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Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

The power of myth

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by George Lucas

With Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, and voices of Ahmed Best and Frank Oz.

The force still seems to be with George Lucas. After all, what else can explain the fact that the long awaited The Phantom Menace, a film with so few objectively redeeming qualities, makes for such a remarkably rewarding viewing experience? I had no idea it’s even possible to enjoy so greatly a motion picture which features lumpy storytelling, inane dialogue, wooden acting, poor editing, and the general sophistication of an overactive fifth-grader (obviously the film’s main target audience). In any case, I haven’t had this much fun in a movie for quite a while, even though some of this fun was derived from groaning at the film’s obvious shortcomings.

By now, I’m certain, everyone who might be reading this review either already had seen the movie, or has no intention of doing so at all. Therefore, I will elide my usual brief summary of the film’s plot; another reason for doing so is that the storyline in The Phantom Menace is decidedly unimpressive, lumbering from set-piece to set-piece in a plodding connect-the-dots fashion. In this, Episode One is at a decided disadvantage compared with Episode Four, which had a clear and exciting arc: save the princess and defeat the evil empire, or Episode Six: save a friend and defeat the evil empire all over again. No, this one is assembled from pre-fabricated pieces very much like the merchandising tie-in Lego toys: a lightsaber duel here, a pod race there, a ray gun shootout intercut with a space dogfight in the end.

Lucas similarly strikes out when it concerns characters. Star Wars: A New Hope, for all its dramatic simplicity, had four iconic characters at the core: a ambitious country bumpkin Luke, a lovable rouge Han, an abrasively efficient Leia, and an archetypically evil Vader. Some of these characters even had dramatic arcs: that is, they changed from the beginning of the film to the end. The Phantom Menace presents stoic Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), stoic Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), stoic Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), and other supporting characters, some important, some less so, but all equally stoic (there’s a couple of exceptions to this rule, but about them--later). The character arcs are severely limited as well: everyone who survives is largely the same as they were at the outset. No wonder the acting is as wooden as it gets: I’m not asking for someone as fun to watch as Harrison Ford, but even Mark Hamill was Oscar-worthy compared to, say, Liam Neeson here. Neeson is an excellent actor, but in The Phantom Menace he spends the entire movie wearing the same vaguely concerned expression: maybe he’s listening to, uh, sudden disturbances in the Force, but he certainly looks like he’s about to doze off. The visually stunning Darth Maul, he of the coals-and-orange-jello visage, who could have provided the sorely needed archetype of foreboding evil, is reduced to a sidekick, and is fully featured only in a scene and a half.

The main shortcoming of The Phantom Menace is, of course, that it feels shockingly ordinary. The opening scroll (a.k.a. The Amazing Flying Trapezoidal Text), concerns not such exciting matters as evil empires, courageous rebels, and the ilk, but the taxation of trade routes and embargoes--yaaaawn. Then we have endless scenes of people standing around talking -- no, not even talking, but pronouncing oodles of painfully expository dialogue, as well as an unhealthy stress on political intrigue as opposed to good old lightsaber battles, and the few plot twists (especially the one concerning Queen Amidala) being communicated in a simplistic matter-of-fact manner. This is only exacerbated by the weak editing, which reduces the breathtaking panoramas of the capital planet Coruscant to two-second-long snippets, and nearly demolishes what should have been excellent climactic battle between Maul, Jinn, and Kenobi.

To finish my list of gripes, here are two things that I can’t forgive: the insulting accents of the vaguely ethnic bag guys and comic relief characters; and the fact that the final battle is won through sheer force of blind luck.

The things that partially work are the couple of exceptions in the acting department. Young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who starts out pretty much as every other character--stoic, bland, and ordinary--spends the middle of the film being actually quite appealing in a very sympathetic way. What’s even more important, this appeal spreads around him, and even the other actors seem to be less bored when interacting with Anakin, and the film’s best performance--hands down, no competition--belongs to Pernilla August (Best Intentions), who plays his mother. Natalie Portman also gets a few chances to be cute and appealing, at least when she’s not covered by a pound of cake makeup.

The second exception is a fully computer-generated creature called Jar-Jar Binks, who is indeed quite annoying at first, but really grows on you--he’s slightly irritating, yes, but I would probably take that over hopelessly bland nine times out of ten.

There are two things that do work. First we have visuals, and I really don’t need to say anything about them: it’s Lucas, and it’s Industrial Light and Magic, and it’s the best art direction (sets, costumes, etc.) the money can buy, and anything else would have been a major disappointment. The second is John Williams’ space-operatic score, which is a complex elaboration on the themes of the episodes 4-6 and adds a lot of texture that’s missing from the simplistic screenplay.

So much for the obvious things. Why, then, is Episode One so much fun to watch, why is it utterly riveting every minute, and why did I leave the movie theater nearly hyperventilating from excitement?

My own reaction puzzled me so greatly that it took me a while to understand the reasons for it. And I believe the reasons are, improbable enough, just all the shortcomings I’ve listed above. The Phantom Menace is that rare kind of a film which, if it were better, wouldn’t be quite as good.

And this is solely because it feels inseparable from the existing trilogy. After a sixteen year break (and an obvious advancement in visual effects), Lucas seems to have no problem at all in transporting us into the same galaxy far, far away. This is not the most impressive galaxy out there, of course: the stories which take place there feel a touch unnatural and scripted, the people (and other species) seem to have a lot of problems expressing the most simple and natural human emotions, and the way we see this particular world is not uniformly exciting. Still, all that griping aside, it’s a huge, elaborate, and entertaining world, the one which springs from the same place that the Saturday matinee shows do--from the childlike imagination, present at the core of all of us.

The most exciting thing about an epic story, and a whole universe of people, places, and events, is that both of them feel like a tip of proverbial iceberg: there is so much under the surface. Lucas works chiefly by implication, not by having his audience -- us -- to be directly excited by the events on the screen (that pod race was fun, but I don’t think I’ll remember much of it a month from now), but by speaking directly to our imagination. And he leaves the door wide open, mentioning names, events, and whole civilizations which never make their way to the screen, but the mere declarations of their existence will keep working to ensure that the viewers are completely enveloped in the story, with their imaginations spinning even wilder and more exciting stories than the one Lucas actually put on screen.

I’ve heard some people mention that they would like The Phantom Menace more if not for the existence of three other, superior, movies; I believe the opposite is the case. Episode One works chiefly because it forms complex bonds with the other films, creating a vast universe to serve as an adventure-filled playground for our imagination, which finds the main appeal not in the wars but in the stars.