22 years after the first “Star Wars” film made a ginormous cultural impact on the world, George Lucas finally returned to the franchise to make the first film of a new prequel trilogy with “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” It was hyped beyond measure and it sold gazillions in ticket sales but was nevertheless a let down for die hard fans and pretty much everyone else. I don’t think it’s a terrible movie. I just don’t understand how necessary the film is.
There’s a lot of irrelevant moments here. Early on two Jedi step off a ship, and a droid introduces herself to them and says “this way please,” and the three figures literally walk out of frame. This takes up time that I don’t understand. Why couldn’t the three just end up in the room they were supposed to be in? There are a lot of “so what?” moments in “The Phantom Menace,” and it all weighs the film down.
Listening to an audio commentary a number of years ago, one of the visual effects makers pats himself on the back of a shot midway through the film that consists primarily of CGI characters and sets. That was when I realized the conception of “The Phantom Menace” was completed with a short sighted intent. Sure the scene might have been a technical breakthrough in 1999, but where’s the story? Fact is, there is no story and little regard for the celebrated franchise in “Episode I.” Lucas and his team were more concerned with shooting new CGI discoveries with human interaction, with next to no regard for intelligent plot and storytelling. The film suffers because of Lucasfilm’s hubris.
Consider the pod race. There’s a moment where young Anakin’s (Jake Lloyd) racer falls apart at high speed and he’s gotta get it back together. He uses a magnetic tool to get a cable plugged back in. If this child is “the chosen one” and potentially “dangerous,” why not show the child potentially use the force to bring the cable back in place? Why not show moments where unexplainable power emits from Anakin, to what would show the inevitable we are aware of eventually happening?
Lucas is also all over the place in his storytelling and characters. From the Shakespearean manipulator, Senator Palpatine, to the immature cartoon like Jar Jar Binks. I think they all serve a purpose to entertain. Yet while adults and die hard fans will relish the return of Ian McDiarmid (a terrific actor) they’ll be bored to death with actor Ahmed Best in the Jar Jar role. This I expect happens in vice versa with 8 year olds seeing their toy figures come to life. There is a silly charm to Jar Jar, but what 8 year old wants to pay attention or even comprehend debates among galactic senators over taxation and trade? It’s as if Bugs Bunny entered the halls of Congress, or Othello walked in on a pie throwing melee among the Three Stooges. At almost every point in “The Phantom Menace” something doesn’t belong or seems out of place.
The film moves far away from the tradition of the original trilogy. For the first time the human characters are enormously flat. Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor…all flat, all bland. There’s no snarkiness to them. No sarcasm. Before “The Phantom Menace” when was it ever said that the Jedi order was so formal in their ways? It doesn’t feel very fun to be a Jedi, like it did for Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill before.
The two redeeming qualities of this film belong to the pod race which is thrillingly edited in sound and visuals. There’s some fun shots of each racer, the pit droids, the crowds in the stands and even Jabba The Hutt. The film really comes alive here much like the memorable cantina scene from the original “Star Wars.” The other best feature is the villain, the apprentice to the phantom menace, the red and black tattooed Darth Maul played by the agile martial artist Ray Park.
Lucas didn’t use Park enough in the film. With his double bladed lightsaber, the two on one dual towards the end is one of the greatest sword fights in film. I would’ve welcomed an additional five minutes of this scene. Shamefully, this would be Ray Park’s only appearance in the film franchise, as well as Darth Maul. This was a great blend of actor and character. Lucas abandoned a good thing too soon.
Yes! I have much to complain about “The Phantom Menace.” Yet it is not all bad as a whole. I love the political trickery that McDiarmid displays and the senate meeting among the delegates is a nice of foreshadowing for what we know will come of it. Visually, it’s a treat as well. (Again, though, what kids are going to be entertained by all of that?) The pod race and lightsaber dueling is masterful as well. There’s some good material here. There just could’ve been a whole lot more….and a whole lot less overall.