johnlink ranks STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

I’ve never watched the STAR WARS trilogies in their proper order. I watched the original trilogy before, in, and around the releases of the second set of films, but I never put all six in the timeline of the STAR WARS universe. Heck, I haven’t even watched a STAR WARS film since REVENGE OF THE SITH was in theaters. The original trilogy is a series I highly respect, have seen several times, but don’t carry a particular torch for. I watched it with some regularity as a kid, but never had it in heavy rotation. I was excited for the newer trilogy, and then (like many others) ultimately disappointed by its flatness. I do remember having fairly fond memories of REVENGE OF THE SITH, but there are two movies to look at before we get there…

I watched STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) on 8.17.12. It was my second viewing of the film, and first since its opening weekend in theaters 13 years ago.

George Lucas has supposedly retired. After the critical backlash against the second STAR WARS trilogy, the fan reaction to INDIANA JONES 4, and the shrugging which occurred upon the release of his pet project RED TAILS, George is angry. He thinks he can’t make fans happy anymore, so what is the point? (I wish I was joking. His direct quote about making more STAR WARS films? “Why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”).

But the problem is fairly simple. Lucas never evolved properly. What worked in cinema from the 70s into the late 80s is no longer what works. Gone are the days of loose continuity being acceptable. With the sheer number of fan sites online, it is impossible to get away with cheating. Back in Lucas’ heyday, the stormtrooper hitting his head was a cute easter egg, a fun thing to find. The series is revered enough due to the passage of time. And so, the head-bonking is considered a funny piece of STAR WARS minutiae.  If Michael Bay had a shot like that in TRANSFORMERS 4, he would be ridiculed up and down the internet with little regard for human life.

The point is: Audiences are more sophisticated when it comes to its tent-pole films (one could argue that this is due to the fact that little comes out other than tent-pole films). The 70s held the birth of the blockbuster film, and the fledgling movement was finding its footing. Spielberg nailed it from the outset with JAWS, but major event films had to find their way. Audiences forgave more in 1977 than they would in 2012. None of this is to suggest STAR WARS is a bad film, but it is undoubtedly, a film of its time.

George Lucas always felt that too. It’s why he has tinkered with the movies ever since. Special editions with heightened graphics for one, and the impending 3D release for another. He can’t just let it stay how it was and be satisfied. When he decided to revisit STAR WARS, he needed to update the old to fit with the new. Fundamentally, he had it all wrong. As the quote above suggests, Lucas is all too interested in over-analyzing what an audience is thinking (ironic from a man who refuses to listen to people who say “Hire someone else to write dialogue, for the love of God!”).

As a refresher (for anyone else who hasn’t seen this in 13 years), the story concerns Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and  Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) getting involved in a galactic incident as the Trade Federation oversteps its bounds and invades a peaceful planet led by Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Fights break out, pods are raced, Yoda tries to say ‘no’ to Liam Neeson, and a double-bladed lightsaber gets used.

Unfortunately, PHANTOM MENACE is a mess. The dialogue is choppy, the scenarios not worthy of past films, Neeson has the only good performance, the danger minuscule, and the tone jarringly kid-friendly. This is a series which killed thousands of potentially innocent people aboard the second Death Star (as Kevin Smith so succinctly pointed out in CLERKS), and here the proceedings are neutered. In place of costumed men are computer generated robots. Much of the danger is gone due to the fact that these enemies are so absurdly easy to defeat. Couple that with the fact that an hour of this movie is spent building and executing a race, and this it is easy to see why this film didn’t quite land with STAR WARS fans the way Lucas would have hoped.

Said race has its own issues, and I am guilty of being one of the analytic audience members I just spoke of. How does a kid with a stalled pod make up a two-minute head-start by the rest of the field in a three lap race? I have no problem with the technology, with aliens speaking English, with the fact that a little kid is allowed to enter the race in the first place… all of that is fine. But how do you make up a two-minute deficit against a racer who is widely proclaimed to be the best, who never loses, and who didn’t make any major mistakes? I couldn’t stop thinking that the entire ten minute span of the race.

Bigger problems are born from the fact that the script is so messy. Natalie Portman is a good actress. I know it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. How is she so wooden here? This isn’t like Mark Wahlberg in THE HAPPENING where it made me question his ability to act, but its pretty close. Lucas is just not a good director of dialogue. He does a great job with choreography and with his vision for a shot, but he can’t direct actors to speak dialogue without them sounding uncomfortable. I really hate to say this, because Lucas is an amazing visionary and a good story-teller, but he really needed to have someone else direct this. And he needed help with writing the dialogue. It is grand irony that the man solely responsible for giving birth to one of the most beloved franchises in the history of art is also the one most responsible for the degradation of that series over time. All of this, oddly, makes Liam Neeson’s excellent performance all the more impressive. I’m not sure if he ignored Lucas or if he is bad-acting Kryptonite, but Neeson is the only one who gets it done in this entire movie. I mean, I know the movie wasn’t shot chronologically, but I feel like you can actually see Jake Lloyd get worse and worse as Anakin Skywalker as the film goes on. His reactions in the flight sequence are hard to watch. I never like to knock a little kid, so I’ll balance that by saying his first scene, in the shop with Natalie Portman, is one of the high-water marks of the film.

And how have I gotten this far without talking about Jar Jar Binks? Talk about audience pandering. Lucas must have felt like he needed a kid friendly character for audiences to connect with since C-3PO was still being built. But Binks’ creation was poorly conceived of from the start. He’s annoying, fake, and (worst of all) not some heroic character that kids want to be. Lucas has always been good at making household names out of aliens and robots. How he failed so miserably with this one, I’m not sure. When I started watching this film again, one of my biggest questions was whether history has been unfair to Jar Jar. Maybe he wasn’t so annoying. But, holy crap, yeah… he is that annoying.

I’m also amazed by how often this looks like a video game. Much of the CGI, and there is CGI in every single shot, is seamless and of the highest quality. That high quality is the only reason this film won’t earn a negative bonus point, however, since there are many moments which don’t feel connected to the rest of the real world. I know it is hard to compare a 1999 film to today, but the computer graphics in modern PS3 games looks better than the set up to the big robot-Gungan battle. Again, this is where Lucas goes wrong. Before anything else, STAR WARS is a personal and human story. Watching computer generated aliens fight bit-mapped robots on a digital battlefield does not win an audience over. While the last battle between Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon is very cool, there is far too little of that sort of action going on. Too much of this film is impersonal.

Looking at this movie on its own, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if this was the first film in the STAR WARS universe to be made. Would the series have gone on? Would it have limped forward like NARNIA, or would it have been disregarded like GOLDEN COMPASS? There is no way to know. While some of the vitriol aimed at THE PHANTOM MENACE is born out of the fact that its expectations were unrealistic, there is also no questioning the fact that this is just not a good movie. While I’m glad I am getting to this series, I have to say that I can’t think of a reason I would ever watch this movie again, except for the fact that you can’t watch the entire thing without starting here.

SCORES

FILM: 4; MOVIE: 5; ACTING: 3; WRITING: 2

4+5+3+2+0=14

FINAL SCORE: 3.5

 

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~ by johnlink00 on August 19, 2012.

5 Responses to “johnlink ranks STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)”

  1. It’s sad because I used to watch this movie almost every day when I was 8 and thought it was the greatest think. I also haven’t seen it since then.

  2. Yeah. I guess the problem is that 8 years old was Lucas’ target audience unfortunately. I’d be curious to see if you still like it now since it was a movie of your youth. I know there are questionable movies I love because I watched them way too much as a kid (THE LAND BEFORE TIME comes to mind).

  3. I hate to say this, but I walked out of this movie in the theater. I never imagined that such a occurrence was possible. As a 6-7 year old child, I saw Star Wars (1977) 52 times in the theater. That idiotic Jar Jar Binks was the straw that broke my back. Moreover, I refused to go see any other of the sequels even though several people told me that there was some great fight scene in one of the movies, I just could not bear to ruin my memories of Star Wars and I knew I would have to sit through the rest of the film to get there.

    I hate to sound like a bomb thrower, but I expected so much more especially given the increase in technology. Anyways those are my 2 cents.

  4. I agree jpf: Expectations were extremely high, but had Phantom Menace even approached the quality of the original trilogy in terms of story-telling, we would have been satisfied. The increase in technology should have been a giant bonus, instead it was used as a crutch to patch up the lack of personality. Really just a disappointment.

  5. I, too, once loved this film as a kid, much as I did “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin.” Each of those movies did not age with me like the original Star Wars films did. In 1999, I was 13, and I guess I was still a bit less discerning, but I saw Episode I relatively close to the first time I remember actually sitting down and watching the original trilogy (I believe I’d even seen Spaceballs first) and I still loved it for a while. That love waned as my tastes matured and my appreciation for the original films, flaws and all, grew. I still saw Episode II and III in theatres, with meagerly increasing enjoyability (I’d still go so far as to say that III is reasonably enjoyable, if not actually good), but, yes… Episode I remains the nadir of mainstream Star Wars entertainment. The best thing that can be said about the prequels is that they gave us Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars shorts and the subsequent Clone Wars TV series, which has truly evolved into one of the more entertaining extensions of any brand.

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