Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’

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.)

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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.)

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