Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Phantom Menace

 I grew up with Star Wars. I've seen every single movie in theaters. It was, and is a big deal in my family. So with the release of the movies on Blu Ray, and with a brand new trilogy on the way, I decided to do something I've never done before: review all of the star wars movie in sequential order. It's a daunting task, not only trying to provide my own personal perspective, but re-evaluating movies as classic as the original trilogy. Oh boy. Here we go.

  I would love to say I was old enough to experience the hype for Episode I, but honestly all I knew about it before it came out was what my dad told me. He was excited, but it's not like he was doing backflips or anything. I remember the promotional scheme pretty well. All the fast food toy tie-in's, the coloring books, posters, action figures. Was all pretty cool. Thus when the movie rolled around, I liked it too. I never really examined it enough to dislike it. It was just another Star Wars movie to me. Yet the older I got the more it became obvious to me, it was definitely inferior to the original trilogy. By the time I was old enough to start making accounts on internet forums and voicing my opinion, I found out people outright hated this one.

  Yeah, I had to go on the internet to find that out. My family was cool with it, my friends liked it. In person, I'd nary heard a single negative word about it. However, the amount of hate I found for it on the internet was immense. I figured I'd give it a re-watch, with a more critical eye. Sure enough, I began to dissect the movie and it's flaws were pretty ugly. The older I got, the more I experienced it in person. People just hating on it left and right. I still never thought it was -that- bad. To be honest, I still don't. It's largely inert and pretty disjointed, but I wasn't around to experience the massive hype this movie had- subsequently, I wasn't let down so badly in the way everyone was.

  So over the years, every time the family breaks out the Star Wars saga, I try to write reviews on them. It never comes to pass. I always felt like my opinion on Episode I was rather singular, in the fact that I don't hate it. I've just never felt able to articulate all my thoughts about it until now. It's one of those movies that everyone seems to have an opinion about unless you haven't seen Star Wars at all. I dread bringing it up with other fans. It always triggers a two hour rage-rant that does everything but burn George Lucas in effigy. That's overkill to me, and like I said I don't hate it with a burning passion like some people. I've seen it several times, so obviously it's not a torturous experience for me. So without further ado, I will start with what the movie does wrong, then I'll talk about what it does right, or at least does well enough. Then I'll pass final judgment.

  Firstly, the most glaring issue to me is the way the story is told. If you look at the original trilogy, specifically Episode IV: A New Hope, it's kinda beautiful in it's simplicity. Young farmer boy is trained by an enigmatic old wizard to save the princess and topple the evil dark lord. It's practically a fairy tale. People loved it, and that's possibly a massive understatement in itself. It was adored, is adored. It's classic modern cinema. It changed the way people looked at movies. That's no small feat. And it was a simple sci-fi riff on a time honored fairy tale archetype. So why then is Episode I: The Phantom Menace such a steaming political mess? The plot revolves around politicians, committees, viceroys, trade agreements, treaties, and ambassadors. It's more like a political thriller than anything. Worse yet, it's a political thriller with no distinct focus.

  It's not really about the two Jedi in the beginning, nor is it about this Queen Amidala lady, and it isn't really about young Anakin Skywalker either. It doesn't have a specific focus on any one specific direction. Characters kinda just stumble from one scene into the next, picking up new characters as they do. Which is perfectly summed up in a line from Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi, where he says, "Why do I sense we've picked up another pathetic life form?" to which Liam Neeson's character replies... "It's the boy-"
Yes, yes it is. The first one was obviously Jar Jar Binks, which was a horribly conceived character. Some say he's a racial stereotype, I don't personally see it. I just see a character who would only appeal to kids still old enough to find stepping in animal droppings hilarious. I don't hate Jar Jar. He's just there to me. He doesn't annoy me, which is probably why I don't hate him. Granted he feels like a tacked on addition to the movie, which is why I don't -like- him, but I also don't hate him either.

  As for the other "pathetic life form", the boy, Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd. I don't find his acting to be awful, but he's not delivering a tour de force either. Like Jar Jar, he's kinda just there. Which is a big problem for the kid who's playing a young Anakin Skywalker, also known as DARTH VADER. He has no on-screen presence really, and it's baffling to think that out of millions of child actors this is the one they settled on. Yet still, one turd character and one miscast. Movies have done worse than that and nobody crucified them. Anyways, the movie is needlessly complicated and it meanders a lot too. Anakin, supposedly the whole POINT of the movie, doesn't show up til 45 minutes in. Lame. So this complicated, pointless, focus-less, political mess was nowhere near the caliber of the three movies that came before it.

  Which works for it and against it. On one hand I don't think it's fair to hold it up next to those three classics which are more than just good, they were a cultural phenomenon. There's never going to be another game-changing experience like that. Ever. So expectations for Episode I were outrageously high. On the other hand, it doesn't even meet the same standard, sans hype, as the original trilogy. Which is a problem. When the hype and disappointment dies down, Episode I is still not that good, as opposed to an underrated gem that simply didn't cut it. However this isn't to say the movie is entirely without merit. It did a lot of things right too. In fact more than a few. There are parts of this movie that are exceptionally good. So good in fact, Roger Ebert saddled the flick with three and a half stars out of four. David Cornelius of efilmcritic.com, said that the films stronger moments "-don't merely balance out the weaker ones - they topple them."

  Ewan McGregor proves, if not here, than in II and III, to be a fantastic Obi Wan Kenobi. Qui Gon Jinn was also a highlight of the movie as the stoic mentor to both Obi Wan and Anakin. The lightsaber fights are the most technically impressive so far. The opening gambit on the federation ship is still exciting to me, I never get tired of seeing Obi and Qui Gon slash their way through those droids. The podracing sequence is unlike anything else I've seen and manages to be a thrilling scene that is also an outstanding highlight of the movie. There's lots of set pieces like this that make Episode I watchable. The underwater sequence, the whole Gungan city looks spectacular on film, the outer space dog fights, all of the lightsaber fights, all the action scenes- all that stuff make Episode I acceptable as a popcorn movie... and then... it gave us Darth Maul. If you didn't smile at least a little, or hear the imperial march start playing in your head, either you've never seen Star Wars, or the force is simply not strong with you. Just saying.

  Darth Maul, with only a couple lines of dialog, and barely any screentime to establish himself as a true villain manages to steal the entire movie with insane amounts of on-screen presence and gravitas. This guy is so evil, he could have truly been the Darth Vader of the prequel trilogy. Unlike Darth Vader, he can emote. Part of Vader's scariness is the cold droid-like glare of his helmet. You can see your reflection in his eye-lenses as he chokes you to death with the force. That's perfectly awesome and all, but over here you have Darth Maul who is capable of literally sneering at his Jedi adversaries.  All the raw hatred that Maul emotes through his glares and sneers is so damn intense. Everyone loves Darth Maul. He had one movie to make a mark, and boy did he. Probably one of the MOST iconic Sith in the whole of Star Wars. Second only to Vader himself. Not even Christopher Lee as Count Dooku was this sinister.

 That could just be me, but also maybe not. Whenever fans bring up Episode I, in the midst of their rage-rants there's always a moment when one stops and says, "Yeah but it did give us Darth Maul..." and the other one nods his head and smiles in enthusiastic agreement.  The lightsaber showdown between him and our two Jedi heroes is probably the best lightsaber fight in all of Star Wars. Or at least in the top three of all time. Mind you, I didn't say most iconic. I feel that award would have to go to Luke vs. Vader in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. However, seeing Maul, with his double bladed staff saber, kicking ass against two Jedi, really cemented how awesome he was. It's a shame he was killed in the end, and only resurrected in the cartoon. He could've been a central villain throughout the prequel trilogy and people would've loved it. Alas, his death was warranted, it only felt right in the moment.

  Wrapping up, in conclusion, Episode I is watchable nonsense. I disagree with David Cornelius to an extent, I think the good stuff and the bad stuff at war in Episode I pretty much balance each other out. I can watch it, and enjoy the good stuff. I'll probably see it again in a couple years. I don't hate the movie, it's not awful. I do have a lot of fun watching it. No lie. Yet, dammit. This is Star Wars. The precedent was set with IVV, and VI, and all we're left with for Episode I, arguably the most anticipated movie of an entire decade is something merely watchable. That's not okay. It's simply not. However, I'd much rather make a favorable case for Episode I, while objectively pointing out what it does wrong, and try to enjoy myself- instead of giving myself an ulcer writing stacks of hate mail to George Lucas. If I met Lucas, I'd smile, shake his hand and thank him for all the good memories. That guy has had enough hate heaped upon him, and so has Episode I. It may be the weakest entry (aside from the much worse Episode II) in a groundbreaking franchise, but that doesn't make it a god-awful movie that needs to be crucified and ridiculed for all of eternity. It's simply fun, and that's alright.

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