“Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning”
Directed by George Lucas
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
First off, 1999? Man, I got old.
So, I figure the basic plot is probably known to most people, but to sum up:
The evil Trade Federation have blockaded the peaceful planet of Naboo. Two Jedi Knights try to mediate but are forced to flee an assassination attempt and escape to the surface as the Federation’s chirpy-voice battle droid army begin an invasion to force the Naboo to sign a treaty giving them control of the planet. They meet comedy sidekick Jar-Jar Binks, meet with the leaders of the primitive Gungans and rescue the sixteen year old elected Queen of the Naboo from the droids.
Then they all leave on a spaceship.
The damaged ship is forced to land on the planet Tatooine, where the Jedi meet Anakin Skywalker, a ten year old boy with Jedi reflexes, who tries to chat up the Queen (and that handmaiden disguise is fooling no one) and wins the money the Jedi need to repair the ship in a pod race (like Ben-Hur without the horses and coke cans). Qui-Gon Jin also wins Anakin out of slavery and they all leave – apart from Anakin’s mother, who remains in durance vile, but not before a brief skirmish with crimson-skinned bad-ass Darth Maul, apprentice to the whispery-voiced secret backer of the Trade Federation blockade.
They head to Coruscant and the Galactic Senate where – after three sentences – negotiations break down and the Queen proposes a no-confidence vote in the well-intentioned but politically vulnerable Chancellor. Meanwhile the Jedi council refuse to train Anakin, because he’s dangerous and might turn out to be Darth Vader.
Then they all go back to Naboo.
The Naboo and the Gungans team up, and attack the battle droids. The Jedi fight Darth Maul, Qui-Gon is killed and Obi-Wan Kenobi kills Darth Maul.
Anakin blows up a spaceship and stops the droids, mercifully ending the battle ‘twixt Gungan and droid, which consists largely of Jar-Jar’s relentless gooning.
Everyone is happy, except Qui-Gon, who is dead.
Oh, and there might be another Sith Lord somewhere.
Now that I read that back, for a film so utterly focused on visual spectacle, the plot is ludicrously complicated without actually ever being engaging.
What’s wrong with it?
Lots really, but I’ll start by getting a little bugbear out of the way. Jar-Jar Binks is really annoying; oh yes he is. He flaps about and gets into all manner of zoo-zoo scrapes, for all the world like the bastard lovechild of Gerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom. Ah-ha – say his supporters – but C-3PO was like that! True enough, but C-3PO was also fluent in six-million forms of communication: He did something. Jar-Jar was just the clowning.
The plot was thin, even for space opera, and much of the acting was below par, even the performances of a few usually stalwart players.
The ensemble dramatis Personae lacked any kind of definition. In the original movie, the pilots attacking the Death Star had personalities, and we cared about them. Who couldn’t feel at least a little sympathy for poor, confused Porkins? Who can forget the fatalistic calm of the doomed Red Leader (“Negative. Didn’t go in. It just impacted on the surface”), the fear of Gold Leader and the cool efficiency of his wingman. It was all there. In Phantom Menace however, the Naboo pilots are nothing. We don’t know them, we don’t care. There is also an absence of a good, solid villain. Darth Maul is a goon – albeit a very stylish one – Darth Sidious (silly name) is ephemeral, and the Trade Federation lack the presence and menace of Darth Vader as the stalking adversary. The battle droids are also no improvement on the stormtroopers, especially with their strange, nasal-mechanical voices and chirpy pseudo-soldier dialogue.
The film is overlong, and not much happens. Aside from the pod race – which is frankly padding – and the lightsabre duels, there is hardly anything to look at for much of the film. The scenes of Anakin and his mother on Tatooine are too long, and in balance the most important event in the film – the transition of power between Chancellor Valorum and the ambitious Senator Palpatine – is glossed over in a handful of scenes.
There’s no character development. At the end of the film, everyone is pretty much where they started. We’ve seen no sign that the Queen has been forced to come to terms with realities of war which she had not previously understood; Anakin is pretty much as was; Jar-Jar hasn’t overcome his awkwardness, he’s just hailed as a hero in spite of being little short of a liability in combat and ultimately capitulating to the driod army seconds before their defeat. Only Qui-Gon has undergone any major change, and he got run-through with a lightsabre. Obi-Wan and Anakin might have been sobered by the loss of a mentor, but we don’t really see that at all. Perhaps this problem stems from opening with the Jedi, where the original film followed the ingenuous Luke rather than the veteran Ben.
The film also didn’t live up to the hype, but then what could?
Midichlorians. I shall say no more.
Finally, whatever anyone says to the contrary, the film is loaded with outrageous racial stereotypes. The avaricious trade federation have slanted eyes (frog eyes certainly, but slanted), wear oriental robes and speak like the Fiendish Dr Fu Manchu. The primitive Gungans speak a kind of pidgin dialect, cementing their place as ignorant but noble savages in the classic Hollywood mould; in other words, black fellas. The greedy, sleazy, gambler-cum-spiv is so Italian it almost hurts. If it wasn’t Star Wars, they’d never get away with it.
What’s right with it?
The Phantom Menace is certainly beautifully made. The spaceships and background mattes are incredible to look at, and the pod race and the lightsabre duels are a feast of the senses. The visual and sound effects are superb, as you would expect from Lucasfilms.
Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor do well as the master and apprentice, Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Neeson may be phoning in his performance as Qui-Gon, but he maintains a wry dignity, and McGregor does well in a role once filled by the great Sir Alec Guinness.
Finally the score, by Lucasfilms old hand John Williams, is magnificent. Well, except for the Gungan band piece, which makes the ewok chub-nub song seem mild by comparison. Still, the Duel of the Fates, which plays under the climactic lightsabre battle, more than makes up for it.
How bad is it really?
Pretty damn bad, although a lot of that is hidden beneath the glossy production values. It’s a lazy film, content to rest on the laurels of the franchise and possessing no apparent desire to become anything more than a by-the-numbers sequel, which is a shame because it could have been pretty good. It also blew any suspense there might have been with its hype, most notably the scene in which Darth Maul faces off against the two Jedi and activates the second blade on his double lightsabre would have been a real ‘WOW’ moment if we hadn’t seen it a dozen times on the trailers.
The final lightsabre battle is pretty sweet, but my favourite moment is in the Gungan battle. It’s almost ruined by Jar-Jar Binks clowning around in the foreground,. but in the background one of the (CGI) Gungans has one of the (CGI) battle droids by the collar and is punching him repeatedly in the face like he’s in some sort of bar-room brawl.
What’s up with…?
- So, are droids sentient or what? When Artoo saves the ship he gets a royal audience, a congratulation from the Queen and a personal scrubbing by a royal handmaiden. Yet three other R2 units are destroyed in the escape, and not a single tear is shed for any of them.
- Why do the battle droids talk to each other if they’re all controlled from the central station?
- Since when does the Force have a will? In the original series the Force is very much viewed as a Tao kinda thing – it has a flow you can follow, not a will to obey. This is a very Christian shift, but I yet hold out hopes that this – and the midichlorian bullshit – will prove to be elements of a flawed dogma propagated by the Jedi Council out of ignorance or superstition.
- Is that an average length for a debate in the Senate? Even with tempers high, it would have been nice to have seen a bit more evidence of protracted debate leading up to the vote of no confidence. As it is, it looks as if the Republic’s politics are negotiated by whim and tantrums. The accession of Senator Palpatine to the role of Chancellor is of vital importance in the long run, but we see hardly anything.
Production values – Top notch in most respects. Shiny, glossy and stunningly beautiful. A few of the costumes verge on the silly though, and the ‘room full of weird aliens’ trick, well-used in Star Wars’ cantina scene, falls a little flat in the Jedi Council chamber. 4
Dialogue and performances – Alec Guinness asked that his character be killed in the first Star Wars movie so that he wouldn’t have to do any more of the trite, banal dialogue that Lucas wrote. Most people wouldn’t call it that bad, but it isn’t exactly Shakespeare. There is more of the same in Phantom Menace, but there have been far worse scripts than this. The acting is strangely stilted, and even usually strong actors like Natalie Portman seem stiff and unconvincing. Of course, in Portman’s case the enormous frocks probably don’t help. 10
Plot and execution – Dire. Despite the many convolutions, the plot is still too sparse for the length, and lacking in any kind of character development. Also, far too much time is given over to trivial factors, while important events slip by us. 16
Randomness – Too much happens in this film because Anakin does the right thing by accident, perhaps through the guidance of the Force on his subconscious, but what the hell. Jar-Jar’s every inconsequential move grates on my nerves, and has next to nothing to do with the plot. Too much also is assumed and not explained: Queen Amidala is elected? Is this a formal recognition of a hereditary monarch, or a full democracy? If the latter – and the next film confirmed that it was, and that she was not the youngest queen in Naboo’s history – then who voted in a sixteen year old? What is her role, really? Does she have any real power? Why does a peaceful planet have such a bad-ass militia and guns hidden in the throne room? Why do the battle droids have those irritating voices? 14
Waste of Potential – In many ways, the ultimate disappointment. 20.
Overall – 64% (and would be worse without 20% of the marks in production values)