Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jin), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padme), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray), Hugh Quarshi (Captain Panaka), Frank Oz (Yoda), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorium), Brian Blessed (Boss Nass), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Andy Secombe (Watto)
Totalitarian Government (Later)
“Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the planet of Naboo. While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming change of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict…”
*long protracted sigh*
So here’s a little bit of history that I promise will be part of a point in a minute. I am disgustingly young. How young you ask? Well when this movie came out I was eleven years old. I had always been a Star Wars fan, but my enjoyment of the series was limited to catching the movies when they came on TV and nobody else was watching it.
I can specifically recall the first time I heard about Episode 1, it was in a toy commercial. I had assumed that they were just doing another re-issue of the original trilogy with more fancy computer shit added in but closer inspection revealed a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t recognize. From then on I was obsessed with Episode 1.
I dove into the fandom hard (or as hard as a lower-class Midwestern kid whose parents really think he already has too much shit can) I had Micro Machines, trading cards, books, clothes, I had a Darth Maul t-shirt that I wore until I was probably 13. I bought action figures until my parents stopped letting me so when we’d take a trip to Wal-Mart I’d wait until my mom was in the gardening department and then go buy one with a fistful of loose change (I’m sorry late 90s Wal-Mart clerks), then open it in the parking lot and hide it in my shoe. I got the shitty collectible tie-in toys from Pizza Hut (there wasn’t a KFC or Taco Bell nearby), I watched a two-hour long Home Shopping Network special on Star Wars merchandise. I even collected the limited edition pop cans. I still have a lamp I made out of them at my parents’ house somewhere. I drank Pepsi One for Star Wars. PEPSI. ONE.
The reason I’ve given you that depressing view into my existence is because I want to acknowledge that, yes, I was in that core demographic, I did become obsessed with that movie (though I never actually saw it until like 2002) and it was my Star Wars movie. Just on the momentum of nostalgia alone I should at least kind of like this. I still think that it’s just really really really bad and if it were a person I could stand on a frozen lake and watch it claw futilely at the underside of the ice until bubbles stopped coming out of its mouth and feel nothing.
We open on Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi as they come to a space-station bordering the planet Naboo to negotiate an end to trade disputes with the Trade Federation. Unfortunately the Federation’s leaders have signed on with the subtly named Darth Sidious. Sidious is a Sith Master and has designs o- he’s Emperor Palpatine, it’s incredibly obvious though I remember people debating it at the time. The once and future Emperor tells Nute Gunray that he needs to kill the Jedi and commence with invading the planet.
This first action beat really should be cool. I loved and still do love the design of the battle droids and the destroyer droids. I love everything about the Trade Federation’s droid army from their spaceships that walk around the hanger to their clunky 60s-sci-fi inspired tanks and troop transports. And I also love lightsabers because I have a soul, so in theory watching our heroes hack up a couple dozen battle droids should be awesome, instead it makes me realize how long it takes for hacking up battle droids with a lightsaber to become tedious, answer: not very long.
Our heroes escape on the troop transports heading to the planet’s surface and that’s where we encounter Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar leads the Jedi to his underwater city where Naboo’s non-human citizens, the Gungans, reside. Qui-Gon appeals to the Gungan leaders to help fight off the trade federation but they refuse, giving them a tiny submarine so they’ll fuck off. Now they go through the planet’s core, almost getting eaten by scary giant fish for a while until they pop up in the human city where they narrowly manage to save The Queen and a small group of her court and whisk them off-planet.
As they escape the planet their ship is damaged and so they send some astro droids out to do repairs, only one plucky little droid survives but manages to repair the damage. The queen has one of her people read off the serial number on the droid as if we all don’t already know that R2-D2 will be appearing in this movie for no reason.
Master repaircan that R2 is, he can’t work miracles and the ship has to stop for repairs, they stop on the world of Tatooine to get a part. The part is expensive and this shithole planet won’t take Qui-Gon’s fancy Republic money, he can’t even mind control the Eastern European fairy-tapir that runs the junkyard. Luckily he bumps into little Anakin Skywalker, a young slave who is into pod racing. Qui-Gon places a bet on the pod race, for the part and for Anakin because it turns out the the levels of magic Jedi shit in his blood are over 9000.
Now I really should hate the pod racing. It’s an unnecessary distraction in a movie that’s already spinning its tires trying to make something happen. It’s showing us that Anakin is a talented pilot so we won’t be surprised when he’s an awesome pilot later (he has to be an awesome pilot because Obi-Wan said he was in the original trilogy) but that’s bullshit because we never saw Luke pilot anything more complicated than a landspeeder and we just took that guy’s word when he said that Luke was the best bush pilot in the outer rim. I should hate the pod racing scene but at an hour into the movie it’s the first genuinely good scene that’s happened.
Pod racing is a neat idea, it’s like chariot racing with jet engines taking the place of horses. The action is well shot and it’s a tense and fun scene with some of the best special effects in the film. If Lucas had been as invested in the rest of the movie as he had been with this one nigh-inconsequential scene, maybe Episode 1 wouldn’t suck so much.
So obviously Anakin wins the pod race and our heroes go to the planet of Coruscant so that Palpatine can pretend to play the good guy to get Amidala to vote Terence Stamp out of office and elect him supreme important person. Meanwhile Yoda and Mace Windu test young Anakin and find that he is unfit to be trained as a Jedi since he’s too old and filled with fear. Qui-Gon basically says, “Fuck you, doing it anyway.”
So everybody heads back to Naboo to take care of stuff. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan will fight Darth Maul, Anakin will fly a starfighter to blow up the Trade Federation control station which actually is the movie in a nutshell because it’s the assault on the Death Star except smaller and much more poorly done. Amidala and her people try to get to her throne room for some reason and the Gungans face off with an army of battle droids.
Now the Gungans vs. Trade Federation should be a good scene. I’ve mentioned how I like the Trade Federation design and the Gungans sans Jar Jar are actually kind of cool looking, I could see them being acrobatic and jumping around. This is the first time we can show some actual war in Star Wars, and the whole thing falls flat. The only weapons the Gungans have are these bombs that look like giant bath balls that they throw at the droids which causes them to short circuit but only ever takes out one or two at a time. They don’t get into the thick of battle and the fight is stopped when the control ship explodes and the droids are de-activated. No war today.
Auteur theory is the theory that, according to encyclopedia Britannica: “-the director, who oversees all audio and visual elements of the motion picture, is more to be considered the “author” of the movie than is the writer of the screenplay.” That is the case with some directors: Spielberg, Tarantino, Raimi, even Michael Bay. It is not the case with Lucas.
George Lucas is a visionary, he comes up with amazing ideas but lacks any sort of craft or subtlety to bring those ideas across in a meaningful manner, it’s why the original film has a depth and life to it that is at a sharp disconnect from the lazy “hero’s journey” narrative tacked onto it. With a team of people who can hammer his writing into shape and direct a film he can make wonders, without he makes movies like Episode 1.
Now part of the problem is in the very essence of Star Wars. As I mentioned in the first review, this series is born from a combination of various themes from fantasy stories, samurai and western films, movie serials, myths, pulp science fiction novels, etc. The problem with that notion is it only works once, once we have established the idea of Star Wars then any subsequent stories told within that universe are going to be influenced by Star Wars, in fact any story that attempt to make a grand sci-fi/fantasy genre mash-up is influenced by Star Wars even if that influence is to make it as unlike Star Wars as possible. The world of genre stories exists in two distinct time periods: before and after Star Wars. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Still, it is possible to riff on the Star Wars formula without coming across too much like a fan film or a ripoff, but George Lucas is unaware of that because this movie feels like the biggest Star Wars fan film I’ve ever seen. There’s so much fan service, though I don’t even think I would call it that because I feel like the only person who is a fan of the concept of having stuff like Anakin being born on Tatooine and having built C-3PO is Lucas himself.
In fairness, there are some cool new ideas at play. Everything is designed very well, evoking the covers of old paperback Sci-Fi novels with rounded bubble-shaped vehicles and structures, the aliens are all weird and unique, and the Gungan city is visually breathtaking and filled with life. Large sections of this movie just look like a beautiful retro-futuristic painting and I absolutely love that about it. But then things move and their motions are jerky and fake-looking.
A fair amount of practical effects were used. Many scene with Jar Jar featured the actor wearing a costume with a hole cut in the neck for his face, many of the ships and sets were somewhat real with only the more impractical parts CGed in later. Even Yoda was practical, as you can see in the trailer above, though he’s fully CG in the movie. I can’t really decide which version looks worse and Frank Oz phones in his performance anyway so I don’t really care to think on it further.
Now let’s talk on these characters. Our main character is Qui-Gon Jin, he’s a bit of a bastard and kind of an idiot, but he speaks in a soft Liam Neeson-y voice and sounds like he knows what he’s talking about so people let him do pretty much whatever he wants. Theories have abounded that Qui-Gon was a Sith, but that theory has a lot of holes in it and I think he’s merely a hardheaded jerk.
Jar Jar is a character that seems like he was invented for a companion cartoon series made by Hanna-Barbera in the 1960s. Jar Jar Binks is the Godzooki of Star Wars. He’s there to keep the little ones entertained because all the robots and lasers and sword fights might bore them. History has made him out to be worse than he is, but he’s still pretty bad. Most of the time Ahmed Best does not speak in the character’s signature shriek but the character’s constant clumsiness and weird speech patterns cause him to grate upon my soul. He does not belong in this movie, at least not in this way, but George Lucas apparently thought that with C-3PO only making a small cameo we needed a comedic relief character.
Now there’s a crazy fan theory making the rounds that Jar Jar was originally intended to be revealed to be a Sith master, perhaps even Palpatine’s master, and the entire goofy doofus schtick was an act to disarm people. They use some fairly convincing evidence like the way he tears shit up in the fight with the Trade Federation by accident, claiming that his discipline is a form of drunken boxing and point to several pivotal moments in the film where Jar Jar is talking with his hands, intimating that the Gungan is using Jedi mind tricks to control people. It’s bullshit, because it claims that Lucas nixed the idea due to negative fan feedback for the character but the man clearly gives no fucks what anyone thinks of his movies so I don’t buy it. The real crime here is that he had the opportunity to insert a weird alien comedic relief character and didn’t use Jaxxon.
I have no earthly idea why it was decided to make Anakin so young. Well, that’s not true, Anakin was made young for the same reason Batman had a creepy kid sidekick and Captain Marvel turned into a young boy, he’s pandering to the elementary school market. It’s smart in theory but shows a lack of care put into the narrative beyond how much merchandise you can move on the side. The pod racing and air assault scenes are the only times Anakin does anything because it’s the only thing he can do, he’s a little kid. Poor Jake Lloyd isn’t a very good actor, not awful by no-name kid actor standards but still pretty bad. It doesn’t help that he’s given bad dialogue and a lot of it, but the whole character and performance are awful across the board and I feel bad because it seems to have killed Lloyd inside.
Darth Vader is a hard act to follow. How do you create a villain with even a tenth of the cool, scary, powerful charisma of Darth Vader? Attempts have ranged from adequate to stupid but with Episode 1 they really had something. Darth Maul isn’t as interesting as Vader nor as imposing or frightening, but he is still pretty creepy and cool. He has an interesting design with his facial tattoos, spiked head, and yellow eyes. His double-bladed lightsaber (the worst-kept secret in the history of bad secret keeping) is a unique touch that makes him stick out in the minds of fans. So I have to wonder why anybody thought it would be a good idea to kill him off in the first movie. I realize that Obi-Wan needed the moment of triumph to show that he could make it without Qui-Gon (and I’ll get to my problems with Obi-Wan’s role in this story in another column) but I feel they could’ve done it without losing the character. Fan response was so strong that he actually did return in the Clone Wars TV show (the CG one) with a mechanical lower half since Obi-Wan chopped his off.
The movie has two saving graces. The first is Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan. McGregor (nephew of Wedge Antilles himself, Denis Lawson) won’t be a boon to the series until the next two movies but there’s a peek at the life he brings to the trilogy in this movie. Obi-Wan’s fighting style is hilariously distinct, it looks like he’s break dancing and McGregor gets super into it. The story goes that they had to edit out all the lightsaber noises he was making during the fight scenes in post and that’s hilariously endearing.
Grace number two is Padme. Natalie Portman was 17 years old when she filmed this movie, her character is 14-years-old girl and she kicks all of the ass. The detail of serving in secret as the Queen’s handmaiden as her look-alike Sabe (Keira Knightley) wears the Geisha make-up and goofy hairstles shows a real craft and intelligence to the character. Right out the gate Padme is more smart, powerful, graceful, and likeable than Leia was at the height of her characterization. The twins seemed to have inherited short tempers, a general whiny attitude, and bad acting from their father but they got the kickass gene from Mom. She’s a great character and I love her in spite of the fact that everything around her is awful and she gets thrown under the bus later.
There are a few promising chunks in this stew of awful that is Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace: First Blood Part 2: The Return (First Sequence) III but mostly this movie just makes me depressed. There’s always been an element of cheap escapism to Star Wars, that’s part of its mainstream appeal but film buffs could enjoy all the deeper elements and everybody else could just watch space ship battles and laser sword fights. This movie does away with the deeper elements almost entirely except for a staggeringly large amount of great character actors and other beloved celebrities wasting their time making cameos (did you know Sophia Coppola is in this?!), it’s barely more than a chintzy kids’ film and it’s sad and embarrassing to watch somebody so celebrated for their career in film just make a mockery of himself and his franchise in this way. We’re heading down a bad road, folks… See you Wednesday!
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