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Movie Review: Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace
**(two out of four)
The Phantom Menace marked Lucas's return to the beloved franchise after a 16-year hiatus. But despite the massive hype that was predictably generated, Phantom Menace was, to many, not quite the glorious return they expected. As a diehard Star Wars geek, I remember putting the tape in with great anticipation when it came out on video about ten years back - and being disappointed.
Now, more than a decade later, Phantom Menace is following the new-age bandwagon and seeing release on bluray and a rerelease in theaters in 3d. With the film playing on Spike TV, I thought what better way to evaluate the film than to revisit it after all these years? So, the question is, has the film gotten better with age?
The short answer: no. Sorry, Lucas, but the force was not with you here.
The film begins well enough, with a meeting aboard a command ship quickly degenerating into an awesome CGI blastfest when The Emperor (or simply Darth Sidious, at the time of this film) orders everyone onboard to be killed. Enter the two jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to slash up some droids and save the day. It's a fun, high-energy opening that - dare I say it - rivals the original Star Wars opener on the Tantive IV in sheer excitement and tension, all set to the backdrop of a spacescape filled with the CGI ships that have become the series' trademark. From this opening, I was compelled to think "yay, more awesome Star Wars!"
Then it hits planet side. The dark side starts to take hold.
The downward spiral starts with the introduction of Jar Jar Binks about ten minutes into the film. I can't think of a single soul out there who actually likes him, and within a few seconds of his introduction, it becomes clear why: he's klutzy, airheaded, and speaks in a tone that will grate on your nerves the moment he opens his big, ugly mouth (Jar-Jar: "Yoosa saved me, meesa indebted to you.") But, of course, kids wouldn't want to spend time with just one annoying stooge during the course of a movie - apparently they need an entire race of these insufferable shmucks. (Who just happen to have a gorgeous underwater CGI set as a home.) Really, what was Lucas going for when he conceived these guys? Are they minority stereotypes? Or are they just there for eight-year olds?
Things don't get any better with the introduction of the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd.) In what could be described as another misguided attempt to appeal to today's kids, Young Skywalker is a stupid, bratty kid who spends his screen time trying to play hero. (Actually, I read that he was originally going to be a bit older, but Lucas felt that making him a little kid would make the leave from his mother more poignant. That's really misguided decision making on his part, as his leave from his mother is so minute that it never really sinks in.) Watching this klutzy kid run around, the big question kept repeating in my mind: "Is this brat really Darth Vader?" If he is, the dark side is far more cunning than anyone ever dreamed.
In fact, the characterization as a whole is pretty flat. Ewan McGreggor fails miserably as Obi-Wan, showing none of the charisma Alec Guinness brought to the role; in fact, all he really does is respond to Liam Neeson. Natalie Portman doesn't fare much better, making for a rather stiff Queen Amidala. Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon stands above the rest, wearing his wise old jedi on his sleeve quite competently. Unfortunately, Lucas doesn't give him much to do, making his talents feel entirely wasted. In fact, Lucas doesn't give any of his actors anything meaningful to say or do - they show up, say their lines, and walk off.
By far the biggest victim of this soulless screenwriting is new villain, Darth Maul. At first glance, he looks like a worthy successor to Darth Vader, thanks in no small part to his wickedly satanic design. But great make up can't make up for a lack of character, something that Darth Maul suffers from greatly. Like the rest of the cast, Lucas doesn't give Maul much to do; every time he's on screen, his only purpose seems to be to engage the good guys in a kickass ligthsaber duel, turning a potentially worthy villain into a vessel to provide the obligatory fight scenes. The dark side has destroyed even itself, it seems.
It seems the dark side has even taken over the force itself. How do Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan just happen to crash land right near where Anakin lives? The Force, of course. And how does Anakin, a nine-year old kid, manage to beat cheating pros in a podrace? The Force. And how does he manage to accidentally save the day near the end of the film. The Force. It takes a great evil to turn Lucas' great conceit into a simple deus ex machina.
Even the climax suffers from the darkness of bad writing. It's admittedly spectacular, blending elements from all three previous climaxes with the enhancements of modern technology to deliver an epic battle and a kickass lightsaber duel, but relies on a contrivance so unbelievably stupid I was practically expecting Han to show up in the millenium falcon to save the day. If he had, maybe the film would be better off.
In lieu of all my negativity, I will concede that the first entry of the prequel trilogy is not a total disaster, salvaged by some well directed action sequences and digital effects that are light years ahead of what was seen twenty years ago (the design of the Gungans' home is particularly stunning). Alas, such pleasures are but a faint glimmer of light in a movie ruled by darkness. Episode I shows fans what the series would be like without Han, Luke, and Leia: a luscious, but utterly soulless sci-fi world without any hope. With that in mind, I think I should discuss how the rest of the prequels fare. Episode II is an improvement, while Episode III is, arguably, actually on par with the original. If you feel the need to relive the series in 3D, then do yourself a favor and save your money for when the two, far better sequels inevitably get their 3D treatment in the forseeable future.