it mostly holds up well. Some of the models and textures arenï¿½t as detailed and robustly rendered as current work, but it doesnï¿½t exactly wear its age on its sleeve.
Some genuinely old-fashioned and magical stuff can be found beneath Lucasï¿½s digital sheen; a lot of it can be found in his casting choices and some fine moments (both small and big ones alike). Liam Neeson turns in one of the finest performances of either trilogy as Qui-Gon Jinn, who is contradictorily a sage and a rebel, but dignified all the same (in stark contrast to the oddly stodgy Jedi Council headed up by Sam Jacksonï¿½s Mace Windu). As clunky as ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ is, Neeson is easily believable as an ideal Jedi Knight; itï¿½s sort of easy to forget now, but, at the time, weï¿½d never really seen a full-fledged Jedi in their prime until Episode I, but Lucas parcels out the goods fairly well here. We wouldnï¿½t really see them perform en masse until later entries, but seeing Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan wade through droids with ease and trading banter takes us back to the franchiseï¿½s swashbuckling roots.
Their big set-piece (and arguably the filmï¿½s best quality) is the elaborately choreographed duel with Darth Maul, the filmï¿½s other mascot who can also ironically sum up the filmï¿½s hype and subsequent deflation considering his fate. Awesomely scored by John Williams (who churned out excellent theme after excellent theme throughout the prequels--if thereï¿½s an unsung hero, itï¿½s him), this is easily the most lively section of the four-pronged climax--itï¿½s fluid and graceful, just as you always imagined a Jedi battle would be. Plus, Darth Maul wields a double-bladed lightsaber in what would have been the filmï¿½s most awesome reveal had it not been for it being endlessly spoiled.
That sentiment probably speaks to how ï¿½The Phantom Menaceï¿½ only really works as style over substance; I think, at best, I can honestly say Episode I is a collection of some really cool, neat, and fun moments, anchored by a few good characters (Ian McDiramidï¿½s performance as the weaselly Palpatine becomes more menacingly preening with each revisit). Actual gravitas is few and far between, and the film effectively grabs me when it reminds me that itï¿½s ï¿½Star Wars.ï¿½ Iï¿½ll admit to having an almost Pavlovian reaction to the universeï¿½s sights and sounds--the Tusken Raider howls, the beeping droids, the wretched hives of scum and villainy.More than anything, this is what this re-release reminded me of: I really love this universe, even if this isnï¿½t the best way to come into it. Iï¿½m not even sure my stance has changed all that much since 1999; I still find it to be enjoyable despite its heavy flaws--itï¿½s just that now I can articulate those flaws better. The sentiment is still the same, though--itï¿½s average ï¿½Star Wars,ï¿½ but itï¿½s still ï¿½Star Wars,ï¿½ so it can still pull a mind trick or two. I might be one of the few people that actually saw ï¿½The Phantom Menace 3Dï¿½ as a genuine nostalgia trip, and I can even say that I came out of it without my childhood being deflowered.
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originally posted: 02/11/12 04:28:41
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