"May the force be with you."
Imagine someone who's never seen or heard about "Star Wars" before coming up to you and asking you what "Phantom Menace" was about and what kind of movie it was like. It would mostly likely be difficult to describe creatures fighting with atomic gumballs, a little boy who is allowed to race "pods" at hundreds of miles per hour, and villains who are never entirely introduced without some misgivings. But this is "The Phantom Menace," the prequel sequel to what is perhaps the most successful science fiction franchise in the history of the western hemisphere. This is LucasFilms moviemaking, where they rely on mindboggling effects, breathtaking graphics, and moviegoers' partiality to win hearts.
This comes from me, X-Phile extraordinaire who has never been especially inebriated by the "Star Wars" phenomenon. I am no "'Star Wars' groupie," as a friend attempted to label me a few days ago. I have no Skywalker or Han Solo action figures. I never dressed up as Princess Leia during Halloween. I never wanted to be Princess Leia. I don't own the trilogy. I don't remember most of the trilogy. I did not see "Phantom Menace" the first day it came out. But nonetheless, the characters in "Star Wars" have become as familiar to me as they have become to the general populace, not to mention the millions of "Star Wars" fans out there. R2D2, C3PO, ewoks, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, Jabba the Hut. Oft-used terminology. To sum it all up, I find it extremely difficult not to extol this movie with high enthusiasm and let that be the end of it.
The idea that the "complete" story will be told in three sequels is enticing, ingenious, but unfortunately, the integrity of "Phantom" was sacrificed because of the same reason. Those of you who were under the delusion that we would find out how little Anakin becomes evil will be disappointed. Most of the characters were given little treatment, with the primary focus being on Anakin. At the end of the movie, we know little about Qui Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan, or even Queen Amidala (except that she is an extremely dedicated queen). These are all characters that I would've liked to spent more time with. Darth Maul, who makes an interesting villain, only appeared when he was required to look intimidating or to be the enemy of the good forces. He makes an appearance in only two to three fantastic "duels" but is killed off too swiftly, too easily. Goodbye, painted face. The primary villain in the movie is thus wasted. The Federation, it seems, is entirely subject to the control of the hooded hologram, and the hologram's purpose remains unknown (a story to be told in Episode II, I suppose.)
Most of the action scenes are filled with typical Lucasian improbabilities. The Naboo troops never seem to take aim when they fire, and yet they rarely suffer even a bruise. The ultimate improbability comes when the movie pulls an "Independence Day": oh no, we can't disable their shields, here comes little Anakin who can do it just by flying into the ships interior and flying randomly, thus enabling a swift victory on ground. Of course I realize that all of these events are essential for the movie to continue, and they weren't quite so annoying given the context. This is "Star Wars," after all. The cheesy dialogue is no rumor, folks; it seems great directors are incapable of writing sensible dialogue (see Chris Carter's monologues or James Cameron's "Titanic"). Any angst I felt during the Anakin/mom parting scene dissipated with the soap opera-ish writing. In contrast, the Qui Gon Jinn death scene was more effective because it had more matter, and less art. Again, the cheesiness seems oddly in place in the scheme of things. Nobody goes to this movie expecting "The English Patient."
Most annoying character of the year goes to--yep, you guessed it--Jar-Jar. He would be comical, yes, maybe even funny (though I find most of the humor forced), if he hadn't been used so much and if his jokes were more aptly-placed. Portman, McGregor and Neeson were all reasonably satisfying in their roles: Portman successfully portrayed the different qualities of the queen all-dolled up, the decoy queen, and the gentle "handmaiden" queen. She looked for all the world a 14 year-old teenager forced to take on the responsibilities of a planet yet strong enough to shoulder it. Neeson was also convincing as the wise Jedi Knight, and his "moves" were none too shabby for a man his age; McGregor was often reduced to saying "Yes, master," but when the occasion called for it he put an admirable amount of intensity into Obi-wan Kenobi, foreshadowing the future that is to come. All three were aptly cast. Jake Lloyd is extremely adorable, but sometimes the artificiality of his acting comes through; but I suppose that's okay, because 12 year-olds don't have a tremendous degree of depth anyhow. In any case he compensates with his innocence and charm, which is all the more poignant given the fact that Anakin turns into the monstrous Darth Vader. Most of the other minor characters (for example, Anakin's mother and the captain), however, seemed lifeless.
I think most will agree that the most successful elements of the film were its artwork and effects. Lucas combined his powerful vision with state-of-the-art technology and the best artists in the trade to produce a world more breathtaking than even the previous "Star Wars" trilogy. Tattooine excites a degree of nostalgia; and the underwater city, the Capitol, and the Naboo city are all works of arts on their own. Each city offers its share of curious creatures: the amphibians, the oddballs at the Tattooine marketplace, the creatures of the Jedi Council (I especially got a kick out of Mr. Conehead). The dress and language seem to be successful combinations of different world cultures -- I did not have a big problem with the accents as others do. I think it is mere coincidence that many of the creatures ended up sounding like some ethnic groups on this planet. After all, if an actor is to emulate an accent, he's got to model it after something he knows. It just goes to show the diversity that exists in the "Star Wars" universe. Some people also find the CGI art to be to unrealistic, but this also wasn't a problem with me -- this is a fantasy, and how can you make a fantasy world look realistic? It would take away the surreal quality of it.
While I am mindful of the flaws this film has (plot, characterization, acting), I admit that for the most part they went unnoticed during the 2 hours and some minutes I was in the theater (except Jar Jar -- you just can't tune him out). I was simply too much in awe that I was watching "Star Wars," that I had a chance to participate in this event like my parent's generation had been able to do with the first three "Star Wars" movies. Seeing Portman and Mcgregor I couldn't help but see shades of young Hamill, Harrison, and Fisher. However, I am not saying the flaws are excusable; I make no attempt to disguise the fact that I am extremely biased when it comes to "Star Wars." It's "Star Wars." Basically it comes down to this: if you are as enchanted with the universe that Lucas singlehandedly created as I am, you will enjoy this film; if you go in as a casual viewer, you'd enjoy the film as well; but if you watch the movie as a critic, you probably won't enjoy the movie. I say let go for a while. Let the force take over for a bit.
It's "Star Wars."
(I will say that again and again, and I am sure its meaning will not escape anyone who is in tune with pop culture to any extent. When you see the movie in this light, it becomes not just a movie but part of a whole, an event that symbolizes the creation of an entire new world. A continuation (precursor?) of the saga. A chance for two generations to connect in the collective worship of a phenomenon. As mentioned in the beginning, this film relies heavily on the success of its predecessors to engage the audience and to make them care for its characters. I'd say, for me at least, that they've succeeded. I think I've found the ideal fantasy heros for my generation.)
It's light and magic, sound and effects, heroes and princesses, science fiction and drama, the allegorical good and evil. And y'know? It's funny how, in the end, no matter what misgivings and cynicism I might have had about the film, it all added up to one neat little ball of elation and belief.
It's "Star Wars."
"There's something about that boy."
Rating: A- (First viewing, 5/21/99)
*Thanks to Catherine for the "amphibians" idea, and Spero for the character names.