Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
To paraphrase Han Solo in The Force Awakens trailer, everything you’ve heard about the prequel trilogy is true. The surfeit of CGI and virtual sets, the paper-thin characterisation, the lumpen dialogue. The soullessness of it all, something even the best efforts of John Williams cannot dent. But I’m not one to cast them out into eternal darkness, any more than I do The Hobbit(ses). They’re not what they could be, they’re disappointments, and the first one in particularly is at times nothing less than a chore to get through, but I don’t feel Lucas has done anything reprehensible, just something entirely misconceived. Reprehensible would be fiddling with the Original Trilogy to the point where it detracts from enjoying them any more (hopefully it won’t be long before that’s remedied).
The same amount of time has passed between The Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens as between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace; hopefully the quality trend reverses this time. I didn’t see The Phantom Menace until more than a month after it opened in the UK (which was two months after its US release; such a lag would be unheard of now; of course, it’s nothing to the seven months it took Star Wars to hit the UK). I just wasn’t fussed; I’d heard more than enough and seen more than enough to have low expectations. My eventual response, even as a Star Wars fan, was correspondingly much less vehement than the many who queued up at fever pitch and then tried to persuade themselves it really was all they’d been waiting for. Until reality inevitably clawed itself a permanent place in their minds. Most memorable at the time was probably Simon Pegg’s disavowal in Spaced Series Two (in retrospect it was probably just as well they didn’t do a third run, as the second was awash with weak parodies, not least of the same year’s The Matrix).
I didn’t hate it. I didn’t think much of it, but I didn’t hate it. It was rather bland and indigestible, weighed down with stodgy acting and dialogue, an indifferent abundance of CGI and a plot that was either elusive or banal, depending on your desire to attempt to follow it. And Jake Lloyd and Jar Jar; the verdict there went without saying. Like Pegg, it was the movie no one expected in 1999 that hit the home run; The Matrix had the punch-the-air momentum and excitement, and special effects in service of story, of the kind everyone anticipated from Star Wars. Of course, the prequels would be telling a tragedy in three parts, but there was no reason they couldn’t still weave a rich, enthralling, tragic tapestry, the way The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t joyous but it was completely immersive. And there was no reason it couldn’t create its own sense of the mythic even as it unravelled many of those seeded by the Original Trilogy (easier said than done, certainly, as pretty much every prequel ever made has proved, but it if any series had the potential to do it well, structured as beginning halfway through as early as 1978, it was Star Wars).
The prequels had, have, and will have, yards and yards and reams and reams written and YouTubed on them, so unless I was to come out as their staunchest defender I’d likely have little new to say. I last watched them when the Blu-rays were released, and wouldn’t have revisited again so soon (three years) if it weren’t for The Force Awakens. I suspect I’ve now consigned myself to treating Star Wars as a complete event, such that I won’t dip in, I’ll encounter them all, warts and all, every five years or so (at least, until they get to Episode 16, and the twentieth spin-off Bad Jawa), just as I’ll probably take in the inferior Hobbitses before I rewatch The Lord of the Rings.
So before launching in, I’ll cast about for something positive to say regarding the Blu-ray release. There’s scant tinkering that gets my approval elsewhere in the saga, but the CGI Yoda is a definite improvement on the peculiarly crappy puppet they used originally (as opposed to the really good puppet they used in the Original Trilogy; I’m genuinely reluctant to defend a CGI Yoda over a physical one). That doesn’t make up for Demented Mosquito Yoda, who we’re subjected to in the next two movies, or that all we see of him here is the sage dullard refitted into was he, rather than the sometimes sinister, sometimes silly, sometimes antic, but always vital Jedi Master of The Empire Strikes Back (that shift had taken place with Return of the Jedi, though).
The film proper. I’ll come to the Jake and Jar Jar, and the over-reliance on virtual worlds, but those aside, the real hamstringing factor of The Phantom Menace is the plot. And I don’t mean that it’s about taxation and trade blockades. One of the few aspects I rather like is the manner in which Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) hoodwinks all and sundry, including the Jedi Council, to get exactly what he wants. No, it’s the manner in which Lucas has structured the film entirely without attention to flow, objective or urgency. It’s almost wilfully perverse; knowing he has a captive audience, he opts to make them put up.
This isn’t a case where it pays to follow the plot closely either; it’s still as much of a snooze if you do. There’s “stuff” going on, and you’re expected to go with it because it’s Star Wars (which many did). You might level a wayward structure at The Empire Strikes Back, but everyone there had readily identifiable goals, be they running to safety or passing a test. It’s been said that Lucas’ plot tack, the politics and trade wars, has no place in a kids’ movie, but that isn’t really the problem. It doesn’t help matters when he takes such little care in setting out the salient details, but it isn’t really the problem. The issue is that nothing he presents has any import or drama, at least until it’s too late. Nothing grabs you by the seat of the pants. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his cast is replete with greying, middle-aged men, waffling on, because that’s what the mastermind behind the saga had become.
Queen Amidala: I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war.
So Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to negotiate the end of the Trade Federation’s blockade of ships around Naboo. That ought to be cool. Jedis in action, doing Jedi stuff. And they dutifully get their lightsabers out. Mostly, though, they just destroy a shed load of CGI droids. Which isn’t really cool. Because it’s CGI. Things don’t go according to plan, but with no great stakes involved, so they head down to Naboo, meet CGI character Jar Jar, visit the underwater CGI Gungan city where they meet some more CGI characters and hear Brian Blessed’s voice. The latter is a small consolation, but other than that, no great stakes are involved.
Up they go to Naboo, after this irrelevant detour (but it’s needed you see, to introduce the primitives-versus-hi-tech climax… oh wait… Return of the Jedi already went there; I guess it made an impression on James Cameron if nothing else) and rescue Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Entirely without great stakes (this is presumably meant to be nick-of-time stuff, evoking delivering Leia from the Death Star, but it’s more “Oh very well, I shall come along”).
As unpromising as this is, it’s as nothing compared to the longueurs encountered on Tatooine, which they have to go to because little Ani (Jake Lloyd) is there. Like so much here, Lucas expects us to be fascinated because it’s young Darth Vader, not because he does anything to make his character remotely interesting or engaging (which includes casting someone who can act). Meaning that, after an extended interlude there, entirely without great stakes, it’s off to Coruscant and some political wrangling. Ironically, this potentially snooze-worthy section is one bit I quite like, as there’s actually some intrigue and considered plotting going on (maybe it’s also the Terence Stamp factor, as the underused Chancellor Valorum; it certainly helps that McDiarmid is enjoying the smooth flourish that comes with deploying Senator Palpatine).
Alas, it doesn’t last long, as Lucas doesn’t listen to Cubby Broccoli’s edict that one should never go back to the same place twice; the return to Naboo is where the great stakes finally come in. Unfortunately, in three of the four parallel slices of action they’re entirely bereft. From a clinical point of view, it’s interesting to observe how the fight with Darth Maul does all the donkey work, sustaining (silly) Jar Jar as he batters the enemy droid army (accidentally), (silly) Ani as he blows up the Trade Federation control ship (accidentally) and (not silly but uninvolving) Padmé & co as they capture Nute Gunray (Silas Carson; it says something about me, or The Phantom Menace, that while I knew there was a character called Nute Gunray, I failed to add two and two together until this viewing; it will be the same with Kit Fisto, who sounds like an untoward sexual act rather than a Jedi Master).
Yoda: Always two there are, a master and an apprentice.
Because, since I’ve found a few good things to say about The Phantom Menace now (McDiarmid, Stamp, CGI Yoda, the manipulations in the corridors of power on CGI Coruscant), my praise for the realisation of Darth Maul (martial arts guy Ray Park) is unqualified; all strange face paint, fearsome looks and double-ended lightsaber; the design work on the prequels is sadly poverty-stricken compared to the Original Trilogy, but with Darth Maul they at least get their memorable Sith Lord. Actually, I will qualify my praise for Maul. Peter Serafinowicz voicing this Darth is a good choice, but fairly irrelevant as he has minimal screen time and even less dialogue. There’s something to be said for less is more, as Boba Fett proved, but the lack of Maul goes back to the wilfully perverse thing Lucas seems to be pursuing here. You’ve got someone who boosts the story whenever he’s on screen, so give him exactly two scenes of any note.
It would be neither here nor there if everything else worked, of course. But it doesn’t. The taster of Maul, via the brief dustbowl skirmish on Tatooine with Qui-Gon, certainly whets the appetite for the finale, and the editing by Paul Martin Smith and Ben Burtt is masterful when it comes, teasing out the fight, slaying of Qui Gon and revenge by Obi Wan to breaking point (and wisely making it the climactic moment).
It’s probably accurate to suggest the initially forgiving mood towards The Phantom Menace was largely down to the Maul fight, but it’s no lesser thing for the diminishment of the surrounding tissue, a fine piece of choreography and tension (and dismemberment); Lucas would get more creative/ destructive with his virtual editing as the trilogy progressed, which may account for this remaining the best fight in the three (the odd Force-using, gravity-defying leaps aside, which become more unremarkable for being too frequently employed).
Padmé: Are you a slave?
Ani: I’m a person and my name is Anakin!
Most people breathed a sigh of relief knowing there’d be a decade leap between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. That was before Hayden Christensen was instructed to play teenage Ani as a petulant brat. Which is still marginally preferable to Star Wars’ Baby’s Day Out. I can’t help feeling sorry for Lloyd (who hasn’t acted in a decade), and Lucas must take the full blame for casting a performer unable to respond to the emotional content while simultaneously pushing deadly dialogue on him, which falls leaden from his unalloyed jaws. Lloyd is out of his depth, in over his head, and can’t deliver a line with anything approaching competence. There’s no sense of character, just a bewildered kid thrown onto a film set; frequently you can see Portman or McGregor or Neeson thinking “What is going on here? What has Lucas done?” as they share dialogue with Lloyd. To paraphrase things Harrison Ford has said again, “You can type this shit, George, but Jake Lloyd sure can’t say it”.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Why do I sense we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?
The result is Lucas killing the genesis of his most iconic character stone dead, far more so than Return of the Jedi revealing he was actually a flabby old guy under the armour. On Tatooine the action, such as it is, stumbles and falls; there’s a vacuum at its centre, because it now revolves entirely around Ani; there’s no magic-making, just marking off points on a roundabout map. It’s a case of bring the kid along, George said we should. Yippee!
Ani: I’ve been wondering, what are midichlorians?
Nothing Lucas can say about Ani being amazing is remotely plausible, be it his building C-3P0 (yeah, Darth Vader built C-3P0), his pod racing skills (“I’m the only human who can do it”; too right, the rest of the contestants are Warner Bros cartoon characters), his special powers (“He can see things before they happen”; “I had a dream I was a Jedi. I came back and freed all the slaves”) or his midichlorian count (I know, I know) being higher than Yoda’s. The much-feted pod race is, to be fair, well-realised (aside from the plethora of CGI contestants and observers, including a two-headed compere, that feel completely at variance with the established design of the Star Wars universe), but it can never really engage because its tiny main entrant can’t act for toffee.
Ani: Are you an angel?
This is also a huge problem establishing Ani’s connection with Padmé (after the sibling snogging in Star Wars, Lucas now blithely sets up a relationship between a child and a teenager, so perhaps it’s fortunate Lloyd can’t pass muster). As it turns out, the whole romance will be entirely botched by Lucas, though, perhaps one of the problems of attempting to write a fait accompli.
There’s also Ani’s entirely unmoving relationship with mom Shmi (Pernilla August), who does an entirely convincing impression of a doormat in any given situation while simpering about her virgin birth (“There was no father – I can’t explain what happened”; no shit, well if overt Biblical referencing didn’t work for Willow, try, try again, eh George?) I suppose it’s slightly subversive that George’s Jesus analogue turns out to be a bad seed, but it’s difficult to care at all. Somehow Ani manages to trample all over Shmi’s parental veto (“Mom, you say that the biggest problem in the universe is that no one helps each other”; what a little tyke). Really, if she had put her goddam foot down and not kowtowed to Qui-Gon’s patriarchal zeal, everyone would have been a lot better off.
Ani: This is tense!
Including however many thousands Neimoidian who lost their lives (albeit Asian sounding Neimoidians, so I guess it doesn’t matter too much, right George?) when Ani recklessly obliterates the droid control ship. Young Skywalker’s penchant for mass destruction is sign of things to come, I’ll grant Lucas that much at least. Clever foreshadowing. As for the desperately weak device whereby, when the command ship goes to sleep all the droids go to sleep, it’s just another in the line of decisive Lucas plot-foilers (see the Death Star) and one that continues to have currency, even in really great movies (Edge of Tomorrow).
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You were banished because you were clumsy?
I suppose the best thing you can say about Jar Jar, viz-à-viz Ani, is that at least Ahmed Best delivers a performance. One that smacks uncomfortably of minstrel blackface, but a performance nonetheless. Jar Jar, a bleedin’ ijit who is supposed to be endearing and frequently gets into situations involving poo (or poodoo), is nothing if not a fully-conceived irritation, albeit not quite so fully-conceived that real physical actors are able to match his virtual eye line. You can bet that, if he had been universally lauded the way R2 and C3P0 were, his appearance in Attack of the Clones would have been more than fleeting.
Qui-Gon Jinn: You hear that? That is the sound of a thousand terrible things heading this way.
Somehow Brian Blessed’s Boss Nass, tossing his enormous orb about in the final scene and at least relishing his every hyperbolic utterance, is such an idiot of a ruler that he makes idiot Jar Jar a general. Who, being an idiot, with a load of blue balls at his disposal, leads a sterling attack that, like Ani’s razing of the droid ship, undermines any ounce of drama the proceedings might have held. Bantha poodoo indeed.
Watto: Mind tricks don’t work on me, only money.
The racial caricaturing doesn’t end with Jar Jar. As noted, the Neimoidians are suggestive of Asian stereotypes, and portrayed as crooked and scheming (and cowardly) villains; it isn’t giving them accents per se that’s the problem, it’s the cumulative effect, along with Jar Jar and Watto. Watto being the flying Jewish Fagin, obsessed with the accumulation of wealth by any means, equipped with a sizeable hooter and given to pronouncements like “My boy”.
So even when George is actually managing to make an impression with his creations, he’s blotting his copy book. Most critics of The Phantom Menace reserve praise for Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon, but there are serious problems with both character and performance. Neeson, big lummox that he is, really needs something to chew on to make an impression. Unfortunately, he’s nigh on somnambulant as the Jedi Master. Try imagining Terence Stamp as Qui-Gon instead; how much more engaging would that have been? Let Neeson play the boring politician. He even makes “Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts” turn to ashes.
But even Stamp couldn’t have prevented Qui-Gon from looking like an idiot by bringing Jar Jar along (yeah, right, Jedi foresight) or, more seriously, countered the way the character is continually shown to be unscrupulous and a big fat liar (that ought to be why he didn’t show up as a Force ghost at the end). He lies about the pod racer to Watto (“I have acquired a pod in a game of chance”), he lies about midichlorions to Ani (“I’m checking your blood for infections”), he cheats at dice to ensure Ani, not his mother is part of the bet to release one of Watto’s slaves. And it’s his own headstrong behaviour that sets up Ani’s eventual turn, by splitting him from his mom and setting in motion the train of events that results in her death. He also runs (or jumps) away from Darth Maul on first encounter, the ‘fraidy Jedi.
Ani: What about mom?
Yeah, his mum. Sod her. Jedis clearly don’t care about women (I know, there’s at least one on the Jedi Council, but we don’t hear her speak). Why, with all this lying and cheating, can’t Qui-Gon just abscond with Shmi too? Simply because he doesn’t like women and doesn’t want one getting in the way of his tutoring Ani in the ways of righteousness.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: They all sense it. Why can’t you?
Indeed, George. McGregor’s fine as Obi-Wan. At the time, I recall just being grateful we dodged the bullet that is Sir Kenneth Branagh, who had been rumoured. McGregor’s casting also suggested Lucas was aware of the importance of the zeitgeist, since the actor was then at his peak of popularity off the back of a trio of collaborations with Danny Boyle. Ewan’s performance is in no way an approximation of Alec Guinness, and you can’t see the man Ben Kenobi will become here, but McGregor, as a fan, is at least awake and interested, even if his and Portman’s artificially stately tones make them sound like they’re on laudanum at times.
He also gets the less surefooted aspect of a learning apprentice down pat. McGregor’s the only part of the prequels that would merit a spin-off movie, although he’s presumably now within about six or seven years of the age of Guinness in A New Hope (if you think those twenty years were really rough on the guy, look at poor old Uncle Owen). Obi-Wan has little of consequence to do aside from kill Darth Maul at the end, but it’s still the most resonant action in the whole picture, and it’s quite a cool moment to boot (about the only moment you can say that of herein). At other times, it’s very easy to fall back on passing the time by spotting which shot was a reshoot, thanks to Ewan’s ever-varying hair length. As for Obi-Wan promising to train Ani despite telling Qui-Gon he was potty earlier, well, taking contrary attitudes for the sake of it will only set you up for a world of hurt.
Portman’s able to do little with little, even given she has two personas here. Which begs the question, do all these smart people who fail to recognise Amidala/Padmé because she’s got a bit of makeup on, including Jedi, need their eyes tested? It’s like Superman/Clarke Kent, when the truth is closer to the Son the Invisible Man in Amazon Women on the Moon. Just humour George.
Qui-Gon Jinn: He is the chosen one. You must see it.
The Jedi. Well, they’re a washout. There will be more Jedis in Episode II, but none of them, CGI Yoda aside, give off anything remotely spiritual. Indeed, Samuel L Jackson was mystifyingly praised for Mace Windu, a part Lucas gave him after he expressed interest. Did he also say he’d only take it if he could remain in his comfort zone? Is that why we get an alarmingly belligerent Jedi master? He doesn’t say anything as anomalous as “This Party’s over” here (that award goes to the Neimoidian’s “Are you brain dead?”) but he helps puncture the Jedi mystique very effectively.
Mind you, so do the midichlorians, and the variant on Zener cards to test Ani’s skills, and not realising there are Sith about, and Yoda’s “Much fear in you, I sense” (I’m surprised anything he can read, so inexpressive is his subject). The Sith bit is presumably intended to indicate an archaic group that has rested on its laurels too long, bound by tradition and ensconced in the comfort of Coruscant. At least, that’s my charitable explanation for why they’re on a whizz-bang noisy CGI city world rather than somewhere a little more Zen. But, since the Jedi are just another part of the affectless sheen infecting every aspect of the picture, it’s often difficult to tell what’s intentionally dubious and just poor writing.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I have a bad feeling about this.
Also overloading The Phantom Menace are Lucas’ fan-serving gestures and shout-outs, ironic for a guy who stubbornly edits his old movies and in so doing inflames those very same fans. The most irritating here are the use of R2-D2 and C-3P0. The former is now the over-heroic wonder droid, so there’s no curve to realising he’s quite special. The latter is treated appallingly in the prequels, most often in CGI form. Here he’s just Anthony Daniels’ voice (“My parts are showing? Oh, my goodness!”) but his presence resolutely helps to crush the idea of a vast, expansive galaxy in which anything could be happening; everything is actually related to, and ties in with, everything else, it seems. It’s so very small after all.
It’s also there in the returning creatures, from the Tessek and Gran (Squid Head and Ree-Yees to me) to Jabba reminding us that the old designs are so much better, Jawas exclaiming “Utinni!” and Tusken Raiders, thankfully not yet CGI-rendered. And lines like “Close the blast doors”. Of the new catchphrases, I don’t actually mind the “Roger-Roger” refrain of the Trade Federation droids so much; I don’t think much of them design or function-wise, and it serves to add to the general juvenilia of Jar-Jar and Ani, but it’s fairly inoffensive and isn’t “Mesa going home!”, which is in its favour.
Senator Palpatine: And you, young Skywalker, we will watch your career with great interest.
If anyone ties this mess together it’s McDiarmid, oozing effortless confidence and control, as if his puppeteer Lucas really is a sound arbiter, both in terms of aesthetic and content. While it’s a crying shame that’s not the case, there isn’t a moment in the prequels where Palpatine (perhaps not so true of his Darth Sidious alter-ego) isn’t on form, and there isn’t a noticeable moment where his dialogue flounders, so there is consistency (aside from the bad consistency); it’s just found in one place only. I like how Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace ends, with Palpatine exactly where he wants to be and no one any the wiser about his grand plan. That part of Lucas’ grand plan at least is satisfying. It’s a shame so little else about it is.