Thursday, January 29, 2009

REVIEW: Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

I think Darth Vader emoted better when he had the helmet.

So here we are, at the end of the journey. The end of the ordeal. The last movie before we get to the good Star Wars (well, not on this blog), chronologically speaking. Time to visit such classic characters as Padme Amadala, Jar-Jar Binks, Jimmy Smits, and Mace Windu for the last time. Time to prepare for the last stand of the Jedi and the inevitable descent of this colorful universe into cheap ‘70s sets, stop motion animation, and puppets incapable of twirling around mid-air. Time to bid farewell to the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Moving on.

Ah. These must be the so-called star wars I've been hearing about.

For the first time, the opening text crawl makes me want to see the rest of movie: WAR! it declares, making us wonder what in God’s name the previous two movies were about. The Clone Wars are raging on, with CGI storm troopers (Republic) and CGI battle droids (Separatists, although it‘s never clear who aside from the Japanese fish guys are doing the separating) doing battle all over the galaxy. The movie takes place near the tail end of the Clone Wars, with the middle portions having been chronicled in a variety of badly animated cartoon shorts, worsely-animated CGI movies, and unplayable video games. It’s a rich period for Star Wars fiction, where people you don’t care about do battle against things you don’t care about, with the incredibly wise Jedi serving as patsies the whole way. It’s such a rich period of history, full of lore and legends, that you don’t need to know a damn thing about it to understand this movie. All you need to know is that when the movie begins, cyborg Separatist leader General Grievous (…eh…) has kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from Coruscant, and now the Republic fleet is battling the Separatist fleet in the upper atmosphere, trying to board Grievous’ ship and kidnap their beloved traitorous leader back.
"Um, Master..." "You see, Anakin, when a droid and an ATM machine love each other very much..."

While big ships and little ships trade blows, two small Jedi fighters, piloted by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) zip their way around missiles and enemy ships toward the enemy flagship. These initial moments show the camaraderie of these two friends, trading boasts and bitchy complaints (“There’s too many of them!” “I have a bad feeling about this!” “I’m hit!” “Where’s my bowl of M&Ms with all the green ones picked out???”) as they go about their sacred task. Fortunately, they’re able to board the flagship because the forward-thinking Separatist engineers felt it wise to put the shield generator on the outside of the ship, allowing the Jedi to take down the shields, zip into the hangar bay, and start their journey through the hapless battle droids toward the bridge, where the captive Chancellor awaits, like a hoary old man version of Princess Zelda. But something else is wrong, and Anakin declares, “I sense Count Dooku.”
"Roger, Roger. Wasn't me."

I sense Count Dooku. Now I believe in keeping a low profile in the movie theater and letting people enjoy their movie uninterrupted, but I must admit that at that point, the snicker would not be denied. And in a movie that occasionally flirts with genuine drama, there are gems like this scattered all around to constantly remind you that George Lucas never wrote a line of dialogue that he felt the need to read aloud.

Um. I'll pass on this one.

After some hijinx in an elevator shaft and yet another demonstration of R2-D2’s fleeting combat prowess, the Jedi reach Count Dooku. Once again, Obi-Wan is knocked out (Count Dooku > Obi-Wan > Darth Maul?), but this time Anakin beats the crusty old fart, beheading him as Palpatine cheers him on. Anakin is distressed at his own act of revenge, but Uncle Palpy assures him that Dooku was too dangerous to live. Which I find a defensible enough position, so let’s move on. They wake up Obi-Wan and try to run back to their ships to fly out, but promptly get caught in a security force field. Obi-Wan says, “Wait a minute. How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!” and Anakin replies, “Apparently not.” At which point I check the credits list on the DVD box to see if I somehow contributed to the screenplay and just forgot about it. No dice.
"Please, Don Yoda, I implore you..."

They’re brought to General Grievous, who is a complex and original villain in that he’s very sure of himself, has a negatively-connoted word for a name, and hates good guys. The good guys break free from their captors in some inane way, so I’ll just lie and say they do so by having Palpatine seduce a guard, Obi-Wan hack the security mainframe, and Anakin stick a shiv in Grievous’ nuts. Grievous escapes in an, uh, escape pod, and the good guys have to land the ship safely as it hurtles toward the planet. They do. It's kind of like the ending of Airplane!, except slightly less dramatic.

Now that all that action is behind us, let’s get back to all the stuff we loved about Attack of the Clones. Senator Queen Padme Amadala (Natalie Portman), if you’ll remember, is secretly married to Anakin, and she announces to him that she’s pregnant. Now, the movie’s PG-13 this time, so as long as they’re married, it’s okay to suggest they made Wookiee, and it doesn’t have to be a virgin birth like Anakin’s own mother had. But Anakin’s still distressed about this, knowing that the union of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman could only produce a wooden robot as a child, and he keeps getting visions in his sleep of Padme dying in childbirth. The problem is apparently that Baby Mark Hamill and Baby Carrie Fischer are in there already getting stoned.

"Sorry I'm late. What did I miss?"

Meanwhile, the Clone Wars (all one of them) are in their last phases, with the Republic clearly winning, and the Jedi are out there sealing the deal:

  • Yoda heads off to the home planet of the Wookiees to support their war effort against the Separatists by standing around in the Swiss Family Robinson house and talking like an ass. He has a secret mission, though: buy the approval of disgruntled Star Wars fans by getting the Wookiees into the movie, even if it they have no actual relevance to the “plot.“ Apparently, one of them’s Chewbacca. I’m surprised they didn’t give Kevin Smith a role. Yoda watches as the Wookiees use weapons that look like they were built by the A-Team and battle the evil Separatists in their Jeep Wranglers. Imagine Command and Conquer with no strategy. Or Starcraft with strategy.

  • Obi-Wan’s goes to another planet, tracking General Grievous into a big alien inverse anthill thing. He sneaks around on the preferred transportation method of the future for great warriors on stealth missions: a giant, loudly chirping iguana. Hey, Hitchcock had his blondes, and Lucas has his people mounted on giant lizards. Obi-Wan engages Grievous in a duel, but finds that Grievous is capable of extending two extra arms, giving him four total, each with a light saber. So Kenobi uses the MacGyver-like tactic of slicing off the extra arms. Very clever. As the storm troopers drop in, blasting the Separatist forces, Obi-Wan finishes off Grievous by cutting off his armor, exposing his biological heart, and shooting it with a blaster. Man, Obi-Wan’s just full of great ideas. Sun-Tzu says that the art of war is the art of deception. That, or just hacking off their arms, ripping off their body armor, and shooting 'em in the chest.

  • A couple of other Jedi fight on other planets just long enough to get their action figures on the shelves.

    "No, I'm not an alien! I just fell asleep on my Foreman Grill, if you must know!"

Anakin, interestingly enough, gets the most harrowing assignment: becoming Palpatine’s assistant, so that he can spy on him for the Jedi, who are afraid that Palpatine will attempt to retain his iron-fisted rule after the crisis has passed. Anakin’s very upset about this assignment, not only because he respects the Chancellor, but because he’s being pulled away from Natalie Portman, in her pre-nursing phase, to work closely with an old man in a robe who’s very interested in him. Brrrr. Palpatine takes him to a kind of weird bubble opera thing, kind of a less pretentious Cirque du Soleil, and tells Anakin the story of the Sith lord Darth Plagueis. Yes, Plagueis. Is George Lucas trying to subtly suggest that this man was a less-than-upstanding citizen? I wonder if Maul, Tyrannus, and Grievous also had negative traits. Plagueis believed that the Dark Side of the Force could be tapped to grant the user healing and life-prolonging powers, which Anakin naturally becomes interested in for the sake of saving Padme from the difficult childbirth he’s prophesied. Too bad Plagueis was offed by his apprentice, who took the knowledge himself or something. Palpatine might as well have said: “Hey, I’ve this, er, friend who killed off his master and could give you, uh, eternal life. I tell you what: if you give me forty bucks, I’ll give it to my, hmmm, friend, and he’ll set you up with this Force power. Just don’t tell Samuel L. Jackson about it, capiche?” And Anakin still wouldn’t have figured it out.

Since Anakin’s dumber than a thumbtack, Palpatine has to just come out and say that he’s actually Darth Sidious, betrayer of Darth Plagueis and Dark Lord of the Sith. Anakin’s very confused, despite this all being painfully obvious, so he runs off to tell Samuel L. Jackson about it. Samuel L. rounds up a few Jedi to go arrest the old man, still not trusting Anakin to do something non-idiotic. But the worst idea was to leave Anakin alone to do his own thinking, so the kid follows, and as Samuel L.’s about to finish off Palpatine, at the tail end of a fight that leaves the other Jedi dead and Palpatine’s skin unmoisturized, Anakin slices off Samuel L.'s hand and lets Palpatine blast him out the window with lightning. Whoops.

You know, I wondered when Lara Flynn Boyle was going to make another movie.

Since he’s already screwed up, he might as well go whole hog. Anakin accepts his role as Sith trainee and a Sith name. Hmmm, I don’t know… Darth Vader has a kind of ring to it, even if it might be more confusing than Darth War or Darth Herpes or something. Convincing Anakin and the rest of the universe that the Jedi were about ready to attempt a coup, Palpatine dispatches Order 66 all his storm troopers (Wait, he’d only given 65 orders to this point? What is that, an order a month?), which instructs them to immediately kill all the Jedi they’re fighting alongside. Anakin, once again, gets the difficult job: leading a bunch of storm troopers into the Jedi temple and killing all the children. Or ‘younglings’ as all the Jedi call them, making them sound like some Zerg sub-species. Palpatine calls the Senate together and consolidates his rule by declaring himself Emperor, much to the delight of the Senate. Padme’s one of the few dissenters, quietly musing, “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.” It’s actually a pretty good line, one that I suspect Portman might have written herself, since she’s very politically active and thinks that V for Vendetta has an important lesson for the world.

Yoda and Obi-Wan are just about the only Jedi to survive their assassination attempts, and get together with Jimmy Smits, who’s apparently a good-guy Senator named Organic Bile or something. They decide that to make things right, they’ve got to kill Sidious and Vader. Because somebody decided that the “Yoda jumps around and kills people” joke hasn’t gotten old enough yet, he’ll go after Sidious, and Obi-Wan will deal with his former BFF, Anakin. Since they don’t know where Anakin is, Obi-Wan tells the conflicted Padme everything, then stows aboard her ship when she flies off to meet him on the volcanic planet Mustafar, where he’s gone to kill off the last of the Separatist leaders, now that they’re no longer needed for Palpatine’s big false flag operation. She’s going there to convince the man she loves and father of her unborn child to come back from the brink, and Obi-Wan has to deceive her in order to kill him. It’s a moral dilemma worthy of The Smurfs.

I used to wonder how Hayden Christensen got this part. Now, I wish I didn't know.

Yoda confronts Palpatine in this office, knocking out his guards in maybe the only genuinely cool moment of the movie, perhaps because it’s actually *gasp* a bit understated. Speaking of understated, by this time, Chancellor Palpatine has gone from a soft-spoken and manipulative “cool uncle” type of a villain to a cackling ninny, someone that even Chuck Schumer voters could recognize is kind of a creep. His dialogue with Yoda before (and during) the final fight goes something like this:

Palpatine: You and your friends shall DIE! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End, the Dark Side of the Force must.
Palpatine: There is no escaping me, foolish Jedi! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: Battle, we must.
Palpatine: There is no overcoming the Dark Side of the Force! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End, this shall tonight.
Palpatine: Dead, you shall be. Oh, wait, it’s my line, sorry. I mean, prepare to die, pathetic weakling! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: Fight me first, you must.
Palpatine: The end of the Jedi is at hand! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End now, your tyranny must.
Palpatine: Prepare for death, my old friend! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End, this shall. It, I mean, really.

Poetic words, indeed. The puppet and the old fart duke it out in the empty Senate chamber, clashing sabers and spinning floaty hover-seats at each other. It’s actually not that bad a fight, though it’s a bit predictable, even considering that we knew exactly how it was going to end four movies ago. Neither one manages to do a lick of serious damage to the other, but Yoda falls out of the chamber, and being a damned coward, he decides, “Well, I gave it the old college try, so let’s just call it a day,” and flies off with Jimmy Smits to accept permanent exile. Nope, no need to try killing Sidious again, or helping out with the resistance or anything. We’ll find you if we need you, Yodes.
"Hey, it saves on gas, all right?"

Meanwhile, Padme’s ship lands on Mustafar, atop a platform above some kind of molten lava collection plant. (I can only guess that the stuff is shaped and cooled into collectible pottery, because there’s no other conceivable reason to do this.) Braving the 4,000 degree heat and 99% carbon monoxide air, she steps out, and is greeted by Anakin. Being a woman, gets all prickly about his plan to betray Sidious and become Galactic Demagogue. He gets miffed that his bride isn't supportive of his new career plan. He gets even angrier when Obi-Wan steps out. I’m not sure if he’s so angry about him coming here to kill him, or because he thinks he’s been doing his own light saber training with her. Either way, Anakin Force-chokes her unconscious, and the final battle is on.

Now, I know that this is the big finale of the series, with two iconic characters going at it in an oppressive and visually striking setting. And it’s fairly exciting. But really, how many times can we see a light saber duel before it wears out its welcome? I think there was about one of these fights per movie in the original series. Those movies had space pirates and gangsters and big monsters. The new movies have endless scenes of homeless-looking people hacking each other. But the movie’s almost over. Almost over.
"This is OnStar. How may I assist you, pathetic weakling?"

The fight takes a while, and the whole time, neither of them get fatigued, injured, frustrated, or anything else. Although plenty of machinery gets carved up and let loose down the lava river in the process, it’s pretty obvious that neither Anakin nor Obi-Wan is really making the slightest progress towards defeating the other one. They fill the time with Firing Line-style debate. To rebut Obi-Wan’s assertion that Emperor Palpatine is evil, Anakin unleashes the rhetorical bombshell, “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”

So the fight’s not going to end when one really gets beaten, but only when the film's editor says that this nonsense has gone on long enough. And that happens when Obi-Wan ends up on a bank beside the lava river, and Anakin’s still standing on a robot platform hovering above the lava (this isn't the easiest thing to describe, okay?). Obi-Wan declares, “It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!” High ground? What is this, a Civil War board game? Apparently he’s right, though, because when Anakin tries to do a somersault jump over him, Obi-Wan slices through him, hacking off his remaining non-robotic arm and his legs. Well, that’s pretty decisive.

I'm inclined to agree with her.

Anakin slides back along the loose sand toward the lava, in pain not just from the searing wounds, but from the lecture Obi-Wan inflicts upon him. It’s actually fairly moving, and well-delivered by Ewan MacGregor. Anakin continues to slide down, and while he never immerses himself into the lava, he apparently does get close enough that he bursts into flames. And Obi-Wan just walks back towards the ship, leaving him there. I can understand how he’d be pretty confident that being dismembered and engulfed in flame would be enough to kill the guy, but not taking the five seconds to go stab him in the head with a light saber is one of those Bill Buckner moments. You’d think he might have mercy-killed him, but no. Doing the obvious thing would have maybe hurt the series continuity a bit.

The good guys regroup at some out-of-the-way station as Padme goes into labor, learning that she’s having twins; apparently, in this galaxy, faster-than-light speed is invented prior to the sonogram. And she names the kids Han and Chewie. Or something like that. Since she dies during labor, Jimmy Smits gets to take one for himself, while Obi-Wan’s stuck with the other one. So he dumps the kid off with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine, and resigns himself to twenty-or-so years of living in caves in the desert and learning to act like Alec Guiness. The man’s got some work ahead of him. Earlier, Yoda had told him, much to his delight, that Qui-Gon Jinn (from the first movie) had figured out how to come back from the grave and appear as a spirit, and that he’ll be around later to pass on this secret to Obi-Wan. I think this exchange is in the movie to explain why, in the upcoming/previous trilogy (whatever you want to call it), all the good Jedi learned how to do this, but characters like Darth Maul can’t come back to give people the finger or yell out numbers to confuse the Jedi when they’re doing their tax returns or something. But don’t take this as meaning that Liam Neeson’s back. Oh, no he’s not. Having endured roles in both The Phantom Menace and The Haunting, I don’t think you were going to get him back into a crappy CGI blockbuster for all the whiskey in Ireland. Nope, he was going back to a combination of serious movies and blockbusters, like Narnia and Batman Begins, that didn’t ask him to make serious conversation with characters straight out of Super Mario Bros. 2.
"Anakin, forget what he's saying about your acting! We have a scene to do!"

As for Anakin, he’s gotten his second wind and crawled out of the fire. Palpatine arrives and has his men transport him to a medical facility, where they start slapping cyborg parts on him. I think you see where this is going. I just know that Lucas was dying to have him transformed into some CGI creation that looks like Optimus Prime, but no, that might have finally broken the fans’ will. So he’s old Dark Helmet again, complete with boxy, multi-colored 1970s buttons on his chest, like he’s a damned ATM machine. He stands up and lurches off the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster, now voiced by James Earl Jones (who probably would have been more convincing as a white, teenage Jedi than Hayden Christensen if they had just given him the entire role). And what’s the first thing that Darth Vader says, finally in his iconic form, with his iconic voice?

“Where is Padme? Is she safe? Is she all right?”
I don't think I like this remake of Flashdance.

Yes, I want the legendary film villain’s first words to include the name “Padme” and the term “all right.” It would only have been worse if Palpatine had replied, “Hunkily-dorily, Darthity Varthity!” Instead, he tells Vader the truth, that his choking thing wound up killing her, to which Vader responds with the most embarrassing eighteen letters in film history:


And that’s that. The Galactic Republic’s a dictatorship, Palpy and Vader are in power, a fake Peter Cushing’s on a Star Destroyer’s bridge, everybody’s uniform and workstations have gone all gray and retro all of a sudden, budget setbacks have forced all the storm troopers to resort to being played by actual actors in actual suits, and the Death Star’s half finished. What? Already? To clarify, the shot revealing this fact actually comes in the film before we see baby Luke dropped off on Tatooine, so it’s not like this was supposed to have happened years later. So if they’re already so far along building the Death Star while Luke's still a baby, why’s it going to take them 18 or 20 years to finish the bleeding thing? Is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in charge of it?
Certain people aren't letting me make Karen Allen jokes anymore, so I'll have to say, "Stupid Hobbitses!" instead.

Anyway, that’s the end. I think I’ll stop these reviews short of going into the good movies in the series. To be fair, this movie has its moments, and the series had been climbing, one step at a time, up from the eleventh circle of Hell that was The Phantom Menace. But the entire series was still far too concerned with explaining Star Wars mythology, showing off technology, and appealing to kids, than it was with creating rousing action scenes or memorable character interaction. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that went wrong with this prequel trilogy, but I think there are two big losses:

  • The puppets. As corny as they might have been, all those aliens and droids you saw for about three seconds in the original movies were pretty interesting to look at, and the fact that they didn’t play much of a role in the plot made you wonder about them; I kind of liked how the tadpole naval commanders (including the legendary Admiral “It’s a Trap!” Ackbar) and Lando’s Chinese frog-man co-pilot were just sort of weird and just sort of there for a bit. Here, all the weird aliens are few and far between, and when they appear, they’re either just minor variations on things we’ve either seen, or they’ve got abrasive enough personalities that they get old real quick. Sorry, Jar-Jar. I never understood why people thought you were an idiotic character, but now I see a kernel of truth.

  • No Han and Chewie. Not to say that the prequel trilogy needed to have a cast of characters that mirrored the original series, but taking out the space pirates really hurt. Face it: Luke and Leia were dull. Godawful dull. You might have liked them, and rooted for them, but they were dull. It was Han and Chewie, always in over their heads and always trying to get their run-down ship working, that made the series so fun, breaking up the serious Jedi stuff. Count Lando in there too. In the prequels, nearly all of the main characters are either monks or politicians, with the one attempt at a major lighthearted character being a complete ignoramus. I’m sorry, Jar-Jar, but it needed to be said. Multiple times. R2-D2 and C-3PO are in the prequels, and actually fairly amusing, but they don’t really feel like part of the group. They’re off doing their own little skits, far removed from the main action.

Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff wrong with these movies, but aside from the general drop-off in writing and acting, which was a mixed bag to begin with, those are my two main points. On a higher level, I had a problem with the films’ “explanation” as to why a great hero like Anakin Skywalker could turn into a total villain like Darth Vader, which was the whole key to the series, dramatically. To me, Anakin seems like kind of a dick to begin with, and doesn’t seem any better a person or more dedicated a Jedi than anyone else. When he turns to the Dark Side as a result of his arrogance, fear of loss, and frustration with the Jedi, the surprise isn’t how a great hero could fall so far, it’s how dumb the Jedi must have been for not seeing it coming.

"...I love ya, tomorrow! You're always a day awaaaaaaayyyyy!!!"

But to sum up this exhaustive review, let’s end with my ten favorite lines of dialogue in Revenge of the Sith, all courtesy of the once-interested screenwriter George Lucas:

10) Obi-Wan: I have seen a security hologram of him… killing younglings!
9) Padme: Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love. No politics, no plotting, no war.
7) Obi-Wan: Wait a minute! How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!
6) Anakin: I sense Count Dooku!
5) Padme: I want to have our baby on Naboo.
4) Obi-Wan: It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!
3) Anakin: From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!
2) Palpatine: NO! NO! NO!
1) Vader: NOOOOOOOOO!!!
Um. Maybe the movie should have been more about her.

Not quite “May the Force be with you,” any of them, but at least they tried. Then again, do or do not, there is no try.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

REVIEW: Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Wait a minute. This is almost right, but not quite. Here, I think I know what it is.

There we go. Much better.

While Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the cinematic equivalent of a big, wet, point-blank sneeze directly into your face, it made gazillions of dollars in theaters and home video (way back when that sometimes meant tapes; [shiver]). It’s hard to warrant the criticism that your film is “childish” when the classic films you’re following up on featured space pirates, mystical elf-puppets, and characters named Boba, Chewie, and Jabba. But George Lucas somehow managed to pull it off, making a film that showed off his top-of-the-line computer-generated special effects very well, but somehow managed to be less suspenseful and original than those tech demos that show a CGI spokeswoman telling you all about her advanced bitmap rendering.

When you think Star Wars, you think one thing: meetings.

But it was, of course, Star Wars, and so three years later, the inevitable Episode II arrived, sporting a perfectly appropriate title for a series that had convinced itself that people loved it for its homages to crappy ‘30s adventure serials: Attack of the Clones. Despite its goofy title and the fact that it was following the shaky Return of the Jedi and the hyperventilating Phantom Menace, I had decent hopes that Attack of the Clowns would rally. After all, Jake Lloyd was gone, Jar-Jar was nowhere in the trailers, and this time around, George Lucas wasn’t alone as having a screenplay credit. I imagined the studio executives deploying a screenplay “fixer” to the Skywalker Ranch, armed with a suitcase full of red pens.

"Woooo! Yeah! Man, I love going down with you! Oh wait, that came out wrong."

The movie begins with the standard text crawl, during which we learn that since the giddily happy ending of the last movie, the universe has gone down the toilet. The Galactic Republic, which never seemed particularly unified to begin with, is now dealing with a bunch of separatists, led by the traitorous ex-Jedi Count Dooku. Together with his cohorts, Archduke Bloopa and Don Yipyip, he has unleashed a terrifying scheme which, if successful, would form a separate coalition of mostly-self-governing nations! Doesn’t sound so terrible? Well, maybe that’s the point, because as will become increasingly obvious as the movie goes along, the good guys are really the bad guys. Yep, less than a year and a half into George W. Bush’s presidency, George Lucas had clearly prognosticated his objection to Bush’s governance, and so he’s playing Animal Farm with the farm animals replaced by computer-generated plush toys named Yoda and Jango. The Senate of the Galactic Republic, under the rule of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), is about to vote on a bill that would order the creation of the Republic’s first-ever standing army to go fight the separatists. And a real army too, not a bunch of stoners running around in blue helmets. Once again, Lucas has decided that since we’re going to enjoy all the cool aspects of 18th century Earth (pirates, druidic societies, princesses) in his fantasy universe, we’ve also got to delve into the turgid political issues, like whether or not a society can remain free while maintaining a permanent standing army. If this is supposed to be some crack at his home country for the sin of having a strong military and occasionally using it, I think George Lucas should be grateful to live in a society where he is free to get rich by making godawful movies.

The Clone Wars: The Game. Coming soon to Virtual Boy.

Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) has apparently been “promoted” to Senator, and objects to the standing army measure, of course, because in the Star Wars universe, making war just makes you corrupt. Someone’s trying to assassinate her for standing against the army. It’s a big mystery as to who’s behind this, although considering that we already knew from Episodes V and VI that Palpatine is evil, and that there are NO OTHER SUSPECTS (other than Jimmy Smits, who appears just long enough for us to not know who he‘s supposed to be), we might posit that this will eventually lead back to him. In the opening scene, we see Amidala’s ship fly through space and land on a platform on Coruscant. A guy gets out of an escort ship says something like, “Wow, I guess there was no assassination attempt after all!” I guess it’s inconceivable that an attempt would be made now that she’s coming, you know, outside. And sure enough, just as the Queen comes down the ramp out of the ship, the ship explodes from within, killing her and her guards. Fortunately, the Queen was actually a decoy, so Padme’s actually all right, but hang on a second. The ship exploded from within after it landed? Wouldn’t it have been a slightly better idea to set the bomb to go off when the ship was in outer space and the bad guys had the vaccuum and all that working for them?

Anakin suspected that the DA had gotten to her. But he didn't know where she could possibly be hiding the wire.

To protect Amidala, the Jedi Counsel send Obi-Wan Kenobi (either Ewan MacGregor or Ted Neeley, I‘m not sure which) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to act as bodyguards. While nobody else in the movie looks more than a few years older, Anakin’s blasted all the way through puberty since the last movie, evidently experiencing some kind of accelerated growth process that will allow the eventual plot twist that he is, in fact, Yoda’s father. But for now, he’s played by yet another George Lucas-hand-picked acting juggernaut, Hayden Christensen, who expresses emotion by occasionally raising the volume of his voice. Amidala’s very surprised to see how much he’s grown… uh, up, and not at all displeased at the thought of him hanging out at her apartment high in the cityscape of Coruscant.

“Ladies, my island if you leave, recruit training if you survive, be a weapon you will! Be a minister of death praying for war you will. But that day until, pukes you are! The lowest form of life on Earth you are! Not even human f***ing beings you are! Nothing but unorganized grabasstic pieces of amphibian s*** you are! Because hard I am, not like me you will. But the more me you hate the more learn you will. Hard I am, but fair I am. No racial bigotry here there is. Look down on ******s, ****s, ***s or *******s I don‘t. Here, equally worthless all you are!”

Oh, and Jar-Jar is there, but apparently his stark realism was just too much for the audience to process in the first movie, so he’s mostly unimportant. Until later.

To a normal person, this is an alien. To an anime fan, this is Natalie Portman's hotter sister.

While Amidala sleeps, and Obi-Wan and Anakin bicker (which apparently constitutes male bonding for monastic types, in George Lucas’s estimation), people outside are up to no good. We see an assassin giving the task of killing the Senator to another assassin. Who in turn sends a droid to do the killing. I think the villains could have cut out the middle men and saved themselves a few dollars or credits or whatever the hell long time ago, galaxy far away money is. The droid flies up outside Padme’s window, quietly cuts a hole in the glass, and slips in a couple of poisonous slug-type things. Now, considering that the droid has already gained access to her room, you might think that it would be better off just shooting her or exploding or something. But using poisonous animals to assassinate important people is archaic and beyond nonsensical in a futuristic environment, so in it goes. The Jedi, of course, hack the little bugs to pieces in time, and Obi-Wan leaps out the window to grab hold of the droid just as it’s flying away. Thus begins a big, long chase scene, as Obi-Wan and Anakin board flying cars and pursue the assassin droid and its remote control operator through the city, bickering with each other the whole way. Obi-Wan is always lecturing Anakin about being reckless, and Anakin’s too dumb to reply, “Well, you’re the one who jumped out a 40,000-foot high window, you ASS!”

The Imperial Army mobilizes troops for Operation: Hit Stationary Target.

They corner the assassin in a bar, but in typical “bad political intrigue movie” style, a second assassin shows up to kill the assassin before she can talk, then speeds off. The killer-killer is Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison), a jet-packing bounty hunter, whose son, Boba, will follow in his footsteps by the time of the original trilogy: looking cool, gaining massive fan adoration, then dying inconsequentially. As the movie splits into two stories, Obi-Wan shows the poisoned dart that killed the assassin to a slobbery short order cook alien friend of his, who immediately identifies that it’s from Kimino, a planet so obscure that someone’s been able to erase it from the Jedi Counsel’s space maps and no one‘s the wiser. It’s a good thing Obi-Wan has friends working minimum wage jobs who can identify obscure planets’ primitive weaponry. Using a little detective work, he finds Kimino, and arrives there to find that it’s an ocean world with a Seattle-like persistence of rain (but no sign of Kevin Costner). The Kiminans (Kimonians? Kimoans? Kimis?) are lanky aliens who live in giant iPod-inspired buildings and are dumber than rocks. They think that Obi-Wan was sent to check up on the progress of the clone army they’re building for the Republic, even though Shaggy would do a better job of hiding his ignorance. Turns out that a long time ago, a Jedi Master named Sifo-Dyas (thank you, Wikipedia) approached the Kiminans and asked them to clone (and apparently equip) a ton of soldiers for the Republic. Only problem is that the Republic never did any such thing; apparently, the Republic entered its credit card number on the wrong website, and became the victim of the most dreaded crime in the universe: Jedi identity theft. Sifo-Dyas died a long time ago, but somebody posing as him has kept in touch with the Kiminans, saying, “Oh, sure, sure, I definitely represent the government of the entire galaxy. Yup. Hey, you’ll take an out-of-state check for that gigantic, imperial army of super soldiers, right?” Either the Kiminans are advertising, “No money down! No payments for 400 years!“ or Jedi masters have one heck of a Republic slush fund to work with.

"Pujols will be sitting on the 3-1 fastball. Here's the wind-up..."

Of course, I don’t think the Kiminans were the toughest aliens to trick. They’ve apparently developed the ability to generate a gargantuan slave army, complete with battleships and tanks, without benefit of significant trade with other worlds, and can do so as a special order from some idiot in a robe who wandered on by 20 years ago. Yet, they never thought that instead of selling their armies, they might make a little noise themselves. Maybe they just assumed that the rest of the alien races would have nukes by now, and so a bunch of incompetent foot soldiers would be kind of trivial for the purposes of intergalactic total war.

You know, throughout the first movie, I always said to myself, "You know, he'd be pretty good looking if only he had the right hat."

The soldiers were apparently all cloned from Jango Fett (Stormtroopers? Yeah, maybe the Kiminans got cheap and mixed some lemming DNA in there.), who’s still hanging around Kimino with his son for some reason, even though the Kiminans already have his DNA. Maybe he just loooves their poison darts, and wanted to be there when the next shipment came out. So as Jango attempts to reach his ship and fly off the planet, he and Obi-Wan duke it out on the landing pad in the pouring rain. It’s actually not a bad fight, with the Fett family finally showing some fighting prowess to warrant its bottomless well of arrogance. After failing to stop them from escaping Kimino in their giant clothes iron of a starship, Obi-Wan jumps in his ship and follows them into an asteroid field, where the Fetts wind up chasing him, shooting at him with missiles that explode and release a huge shockwave, but have a delayed explosion sound effect. I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to represent, since there’s not really any sound to begin with in outer space, but the conceit does add something to the movie, ever so briefly, that is not completely what you’d expect, so I’m all for it. As usual, the chase doesn’t really amount to much, although it kind of leads Obi-Wan to discovering the Separatists’ military staging base on the Planet Geonosis (which is essentially Mars). He’s taken captive by Count Dooku (the great Christopher Lee, making some quick cash between installments of a certain other trilogy), who makes the terrible mistake of making fun of his prisoner’s name. Dooku’s Sith name is Darth Tyrannus, although if they wanted to be honest about the character and the role, it would have been Darth Paycheck.

Might want to get your emissions checked.

But let’s back up to Anakin and Padme’s story. It’s Anakin’s job to get her back to her home planet of Naboo safely, lest someone make a slightly less incompetent assassination attempt one of these days. So they decide the best thing to do is go undercover, which means dressing in cheap clothes with hoods (not a problem for Anakin) and sitting around in crowded transport ships. At least the producers decided against having them transported by Lil’ Han Solo and Baby Chewie. Back on Naboo, stuff continues to not happen, save for the budding forbidden affair between the Senator Queen and the rapidly-aging Jedi, who has the same mood swings and questionable devotion to his work as the high-school dropout who takes my order whenever I go to Einstein Bagels.

"I am a great actor! Lucas is holding me back! I can be the most powerful actor in the galaxy!"

Of course, thinking of getting into one of Padme’s forty different sets of pants makes him think of his mother. Whoops, they left her back on Tatooine in slavery all those years ago, and forgot to ever go back and get her out, didn’t they? Awk-ward. So because protecting the Senator’s life isn’t really that big a deal, they venture off to Tatooine (and the whole one city that seems to exist on it), where they learn that the Sand People have recently kidnapped Ma Skywalker, and are holding her hostage. Anakin jets off to rescue her, but arrives too late, sneaking into the hut where she’s held just in time to see her die. Being a moody teenager, he does what any troubled adolescent would do: slaughter every man(-type thing), woman(-type thing), and child in the camp, before coming home to brag about it to Padme. She acknowledges that it was probably wrong to murder dozens of people out of revenge, but it doesn’t really change whatever it is that she finds attractive about him, so nothing much more is really made of this.

"Crappy seats have we gotten! Hardly see court, I can! A**hole that scalper is!"

They receive Obi-Wan’s distress signal, and again, since protecting her was really more of a guideline than an objective, they both fly off to rescue him, along with R2-D2 and C-3PO. In her absence, they leave responsibility for voting down the bill to create a Republican army--Oh yeah, that whole thing she was trying to oppose in the first place!--to the most responsible surrogate available: Jar-Jar Binks. Who, after a little cajoling from Chancellor Palpatine, promptly votes in favor of the army. In his memoirs, former acting-Senator Binks would describe the vote as his most disappointing legislative failure, seeing as how it led to the rise of despotic evil in the galaxy, but he thought it unfairly overshadowed his successes on galactic redistricting and galactic capital gains tax reform.

Noobpwner the Level 72 Night Elf Druid and Fidel Castro hold a joint news conference to announce their new video game collaboration, World of Laborcraft.

At Geonosis, where the Separatists could really use some way of stopping saboteurs before they land safely on the planet’s surface, Anakin and Padme work to rescue Obi-Wan by blasting their way through a big weapons factory, which of course means plenty of exciting action watching people running along conveyor belts while avoiding industrial presses. While Anakin fights off flying bug-like soldiers and Padme considers how she’s neither protected, nor doing her job as a Senator, R2-D2 helps out by flying around, and, er… well, he flies. An ability that will never have any value in the future.

I think this class is new to the Westminster Dog Show.

They’re all captured, and since Count Dooku’s entertaining Jango and Boba Fett as his house guests, he decides to execute Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme by tying them up in a big arena and unleashing a trio of giant animals to eat them. You know, kind of like the Christians and the lions, except that here, the Christians climb up poles and use Force powers to kick the lions’ asses. And before Dr. Evil… erm, Count Dooku can get around to his alternate method of execution, a bunch of Jedi, then clone trooper ships arrive and start smashing up the place, with Yoda barking orders that the clone troopers eagerly obey as soon as they unable his incomprehensible syntax; you know, Yoda really should be making faster progress in learning English. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to do something, yelling the F-word (“Force! May it be with you!”) as he lops off Jango Fett’s head with his light saber. What began as a completely boring fight between a few good guys and a bunch of uninspired computer-rendered monsters turns into an excuse for George Lucas to show off all the goofy battle-action toy ships and robots and guns that the film’s primary audience (and by that, I mean both children and the 38-year-olds who, God willing, will never have any) absolutely must have for Christmas. The whole Battle of Geonosis unfolds, with soulless clones of a bad guy driving around in tanks and shooting at other nominally bad guys and their robots. But it definitely looks expensive. Where one generation of kids imagined being Luke Skywalker, blasting through TIE fighters on his way to pulling the impossible shot and blowing up the Death Star, I can definitely imagine younger kids imagining themselves as Clone Trooper #84862A, soldier for a corrupt government, shooting up Separatists.

That's some intense action. And the top half of the screen is pretty exciting too.

But because it always has to come down to the bloody Jedi, the really important fight comes when Obi-Wan and Anakin track down Count Dooku in a hangar, trying to take him into custody. Dooku quickly cuts the lights to make his 40-years-younger stunt double less obvious, then proceeds to knock out Obi-Wan and chop Anakin’s arm off. Preparing to kill them, he’s stopped by the arrival of little old Yoda, who waddles in on his usual cane before tossing it off, pulling out his own light saber, and turning into a spinning dervish of unholy death. Yoda’s acrobatics in his light saber fight are genuinely hilarious in the spirit they were intended, even if they’re only nominally more implausible than 174-year-old Christopher Lee defeating anything more dangerous than a crossword puzzle. Sadly, kill something we actually get to see Yoda don’t, as yet another fight ends in a stalemate with the villain escaping. Anakin and Padme get secretly married, Dooku and Palpatine meet to gloat over the war they’ve secretly manufactured, and Yoda proclaims, “Begun the Clone Wars have.” Then Jar-Jar proclaims, “Oooh, meesa no want bad boss man Dooku come scare Jar-Jar!” It’s very poignant.

Anthony Daniels is Bender in "Futurama: The Reckoning."

If it seems like I’m rushing through this review, it’s because for all the stuff that appears on the screen, not much in this movie actually happens. Never before has it seemed like the main characters did so little, for good or evil, in influencing the actual main conflict of a Star Wars movie. Most of the time, Obi-Wan’s investigating a mystery he doesn’t solve or even come close to comprehending, and Padme and Anakin are contemplating a love affair that we know is going to go forward and result in Luke and Leia. Anonymous clone troopers do most of the fighting on the good guys’ behalf, and even with their face-covering helmets and lack of emotions (and the fact that for whatever inexplicable reason, they’re all computer-rendered figures instead of guys in suits) they’re more expressive than the people at the top of the cast list. I know that Natalie Portman can at least act somewhat, even if I’ve never been really impressed with her, but she plays off Hayden Christensen about as well as she plays off the tennis ball they use to represent a CGI character’s eyeline. But maybe that’s not entirely fair to her, since Hayden Christensen might well be the worst actor in the history of acting. Perhaps even the worst doer in the history of people doing things. Seriously. I didn’t think they could get anyone worse than Jake Lloyd for this part, but at least Hayden stays remarkably true to the role he inherited. If he had appeared on-screen in an AC/DC T-shirt and said, “I’m Hayden Christiansen; who wants to talk about how awesome I am?” he would have been only nominally less convincing as Darth Vader. Now, I hate being too insulting to someone who, for all I know, is very humble and hard-working, but I expect I’d be ridiculed too if George Lucas picked me out of a GQ magazine and hired me to run the CERN particle accelerator or something. I’d make a lot of money for something I’m going to screw up beyond repair. At least Ewan MacGregor looks like he’s interested in what he’s doing, which… well, actually that might make him the worst actor in the film.

Tell you what. How about instead of renting this movie, you spend two hours watching Starcraft multiplayer videos on YouTube. Pretty much indistinguishable.

But all was not lost for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, since there was still another movie around the corner. The one to bridge the gap between the prequel trilogy and the trilogy of actual movies that we remember from way back when. The one that would explain how the emo kid with the bad hair would turn into Darth Vader, why the galaxy’s computer technology would devolve to 1970s-quality, and what convinced Jabba the Hutt to stop exercising. Tune in next time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 5, 2009

REVIEW: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I very much approve of the direction Obi-Wan's lightsaber appears to be headed.

Picking on The Phantom Menace is kind of like picking on Mussolini: other people have already expressed their anger and disappointment, and done so brutally enough that anything I write here won‘t matter much. However, there are some people out there who seem to think that TPM was a good movie. Roger Ebert, who appears to give movies the ratings that the Tarot cards tell him to give them, gave this thing 3.5 out of 4 starts. The Internet Movie Database’s user ratings give it 6.4 out of 10, with only 11.8% of the population giving it a 3, 2, or 1. I’m hoping that most of the 14.6% of people who rated this an 8 were merely confused by the lack of a ‘0’ rating, and just aimed for roundest number they could find. And I’m hoping that the score is being propped up by a combination of fanboys who look like Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, mindless voting droids at the Skywalker Ranch, and ACORN. Because if 6.4 is representative of what real people think of this movie, then the Rapture’s already happened, and I didn’t make the cut.

I run a clean, non-vulgar website, so I will say only once that The Phantom Menace is f***ing horrible.

Hear that? Tom Tancredo's head exploding. Seriously.

I presume that just about everyone has seen Star Wars, so I’m not going to recount the story from the original films, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. While they’re kind of old hat for me nowadays, they remain fantastic movies: brilliant soundtracks, great action, memorable major and minor characters, tons of ambiance, and a real sense that the stuff depicted on-screen, epic though it might be, is just a small part of a much bigger universe. I love all the freaky aliens and little robots in the background that you can easily imagine playing much bigger roles than they actually do. I love how Han Solo would refer to something like “making the Kessel Run in (whatever) parsecs,” and we’re just left to imagine what the heck that involved. I love how the Rebels seemed like a pseudo-real paramilitary outfit, with pseudo-believable communications and operations. And I love that although the good guys ranged from the mystical Jedi to the scrappy smugglers, as a kid, I wanted to go adventuring with all of them. But above all, the movies managed to have great dramatic moments without taking themselves too seriously. And all of that helped me gloss over the hammy acting, sporadic writing, and yes, the Ewoks.

"You can serve us the drinks, but I want them to send someone else for the lapdance."

Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace debuted in 1999, sixteen years after Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and was the first in series creator George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that promised to show how legendary cyborg badass Darth Vader came into being. Obviously, it came with the double-edged sword of being the prequel to movies everyone had already seen: you’re interested in seeing how it all began, and you get excitement from seeing the puzzle pieces start to fit together, but there’s little suspense in the actual outcome of these movies, since you know (roughly) how most of these characters will wind up. So in the face of insurmountable expectations, Lucas took an interesting approach to this movie: he gave it no redeeming characteristics.

Wait, I think I might have accidentally ripped this from the "How It Should Have Ended" website.

The movie starts as all Star Wars have started, with the great John Williams score and a yellow text crawl explaining us the backstory, which I presume will eventually be expounded upon in Star Wars, Episode 0. But whereas the original text crawls told us about how the GALACTIC EMPIRE was trying to wipe out the REBEL ALLIANCE, Phantom regales us with the stirring story of how the TRADE FEDERATION has a dispute with the planet and people of NABOO and is throwing up a blockade around them. Now, I realize that in real life, a lot of military action is spurned by economic necessity. But this isn’t Syriania. This is Star Wars. Are we really supposed to be scared of the “Trade Federation” (the Ferengi???) and their terrible plan to force the peaceful people of Naboo into an interstellar version of NAFTA? I’m also not entirely sure what the Trade Federation actually trades; they’re not so much like OPEC in that they’re trying to get a stranglehold on the market for one particular resource, but they’re just trying to consolidate their monopoly on the entire process of trading goods and services. Maybe that is kind of epic, after all.

"Purr my finger!"

An envoy from the galactic senate arrives at the Trade Federation’s command ship: a pair of Jedi by the names of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, who’s much too good for this movie) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor, doing a nifty Alec Guiness voice, at least). The Trade Federation’s viceroy, a kind of fishy Japanese thing, doesn’t like that the Jedi are here to strongarm him, so he does what any rational diplomat would do: attempt to ambush and kill the non-aggressive representatives of the powerful Senate and the scary powerful Jedi Council. Good thinking. They send in droid soldiers to fight the Jedi; the droids are very convenient for the fact that the Jedi can use their light sabers to hack them all to bits without the movie becoming very violent. When the cheap-ass droids fail to do anything to the Jedi, they send in bigger droids who have shields and bigger guns. Maybe they should make a few more of these things instead of billions of the cheap-ass variety. Meanwhile, the invasion begins, and the Jedi escape on a troop transport ship that’s headed down to Naboo.

Environmental regulations necessitated that the developers build their parking lot floating above the forest.

Down on the forest planet of Naboo, the Jedi mix it up some more with the bad droids and inadvertently rescue a Gungan named Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who is a character that makes no impression on me whatsoever. He’s generally very reserved and quiet, and doesn’t tend to draw attention to himself. On the planet of Naboo, there are Gunans, the amphibian guys who talk like black people in 1930s comedies, and the Nabooians. Nabooians look, act, and talk like whatever everyone else who’s not distinctly an alien is. And therefore, they’re the people the Jedi actually want to talk to. So they negotiate for themselves a mini-sub so they can travel through an underwater tunnel that apparently runs to the other side of the planet--apparently Naboo’s so peaceful that it doesn’t have a molten core, and you can travel confident that a tunnel that runs tens of thousands of miles will never cave in or anything. Along the way, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Jar-Jar (the Heinous Hyphens, as they name their bowling team) are attacked by a giant fish that is killed at the last minute by an even bigger fish. And if you weren’t left breathless by the irony the first time, it happens again.

"We few, we happy few. We band of brothers. For he who sheds his blood with me shall be meesa brother."

A few hours later, traveling at maybe 40 miles an hour, they arrive at the other side of the planet. At the Nabooians’ capital city, they rescue Queen Amidala (Keira Knightley with lead make-up so thick that it has permanently destroyed the part of her brain that controls facial expressions and variations in vocal pitch and tone) from capture by the evil droids, along with a few of her handmaidens, including Padme (Natalie Portman). They swipe a starship and try to blast their way through the blockade. Although a laser bolt knocks out their shields (you might want to start housing the shield generator a little deeper inside the ship), a spunky robot named R2-D2 patches it up and they manage to escape. But the ship’s damaged and they can’t get all the way to the planet of Corscant, where they need to petition the Senate for military intervention on behalf of Naboo. So they stop at the desert, gangster-controlled planet of Tatooine (hey, it’s well know that Earth is the only planet in the universe that supports more than one type of environment), in hopes of getting replacement ship parts.

Man, I remember Halloween of 1999, when all the girls were dressing up as Goth Queen Elizabeth or orange Starburst-colored monks.

Yes, their mission is to get replacement ship parts so that they can lobby the Senate and beat back an aggressive cartel. Yes, this is Star Wars. But to spruce things up a bit, the Trade Federation’s been persuaded into war by a mysterious Sith Lord (kind of an anti-Jedi for those 3% of you who don’t know this, but have otherwise generally comprehended this review so far). Well, at least he’s mysterious if you haven’t seen the later movies or don’t recognize him as future-Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Since the Trade Federation’s screwed up and let the Queen’s ship escape, he dispatches his servant, Darth Maul (Ray Park), to track her down. Maul’s the movie’s token semi-memorable villain, a red-and-black horned guy with incredible acrobatic ability who serves as the movie’s most striking visual element that’s not a holdover from the previous movies. And while he says about four words the entire movie and has no motivation beyond just not liking good guys, he’s fine as an antagonist.

I think the movie should have been more about this guy.

Back on Tatooine, we learn that the credit card hasn’t been invented yet in this galaxy far, far away, and the Queen and her entourage don’t have anything they can hock that’ll pay for the replacement ship parts. Plus, the guy they have to buy the parts from, a combination of Shylock, Bluto, and a dragonfly, is immune to Jedi mind tricks. So the Jedi, bearing mystic powers and vast wisdom, decide that their best alternative is to… bet their ship on a race. A pod race, which is a very dangerous sport in which people fly segmented hover-vehicles around a loosely-defined track at high speed while crashing into each other and getting shot at by desert bandits. Definitely sounds like a plan. Here’s a flowchart demonstrating the chain of events that will lead to what the good guys are actually trying to accomplish:

Win pod race bet
>Procure ship parts
>>Fix ship
>>>Fly to Coruscant
>>>>Convince politicians to intervene militarily
>>>>>Actually fight bad guys

Did you know that in Australia, "Jedi" is recognized as an official religion? Did you know that an official religion is based on this?

Their ringer in this is a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave of the not-at-all stereotypical Jewish banker imp-dragonfly thing, who moonlights as a semi-successful pod racer. Qui-Gon thinks that the kid is Jedi material, seeing as how his blood sample shows that he has a lot of the microorganisms that love feeding on Jedi blood. Funny, but I would have thought that testing people who are one with The Force would be done differently than how they test people for HIV. But they also know that Anakin’s a special kid because his slave mother claims that he was immaculately conceived. Nice. I’m not sure if this bit of exposition is to get sex as far away from the PG confines of Star Wars as possible or to pile on the irony that this universe’s Jesus is going to turn into Darth Vader one day. Oh, but he’s just so cute, you can’t imagine him ever being less than darling! He’s so smart in how he fixes up his pod racer! He’s so brave in how he rides around in a flying death trap so he can save up and buy himself and his mom out of slavery! He’s so innocent in how he asks Padme if she’s an angel. Aw, that darling child knows that he likes her, even though she’s at least a decade older than he is, and he’s not at all thinking about how he’s going to boink her as soon as they're both legal.

"Hey, you're right. This drunk test is harder than it looks. Sorry for pullin' you over, bro."

I find that Jake Lloyd blends so seamlessly into the role that I don‘t even think of Anakin as played by an actor who was conjuring the words from a script, and not from the depths of his own heart, just as I continue to find that Jar-Jar Binks blends seamlessly into the background, when he’s not serving as an astute commentator on the events unfolding around him.

Anyway, to make a 90-minute chase sequence short, Anakin wins it. And he buys both the ship parts and his own freedom to go back with Qui-Gon for Jedi training. But the victory budget doesn’t include enough money to buy Mom out of slavery. And apparently they’re never going to find the money to do so, since she’s still a slave in the next movie. It might have been a nice gesture for the Nabooian government to pull a few bucks out of the post office budget and buy Akin’s mom’s freedom, since he did, after all, save their entire civilization. But it’s not like being a slave on a desert planet in the service of a flying grease ball is such a bad fate.

Some members of the production began to think that Lucas' insistence on getting work for Karen Allen was hurting his films.

Just before take-off, the gang gets ambushed by Darth Maul, who smacks light sabers with Qui-Gon for a few seconds before all the good guys get away in their ship. Good idea for the movie to have their imposing villain utterly FAIL his rather simple mission, without even delaying them or killing off some background character.

This movie lacks realism. How, you might ask? In real life, these flying engine parts connected by pink electrical arcs would have Valvoline logos plastered all over them.

Arriving at Coruscant, the all-city planet, the heroes find that the Senate is pretty loath to send a bold military force in to help, which is a shock considering that the Senate is otherwise very reminiscent of the United Nations. Fortunately, they find an ally in Senator Palpatine, Naboo’s representative. The political drama we put up with during this segment of the movie has all the excitement of a vote on the naming of a post office on C-SPAN, with all the complexity of Spike TV. George Lucas really pulls an amazing feat of making his story seem complex and difficult to follow, but actually childishly simple. The short story of it is that Palpatine is elected Chancellor of the Senate (He’s Harry Reid with overt dopiness replaced by covert evilness), but STILL can’t wrangle any help. So they got all those ship parts for nothing. I feel cheated. But they’re going to go back to Naboo anyway, preparing a diplomatic way of telling the resistance fighters that aside from brave Jar-Jar, their reinforcements consist of a child, a teenage girl, a Scot not named William Wallace, and an Irishman not named Rob Roy (although he did play him once, in better times).

I actually like this guy. I think there should have been more of him. Less Natalie Portman, more of Mr. Hemorrhoid.

Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan report to the Jedi Council. And guess what: their meetings are boring too! And that’s despite having not only Yoda--who was far less fun before he went crazy--but Samuel L. Jackson! Samuel M.F.L. Jackson! As a guy named Mace Windu! Mace! But if you think that means you’re going to get Oriental Jedi Shaft chopping up m**********rs with light sabers, think again. You get to see him sit back in a cushy chair and say that Anakin is too old to become a Jedi. And to see him rattled when Qui-Gon declare that he’s going to turn him into a JedI anyway, even though he’s already mentoring Obi-Wan. Disrespectful these young upstarts are, hmmmm. I can see why Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan spend so much time out of the office.

Robin Hood and His Merry... who the hell are these people?

Coming back empty-handed, the good guys return to Naboo and secretly land their ship on the planet’s surface, having already made the fortuitous decision to bring along 8-year-old Anakin, dragging the kid into a war he has nothing to do with, rather than stash him with one of Palpatine’s nephews for a few weeks or something. With the help of the delightfully helpful Jar-Jar, they learn that while the Nabooians are completely under the evil droids’ control, the Gungans have gone into hiding and still have the capability to attack. Padme makes the shocking reveal that she’s actually Queen Amidala herself (them Jedi aren’t the most perceptive folk), and saves the day by completing the first successful negotiations of the movie and securing the Gungans’ help in a counter-attack against the Trade Federation. The battle sequence that follows has four main parts, unfolding simultaneously:

  • The Gungans, led by courageous General Jar-Jar, engage the droid tanks and cheap-ass soldiers on an open field, riding big goofy animals and firing goofy and colorful weapons. They fight for a while. Then they start to lose. General Jar-Jar swallows his well-earned pride and calls a retreat, but too late, and the Gungans are captured.

  • But the distraction allows the other heroes to sneak into the city and immediately start shooting the place up. It’s very clever, and very Jedi-like. They bring Anakin along, then immediately tell him to run and hide when the evil droids actually start shooting back. They fight their way into a hangar, free some fighter pilots, and launch a squadron of ships into outer space…

  • …to shoot up the droids’ control ship, because apparently the droids will completely shut down if they don’t get a signal from the ship. I guess this is the real reason why Verizon keeps dropping my calls. The real pilots aren’t able to put a dent in the ship, but remember when Anakin was told to run and hide? He chose the cockpit of a fighter ship as the ideal place to do so, and he accidentally nudged the “Go into outer space, toward the big thing we’re fighting” button. But it all works out because while he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, he still manages to Mr. Bean his way into a stunning victory, bumbling around until he’s flown into the control ship, blown it up from within, escaped, and saved the world.

  • Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan? They’re not terribly involved with the rest of that stuff. They spot Darth Maul, and decide that the little red-and-black spaz is the biggest threat, and that taking him two-on-one is perfectly honorable. Oh, but Darth has a double-bladed light saber, so it’s all good. They fight their way through a huge room that has massive pillars, suspended platforms, energy beams, force fields, and no discernable purpose. Qui-Gon buys it, but Obi-Wan manages to slice Darth Maul in half in a very non-bloody way, and that’s that.

"Do you want to know how I got these scars? ... We're working on another prequel trilogy about them."

The fact that a likable character has actually died puts a downer on the victory, but not too much of one. Everyone pulls through their grief and joins in a parade down the streets of the Nabooian capital, celebrating their liberation, the newly-forged alliance between the Nabooians and Gungans, and the limitless courage of General Jar-Jar, who was an inspiring, yet sober leader in the darkest hour. Chancellor Palpatine joins in on the celebration, having been promoted to one of the dozens of 18th century government titles they’re just throwing around in this universe. But we know that secretly, he is truly the phantom menace (Duh-duh-DUM!), and that the power the good guys have secured him is going to come back and bite them in the nuts. And dark things definitely lay ahead for young Anakin, who’s now going to be trained by Obi-Wan. In the Jedi trade, not acting, because Jake Lloyd needs none of that.

"Sergeant Bit to General Byte. Status report: very goofy, sir."

As I expressed earlier, this movie is something less than a total artistic success. But I’ll focus on the positive:

Even though he has nothing remotely interesting to say or do, Liam Neeson is a good actor.
Even though they lacked many original designs and the actors didn’t know how to play off them, the computer-generated characters look impressive.
Even though she got upstaged in charisma and natural delivery by Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, and the THX logo, Natalie Portman was very pretty.
Even though he doesn’t swear, say anything profound, or take any action whatsoever, Samuel L. Jackson is most certainly in this movie.
Even though the action scenes are boring and predictable, there are a lot of them.
Even though the movie is completely unwatchable, there’s a lot of it to watch.

"You're too late! With this ancient artifact, my pictures, my calendars, and anything else I hang will be the straightest in the galaxy!"

So there you go, I wrote positive things about The Phantom Menace, and I didn’t even have to mention the lasting gift this movie has made to Western culture by giving us that righteous hero, that paragon of virtue, that emergent everyman champion… Well, yousa know who.