Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In defense of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace...

Like so many who read and write about movies, I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on Wednesday, May 19th, at 12:01am.  Like many who read and write about movies, I did not think it was the greatest film of all time.  But like the majority of the movie-going public, I also did not think it was the worst film of all time, nor did I find it to be some kind of glorious affront to cinema as an art form.  And 13 years later, it is what it always was: a Star Wars movie through-and-through.  It has problems unique to itself, unique to the prequel trilogy, and even some problems that have existed in the series right at the start.  Taking away the fact that one film was a cinematic breakthrough an launched the fandom of a hundred-million would-be movie lovers and the other was released under the crushing expectations of two generations of film fans, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is really no better or worse than Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  

One is overly revered because it was the first film in the series and had the benefit that comes with discovery.  The other was crushed by the weight of impossible expectations.  Objectively speaking, they are both fine introductions to their respective trilogies which pave the way for arguably superior sequels (you may prefer Star Wars to Return of the Jedi, I happen to prefer The Phantom Menace to the somewhat pandering but admittedly more entertaining Attack of the Clones).  They both suffer from campy acting, stilted dialogue and inconsistent pacing.  The Phantom Menace lacks a rouge-ish Han Solo character, even if the film (by virtue of being the fourth entry in a long-running series) doesn't need a cynical 'audience surrogate' this time around.  Natalie Portman was always unfairly derided for not playing Queen Amadala as a clone of Carrie Fisher's Princess Lea.  Her somewhat cold, Elizabethan portrayal is both her best performance in the prequel trilogy and a prime example of fans objecting primarily because it wasn't identical to the previous Star Wars universe (Lucas's apparent cave in Attack of the Clones, making Padme 'sexier', is one reason Episode II is the weakest of the series).  That The Phantom Menace (and by proxy the prequel trilogy) operates differently than the first three Star Wars films does not automatically make them inferior, merely different.

Taken as an individual film or the start of a three-film saga, it has eye-popping visuals, at least three terrific performances (Liam Neeson, Ian McDiarmid, and Pernilla August), a fine (if famously compromised) score by John Williams, and a politically wonky story that took hits for being overly complicated while serving was a chilling modern-day parable (a 'good' politician brought down by "baseless accusations of scandal" - remind you of anyone who was president in 1999?).  Yes, the original Star Wars had a simple narrative, basically following the Joseph Campbell heroic journey.  But Phantom Menace (and the prequel trilogy overall) compensates for its admittedly inferior characters with a more complicated and morally grey plot.  Critics and pundits always complain about the simplicity and spoon-fed narratives of mainstream films.  Yet when one comes along that actually requires audience to pay attention (Mission: Impossible, Quantum Of Solace, etc), they all complain that "It's too confusing!" or "It's too complicated and muddled!".  You won't get me to admit that Jake Lloyd is cooler (or a better actor) than Mark Hamill, but I have always appreciated the intricate plotting of the more ambitious prequel trilogy.  And for a film that's been knocked as 'kid-friendly' (more on that later), it always struck me as darkly ironic that the entire journey in The Phantom Menace is basically a trick in order to pull off a Senatorial coup, replacing the decent Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) with Palpatine (who is, of course, not so decent).  Maybe kids didn't realize it at the time, but every single character, be they good or evil, was working for the villain to further his authoritarian goals (this is actually the running subtext behind the fantastic Clone Wars cartoon series that premiered in late 2008).

Whether you like the pod-race or not (admission - I don't and usually skip it when I watch the film), it is a triumph of technical action film-making.  Of course, it's also the scene where Lucas's tilt toward 'juvenility', also represented by Jar Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd's performance as Anakin Skywalker, hits hardest, as the use of comedic announcers with cartoon-ish vocals stands out as something that just doesn't fit within the Star Wars universe.  Whether or not the god-awful narration is evened-out by darkly comic relief (where Tusken Raiders murder the other pod racers purely for kicks... I always laughed at that) is a judgment call.  But one bad scene, which sits awkwardly in tone with the rest of the six film-saga, does not a movie make.  And if one centerpiece action scene doesn't quite hold up to repeat viewings, the other one does.  Even the most virulent detractors of the picture openly admit that the climactic light-saber fight between Darth Maul and the two Jedi warriors (Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan Kenobi) is exactly what we nerds waited sixteen years to see.  It's not as emotionally engaging as the high-water mark duels in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, (my wife and I affectionately call it 'Duel of the Red-Shirts') but it is the most technically perfect light-saber fight in the entire six-film series and it beats the living crap out of the downright pathetic 'old man vs. asthmatic robot' slap-fight in Star Wars.

Of course the film does have its issues, some of which were noted above.  Perhaps because Lucas knew that he was going to get to make the next two chapters, The Phantom Menace lacks any real character arc for any of its major players.  The dialogue is occasionally stilted and delivered in a relatively rigid fashion, as if most of the cast was directed to 'do what Guinness did in A New Hope'.  In terms of plot, it is quite self-contained, but as a character piece it is clearly just part one of a three (or six) part story.  The four-part action climax, a clear attempt by Lucas to top the three-pronged finale of Return of the Jedi, suffers from a lack of engagement in three of those action sequences.  The space dog-fight, the Padme blaster shoot-out, and the large-scale battle of Naboo feel more perfunctory, which is ironic since they are the sequences that resolve the prime conflict, while the light-saber battle is basically two Jedis dealing with unrelated Jedi business.  Slight digression, but I love that the two Jedi stumble upon the first Sith warrior seen in centuries and they immediately set out to kill him as quickly as possible.  Simple questions like "Who are you?  What do you want?  Who are you working for?" never come up.  

Arguably the biggest story problem is that Anakin saves the day completely by accident, while the biggest character issues is that Jake Lloyd is pretty terrible as Anakin Skywalker (if you watch the terrific documentary on the Phantom Menace DVD, titled "The Beginning", you can literally watch Lucas pick the wrong kid to play young Skywalker).  That the Jedi are cold, unfeeling bastards basically sets up their downfall in the next two films.  That Anakin is such a naive and wide-eyed innocent actually makes his final destiny that much more heartbreaking.  Lucas didn't want an obviously troubled and disturbed Anakin turning into Darth Vader.  He wanted a completely good young child to slowly morph into a person capable of complete evil.  Just as, over the course of the prequel trilogy, the seemingly good Republic allows itself to become a tyrannical dictatorship out of fear, so too does Anakin's fear allow him to be undone.  Point being, especially if you know what's coming, this is all pretty heavy stuff for a 'kids' film'.

But in the end, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace *is* a kids' film.  It is a sci-fi outer-space fantasy adventure designed to appeal to kids who are about as young as you were when you first saw Star Wars.  We may cringe at Jar Jar Binks (even as we ignore that he's barely in the film after his introductory moments), but younger audiences do find him funny and charming.  We may wish that Jake Lloyd was a bit darker and introspective as the boy who would be Darth Vader, but younger boys see themselves in him and his wish-fulfillment fantasy adventure.  Come what may, warts and all, The Phantom Menace was always intended as a gateway drug, a kid-friendly space opera designed to snag young audiences into the world of Star Wars just as it was being reborn.  In the 13 years since it was first released, an entire generation of moviegoers grown up loving or liking The Phantom Menace in the same way we fell for Star Wars all those decades ago.  If Lucas had given us the Star Wars prequel that was tailored-made for the now-adult audience that grew up on the franchise, if he had made Anakin quasi-evil right from the start, had he filled the film with unrelentingly graphic violence and characters that lacked any real kid-appeal, there is little chance that kids today would still be playing Star Wars on playgrounds all across America.

In all objectivity, I wish The Phantom Menace was a better movie.  I wish it was a tighter picture, that the all-important pod race sequence wasn't overlong and relatively suspense-less.  I wish Lucas didn't feel the need to make the enemy robot army into chit-chatting clowns and that he had cast a better actor as Anakin.  But The Phantom Menace is still a good fantasy adventure picture, arguably better plotted and more visually imaginative than any number of would-be blockbusters that have followed its path over the last decade.  And it is absolutely a Star Wars movie that holds its own against pretty much any entry in the series with the arguable exception of The Empire Strikes Back (which, with its scaled-back and character-driven intimacy, is the odd-man out in the six film saga).  And as a gateway drug that successfully ensnared an entire generation of young kids and turned them into Star Wars junkies as well, it is an unqualified success.

You can still find kids playing Star Wars adventures on the playground this very day.  They pretend to be Anakin Skywalker, Padme, Obi-Wan Kenobi and any number of characters from both trilogies.  You don't hear them complaining that "Jar Jar sucks!".  You don't hear them protesting that "George Lucas raped my childhood!".  For a generation of kids who came of age 13 years ago, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith ARE their childhood.

Scott Mendelson



corysims said...

yes, Yes, YES! For close to 12 years, this is what the minority have been screaming about the Prequels. And major kudos to you for pointing out Portman's performance in Episode I. Clearly, nearly everyone missed the boat on how she played Padme and the Queen in the film. Other than the dramatic moments in Episode III, her performance in Episode I is her best because it's the most exact.

For me, the best thing about this film is the fact that it acts as if the other films don't exist, which to me, is what every prequel (if a filmmaker chooses to do one) should do.

In contrast to what Jackson is going to do with the Hobbit (bringing back Wood and Holm...which I think is a huge mistake), Lucas didn't bring any of the main players back and then basically have the entire film play out as an extended flashback. It starts and you have to catch up, which oddly enough happens with Episode IV when certain things that are in the Prequels finally get explained by Ben Kenobi to Luke.

Still, fantastic write up. Gosh, it felt lonely for the last 12 years....

Dave Atteberry said...

Thank you for your well thought out and written post. I took my little brothers to see The Phantom Menace 13 years ago and watched them grow up into Star Wars fans. Later this year the three of us will go together to Florida and the Star Wars Celebration. No other series of films could make me travel all the way across the country for a con.

wh said...

excellent post Scott... this is really great stuff

Ziserwahn said...

"In the 13 years since it was first released, an entire generation of moviegoers grown up loving or liking The Phantom Menace in the same way we fell for Star Wars all those decades ago."

This statement is an impossibility for the simple reason that the kids that saw this movie were told what STAR WARS was and that they had to like it because it was STAR WARS. When the original came out there was no such thing as STAR WARS so it was the movie alone that made us fall in love with it, not the marketing campaign.

To add to this point, anything that had the title STAR WARS attached to it would have been a raging success and kids would have bought the toys and costumes and merchandising whether or not it was a dark gritty violent film or a fun fantasy adventure.

For the record I think starting the trilogy off light-hearted and kid friendly is the perfect way to go, the reason the film is derided by many is because its not a good story. its just poorly written.

While the original for whatever reason you would like to attribute it, is tight, lean, focused and unwavering. Much like a young man in his mid 20's and an old man in his mid 50's the original is sharp and crisp while the prequel is bloated and blustery, with no real direction.

With all that said I enjoy the prequel trilogy, yet i refuse to apologize for its ineptitude and limpness and I would never compare it to the original.

The Video Vacuum said...

This is a terrific write-up. It saddens me that an entire generation has spent the last 13 years of their lives bashing this movie on internet message boards just because it failed to live up to their expectations. This is a really great movie that gets unfairly derided just because the shadow of the OT looms so large. But for me, TPM is actually probably the closest Lucas came to capturing the feel of the Saturday afternoon serials that served as his initial inspiration as it's essentially one long chase movie. It also feels the most Star Wars-y (if that's an actual term) of the PT. Come Feb. 10, the haters can stay home and shut up. I know where I'll be.

Carl555 said...

The objections you raise to objections to TPM are merely so many straw men. You do not address the fundamental objection to TPM, the maddeningly incompetent story structure. The expectations for TPM were NOT crushingly high, they were lackadaisically low - simple story, fun characters, action - you know, old time sci-fi serial stuff. No serious critique of TPM discounts the acting, design, or technical execution.

Alexander Helster said...

I don't understand how skipping through scene/s from a film is any way to legitimately watch it.

Sigmundshen said...

Thanks for a great piece. I saw it again last night and I actually thought most of Jake Lloyd's performance was fine. But I have a question -- what does this mean -- "a fine (if famously compromised) score by John Williams"? I like the work Williams did on the prequels, a lot, but is there some story behind this?

Diane said...

I actually had not seen the original films when I saw TPM for the first time as a teenager sometime during that long summer. I knew friends who skipped school to wait in line for tickets.
To be completely honest, I thought the film was lame. I did enjoy the final light-saber battle as well as the performances of Portman, Neeson and MacGregor. I thought the costumes, setting and music were fantastic. But the story didn't captivate me and the characters/plotlines that I thought were interesting weren't really explored as much as others.
After watching Episode II, I've decided that I don't need to see Episode III. It's disappointing that so much love, time and energy go into films that have so little real substance.
I saw the original trilogy much later over a weekend when I was recovering from a cold. I offended a long-time fan when I called Ewoks "little Wookies".

For the record, the last time I watched the extended trilogy of LOTR (years ago), I skipped through a lot of it (really only watching the key plot- or character-centric scenes). I'm still mad with Jackson for butchering Faramir's character!

Karl said...

Actually, JarJar is what really turned me off to this movie. I saw it again later when I was late to the theater, missed the beginning and was surprised how much better the film seemed. My overall objection is how George Lucas doesn't feel the need to tie himself in to his original ideas. He seemingly shortened the timeline between Eps I-III and Episode IV-VI. He can't leave the originals alone so that you really have to work to find what was originally in the theaters. He made Greedo shoot first and now has convinced himself that this was the way it always was, you just couldn't tell. The maddening thing is that Lucas is so into Lucas and it shows in the films (ie- he didn't work with any director who could balance some of his way-out instincts). That kids today are in love with the newer movies is a shame because they aren't as intense as the originals (and I find the new ones eminently watchable, especially Episode II).

Marlow said...

No. The prequels deserve to be condemned. Ultimately it fails to even be a competent film and that I think is its worst crime. I fully believe that when films like this succeed financially it hurts the cinema industry, it encourages the studios' contemptuous attitude to audiences.

The prequels are now almost universally held to be grotesque follies and this is fair. My generation got three excellent films full of amazing special effects, memorable characters, a gripping plot and countless unforgettable moments. The next generation got three cynical, shambling, incoherent toy adverts and that is a shame.


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