By David Mayne
Directed By George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Pernilla August, Frank Oz
It was only a matter of time, Amigos. Some have asked how in the world it’s taken me this long to review the Star Wars saga, being a huge a fan and all. The truth is, I never really thought about it before! As much as I love “most” things Star Wars, the idea to actually review the films had never really occurred to me until I sat down one day and flicked on the TV and there, in all of its letdown glory, was Episode I: The Phantom Menace on TBS. After a few moments, it finally dawned on me! Of all the games, movies, and whatnot we’ve done for AdventureAmigos.net over the last year and a half, I’ve failed to include probably the most important franchise of films from my childhood and adult life…Star Wars! In all the awesome chaos that has been the toddler phase of our new website, the holiest of holies, the rock of most 70’s and 80’s era-nerds, and probably the most innovative franchise of the 20th century slipped right by our geek-radar, totally unnoticed! I really think that perhaps Star Wars is so permanently ingrained in my mind that for some reason I thought it was already here. I mean, come on, how can you run a movie review website and NOT have Star Wars?! So here it is, as I atone for my galactic-sized sins, the first review of six: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace!
1999 was a big year. Y2K was just around the corner, the age of flying cars, self-lacing Nike’s, and downloadable food was soon to be in our grasp. Everything said “2000”, “2K”, or”The New Millenium”, and while it was almost 99.99% certain that the year following December 31st, 1999 would be no different from its predecessor, you couldn’t help but wonder just what was in store for the “Year Two Thousand”.
All that being said, not one single lightsaber-toting fan boy gave one single shit about the year 2000. They knew, as many did, that on January 1st, 2000, we’d still be using slow internet, playing Nintendo 64, and wishing for something better than Windows 98. Star Wars fans cared only about ONE thing in the early part of 1999, and that was, a new Star Wars movie. Why the excitement? Star Wars. Movie. Period.
When Return of The Jedi, for all intents and purposes, closed the book on the mighty Star Wars machine in 1983, fans were left with a near perfect trilogy, and one that would endure for almost two decades in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike. We all thought, “Yeah, Lucas should make more Star Wars movies”, but it wasn’t the end of the world if he didn’t. Episodes (oddly numbered) 4, 5, and 6 were a testament to not only Lucasfilm in general, but an ushering-in of a new generation of movie making, special effects, and the notion that gone were the days of films that had to remain “earth-bound” to be taken seriously.
When it was announced in 1993 that Lucas and company would indeed be making a new Star Wars trilogy, fans became rabid, and any and all information about the details of the new movies was the talk of the decade. Then, Lucas confirmed that the new trilogy would be prequels, in other words, that they would go back to a timeline before Episode 4 and tell the story of how Darth Vader (then Anakin Skywalker) came to be. I remember reading that and saying, “Yeah…..OK, I can go with that!” I mean, who wouldn’t want to see the origins of perhaps the most well-known villain of modern times; to see him as a child…fragile and innocent. It was almost too good to be true. We would get to see Luke and Leia’s misguided father rise up through the ranks of the Jedi Order, only to turn on the Republic and slaughter hundreds of innocent people out of lust for power and revenge. From the first time back in the early 90’s, when we knew that this story would finally come to the big screen, we proud many, the fan-nation of the epic Star Wars juggernaut wanted only one thing: to see Anakin Skywalker TURN into Darth Vader. Morbid? Maybe, but it was true.
May 18th, 1999, a few friends and I showed up at the Brenden Theater in Pittsburg, California, around 9:30pm, in order to stake out a place in line to get tickets when they we went on sale the following morning, for a showing the following night. Good times. We then went home, slept, got back up, went back to the theater, and prepared to be amazed.
The iconic Star Wars slow-crawl rolls, telling us that the Galactic Republic is in a period of decline, with tax disputes and unrest on the rise. As the movie starts, we learn that The Trade Federation has surrounded the small planet of Naboo and prevented all incoming and outgoing shipments in an effort to resolve the disputes, albeit shadily. In a move that would ultimately effect the next 5 movies, the Galactic Senate sends two Jedi Knights (Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi) on a covert mission to speak with the Trade Federation in the hopes that the blockade can be lifted. What these two Jedi don’t know is that a mysterious Sith Lord known as Darth Sidious has control over the Trade Federation and plans to invade planet Naboo with a secret army of battle droids.
Good setup, although one thing slapped me in the face in the first ten minutes of the movie I had waited 16 years for. The Neimoidians onboard the lead Trade Federation ship, led by Viceroy Nute Gunray, sounded like Japanese naval officers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that they sounded Japanese, it’s that they sounded completely phony and out-of-place. I get that accents from across the Galaxy are going to be diverse and the fact that most Star Wars characters seem to universally sound “British” is pretty much canon, but the stark difference when hearing a clearly Japanese accent coming out of a fictional CGI alien completely missed the mark in my opinion, not to mention that they are horribly delivered in what soon had me feeling eerily uneasy about the film’s writing.
Japanese Neimoidians aside, the next sock to the jaw came when the kabuki-esque Queen Amidala can on-screen in a message to the Viceroy warning him that this blockade was indeed illegal. Looking like a cardboard cutout with dialogue dryer than the Mojave desert, I was instantly turned off to the idea of this young “Queen” of Naboo. Ok, Amigos, at this point I was growing increasingly uneasy, and the fact that looking around me yielded similar looks wasn’t a good sign.
Some of my worst fears were coming true very quickly in the first half of Episode I. The acting was wooded. And I mean, Pinnochio-wooden, as if Lucas had done one or two takes, called it good, and then retired to the FX department (where his true love was) to make sure the CGI was going to be up to snuff. My initial assessment of Episode I was that George Lucas either, a) didn’t care about Star Wars anymore, b) didn’t take his directing very seriously, c) only cared about the green screens being in the right places, or d) all of the above. Methinks “d”. While right at home in the robes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, I sensed almost a humorous indifference in McGregor’s portrayal of the young Jedi Master we all came to love 22 years earlier (older….?). Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon is both detached and flatter than a jack-rabbit’s ass on Interstate 5. I neither cared for nor found myself growing to love, much less like, any of these characters.
Let’s touch on the elephants in the room: the infamous Jar-Jar Binks, the old-new puppet Yoda, and the bouncy Anakin Skywalker. I am not going to waste a paragraph at this juncture on the finer points of why I hate Jar-Jar Binks with a passion of the christ, so suffice it to say that he nailed shut the already closing coffin that is Episode I. The opposite of funny, the antithesis to anything Star Wars, Jar-Jar has a special seat in the hatred department of my brain, one reserved only for the most heinous offenders in film and gaming history. He rots there everyday as a reminder that he sunk an already leaky boat that was once a proud Galleon on the high seas of my childhood.
Jake Lloyd, what can I say kid? After the second “Yippee” and the whiny and terribly smarmy lines given to him, one can only grate their teeth and hope for the movie to focus on something else. When it’s an embarrassment to watch the kid who is supposed to be considered the central figure in a three-movie series, you know you’re in trouble. Couple that with an uneven romantic “spark” between Anakin and Padme (Portman), who will one day procreate Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and you have yourself a tall glass of sour blue milk. I get that Padme (14) and Anakin (9) weren’t knocking Tattoine sandals yet, but the fact that I’m supposed to believe there is any kind of chemistry here besides the off-balanced semblance of a little kid with a crush on his teacher is lost in translation.
Yoda? What happened…quite simply? Using a puppet that looks nothing like the original was a bad idea, worse yet, how does it look worse than the one used 18 years earlier?! Thanks to Frank Oz, at least Yoda sounds the same, and I can honestly say that this barely saved my complete write-off of the new Yoda.
Darth Maul. The bad guy that teased our TV screens and trailer ads for months was indeed a sight to behold. Hell, just the word “Darth” had us in awe, and the idea that there was another powerful bad guy that was about to be unveiled was too much to resist. He was fast, agile, and had killer facial tattoo’s and goddamn spikes on his head. This all screamed BADASS. Don’t forget the film-first double-sided lightsaber either! Yes, Star Wars fans were in love with Darth Maul before the movie even came out. On screen, Maul’s miniscule screen time was one of annoyingly pure joy, a rare oasis in this otherwise barren desert of a movie. Ray Park, a British actor and martial artist, brought the dark Sith apprentice to life, and serves as perhaps the most enduring memory of The Phantom Menace. He looks mean, he makes you believe he’s pure evil, and when his times comes, you’re positive he’s going to open a can of Mynocks on the Jedi. Does he? Yes and no. While he does succeed in ending Qui-Gon’s life at the conclusion of the first film, he is eventually bested by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who severs the Sith in half, sending him flailing down an impossibly deep pit. Note to Lucas: Never again create the 2nd coolest villain in Star Wars movie history only to give him roughly 10 minutes of screen time and then have him unfairly ended in the final 5 minutes by someone he should have had the upper hand on. Now, I’m not talking shit about Obi-Wan, but realistically, Maul HAD Kenobi at the end there, but to keep with continuity, Lucas opted for Kenobi to kill Maul rather unceremoniously with what equates to one-hell-of-a-lucky-jump.
OK sports fans, here’s the deal. It’s Star Wars. It’s Episode I. On the whole, I felt that besides a few redeeming scenes that did actually begin to make me feel that old-time Star Wars magic (the pod races, the battle of Naboo, the Darth Maul final battle), I was ultimately let down with George’s first offering of what I had hoped would be the re-ignition of one of the most successful franchises in movie history. Having watched the original trilogy countless times, growing up with those characters, stories, locations, toys, and lunch pails, I felt betrayed at what The Phantom Menace was doing to my beloved Star Wars. Do I hate Episode I? No, not at all, and I still watch it (once in a blue moon) over a beer or four, quite simply for nostalgia. Do I hate Jar-Jar, the wooden acting, and the lack of any real emotion? Yes, and that, Amigos, is a deal breaker for me. Episode I had the makings of one of the greatest science-fiction space operas of all time, not to mention a solid entry into the Star Wars pantheon. Instead, what devoted fans and newcomers to the series got was a lopsided and half-assed treatment of a Galaxy far, far away. All looks and no brains. While the magnificent score by veteran composer John Williams is indeed stirring and downright beautiful, it cannot mask the shortcomings of this ill-fated pile of Bantha poodoo.
Enjoy The Phantom Menace, if for nothing else, for what it tries to be…a Star Wars movie. It comes close once or twice and looks really pretty, but upon further inspection, the problems are too hard to ignore. Was it great to see and hear old pals like C-3PO and R2-D2 again, to see swirling lightsabers and hear sweeping music all set to the fictional universe I grew up with? Of course it was, but that said, all the good paint in the world can’t mask an ugly car. May the Force be with Episode II: Attack of The Clones, review coming soon!