Monday, 4 May 2015

Film Review: Star Wars Ep I - The Phantom Menace



Director: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz
Runtime: 136 minutes

Question - if The Phantom Menace were the first film in the Star Wars saga, would its reputation be as toxic as it is today? It's status as the weakest, and most underwhelming, entry into the series is well-known in 2015, but judged on its own merits, is The Phantom Menace really that bad?

In this first of my extended Star Wars reviews, I revisit the first prequel in George Lucas' space opera series - The Phantom Menace. So, how does it stand up today?

The Phantom Menace opens with the arrival of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) at a blockade of Trade Federation ships surrounding the planet of Naboo. The two Jedi Knights have been dispatched by the Galactic Senate to resolve a trade dispute that threatens to escalate into all out war - and at this point the audience have already begun to check their watches.

As you can already tell, this isn't exactly the most grabbing or arresting opening sequence for cinemas greatest of franchises. Trade disputes? Illegal invasions? Senate hearings? So much of The Phantom Menace's greater moments are hidden behind a curtain of long-winded bureaucracy, intergalactic politics and thick exposition.

However, the film isn't without its moments. Don't forget, this is the entry that served up the Boonta Eva Classic, a white knuckle joyride that forms the centrepiece of the whole film and sets in motion Anakin Skywalker's (Jake Lloyd) future as both Jedi Knight and eventual Sith Lord. And how can we forget Duel of the Fates, John Williams' magnum opus that perfectly frames the climactic fight sequence between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul (Ray Park). To this day, this scene and score gives me chills. Plus, the acrobatic choreography between the trio in this scene is impeccable and really cool to watch.

Unfortunately, for every classic sequence Phantom Menace delivers, another three irritating and indelible transgressions step up to undo it. It goes without saying that the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and the Gungan species in general is an unforgivable mis-step. Squarely aimed at children, these characters only serve to annoy the audience and fellow characters alike.

The same goes for Watto or Boss Nass, two characters who could've been memorable for something other than speaking like a retard or racist stereotype.

Lucas' insistence on tying together every plot strand is another flaw in Phantom Menace - for example, it's revealed that Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) built C-3PO. But...why?! This oddity adds nothing to the story and only shows us that the galaxy is actually much smaller than we previously thought. Does everything have to tie together for the audience to understand? No, of course not - Threepio could have not appeared at all in Phantom Menace and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot in The Phantom Menace feels slow and cumbersome, and this is due to the exposition laden dialogue. So much of the dialogue is used to explain why something is important, or why something is the way it is. Why not just show us? On top of that, can anyone think of a line of dialogue (that isn't shit) that is iconic or timeless? So much of the Original Trilogy is ingrained into my skull that it surprised me upon watching Phantom Menace again that very few lines were memorable for a good reason. The only one I could put my finger on was 'fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate...leads to suffering' which is spoken by Kermit the Jedi weird puppet Yoda.

Despite the pretty impressive cast (Neeson, McGregor, Portman), the acting in The Phantom Menace feels really strained at times. This isn't the case with everyone - Ewan McGregor adds some charm in the limited screen-time he gets, as does Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine. But then you get someone like Jake Lloyd (bless his little heart) who just can't act. Natalie Portman, despite going on to win an Oscar for something like Black Swan, is really wooden here.

I'll point fingers at the script because we all know that Neeson and Portman can act - just not when the script is loaded with piles of waffly nonsense. Midichlorians? Bureaucracy? Pfft, take that crap somewhere else.

Another element that irks me about Episode I is who the film focuses on - as in, who is the main character here? Is it Anakin? Because we don't meet him until over 45 minutes in. Is it Qui-Gon? Except, he dies at the end and undergoes very little growth. Or is it Obi-Wan, the guy who is relegated to the periphery as soon as we arrive on Tatooine. This lack of focus affects how much we care when Qui-Gon is killed off or when Anakin is torn away from his mother.

Something that does still impress me about The Phantom Menace are the visuals. They're not perfect (Lucas uses this entry as a training ground for Episodes II and III) but sequences like the podrace and the starfighter assault on the Federation ships look amazing for 1999.

The Verdict: 5/10


Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has its good moments - but you can count them on one hand. The rest is overstuffed, boring and poorly constructed fluff that feels inconsequential. Seriously, this whole film could've been skipped over and Lucas could've kicked the prequels off with (a better version of) Attack of the Clones. Still, a least we got this out of it.

Thanks for reading - I'm revisiting each entry in the Star Wars franchise between now and December, posting roughly once a month (on the '4th' for maximum nerd cred). Be sure to check back and read my thoughts with each post. Thanks!

10 comments:

  1. Yeah, this was the worst film of the series. I'm planing my own Star Wars thing in the summer in anticipation for the new film. This is the one I'm dreading to re-watch the most. So many bad memories.

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    1. Yeah, I was the same. I've seen it umpteen times but so many scenes are a slog in this one. Thanks for commenting, I look forward to seeing your reviews later in the year! :)

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  2. LOL, I haven't seen this one since the theater, to be honest, and I don't remember hating it...but it was annoying...you know...Binks. That being said, I'll be seeing it soon since my daughter has become obsessed with the Star Wars cartoon and so she wants to see the new one and so I told her I'd let her watch all the originals (you know...and then these ones) first.

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    1. Good thinking mate, there's no other way to watch them really :) Is that Rebels? Seriously good show and not just for kids (I tell myself).

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  3. Don't really like this one, but I don't hate it, either. I rank it fifth in the franchise. Attack of the Clones was far worse. It took every flaw of Menace and multiplied it for Clones. I'll save the rest of my venom for when you review that one.

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    1. Yeah, in the process of writing it now and the more I think about it, the more I realise the same thing. But I'll save the venom until the fourth of June ;) Thanks for commenting Wendell!

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  4. Haha yeah, it's pretty bad. Although I don't hate it as it does have its moments.

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    1. A few here or there ;) The podrace scene is pretty good, and Duel of the Fates. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. I'm so glad I didn't have a blog at the time, because I certainly got swept up in the fever. I didn't overly love it....but...don't tell anyone...I saw it FOUR times theatrically. It was one of those movies that if anyone wanted to go, I'd go...if that makes sense. That final battle is soooo good, well outside of the Gungan nonsense against the droids. That shit was silly.

    Good thing it led to the best line, however: JAAAAAA - JAAAAAAA! (I used to yell this at my younger brother relentlessly)

    Great post!

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    1. FOUR?! Wow, that's something else. Eh, 50% of the final battle is good - the space battle is bollocks if you ask me, I really don't care for Anakin or any of the other nameless pilot either. Thanks for commenting! :)

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