Saturday, May 30, 2015

Zaki's Original Review: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

First published: May 21, 1999

L-R: Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Jake Lloyd, Ewan MacGregor
Note: You can see a little bit of cognitive dissonance happening in this write-up, as the "B+" grade at the end in no way matches the very critical review preceding it. Nonetheless, I took a fair bit of grief when this one first appeared in The Courier, from folks who couldn't quite bring themselves to admit that yes, Star Wars could indeed suck. I regret nothing about this one except the grade. It should've been a "C".

This much is certain: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is a visual feast. One has to admire the sheer volume of fantastic elements in writer/director George Lucas's vision. What's surprising and even disappointing is how routine and, yes, dull it all seems. Phantom Menace lacks much of the necessary emotional investment that made the original Star Wars and its sequels such cultural touchstones.

Despite the fact that we're presented with a cadre of supremely talented actors to carry the story along, they're given little else to do than stand in front of Lucas's carefully conceived computer landscapes, with cutesy 'droids and creatures twittering and fluttering about. Obviously the original trilogy has a two decade head start on the prequel (and its two planned follow-ups), giving us plenty of time to gain an almost familial attachment to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and company.

With this in mind, it seems forgivable that the new Star Warriors, led by Liam Neeson as Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ewan MacGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, take a bit of getting used to. That job isn't made any easier with the unnecessary addition of a Gungan named Jar Jar Binks. Yes, the horror stories are true. If Jar Jar does anything for the film other than being annoying and detracting from the otherwise serious situations, it's lost on me. Chewbacca he's not.

Our familiarity with the Star Wars universe ends up being both benefit and debit. While the original Star Wars (a.k.a. A New Hope) offered a fairly straightforward storyline about "a time of galactic civil war," we're now given a lengthy and complicated opening crawl filling us in on the machinations of a Trade Federation and its embargo against the peaceful world of Naboo, home of the beautiful Queen Amidala (the equally beautiful Natalie Portman). One has to wonder why, even in Episode I, we're made to feel like we're walking into the middle of a story that's already in progress.

A good bit of the film is spent expanding on the Jedi mythology of the first (second?) trilogy, first with the teacher-mentor relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (the elder Jedi's "Padewan" learner), and later with the introduction of Anakin Skywalker (10-year-old Jake Lloyd). As any good Star Wars geek worth his salt is well aware, Anakin's eventual fate will lead him to become the galaxy's number one baddie, Darth Vader. There's little of that malevolent future to be seen in Lloyd's "gee whiz" performance. Indeed, aside from the hushed warnings of the Jedi Council (led by Samuel L. Jackson and a more-spry Yoda) and Obi-Wan that "the boy is dangerous," no hints are offered as to where he's destined to end up.

Without the black-masked menace of Vader for the film (and merchandisers) to fall back on, Phantom Menace turns instead to Darth Maul (Ray Park). The devilish Maul, with horned head and black-and-red facepaint (not to mention a snazzy double-sided lightsaber), is a villain who is all presence but no character. His scant screen time and fewer actual lines of dialogue make for probably the single biggest disappointment in Phantom Menace. Still, that all-too brief screen time does include a brutal duel with Neeson and MacGregor that has a scope and freneticism that puts to shame the numerous duels of the original trilogy.

Much of Episode I hinges on the audience realizing that the plot points introduced in the film will come to fruition in later installments. Why do we care about this punk kid Anakin? Because we know he'll eventually become Darth Vader. What's our interest in the Queen? Well, aside from the knowledge that she'll eventually be the mother of Luke and Leia, not heck of a lot. That same goes for many of the other characters, including the sinister Senator Palpatine (bearing a striking resemblance to the Emperor of Return of the Jedi. Hmm...), and the half-constructed C-3PO, not yet the robotic pain-in-the-butt of later films.

Phantom Menace is really designed to set us up for the latter two installments, with the promise of things to come bringing us along for the ride. It serves this purpose well, but standing on its own merits, the film seems curiously in search of a reason for being. There are numerous "moments" that bring to mind the same magic that's immortalized the original films, but the self-indulgent computer generated digressions that sabotaged the much-ballyhooed "Special Editions" have the same effect here. Episode I is good, but it's not great. For a Star Wars movie, that can't help but be disappointing. B+

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