It’s impossible to review a film like The Phantom Menace in 2011 without the baggage of the last 12 years coming along for at least part of the ride, but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to do more than the whining haters have done for the last decade plus, and that’s give this film an honest critique.
So here we go.
Reviewing the Past of a Long Time Ago
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace is not a perfect film. It is, however, a structurally sound, brilliantly executed and deeply intriguing imperfect film rooted firmly in thesame post-modern tradition of it predecessors.
If you don’t know or remember, it follows two Jedi Knights as they traverse the galaxy for the sake of preventing war and along the way they discover their own messiah and are dogged by a mysterious set of villains known as the Sith while the Republic rots from governmental abuses of power.
For all of the posturing and regurgitation of Lucas’ influences that the average fanboy can spit out—Kurosawa! Joseph Campbell! Wizard of Oz! Flash Gordon!—all should do themselves a favor and actually study them to understand this film better.
It also shares an amazing resemblence, whether inadvertant or otherwise, to a film known as Iron Monkey. I’d love to pick Lucas’ brain and see what influences, if any, that film may have had on him.
The emotional notes Lucas hits in this film are quite deep and the musical score is, in all honesty, one of John Williams’ masterworks.
It’s a shame that it’s largely overlooked as such.
Lucas makes a very bold choice with this film by having a main character, Qui-Gon Jinn, basically refuse to give the audience emotional cues as to how they should be feeling about the story&mdesh;very similar to Kanbê Shimada in Seven Samurai. Liam Neeson plays a perfect Samurai master, serene and peaceful in the extreme, even when certain death is near.
However, just because it’s a bold choice I appreciate, doesn’t mean I think it was wise. In the first set of movies we had very clearly expressed emotions, high adventure and a linear plot (told very quickly). It was easier to relate to the characters and as a result easier to relate to the film. Perhaps if Lucas had made Qui-Gon a bit more “imperfect” the audience would be able to relate a little more.
The Phantom Menace also suffers from the fact that the child character is a bit too young to be completely believable. Had Anakin been a scant 2 or 3 years older, the audience would have been able to believe in his maturity and abilities a little more. As it is, a 10 year old, no matter how gifted with magical powers, is a little hard to buy into.
Another bit of contention arose from midichlorians. I think that they’re a terrific story point. While the Force is all around the galaxy, why are some able to be Jedi and others not? Enter the all-important midichlorian. While maligned, it’s a terrific reconciliation between faith and science. For while there may be a higher power, how would it be expressed? How would some be more attuned to it than others?
I think it’s an elegant solution. It also sets up the important transformation of Anakin through the course of the later films, which leads to a slight weakness here. While midichlorians are explained and they hold specific significance in this story, the true payoff isn’t until Revenge of the Sith. If I’m going to be fair, I have to deduct a point for a story element that isn’t contained completely within the film. It’s a little bit of a cheat, however unavoidable it may be.
Enter the Sith
We all knew before this film that Darth Vader was (the? a?) Dark Lord of the Sith, but only because that title had been bestowed in supplementary materials. It never once comes up in the original films, but we knew it all by rote anyway.
Lucas blows the roof off the Sith in this film with the introduction of the much-beloved Darth Maul. He was a great way to up the ante from Vader and show us what “real” Jedi fighting was like. He was definitely a show-stopper.
He’s a great foreshadowing of what we know is coming for Anakin. One transition in particular, where Qui-Gon says he doesn’t know what his high midichlorian count means, is juxtaposed into Darth Maul’s arrival on Tatooine. Maul, in a sense, exists solely for this transition in the film and it’s done particularly well.
However, it’s one of the editing highlights in a movie that has some real issues with knowing when to cut a scene. The irony is, of course, that Lucas redefined editing for American film with the original Star Wars in 1977 (A New Hope since 1979). I’m not sure exactly where the disconnect was for Lucas, but he needed someone more willing to fight him in the editing booth for this film.
Every issue that there is directly relates to his reluctance to leave anything out. I’ll be interested to see what happens with the Blu Ray edition, because there is about 10 minutes or so of excess baggage that cutting would edge this closer to the perfection it deserves to be.
The editing also kills a lot of the comedy that’s in there by taking too long to tell a joke. For instance, Jar Jar’s jolt at the hands of the energy binders is a great bit of slapstick if it took about half as long to tell it. I still laugh at it, but then the joke just drags on, when it could just be over and done with.
The scene with the kids borders on the execrable. This is especially unfortunate because the rest of the scene that tells us of Anakin’s Immaculate Origin, provides a swelling musical cue as the podracer comes to live and a mother realizes she’s going to be losing her son whether he survives the race or not, gets diminished.
As far as the political procedural drama, I like it. Of course, I’m a student of politics and history, and so the Fall of the Roman Star Wars Republic would naturally appeal to me. If anything, I would have dug even more of it.
Which of Course Brings Us to Jar Jar
I like Jar Jar. I like Boss Nass. I like the Gungans. (Stepping out of the timeline, I love them even more now that I have young kids). But there is too much of them. There are four specific points that, if the editing knife had been exercised a little more judiciously, would have made the character of Jar Jar go over much better, as well as help the sometimes-dogged pace of the movie. It’s also unfortunate that, during a truly stirring moment as the racers’ banners are marched to the field on Tatooine, Lucas spoils it with a fart joke. While I laugh at a good fart or poop joke like any sane man, this one completely blows any seriousness out the window for an important moment in the film.
A little more explanation at the end, as well, that the Jedi Council had seen the Hand of the Force in Anakin’s actions at Naboo (they did) led them to overrule Yoda’s advice and accept him for training (they did). It’s alluded to in a scene with Obi-Wan, but could have stood some more clarification.
The Final Analysis
Usually what I’ve said through the years about this film is that Episode I is just like Book I of The Lord of the Rings. (For the uninitiated, I mean the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring.) The first time you’re reading about Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Wights, you’re tempted to give up on the books. (Little known fact: Tom Bombadil made me give up on reading The Fellowship of the Ring the first two times I tried. Then I tried a third time and slogged through thanks to the encouragement of my buddy Mike. But after I had read the whole series, I was stunned at what I had failed to see the first time around.)
The exposition for an epic story—in this case, Episode I—is a truly fascinating thing to experience if you can simply contextualize it either in the moment or after seeing the whole work completed. Instead of weighting it against expectations, go into it with a clean slate. Of course, you have to wonder if that was ever possible for the public at large with this film. The hype, the years of waiting, the childhood nostalgia—all very powerful to overcome.
The fact that Episode I can also stand as its own independent story makes it even more special. People will eventually look back on this film and see what we missed, which was a new revolution in filmmaking that was more subtle than the first at the hands of a gifted director.