Reflection: ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

A typically intense and flashy lightsaber battle from 'The Phantom Menace'
A typically intense and flashy lightsaber battle from ‘The Phantom Menace’

When George Lucas first announced the Star Wars prequels in the mid-1990’s, the franchise was already firmly embedded in American culture and had been for about 20 years. It even found its way, in 1997, onto the ridiculously popular TV sensation, Friends, not to mention the fact that the original three films were “refurbished” and–horrifically, to some–added to, and re-released worldwide, raking in millions upon millions of dollars even though the films had originally seen their releases between 1977 and 1983. And so, with the advent of the new movies, expectations were set and comparisons were ready to be made.

Frankly, there is no comparison to be made between the “Original Trilogy” and the “Prequel Trilogy,” for each segment 0f the series represents a different time in American thought and consciousness. The Original Trilogy, for example, was created for a mass audience that better appreicated narrative devices such as characterization: Luke, Leia, Han, and even big old hairy Chewbacca feel like living, breathing people with emotions we can empathize with, and they were meant to. The prequels, in contrast, were made for a more fast-paced and attention-deficient audience that demanded brighter lights, louder booms, bigger explosions, and faster action; characterization was important to this audience, but not as important as special effects (note, for instance, the box office successes of Independence Day, The Lost World, and Armageddon; clearly character development was not a major concern for moviegoers during the mid-to-late 1990’s).

Does this mean that people who cherish the original three films cannot enjoy the prequels? Hardly. But those who do, strangely, hold characterization to be more important than special effects should be warned that, if the characters in the Original Trilogy are believable people with real emotions, the characters in the Prequel Trilogy are–with a few exceptions–just posable action figures.

***

The first installment in the saga, unabashedly titled The Phantom Menace, had a lot riding on it when it was released in 1999–namely, the massively high expectations of the multitude of Star Wars fanatics (like myself)–and while it is not the strongest film in the Prequel Trilogy, it does its job competently. Phantom Menace initiates the compelling, overarching Good-versus-Evil, Jedi-versus-Sith, Underdog-versus-Topdog conflict that runs fairly straightforwardly throughout the saga, and it even manages to give us some good, old-fashioned movie fun along the way. To be fair, however, the film also provides us with an insight into Lucas’ seemingly new-found focus, which so painfully plagues the Prequel Trilogy. Oh, Georgie Boy.

The film opens with the trademark Star Wars title and scrolling expository information, which informs us that two Jedis, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), have been dispatched to resolve…a trade conflict, between the Trade Federation and the planet of Naboo, no less. Not as exciting as stormtroopers immediately blasting their way aboard a rebel consular ship, but it suffices. The inevitable occurs and diplomatic negotiations quickly give way to violence; lightsabers ignite, and voila–we’re back in familiar territory. Or are we? The Original Trilogy certainly has its fair share of exciting lightsaber duels, but nothing to match those found here; Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan versus the Trade Federation’s robots is like Luke Skywalker versus Jabba the Hutt’s skiff guards hepped up on speed–and I haven’t even gotten to the climactic lightsaber duel yet. Everything is exceedingly fast-paced, which is the first noticeable difference between the earlier films and the new ones.

To be sure, we are introduced to a plethora of new characters (and a handful of strangely familiar ones) in a very short amount of time. The ones we need to remember are at least memorable, though not always for good reasons. Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), for instance, who seems to be George Lucas’ attempt at creating a new comic sidekick akin to Chewbacca, is annoying and is, frankly, depicted in a somewhat racist manner, complete with a silly Jamaican-ish accent and enough “native sensibility” to offend even Rudyard Kipling (I can imagine postcolonialist Edward Said having a field-day with this Man Friday of the Star Wars universe). Not surprisingly, this crowded and sometimes off-putting cast leaves little room for character development, even that of the main characters. Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), for example, is never given the full treatment she deserves, and so remains quite static throughout the film, which is a shame because Portman is usually a phenomenal actress. Not even Little Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd)–who will eventually become Big Darth Vader–is really rounded out, coming off instead as merely an excitable little boy who happens to be, conveniently, a crack pilot (how he ever found his way into a cockpit in the first place is beyond me). I can live with–and even enjoy–a film where characterization is on the back-burner, but when it is so annoyingly in-your-face on the back-burner, it becomes distracting and discomfiting, especially when the film is a new addition to a saga that you have long held dear to your heart.

Fortunately for more traditional fanboys like me, Phantom Menace makes up for this severe lack in characterization with plenty of fun, even if it is somewhat silly in retrospect. Take the pod-racing sequence, where Anakin incredibly–though predictably–comes in first, conveniently helping the plot along in the process by winning Qui-Gon Jinn enough money to fix his damaged ship. Sure, it’s about as believable as Harry Connick, Jr. as a fighter pilot–even for a science-fiction film–but it’s exhilarating to watch. So intense are the special effects that the audience cannot help but feel as though they, too, are speeding through craggy canyons and narrowly avoiding the gun blasts of nearby Tusken Raiders. It’s silly, but it’s fun.

As I mentioned before, the lightsaber duels are given a mega dose of adrenaline, which in turn makes them fun to watch as well. The final clash between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and the strange new villain Darth Maul (Ray Park) is a blaze of light and acrobatics. Park leaps about so elegantly, in fact, that he almost seems more like a Baryshnikov than a Sith. Still, juxtaposed with the equally exciting sequences where Anakin blasts his way through a space station (and you though the pod race was unbelievable?!) and Queen Amidala leads an invasion into her own castle–adding a dash of John Williams’ intense choral sensation, “Dual of the Fates”–this climax is certain to pull you to the edge of your seat, if only to push you back again once you realize that a little boy has just piloted his way through a barrage of laser fire and single-handedly destroyed a space station roughly the size of a city. Oh well; at least Neeson and McGregor (and Portman, trying hard as she might to make an otherwise flat character seem interesting) bring a sense of realism to their parts in the sequence, which ultimately overrides the silliness and leaves you feeling not altogether bad about having enjoyed such a spectacle of effects.

***

Will this film ultimately have the same impact on American culture that the original Star Wars film did? Probably not. In the end, while the film is fun, I think its lack of characterization and silly plot details (sorry, but the incredulity of Anakin in the fighter just plain annoys me) will prevent it from being a classic on par with the original. Unfortunately for the more traditional fanboys like me, Episodes II and III are rife with a similar lack of characterization and plethora of silly plot details. Old Georgie Boy seems to have become too focused on making computerized visual feasts, choosing to render his films stunning and flashy while leaving “small” details like character development and believability–even logic–to the wayside.

Hopefully, if the day ever comes when Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are made, George will have stumbled upon his roots and remembered that some of us in the audience do, in fact, still like to see human beings on the screen.

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