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Star Wars: Eposide 1
The Phantom Menace

Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 19 May 1999

phantom.jpg (16094 bytes)   Written and Directed by George Lucas

Starring Liam Neeson,
Ewan McGregor,
Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd,
Ian McDiarmid,
Ahmed Best (voice of Jar Jar Binks),
Frank Oz (voice of Yoda),
Samuel L. Jackson and Ray Park

Was anyone at all surprised when, less than two weeks before the release date of Phantom Menace, the media vultures began circling over a preordained carcass? After all, many of the critics who were decrying how, in their august opinions, the film didn’t live up to its hype were employed by the outlets primarily responsible for generating said hype in the first place. Having been deprived of the chance to gloat over what, by all conventional wisdom, should have been the remains of James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997, no one in the industry wanted to be left out again. Both Cameron and Lucas are guilty of committing the ultimate sin: as outsiders, they have figured out the secret of getting Hollywood to give them what they want (using entirely different methods and for entirely different reasons), and have gotten obscenely rich in the process. And Lucas has become the greatest heretic of all; not only is his contempt for Hollywood types well known (he won’t even live in the city), but he managed, with the release of Star Wars in 1977, to create a demand for special-effects driven movies, and to become one of the state-of-the-art providers of the product. Hollywood needs Industrial Light and Magic’s technical prowess, but there is a simmering resentment about having to give power to the self-exiled. If the cynical analogy about Hollywood having the atmosphere of a high school for grown-ups is followed to its logical conclusion, Lucas’s success is the equivalent of the underdeveloped nerd who gets beaten up in the locker room after gym class becoming student body president. All it took were reports predicting sales of anywhere from 800 million to 1.5 billion dollars worth of Star Wars toys this year for the hostility to start resounding through the Hollywood hills.

But, of course, an analysis of this media-generated spite and hype means nothing without an answer to the real question: is the film any good? The short answer is yes, with a few qualifications. The plot involves a threatened princess (Portman), the rise of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) to the status of Jedi Knight, and Kenobi’s mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson), who brings all of these disparate elements together. Jinn and Kenobi have to rescue the princess from the clutches of a greedy Trade Federation, which has indulged in political corruption, taxation without representation (sound familiar?) and has invaded the princess’s planet of Naboo after the princess refused to yield to the Federation’s demands. It is in the process of trying to save Naboo and keep the Federation from hijacking the Senate and kidnapping the princess that Jinn and Kenobi encounter a young Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd) on the planet Tatooine. Born of an updated form of Immaculate Conception (or spontaneous generation), young Anakin displays great technical aptitude and possesses a higher level of the Force than anyone before him. Naturally, Jinn wants to become his mentor, but there are a few hurdles, not the least of which is the fact that Anakin and his mother are slaves. Throw in a very colorful new villain named Darth Maul (Park) and a Nabooine Senator (McDiarmid) with plans of his own, and the resolution of these various dilemmas isn’t as clear-cut as one might expect.

Phantom Menace displays all of the hallmarks of its nearly-generation-old predecessor: it is thrilling, thorough in its explanations (as far as they go), but very slow-going in spots. There have been some complaints about this latter point, in comparison to the original film. In all honesty, however, anyone who makes this assessment with a straight face is cursed with a notoriously short memory. Star Wars took at least forty-five minutes to get to the groundbreaking action sequences for which the film is best remembered; much of that forty-five minute sequence was used to establish the necessary characterization and backstory which in turn made the rest of the film comprehensible. In this era of quick-fix, instant-breakfast narratives (that bear as much relation to true storytelling as chemically-laced powder dumped into milk does to real food), George Lucas is an anomaly: he truly loves to create narratives, and real narratives -- especially those spanning a trilogy -- require explanations to lay groundwork for the future, to incorporate any previous works into a seamless whole, and to keep the present on-screen actions from imploding from neglect. Most of the decisions Lucas has made in fulfilling this multi-faceted bargain work very well; Phantom Menace runs smoothly, if not necessarily according to audience expectations, but in retrospect, nearly every element works from both a logical and entertainment perspective.

phantom-3.jpg (3623 bytes)This is a film for those who can remember how magical Star Wars seemed in 1977 (the subsequent sequels, undertaken by different directors, never captured that same wonderment). Kubrick’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey may have preceded it by eight years, but Kubrick was addressing a more adult audience. Star Wars may have seemed on the surface to be nothing more than Metaphysics Lite, but, after having been bombarded for at least a decade by a disillusioning war and quasi-utopian "isms" of every stripe, the film not only looked like something audiences had never seen before, but its tone was different. Optimistic, spontaneous and rooted in a strong moral framework, Star Wars looked nothing like the world outside the theater doors, and appeared to be a defiant rebuke to that world. Is it any wonder that audiences flocked then and continue to flock to it?

Twenty-two years later, it would be unreasonable to expect Lucas to have created something just as original, but what he has created is, in its own quiet way, a promise, however shaky at times, of new and wonderful adventures to come. Lucas may still be borrowing the gung-ho spirit and narrative economy from those serials he loved as a child, but fortunately he isn’t bound by the same budgetary constraints as those executives that ran Republic studios from the 30s to the 50s (though not, thankfully, from their production designers, who had to concoct new and wonderful vistas on a $1.95 budget and weren’t always successful -- papier-mache boulders don’t always fall upon the villain quite as convincingly as the real thing). If it weren’t for the special effects, one could almost call this stripped-down filmmaking in the best sense of the term. You might not want to make this sort of film a staple of your intellectual diet, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting something less complex from time to time, if for no other reason than as a reminder of how much elegance often resides in tales simply told. Admittedly, Lucas does have a tough sell on his hands in one respect: in an era of nine-dollar admission fees at the local gigaplex, it’s not certain if filmgoers will warm to the idea of paying to wait. After all, Lucas had to wait only a week; our wait is much longer.

What about the acting in Phantom Menace? The assessment here is mixed. As expected, both Neeson and McGregor bring as much derring-do to the proceedings as any who came before them and far more than anyone acquainted with the blue-screen school of reacting has a right to expect; the sly humor lacing their interactions adds some much-needed spice to lines that, on occasion, veer too far into the mediocre. The picture is theirs to carry, and they are quite adept at their task. Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of the young Anakin Skywalker is a touch too petulant at times, but I suppose that petulance might be the logical starting point for a character who has to grow up and become Darth Vader. Poor Natalie Portman (Al Pacino’s daughter from Heat), playing the token princess Amidala, is saddled with the obligation to be as feisty as Carrie Fisher, but she is also saddled with a god-awful, yak-horn-from-hell hairdo, one so heavy that, if replicated in nature, would kill its possessor with one good turn of the head; under the circumstances, she can be forgiven for keeping any spontaneous gestures well under control. Yoda (voiced, as before, by Muppeteer Frank Oz) looks obviously younger here and is still as omniscient as ever, though his crotchety nature is tempered somewhat by the ideals of (relative) youth; he hasn’t been disillusioned yet by Vader’s rise. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mace Windu, though given very little screen time as a member of the Jedi Knight Council, will, hopefully, figure much larger in subsequent episodes. There are still some kinks to be flattened and/or eliminated, but, on the whole, Lucas has everything more or less under control.

In fact, the worst thing about the new film is an obnoxious character named Jar Jar Binks. His personality can only be described as a cross between Butterfly McQueen’s character in Gone With the Wind and Chris Tucker’s in The Fifth Element, with none of their charm. Screechy in voice, craven in personality and, sadly, almost ubiquitous in his presence, Binks threatens to derail the proceeding by systematically draining any interest from the relevant issues at hand with his hysterical, servile mannerisms. His salvation by Jinn in the first half-hour of the film is not the only mistake in judgement made by the otherwise impeccably intelligent Jedi Knight; indeed, many of us might argue that it is the more serious of the two. If it weren’t for his incomprehensible gibberish, and his extremely "unique" appearance, one might mistake him for an intergalactic Stepin Fetchit, and that’s a stereotype that no one wants resurrected. Politely put, Lucas should simply shelve Binks altogether (as one of the few mistakes of an otherwise fruitful creative impulse), revise him, or find another device by which to divest Episode Two of him at the earliest possible opportunity. As comic relief, he fails miserably, since he provides neither comedy nor relief.

 In spite of Mr. Binks, Phantom Menace is still a great film (there’s a race sequence, lifted in spirit from either version of Ben-Hur, that ends up light years ahead of them in quality and excitement -- one of the advantages of having computer-generated images that are free from the traditional limitations of camera placement). Follow Jedi Knight Jinn’s instructions: "Feel. Don’t think. Use your instincts." Phantom Menace may not be high art, but it is great fun. Ignore those who would build the film up simply for the pleasure of knocking it down, and trust yourself: if you liked George Lucas’s offerings in 1977, you’ll probably like the 1999 edition just as much.

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