Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – I read an article the other day that said that Chris Brown will be appearing on an upcoming single by Rihanna. I thought “girl, what is wrong with you? That guy beat the shit out of you and you’re working together?” If I may deeply offend my readers now by making a very unsound analogy, I felt I understood just a little because I am a Star Wars fan. We all loved George Lucas at one time right? Remember “Luke, I am your father?” Those were good times! Then 1997 came with the “special editions.” Cleaning up the effects, remastering the print, what’s wrong with that? Then fucking Greedo shot first. I don’t think I noticed or minded back then (I was 12), but over the years that one shot just pissed me off. Then came the prequels. Everyone knows The Phantom Menace was terrible right? I mean after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, to have THIS as the first new Star Wars film in sixteen years! (Assuming you don’t count The Ewok Adventure and, really, who does?) Fucking Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd and all that bullshit, ugh…

Well maybe old George has just hit me too many times and my mind is going. I decided to check it out again with this new 3D re-release. Then a horrifying realization sank in over the next couple hours: it wasn’t THAT bad. It is by no means a great movie and remains not even a shadow of its sequel predecessors (that’s an odd combination of words) but there’s a pretty solid story structure and enough cool moments to justify its existence. Yes, Jar Jar still sucks. Yes, Jake Lloyd can’t act for jack shit even in a series that doesn’t set the bar all that high. But there’s a cool race and some awesome lightsaber battles and Liam Neeson as a Jedi. Can I live with not hating this movie? I may have to rethink who I am.

But first I’m going to complain about Jar Jar some more. Why? WHY? Actually now that the movie has crossed the line into “don’t hate it” and edging closer to “almost kinda sorta like it” Jar Jar just pisses me off even more. Because with all the good things I noticed this time around (over a decade since I’d last seen this movie) I began to think “what if the crappy parts were gone or fixed? Then you’d have a good movie. Maybe even one that is worthy of the title Star Wars.” The Gungans were fairly important to the plot of this movie. They provide the military strength for the final battle. So maybe NOT make them the most annoying things ever? Maybe make them intelligible instead of “Me-sah” this and “me-sah” that? [I will say that I never got the accusation that they were racist caricatures of black people. I’ve seen some racist shit in my 27 years but I’ve never seen any racial stereotypes of black people acting anywhere near as annoying as the Gungans. I DID, however notice offensive Asian and Jewish stereotypes for the Trade Federation and Watto, respectively.] I don’t blame Ahmed Best, the actor who has actually been threatened over playing Jar Jar Binks. He was given an annoying character to play and just went with it. I blame Lucas. I always blame Lucas. Even BRIAN BLESSED is ri-god-damn-diculous as the Gungan leader. It’s a ridiculous fucking race of idiots and because they’re actually important to the plot we have to put up with a lot of them. Honestly, just toning them down would have been fine. There’s another Gungan in the movie who’s like a general or something who isn’t half an annoying (though he does still use the same idiot-speak as the rest of his species). I get that the easy thing in science fiction is to give an alien race a defining trait, but “annoying as shit” is not a good one to saddle several of your characters with.

Okay, look: the acting has never been all that nuanced in any of the Star Wars films. Hell, wooden acting almost seems to be a Lucas trademark (although in THX-1138 it was kind of plot-justified). Search your feelings, you know it to be true. As I watch this movie I realize that most of the roles are being acted BADLY, they’re being acted Star Wars-style. Keira Knightley’s persistent monotone (and Natalie Portman’s impersonation of same)? Not exactly out of step with certain other line readings throughout the years. Ewan McGregor is actually doing a pretty damn effecting Alec Guinness tribute that never crosses a line into caricature while taking over Guinness’s most famous role (a fact Sir Alec was none-too-thrilled about). Terrance Stamp (“Kneel before Zod!”) brings dignity to a small role as the outgoing chancellor. Plus, we’ve all come to accept that Liam Neeson is awesome right? True his character is misguided (and inadvertently fucks over the universe) but if you had to pick an actor to be Jedi, Neeson is damn good choice. The many perfectly competent (if not overly nuanced) performances are what make Jake Lloyd stand out like a sore fucking thumb. Lloyd doesn’t act anymore, and it’s easy to see that the hate he got from this role would push most anyone into that decision. Every time that fucking kid shouting “yippee” I cringed a little. His supposed “chemistry” with Portman is non-existent. Also, can we talk about how creepy their scenes are with the knowledge that their characters are totally going to bang in future installments? Unsettling. Deeply unsettling. Also Greg Proops irritated me as a two-headed race announcer. I liked him on Who’s Line Is It Anyway? but here he just bugs me.

All this is still there. All this is still frustrating. So why has the past 13 years apparently mellowed me on this movie? Well the movie is not without its fun scenes. I like the pod race. It’s exciting, there are high stakes for the characters and it just reminds me of what Lucas can do well. Old favorites return like Frank Oz as Yoda, Kenny Baker as R2-D2, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO (though the fact that young Anakin built him is stupid), Ian McDiarmid as not-yet-Emperor Palpatine, as well as the sound design of Ben Burtt and music of John Williams (in top form). Ray Park (body) and Peter Serafinowicz (voice) create an awesome villain in Darth Maul (only it’s kind of bummer he didn’t live long enough to make Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith a little more interesting). Samuel L. Jackson always brings awesomeness to all things, even though he doesn’t really do ANYTHING in this movie. Also there’s kind of a “hey, it’s that guy!” quality to spotting some extras and members of the supporting cast. Dominic West (The Wire, 300) plays a palace guard. Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun, the Harry Potter series) is a friend of the weird Jewish insect thing that owns Anakin. Film director and former actress Sofia Coppola (The Godfather Part III, Lost in Translation) is one of the queens handmaidens and her brother writer-director Roman (CQ, The Darjeeling Limited) is another palace guard. And of course then-unknown British Natalie Portman doppelgänger Keira Knightley plays the handmaiden/bodyguard/decoy queen. For good measure the aliens from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Alien each have Senate representation (though the latter never struck me as very democratic). The conversion to 3D is handled well, as you might expect from Industrial Light & Magic. It doesn’t “wow” but it adds depth (in the literal sense, NOT the figurative).

A few months ago I saw the third Transformers movie and my thoughts were that I loved half of it (robots invade and fuck up Chicago) and hated half of it (Shia LaBeouf needs a job!). The parts I hated I HATED, but all in all what was good in the movie won out for me. This experience was very similar. In a review of why I DON’T hate this movie, I still go off on lengthy diatribes about annoying races and horrible child actors. That shit PISSES. ME. OFF. But unencumbered by the high expectations I hate in 1999, as a high school freshman… indeed saddled with extremely LOW expectations, I was able to not let the things I HATE about The Phantom Menace ruin the things I found rather enjoyable. Could this be a sign of personal growth? Or just slipping standards? I don’t know. I guess my abusive relationship with George Lucas has a few more hits left in it. The theater was filled mostly with children. I heard them talking. THESE movies are Star Wars to them. I cringe a bit and then I laugh a bit. Yeah sure maybe. Maybe getting in young blinds you to the problems of the franchise and that’s the main reason for my and so many others’ cultish devotion to the Holy Trilogy. An episode of How I Met Your Mother postulated once that you tolerance to Ewoks was entirely determined by how old you are. If you saw Return of the Jedi over a certain age you thought they were stupid. Under a certain age, not. Maybe that’s true of the series as a whole. Maybe seeing them for the first time at almost-30 wouldn’t have the same impact. But I didn’t. I saw them in my childhood and they help to forever define the magic of movies for me. The prequel trilogy is Star Wars to those kids from the theater. They can have it. I know we’re just killing time until the REAL story begins…

Have I just lost all credibility as a film reviewer?

One Response to “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)”
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  1. […] that I remember hating and finding out they weren’t quite as awful as they were in my memory (The Phantom Menace was by far the most surprising of these). So I have to admit I went into this one with a certain degree of curiosity to see this is a film […]

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