Having seen the original Star Wars films more times than I can count (and more times than any adult cares to admit), I so wanted to love this movie. I was mentally prepared to be swept back into a world I haven’t seen anew since I was 17. With the imagination behind the first trilogy re-invigorated by a long rest, and equipped with technology not even imagined in 1977, I expected an unequaled triumph of the imagination.
Okay, there were a few warning signs along the way. Two years earlier, when the first trilogy was re-released with new effects, the key scene where Han Solo (Harrison Ford) guns down the bounty hunter Greedo was re-edited so that Greedo fired first. Not only did the new version look ridiculous, it also emasculated a key character, softening his rough edges. This told me that George Lucas was not making creative decisions purely on artistic merit, but that a politically correct element had crept into his thinking.
The trailers, however, looked good, filling me with hope that Episode I would take the Star Wars saga to new heights.
Alas, it was not to be, however. The Phantom Menace is such a mixed bag of small pleasures and major disappointments that it was hard to decide whether or not I actually liked the movie. It took a few times to be sure I didn’t.
The biggest problem with the film is the relative flatness of the characters. The first film had clearly defined personalities that contrasted well. They were archetypes, of course (the farm boy, the princess in distress, the soldier of fortune and the old wizard), but they were well-drawn archetypes. In The Phantom Menace, everyone seems to be of the manor born, always speaking in high, formal language. None of the personalities stand out well from the others. In the first film, even when the characters were speaking in more formal tones, there was still a spark of humanity and humor (“I thought I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board”).
Something else missing was a clearly defined threat to care about, such as in the first film, when the Rebels had to destroy the Death Star to keep themselves and their planet from being blown to tiny bits. There is no such easily understood threat here. Part of the problem is that, although we are told that the people of Naboo are suffering greatly at the hands of the Trade Federation, we don’t see any example of that on screen. I’m not asking for the film to wallow in unpleasantness, but rather just for anything that would have personalized the situation and given it some urgency.
In a sense, the title of this film seems rather apt, since the true villain of this peace never really materializes. The on-screen threat, the Trade Federation viceroy and his battle ‘droids seem to be a poor substitute for Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Imperial Storm Troopers. The really interesting threat, in the persons of the Sith Lords Darth Sidious and Darth Maul, are badly underutilized.
I’m not going to fault the quality of the acting too much, since the actors were given so little to work with. Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) seems especially wasted in a rule that should have had far more spark and humor. Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) gets a little more meat to chew on, but even he seems hemmed in by his role. And as much as I like Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), I have to wonder how much of a long distance bill he ran up while basically phoning in his brief appearance.
On the plus side, Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala) brings sweetness and surprising strength to her role. Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), despite early rumors that his performance was a problem spot for the film, is also charming and affecting as the ordinary boy who grows up to be Darth Vader. Ian McDiarmid is also effective as Senator Palpatine, the future Emperor, but it is the two young stars that almost save this film’s bacon.
Initially, I did not mind the character of Jar Jar Binks, Qui-Gon Jinn’s reluctant comic sidekick, so much. So much negative hype about this character had spread though the Star Wars fan community that it was impossible for Jar Jar to live down to it. The problem is that he was essentially the only source of humor in this film, and it was almost all slapstick, which got old very fast. There was none of the snappy dialogue that typified the characters of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (“It was a boring conversation anyway”) in the first trilogy. That is one element this film sorely needed.
I won’t give away too much, but the ending of this film seems to depend far too much on luck and accident, both in the ground battle and up in space. As far as the space battle goes, it may be Anakin’s abilities with the Force manifesting themselves, but that is not made clear enough if it is true.
From a technical standpoint, of course, the film is faultless. Director and writer Lucas creates totally fantastic and believable worlds on which we can feast our eyes. Never once did I find myself looking at a creature or environment in this film and thinking, “That’s a special effect.”
It’s a shame that the story doesn’t quite live up to the setting. Of course, Titanic had a little bit of the same problem, and it didn’t do too badly. Still, Lucas needs to get a better handle on dealing with characters and the actors who play them as he goes to work on the next film. I can’t help but think that a director who hadn’t been in the chair in more than 20 years could have tried a smaller, more intimate film before attempting one of the most technically ambitious films of the decade.