January 07, 2010

The Phantom Menace

Speaking of The Phantom Menace, I wrote this review way back in 1999 when it first came out (watching this movie in a theater is one of the reasons I don't fork out the big bucks to see movies in theaters anymore). Here it is in all its original contempt [with a few added parentheticals].

The theater I attended, a weekend showing at one in the afternoon, was packed. The only way a film can score blockbuster ticket sales is by repeat viewings. But why would anybody see this movie more than once? A movie so full of lousy directing and lousy scripting and lousy acting and unfulfilled promise that it left me depressed. Movies don't often leave me depressed. Maybe annoyed, but not depressed.

Let's start with the premise. What premise? How can you begin an entire series with a premise so murky you need five minutes of written exposition to not explain it? Come to think of it, I'd have a hard time explaining why anything in this movie happens the way it does. What's with Darth Maul, for example? Why does the character exist? What's the point of killing off Liam Neeson, other than because he wasn't scripted into the sequel? If they wanted to dispose of the Jedi Knights, why not just blow up the whole pompous bunch and their whole pompous council? Getting rid of that horrid excuse for bad acting and pretentious dialog (and those "highways in the sky" vistas that look like 50-year-old Popular Mechanics covers) would have improved things immeasurable.

My brother points out that the Jedi Knights would make better sense if, like the samurai, they were attached to particular lords or rulers [that is exactly the premise of My Otome Hime]. In medieval Japan, martial arts schools instructed samurai according to certain rules of combat and religious philosophy, and these schools competed with each other for students, prestige, and the good favor of the ruling elite. Lucas does credit Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress for inspiring the original Star Wars. If he got too big to steal good ideas, then he should go back to shamelessly copying them.

The insipid dialog is, frankly, far more bothersome than the mediocre acting. I guess there was no one on the set brave enough to say, as Harrison Ford reportedly did, "You can write this crap, George, but you can't make us say it." Camille Paglia is right on this point: contemporary movies makers don't know when to stop a scene--they just run on and on and on. The point of editing is to give the director and actors less time to embarrass themselves. In this movie, they're given all the time in the world.

And at the same time, let's get rid of most of the aliens, okay? Digital or not, they end up looking like so many Muppets after a while (repeat after me: Yoda, Fozzy Bear, Yoda, Fozzy Bear). I didn't find Jar Jar Binks as racist a character as described by some critics (he's too incomprehensible to pin on any racial group), but nevertheless utterly annoying. And that was after thirty seconds. After five minutes I'd prefer fingernails scraping on a blackboard. If you're looking for racist overtones, I'd pick the evil federation traders, who sound like extras from a Charlie Chan flick, and Anikin's slave master, who sounds (and acts, wings notwithstanding) like a Brooklyn Shylock direct from the Stereotypes Casting Agency.

Even more despicable is the sentimental gimmick that ruined Return of the Jedi and has been recycled here (along with a story climax that's been used in three out of four films--George, please, think of another way to end a movie!). That is, making war into comic relief. Now, I'm not against war and comedy rubbing shoulders. I'm fine with the "war is hell but a lot of fun to watch" genre. I'm fine with dark Black Adder-type Strangelovian satires. But trying to make war cute and cuddly is loathsome. Barely-armed aliens of any sort going up against tanks will get mowed down like so much cannon fodder [Avatar being the latest incarnation of this absurdly Luddite fairy tale]. There's nothing entertaining about this that I can see, no matter how cute the combatants are.

And why can't any of these futuristic societies design anything at least as effective as a cruise missile? [A Predator drone? How about a MIRVed JDAM?] C'mon, a force field that deflects exploding shells, but that you can just walk through? Armed droids that couldn't hit the broad side of a barn (from inside the barn) and break apart like fine china? In the future (that is, the "future" that is the original Star Wars), they chuck the droids and go back to using human soldiers in body armor. Well, no kidding.

Irksome political correctness: the queen, we are told, was "elected." An elected queen? What kind of an oxymoron is that? If they "elected" a guy, would he have to dress up in those goofy outfits? I liked the goofy outfits (shades of Shinto ceremonial garb), but they belonged on a hereditary monarch. And I liked Portman--she's the only thing that really shines in this movie (and her SR-71 spaceship is a real gem, I'll give them that). But as with Neeson she has nothing to act against or with. No internal conflict. Nothing to stir the soul. Not a single human relationship is created in this movie that is worth caring about.

The Phantom Menace proves the epigram, "It's the pictures that got small." For all the extravagant locations and special effects, it impresses only the left side of the brain. It's otherwise a small movie, it looks small, it feels small.

Star Wars, with its limited cast and limited sets, and as clunky as it is in parts, has a big heart and an expansive vision. Even on TV, its vistas appear broad and unending. Through the eyes of Luke Skywalker we see a frontier beckoning to "go west (or up), young man," while Han Solo bets you that the universe can be conquered with sheer verve and boldness, politics be damned. But the eyes in The Phantom Menace are jaded and dull. They don't see anything worth looking at, including, mostly, each other.

What surprised me the most was the movie's literary emptiness. Lucas cops out every step along the way. He's got Joseph Campbell on the brain, and seems to think that dropping in a mythic allusion here and there qualifies as "depth." There's no subtlety, no foreshadowing. I really expected the kid to do something that would in some way reveal a kind of inner corruption. A touch of darkness, a shadow on the soul. Something. Anything. But nada. Publicity posters tell us that Anikin turns into Darth Vader. Yoda tells us that the boy "troubles" him. We're all but told who the "Emperor" is, just in case we're too stupid to figure it out. The entire movie is Exhibit A when it comes to explaining what "Show, don't tell" means.

Now, I can conjure up reasons why, say, Darth Maul does what he does--pretty obvious reasons, I think--but that would require people knowing and doing things that are never shown or even hinted at. Still, there's reason to hope. We ex-Trekkies grew up kindling eternal hope. Hey, this episode reeks, maybe the next one won't. And even if the next one does, surely the one after won't. We keep on doubling down. So Lucas got Star Wars I right (yes, it's "I," no matter what numbering system he's come up with since), and it went downhill from there. But maybe after cranking out this stinker, he'll figure out what he really wants to do and things will improve with the sequels.

[They didn't.]

Related posts

Attack of the Clones
The Force Awakens
McKee meets the "Menace"

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
1/08/2010 10:51 AM   
The Phantom Menace is one of those movies that gets worse every time you think about it.

You know how Pixar will produce and show a short movie before each feature release? It seems to me that Lucas had ideas for several short stories and decided to build an entire movie on them. The result being a nonsensical plot, a few not-so-interesting special effects and a movie lacking any theme or morality.

Excellent review, Eugene.
# posted by Blogger Joe
1/08/2010 8:13 PM   
Using a series of short movies would have been an improvement. The real problem is that Lucas is above all a designer. He creates his movies around a series of well crafted and often stunning images. (One of the more bizarre things, though, is how static those images are.)

American Grafitti and Star Wars were exceptions, not the rule. Their story content indicates to me that Gary Kurtz had much more influence in both that he's likely given credit for. That he faded away after Empire Strikes Back is very telling in this saga.
# posted by Blogger Jon Turner
1/13/2010 3:02 PM   
I don't know if I'd go that far, but "The Phantom Menace" does strike me as an average film, what with its sometimes odd dialogue and uneven performances. I think part of the problem was that people's expectations for this movie were too unrealistically high, and, to Lucas's credit, he was not intending to make the "Second Coming" with the prequel. It's not a bad film, it's just... an average one.

That said, I DO think that Episode III is the best of the prequels; I felt that Lucas really nailed the last chapter, roughly about on par with the original trilogy. Granted, that final episode did have its faults, but I thought it had a lot more "bite" to it than the previous two episodes. The actors seemed to step up their game, too.

I don't think the prequel trilogy is on the same level as the original trilogy, but I don't despise it either.