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.

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