Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

 

Liam Neeson

Ewan McGregor

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstar

 

How does one even begin to review this movie? It’s like reviewing the ABC’s or the Green Lantern oath or the Konami up up down down etc code. Star Wars is an integral part of our culture, language, idioms, and even philosophy, whatever apocryphal horrors inflicted on the franchise by its very maker, which sounds like an oxymoron and it is. I will endeavor to view it as a first-comer. Who knows what I’ll find.

The film captures you from the beginning with the 20 Century Fox fanfare and then explodes into the inimitable John Williams Star Wars theme from which the cool font heads into the distance and the written prologue scrolls up serial style from bottom to top. This alone convinces the viewer that this film is large scale and not to be taken lightly. This is serious stuff. After waiting 16 years since the last film, we can only hope this film will be too.

The film begins with a feeling that the writers have jumped the shark. Immediately we have Jedi Knights before us come to the Planet of Naboo, which is being blockaded by the Trade Federation, an organization led by a tall, thin, green Viceroy with Tang Dynasty like attire, a Japanese accent and red bug eyes. He has the might of a mechanical droid army behind him despite his polite manner of speaking. The exact details of the blockade are lost on the viewer but then, one of writer-director George Lucas’ best traits so far has been not to explain everything but rather, in the manner of his idol Akira Kurosawa’s film Hidden Fortress, to let us figure things out with the most unlikely of characters as our guides. There’s a later cursory remark about taxation of trade routes but for the time being, there’s a droid army above a seemingly peaceful, planet with Greco-Roman style architecture.

The Jedi are Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). They evoke the solemn and pacific nature of the Jedi we’ve seen so far in the Star Wars Saga. They look a bit bored too. The Viceroy confers via the 3D Video Communicator which has previously projected various leaders onto many a control panel of warships in the Original Trilogy. A Darth Sidious, looking and sounding like a smooth skinned Emperor, ie Darth Vader’s future master, tells the Trade Federation commanders to begin landing their troops after offhandedly ordering them to waste the two Jedi. So much for negotiating. There is no moral ambivalence with these guys, just taking orders from some random evil guy.

Things get hot and our Jedi demonstrate their lightsaber wielding powers and introduce the “force push” which knocks things down (for good?). They also run pretty fast, in a flash, actually. Their jumping skills are quite extraordinary too. Eventually they make their way down to the planet and get caught in a stampede of wildlife escaping the war machine deployment. Enter Jar-Jar Binks. Way back in Episode VI, there was a plan for the moon of Endor to be populated by Wookies who would make true Han Solo’s old promise about pulling people’s arms off when angry. Instead, we got Ewoks, which seemed inspired by marketing more than by plot necessity. They really haven’t stood up well to the test of time despite getting their own movie. Why, oh, why do we get another corny character which seems to have been created to charm kids but has only served to cause face-palms and wrinkle-inducing winces? He is a Gungun and speaks with a dialect which was probably intended to be a charming variation of the Jamaican Patois, but instead comes off as grating to the ear in the extreme. Neeson and McGregor seem to have all the light stolen from their eyes when Jar-Jar is around. Everyone does, actually, even his own people.

Events bring new characters into the foreground, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman most of the time, I think?), adorned in a different garment and makeup every six or seven minutes. These are almost all lovely from Japanese kimonos seemingly from the Heian period to veiled numbers befitting a Sui Dynasty Empress to fluffy hoop skirts right out of a Tim Burton film (Helena Bonham Carter would be wearing it, I think). The Queen is in her teens and elected by the people. Talk about a Constitutional Democracy. Her protector, Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) is a cool guy with a no-nonsense attitude and shrewd attention to strategy. He seems destined for Han Solo or Lando Calrissian status but alas, he is underused. He seems to be the only genuine character we’ve met aside from the Queen and her handmaiden Padme (Natalie Portman). Further events bring all to Tatooine where they are hard pressed to find parts to repair their vehicle. Along the way, we meet none other than R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), the iconic little astromech droid synonymous with Star Wars. Imagine, he was sitting in a Nubian cruiser waiting to have his fellow droids all blasted away before his eye and claim his fame. My heartstrings were tugged at seeing him again.

On Tatooine, we meet Watto (voiced by Andy Secombe), a Toydarian junk dealer and happy owner of two slaves, the Skywalker family Shmi and Anakin. He’s more of what we were looking for in a Star Wars movie, cut from the same cloth as Greedo, and our favorite Corellian smuggler. He flits around on little wings and snarls like Danny DeVito as the Penguin. It’s nice to have an absolute bastard on board after all the pussy-footing and pandering to kids brought on by the Gungun-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Watching the film after all these years, I found myself compelled by the podrace, which I thought was a general waste of time and show of extravagance the first time around. It’s set up rather nicely and it’s pleasant to see little Anakin (Jake Lloyd) all happy about racing and fixing stuff. The scenes between him and his mother really worked for me as well. I felt this time around, that there was much more at stake than simply advancing the plot.

We get a few glimpses of Darth Sidious’ hilariously named Darth Maul, who has a face tattoo which may just make Mike Tyson jealous. He has a few lines voiced by Peter Serafinowicz used to great parody in the Brit Comedy shows Spaced and Black Books. He’s pretty badass otherwise with a fierce expression and a double lightsaber staff which features in the finale of this series of set pieces. I would have liked to see him a bit better developed as a character. There is a three way scene of field battle, space battle, and lightsaber battle in which energy doors of dubious purpose and creation separate the Jedi. The contrived end of all three battles is big on special effects but light on significance. One character of particular delight is Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who subtly pulls the strings behind the scenes to ensure the dark future the series is set to take eventually.

I haven’t mentioned the soundtrack, which is excellent, perhaps among John Williams’ best. He’s had to musicologically create themes from which it could be argued the original themes of the OT were born. My favorite is Anakin’s theme which is a work of genius. Its melody is played by the innocent sounding flute which meanders in darker and murkier territory before resolving in a cadence that mirrors the Imperial March Theme. It’s a Grammy and Academy Award worthy composition although it was only lauded one of these.

Fans of the Star Wars franchise had 16 years to wait for this movie and countless books, theories, online fan fiction and even lore written atop Star Wars CCG cards all made us anticipate a production which would impossibly solve all of our questions, answer our hopes and dreams, and give us back that old feeling we experienced when watching Star Wars for the first time. It could be argued that the task was doomed from the start, but, whatever we were expecting, it wasn’t a continuation of the devolution which began when Wookies were replaced with Ewoks. There’s plenty to watch here but it is weak sauce when compared with the original. The big themes are gone and what’s left seems to be mostly purposeless extravagance. More fun than not purposeless extravagance, though.

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