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Episode I: Why Politics and Star Wars don't Mix

  • May 17, 2005
Pros: It begins the true story George Lucas wanted to tell

Cons: That ACTING! WOOD!

The Bottom Line: Paarents could have an amusing in-joke amongst themselves if they referred the the boogyman as the phantom menace.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace confused me a bit at first. I understood the plot and all that, but some of the dialogue left me a bit confused. It was only after a series of repeated viewings that I finally understood what was off. Here is a list of terms that should never be used in the same sentence as any Star Wars reference:
The rest was quite easy to figure out once I noticed that these words are regularly peppered throughout The Phantom Menace. The reason this particular Star Wars movie is considered the series black sheep is because good and evil take on a more realistic tone: They’re blurred, and it’s a real pain to tell who’s who.

In Star Wars, it’s usually easy to tell who you should be rooting for. The good guys and bad guys couldn’t possibly be more clear-cut: “Come to the Dark Side! We will rule the universe with evil!” That pretty much says it all. You cheer for the Force, and blow raspberries at the Dark Side. In The Phantom Menace, however, you cheer for the... Trade Federation? The Galactic Republic? The Galactic Senate? Chancellor (or is it Senator?) Palpatine? Who, what, where, when, why? There’s no good side or evil side in The Phantom Menace, there’s just two warring factions of politicians. In the bad-guys-wear-black-helmets universe of Star Wars, this is a crime.

Fortunately, the actual plot is very easy to follow. I guess George Lucas decided not to confuse everyone with line after line of confusing political terms. We begin with the Trade Federation (after many, many viewings, I concluded that they are probably the bad guys, though I’m not too sure) cutting off the small planet of Naboo. The ever-wise queen of Naboo, Padme Amidala, sends a pair of Jedi Knights, Qui-gon Jinn and Obi-wan Kenobi, to aggressively negotiate with the Trade Federation for some reason. Our two Jedis hit up one of the blockade ships and stumble into an invasion armada bigger than the planet they’ll be invading. So our two heroes hitch a ride back to the surface of Naboo to warn the queen, saving the life of a weird Rastafarian creature named Jar-jar Binks along the way. The queen gets the message and gets herself and her assistants off the planet, but not without taking a truckload of damage along the way. The damage forces them to land on the desert planet of Tatooine, where they do a little gambling, repair their ship, take in a pod race, and meet up with a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker.

Anakin has some very special powers. He has this head thing called the shining, and an invisible guardian who occaisionally talks to him through his pinky. He also sees dead people and, for a small fee, he’ll repair your kitchen sink. But the big thing with Anakin would be the Force and how it seems particularly strong around him. He can see things before they appear react to them, and these reflexes make him the only human who is able to pod race. So after a rather brilliant and fun pod racing scene, Anakin is freed by his master to go to the capital city of the universe and fullfill his destiny as the chosen one who will bring balance back to the Force. Some more stuff happens and the movie takes us back to Naboo for a climactic space shootout, lightsaber truel (I invent the word “truel” in lieu of the word “duel” because it involves three people), and a giant, futuristic epic army battle between an army of droids and Jar-jar’s peeps. As for the bad guys in The Phantom Menace, well, they’re planning some big things. There’s a nasty dude named Darth Sidious, and his apprentice, Darth Maul. They’re known as Sith Lords, the Jedi Knights of the Dark Side, and they’re supposed to have been extinct for the last millennium. But Darth Maul pops up and surprises Qui-gon just as his ship is taking off from Tatooine. The two Sith Lords keep mentioning how badly they want revenge, but we never get to find out why.

Unfortunately, the lack of a background for the Sith Lords is the least of George Lucas’s writing problems. While I enjoyed the plot and thought the coincidences that came full circle in the entire series were kinda cool, Lucas seems to be out of writing steam. Not that it was ever prevalent in his movies outside of American Graffiti, but sheesh! The Phantom Menace is the only movie I’ve ever seen in which the line “Take that! And that!” was ever used in a serious context. (And you thought the “Which wire? Red or blue?” line from Armageddon was as bad as it got.) The dialogue is criminally ridden with cliches that make it almost as bad as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bombardment of cold puns in Batman and Robin - and THAT is saying something. Anakin’s lines include old favorites like “Yippee!!” and “Now THIS is pod racing!” Those lines, along with the completely hollow delivery of Jake Lloyd, who plays Anakin, made me cringe - not in the sense that bad dialogue and delivery in movies makes everyone cringe, but literally. Furthermore, Lucas also seems to have lost his taste for non-pious good guys. In the original trilogy, Obi-wan was a coward and Han Solo was a smuggler. Here we have Anakin, the guy who’s going to become Darth Vader, and he doesn’t even have a black spot to hit back a cheating foe in the pod race. That’s just one of a number of crimes featuring Anakin, the biggest of which is probably his destryong of an enemy space station by accident. Can you imagine Luke destroying the Death Star by accident?

However, in defense of the writing, I loved seeing just how much of the Star Wars universe was looped with itself by the end of Return of the Jedi. While the events of the trilogy don’t begin to really shape up until Attack of the Clones, the seeds are planted in The Phantom Menace. Cliches and coincidences are the orders of the day. While the former presents the cons of The Phantom Menace’s script, the latter definitely makes up for them. R2-D2 shows up for the first time, and earns a medal upon saving the escaping Queen Amidala’s ship from destruction during the escape from Naboo. C-3PO was actually created by Anakin, and here we get to see him before he’s even finished. The two of them meet for the first time in The Phantom Menace, but they’re not around each other long enough to start the bickering they’ve become favorites for. The plot is, thankfully, kept as simple as is normal for Star Wars, so any fears one might have about getting lost among endless political talks are unfounded. There is lots of talking, but there’s also lots of action.

Now here comes a hard part: My having to say bad things about the newest girl of my dreams, Natalie Portman. This chick was in Heat, The Professional, Anywhere but Here, Where the Heart Is, and any number of other big-name films among superstars who line Oscars along their front porches to light up the night. She’s got an Oscar nom under her own belt now. And yet I managed to mistake her for a tree in the Naboo forest. I also have to say that while I was impressed by her wardrobe - featuring dresses with landing lights at her feet - she just isn’t that hot in The Phantom Menace! That’s two strikes against her for this movie and... Well, with me, actors usually get just one. That’s the case with the other major actors in this thing - Liam Neeson, Ewan McGreggor, and Jake Lloyd are all out on bad acting. To George Lucas, actors are sprites, and indeed the best performances in The Phantom Menace come from the sprites. Jar-jar, Sebulba, and Jabba the Hutt all give Oscar-worthy performances, even though Jabba has no lines. What Lucas often did when editing The Phantom Menace - and I SWEAR I’m not making this up - is spend hours watching outtakes. He would like the first take of a scene with Liam Neeson, who plays Qui-gon. Then he would watch all the other takes of the scene, select the fifth take because he liked Ewan McGreggor’s performance in the fifth take than the first. He would then edit them together. This would be fine if Lucas managed to get decent performances out of his actors in ANY of those takes. He should take a page from his buddy Spielberg and take acting lessons to learn how actors tick.

That’s to say nothing of Lucas’s skills with special effects. Star Wars came out and won a spot in the immortal movie hall of fame partially because its special effects are outstanding even by today’s high standards. And with The Phantom Menace, Lucas said “You lowly effects mongers can release all the Titanics, Matrixes, and Jurassic Parks you please, but when it comes to seeing and believing, I STILL RULE!” Star Wars is still the main rival to Harry Potter in the contest for worlds we wish were real, and with all the advances made since Return of the Jedi, you’ll be wishing you could book the next flight to Naboo. Every world is clean, bright, and beautiful. And the action is even better - Darth Maul wields a double-bladed lightsaber for his big showdown with Qui-gon and Obi-wan, the shootouts are typical Star Wars shootouts (that is to say, they’re excellent) and the pod racing sequence will make NASCAR raacers spit on their lowly chariots with disgust.

Alright, okay, we get it. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace isn’t the best Star Wars movie. You whine about how campy it is. THE WHOLE DAMN SERIES IS CAMP, SO DEAL WITH IT! The acting was bad. Oh, and I’m certain you’d rank Harrison Ford’s performance in Return of the Jedi up there with De Niro’s turn as Vito Corleone? If you mention the politics you’d have a valid complaint, but I see only one reason for people to really hate The Phantom Menace: It ain’t the original trilogy. It’s Luke Skywalker’s story, they’re just milking it, blah blah blah. Well, the original Star Wars movie WAS title Episode IV: A New Hope. That says everything. George Lucas wanted to tell more than he did, and now he’s doing it, and it’s a fascinating tale to say the least. While The Phantom Menace may be the least important part of the Star Wars saga, it’s still an enjoyable ride through and through.


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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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"I have a bad feeling about this," says the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor) inStar Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menaceas he steps off a spaceship and into the most anticipated cinematic event... well, ever. He might as well be speaking for the legions of fans of the original episodes in theStar Warssaga who can't help but secretly ask themselves: Sure, this isStar Wars, but is itmy Star Wars? The original elevated moviegoers' expectations so high that it would have been impossible for any subsequent film to meet them. And as with all theStar Warsmovies,The Phantom Menacefeatures inexplicable plot twists, a fistful of loose threads, and some cheek-chewing dialogue. Han Solo's swagger is sorely missed, as is the pervading menace of heavy-breather Darth Vader. There is still way too much quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo, and some of what was fresh aboutStar Wars22 years earlier feels formulaic. Yet there's much to admire. The special effects are stupendous; three worlds are populated with a mélange of creatures, flora, and horizons rendered in absolute detail. The action and battle scenes are breathtaking in their complexity. And one particular sequence of the film--the adrenaline-infused pod race through the Tatooine desert--makes the chariot race inBen-Hurlook like a Sunday stroll through the park.

Among the host of new characters, there are a few familiar walk-ons. We witness the first meeting between R2-D2 and C-3PO, Jabba the Hutt...

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Director: George Lucas
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Release Date: May 19, 1999
MPAA Rating: PG
Screen Writer: George Lucas
DVD Release Date: March 22, 2005
Runtime: 2hrs 11min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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