Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" by David Pretty

1999: a year of hope for Star Wars fans across the galaxy. Two years prior the classic trilogy was re-released to much fanfare, driving nostalgic Gen X-ers into a slavering frenzy for new content. When the teaser trailer for Episode I dropped in November of 1998, people were so starved for a few fleeting glimpses of George Lucas's table scraps that they bought tickets to movies like Meet Joe Black, watched the trailer and then promptly walked out of the theater again.

Although not nearly as rabid, I also got caught up in the hype machine. Completely entranced by the dazzling full-length trailer that followed I dared to dream that The Phantom Menace would be a worthy addition to the hallowed Star Wars pantheon. I rushed out on opening day to see it and came out the other side feeling slightly baffled. Assuming that I'd missed something profound, I decided to see it again. And again.

I was such a died-in-the wool Phantom Menace fanboy apologist was I that kept watching the movie over and over again to try and convince myself that it was good. This led to some incredibly awkward conversations with some of my closest but obviously more discriminating friends:

Dean: Jar-Jar sucks Death Star-sized balls.
Me: Actually, Dean, I beg to differ. I believe that George Lucas really wanted to do something different this time out so he came up with lighter and more comedic side-kick character to contrast with, say, Chewbacca...
A Friend: Jesus Christ, man, listen to yourself! You're defending a clumsy, goofy, irritating, mentally challenged cartoon duck with rabbit ears that destroys all tension and drama whenever he's on screen! Get George Lucas's dick out of your mouth and see the movie for what it is already! 

"Oh, mooey, mooey, I love you!"

Eventually I had to admit that he was absolutely right. This long-awaited prequel was infected with the same tragic palsy that neutered Return of the Jedi, hobbled Willow and rendered those two supremely shitty Ewok T.V. movies virtually un-watchable. This dreaded condition, which I'll call "Lucasitis", first emerged from the bowels of Marin County California circa 1982. When a film is diagnosed with this affliction the prognosis is crippling if not outright terminal.

But before we move on to cataloging the symptoms, we have to indulge in some back-story. 

Back in the late Sixties, it was George's cinematic mentor Frances Ford Coppola who first recognized a major chink in his protege's creative arsenal: he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. Coppola's best advice to George is that he had to learn how to write in order to be a decent film-maker. Unfortunately, the first first thing Lucas turned in was the cold, sterile and impenetrable THX-1138. Sure, it had some cool production design, editing and visuals but it read as if it was written by a habitual shut-in. Does any of this sound familiar?

When THX-1138 understandably tanked at the box office, Coppola challenged Lucas to come up with something with more mainstream appeal. By all accounts, American Graffiti started off as a great concept and a solid story but the dialogue was pretty heinous. Mercifully screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz came in manage to make it sound as if real human beings were talking to one another. The recipe worked perfectly and the film turned out to be a huge success.

George Lucas should have a shrine dedicated to these two at Skywalker Ranch.

This gave Lucas an opportunity to lens his dream project: a technically-updated homage to the Buster Crabe Flash Gordon serials of his childhood. Unfortunately the first script he turned in was a rambling, bloated mess. Don't believe me? Then I dare you to click on the following link and try to read just one page of the gibberish you'll find there. Mercifully Huyck and Katz were once again called in to save the day and the script was eventually hammered into something vaguely film-able.

Talented screen-writers weren't his sole ally back them. In order to get this epic project bankrolled, Lucas had to collaborate with a host of talented actors, a contentious crew and a willful producer. Even fellow director Brian de Palma got into the act, editing the opening text crawl into something succinct and interesting. Like it or not, these tense dynamics resulted in the perfect conditions to produce a classic.

By all accounts, shooting Star Wars on location in Tunisia and Elstree Studios in London was a complete nightmare for Lucas. Studio pressure and logistical nightmares took their toll on him and at one point Lucas was hospitalized for hypertension and exhaustion. To make matters worse the original edit of the film was a static, lifeless, unmitigated disaster. Mercifully, the original editor was turfed and the raw footage was handed over to Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas, who was George's wife at the time. When ILM's special effects and John William's rousing score was added to the mix, the whole thing came to life and became a worldwide phenomenon.

Richard Chew, Marcia Lucas and Paul Hirsch won well-deserved Oscars for their editing work on Star Wars.

George was so poisoned by his on-set trauma that he gave Irving Kershner full directorial control over The Empire Strikes Back. Artistically shot, well-acted and expertly-mounted, the film is now regarded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Unfortunately, Lucas was irked by the additional time Kershner spent with the actors and his set-ups. In the film business, time equals money and Lucas, ever the shrewd businessman, decided that he needed to be a lot more hand's-on for the entry. So, even though Richard Marquand was credited as the director for Return of the Jedi, Lucas was on the set just about every day.

By that time, Lucas was universally regarded as the sole creative "force" behind the success of Star Wars and his more vocal detractors had been purged out of his inner circle. As a result, Jedi started to creep closer and closer to the saga's bargain basement pedigree, I.E. the schlocky chapter-play cliffhanger serials that he was weaned on as a kid. This leads me to believe that Lucas keeps tweaking A New Hope because it was born out of adversity and collaborative "compromise".

I also get the distinct impression that he was downright baffled by Irvin Kirshner's reverential attitude towards the Grade B subject matter. Tonally, it's really hard to reconcile the drama, intelligence and artistic flourishes in The Empire Strikes Back with the rest of the series. Lucas also probably knows that he'd get pilloried by fans if he ever dared to alter that particular entry very much. To this day George seems unable to acknowledge that collaborative and creative fission is exactly what made Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back two of the best movies ever made, sci-fi or otherwise.

On oddly telling image of Gary Kurtz and George Lucas on the set of Star Wars circa 1976.   

So, by the late Nineties, Lucas was the sole arbiter in a cinematic universe of his own design. No one dared oppose him as he bashed out the script of The Phantom Menace on loose-leaf paper. Unlike Gary Kurtz and Howard Kazanjian before him, new producer Rick McCallum said nothing when George turned in a deeply flawed and low-rent screenplay. Indeed, no-one dared to tell Emperor Lucas that he wasn't wearing a stitch of creative clothing. As such, we shouldn't be surprised that The Phantom Menace arrived stillborn, the victim of an acute case of Lucasitis.

So what are the symptoms of this dread disease? Let's begin the autopsy, shall we...

(1) Lowered Expectations. There's a quiet, but powerful, moment in Star Wars when Ben Kenobi drops a few tantalizing tidbits about the fabled Clone Wars. For every child who heard this it was like lighting a fire in the tinderbox of your imagination. For twenty odd years we pondered what amazing revelations a hypothetical prequel would reveal, but I'm willing to wager dollars to doughnuts that it didn't involve taxation, trade routes and senate hearings. When people rightfully took The Phantom Menace to task for being underwhelming, Lucas actually had the temerity to blame it on "unrealistic expectations". Sure, the bar was set high but fan's aren't just gonna lap up your slop just because it has the words "Star" and "Wars" in the title.

(2) Actors Are A Necessary Evil.  Lucas has a clear philosophy: hire talented actors that require absolutely no direction so that your interactions with them are kept to a bare minimum. Not a bad idea in principle but it's terrible in practice, expecially when you see genuinely accomplished actors like Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor reduced to "cut and paste" puppets reciting the most dispassionate, boring, perfunctory dialogue ever committed to film. As Harrison Ford once famously told Lucas: "You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it."  Not long after the release of Episode I  Ewan McGregor was quoted as saying: "There was no spontaneity. Your job, as an actor, was just to get it out. I was frowning a lot. It just became a frowning exercise."  By no co-incidence, Liam Neeson nearly quit acting because he was tired being treated like a prop. Every Star Wars fanboy who complains about the performances in prequels really deserves a swift kick square the cubes. Even Daniel Day Lewis couldn't have done anything with this schlock.

Natalie Portman takes a bead on her agent, Ewan McGregor tries to remember where he parked his motorcycle and Liam Neeson urges Jake Lloyd to find a more fulfilling career in this pivotal scene from The Phantom Menace.

(3) It's Fine To Use Camp Serials From the 1930's As Inspiration, But Did We Really Need To Port Over The Racism, Too?  My jaw literally dropped when I first heard the Neimoidians speak. 'Why would Lucas make these characters sound like Japanese stereotypes from Back To Bataan?' I though to myself. My horror only deepened moments later when Jar Jar Binks, nothing more than a walking, talking Stepin Fetchit parody, came flailing onto the screen. I honestly don't think that George Lucas has a racist bone in his body but this is just one example of the sort of supremely stupid shit that would have gotten weeded out early if The Phantom Menace had been produced in a normal creative environment.

(4) "WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?! A Little Bit Less, I Mean."  Actually let's talk about Mr. Binks for a minute since he's a major indicator of George's head space at the time. As much as fanboys want to deny this, Star Wars is intended for kids, but it's important to note that Lucas didn't become a dad until 1981. By the time he sat down to write the Phantom Menace in 1994, he'd been marinating in parenthood for about fifteen years and, more importantly,  he'd just adopted a one-year-old boy named Jett. Like most kids, Jett exhibited a pretty vivid imagination as soon as he started to talk. After all, he's the one credited with coming up with the Gungan race and the character of Jar Jar Binks and I suspect that he probably told his doting papa all about it in the cutest Pidgin English imaginable. Completely besotted by fatherhood, Lucas decided to import the creative ramblings of a child into the most anticipated film in cinema history. At the time someone needed to remind him that there's a big difference between child-like and childish. After all the original trilogy was also kid catnip, it just wasn't marketed directly to toddlers.

(5) CGI Characters Never Ask For Their "Motivation." To add to point # 2, CGI monstrosities like Jar Jar Binks really demonstrates George's borderline contempt for flesh and blood actors. It's not bad enough to have Jar Jar competing with them for screen time, but the annoying fuck has to constantly upstage people with his goofy pratfalls, manic screeching, flailing limbs, wanton shoplifting, overt fibbery, and just constantly fucking around with stuff that doesn't belong to him. It's like a giant "fuck you" to all the real, live human beings on screen who've actually dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft. 

"Yousen being in myen light, ookieday?"

(5) An Obsession With Bodily Functions. This annoying trend started with Return of the Jedi which featured several creatures belching as if they had acid reflux disease. In Phantom Menace, Lucas doubles down by having Jar Jar step in digital crap and then clownishly overreacting when another critter farts in his face. Look, I wasn't exactly expecting Bleak House here, but this is ridiculous.

(6) Tonal Schizophrenia. By casting a ten year old as Anakin, including Jar Jar as a pivotal character and consistently stooping to infantile humor, you'd be forgiven for thinking that The Phantom Menace was just a cynical attempt to get a whole new generation of kids hooked on Star Wars. That is until you watch scenes involving static senate hearings, a one-sided ground battle involving wholesale slaughter and some dude getting sliced in half. 

(7) Expository Dialogue.  "Coruscant... the entire planet is one big city. There's Chancellor Valorum's shuttle. And look over there, Senator Palpatine is waiting for us."  To quote uber-sarcastic Han Solo in a much better movie: "I'm glad you're here to tell us these things!"

"Coruscant... the big shitty."

(8) Shitty Dialogue In GeneralIt boggles the mind that Lucas typed up the following chestnuts, looked at it and said "Yep. That's perfect."


Anakin: Mom, you said that the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other.


Jar-Jar Binks: Oh, mooey, mooey, I love you!
Qui-Gon Jinn: You almost got us killed! Are you brainless?
Jar-Jar Binks: I spake!
Qui-Gon Jinn: The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get out of here.


Beed: I don't care what universe you're from, that's got to hurt!
Um...Lucas knows that there's only one universe, right? 


Sebulba: You won't walk away from this one, you slave scum!
Anakin: Don't count on it, slimeball!
Sebulba: You're Bantha poodoo!


Captain Tarpals: Hey, you-sa! Stop-pa dere!
Jar-Jar Binks: Hey yo, Daddy Captain Tarpals. Mesa back!
Captain Tarpals: No ah-gain, Jar Jar. You-sa goin' to da Bosses. You-sa in big doo-doo dis time!


I could have just as easily have cut and pasted the entire script here, but you get the point.

(9) Urchi-kid Skywalker.  I don't care what all you neckbeards out there think: Jake Lloyd did a serviceable job with what he had to work with, but my point is that he shouldn't have been there in the first place. As previous mentioned, I think George cast a ten year old partly because of the indirect influence of his own kids plus he probably though that it would be a sure-fire way to create a new generation of fans. One really telling moment in the Making Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace documentary occurs during the final casting session for Anakin Skywalker. Just check out the second kid at the 4:35 mark in the video right here; he's got a lot more gravitas and even vaguely resembled a young Mark Hamill. Instead Lucas went with Jake Lloyd because he was "edgier".  Personally I would have cast an angst-y unknown teenager since you would have gotten a more sophisticated performance and subsequently and more relate-able character. Plus it would have diminished the following major issue...

Who would have known that Luke and Leia's mom would have the same sexual proclivities as the average American female grade school teacher? Ewwww...

(10) Unnatural Relationships. Luke and Leia's "unconventional" relationship in the original trilogy has nothing on the inexplicable and profound weirdness that develops between Padme and Anakin. Think about this for a second: when they first meet, she's fourteen years old and he's fucking nine. If Lucas knew anything about women he'd know that Padme would be permanently repulsed by the concept of boning someone she first met as a ten year old kid. If anything, she should be crushing on Obi-Wan. But clearly the dynamic Lucas established in Phantom Menace shows that he knows less about women then Andy Stitzer from The 40- Year-Old Virgin.

(11) Everything Old Is New Again. Phantom Menace takes place thirty odd years before the events in A New Hope but you can't tell that by the film's visual style. Yes, things look cleaner and slicker but nothing feels retro or technologically inferior. Lucas could have used this as a great opportunity to world build and play around with continuity but instead we get the same speeders, droids, and blasters and we see later on the timeline. I think it would have been cool to see R2-D2 and C-3PO come straight off the assembly line and into the story as brand new, state-of-the-art iDroids. But instead we get absolutely no sense of progress, history or evolution at all. 

(12) Fleeting Moments of Promise Are Quickly Dashed. Even though the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is heavily choreographed it looks fake and we've barely been given any reason to care for these characters and the jeopardy they're in, it's still one of the few moments in The Phantom Menace that feels vaguely Star Wars-y. Unfortunately the whole thing is undone in a flash when Obi-Wan dispatches the Sith Lord in one of the most implausible and inadvertently funny ways imaginable.

"Duel of the...*Yawn*"

(13) "I Find Your Lack Of Logic...Disturbing." Credibility is certainly strained when a nine year old kid wins a race that would surely kill Dale Earnhardt within thirty seconds and then single-handedly destroys a Trade Federation battleship. But there's so much more than that. Why would Jedi Knights be dispatched as diplomats? Aren't they essentially space cops, I.E. "guardians of peace and justice" in the Old Republic? Why are the Neimoidians risking their operation and, ultimately, their lives to help Sidious? Are they being paid? Bribed? Manipulated by the Force? We'll never know. Why do Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take two separate ships down to the planet? Wouldn't that double their odds of getting caught? And how did they know that the two ships would land in the exact same place together? And how convenient is it that the Gungan city is within walking distance of the Trade Federation landing site? Also wouldn't it take forever to pilot a sub through the core of a planet to the other side? Why do the Neimoidians only assign a small detail of frail battle droids to guard the Queen, I.E. their most important prisoner? Why do so many Naboo people start dying so quickly? Is it because of the blockade? Well, that can't be it because the blockade only started a few days ago. Is the droid army killing people wholesale? Who knows? Once again, Lucas doesn't show us what's going on and as a result, we never feel involved in their plight. How does a ship's shield generator get hit when the shields are still up? What exactly is "leaking" out of the hyperdrive? Ignition fluid? Why doesn't Qui-Gon just sell the Queen's damaged ship and book passage off Tatooine just like Obi-Wan did in Star Wars? Or trade it for a smaller ship? And why does he take Watto at face value when he tells him that no one else has the part he needs? Qui-Gon refers to Watto was one of the "smaller dealers", so why doesn't he check with one of the larger ones? Why would Anakin build a virtually useless protocol droid like C-3PO for his moms and not something more useful, like a Roomba? Why does the Senate not believe Amidala when she tells them about the droid invasion? Didn't the Senate already send the Jedi to Naboo to investigate what was going on? What is the deal with the prophecy that will "bring balance to the Force"? Who said it? When did they say it? With the Jedi reigning supreme right now, wouldn't it be a really bad idea to "bring balance to the Force"?  Ergo, why is Qui-Gon so intent on training Anakin? Is he looking to win some sort of Jedi Nobel Peace Prize? Why can't Obi-Wan sprint to his master's aide during the duel with Maul like he did at the start of the film? It's pretty clear that Obi-Wan doesn't trust Anakin at all, so why would he agree train him, even when Qui-Gon makes him take an oath? Even more critical: why does the Jedi Council completely change their collectively minds and give Obi-Wan carte blanche to train Anakin as his Padawan? Sure, some of this stuff is a little nit-picky but a lot of these are perfectly legitimate questions. Every movie, especially sci-fi, needs a certain level of internal logic otherwise the whole edifice falls apart and you're left with a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

(14) Hideously Bad Continuity Errors. As a it turns out a lot of re-shoots were required in order to make the film even vaguely watchable. One major indicator of this is the frequent and drastic changes to Ewan McGregor's hair style. In one scene it's spiky and normal looking and in the next it's reddish and slicked back. There are even some scenes in which he looks older and chunkier than previous scenes. It's so detracting and so glaringly obvious that it never fails to jettison me out of the movie every time I watch it.  Which isn't very often.

(15) Who Am I Rooting For Here?  Unlike the classic trilogy, there's no "everyman" character like for the audience to get emotionally invested in. Jake Lloyd's Anakin is too young for most people to relate to, plus he vanishes for long stretches of screen time. Liam Neeson might get top billing as Qui-Gon but his character is a black hole of personality. It's bad enough that he's stoic, pig-headed, and dull but he also has no qualms engaging in child endangerment, illegal betting, fraud, and abandoning a child's mother to a miserable life of indentured servitude. Ewan McGregor's spot on Alec Guinness impersonation is likewise wasted on a whiny second banana role. Buried under pounds of geisha makeup and costumes, the normally delightful and animated Natalie Portman was clearly instructed to just let her dialogue tumble out of her face without a hint of panache. The Phantom Menace has absolutely no likeable characters which, in turn, keeps us at arms length from the proceedings.

"Pyew! Pyew! Pyew!"

I could go on, but what's the point? For the sake of full disclosure, the film isn't a complete write-off: the designs are solid, the costumes and props are great, there are a few cool-looking practical sets and John William's score, featuring the genuinely rousing "Duel of the Fates", almost single-handedly  redeems the whole sad mess.

Now I'm not one to say that "George Lucas raped my childhood", even if he did fondle it inappropriately. It's hard to hate or be pissed off at a guy who, by all accounts is a generous philanthropist, a good family man and a creative innovator. I just wish he'd handed the Star Wars prequels off to someone else, someone who had more respect and admiration for the subject matter. As such, I don't see The Phantom Menace as personal affront to our generation, just a monumental wasted opportunity to add to the grandeur and mythos of one of the greatest imaginings in film history.

Comedian Patton Oswalt says the the first thing he would do with a time machine is go back to 1995 and kill George Lucas with a shovel.  My feelings may not be quite that extreme, but I'd certainly like to have serious sit-down and chat with the dude.

Tilt: down.

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