Sunday 3 January 2016

The Phantom Menace (1999)

Director: George Lucas
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August and Frank Oz

This is the first entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace!

Brief Synopsis

The Phantom Menace introduces us to a Galactic Republic of thousands of solar systems that is being attacked from within. The powerful Trade Federation is blockading the planet of Naboo and this conflict escalates into war between the races of Naboo and a droid army commanded by the Trade Federation.

The primary players are Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, a jedi master and his padewan apprentice, who aim to resolve the Naboo conflict; Amidala, the queen of the Naboo people, who hides in plain sight as her own handmaiden, Padmé; Jar Jar Binks, a Gungan who has been banished from his people, who live in an underwater city on Naboo; Palpatine, senator of the Naboo people in the Galactic Senate; Anakin Skywalker, a nine year old slave who the jedi free on Tatooine and Qui-Gon Jinn aims to train; Darth Sidious, the cloaked Sith Lord behind the conflict; Darth Maul, his own apprentice; and Nute Gunray, the viceroy of the Trade Federation. Future characters such as C-3PO and R2-D2 are also introduced.


No, The Phantom Menace isn't a good movie, but I was surprised to find that it's a better movie than I remembered it to be. There's a lot that's good here, but it's mostly restricted to the things that don't usually matter, while the things that do aren't strong at all. However, the later scenes are much better than the earlier ones, to the degree that I cringed my way through half of the film only to gradually realise that I wasn't cringing any more.

The best bits are in the background. It's the foreground elements that are less strong: things like the script, the acting and the direction, though I have to say that the cinematography is far better than I remembered it, with many scenes beautifully shot, even if George Lucas betrays his passion for Triumph of the Will a little obviously again.

So, on the positive side, there's a varied and impressive set of location choices (some of them surely CGI) to accompany our shift from Naboo to Tatooine to Coruscant and back to Naboo. The busy sky of Coruscant may be a sci-fi cliché but the underwater city of the Gungans is gorgeous, the pod race track is amazing and Amidala's palace is appropriately elegant.
The design of robots, ships and other hardware is consistently wonderful, ensuring that the Star Wars universe remains highly immersive. The creature design is excellent too, whether they be aliens or monster fish deep underwater; all the aliens look great and some look even better. Many of the costumes are gorgeous, not just Queen Amidala's intricate outfits but most of the rest too (I'll carefully exclude the cringeworthy haircuts of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi here). The sound design is just as fantastic as we've come to expect from Star Wars movies, one of the few places where it's clearly notable. The pod race is massively entertaining and the acrobatic Darth Maul with his demon face and double bladed lightsaber is frankly awesome.

On the flipside, there's... well, pretty much everything else.

The three principal actors - Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman - are all amazing talents but they're also all completely wasted here. I've never seen Neeson so awful; he sleepwalks through the entire picture, unable to find any of the gravitas of Sir Alec Guinness. If Neeson is boringly serious, McGregor is annoyingly light-hearted; it's a rare line of his that isn't delivered like a joke, but there's never any real humour there. Portman is OK as Padmé but mostly monotone and underwhelming as the Queen; perhaps that was by design, given the deception, but it doesn't work. Oddly, given that company, it's Jake Lloyd who impresses the most as the young Anakin Skywalker; the best acting in the film is the scene where he says goodbye to his mother. It's notable that the most powerful scenes are the ones that don't need acting talent at all, such as the pod race and the battle between the Gungans and the droids.
The script feels inextricably paired with the editing and the two make the picture relentlessly pedestrian. It's not a bad story, though it's hardly inspired, but it's presented in such a by the-numbers-approach that it feels really cheap. Roger Corman has talked about how blockbusters like Jaws or Star Wars were just B movies with big budgets and that never felt so accurate as the early scenes of The Phantom Menace. The editing, which is powerful in action scenes like the pod race and the underwater journey through the core of Naboo, hinders any real engagement. Many dialogue scenes involve nothing but back and forth cuts between speakers who never move. Many action scenes seem empty, mostly because droids are props not characters; that makes Anakin the only human element in them and he's stuck in a cockpit throughout. It's hard to find emotional engagement in such a presentation.
And, of course, there's the racist element which is hard to ignore in the first half of the movie. While the aliens look great, they aren't all voiced appropriately or put to good use. The Gungans are like a cartoon African tribe and Jar Jar himself is an African American stereotype as horrendous as Sleep n' Eat or Stepin Fetchit. I do see how his slapstick scenes and idiotic luck would make the kids laugh though; he's not as irredeemable a character as I remembered. Watto is reminiscent of the Jewish stereotypes the Nazis threw into propaganda films, as vermin who cares only about money. However, I'd forgotten how Nute Gunray and his partners in the Trade Federation are portrayed as stereotypical Chinese villains with wildly inconsistent accents. It isn't until Sebulba shows up at Tatooine that we finally meet a non-humanoid alien who doesn't make us cringe.

Finally, there's also the introduction of midi-chlorians. To long-standing fans, this is a big deal because it means that Jedi are born not made, so replacing possibility with an odd sort of privileged class structure. To others, it's merely a bit of pseudo-science that really isn't necessary to the plot. Anakin is the only human with reflexes fast enough to be a successful pod racer. Even Qui-Gon Jinn acknowledges that as surely nascent Jedi powers. Why do we need midi-chlorians again?


As the first episode in the series, this is where everything begins and it does a pretty good job on that front.

The blockade of Naboo is where the Trade Federation really shows its colours and starts its progression to becoming the Empire of the original movies. Senator Palpatine begins his climb to power, manipulating Queen Amidala into calling for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum and thus opening the way for him. These are the formative moments of the Empire.

The Jedi are shown as all-powerful. Two jedi knights are deemed sufficient to take down an entire Trade Federation ship. The Jedi Council meet on Coruscant and think big thoughts. However, the Sith begin to make themselves known: Darth Sidious is behind the Trade Federation blockade and his apprentice, Darth Maul, is introduced and placed into battle. Clearly we're beginning a major conflict here.
On a smaller level, there are a number of key introductions. We meet the young and precocious Anakin Skywalker, who gets to strut his stuff and move from slavery to heroism in a mildly believable way. Clearly he's a character with massive potential, the only way to viably build towards a legend 'who will bring balance to the force'. We meet a young version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who doesn't impress in the slightest; we do wonder how he's going to progress from Ewan McGregor to Alec Guinness. R2-D2 gets a heroic introduction and a memorable first meeting with C-3PO; they're well set to become important supporting characters as the series progresses. Even Jabba the Hutt gets a brief appearance that establishes him as a prominent character on Tatooine.
In other words, what George Lucas put into The Phantom Menace isn't really the problem. It's just how he did it, suggesting that thoughtful fan manipulation could create a much better picture. Clearly, once I've worked through the seven current movies, I should watch The Phantom Edit and see if it makes a difference.

Jar Jar Binks

Based on this first film alone, I can totally see how Jar Jar could be seen as much more than just a throwaway character for kids to enjoy. We merely had to be told to look at him in a differently light.

He certainly seems to passively control most of his scenes, from his very first one. He's literally in the way as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi run into the Naboo forest, but they clearly want to keep going and he promptly talks them into doing other things. He's good at that, it seems. For a character initially banished by his entire race, he sure does a good job of convincing them to go to war.
He’s in the right place at the right time at every point on the story, more than any other character. He meets Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on Naboo before they get to the city and travels with them to Tattooine and Coruscant. That allows him to get friendly with Padmé before the jedi realise she's really Queen Amidala. He’s right there when Anakin Skywalker shows up and some idiotic slapstick scenes could easily be read as bonding experiences with him. Clearly he has easy access to key people on Coruscant too.
And, of course, he's the luckiest critter in creation. His scenes in battle, which appear to be a cross between cowardice and dumb luck, are impeccable. Watching his 'accidental' antics that take down droids with every single shot with drunken style kung fu in mind is a revelation. Nobody is this lucky.

So, thus far, I'm all the more intrigued by this concept and look forward to seeing how it progresses through the series. Could Jar Jar Binks be the real Phantom Menace? Watch for my Attack of the Clones coverage tomorrow!

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