Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

2 out of 5

Directed by: George Lucas

The Phantom Menace is a pretty good title.  Darth Maul, who’s red-and-black-and-horn-ed face was shown on the posters, and mightily hyped up in the trailers, looks pretty cool.

In his generally positive review of the movie, Roger Ebert praised the sense of discovery and wonder the film offered, noting its general stiffness and shallowness, but accepting that as part of the fantasy worlds of Star Wars.  And I don’t disagree with that, at least for the first half of the film or so.  The first movie probably did that the best: a sort of sweeping, pastoral pacing that made the addition of Tatooine and The Force and jedis to our fantasy lexicon immersive; it’s still evident why the film made such an impact.  This sensation would definitely decline by the third film, but it was still somewhere in the trilogy’s DNA, and obviously has been leapt on and expanded in the years since by fans.  While there are many, many puzzling decisions to Phantom Menace’s construction, as jedis Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escort Princess Naboo from location to location, Lucas’ love for the embracing of CGI enhancements opens up some wondrous settings, with the ingrained Star Wars mingling of races and droids populating those settings with a lot of inventive eye candy.

But ‘The Phantom Menace’ is also a pretty vague title; a marketing jingle to dress up a pretty underwhelming trade dispute between Naboo’s home planet and ‘the trade federation,’ and Darth Maul, when you get a good look at him – which you do, as Lucas absolutely fears shadows and darkness in this flick – is clearly just a guy under makeup.  That cool red and black and horn stuff just looks like war paint; like a costume.  And once we’ve visited our planets, and then the plot has us… going back to the same locations, the wonder wears off, leaving us with some very poor dialogue and stiff character direction.

What’s odd is that this isn’t lazy or amateurish: the camera captures sequences purposefully, if plainly, and we know a lot of these people can act.  Even Jake Lloyd, playing the young Anakin Skywalker, shows glimmers of awareness of what his role could be like if actually injected with human emotion, but it can only be assumed that, in Lucas’ mind, the whole Star Wars shebang is meant to take place on some big ol’ stage, speaking to the rafters.  There can be nothing left mysterious or soft-edged; you should be talking outward; narrating your own thoughts and emotions.  Even some hokum that we’ve previously accepted – The Force – goes through some padding to make sure its hokum is extra extra understood via “midi-cholorians.”  Cultures that should be speaking their own languages instead speak in accented English (look, man, no subtitles!), “twists” are telegraphed as far out as possible, and then things go even a stranger step further, with exclamations like Wa-hooh! exclaimed exactly as such, bringing the expression of “emotions” to cartoonish levels.  Doubling down on this sensation occurs  during what should be the climactic final action sequence, which finds our jedis, the princess, and young Anakin sneaking back to their home planet to hopefully overthrow the Trade Federation, which has taken it over; it also finds the stakes turned into comic foibles, with people accidentally bumping into enemies and – spoiler – winning the battle.  In fact, outright violence is to be avoided at all costs: while robots are being splashed by water balloons, there’s a lightsaber battle going on, where Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Ray Park jump around quite a bit – which is choreographed well – but can only make mock hurty faces when a blow is struck, as said blow is cropped uncomfortably off screen.

Again, this all plays to a kind of ‘staged’ effect, as well as rendering our space opera into something 100% kid friendly (a shift which stems back to Return of the Jedi, for sure), but kids are certainly ready to be challenged more than Phantom Menace is prepared to offer, and I cannot really think what benefit this staging offered.  The most excessive touch of kid marketing is certainly Jar-Jar Binks, who lends us a fart joke and some forced catchphrases.  While I think the special effect of Jar-Jar holds up pretty well (as do most of the effects – Lucas was pretty smart with not trying to make his creations too “real,” so they play well in the heightened reality of the flick), I am again completely puzzled how this character made it into a final draft.  He’s a grandpa joke that ol’ pops is sure the kids will love, and is an undeniably unnecessary addition to the film.

Accepting that The Phantom Menace turned out the way it was intended makes it an easier pill to swallow, in a way.  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.  Witness the steady eye behind the construction of the pod race.  Get a sense of that initial Star Wars awe as we are first exposed to Episode I’s take on the universe.  Smile at light swords deflecting laser beams, and some cool designs.  And then get completely baffled at the rest of the batshit decisions making up the movie.