A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2012
EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE
1999/ 2012, PG, 133 mins.
1999/ 2012, PG, 133 mins.
Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson / Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor / Queen Amidala: Natalie Portman / Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd / Jar Jar Binks: Ahmed Best / Shmi Skywalker: Pernilla August / Yoda: Frank Oz / Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson / Darth Maul: Ray Park / Chancellor Valorum: Terence Stamp
Written and directed by George Lucas
It’s hard to encapsulate how much unbridled anticipation there was for the very first film in George Lucas’ STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy – titled EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE – when it was released nearly 13 years ago in the summer of 1999. The first film chronologically in the series, the fourth film released (coming 16 years after 1983's RETURN OF THE JEDI), and fuelled by a salivating legion of rabid STAR WARS fans waiting and waiting…and waiting...for the flannel shirted one to make due on his promise to make the first three films in the heralded saga, THE PHANTOM MENACE opened to massive box office success and grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide.
Alas, it was paradoxically despised.
Much has been made of the
relative quality of THE PHANTOM MENACE in the pantheon of STAR WARS
films. To be fair, it’s the
least of all of the entries, but the film’s biggest sin is
arguably not its inherent value, but rather that it unfortunately came
after a long gestation period of fanatically built-up fan eagerness for
new films. Those original
films are so permanently entrenched in our pop culture milieu and in the
hearts and minds of the most feverous of aficionados that disappointment,
on some level, would prove to be inevitable with the advent of THE PHANTOM
MENACE; for Lucas to recapture creative lightning again in a bottle was
improbable. There is simply
no manner that any STAR WARS film - from any directorial or creative mind
- could have attained the same sense of startling freshness, audacious
originality, and revolutionary artifice as the first three films.
I could go on ad nauseam about
how the unimaginably high fanbase expectations doomed THE PHANTOM MENACE
to failure even before it was initially released (how could any film
possibly eclipse such unattainable expectations?).
What’s important, I think, today for people that re-watch
Lucas’ space opera is to view THE PHANTOM MENACE within a very tight
viewfinder outside of history, outside of our collective childhood
memories of the past films, and outside of the repellently – and
unfairly - hostile response the film received in 1999.
Looking within a narrow prism of our lifelong associations and
reverence to the original STAR WARS canon, it’s deceptively easy to
label THE PHANTOM MENACE as a supreme letdown.
However, looking at it more constructively, the film has
the Force, so to speak, with it…just not as much as the original three;
it certainly is still a film of limitlessly awesome ambition, but perhaps
not as much discipline.
Watching the film in its
original release and now for its 21st Century three-dimensional upgrade
(which ranges from underwhelming to tastefully subdued and neither fundamentally adds or detracts from the experience),
it’s important to look at THE PHANTOM MENACE in context.
It had to facilitate itself as a worthy introductory chapter to not
only EPISODE II, but to the entire STAR WARS saga as a whole (to complain
that Lucas was too heavily and slavishly expository with THE PHANTOM
MENACE misses the point). It had to establish not only new characters, but also old and
familiar ones in either a younger or different form.
Most importantly, THE PHANTOM MENACE required itself to be a
stand-alone film on its own, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.
On all of these primary levels as an origin story, the film was –
and still is – an efficient accomplishment.
Like all of the STAR WARS
films, Lucas does not waste much time in THE PHANTOM MENACE and thrusts us
head first into his galaxy far, far away and, in the process, essentially
tells a good narrative, even if the title card crawl confounds us with
news of "the taxation of trade routes" (what the...?). The plot
details Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, bringing solemn gravitas
and dignity) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) attempting
to escort Queen – and future mom to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia –
Amidala (Natalie Portman) from her home planet of Naboo to the Galactic
governmental epicenter, Coruscant, in order to find a diplomatic end to
her planet’s trade route dispute (the film's heavily politicized themes
that tend to bog down the spectacle is now, more than ever, an inherent
and obvious weakness here). Along
the way, the trio of heroes make a required detour to Tatooine where they
encounter future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, a bit mannered, to be sure, but
adequate in his role), a young slave that’s
atypically strong in the Force for a boy that has not achieved puberty.
Throughout their journeys, the Jedi Knights and Queen are
ruthlessly hunted down by a Sith Lord named Darth Maul (a penetratingly
intimidating Ray Park) who serves the needs of his master - a Dark Lord of
the Sith and phantom menace to all involved - to eradicate the
Jedi order with extreme prejudice.
Re-watching THE PHANTOM MENACE
on the largest screen that Saskatoon had to offer, the one thing that
strikes me now as it did in 1999 is the film's stunning fairy tale visual
richness. It has become
annoyingly easy to dismiss or take for granted the scope and scale of this
film, but Lucas’ incredible mastery of utilizing of all the tools in
his visual effects bag of tricks to conjure up a galaxy-spanning universe
feels just as tactile and immersive now as it did in the original trilogy.
The screen is always alive in THE PHANTOM MENACE and is to be savored
as a visceral experience first beyond anything else and it contains so
many individual moments of joyful creativity.
Lucas thanklessly engages us
in scenes of the fantastical throughout the film, many which were frankly
impossible using the antiquated methods of the early films: underwater
cities covered in membranes; the Queen’s expansive and richly opulent
city that is a Renaissance painter’s wet dream; extraordinary underwater
vistas featuring Godzilla-sized marine life that can swallow ships whole;
the obligatory – but still infectiously thrilling – aerial dog fights
between heroes and villains in the sea of outer space; a jaw-dropping ode
to BEN HUR where Anakin engages in a thrilling race involving hovering
pods that defy gravity through the rocky caverns of Tatooine; and a
concluding ground battle pitting thousands of battle droids versus Gungans (the
underwater denizens of Naboo). John
Williams’ trumpeting and boisterous musical score – including subtle
cues to STAR WARS themes of old as well as the operatic “Duel of the
Fates”– is as enthralling as ever while accentuating all of these
Then, of course, there is one
Gungan in particular, Jar Jar Binks, and even though he has an infamously
annoying personality that has made STAR WARS fans pull their collective
hair out since '99, at least he has a distinct personality.
Sure, he’s become the most loathed of all of the STAR WARS
characters, but as one of the very first all-CGI creations, Lucas’
watershed efforts in envisioning and creating him –in hindsight - were
undeniably state-of-the-art and pioneering for their time.
Without Jar Jar they would have arguably been no Gollum in THE LORD
OF THE RINGS and countless other computer fabricated characters that have
dominated movies in the last decade-plus.
How THE PHANTOM MENACE escaped an Oscar win for Best Visual Effects
is positively stupefying, even today. To be fair, Lucas did acknowledge
the negative response to Binks by severely limiting his screen time in the
following two episodes.
Lucas is also
for knowing how to stage action, as is the case with a thrilling three-way
lightsaber battle between Maul, Jinn and Kenobi, which is arguably a high
point in the annals of Jedi versus Sith battles in STAR WARS (that, and it
propelled the little seen Maul into the upper echelon of enigmatically cool
villains in Lucas' space fantasy universe). After suffering through so many films over the years that
seem to operate on attention-deficit disorder with their cutting,
looking at the crisp staging of this epic sword battle, done with an editorial
clarity and precision, still remains a treat for the eyes.
What strikes me about THE PHANTOM MENACE - and all of the other
films in the series - is that they exist as primal out-of-body
experiences: we sit through them and gaze at the screen to be engaged and
immersed within their fantastical images and sights; we're active
participants, not passive ones. To many modern action films, by
comparison, are almost aggressively antagonistic with their hyper-stylized
visuals and migraine-inducing overkill.
It's hard to deny that THE
PHANTOM MENACE is most definitely not an actor’s paradise (Portman in
particular looks stiff and uncomfortable throughout, and Lloyd, at his
best, ranges from mediocre to serviceable), nor is it a wellspring of
memorable dialogue. Yet, these two faults have been unfairly
attributed to the film’s longstanding - and overall - lack of merit.
Those elements are almost tertiary to films like this: all of the
STAR WARS pictures are about escapism in the purest form. Asking the most loyal devotees of the original trilogy what
their fondest memories were of the early films and I hardly think it was
Mark Hamill’s thespian skills or the shrewd and thoughtful dialogue
passages between characters involving Toche Stations or nerf herders.
No, STAR WARS tapped into
something more ethereal in filmgoers: a desire to be transported
into another world and time where all of their glorious and otherworldly
sights become so real that we vicariously begin to feel a part of them.
That’s the everlasting power of transformative fantasy and myth. Ultimately, critics and fans have bemoaned the lack of
performance range and character dynamics in THE PHANTOM MENACE since 1999,
but is that really what matters with this film and all of the other
episodes? The entirety of the
STAR WARS franchise exists as propulsive visual tour de forces first and
foremost; that’s their long-standing legacy.
THE PHANTOM MENACE can be fairly chastised for not containing the
same magic of its predecessors, but the magic is nonetheless still
there. To quote Yoda, I enjoyed the film "no more, no
less" upon its new 3D re-release. But I still enjoyed it enough.
In closing, I pose this experiment to all of the people that live within an impermeable bubble of hyperbolic hatred for this film. Try this: take a child to THE PHANTOM MENACE, especially if they have never experienced a STAR WARS film before. Watch their reaction. If you could time travel back to 1977 and witness yourself seeing STAR WARS for the first time, your reaction was, no doubt, not too different: enthusiasm, exhilaration, and delight in being privy to a grand and awe-inspiring adventure serial of cosmos-spanning good versus evil like never experienced before.
How could that experience possibly be labeled as a bad thing?