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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (1999)

4. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was perhaps the most anticipated film in cinema history. It was the first proper “Star Wars” film released in sixteen years and the first time George Lucas himself had directed a movie since the original film. In that time, the public’s love for the series and the fandom obsession with it had only intensified more. Though the re-edited “Special Edition” re-releases were frowned upon by hardcore fans, the films reignited “Star Wars” fever, leading to a new wave of toys, books, and merchandise. What excited people even more was this being “Episode I.” The new film would fill in the backstory of the universe’s most beloved characters, showing us Darth Vader became Darth Vader. Even better then that, they’re would be two more movies after this one. Hell, the premiere of the movie’s trailer was an event, people buying tickets to unrelated films just to see it and leaving afterwards. The hype for “The Phantom Menace” was unparalleled.

When people actually saw the movie, that hype soured into disappointment. “Episode I” is the film that made George Lucas simultaneously the most beloved and hated man in nerd culture. Though a huge financial success, many people were more then happy to share their disappointment with the film. In the years since, “The Phantom Menace’s” reputation was only grown harsher. A lot of people hate the movie and even more seem to hate what it represented. For many, this signaled the point when “Star Wars” went from the grandest science fiction universe ever put to screen and became an excuse to sell French-kissing Jar Jar Binks lollipops. What does someone like me, whose interest in “Star Wars” has always been casual at best, think of this widely loathed feature?

Set decades before the events of the original trilogy, “The Phantom Menace” takes place in a very different far, far away galaxy. The Galactic Empire has yet to rise. In its place is the Galactic Senate, where senators from hundreds of planets argue and squabble about issues. One such squabble gets serious when the Trade Federation blocks contact from the lush, swamp planet Naboo and threatens war. Two Jedi Knights are sent in as negotiators. What they don’t know is that the Trade Federation is in cahoots with a Sith Lord, an evil Jedi, who has conceived a conspiracy that will bring him to power. Fleeing an assassination attempt, the Jedi and the Queen of Naboo land on distant, desert planet Tatooine. There, the Jedi meet a young boy who will change the course of the galaxy.

The very first “Star Wars” was a simple story. Lucas himself has admitted it's not much more then a tale of good versus evil, the good rebels fighting the evil empire, with Luke’s progression from boy to man happening alongside the war. The prequel is no more complex in its themes. Its story, however, goes off in all sorts of unwieldy directions. There’s way more political intrigue, with lots of screen time devoted to the Senate arguing and deciding about what to do. Trade regulation does not seem like the most exciting basis for your epic, sci-fi adventure. I’ll admit, as a kid, I never entirely understood what the Trade Federation’s goals were. Even as an adult, the how and why of what the Trade Federation is doing isn’t explained the best. Turns out, it’s all a long plan for Senator Palpatine to come to power, ensuring the existence of the Sith-controlled Empire. Watching “The Phantom Menace” in theaters back in 1999, all that shit was years off. While Lucas’ world is no less vivid, the story within it is less clear.

What strikes me the most about “The Phantom Menace” is how completely different it looks compared to the original trilogy. The events of this film and the next two takes place long before “A New Hope.” Then why are the robots, spaceships, and technology so much more advanced? Even as a kid, I understood that effects had come a long way in sixteen years. Yet you’d think Lucas would be more interested in maintaining visual continuity between the two trilogies. More pressingly, what was cutting edge in 1999 looks incredibly dated in 2015. The CGI effects now come off as incredibly cartoony. Look at the Gungan mounts, which are weird space camels, or the one pod racer, who is just a big yellow head. These characters don’t have the interior logic that the aliens of the original trilogy had. They don’t look like things that could actually exist. Moreover, the movie’s reliance on CGI quickly becomes a weakness. The computer generated characters lack heft or weight. They don’t look like they exist on the same field as the live actors. They don’t, of course. But effects should strengthen the illusion of the movie, not wreck it.

One special effect, specifically, definitely brings the whole film down. Is there a more hated character in all of sci-fi fandom then Jar Jar Binks? He’s introduced shrieking, wailing, and nearly getting a more important character killed. Throughout the film, he contributes little to the story. He’s supposed to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan navigate the Naboo ocean but they seemingly do okay on their own. He does nothing but cause non-plot-related trouble on Tatooine. During the war on Naboo, he stumbles, screams, and survives only through pure luck. He adds nothing to the plot. Jar Jar is also incredibly annoying. His voice is annoying, a high-pitch mush-mouthed whine that is frequently difficult to understand. He has both the vocal dialect and the attitude of a blackface minstrel performer. Not only is this racist, it’s also embarrassing. (Also not helping the movie are the other characters that can easily be read as offensive Asian or Jewish stereotypes.) That Jar Jar is in so much of the movie effects the viewer’s enjoyment of it.

Why Jar Jar is in the film is a question worth asking. Lucas himself has been quoted as saying the character was there to appeal to young kids. This isn’t the first time George has done this. “Return of the Jedi” was negatively affected by cutesy Ewoks and lots of new, unnecessary vehicles that could be made into toys. Lucas has said that all of the “Star Wars” have been intended to be children’s film. Lucas misunderstands, seemingly thinking a children’s film must be juvenile. That attitude gets us a farting space camel, Jar Jar stepping in alien poop, and incompetent droids that speak in obnoxious voices. It gets us flippy-floppy aliens and vehicles that seemed to have been designed as toys first and characters second. The entire tone of “The Phantom Menace” is soft and harmless, removing any danger or tension from the story. There’s nothing wrong with a “Star Wars” movie being a children’s movie. The problem is a film this expensive, technical, and involved shouldn’t be a bad children’s movie.

“The Phantom Menace” shows some of George Lucas’ other flaws as a writer. The reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father was a shock. Princess Leia being Luke’s sister was a less natural reveal, coming out of nowhere and having little effect on the plot. Not only is everyone related in a galaxy far, far away, everyone knows each other too. Luke and Leia’s mother was close friends with Senator Palpatine. R2D2 just happened to be on the same ship. The most baffling decision was to have Luke’s dad create C3PO. What are the odds that the robot that would crash-land on the same planet fifty years later just happen to be created there? For that matter, what are the odds that Qui-Gon would end up on a planet where a powerful Jedi-in-the-rough was born? Or that Vader would never think to search his home planet for his son, in all the time he led the Empire? The Force works in mysterious ways. So does hacky screenwriters.

Some time before “Episode I” was filmed, George Lucas had rolled with the obvious retcon that the “Star Wars” saga is the story of Anakin Skywalker, of his rise, fall, and redemption. Though he’s not the main character of the film, Anakin is given undue importance to the story. He has no father, being conceived by the Force. His midi-chlorians – an awkward attempt to justify the spiritual with the scientific – are weightier then anyone else in the galaxy. He’s a brilliant inventor at only nine years old, creating highly advanced droids and pod racers in his bedroom. He succeeds in the pod race by pure luck. Later, he jumps into a space ship fighter jet, masters its controls in seconds, flies into space, survives a war zone, and successfully destroys the villains’ ship. In fan-fiction parlance, Anakin Skywalker is a Marty Stu, a character who is competent at everything, has no apparent flaws, and succeeds at every endeavor the plot throws at him. The characters’ unearned hyper-confidence is another result of the movie’s kid-friendly focus. The stiff, childish performance of Jack Lloyd does not justify the character’s extravagant abilities.

As the prequel trilogy went on, fans would become more critical of George Lucas’ ability to write dialogue. This massive flaw is readily apparent in “The Phantom Menace,” though. Lucas assembles a cast full of talented actors but few of them are capable of navigating his egregiously bad dialogue. Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley play the duel role of the Queen and her decoy. Both of these talented actors are saddled with the film’s stiffest dialogue, smothering any hints of a decent performance. Samuel L. Jackson, an explosive performer when utilized correctly, sits in a chair, reading broad dialogue in a calm, bored voice. Ewan McGregor, another fine performer, seems similarly baffled by Obi-Wan’s dialogue. It doesn’t help that the character has little to do until the last act. McGregor marches along to the script’s clunky beats, trying and failing to imbue Lucas’ rigid writing with some sort of natural life. Even Yoda, who was brought to life so vividly in “The Empire Strikes Back,” becomes a mouth piece for awkward, unnatural exposition.

Despite a horribly dense screenplay that leaves little room for likable performers, a few actors emerge from “The Phantom Menace” with their dignity intact. Liam Neeson’s career has evolved from notable bit-player, serious performer in serious movies, a wise mentor in popcorn genre fare, to action hero throat puncher. “Episode I” launched that third act of his career. Neeson, even when trading barbs with cartoon characters, maintains a respected air of wisdom. He turns Qui-Gon, one of the most thinly written parts in the script, into a fully formed character. Ian McDiarmid reprises his role as Senator Palpatine, before he became the evil Emperor. Though the movie ladles on foreshadowing of Palpatine’s future villainy, McDiarmid is still having a ball. Every wink and glad hand is laced with malicious intent. He is simultaneously incredibly charming and likable, while hinting at a capacity for great evil. Which is perfect for the character.

A main factor in the movie’s advertising was the character of Darth Maul. At first, Maul looks like another Boba Fett. That is, a villain that looks cool but doesn’t’ actually do anything. Maul is certainly striking looking – those red facial streaks and forehead horns make an impression – but he actually does contribute something to the story. Ray Park’s physical performance exudes complete control and vicious purpose. He’s a genuinely threatening presence. As an action movie, “Episode I” is less successful then it sets out to be. However, the climatic light saber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul is impressive. The flips and saber spins are acrobatic and exciting. John Williams’ score propels the scene with energy and mythic importance. It’s the only time the movie’s stakes actually feel real. That a major character dies in the duel only hammers this point home.

It’s a shame the rest of the movie’s action sequences aren’t that intense or exciting. The pod racing sequence got a lot of press at the time. The scene isn’t bad and it’s appropriately speedy. A sequence of Anakin’s pod flying into the air still works. However, today the scene’s reliance on poorly aged CGI drains it of tension or thrills. That Anakin, such a thin character, is at the center of it doesn’t help matters. The Jedi slicing through Battle Droids also doesn’t impress, since the droids are such comical characters and such obvious CGI creations. A similar problem sinks the battle between the Trade Federation and the Gungan forces. The constant Jar Jar schtick undermines the seriousness of the situation. Meanwhile, the laser shields and floating tanks seem horribly ineffective. Even the space battle at the end, the titular war among the stars, feels hopelessly untethered. That a nine year old with no flying experience can not only survive, but win the war, makes the war seem like no big deal.

It’s true that “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” never could have lived up to the hype surrounding it. That’s the risk of being probably the most anticipated film in cinema history. The reviews at the time were mostly negative and the fan reaction was even worst. “The Empire Strikes Back” got some disappointing reviews to, when it came out. There has been no reevaluation of “Episode I”s” quality in the years since. It’s just as flimsily plotted, overly juvenile, and excitement-free now as it was then. The saga would continue but the fan base’s faith in their mentor’s abilities would be forever shaken. [Grade: C]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, George Lucas' frustration with the demands of directing are revealed as the reason he didn't direct the rest of the trilogy, nor any movie again. Now we can see why.

Weirder than anything in The Phantom Menace is how Lucas chose to make creative decisions that contradicted the original trilogy and didn't make sense on its own (let's give the Naboo starfighter a child-size helmet!).