ORBzine - 1999.07 Cinema Movie Reviews

ORBzine - Movie Reviews

by John Kane

Star Wars 1; The Phantom Menace

Get your own copy of the novelisation HERE!

[Spoilers for The Phantom Menace]

I do not normally do movie reviews. I tend to watch movies on television more than I bother going to the cinema, but I could hardly afford to have missed this one. No real science- fiction buff could. Therein, unfortunately, lies the problem; a lot of us are adults.

I am a role-player of the best part of a decade's standing, and I have done a lot of both playing and running in the Star Wars game universe put out under license by West End Games; I have seen the previously released three movies more times than I care to count, played the computer games to death, read some of the novels - Zahn is at least acceptable, almost everyone else would have been no great loss on Alderaan - more to the point, I have far more than enough to cross-reference and set up a more closely absolute standard with; howsoever disputable it is, I think I speak with a reasonable amount of authority when I say that this is one of the most criminally incompetent movies I have ever had the misfortune not to be able to avoid watching.

What does Lucas actually have in Star Wars? Although I hate to admit it - although I am compelled by reality to admit that fortune does occasionally smile on fools - he has one of the great myths of modern times. Swordplay and swashbuckling, romance, good versus evil, all the rest of it. How he got there was admittedly highly artificial - outright intellectual property theft from Akira Kurosawa for one thing, the heinous sin of working to a formula for another; but look at the actors in the first movie. Alec Guinness played Obi-Wan Kenobi - for Christ's sake, one of the top five British actors this century. There was the character of Tarkin - now there was a baddie with his head screwed on. Vader - decisive, menacing, unflappable up to the last. Han Solo, whose being replaced by Jar Jar Binks is comparable to substituting Magrat Garlick for Elric - it does not come off at all.

The second movie was, although not quite up to the same mark - too many silly heroics, and a slug even Clarke has unwound far enough to have a dig at, had some basic connection with reality; at least the bad guys, who ought to have won - what, overwhelming force doesn't count for anything any more? - actually did. Classic plot structure - the heroes always lose the middle act; but it works, after all. (Myself, I would prefer that they lost the last act too, but that's just me and my prejudices in favour of Ol' Doc Strangelove showing through.)

The third movie started to lose it. One word; Ewoks. Silly and stupid. It is deeply unheroic and unmythological for the fate of the galaxy to depend on such short, stupid, gibbering, intrinsically ridiculous plot abominations. The throne - room confrontation only barely redeemed that.

You can see, as he grew increasingly free of the highly competent Japanese influence, the downward trend to sub-Walt Disney take shape. We should have wondered, we should have been afraid, of what he would do on his own. In fact what he has done is take his own creation and piss on it from a great height.

There is much that is good in Star Wars, and I and gaming colleagues have spun it out to somewhere where it - the bones of it at least - stand high comparison, I believe; we made challenging and intelligent plots, full of high politics, heavy weapons and alien oddity; devious, intricate adventure. It says much for our collective temperament that we played from the other side - as servants of the Empire - more often than not. (Even special assault stormtroopers, once; didn't really work. However much we tried to play dumb brainwashed grunts, we were still smarter than the average Jedi...)

There is also much that is bad in Star Wars. Any fiction that tells you not to think, just feel, is in it's own small way a crime against civilisation. It pays little or no account to the problems of living in that way, in that situation - the Tarkin Doctrine is the only nod actual politics gets; remember, all of the 'how does it work?' analysis belongs to outsiders, people like me - fans of the universe looking in - not to George Lucas. It is also far more juvenile than a story this archetypal ought to be. There are children's stories designed to keep children happy and quiet and out of their parents' hair, and children's stories designed to help them grow up. Star Wars has so much potential as one of the latter, it's infuriating to see it so badly misused.

The average mental age of the characters in this movie is approximately seven. There is outrageous stupidity from everyone who should be in positions where stupidity as seen on film is a sure route to an early grave. The Trade Federation, despite having some cool tanks, is run by playground bullies; jerking on the end of Palpatine's string. Palpatine and Yoda are the only really credible characters, really; if Darth Maul - I can barely remember a single line of dialogue from him, if indeed there ever were any - was capable of anything other than swordfighting, he might even be dangerous.

Idiot plots abound. Jar Jar - there were accusations of racism, because he speaks in jivetalk; an abomination in itself. Even so, you would have to have a singularly well-chipped shoulder to think so - but it is perfectly possible that is exactly what Lucas had in mind. He is capable of a picanninny character, I'm sure. There seem to be no barriers of art, taste or continuity separating him from it. The Gungan is a sub-Steve Martin slapstick character; the kind for whom everything goes right by accident. Rincewind. My god, My god. If this is the Republic I want no part of it, this cartoon, this sub-kindergarten moron.

Anakin Skywalker's virgin birth - no shit - is one of the stupidest, most tasteless, most corny cinema ideas I have heard in a very long time. The podrace - the centrepiece- is also deeply flawed. It doesn't work like that. Anyone who's ever taken part in a car chase or been chased could tell you that. There's a metaphor for life if you like; it's almost impossible to overtake, and backbreakingly hard to play catch-up. None of which suits Lucas's whiffle vision. How can I put it? This boy did not grow up into Darth Vader. The seeds of it simply are not there. Lucas treats him far too much like the kind of boy hero he would otherwise be. His family circumstance - it sucks. Unnecessary, brutal, only there to set up the Ben Hur rip-off podrace - and crippling. I'm not sure what of life's convulsions would be required to turn a victim of oppression, a mummy's boy, into a Lord of the Sith, but I am damned sure Lucas cannot carry it off. The boy is a mechanical genius; Vader not only was not but felt some contempt for all such. No connection between the two.

Lucas's utter incompetence as a writer of dialogue comes up throughout the film; no-one seems to have anything intelligent, witty or pithy to say. Queen Amidala - and when is Lucas going to get this monarchy-democracy thing straight in his head, because he screws it up here as usual? - is a spoilt brat of no redeeming worth; bit of a heroine and handy with a Blaster maybe, but so totally conned by Palpatine, who cares? The speeches in the Republic central chamber - and just tell me no-one's ever sabotaged one of those floaters - are so laughably bad they could actually have come from Congress. Yoda, at least, is himself. The rest of the Jedi Council appear spineless and unfit for their high position. Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn turns in a far better actual performance than seems required, but isn't given much to work with.

On the whole, this movie falls so far short of what I or any of the gamers, still less a professional like Timothy Zahn or Edward Bolme, could have made it be that I am sorely tempted to turn to the Dark Side now and have done with it. George Lucas should be spaced for this abomination.

Get your own copy of the novelisation HERE!

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