Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Star Wars
Some Observations on that Phantom Menace by Jeffrey Wheeler

I had a difficult time trusting the critics who rated "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" lower than 3 and a half stars (out of four), and after seeing the film I must say that I no longer have that difficulty... I simply do not trust them. Looking back, it becomes increasingly clear that these guys simply did not give the film a chance. There is too much plot, too much character, and too much detail for it to sink in with one sitting. Lucas moves the story and visuals quickly, and because of the subtleties in visuals, character, script and performance -- the whole shebang -- the film demands more viewings. George Lucas deliberately stuffed his plate, took risks, pushed the envelope, and now challenges his audience. When most filmmakers do this it is gaudy and damp, but Lucas focuses on the minutiae. Take, for example, the character development of Darth Maul, a no-nonsense Dark Lord of the Sith: He speaks two lines in the entire film. His appearance and silence alone establish him as, well, the strong and silent type. A scene where he leaps inhumanly from a speeder, another where he paces like a trapped animal, scenes where his face and eyes and body language tell everything from thought to motive. You can sense his backstory -- he is believable, real, yet clearly a killing machine along the lines of Jaws or Alien. Indeed, the film relies heavily on defining the characters through actions rather than words, which of course is what Lucas is best at. The inhabitants of the story are archetypes, and as such we know their personalities already. What is left to the details of action must suffice. This is how a "Star Wars" film works. Lucas is a visual director, not a literary director. This film follows visual storytelling, not arthouse narrative.

The primary plot involves the slimy political ambitions of Emperor... er... Senator Palpatine, around whom the entire course of the film pivots. There are four sub-plots, interconnected by the machinations of Palpatine. Plot Point Two: As part of Palpatine's ploy to rise in power, he orchestrates a deal for "the greedy Trade Federation" to try gaining control over a small planet of Naboo. Plot Point Three: As a result of the invasion, two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, become involved in the political masquerade. Plot Point Four: Complications from that lead the Jedi Knights to an accidental meeting with Anakin Skywalker, whose destiny as a Jedi is just beginning. Plot Point Five: Palpatine's involvement with the Dark Jedi -- the Sith Lords -- sets the stage for the future. Though not plots (yet), Lucas adds some sparks of a future romance, along with a few other passing references of what to expect in 2002.

The story is simple and smart, made surprisingly intricate by introducing the plot points non-sequentially, relying on seemingly minor actions to make major impacts, and playing off of at least two plots simultaneously. This is the first prequel, and like the first act of a play it need not be anything more than exposition for future episodes. That Lucas surpassed what was necessary is a treat.

Despite huge cuts in detail to narrow the film down to an agreeable 131 minutes, the undercurrents of Lucas' original screenplay remain, and are occasionally enhanced. These are probably the darkest undercurrents in "Star Wars" history, with the fate of an entire Republic placed on perilous ground. Despite the steady flow of superficial comic relief (not all of it successful), the film's depths indulge in twisted, sinister irony and mythological, possibly allegorical correlations. The heady philosophies of duality, symbiosis, and balance serve as the foundation of the entire film. A colleague of mine called the film a Greek tragedy wrapped like a birthday present. That about describes it.

Another aspect of the film is that it dazzles with special effects, but not at the expense of the story. A spectacular race, initially seen as an excuse to show-off unforgettable special effects, turns out to be a key piece of tract for the film's climax. These sights exist for a reason: some are main characters, some are in supporting roles, some are used for dramatic purposes, some for comedic, some establish a sense of place, some decimate that place. There is no waste of imagery; one could watch the movie without sound and know exactly what is going on, why it is happening, and who everyone is. The special effects, which are indescribably fantastic, contribute rather than detract.

The acting is above the norm for a "Star Wars" film. The worst of the leads, Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker, boasts more exuberance than Mark Hamill ever will. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are perfect for their roles, and Natalie Portman makes Carrie Fisher appear just plain dull. Ian McDiarmid is, as always, a joy. Terence Stamp makes a lasting impression despite his paltry screen time. Ralph Brown and Hugh Quarshie, however, are supporting actors who neither support nor act (typical, though, considering they inhabit the most unnecessary roles in the film).

The most hotly debated issue is not the film itself, but the presence of the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks. He is like the Three Stooges rolled into one insanely bombastic alien (a Gungan, to be exact). He is initially annoying, but frequently garners laughs, may become almost cluelessly endearing, and, amid the accusations of George Lucas not developing his characters, is positively excessive in his personality. (Another benefit is that he is only one nuisance, as opposed to that screaming flock of unwashed teddy bears from "Return of the Jedi.") He is an acquired taste, but I liked him. In fact, the Gungans as a whole are extremely underrated: Boss Nass, the Grinch-like Gungan leader, has what must be the oddest facial tic in film history, and as Captain Tarpals played Desi to Jar Jar's Lucille I wondered how one could possibly dislike Lucas' comic touch.

The reviewer in Newsweek said their underwater city looked like a sunken Lamps Plus showroom, but I watched the screen with feelings of awe and wonder. Those feelings recurred increasingly from that point on until they became a steady stream.

Aside from shoddily handled space battle, the finale of this film is by far the best action in the series yet, and the duel rates as the best sword fight in blockbuster history. For action buffs, these moments are truly worth the price of full admission. And the sound has a lot to do with it...

The sound effects in this film are arresting, and I am a loss for words to describe them unerringly. The sound mixing, however, left me saddened. Composer John Williams suffered several bad sound mixes recently, mostly at the hands of Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan" and "Amistad" both had moments where the music was actually mixed too loudly, and I am sure that if Williams knew he was in the spotlight thanks to some kooky sound engineer he would alter his music accordingly). For the "TPM" soundtrack, Williams composed a fair deal of the music in true "Star Wars," front-and-center mode, but the only time it holds its own in the film's soundscape is during the finale. Those who did the mix for the music seem to have forgotten, or not realized, that the "Star Wars" movies are films where the marriage of music and images is operatically indelible. If you do not notice the music (consciously or subconsciously; it does not matter which), then you do not feel its effect. A lot of the music in this film is under the sound effects, and the sound designers are at fault. When it comes to video and DVD, someone needs to return and mix the music louder, and hopefully keep the history of "Star Wars" music in mind for the next two flicks.

Despite the lousy reproduction both in the film and the album, the score is a delicacy. Some of the best story clues are musical: a march for a victory celebration is an upbeat arrangement of the Emperor/Sidious/Palpatine theme, and 'Anakin's Theme' utilizes a variation on the 'Imperial March,' both instances of John Williams physiological genius as it applies to film scoring. There are many scenes like this, and it is telling that one can find little as interesting, intelligent, and appropriate as Williams' "TPM" score in any studio blockbuster of the past decade. The use of choir is spine tingling, the brass writing is pure "Star Wars," and the dynamics of the score smoothly change from place to place without missing a beat. (For those still conscious and reading, my review of the soundtrack album is available.)

There are several more flaws in the movie, however... most of them excruciating. The dialogue ties with the likes of "Titanic" and "Armageddon" for the Most Inane awards. However, in the film's defense, neither "ANH" nor "RotJ" were much better, and "ESB" had its share of pains. Like the others, I suspect fans of the series will come to love the movie because the dialogue is unpretentious and oversimplified. What I cannot forgive is the film's opening, which is easily the worst in the series. It exists to set the foundation for the tale, but its only interesting traits are the tributes to "2001: A Space Odyssey" and old "Flash Gordon" serials, and perhaps the rather historic introduction of the Jedi. Lucas introduces the villains (the Neimodians) as two-dimensional, cowardly, nauseating representatives of the Trade Federation. They look like frogs in kabuki costumes and talk like savagely stereotyped Japanese from American World War II propaganda -- it would be culturally offensive were they not so incredibly obtuse as to make such offense a waste of brainpower. They go a long way toward ensuring the first minutes provide information without providing the interest to retain it. This is an epitome of action without urgency.

At the movie's heart, however, is a grand story, accompanied by great skill from those involved. So why do some people not like this film? Roger Ebert came up with the most intelligent explanation: "If it were the first 'Star Wars' movie, 'The Phantom Menace' would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough. But this is the fourth movie of the famous series, and we think we know the territory; many of the early reviews have been blasé, paying lip service to the visuals and wondering why the characters aren't better developed. How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders. I am reminded of the Isaac Asimov story 'Nightfall,' about the planet where the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again, searching for a Dairy Queen." So I say see the film, pay attention, rediscover what it is like to watch a "Star Wars" movie, resurrect that chance for wonder.

Jeffrey Wheeler

[See Jeffrey's review of John Williams's score for the new Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace on this site now]

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