Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) battle Darth Maul (Ray Park) in a scene from "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace." Not pictured: Jar Jar Binks, because no one deserves that.

Written and directed by George Lucas. Produced by Rick McCallum. Music by John Williams. Photographed by David Tattersall. Edited by Ben Burtt, Paul Martin Smith. Production designed by Gavin Bocquet. Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terrence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Ray Park, Hugh Quarshie, Warwick Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Keira Knightley.

Where did it all go wrong? At what point did all joy and delight seep out of the Star Wars universe, to be replaced by a cold corporate mentality? When did this series become less a celebration of the world’s greatest stories, and more a license to print gobs of money? When did George Lucas the artist become George Lucas the toy salesman? A case can be made that it was in 1983, with the release of Return of the Jedi, the introduction of the fuzzy-wuzzy Ewoks, and a pushy marketing campaign that seemed to treat the movie itself almost as an afterthought. But honestly, as much as I sympathize with its detractors, Return of the Jedi at least tries its hardest to be a good film. It ties up loose ends, saves the galaxy, and delves into the last temptation of Luke Skywalker and redemption of his father with earnestness, if not impressive skill. It’s a movie.

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, is not really a movie at all. It is the center of a now-defunct marketing campaign. Sure, it has actors in it, but only so that their likenesses can be stamped onto action figures. It also claims to tell a story, but only enough of one to provide fodder for spin-off video games. The dialogue is thin, the dramatic momentum nonexistent, and now even the groundbreaking special effects have begun to look dated. These deficiencies are sometimes excused by those who insist that Phantom Menace is a kids movie, but when a child’s entertainment begins with a text scroll that talks about taxes and trade routes, something has gone terribly wrong.

In essence, The Phantom Menace has all of the problems of the earlier Star Wars films, this time magnified by over a decade and a half of stagnation on the part of the filmmaker. The original Star Wars did indeed have lazy dialogue, somewhat uninspired direction, and characters who are meant to conform only to broadest of archetypes. But the film was still made with wit, and heart, and had tangible pleasures. We thrill to the story of a young farmboy who leaves home to become a hero, even if we take issue with Mark Hammil’s whiny performance. We smile at the laconic Han Solo and swallow his cornier dialogue. We love when Princess Leia picks up a gun and fights, even though we wonder when she lost her British accent. And yes, we tremble at the sight of Darth Vader and his stormtroopers, even though the armored goons probably couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Star Wars is comfort food, but made with care and affection, and Lucas’ pop cliches were redeemed in the brilliant and energetic Empire Strikes Back.

By contrast, The Phantom Menace is dutiful. Slow. Dull. Perhaps even bored with itself. Certainly its actors seem to share that boredom: bereft of all direction, standing on invariably empty bluescreen stages, the actors look at most moments bewildered about where they are in the movie, where they’ve been, where they’re going, and what the film is even about. Talented performers like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are hung out to dry. The story’s chain of planets is only three deep, yet feels like endless travelogue, replete with numerous shots of spaceships taking off and landing, as if someone accidentally rendered these scenes down at Industrial Light and Magic, and, damn it, we’re gonna use ‘em! As the following Star Wars prequels will make abundantly clear, this first film is entirely pointless, aside from the way in which it clumsily moves chess pieces around. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if everything about the movie: it’s cinematography, its acting, its pacing, didn’t seem to be actively trying to convince you of its own pointlessness.

Perhaps the problem was with making a prequel anyway. For decades, fans demanded that Lucas complete his saga, of which the original Star Wars, remember now, was “Episode IV.” But the problem with fans is that the things they ask for are not always the things they want to see, and Lucas should have reflected that instead of doing a “prequel,” maybe he could have told a Star Wars story that happens to take place before the others. That sounds like a split hair, but prequels only work when they are not self-conscious about being prequels. We’d never begrudge the old New York scenes in The Godfather Part II, would we? Of course not. Because those scenes have weight and presence, and tell an accessible story that connects with future stories (heck, they connect with the other story in the same movie). But they also function, deliciously, on their own. Not so here. If you strip away the oppressive foreshadowing and in-jokes from the prequel trilogy, there’s nothing there. By openly declaring the films as prequels, Lucas puts the characters in their paces, and robs them of autonomy. He envisions the tale of Anakin Skywalker as a tragedy, but predestination by itself is not tragic. Predestination contested by free will? Now you have something. Something that Lucas missed.

The most crucial issue with The Phantom Menace is a lack of presence. Not for George Lucas. No, his fingerprints are all over this mess. What I mean is that the characters onscreen don’t seem to actually inhabit the story he’s telling. Let’s say, for example, you’re either Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) or Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), sent to negotiate a trade dispute above the peaceful planet of Naboo. Then, let’s say, oh, for example, that you’re trapped and ambushed by your hosts and are pitted against an army of vicious battle droids, and then have to stow away on a landing craft to the planet below as it is being invaded, and then survive a forest stampede? Then let’s say you have to swim to a magical underwater city, are captured, imprisoned and threatened, and then you’re released and have to pilot a tiny submarine through the center of the planet and out the other side while dodging the monsters of the deep. Then you rescue a queen, mow down more droids, steal a ship and high tail it out of there. In twenty minutes.

Ok. Still with me? Good. I ask you: how would you react to any of these things? Angry? Annoyed? Concerned? Surprised? Impressed with yourself? Cocky? Pleased? Hungry? Tired? No. If you’re Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, you don’t react any of these ways. In fact, you don’t react at all, unless you count “stoicism” as a reaction. I’m sure this can be explained by the fact that the Jedi are essentially monks, and therefore limit their expressions of emotion. However, someone should have made Lucas reflect it’s unwise to center your adventure film on characters like that. I mean, you don’t hand an action scene to a group of Vulcans, do you?

The Queen of Naboo (Natalie Portman) has more emotions to play: one, and that is sadness. When her city is invaded she is sad. When people are said to be dying in the streets, she is sad. When the Galactic Senate twiddles its thumbs in response to her plight, she is sad. When she goes undercover as a handmaiden she…smiles, occasionally, but it is a guarded smile, with hints of sadness. The Queen does not have time for much outward displays of emotion, because she is holding a secret (sort of), but this only makes her feel aloof and cold. The whole story is pitched at this level, so that even though the fate of the universe hangs in the balance of what the characters decide, they couldn’t seem less interested in their own plights. Even the wise all-knowing Jedi Council seem like apathetic military commanders, and hardly the “guardians of peace and justice.”

For villains, in lieu of a Darth Vader who is waiting in the wings, Phantom Menace brings us the Neimoidians, who lead the Trade Federation and speak like Japanese actors dubbing a movie into badly-accented English. There’s something astonishingly mean-spirited at play here, but what’s more is that not for a second do we take the Neimoidians seriously as evildoers, and when we are told (not shown) of people dying by their hand, we don’t grow tense, we collapse into giggles. For sheer villainy, we are left with Darth Maul, who has a painted face and a double lightsaber and is a Sith Lord, which means they are one with the dark side of The Force. But, you see, Darth Maul doesn’t really do anything villainous until the very end of the film. Up till then he’s just…kinda…there. Although he is good with a blade, we don’t really fear him, especially because we are given minimal information on what the Sith are. Come to think of it, neither the Jedi nor the Force are properly introduced in this film. Are we to take Lucas’ directions to watch this movie before the others seriously?

Even the secondary characters are weightless, pointless. The original Star Wars films gave us memorable bit players like Vader’s supervisor Governor Tarkin, or the petrified Admiral Piett, or Greedo, Boba Fett, etc. They had quirks, and inherent interest. In The Phantom Menace, we have the Queen’s chief of security, Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) who’s…just this guy, you know? Or Chancellor Valorum (the great Terrence Stamp), who plays the part like he was bored one day and wanted to do Lucas a favor. How about Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, or Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, or even Frank Oz as Yoda? None of them do anything interesting in this film–they simply depend (arrogantly) on the foreknowledge we have that one day they will become important, and, hopefully, fascinating. And who the hell is Sio Bibble? Better question: who cares?

That leaves the two most reviled characters in the film: Anakin “soon to be Darth Vader” Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and the computer-generated Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). Lloyd is terrible in the role. I’m sorry, kid, but it’s true. He’s just absolutely dreadful. But he’s also saddled with a screenplay that never betrays its own tone-deafness more than when its writing dialogue for children. As for Jar-Jar, let’s put aside his questionably racist mannerisms and instead explore why he strikes such a sour note in the film: because he doesn’t really seem to actually be there. His dialogue and body language are succinctly out-of-place with the entire Star Wars universe, but what really hurts everything is how disconnected he is from the rest of the characters, even when sharing the same scenes. They don’t seem to be truly reacting to him, nor him to them. The best way to describe the character’s placement in the movie is to imagine a child stole the negative from Lucas and started coloring on the frame.

Compare the offkey nature of Jar-Jar to Gollum in Peter Jackson’s classic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike Jar-Jar, Gollum does seem to be a part of the proceedings, and becomes as real and tangible as any other character. And those films also trusted their CGI character with real scenes to play, while Jar Jar is left to his own devices: the movie stops dead in its tracks for every Jar Jar comedy “beat,” perhaps so that the character could be edited out of the finished film easier if there was a problem. Gollum is shot like any other person on screen, while Jar Jar seems to inhabit frames that are tediously constructed to allow him. In film, illusions only really work when they don’t call attention to themselves, so what really does Jar-Jar in (besides his noxious personality) is that he continuously reminds us of the process in which he was made.

The plot of The Phantom Menace is a languidly-paced political corruption story, with smatterings of what Lucas thinks is satire, or something (The Senate is implausibly stopped in its tracks by what is basically lobbying—again what kid cares about this?) In structure, the movie makes a case for the futility of pacifism: the peaceful Naboo are crushed by the Neimoidians, and when politics fails, the Queen picks up a blaster (like her daughter one day) and leads the charge. We’ll grant the story this theme, even though it seems a bit slanted to argue against peace when your film is called Star Wars. But why does it have to be so drab and dim-witted? Where’s the fun? Even when the battle is joined, the effects and action direction are cheerless and deadening, punctuated by space battles with no personality whatsoever. The movie has the greatest conviction that we will never tire of seeing battle droids flattened, sliced or maimed, but guess what? We do.

The most successful sequence in the entire film occurs when the plot (such as it is) is put on hold so we can watch Anakin compete in a pod-race, which is basically a drag-race between the Star Wars equivalent of souped-up hot rods in the desert sands of Tatooine. Here, Lucas indulges his predilections for action with fast cars (see the quite good American Graffiti), as well as his secret desire to recreate Hanna Barbara’s Wacky Racers cartoon with a $115 million dollar budget. The combination of speed and fury is fun, absolutely, but also a complete pause from the film, despite the fact that there are stakes directly tied to the race (If Anakin wins, The Queen can repair her ship so that they can fly to the capital of the galaxy and save Naboo). There, I just articulated the linearity of the storyline with more coherence than Lucas is able to do in over two hours.

The shame of it is that Lucas is clearly trying hard to pull everything together. He even finds a unifying theme of duality: two Jedi, two Sith, two sides of the Force, two different people pretending to be Queen. But then Lucas shoots himself in the foot. First, as a writer, by aggressively tying his theme to our understanding of the Force. essentially trivializing it as a matter of pseudo-science.  And then he reaches the plot point of the Naboo joining forces with their neighbor, the Gungans, in a scene where Lucas’s storytelling and directorial capabilities utterly fail him. Not a lick of this scene makes any sense: not its staging, timing, pacing, character dynamics, humor, anything. It’s not just hopelessly inept, it is arguably the most mishandled scene in the entire Star Wars saga.

The technical credits are a mixed bag. John Williams provides another Star Wars score and it is…good. Not Empire Strikes Back good, but good. However, Ben Burtt’s film editing is a huge detriment, as it is in love with pregnant pauses and awkward cuts in inappropriate places (example: watch the scene where Amidala plans her attack for a crash course in how not to edit a movie). Some of this may be because Lucas tinkered with the blocking of scenes even while in the editing room–that’s not the future; it’s lousy direction. As for Lucas’ CGI backdrops and computer generated armies, they’re fun at first, but gradually grow antiseptic and numbing. Lucas was frequently praised for his knack for world-building, but here he comes up short. For the first time, Star Wars locations feel like movie sets and are not persuasive. In all honesty, however, movie sets (instead of digitally-rendered locations) would have been preferable, because it would have allowed interaction and passion for the actors, who are adrift in a sea of apathetic direction. The terrible performances in the film are not the actors’ fault. They are Lucas’.

So is The Phantom Menace the worst film in the entire Star Wars saga? Possibly. I still place Attack of the Clones, with its nonsensical and degrading love story, as the very bottom of the barrel. But the case is persuasive, and at the very least it signaled the end of many people’s love with Star Wars, including my own, because it’s now controlled by a man who cares about profits and not adventure. If A New Hope was the story of a scrappy young man told by a hungry pioneer, than Phantom Menace is the story of taxes and trade disputes told by a businessman, because that’s what matters to him now in his hermetically-sealed bubble ranch in Marin County. The movie was designed only to make money, not because anyone loved making it. Well, they won. It made a lot of money. Everybody wins.

I don’t hate George Lucas. I just feel sorry for him. I feel sorry he’s been strapped to a cash machine he’s clearly come to resent, and I pity his efforts to turn Star Wars away from the world of fable and towards the realm of hollow technical exercises. I even feel sorry for his millions and his yes men, because they have trapped him and kept him completely out of touch with reality. But mostly I feel sorry because he was once somebody. A visionary. A gifted young padawan who had the world at his fingertips. But he’s changed. “More machine now than man,” as Obi-Wan once put it. A real shame. Because when Star Wars films were made by humans, they were really the most special editions of all.


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