This, of course, is an exercise in futility. The Force is strong with this film; you've seen the Boba Fetted geeks lined up outside theaters, their freaky, frightening, flashlight-turned-lightsaber-wielding numbers growing every day. Good Lord, Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace could be two hours of static--and it nearly is, only very lush static--and still they'd proclaim it an epic triumph. Yup, like a few foul words about The Phantom Menace will dissuade even the vaguely interested from checking out the latest installation in George Lucas' cash-machine franchise. Never in the history of filmdom has there been a monster so immune to criticism. It may not sink Titanic--no Leo for the ladies in the house--but it might give Jim Cameron worry enough to jump ship. King of the world? How about king of the galaxy far, far away?
So let's just put it this way: The Phantom Menace is no Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. Or, to be more accurate, that's precisely what it is, a remake of the 1977 original, only with a far more convoluted story line--involving taxation without representation and immaculate conception--and added layers of computer-generated eye candy to distract the cult and the ADD crowd from noticing the rehashed plot points. It's Star Wars Special Edition Special Edition (or Star Wars: The Dance Remix), proof that George Lucas has the neatest toy store on the block; as such, the movie has as much soul as a video game or a two-hour animated feature. This ain't no movie. It's a very long, very tedious infomercial for Phantom Menace action figures, on sale now at a Target or Toys "R" Us near you.
Damned if there's a beating heart anywhere beneath all this gimmickry. This is a phantom movie--the special effects serving to obscure a convoluted plot told with lifeless characters who utter the most obvious, hackneyed dialogue this side of a galaxy far, far away. Consider this the most beautiful and most banal film ever made, proof that George Lucas has finally lost all sense of perspective and gone over to the Dark Side, where greed consumes and tenderness dies a tragic, unmourned death. Musta been the $3 billion worth of merchandising deals that turned him.
The cult will, of course, argue that The Phanton Menace is more deep-think genius from the man who conned the Me Generation into believing there's something more to The Force than Good Versus Evil. They will unearth the few obscured revelations in Phantom and cast them as larger shadows against the wall. They will apologize for the movie's torpid pace and insist that things will pick up in Episodes II and III, as though the casually interested are willing to wait eight more years to find out what we already know: Anakin Skywalker (Jingle All the Way's Jake Lloyd) marries Naboo's Queen Amidala (played here by Natalie Portman, whose makeup does a wonderful acting job), provides the sperm for twins Luke and Leia, then hooks up with Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) and becomes James Earl Jones, or something like that. Oh, sorry--did I give something away?
Not at all, which is precisely the problem with The Phantom Menace: It's a prequel, meaning there exists no suspense, no drama, no sneak attack, nothing save the inevitable rehashing of tales long ago revealed during the original trilogy. (Didn't "Luke, I am your father" or Obi-Wan Kenobi's Return of the Jedi speech pretty much tell the whole story?) The only shock is how utterly dull The Phantom Menace is--a two-hour flashback that could have been told in about a third of the time. Let's get to the good stuff; let's see Anakin show a little of that Dark Side mean streak beneath his precocious, yip-ee! exterior. Sadly, there's none of that.
All we're left with is seemingly hours of talk-talk-talk exposition--how many times can someone warn Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, sporting hockey hair) that Anakin's gonna be trouble?--and precious little action. Save for the pod race on Tatooine and one thrilling lightsaber duel at the end (by far the most visceral of the series), pitting Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) against WWF refugee-cum-Sith-protege Darth Maul (Ray Park), we've been here and done this three times already. I sat through four Star Wars movies, and all I got is this lousy video game?
No doubt, a movie such as this one--hyped beyond all rational limitations, with each glossy magazine cover story controlled by the Jedi Master himself until feature writers become underpaid publicists--almost demands immediate backlash. Nothing this anticipated can withstand close scrutiny; even Lucas has repeatedly insisted the movie is geared toward children in his effort to temper the grown-up crowd's anticipation. But the cynicism stems from Lucas' own inability to offer anything besides a gaudy remake of Episode IV. Never satisfied with the first film (hence, the goofily recast Special Edition), Lucas discovered he now had the technology to rebuild it, make it slicker and sleeker. It's the Steve Austin of Star Wars, meaning instead of running faster, everything moves in slow motion.
In a way, The Phantom Menace is precisely the sort of film Lucas should make. He's never been much good with actors anyway; one viewing of THX-1138, Lucas' Logan's Run, reveals as much...or as little. (Robert Duvall is a blank stare with a bald head.) In Star Wars, the last film he directed, the actors appear to be reading their dialogue off cue cards, and, seriously, at what point did Lucas tell Carrie Fisher to lose the accent? In the new Newsweek, Fisher reveals that Lucas' directorial style consisted of telling the cast only two things: "faster" and "more intense," which perhaps explains why Mark Hamill yells in a high-pitched squeal throughout most of the first film.
And Lucas' storytelling skills are almost childlike in their simplicity; the man never met a metaphor or a symbol he didn't beat to death. His appropriation of Eastern religion and Western mythology--the notion of a life force coursing through humans, who can choose to redirect the stream toward compassion or greed--has always been innocuous and rather witless. This is a man who dresses the bad guy in black and the good guy in white. No one could ever accuse Lucas of trying to confuse anyone. Especially not this time around, with the myriad references to Anakin Skywalker as "the chosen one" born of immaculate conception to a woman named Shmi (played by Fanny and Alexander's Pernilla August). Pardon, but Darth Vader is...Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ. And where is Shmi from, anyway? Lithuania?
Lucas is nothing more than a Silicon Valley techie in a filmmaker's disguise; you almost expect his scripts to be written in binary code. Rather than shade his characters in subtle grays, he renders them as absolutes--even Anakin, at least in this episode--which is the film's greatest flaw. Lucas is far more in love with his computer-animated characters--the Battle Droids, Jar Jar Binks (voiced, Peter Tosh-style, by Ahmed Best)and his fellow Gunguns, the shopkeeper Watto--than the humans, who are reduced to props in The Phantom Menace. Indeed, Lucas even treats them as though they were digital creations, going in and pasting facial expressions from one take onto reactions from another. Humans? They're a moot point to the Great and Powerful Oz, nonentities to be repaired and replaced in the editing room like droids missing a few spare parts.
Lucas seems to be completely unaware of what made the first three films entertaining, beguiling. It was never about the special effects or the costumes; for God's sake, 2001: A Space Odyssey or even the original Star Trek television series had better effects. In fact, the first Star Wars looks like the filmed version of the Encino High School drama class' production of something called Space Opera. Never before has a wardrobe and prop department made such good use of terry-cloth robes, Members Only jackets, plastic models, and firecrackers. Yet during The Phantom Menace, there are protracted moments when not a single human character appears on-screen--say, during a Braveheart-esque battle in an open field, pitting the floppy-eared Gungun against the Battle Droids. It's beautiful, yes, so much 70-mm spectacle, and that's precisely when the movie feels most lifeless, soulless.
The first three films succeeded because the characters felt real, tangible, human. And perhaps they were familiar because they were nothing more than archetypes, refugees from a thousand other oft-told tales--the farm boy who saves the universe, the gangster with the heart of gold, the wizened old teacher who sacrifices himself for the good of his student--but at least they weren't just extras playing second fiddle to a blue screen. And granted, they blossomed in The Empire Strikes Back, especially Luke and Han and Darth Vader, but they held our interest from the get-go. Such is the benefit of archetypes in the first place. We relate to them because we already know them, like them, care about them.
But in The Phantom Menace, the characters exist simply to propel the story forward, however lurchingly they accomplish such a thankless task. They tell us what Lucas should be showing us, and even then, it often doesn't make any sense (such as when, at the outset, Obi-Wan tells Qui-Gon he feels something wrong--"something elsewhere, something elusive"--then drops the whole thing). Lucas is too busy filling every shot with some computer-generated contrivance. Indeed, Lucas has boasted repeatedly there's not a single frame of film that doesn't contain some special effect. In interviews, he's more concerned with discussing costumes and computers than characters. It's a shame: The trilogy was never about The Force or how cool everything looked, but about the plight of a farm boy destined to free the universe from his father's tyranny. The Phantom Menace is all about lookin' good--Star Wars' thrift-store togs traded in for a Prada wardrobe.
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From top to bottom, the cast is wasted, hung out to dry by an inexplicable story line--just what in the hell is the Trade Federation, and, uh, what happened to the Empire?--and dialogue taken straight from fortune cookies ("Clouded this boy's future is"). Neeson plays Qui-Gon in high do-gooder mode--call it Schindler's listless. The most acting he ever does is when he waves his hand, Jedi-style, to cloud men's minds--that, and he frowns all the time. McGregor's rat's-tail haircut does most of his acting for him. (Who cuts the Jedis' hair? Former NHL players? Vanilla Ice?) And Portman apparently took acting lessons from Carrie Fisher, or maybe that's just the Naboo accent--Masterpiece Theater by way of Dawson's Creek. Too bad for most of the movie she's buried beneath all that kabuki makeup and gaudy kimonos. Funny thing--she's in a race against time to save her home planet, yet Amidala still finds time to change outfits (and enormous headdresses) for every single scene. The real work of wonder is that Portman can remain upright for minutes at a time.
It's a shame Lucas relegates his most interesting characters to the sidelines. Darth Maul gets his best minutes at the film's end, and Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu shows up near the finale to deliver the most insipid Jedi gibberish this side of Yoda. By the time he appears, he's almost a distraction. If only he delivered one of the lines suggested on the Internet, say, "Hand me my lightsaber--it's the one that says Bad Mother Fucker." No such luck.
To get an idea of how limited Lucas' imagination has become, he turns the aliens into illegal aliens; here's where archetypes become stereotypes--ones that teeter perilously close to racist. Lucas' galaxy is populated by Japanese-accented Trade Federation officials, the flying hook-nosed shopkeeper Watto (who speaks with a New York electronics-store owner's accent, insisting, "Mind tricks don't work on me--only money"), and, worst of all, the patois-damaged Jar Jar. Half the time you expect him to offer Qui-Gon a Red Stripe; the other half, you wonder if he's got a watermelon in his pocket, or if he's just happy to see Obi-Wan. There is nothing remotely funny or charming about the character. He's an interstellar Amos and Andy.
In the end, The Phantom Menace feels hollow, cynical, even fatuous--more like a prequel to Spaceballs, actually, especially when Jar Jar starts running around yelling, "Ex-queeze me!" or "You in deep doo-doo now!" as though he's a Wayne's World extra. And the characters and planets' names all sound like something you'd order at a Chinese restaurant ("I'll have the Gungun and Qui-Gon on a bed of Amidala, hold the Coruscant, with an ice-cold Watto to wash it all down"). Worse, Lucas' idea of funny is a two-headed pod-race announcer with a Marv Albert voice, who blurts out such lines as, "No matter what universe he's from, that's gotta hurt." Such ridiculous pop-culture references take the audience out of the movie. This suddenly becomes our own silly universe, where Star Wars characters become Muppets...or, worse, self-parodies. So much for anticipation.