Review: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars, huh? the Chinese-American check-out girl commented as I showed her the posters I had selected and dug deep into my wallet for the requisite number of dollars. Seen the movie yet?
I have indeed, I replied. I came all the way from the UK to see it, and I only managed to get in last night. Have you seen it?
Sure, she smiled, I got tickets for it on the opening night.
Some people have all the luck, I thought. So, what did you think of it?
Too much Jar-Jar and not enough Darth Maul, she replied. What did you think of it?
There are so many things I wanted to say to her. I had been waiting 16 years to see that film - more than half my life - although that could be said of most people of my age. If people can be defined by the most momentous cultural change of their youth, then we are the Star Wars generation.
I confess, many months ago I had doubts about the movie. After all, it is the most-awaited, most-hyped film in history, so there is no way it could possibly live up to our expectations. Right? My fears were allayed when I saw the trailer - but until I saw the film itself I did not know if my expectations would be fulfilled.
When the Star Wars logo appears on screen it takes your breath away, and as the plot introduction scrolls upwards into the distance you feel restored to your youth. The story so far is simple: the villainous Trade Federation has blockaded the peaceful planet of Naboo, and two Jedi [Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor] have been sent to mediate.
The first ten minutes of the film are incredibly densely plotted. Apparently the movie was cut down from an original 4 hours long - and it shows. There is no subtlety, just a series of events in quick succession in order to bring about the main plot.
The story itself shares many elements with Return of the Jedi [ROTJ], and there is the compulsory homage to the late Akiro Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. Of course, I can't tell you what the homage is because that would spoil the film for you. Instead, I shall limit myself to information that has already been revealed in the trailer.
The heroes visit 3 main planets, as in the other Star Wars films, and encounter a wide variety of nonhuman species. However, it must be said that the CGI creatures in this film are less interesting, original and convincing than the rubber ones in the other films - anyone who has seen the Special Editions [now apparently disowned by Lucas!] will know what I mean.
Naturally enough there is a climactic lightsaber battle, and although this is an extremely exciting battle [choreographed by martial arts expert Ray Park, who plays Darth Maul] it has very little relevance to the rest of the film. In the trailer Darth Maul is set up as a major villain; in the film itself he is in about four scenes and has roughly that many lines. He pops up whenever it is convenient for Liam and Ewan to fight someone, and otherwise plays no real part in the film.
In terms of acting there is relatively little in the film to impress. Ewan McGregor, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, manages a great impersonation of Alec Guinness' voice, but as a character he has very little to do and sits back to let Qui-Gonn [Liam Neeson] take over for most of the film. Neeson, the Academy Award nominee who has recently announced himself so disenchanted with the medium of celluloid that he will limit himself to theatre from now on, allows his talent to be woefully underused. However, since the film is focused on the SPFX as much as anything this hardly matters.
Speaking of SPFX, I must state the painfully obvious and declare that Jar-Jar Binks [Ahmed best], the tall green rabbit-eared thing, is a completely gratuitous character. In the original films R2D2 and C3PO provided the comic relief, so why could they not be used for it here? They both pop up, albeit briefly - but their cameo introductions are of the kind that gets American audiences to clap and cheer, and they create the only truly funny scene in the entire film.
Natalie Portman [Queen Amidala] is, well, seventeen - a teenager actually portrayed by someone of that age, unlike the twentysomethings that typically abound in such roles. However, she has relatively little to do, and is nothing much but a pretty face. An extremely pretty face, admittedly, but that is all.
Jake Lloyd [Anakin Skywalker] was apparently a pain in the neck while filming, and he certainly proves irritating on-screen. The dialogue does not help much - and Anakin is not given the worst of it by any measure. This is not the snappy, quotable laugh it up, fuzzball banter of the previous films - this is rough, unpolished and unconvincing language that seems forced even in the mouths of experienced actors.
Anakin's big scene is the pod race, highlighted in the movie's trailer. Lloyd has very little to do in this sequence - it is mostly CGI, and although entertaining it does beg the question, did the idea of releasing a Pod Race computer game occur to Lucas BEFORE or AFTER he wrote the race into the film?
So what did I say to the checkout girl? Well, what could I say?
Too much Jar-Jar and not enough Darth Maul, I agreed. There was no better way to put it. The hard edge of the movie had been worn away by a kind of gibbering childishness that has no merit whatsoever.
But I know that I for one am going to see Phantom Menace again!
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