REVIEW: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Produced by: Rick McCallum
Written by: George Lucas
Edited by: Ben Burtt, Paul Martin Smith
Cinematography by: David Tattersall
Music by: John Williams
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Keira Knightley, Ray Park, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Silas Carson, Hugh Quarshie, Andy Secombe, Lewis MacLeod, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Greg Proops, Scott Capurro
Oh man, here we go…
If Return of the Jedi was an enjoyable but childish and disappointing finale to the original saga, The Phantom Menace was the crushing death blow for many a Star Wars fan who had eagerly awaited returning to the galaxy far, far away and was then confronted with… this.
Jar Jar Binks. This bastard has become synonymous with everything wrong with the franchise – a ridiculous sense of humor that targeted 5-year-olds, racial stereotypes being repurposed for various alien species for our entertainment, terrible dialogue, an over reliance on special effects, awful performances… It didn’t used to be this way, of course, and while the since-banished Expanded Universe gave us a few ridiculous additions, Star Wars proper could’ve remained untarnished had the prequels either been actually good or were not made at all. Of course, as always, there’s money to be made, and George Lucas felt that we really needed to see the horrific and giant bunny/amphibian hybrid creature that Darth Vader used to hang out with when he was but a wee little cheerful slave boy.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie when it first came out. Between-sixth-and-seventh-grade me was so caught up in all the visuals and the novelty of seeing a brand new Star Wars that was actually released during my lifetime, I really couldn’t have cared less about the movie’s flaws. Heck, I even found Jar Jar a bit amusing – my mom and I cracked up when Jar Jar got his hand stuck in Anakin’s podracer and then numbed his entire head upon my… second or third viewing. I can’t remember… I think I saw this movie about five times, actually…
A lot of fans have since cited that they never actually needed to know the backstory that led up to the original trilogy, but, honestly, I think they’re just saying that in retrospect, as we were all likely very excited to see what we had hoped to have been a deeply tragic story unfold about how Anakin Skywalker fell to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader. I know I was, even if I knew what was going to happen by Episode III. It wasn’t the what but, rather, the how, and, if executed well enough, with the original trilogy serving as a sort of prolepsis to the new trilogy instead of pretending like Episode I was always the intended beginning and making silly retcons and new, unnecessary developments in characters’ lives throughout the trilogies, that could’ve been incredible.
The Phantom Menace doesn’t begin with Anakin, however, instead mercifully focusing primarily on Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi as they stumble upon a plot to rule trade across the galaxy, which will then lead to them ruling the entire galaxy. It’s not a terribly interesting setup, and it doesn’t get too much better from there, either, but at least these two provide us with amicable protagonists to follow through the dire depths this film tumbles into. Qui-Gon is a sage but unusual figure amongst the Jedi, trusted and unquestioned in his nobility and loyalty but somewhat controversial amongst his peers in his ideals and methods. He seems to collect “pathetic lifeforms,” as Obi-Wan calls them, like injured pets, which leads to both Jar Jar and Anakin Skywalker joining in on the adventure. His unorthodox ways would obviously leave a strong impression upon the still young Obi-Wan, whose own permissiveness would not exactly serve himself nor the galaxy very well in the future…
Unfortunately, in this time of relative peace, most of the warring from the series title is yet to happen. Beyond the discovery of Anakin, the story of Episode I feels pretty inconsequential in the long run, and it’s so easy to just not give a crap what is happening on screen and to the characters on it. One could easily start with its sequel and feel like they’ve not missed much of anything in the process. Most of the conflict here involves too many bland senate arguments over trade federations, blockades, banking disputes, and… yeah, it’s like watching C-SPAN in Space, and the Jedi are kind of just caught in the middle of all this, playing ambassadors and peace keepers to the feuding politicians. The action sequences we do get are relegated to either short bursts or overlong effects sequences that are tainted by childish humor, courtesy of the cutesy Anakin “Yipee!” Skywalker and Jar Jar Binks, who both manage to accident their way into battle and not only survive but succeed where trained pilots and soldiers do not. At least the climactic 2-on-1 duel Qui-Gon and Obi-wan wage against Darth Maul provides us with a glimpse of both the Jedi and Sith at their peak, a sight that we wouldn’t really see again until Episode III (as the duels in Episode II were nowhere near as memorable nor as well choreographed). And John Williams’ score continues to be a highlight, with the incredible “Duel of the Fates” piece, played during said duel, being one of the prequels’ greatest accomplishments.
The performances from pretty much the entire cast range from being merely flat and uninteresting to embarrassingly bad, though it’s hard to blame them, including poor Jake Lloyd, given the horrendous script they have to work with. Gone is the sense of natural fun and wit displayed by the original cast, here replaced by bizarrely rigid and formal dialogue that is then interrupted by fart gags, silly phrases like “poodoo” and “Ouch time!”, and a heaping helping of clownish CGI slapstick. The only actors remotely watchable are Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, both struggling to find the humanity in the characterizations they have to portray, followed by Ray Park, who doesn’t have to do much as Darth Maul beyond looking awesome while doing awesome things. Everyone else was probably too distracted worrying about the ramifications signing those three film contracts would have on their careers. Even Frank Oz, who provides both the puppetry and voice once again for Yoda, seems not exactly committed this time around. (Luckily, that terrible puppet they used to represent a relatively younger Yoda was later replaced by a completely digital and more on-model version for the 2011 edition, eliminating at least one of those flaws for those of you who watch that one.)
The Phantom Menace is terrible, and, worse than that, it’s also immensely boring and remains an incredible disappointment to longtime fans who were so excited to see the saga continue when it was first released and for those who may have loved it at first but wound up growing out of the film’s childish antics, only to find that there was barely anything there left for them to enjoy. Worst of all, unlike the former Expanded Universe, this film and the events in it cannot be ignored, as it’s top level canon material. We’re stuck with it, and unless Disney finds it in their heart to declare this material apocryphal at best, this and the other prequels are something we’re just going to have to put up with for the rest of our lives.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5