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Monday
Feb132012

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

See it Again, for the Worst Time

I've only seen Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace all the way through on two occasions. The first was at a midnight-premiere screening in 1999; the second was Friday afternoon, on the first day of its remastered, rejiggered, 3D rerelease. The intervening years have seen countless critiques of George Lucas' once highly anticipated prequel trilogy--Patton Oswalt's reigns as the succinct and hilarious gold standard*--so I won't pile on with more nitpicking and claims of exaggerated hurt feelings from my psychically molested inner child.

Instead, I'll explain why you should avoid The Phantom Menace's latest big-screen run--despite the allure of pocketing overpriced, "collectible" 3D glasses with Darth Maul's face printed on the stems. Like most kids of my generation, I grew up being a huge Star Wars fan. I scooped up as many action figures as my parents could afford, and even dressed up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween. The films excited me with their epic scope and energy, and as the first of the prequels drew near, my anticipation was incalculable.

The morning after I saw it, I marched into work, took down all the Phantom Menace action figures, vehicles, and mini-posters with which I'd decorated my desk, and distributed them to my co-workers. I warned them that the movie was an overlong, boring mess; rightfully so, they didn't believe me. Why would they? How could they? It was Star Wars, for crying out loud. Even the Muppet-tacular Return of the Jedi (widely considered the worst in the original series) had some things going for it.

As usual, I held the minority opinion, even after all my friends saw the film. They called me "crazy" and bombarded me with reasons that they "really liked" it (which uniformly included the phrase, "It's not perfect, but..."). Though the last decade-plus has seen my doomsayer gripes become globally accepted wisdom, fans' widespread frustration is ultimately meaningless. Lucas knows that he doesn't just control a brand, but a significant branch of our pop consciousness, unassailable even by his gimmicky stunts and garish declarations of revisionist history.

What I didn't realize until a couple days ago was just how awful The Phantom Menace is--not just as a Star Wars movie, but as a movie, period. I think my brain-burning disbelief at the screenplay's trade-tariff debates and midichlorian mumbo-jumbo created an illusion for twenty-two-year-old me that things were actually happening on the screen--my "It's going to get better" optimism, crossed with a restless "What the FUCK?!" sense of confusion,** created a false sense of activity that no longer shades my assessment.

Okay, enough with the whiny preamble. What's actually wrong with the movie?

In two words, George Lucas. While I respect the hell out of him for creating a successful and enduring franchise, the truth is that he should have stuck with the lessons he learned on the original trilogy and let other people write and direct the prequels. The Phantom Menace reeks of bad ideas piled on top of worse ideas that were shot with a "fix it in post" mentality. I don't fault the actors for their atrocious performances; Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor have done great work on other projects, and even laughing-stock Jake Lloyd has been unfairly maligned for his turn as Anakin ("The Mannequin") Skywalker. Lloyd was no Haley Joel Osment, but not even Haley Joel Osment would've been Haley Joel Osment in Lucas' hands.

Only Liam Neeson rises above the material as the wise but slightly off-kilter Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. And considering the significant amount of time he spends on screen with the Olsen Twins-quoting rubber alien, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), this is a truly remarkable achievement.

Ah, yes, Jar Jar. One of two huge indicators of the prequel trilogy's impending mediocrity. In place of a snarky, dangerous rogue--along the lines of Han Solo--to break up the monotony of space monks and stolid, monotone royalty, we get a floppy-eared court jester whose charms might appeal to toddlers. I'd forgotten how great a detriment to the film Jar Jar was. His high-pitched baby-speak voice is gratingn and his constant, slapstick pratfalls just aren't funny. He's only useful in filling up space that would otherwise have been stuffed with more filibustering about the Naboo embargo--a concept I still can't understand, and which I'm likely mischaracterizing out of apathy.

The second red flag is actually a red-and-black flag; his name is Darth Maul (Ray Park). The devil-faced apprentice to evil mastermind Darth Sidious (Ian McDairmid) was sold to potential audiences as the new Darth Vader--a badass villain with amazing fighting skills and a double-bladed lightsaber! For his eight minutes of screen time, Maul is indeed a beautifully weird character. But after he gets chopped in half during the climactic three-way battle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), we realize that the nemeses we were meant to care about all along were the corrupt trade federation representatives--bug-eyed Asian caricatures who make Charlie Chan sound like Barack Obama.

That three-way lightsaber fight is spectacular, the highlight of the whole film. It's part of the more-engaging-than-expected third act, where Lucas finally include some star wars in his new Star Wars movie. Leading up to this are the aforementioned political speeches, lots of wandering around, and a podrace that serves as the big, mid-movie blow-out (i.e. CG snooze alarm). The podrace isn't nearly as great, I think, as everyone remembers it--even in 3D. Perhaps it's a matter of the sequence having been surrounded by such dull gibberish that desperate fans gave it a pass--but the whole thing plays like a video game that got left out in the sun.

We never see the most interesting part of The Phantom Menace on screen. It's suggested in a line of dialogue between Portman's Queen Amidala and her head of security, Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie). He says the people of Naboo have begun to push back against the federation forces that have taken over their city. Lucas' greatest narrative failing is assuming that the audience would rather listen to the boardroom PowerPoint version of the labor dispute than to see its real-world effects.

In 1977's Star Wars, a few lines of dialogue and one really cool meeting of imperial generals--in which Darth Vader choked a guy out for making fun of his religion--are the only overt indicators of galaxy-wide political conflict. Lucas relied on his characters' struggles to tell the big-picture story. If this series had been unleashed on the world chronologically, I'm fairly certain Star Wars would have been a cinema-history footnote, an Ishtar-sized flop (Ish-star?) on a barren sci-fi landscape.

The only point I'll concede to Lucas is that he wisely inserted the digital Yoda character into The Phantom Menace. I'm not a proponent of his continual tinkering with the series, but I never liked the puppet his effects team created for this film. The new Yoda provides a nice continuity with the prequel trilogy, and leaves the puppetry in the original series where it belongs. Besides, this attempt to bridge the halves aesthetically might fool newcomers into believing that the quality carries over, too.

As for the 3D enhancements, nothing jumped out at me (literally or figuratively). Like most Lucasfilm endeavors, this rerelease is just a ploy for cash and relevance. You won't notice anything wearing the Darth Maul glasses that you didn't before, except maybe how muddy The Phantom Menace looks; turns out there've been mammoth advances in digital technology since 1999, and this movie hasn't aged well--this thing will look like Tron in five years. If you really want to be blown away, I suggest saving your money and seeing the original trilogy in 3D a few years from now. That way, you'll at least have tauntaun guts and Princess Leia's swirly, bronze bikini exploding off the screen to look forward to--as opposed to the CG bantha poop now playing at a theatre near you.

I apologize if you've grown bored with this review. Don't worry: it's almost over.

Writing about Episode I today is like discussing an ex-girlfriend from three relationships ago: deep inside, the embers of regret still sizzle, fueled by undying innocence. On the surface, though, you just feel embarrassed at ever having fallen for that lying bi--

What? Oh, right--Star Wars. Yes, thirteen years later, The Phantom Menace still sucks.

But now it's in 3D.

*For you minutia obsessives, please check out Red Letter Media's ridiculous but oh-so-accurate, hour-and-ten-minute video evisceration. You'll never watch movies the same way again.

**I'm confident that those who've seen The Phantom Menace will understand my use of profanity and therefore not demand that I beg anyone's pardon.

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