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