The Adventures of Jar Jar... and Other People No One Cares About
Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Going through and and watching the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. movies at this point is, well, a painful prospect. Although it's tempting to start with Episode IV: A New Hope and just watch (some version) of the original trilogy, the series is more expansive than those three films. At this point the full story really begins with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and that's where the problems come in.
If you're under a certain age, The Phantom Menace and its two sequels are your Star Wars. These are the ones you got to see in theaters, the ones you grew up with. For anyone older, though, Episode I is where the franchise really went off the rails, a film that completely misunderstands what worked about the original trilogy. The fact that it's also the start of a trilogy of direct prequels to the original series doesn't help matters because, honestly, prequels are hard even in the best of circumstances. Fans hoped we'd get the start of a new epic series of films but, with Episode I especially, we received a movie that was dressed up like Star Wars but didn't have any of the spark or energy that made the original trilogy great.
This isn't me crapping all over this movie for the sake of it, just another fan upset at how this film "ruined my childhood." Honestly, I haven't bothered watching this film since it first came out in theaters. I saw this movie in theaters opening night, having gone with a big group of friends. And, yes, I hated it then so I just never bothered to watch it again. I did buy the film and its sequels over the years just for the sake of completeness (and in case my nephews, or some other youngsters, wanted to watch these films). But up until writing this review I didn't see the point in watching the movie again -- I wasn't a fan so why bother. It did mean, though, that I'd put twenty years between myself and this movie and could go into it about as fresh as possible. If this movie was going to get a fair shake from me this was the time to do it, free of any real memory of what happens in the film, divorced from any angst I might have felt long ago in that theater.
And the film still sucks. I mean, it's not outlandishly bad; due to my run through Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix. I've seen some truly terrible films, like old Ed Wood movies, and this film doesn't reach that level of bad (most of the time). The problem really is a combination of factors: a script that put the story emphasis on the wrong elements, actors that were forced to adapt to new technology, and a director that was clearly out of his element. These factors combine to make a movie that certainly looks pretty but doesn't really amount to much of anything. The film spends so much time trying to establish its stakes (while making reference to things that happened in the original trilogy, and over-explaining elements we don't need to have explained) that it forgets to be fun.
The trouble starts at the beginning, when we spend a lot of time talking about trade disputes, taxation, and political intrigue. I'm not saying a political thriller set in the Star Wars universe couldn't be interesting, just that the version of it presented here doesn't work. The script focuses on the wrong elements -- a plucky band of rebels far removed from the political intrigue going on at Naboo and Coruscant having their own wacky adventures -- instead of focusing on the politics and backstabbing. The script certainly doesn't know how to handle a political approach as even the few scenes of politics we get are flat and uninteresting.
If someone like Aaron Sorkin had been brought in to write a political thriller set in this universe I'm sure they could have nailed it much better, but then they would have focused on the people directly involved in it, would have explained how the politics of the realm worked and given us a lot of back and forth sniping, murder, and intrigue. This is not that story.
No, what George Lucas wanted to tell was the story of the rise of Skywalker (but not The Rise of Skywalker, that's a later movie), so the band of adventurers had to go land on Tatooine so they could find Anakin Skywalker and, somehow, bring him into the fold. Lucas said the original trilogy had to be all about how Anakin rose up and then fell, how he became Darth Vader, but I think that prospect right there already limits the scope this film (and its sequels) could have. In the end we know where Darth Vader ends up: he becomes a dark Sith and the right hand man of the Emperor for the second trilogy of films. We already know his path so nothing he does in this film, as a little kid working as a salve in the markets of Tatooine, is every going to have any weight. He'll never be in trouble, never get into any situation he can't claw his way out of, because he has to survive to be Darth Vader in the later trilogy.
It also means that every major death we have here (Qui-Gon Jinn in this film, a few others in the two sequels) is essentially telegraphed by grace of the fact that we can say "oh, this person isn't in the later films; I wonder how they die?" This drains so much tension out of the movie -- if we know Obi Won Kenobi is going to be in the later movies then, obviously, he's going to survive a duel with a Sith warrior. If we know Queen Amidala isn't in a later film, can we really get attached to her? We're already inserting character into their later roles so we're not too worried about them now -- either they live or they don't but the events of Episode IV and beyond are set in stone, never to change. Sure, Lucas might have enjoyed tinkering with his movies but he never changed major plot points (just adjusted effects and added in unnecessary dance numbers).
Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves. This is supposed to be a dive through the movies in chronological order, trying to watch the films as if we were coming into them fresh. So, without any knowledge of what comes later, how does Episode I play out? Like a bad high school production of the storied franchise. As noted, it starts off poorly when we have two Jedi, Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi Won (Ewan MacGregor), sent to Naboo to negotiate a peace between the Nabooese and the Trade Federation -- the Trade Federation claim a dispute over taxation or something (a detail raised in the opening scroll of the film and then never mentioned again), so they set up a blockade around (one side) of the planet and then drop an occupying force on Naboo. In retaliation the two Jedi, along with a gungan idiot they collect along the way, Jar Jar and Naboo Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her entourage, all flee the planet to seek help from the Galactic Senate.
Unfortunately their ship is damaged by the blockade and they're forced to make an emergency landing on Tatooine for repairs. Despite traveling with the Queen (and, presumably, her bank accounts), the refugees don't have any money. Instead, Qui-Gon gambles their ship on a young boy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), and his ability to podrace (a dangerous sport that, somehow, Anakin is able to compete in). Pretty quickly Qui-Gon realizes that Anakin is force sensitive and realizes he has to bring the boy with him when he and the entourage leave the planet. So the race happens, Anakin wins, and the ship is repaired. Anakin says goodbye to his mother, everyone flees to Corscuant, and... nothing happens. The Senate is deadlocked and doesn't care about Naboo. That leaves the Nabooese to head back to Naboo to fight their own war themselves, which they do... and win.
So what was the point of all that? If the Naboo could win the war all on their own why did they need the help of the Senate. Why did they even flee at all if, with right pilots and a little lucky, the whole war could have ended in the first twenty minutes of the movie? Wouldn't it have been better to have the film open with the first Battle of Naboo, and then continue on with everything after that? Did we really need to know Skywalker came from a desert planet and the he lived there as a slave boy? Shouldn't most if this plot have been condensed down into the opening of the next movie with Anakin already serving the Jedi and helping out Obi Won? I mean, basically everything here is covered with one short conversation between Obi Won and Luke in the fourth film and while this film certainly fleshes out back-story I can't really say that it added anything.
The story isn't good and that leaves the actors floundering with a script that doesn't give them much to work with. Then you have to factor in the fact that most of them were essentially working all day against green screens, trying to interact with characters that weren't there. For this prequel trilogy George Lucas went all in on green screen, building entire sets as well as most of the aliens and droids in the film out of CGI. At the time the technology was still very new so most actors weren't really sued to acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick (to represent the focal point of a fake, CGI character) set against a green backdrop. While Neeson should be credited for being able to pull off this feat, most of the cast was not up to the challenge. MacGregor seems lost in this movie, not quite able to nail down his character even as he tries to give him life and substance, but worse is Portman who seemed to retreat into herself, giving out one of the blandest, one-note performances in the film.
One actor I didn't really hate, though, was young Jake Lloyd. Sure, he's not the best actor (especially not in the last act of the film when he gets to fly a ship and, presumably, was acting entirely against green screen without anyone else around to anchor his performance. Still, for most of the movie when he just gets to play a precocious kid looking for a better life among the stars, he's actually pretty good. Lloyd gets a lot of hate from fans about how he somehow ruined Anakin (when, honestly, Hayden Christensen was much worse in the role in the next two films) but I found I actually rather liked him in this movie.
But that doesn't make up for the fact that so much of this movie is bland and dry. People stand around, say their lines, and then there are long, lingering pauses as the other actors wait before they get to say their line. Some of it is bad editing, more is the actors not quite knowing how to act against CGI characters, and so much of it is just the fact that this movie was made by a director that didn't quite know how to bring all the elements of the film together. I don't blame the actors, or the CGI animators; I blame Lucas. He was so enamored with what he could do, the CGI sets he could build, the wide world he could craft, that he never stopped to think, "you know, maybe this script I wrote is really boring and these actors don't seem to be able to act. Perhaps I'm in over my head."
Remember that George Lucas wasn't his first choice to direct his own movie. He really wanted someone else, like long-time friend Spielberg, to direct these movies. Spielberg, though, convinced Lucas he had to do them himself -- they were his baby so he was the only one that should do it. This was a bad choice; Lucas had really only directed three movies before this, one of which was the original Star Wars, but it had been over twenty years since Lucas had last sat in the director's chair and, if nothing else, he was clearly quite rusty. He doesn't get believable performances out of anyone (apart from Neeson), nor does he understand how to block action shots or to pare back sequences that have gone on for way too long. Sure, he did direct some winners back in the day but that didn't make him qualified to shake the cobwebs off and try again.
I don't know if the entire movie could have been salvaged -- we still would have had a script with poorly thought out political intrigue, people running across the galaxy and back for no reason, and midi-chlorians (see below) -- but someone more skilled in the director's chair might have at least made it fun to watch. There are moments where the film almost works, like the podrace sequence (which is overly long but at least has energy to it) and the big Jedi fight at the end of the film between Qui-Gon, Obi Won, and their Sith rival Darth Maul (which is a real show-stopper). Most of the movie, though, is ploddingly plotted and leadenly paced. A better director might have saved it or they might have realized what a train wreck it was and brought someone in to rewrite the whole thing.
That's the fantasy, though. In reality the film that was supposed to launch a new trilogy of space epics fails to find the "epic" at all. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace put a lot of plates in the air -- the Jedi Council, the Senate, the Trade Federation -- and fails to do anything with any of it. it puts the new trilogy off on the wrong foot, to be sure. And if you were to start the movies in chronological order, watching them for the first time from Episode I on, I don't know how you'd even make it past this movie. If this was my first taste ever of Star Wars I'd turn the series off and never go back again. As the opening of a series, Episode I seems to make the case that its probably best never to revisit the Galaxy Far Far Away again.
So who really thought that trade wars, taxation, and senate debates were what people looked for in a Star Wars movie? The previous movies opened with epic space battles and underworld infiltrations. This movie opens with paperwork and talking. Ugh.
Continuity and Issues:
When did Jedi develop the ability to run as fast as the Flash? Force Run seems like a skill we should have seen before... or since, but I'm pretty sure that speed-run they did will never be seen or mentioned again.
Does it bother anyone else that for a "hidden city", Jar Jar and the Jedi were able to swim to the Gungun Capital with relative speed and ease? This is the least secure black site I've ever seen.
So the Trade Federation has a blockade cutting off Naboo from the rest of the galaxy. The blockade is a single, small band of ships arranged on one side of the planet. Neither the Trade Federation, nor the Nabooese, seem to understand that space is three dimensional. Have none of these people seen The Wrath of Kahn?
They have to barter for the engine parts they need once they land on Tatooine, and to do so they have a few supplies and the Queen's wardrobe. Bear in mind they just fled Naboo on a random ship they found in the hangar and, somehow, the Queen has her entire wardrobe on the ship? Did they send someone back, during their desperate sprint, to grab all her dresses? Or was someone dispatched to get her tailor? "I have to make all new dresses for on from what we have on this ship? How do you feel about a dress made from plasma inducers and brocade curtains?"
Anakin is Space Jesus. Like the Christian icon, as well as many other mythological figures, Anakin came about by immaculate conception, presumably because of all those damn midi-chlorians. My god I hate so much about this movie, but this whole section here bothers me the most. I get a kid being unusually attuned to the Force, and I get him being a useful tool for the Jedi, but did he have to be magical Space Jesus of the many Force Parasites?
And did we really need an explanation for the Force? This movie establishes there are space creatures that live in everything, like little magical tartigrades, called midi-chlorians, and those with Force powers have a high concentration of midi-chlorians. So instead of the Force being something anyone can tap into, a magical energy that if you believe hard enough you, too, can learn to control it, it now means that only a select few will ever be special because of space bugs. It so stupid and this, more than anything, is the reason I will never forgive George Lucas for this film and why, after this, I stopped caring about Star Wars. I've never gotten over midi-chlorians.
As a final comment, I note above that most of this movie is unnecessary and could easily be ditched. There's about twenty minutes of necessary story and then the film could just jump ahead to Episode II with a grown up Anakin and his adventures. Actor, and amateur film re-editor, Topher Grace had that exact idea. He made a fan edit of all three of these prequel movies into a single, epic film, and his edit basically ditches everything from this movie except the Jedi fight at the end of the film. Everything else is summarized in a single opening scroll. When your entire film can be boiled down to a "previously on" maybe you shouldn't have made the movie at all.