(Don’t worry: this eventually will talk about the movie Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace. Be patient.)
There’s a song about being “a walking contradiction” — you know, the one about being “a prophet and a pusher” — and that’s what I feel like as I sit down to write this review.
That’s how I am after nearly getting my cold back by waiting for four hours-plus in line, with a constant wind only partly blocked by the theater building and the most warmth being the metaphorical warmth generated by the fans I visited with while waiting to buy tickets for the film when I needed to have brought more protective clothing —
— a night capped by not getting into the midnight screening of this hugely anticipated movie, and not getting to see it with a movie house full of psyched-up movie geeks lovingly dressed in Star Wars costumes and reciting the famously wooden dialogue of the original trilogy —
—and so I sit here now, having finally seen The Phantom Menace on Wednesday night, and I’m ludicrously past my usual deadline for writing my reviews but this is a special case, and I’ve needed time to think.
There’s a lot to think about. And the contradiction I feel comes from being both a critic and a Star Wars fan. I saw the 1977 original about a year after its first release, and it was among the very first handful of movies I ever saw in movie theaters. My parents still have the Star Wars toys my older brother and I played with as kiddies. I remember, when I was a kid, imagining myself in the Star Wars universe or at least having that universe briefly intersect with my own.
I’m an adult now, at least chronologically — I’m 25 — and now I’ve just seen a new installment of a series whose other episodes I first saw when I was 4, 6 and 9. This is a crucial detail. I absorbed those three movies at a very young age.
And now I’m a film critic, or at least trying to develop into one. And you’ve all been hearing the pummeling many of my fellow critics have directed towards The Phantom Menace. I also know for myself that the audiences seeing this film aren’t universally loving it, either.
For me, it’s a sign of trouble when I’m watching the beginning of the Tatooine pod race in this film, and there’s this truly obnoxious two-headed sports commentator speaking with a fake American accent of all things, saying lines like “I don’t care what universe you’re from; that’s gotta hurt!,” and I thought to myself that it seemed almost like a parody — and a bad one at that — of Douglas Adams’ offbeat science fiction story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Which reminded me that Adams hates Star Wars and much of science fiction in general.
Moments like that took me out of the movie. Thankfully there were scenes that got me back in, but the shifts from good to bad to incredible to embarrassing were jarring for much of the film’s 130-minute length.
The opening scroll detailing the state of the Star Wars galaxy as Episode One gets going is a good example of the difference between telling the audience something and showing it something. It reads, “Turmoil rocks the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”
That’s no “A beginning is a very delicate time,” which is how [David Lynch's version of] Frank Herbert’s Dune opens. It’s also not up there with George Lucas’s own “It is a period of civil war” or “It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” It’s not epic or mythic enough; there’s no sense of dramatic weight, or of action. Galactic turmoil should be bigger than our (literally) Earth-bound troubles; it should be measured in something grander than taxes and trade routes. The opening scrolls of Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back — but not Return of the Jedi — are better at conveying how the galaxy is dangerous and unsettled. Maybe part of the problem is inevitable — the first trilogy describes a war, while at the start of The Phantom Menace there’s no real war yet — and it is noble of Lucas to try and make drama out of non-shooting-war politics, but what the opening paragraph needed is to give us a sense of an entire galactic civilization about to crack. [Present-day note: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith get this right, thank everything.]
We then have to get through an awkward first reel — where we meet the alleged bad guys of “the greedy Trade Federation,” whom we don’t care about, and listen to them go on about political intrigue, which we don’t know about — and since almost all of the characters we see in this opening sequence are computer-generated, and not always generated all that well, we’re left adrift. [Present-day note: I was partly wrong about this; the Trade Federation high mucky-mucks were real actors in costumes, but I believe their facial movements were at least augmented with computer effects.] It’s a little much to assimilate in an opening, kept rooted only by the welcome presence of Liam Neeson as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn.
To make a long story short, Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) learn that the Trade Federation has a ’droid army poised to invade the peaceful planet of Naboo, and they get down to the surface to try and stop it. In the process they meet a banished member of the amphibious Gungan race named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), rescue Naboo’s young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), blast their way off the planet, and escape to the nearby colonial world of Tatooine — which you’ll remember from the first film. Their ticket off Tatooine turns out to be Anakin Skywalker, a 9-year-old pilot and tinkerer who can build engines and ’droids and who builds a racer in the aforementioned pod race. Meanwhile, the two Lords of the Sith, the real bad guys behind the invasion, chase the good guys as the Jedi and the Queen find ways to help humans retake Naboo.
So a lot’s going on, and the movie is so stuffed with incidental it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time details that there’s a big risk of falling flat. Yes, that race through desert canyons and between dangerous outcroppings is exhilarating, but again, I was distracted by the appearance of the fearsome Sand People, because the way they were used…well, the scene got a laugh. You don’t laugh at Sand People! They’re also called Tusken Raiders because it’s a name as harsh as they are!
I want to let people know how amazingly mixed a bag this is. The things I liked about this movie - and there were many - are things I’ll try not to give away, because I don’t want to ruin them for anybody. Here are a few:
— The entrance into this film of R2-D2, always one of my favorite Star Wars characters, just feels right.
— Natalie Portman is surprisingly solid and good in the demanding role of the 14-year-old queen, giving us a strong sense of a very young woman starting to mature and blossom, even in the pressure cooker of galactic strife.
— A happy surprise is Jake Lloyd, the very young actor playing the boy who will grow up to be Darth Vader. He plays someone who knows who he is, who has dreams and the will to act on them, and who definitely has that unique jumble of emotions that kids have at that age. He seems like a real kid — which is one of the hardest acting jobs to pull off. I’ve complained before about overly cutesy kids in George Lucas’ Willow and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles; Lucas got it right this time. [Present-day note: I learned later that, soon before Phantom Menace came out, Orson Scott Card met Jake Lloyd and said that if he were making the Ender’s Game movie then, he’d want Lloyd as Ender.]
— The visuals. Oh my God, the visuals. These come closest to making this a film for the ages; moviemaking itself will change because of what we see here. And from a photographic standpoint, it’s all directed very cleanly: you always know what’s happening, even at the film’s most frenetic light saber-duel moments. It can be frustrating when you want to linger on a special shot, but that can wait for when Phantom makes it onto tape, laserdisc and DVD. And you will be able to skip past the movie’s awkward parts, too!
— The many, many, many tiny details of the story that link Phantom with A New Hope, Empire and Jedi. Fans are going to spend so much time deciphering the plot and divining the clues planted everywhere in this movie.
— I like how Star Wars is also a sort of environmental saga, something always stressed in the first three films — the Galactic Empire builds its equipment in blatantly artificial shapes and blows up entire planets, while the Rebels find places within nature to hide and have spaceships shaped like sweet potatoes — and implied here in Phantom. The Empire-spawning Trade Federation runs roughshod through a forest; the Gungans live in an underwater city that looks like it was grown, and use organic-looking technology in the film’s final battle.
— A pivotal and gorgeously-shot scene late in the film between Kenobi and the ancient Jedi master Yoda: the tiny green creature paces and warns of the threats possible in the future — and John Williams’ classic “Imperial March” rises out of the scene’s unsettled music.
— The fact that, by necessity, this next trilogy is likely to be far more dangerous and unsettling than the original films as the tragedy at the heart of Star Wars unfolds — the one that nearly kills Anakin Skywalker, and leaves him so physically and mentally demolished (I’d say that’s the right word) that he becomes Darth Vader. How will his children — or for that matter, anyone — survive the turmoil that is tied to Anakin’s fall from grace?
— “Duel of the Fates” by John Williams — musically portraying the battle between the noble Jedi Knights and the villainous Lords of the Sith, with a hint of Anakin’s tragedy to come — has latched itself into my head.
See? There was a lot I liked.
But as a Star Wars fan, I’m still frustrated by the many missteps of The Phantom Menace — partly because they give the people who have always criticized Star Wars brand-new ammo. They’re the ones who called it simplistic and childish, not childlike. I mean, I am fond of Star Wars, but I cringed when Jar Jar stepped in cosmic caca. Did we need that? Did we need the body emission jokes and the Jackie Chan-like stunts?
It seems feeble after all this to say I’m still looking forward to Episodes Two and Three, but…I’m still looking forward to Episodes Two and Three. The whole will very likely be greater than the sum of the six parts of Star Wars as seen in the movies. I just have to hope, as happened before with writer-director Kevin Smith and his attacked film Mallrats — which led to the more mature and satisfying Chasing Amy — that the silly stuff of Phantom and Jedi is out of George Lucas’ system and the epic stuff of the whole Star Wars story will one day spring forth.