Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Reviewed by Mike Brannon
Rating: 7 Beans
'm going out on a limb here. My generation is chock-full of die-hard Star Wars fans. Some are so devoted to the series it is scary, such as my buddy Chad -- he has the Rebel Insignia painted on his Malibu, his fiancee has The Imperial Seal tattooed on her shoulder, and they jointly have almost every Kenner Star Wars original action figure. The kind of folks who will pay $200.00 for the Han Solo w/ Removable StormTrooper Helmet Figure still on the card.
Star Wars was not a hit with the critics when it was released, and its popularity, with the critics' 360 on their opinions of it today, shows how many critics are filled with bovine excrement.
But on to Phantom Menace: I maintained that George Lucas could release a patchwork of home movies and the movie would still be a smash, simply because it is Star Wars. It wasn't the worst movie I've seen.
But it really wasn't very good either. Perhaps this is because it had such a huge legacy to live up to: not just a trilogy, but a set of movies that have become part of our popular culture. But let's be frank, folks. All legacy aside, this movie bites.
Why? Well, it's a prequel, for one thing -- something that is always tepid at best. Not only that, this is the worst, heavy-handed prequel in recent years. Yes, even Psycho IV was better.
Why? Its main failing is it EXPLAINS TOO MUCH and none too convincingly. Ok, we can have the whole thing set on Tatooine, we can even get away with introducing Yoda and Jabba. But Anakin built C-3PO? And Artoo was originally an Astrodroid on Ric Ollie's Naboo Cruiser? The movie tries to tie FAR too many characters in FAR too early. There is a patent rip-off of Ben Hur with the Pod Racing Scene, which was obviously created to sell toys and kill time. Make no mistake -- the effects for the race are brilliant, but this rip-off takes up about a fourth of the screen time and does NOTHING for the story. Then Lucas commits the biggest sin that this series will NEVER recover from: he tries to attribute the Force to a scientific composition of "midi-chlorians." Word to the wise, George -- NEVER explain magic in a scientific manner: you should have learned that in Screenwriting 101 - that cheapens your movie and insults the audience. I won't even go on with Jar Jar, his faults have been tirelessly pounded into the ground. Many race groups got upset with his portrayal, and I agree -- if you didn't see Jar Jar as a "dumb savage" character of the Rochester/Stephin Fetchett variety, you're turning a blind eye. There is a potentially interesting segment where the heroes must travel through the Naboo's ocean core in a small sub... but the whole segment is maybe 10 minutes and shows the sub being saved by the food chain TWICE as the only action. Pul-eeze. Ed Wood could do better.
The movie also introduces Darth Maul, who is woefully underdeveloped and nothing but a badass who hunts the heros (Boba Fett, anyone?). He also dies a pathetically dumb death, a la the Mandalore Commando Bounty Hunter. There is a "mysterious" figure, Darth Sidious (the emperor) who is abetting the bad guys... and it is so obvious it is Senator Palpatine it's funny... but let's give them a mulligan on that one -- even *I* knew that Senator Palapatine was eventually going to become the emperor, so that is hard to disguise. And the villians of this story -- a trade federation of aquatic-like (and cheesy looking) frog-men are TERRIBLY incompetent, and possess an army of robots that look like upright greyhounds and never hit a THING. At least the stormtroopers would have a near miss or a grazing shot now and again! Oh, in a farm-fresh (not) twist, Queen Amidala is a decoy, and her handmaiden Padme is the real queen. That was obvious as soon as we saw Padme... it was Natalie Portman, for goodness sake! The could have given her a veil or something to properly prepare the "surprise." The Gungans did for this movie what Ewoks did for ROTJ -- made it more enjoyable for kids, but really crippled the story and credibility.
But what does this movie in is the finale. It's a disgrace. George Lucas obviously got confused and thought he was doing Return of the Jedi again, by lifting the final battle ENTIRELY from ROTJ... right down to the tri-level action of the ground battle on a sylvan planet / a space fighter battle / a Jedi-Sith duel. I guess Mr. Lucas didn't remember that's what was the main weakness of ROTJ -- there was too much action to follow and too much to even care about. More is sometimes less -- the final battle in Star Wars was much more entertaining to watch. The three battles all ended precisely the same way ROTJ did, too. What is really hard to take is that Anakin goes up to the battle in a ship he's never been in before, and survives countless dogfights on "auto pilot" while the hardcore veterans are dropping like flies around him. Artoo is even his astrodroid! Anakin ends up blowing up the enemy ship by accident. Any way you slice that, that whole stretch is a bit much, even for the wildest sci-fi.
Then there is another rip-off of A New Hope as the end (a princess awarding an accolade to the heroes of the day, amidst a cheering crowd).
Ok, I'm sure there's now a mob of Star Wars fans organizing a group to hang me from the nearest tree by now (probably with Chad in the lead). The movie had its good points -- the special effects were sublime -- and they should be for ILM at this stage. Liam Neelson plays the most convincing Jedi yet, and Ewan MacGregor was not phenomenal, but he is much better at playing the naive apprentice than Mark Hamill ever was. Natalie Portman's turn as the Queen was deliciously deadpan, and even though I did criticize it on a storyline level, the Jedi battle was undeniably fun to watch. The aliens were also much more convincing in this movie, and this movie gives us the first SW view of Coruscant -- and it did it justice -- a huge planet-wide metropolis.
Bottom line -- the effects were spectacular and most of the acting was good -- but this movie's plot is abysmally amateurish and undisciplined. George Lucas was more interested in providing us with special effects than to put together a coherent story. The story really feels like he wrote it in a single afternoon. Sorry folks, but this is a bad movie, Star Wars or not. It is half-baked, derivative sci-fi in a gorgeous package.
And yes, I WILL be looking over my shoulder from now on: I bet SW die-hards everywhere will corner me in a dark alley, draw their lightsabers, prime their thermal detonators, cock their blasters, and demand satisfaction.
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