Star Wars: Episode I (1999)
The Phantom Menace
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Samuel
Jackson, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Oliver Ford Davies, Ahmed
Best, Ray Park, Brian Blessed, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Terence Stamp.
Written and directed by George Lucas.
Commentary by Carlo Cavagna.
(Note: This commentary contains spoilers and is intended only for people who have already seen the movie. For a review of, and a more positive opinion on, The Phantom Menace, you may wish to read vornporn's review, which contains no spoilers. Vornporn has rated this movie a B+.)
Not having been first in line to Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace, I had plenty of exposure to all the critical backlash before I actually saw the movie. As a result, I lowered my expectations, and then I lowered them some more. I knew that The Phantom Menace would not be the equal of the original Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. Part of what made Star Wars so great was that, when it was released in 1977, nobody had even seen anything like it before. It took an entire generation to a new universe and forever changed cinema. Now, years later, no longer a kid and jaded by dozens of special-effects laden summer films, I certainly did not anticipate that The Phantom Menace would affect me in the same way. That would have been too much to ask.
So, when finally I saw The Phantom Menace on Memorial Day, I fully expected a less-than-great movie. I was prepared to be annoyed by the much-maligned Jar-Jar Binks. Still, I expected to be entertained. Surely a new Star Wars movie would handily surpass the other 1999 summer offerings--movies such as Entrapment and The Mummy, both reasonably entertaining but mediocre films.
I was mistaken. Perhaps I had been influenced by the pre-release hype after all. Perhaps the original Star Wars trilogy had shaped my expectations more than I thought. Regardless of the reason, if I had to describe The Phantom Menace in one word, that word would be "dull."
The Phantom Menace, which easily contains more computer-generated special effects than any other movie ever made, looks spectacular. The digital characters and landscapes are remarkably life-like--the illusions falter only when George Lucas's digital creations interact with a human character in the same shot. But Lucas's achievement is also his failure. The effects overwhelm the movie. There are no memorable characters (other than Jar-Jar, heaven help us), there's no suspense, and there is no passion. Take the pod racing sequence, for example. It looks fantastic, but it is no more engrossing than a video game. All of Lucas's energy and creativity was invested into making a movie that looks good, and none of it into making a movie that actually is good.
The greatest failing of The Phantom Menace is that the human characters are no more interesting than blank sheets of paper. The characters of Star Wars had distinguishing traits that set them apart from one another and made them icons in our popular culture. For example, when I think of Han Solo, I think of a sarcastic and reluctant hero, flawed but, in the end, dependable and resourceful. When I think of Princess Leia, I think of a strong-willed, sharp-tongued, practical woman--a princess who's not afraid to get her hands dirty. And when I think of Luke Skywalker, I think of a naive but courageous young man with a tendency to whine. Some of the best parts of the original series were when the three personalities clashed and bickered.
In contrast, when I think of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Princess Amidala (Natalie Portman), I have trouble thinking of any adjectives at all. Neeson, McGregor, and Portman go through the motions and recite their lines woodenly, and that's about it. Yet these are talented actors. Maybe it was difficult to perform in a near-vacuum (many characters and sets would not be added until later, digitally). Or maybe the director has become so consumed with his digital gadgets that he paid little attention to the movie's human element.
As one-dimensional and boring as these three characters are, Jake Lloyd, as nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker, is even worse. Anakin is, of course, the fulcrum of the entire Star Wars story arc. We all know that he will one day become Darth Vader. But before he turns to the Dark Side, he becomes a powerful Jedi Knight.
The Phantom Menace tells the story of how Anakin, a young slave boy on Tattooine (also Luke's home planet in Star Wars), is first discovered by the Jedi. Because of Anakin's subsequent history, I expected to meet a conflicted young boy, with a great deal of potential in the Force, but also a great deal of anger. Indeed, that is exactly who George Lucas tells us Anakin is. The Jedi Council initially denies Qui-Jon's request to train Anakin. Regarding Anakin's rage, Obi-Wan says to Qui-Jon, "All of us can see it. Why can't you?" Perhaps Qui-Jon can't see the darkness within Anakin for the same reason I couldn't see it--because it just ain't there. Anakin is just a huggably cute young boy. I could detect none of the duality that supposedly lies within. Perhaps concerned about creating a negative role model for the children he obviously made this movie for, Lucas tells us Anakin has a dark side, but he doesn't show it.
Lucas also tells us that Anakin is strong in the Force. Again, I never saw any evidence of it. Sure, Anakin is an excellent pod racer, and sure, he has a string of remarkably good luck. The results of Anakin's endeavors suggest his abilities, but I never actually felt Anakin's strength in the Force. Not in the same way, for example, that we felt Luke's power at the end of Star Wars, when Obi-Wan's voice tells him to use the force and Luke switches the automatic targeting system to manual control. (Tangentially, the pseudo-scientific explanation for why a Jedi is strong in the Force is wholly unnecessary. Lucas's audience already bought into the pseudo-religious mythology of the Force twenty years ago. Why spoil it with goobledy-gook about blood cell counts? The bit about Anakin being immaculately conceived is even more of a groaner.)
Thus, we are left with is an inexpressive nine-year-old who improbably wins a potentially fatal race against murderous competitors, and even more improbably winds up saving the day at the end by accidentally flying a fighter into the enemy's docking bay and firing weapons. This is the kind of stuff we normally see only on Saturday morning cartoons. Strictly kids' stuff. Sure, the original trilogy was also for kids, with its cute robot (R2D2) and furry sidekick (Chewbacca), but it didn't have actual children running around playing decisive roles in battles that determined the fates of entire worlds. Lucas never lost the adults in his audience until he introduced the Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi.
It's up to the digital characters to provide the comic relief and the memorable personalities. Unfortunately, the most memorable personality is also the most irritating: Jar-Jar Binks, who is some kind of an idiotic swimming donkey with an incomprehensible and slightly offensive Caribbean accent. Jar-Jar doesn't even make a cute toy. I have no clue what Lucas was thinking when he came up with this guy. I mean, what sidekick ideas did Lucas have to reject in order to reach the point where Jar-Jar actually seemed like a winning concept? A tree-dwelling walrus with a Russian accent? A playful Klingon? An animated crash-test dummy?
Lucas's other digital creations are more successful. In particular, I enjoyed greedy junk dealer Wotta (Anakin's slavemaster), who looks like a cross between an armadillo and a flying insect. The Phantom Menace also benefits from a couple of nice human performances in small supporting roles. Samuel Jackson is, of course, always wonderful--here he is appropriately restrained as Jedi Council member Mace Wundu. Too bad he's only on screen for a few minutes. Hopefully he will play a bigger role in Episodes Two and Three.
The other supporting actor who stands out is Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine, Queen Amidala's representative in the Republic's parliamentary body. Non-fanatics of the Star Wars series may not realize this, but the name of the evil Emperor in the original trilogy is Palpatine, and he was played in The Return of the Jedi by--you guessed it--Ian McDiarmid. Putting two-and-two together, we can also assume that the cloaked figure who gives orders to the Trade Federation and Darth Maul (Ray Parks) is Palpatine.
The story has been criticized for being complicated because it features disputes over trade and taxes. This seems odd to me. Wasn't our own Revolutionary War fought over similar disagreements? Rather than complicated, Palpatine's Sith conspiracy is the best part of The Phantom Menace. Think about it: the fact that Palpatine is the cloaked figure explains why he has targeted Naboo, a "remote, peace-loving" planet. It's Palpatine's home planet. He uses the conflict to manipulate Amidala into calling for a vote of no confidence in the Republic's Chancellor (Terence Stamp). Palpatine subsequently wins the Chancellorship for himself on the strength of the "sympathy vote" for Naboo. The Trade Federation is defeated at the end of The Phantom Menace and Darth Maul is dead, but Palpatine has grown stronger. The Jedi victory is an apparent victory only. In case the audience doesn't realize who Palpatine really is, Lucas includes a scene at the end of the movie where Yoda and Obi-Wan wonder if Darth Maul had been "the master" or an apprentice of someone more powerful. The next shot is of Senator Palpatine at the victory celebration on Naboo, and for a fleeting moment we can hear the Empire's theme in the score.
It's not the story that should be criticized, but rather the way in which Lucas tells his story. The narrative structure is just awful. In Star Wars and The Empire Strike Back the momentum never flagged. Those movies went from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, always keeping the audience in suspense and hungering for more. In contrast, The Phantom Menace opens on Naboo, then spends a lengthy interlude on Tattooine where the heroes mill about for awhile until, after a brief visit the capital of the Republic, it's time for the final assault against the Trade Association forces back on Naboo.
Furthermore, Lucas violates one of the most basic rules of storytelling. You must always establish your villain. You must set him up as an opponent worthy of your heroes. By so doing, you heighten the tension and the suspense until the climactic scene when hero and villain inevitably face off. Lucas, however, gives Jar-Jar Binks more screen time that the satanic Darth Maul. In fact, Darth Maul has a mere handful of lines. He is supposed to be stalking the heroes, but I rarely felt his ominous presence hanging over the story. There wasn't much of a phantom menace.
Compare Lucas's cursory treatment of Darth Maul with Darth Vader's introduction in Star Wars--one of the greatest introductions of a movie villain ever. Vader, imposing in his black cloak and helmet, steps through the white smoke into the brightly-lit corridor of Leia's ship and begins barking orders to Stormtroopers (also clad in white) in that trademark James Earl Jones voice, with that trademark mechanical breathing. However, in The Phantom Menace, Lucas has lost his ability to milk a moment for maximum effect. Remember how deliberately Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader squared off in Star Wars, how we heard Darth Vader's breathing before he even appeared? In The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan jump straight into their duel with no preamble. The result is that the final confrontation is a letdown. Though it is a spectacular light-saber duel, it doesn't feel emotionally charged, because we don't really know our villain.
Palpatine and Darth Maul are two of the most interesting figures in The Phantom Menace, but Lucas--perhaps concerned once again with the children in his audience--chooses to dwell on the dark elements of the story as little as possible. Instead, Lucas spends time introducing several characters from the original trilogy. In addition to Obi-Wan, we meet Yoda again, as well as Jabba the Hut, R2D2, and C-3PO. The trouble is that the inclusion of some of these characters--C-3PO in particular--seems gratuitous. We discover that C-3PO was actually built by Anakin. Problem: nothing in C-3PO's background suggests this origin. In fact, it's wholly inconsistent with the original trilogy, in which C-3PO is unfamiliar with Tattooine and does not recognize the name "Skywalker." Lucas's people have acknowledged the inconsistency and have promised to rectify it in Episode Two or Three, perhaps by giving C-3PO an electronic memory wipe. But why create the inconsistency in the first place? C-3PO serves no plot function whatsoever.... there is no reason for him to be in the movie. Yet, there he is.
I'm no filmmaker, but it seems to me that it wouldn't have been that difficult to make The Phantom Menace into a much better movie. I would have deleted Jar-Jar Binks, or at least made him less annoying, and given Darth Maul much more screen time. Most importantly, and despite my criticisms, I would have focused more on Anakin, rather than less. To play Anakin, Lucas should have found a better actor than Jake Lloyd--one capable of portraying the complexities in Anakin's character. Because such a sophisticated performance is beyond the abilities of any child actor, Lucas could have made Anakin a little older--maybe thirteen or fourteen. A side benefit of making Anakin older is that his exploits would have been more credible. To draw out Anakin's dark side, Lucas might have shown Anakin taking some pleasure in the deaths of his adversaries in the pod race. His existence as a slave doesn't seem to be particularly horrible, either--Lucas could have shown Anakin being victimized more by Motta.
Finally, I would have changed the narrative structure entirely. Lucas could have chosen something more similar to the structure of Star Wars. Lucas could have introduced Anakin at the beginning, just as Luke is introduced at the beginning of Star Wars. Then Lucas would have had the time to develop fully Anakin's character while events unfold on Naboo concurrently. Then, like in Star Wars, the two storylines would have come together in the middle, sometime after Qui-Gon and company arrive on Tattooine.
Despite the mediocrity of The Phantom Menace, Lucas has laid the groundwork for two potentially outstanding additional films. By creating what is, essentially, a two-hour exposition--an introduction to the plotlines and the characters--Lucas has set quite a stage for Episodes Two and Three. How Anakin becomes Darth Vader is the great unanswered question from the first three films. It should be a fascinating story. The danger is that Lucas will continue to pander to the children in his audience, which will make it difficult to investigate the causes of evil in any meaningful way. Will Episodes Two and Three be powerful and complex films, or will they be simplistic summer movie fodder?
In any case, the potential created by The Phantom Menace for its sequels doesn't make it a better film. Indeed, I have to believe that if The Phantom Menace had been a stand-alone movie--if, for example, it had been the first of the Star Wars films to be released--I would have enjoyed it even less. Moreover, it's unlikely that there would be throngs of people lining around blocks to see it a second or third time. Given the money The Phantom Menace has already made, it seems people's fond memories of the original trilogy are allowing them to overlook The Phantom Menace's shortcomings and enjoy it anyway. There's nothing wrong with that. However, what bothers me is that, in making The Phantom Menace, Lucas has relied on those fond memories, on special effects, and on hype more than on a strong story and compelling characters.
The George Lucas who made The Phantom Menace just doesn't seem like the same George Lucas who brought us Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. The difference can be described best by examining how George Lucas changed a scene in the "enhanced" Star Wars-Special Edition from the original Star Wars. The scene is when we first meet Han Solo in the bar on Tattooine. He is seated at a table with a bounty hunter, sent by Jabba the Hutt to hunt Solo down and kill him because Solo, a smuggler, owes Jabba money. In the unmodified Star Wars, Han Solo draws his weapon under the table and unceremoniously kills the bounty hunter. Even though Solo fires first because it is obvious that the bounty hunter will kill him if he does not, the scene establishes Solo as a man who is willing to shoot first and ask questions later, and kill to get out of a tight spot.
Apparently Lucas later decided that this scene made Solo too dark a character. Perhaps Lucas couldn't tolerate Solo's ambiguous code of ethics--and with all that new digital technology at his disposal, there was something Lucas could do about his misguided misgivings. So, for the Special Edition, Lucas digitally manipulated the scene so that the bounty hunter fires first. Thus, the morality of the situation is no longer ambiguous--Lucas spells out the fact that Solo is just defending himself. This difference is fundamental to Solo's characterization--now Solo can be perceived as just a good guy who happens to make a living as a smuggler. With his digital toys, Lucas has watered the scene down, perhaps to make it more appropriate for children. This change is emblematic of how The Phantom Menace differs from the original trilogy: overwhelmed by digital effects and watered down for children.
Review © June 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and
Images © 1999 by Fox and its related entities.
Read user comments on this review or send us a comment. We'll post the best comments!
Read vornporn's review of Star Wars: Episode One.
Visit the official Star Wars: Episode One web site.