Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘George Lucas’

As hardly any new movies seem to be being released at the moment, I thought this would be an opportune moment to enjoy another classic from years gone by. So let us turn to a film which secured the services of a number of hugely successful stars and a couple of distinguished, Oscar-winning artists, yet which still languishes in relative obscurity: ladies and gentlemen, from 1978, I give you Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash.

star-crash-poster

Starcrash is concerned with the doings of comely space-smuggler Stella Star (played by the cult actress and model Caroline Munro) and her partner Akton (bubble-permed evangelical preacher/conman-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner), who seem to spend most of their time being chased by the Galactic Police. During one of their death-defying escapes they come across a lifeboat ejected from a ship in the fleet of the benevolent Emperor of the Universe (Christopher Plummer – yes, that Christopher Plummer) – while searching for the, um, doom planet of the Emperor’s arch-rival Zarth Arn…

(I feel obliged at this point to stress that I am not making this up, this genuinely is a real film.)

…Zarth Arn, the ship came under attack and launched three lifeboats, one of which contained the vessel’s commander, the Emperor’s son Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff – yes, that David Hasselhoff). In order to put a stop to Zarth Arn’s evil plan to take over the universe, the lifeboat with Prince Simon in it has to be found!

But clearly not yet, as first there is a subplot about Stella and Akton being nicked and sent to prison to be got out of the way. Stella is sentenced to hard labour, which in the universe of Starcrash consists of dumping radium into a furnace, for fairly obscure reasons. Stella is vocal in her concern as to what the radiation is doing to her skin, although it has to be said her choice of outfit (essentially a bikini top and hot pants) is probably not ideal protective clothing. Soon enough she hits on an escape plan, which is moderately successful as she does indeed escape, although on the other hand everyone else in the prison is killed when the radium furnaces blow up.

Starcrash does not dwell on such trivial things as moral responsibility, however, and soon Stella has had her sentence quashed and, along with Akton, is helping the Imperial secret police look for Prince Simon’s lifeboat. The Imperial secret police consist of Captain Thor, who is a bald green man, and Elle, who, despite the name, is a robot bearing a striking resemblance to a man with a bucket on his head, with a yee-haw accent and personality.

So off they go on their quest, which takes in Amazons on horseback, cavemen, badly-animated rip-offs of classic Ray Harryhausen sequences, unexpected betrayal (Captain Thor has decided to join Zarth Arn as his ‘prince of darkness’), sparkling dialogue (‘No-one can survive these deadly rays!’ ‘These deadly rays will be your death!’), David Hasselhoff shooting lasers out of his eyes, and so on.

In the end Akton, whose supernatural powers have remained wildly variable and completely unexplained throughout, cops it in a laser sword fight with a couple of appallingly-realised stop-motion robots, leaving Stella and Prince Simon to carry on the battle, even though Zarth Arn has rigged the whole planet to blow up in a few seconds. Luckily, the Emperor shows up in the nick of time and Plummer, with an admirably straight face, proceeds to show everyone else what actual acting looks like. ‘You know, my boy, I wouldn’t be emperor if I didn’t have some powers at my command,’ says Plummer. ‘Imperial battleship, halt the Flow of Time!!!’

Everyone having thus been saved, with the Flow of Time restored they all go off to fight evil Zarth Arn and his space station of doom (which looks like a big hand – I was about to add ‘for no very good reason’, but pretty much everything and everyone in Starcrash is as it is for no very good reason). The ensuing battle looks much as you’d expect for a film with no discernible budget, but is noteworthy for the imperial tactic of shooting torpedoes in through the space station windows, said torpedoes then popping open and imperial soldiers jumping out, ray guns zapping.

But it is all to no avail, and our heroes are forced into the desperate tactic of finding a big space station of their own and crashing it into Zarth Arn’s one. (See what they did there? A big crash, with some stars in the background – hence, Starcrash! This film is so clever.) With Zarth Arn vanquished and Prince Simon and Stella Star engaged in hugging one another, it’s left to the Emperor to sum up all that has occurred, before heading off to the nearest pizzeria (Plummer has been very frank about the fact that he only took this part because it let him hang out in Rome, where his scenes were filmed, for a couple of days).

Well, I think we all know what’s going on with Starcrash – ever since George Lucas struck gold with one of his movies in 1977, other people have been trying to mine the same seam with varying degrees of success. Some of these Lucas knock-offs have been pretty good. Others are, frankly, exquisitely terrible. Starcrash is definitely one of the latter kind. (The Italians seem to have had a special talent for making dreadful Lucas rip-offs – the year after Starcrash they came up with The Humanoid, starring Richard Kiel, which is probably even worse.)

Starcrash has a terrible script, terrible production values, and (mostly) terrible performances – I suppose on some level the really surprising thing is that some parts of it are not as terrible as the rest. Plummer’s presence we have already dealt with, but how to explain the participation of legendary composer John Barry, who provides (as you might expect) a decent score? Maybe even better than decent: it has been suggested that Barry reused much of his Starcrash score when doing the music for Out of Africa some years later, a film for which he won an Oscar. But that brings us much too close to comfort to using the words ‘Oscar-winning’ and ‘Starcrash‘ in the same sentence, so I prefer to say that most of John Barry’s later scores sounded pretty samey anyway.

The thing is, though, that by looking at Starcrash in all its terribleness, you do get a much stronger sense of just how remarkable George Lucas’ own movies in this genre are. On paper, the plot of Starcrash and that of the movie I am pointedly not naming are both fishing from the same pond – space smugglers and laser swords and galactic monarchy and space stations of doom abound in both, and yet Starcrash seems to be slapping these elements together at random, whereas Lucas weaves them into the fabric of a cohesive larger backdrop. That certain other franchise of Lucas’ did not achieve the success it did because of its radical characterisation or innovative plotting – I think the true reason it has continued to have some small measure of success and popularity is due to how utterly convincing the world it depicts is, so flooded with detail and colour like no fantasy film before it. Even when the budget falls short or the acting is less than stellar, it’s still disconcertingly easy to believe in the wealth of background detail.

I’m not sure it’s just a question of budget or acting talent, either, for all that Starcrash was made for a small fraction of the money George Lucas had at his disposal when making his first foray into this genre. Lucas, if nothing else, is a man who knows his film history and his anthropology, and there is surely a purposefulness to his work which is so often lacking in that of those copying the superficial elements of his films.

These days, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to love Lucas’ earlier films while holding the man himself in a sort of amused contempt, which seems to me to be rather like hating the author of your favourite book. It is, I suppose, the most backhanded of compliments – Lucas’ world is so totally believable as a real place that it’s too easy to forget that, in the end, it came out of his own head, and assume he is somehow dispensable when it comes to realising or reinventing it. And while hardly anyone would seriously argue the later films are not flawed, they have an honesty of purpose and willingness to innovate which is impressive and laudable: they at least try to do something new and different, rather than taking the easy route of revisiting past glories and riffing on the same few ideas and themes.

Ultimately, you cannot dismiss George Lucas’ contribution to the fantasy genre, let alone what he has brought to his own movies. Lots of people have spent many years and huge amounts of money making a long, long line of films essentially knocking off his vision. Some of them have been motivated by sincere affection, others by purely mercenary concerns, others are somewhere in between. Some of the films, like Starcrash, have been awful – others, genuinely accomplished. But George Lucas brought something unique to the productions he was involved in, and also to the genre as a whole, which is surely what has made them, and it, so popular to this day. He can be copied lovingly, carefully, respectfully – but I don’t think he can really be replaced.

Read Full Post »

My parents assure me that the first film I went to see was Bambi, rereleased as part of the seven-year cycle all the classic Disney films were on back in the mid-Seventies. I, however, have no recollection of the experience.

The honour of my first memory of going to a film goes – like that of many people of my generation, I suspect – to the 1978 UK release of Star Wars. It’s actually quite difficult for me to put into words quite what an impact this had on me, or the quality of the memories which remain burned into my brain even now, after so many subsequent viewings. Films and Star Wars arrived in my life at the same time, and they remain intrinsically linked for me on some strange level.

Certainly for me the Star Wars movies belong and come to life on a big screen unlike any others. This is why, despite already owning all of them on multiple formats, I will happily trot along to watch any of them theatrically, given half a chance. This is why, despite my general aversion to 3D, I even turned out for the current stereoscopic reissue of The Phantom Menace.

(History repeats itself here: back in 1999, I had planned to see this movie about a week after release with a friend. But the very day it came out I happened to be passing the local multiplex, having just signed on, and the urge was too great. This time around I’d planned to either save the viewing for a special occasion, or see it on Valentine’s Day – although given my past record it would probably be less a Duel of the Fates than a Date of the Fools – but once again I found myself strangely incapable of putting it off.)

I have written about The Phantom Menace before at some length, and on re-reading my previous thoughts in the light of seeing it in 3D, I can only conclude that in the past I have given it much too easy a ride. There really is an awful lot going wrong here.

Let’s get the 3D aspect out of the way nice and early – it’s a retro-3D release, obviously, and as a result the effect is really not that noticeable. On one level I suppose we must be grateful for the absence of lightsabers being laboriously jabbed directly at the camera, but on the other hand, this really just points up the brazen nature of the retro-3D-ing fad: you’re paying extra for the 3D, but it doesn’t add anything to a film which wasn’t designed to utilise it. But, of course, I would have gone to see a Phantom Menace re-issue no matter what format it was in, so let’s move on.

Well, hang on, you may be saying, if The Phantom Menace is as clunky as you just alluded, why do you say that? Surely the Star Wars brand name alone isn’t enough to make you suspend your (so-called) critical faculties? What’s it got to commend it?

It’s partly the thing that the Star Wars movies do better than almost any other fantasy films – which is to make you almost believe they were filmed on location in another world. The galaxy far, far away is as alluringly presented here as it ever has been, in seductive detail and on an epic scale. (The production values are, unsurprisingly, superb, not that this in itself should really be a positive.) The film’s visual invention reaches a high point in the realisation of new villain Darth Maul (Ray Park), whose prominence in the publicity for both releases suggests the film-makers agree. (The way that the script horribly underuses Maul – starting a trend that would continue throughout the prequels – is another issue.) The action choreography is great, and it’s not as if all the acting is as dreadful as some people would have you believe – there are genuinely good performances from Ian McDiarmid and Pernilla August. There is, of course, John Williams’ wonderful score. But that’s really about it in terms of positives – though the sheer look of the thing is difficult to overestimate as a factor.

Set against this… well, watching it again properly now, the thing that strikes me is how numbingly cack-handed the storytelling is, often on the most basic of levels. I could write a much longer piece than I’m prepared, or indeed have time to, at this point, listing mystifying creative choices and simple mis-steps by the dozen. The apparent racial stereotyping, the belligerent office furniture, the constant unfunny ‘comic relief’, the weird narrative shifts between an epic moral clash between absolute good and pure evil and a politico-economical dispute about trade franchises and taxation (these days the film gives a weird impression of being about the European Parliament)… but anyway.

Let us instead on focus on the core issues with this film. First and foremost, this movie should start from scratch and establish the key characters and themes for the rest of the series. Does it? Does it cobblers. Who exactly are these Sith guys and the Trade Federation and what’s their problem with the Naboo? We’re never told. It never feels like a true beginning. The main character in this movie, certainly in terms of screen time, is Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who is by no means a major player in the overall story. Jinn’s characterisation is as a mass of stoic inertia wrapped in some very odd hair appliances. There is an awful lot of Qui-Gon given that the prequel trilogy as a whole is about other characters.

The relationships and characters here are thin to the point of non-existent. Jake Lloyd is quite simply not very good as Anakin Skywalker, though the rotten dialogue he’s given does not help. His relationship with the woman we know will be his wife in the future (Natalie Portman) just seems weird given she is obviously twice his age (for no strong reason demanded by the plot). As for his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), one of the most central ones in the whole series – in this film, Anakin and Obi-Wan barely have any dialogue with each other, as Qui-Gon is hogging all the script. And as for his relationship with Palpatine, another enormously important plot thread – one line passes between them in the entire movie. In terms of laying foundations and establishing themes, The Phantom Menace is a total failure.

Looking at it now and seeing how the prequel trilogy developed, it seems to me that George Lucas’ biggest misjudgement was to insist that the films be made for a future audience that would not have seen the original trilogy and who would experience the saga in chronological order. The main result of this, in terms of the storytelling, is a strident insistence on preserving the ‘surprise’ that Darth Sidious and Palpatine are the same man (although even The Phantom Menace comes close to blowing the gaffe at one point through an injudicious cut).

As a result, if you’re not in the know as to the ‘secret identity’ the story comes across as bemusingly inconsequential, but if you do know who’s really who, it’s simply baffling instead. Sidious and his Neimoidian allies talk several times of his schemes and plans but we never learn what they consist of, beyond simply taking over the planet. What exactly is he after? What precisely underpins all the various machinations he’s clearly working hard at throughout the movie?

It certainly looks very much like the end of this movie shows Darth Sidious’s plans going somewhat askew – his apprentice chopped asunder, his allies under arrest – but him skilfully parlaying this into a long-term benefit – to wit, his being elected Chancellor. So how would he have benefitted if, instead, things had worked out as he’d planned and the Federation taken over Naboo? Still the Chancellorship? If he was going to get the job either way, why make such a big deal out of trying to capture the Queen, packing Darth Maul off to Tatooine and revealing his existence to the hitherto-oblivious Jedi? Unless this also was part of his plan. In which case… (And so on.)

The problem with having to maintain the narrative distance between Sidious and Palpatine is that as a result none of this can be addressed, even obliquely (Sidious has fairly limited screen-time, too). As a result we get a movie where the objectives and plans of the bad guys remain largely obscure throughout, a real rarity in the fantasy-adventure genre.

Perhaps this is ultimately at the heart of The Phantom Menace‘s incoherence, ideas and scenes piling up on top of one another with not much evidence of an organising principle. Possibly the most disappointing thing about the re-release of this film is that, for once, Lucas has resisted the temptation to fiddle about with and ‘improve’ it, because for once it could really do with it. That, or withdraw it completely and just have another go at telling the story again in an entirely different way. As it is, with this as its origin myth and foundation, the Star Wars saga is a house built on sand. (Not that I don’t still love it, of course.)

Read Full Post »

Stone in the Mind’s Shoe. Blowing in the Mind’s Wind. I’m sorry, I should probably stop now. Yes, nonsense upon nonsense and you may well be wondering exactly what I am on about.

Well, here’s the thing. As those who know me will be all too aware I am chronically unable to pass a second-hand bookshop without popping in for a good rummage about, and last weekend was no exception. I spent a happy hour or so in Hurlingham’s, apparently ‘the best bookshop in London’ (nearest Tube stop Putney Bridge), and was pleasantly surprised to discover a copy of Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, an unassuming volume but one nevertheless of some note as only the second piece of Star Wars fiction ever written. Worth a look simply for curiosity value, I think you’ll agree.

You may be wondering why this tale trades under that particular title. Well, having read it, so am I, as it isn’t really addressed in the story. What the story does concern itself with is a secret mission undertaken by Luke, Leia and the droids, to attend a rebel conference. Unfortunately Leia’s ship gets the space equivalent of a flat tyre and they are forced to crash-land on the swampy planet Mimban. Before too many chapters have elapsed they find themselves roped into a quest to recover a mysterious crystal which grants the holder tremendous control over the Force. Unfortunately the Empire has also got wind of its existence and Darth Vader himself is on the way to recover it.

And the results are, er, really incredibly dull. No, really, they are. There’s a lot of wandering around in swamps, ruins and tunnels and conversations between fairly irksome characters. Partly this derives from the fact that the story is based around Luke and the Princess, undoubtedly the two most blandly written and performed characters in the original movie (Vader only shows up in the very last section of the book), even if their characterisation here seems a little eccentric.

There is also, you may not be surprised to learn, a rich vein of ick running through the story for modern readers, as Luke and Leia contend with the powerful sexual chemistry between them. This is written with the obvious intention to be cute (there’s a bit where they have to change clothes which involves a lot of bashfulness and backs being turned) but just comes across as deeply queasy.

There’s what looks like an H.P. Lovecraft reference at one point (which was probably a lot more subtle at the time) but really most interesting thing about reading this book was not the actual story but trying to figure out why it was written the way that it was. Why was the story so lacking in ambition, spectacle and incident? Why weren’t Han and Chewbacca in it, or even referred to much? Why did the story share such odd similarities with scenes from the later movies (it opens with Luke crashing his X-wing into a swamp and later on the Imperial Stormtroopers take a beating at the hands of furry aboriginals)?

Well, readers, if you don’t want the only interesting thing about this book spoiling for you, look away now. My researches (okay, Wikipedia) have revealed that this book originates from such a distant point in the past that at the time George Lucas was worried that the first Star Wars might not be a moneyspinning hit, and commissioned the story for a low-budget sequel to amortise costs. And Splinter is that story, transformed into a novel.

Why is it so dull and lacking in incident and spectacle? Because incident and spectacle are expensive things, unsuited to a low-budget quickie sequel. Why aren’t Han and Chewie in the film? Because Harrison Ford hadn’t signed up for the follow-up when the story was being put together. Why do odd bits of this story resurface in later movies? Presumably because Lucas took a liking to them and decided to recycle.

I do usually like Alan Dean Foster’s writing, his Alien novelisations are exemplary and his original novels (the Spellsingers, for instance) are full of wit and imagination. But Splinter is really only of historical interest, a vision of not such a terribly long time ago in a parallel universe that was probably closer than many people think. That said, it is almost impossible to imagine the original Star Wars not being a monster hit: the fact that George Lucas himself was unsure of its success is somehow rather sweet.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 30th 2002:

It’s always dangerous to turn up to a movie with expectations of a life-changing experience, doubly so when the movie in question is an American-made blockbuster. And yet that’s what I (and I suspect many others) did, when Attack of the Clones, the latest instalment in George Lucas’ cultural juggernaut Star Wars, opened a week or two back.

My excuse is that, well, I couldn’t help it because I love Star Wars. Seeing the original movie on the big screen in early 1978 is not only one of my earliest memories but also probably one of the formative moments of my life. I have a Pavlovian reaction to the exuberant bombast of John Williams’ score. I even really liked The Phantom Menace, despite its flaws.

Yet I came out of the theatre with oddly mixed emotions. The initial euphoria due to simply seeing a new Star Wars movie faded and I was left feeling neither shaken or particularly stirred (sorry, wrong franchise). And I couldn’t work out why. This seemed to be an adventure in the classic style: the further escapades of our heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), three people united by their love of freedom and democracy and their very dodgy hairstyles. I won’t trouble you with the traditional teaser of plot at this point, as a) if you’re remotely interested in this film you’ve probably already seen it at least twice and b) its terribly, terribly complicated. Suffice to say there are chases galore, much wielding of fluorescent tubes, and some of the most spectacular battle scenes in cinema history.

Having gone back for a second viewing my considered judgement is that this is an immaculately made, highly entertaining blockbuster, packed with cortex-frying visuals and memorable moments. It benefits enormously from a full-throttle performance from Christopher Lee, who perfected the role of ‘villainous Count with supernatural powers’ in about 1966, and who’s as powerful a screen presence as ever.

I suspect my initial ambivalence was partly due to going in with such high expectations, because while Attack of the Clones is good, it’s not great. There are serious problems with the script: the central love story is so flatly written and perfunctorily handled that it would take considerably better actors to make it remotely convincing. Natalie Portman’s delivery of the line ‘I truly, deeply love you‘ is almost bad enough to make you start cheering for the Trade Federation.

There’s also the lengthy sequence set on Tatooine. While this is one of the most effective and impressive parts of the movie, allowing Christensen to show how good he can be, it could also be excised almost completely at no harm to the main storyline. As in The Phantom Menace, setting up the plot of the ‘future’ films seems to take priority over telling the story of this one.

I think I was also taken unawares by the sheer darkness of parts of the storyline. This film is even darker, in places, than The Empire Strikes Back, with a real sense of pain and despair and impending doom – partly generated through clever use of characters, imagery and music from the Classic Trilogy. Episode III looks like it will be very bleak indeed.

Actually, I think I detect a certain lack of decision on Lucas’ part as to what level to pitch this Prequel Trilogy at. We all know how this story ends, after all, and I would have thought the sensible response would have been to play the dramatic irony of the situation for all its worth. But there are very few allusions to what lies ahead, and Lucas stubbornly sticks to his guns by pretending the true identity of Darth Sidious will come as a huge shock when it’s revealed. It won’t; even my mum figured out who it was and she keeps asking which one of the characters was Captain Kirk.

On the other hand, the film seems to assume the audience is already familiar with the Classic Trilogy when it comes to elements like the Sandpeople and Yoda (his big scene works because it plays against the audience’s expectations of the character). Going entirely for dramatic irony would have worked fine, as would playing it all ‘as new’. The mixture of the two in the finished movie smacks of confusion and a missed opportunity.

Expectations have never rested easily upon the Star Wars films and Attack of the Clones is no exception. It’s not up to the same standard as The Fellowship of the Ring, but it is packed with thrills, spectacle, fun and humour. It may be only a movie, but at least it’s a good one.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 25th 2002:

The making of prequels is a practice fraught with difficulty – the only really successful ones I can think of, off the top of my head, are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and possibly Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Certainly one such effort which fell a long way short of expectations was 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas.

It stills feels odd to realise that the next Star Wars movie is only weeks away from release: compared with the build-up three years ago, there’s a virtual media blackout in place. Now this is probably partly due to the enormous impact on fantasy cinema of Lord of the Rings and also the fact that this is a bumper year for SF and fantasy blockbusters, but the general perception of The Phantom Menace as a failure – one celebrity fan routinely refers to it as The Phantom Sh*tbox – must also play a part.

Like The Scorpion King, this movie deals with the formative years of a character destined to be the big bad guy in the earlier, which is to say later, movies. In this case the lad in question is Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave on the desert planet of Tatooine. Distinguished only by his supernaturally quick reflexes and vague precognitive powers, Anakin’s life is turned upside down when he’s dragged into a great adventure involving two Jedi Knights (beardy Liam Neeson and hasidic Ewen McGregor), the Queen of the planet Naboo (tranquillised Natalie Portman), a strange guppy rastafarian (he’ll-be-trying-to-live-this-down-for-the-rest-of-his-career Ahmed Best) and R2-D2 (lives-down-the-road-from-me Kenny Baker). It’s all to do with Trade Federations and the Galactic Senate with a bit of podracing and some sword fights slung in for good measure. You already know the plot, after all…

Now my routine defence to criticisms of The Phantom Menace at the time it came out was that this is a different style of film – rather than ‘plucky rebels fight evil empire’  this is a story of the rise of darkness and the loss of innocence, and so it’s of necessity got a different mood and tone to it. But the problem is, it hasn’t – the film succeeds best when in territory not really covered by the first, which is to say middle, trilogy (I’m beginning to wish Lucas’d made these films in the right order after all), such as that of the political thriller and the faux religious epic, but struggles to accommodate the action sequences and chases which the audience expects from a Star Wars film. Part of this problem is the opening, which is of the same in media res ilk as its predecessors, but is really a mistake in what’s supposed to be Episode I and the absolute beginning of the story. As a result the new-style material looks incongruous and disappointing. The crass and obvious comic relief would still have felt hugely out of place, though, no matter what.

Beyond the main problem of approach, there are plenty of minor flaws in the way it’s scripted. Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the Jedi aren’t nearly as likeable or charismatic as leads as their predecessors, which is to say their – oh, never mind. There isn’t the same level of energy in any of the performances and you do realise how much the originals relied on Harrison Ford’s slyly comic performances for their success. The film doesn’t even hint at the darkness within Anakin that will ultimately consume him. There’s also Lucas’ total fumbling of Portman’s dual role, both in script and direction, and it’s not made clear exactly why main villain Darth Sidious is helping the Trade Federation in the first place (he seems to benefit more when his schemes go belly up). The Federation are rather craven bad guys, too, perhaps the main evidence that this film is more interested in setting up future plotlines than in telling a good story of its own.

But I still think this film isn’t anything like as bad as it’s often held to be. Darth Maul (Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz) is a memorable bad guy, even though he only seems to be in the film as a plot device to ensure a couple of good saber battles. The final duel is the best to date in the series. The special effects are, of course, immaculate, although with the rate at which modern special effects advance, the vistas of CGI armies on the march already look a bit dated.

In the end though, it comes down to this: the original Star Wars succeeded so amazingly because it retold a primal familiar myth in a visually unprecedented way. The Phantom Menace, if it fails at all, does so because it tells an unfamiliar kind of story in a visual style the audience has become very familiar with down the years (interesting, given that both films clearly owe a debt to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). It’s too Star Wars-y when it doesn’t need to be, but not Star Wars-y enough where it counts. There’s still potential left in the saga, though, and hopefully the producers will have learned from The Phantom Menace‘s mistakes. We’ll find out soon enough.

(…and when, nearly 10 years after writing this, The Phantom Menace was re-released in 3D, I had this to say about it.)

Read Full Post »