Saturday, August 1, 2015

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I cannot recall a more hotly anticipated film in my lifetime than 1999's STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE.  A sixteen year wait had elapsed since RETURN OF THE JEDI.   The excitement was unbearable.  I was thirty at the time of PHANTOM's  release and the lead up to it was like waiting for Christmas Morning - when you're ten.   I attended the midnight sneak at a neighborhood theater with hundreds of other certifiables, despite having to work the next day.  Of course it would be worth it.  And George Lucas was back in the director's chair!

Within minutes I felt the enthusiasm drain away.  It was clear early on that EPISODE ONE was an unfavorably different sort of STAR WARS movie than the ones with which I grew up. The choice for deliberate pacing, so effective in the original, EPISODE IV, was deadly this time.  When it was over, I remember thinking that if this had been the first movie in the series, it would have never become the phenomenom it was, or perhaps even gotten a sequel.  Regardless of when it would've been released.  It was that underwhelming.  I wrote it off.

But when it was released on video, I gave it another shot.  It did not improve.  If anything, I noticed even more problems with it. And no, not merely because of the presence of Jar Jar Binks, an entirely computer generated creature, the first of such in the series, and almost unanimously disliked by the public.  This attempt at comic relief was disastrous, and Jar Jar's Jamaican accent was no help.  The main problem was a screenplay that did not set up a compelling or even adequate back story.

The characters of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) - Obi-Wan Kenobi's (Ewan McGregor, doing a knowing take on a younger Alec Guinness) mentor - and Queen Amidala/ Padm√© (Natalie Portman) are also just not that compelling.  So the business of a war stemming from the taxation of trade routes (and a ship blockade) is even less interesting as a movie than it probably sounded on paper.  I realize that the saga had to have a genesis, but George, seriously? Those Senate and Jedi Council scenes are pretty dull, despite the presence of Sam Jackson as Mace Windu.  And an army of droids for battle? Zzzzzz.  Did you show this screenplay to anyone?  Or should I ask, did you listen to anyone's advice? Not that God has to heed anyone else in His universe.

But Darth Maul? He is an inspired creation of evil, a suitable badass, so nice job there.
The (eventual) sad metamorphosis of Anakin Skywalker was a natural for rich drama.  In PHANTOM MENACE he is nine years old (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy who races pods and builds droids, including C-3PO.   His talents are evident to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who sees potential in him to become a Jedi.  The Council senses something ominous about the innocent boy, voicing their reluctance.  The seeds are sown.  Too bad the most interesting element of this exposition - often an admitted tedious process for storytellers- is simply a lengthy pod race, the outcome of which determines Anakin's freedom.  It is a fine action set piece, with a little dark humor thrown in (Tusken Raiders deliver sniper fire at the racers).

In the end, what drives PHANTOM MENACE and its sequels is the fascination with What Came Before. As mediocre as the "new" trilogy would prove itself, those films do give Episodes IV, V, and VI even more depth.  So that's something.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice work LLDrivel. In reading this on the money review I realize I am still not over the whole Jar Jar Binks thing. I remember wanting him to be eaten by a Rancor. Terrible character.