By:Robert T. Trate Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Geek Life is a weekly look at what is happening in the Geek Culture. Movies, Comics, Books, Video Games and TV Shows encompass more than just release dates and reviews. This week the Geek Life asks: Is The Phantom Menace the best of the Prequels?
There isn’t as much of a hype machine this time around for Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Perhaps it hasn’t kicked in yet but with less than a month until its 3D release, I expected to see something more than a few vintage/ new Phantom Menace toys. Over the holidays I had a chance to sit and chat with a few of my Geek buddies. The talk turned to movies and would any of us see The Phantom Menace in 3D? It was during that particular conversation that I realized all three of these gentlemen and I camped out all day and waited for the midnight premiere of The Phantom Menace. We were Geek brothers with the very same battle scars and yet we still all had a great love for Star Wars. Their opinions were very much in alignment about the film but what I asked them next was, is The Phantom Menace the best of the prequels?
Let me start immediately by saying that this is not a George Lucas bash. Let us just look at the three movies that are the prequels to the original Star Wars Trilogy as a collection of films, themselves. I was astounded that many of my friends preferred Revenge of the Sith to Return of the Jedi. That Jake Lloyd’s singular performance as Anakin Skywalker is far worse than two turns by Hayden Christensen. Thankfully, we all agreed that John Williams’ music is the one true highlight of the prequels.
Personally, I believe that The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequels, which is difficult to write, say, and even read. The memories that come flying back are all about the hype. Everything from that very first trailer on Entertainment Tonight, the midnight toy sale, and even the rain lightly falling outside the theater prompting management to let us in early. Yet this isn’t about waxing nostalgia about seeing the ripe apple first only to learn it was rotten inside. No. It’s a look at the movies.
The Phantom Menace is flawed but not on the level of the other two. Where the second and third movies fail is in the love story. The love story between Anakin and Padme is practically non-existent in The Phantom Menace. In Episodes 2 and 3 it is mishandled by a combination of dialogue, poor directing, and acting which makes all of those scenes unbearable. When it was announced that Hayden Christensen was cast as Anakin Skywalker, no one knew who he was. After Life as a House was released and Christensen was nominated for a Golden Globe for his dark performance of a troubled son, he suddenly looked perfect. Natalie Portman is, well, Natalie Portman so there really wasn’t going to be a problem there (see V For Vendetta, Garden State and Black Swan). In each and every one of their scenes, the two feel awkward, uncaring, and almost robotic towards one another. It was as if someone said “act like you are in love, now act like it” right before they stepped in front of the camera. Their dialogue doesn’t really help these actors either. For all of Anakin’s angst and jealousy over two films, his love for her barely feels present. If it weren’t for a few background Jedi, Portman’s Padme would be the only girl in the world. This forces us to believe Anakin’s love for her even more. She has a soothing presence, looks great in a black strapless dress, and can kick ass in her own right, so what’s not to like? There is just nothing there between them. Watch here:
Oddly enough the Clone Wars macro series, by Genndy Tartakovsky, delivers 30 seconds of this love story and it buries all of the scenes from Attack of the Clones (start watching at 3:01). The looks, though animated, between them are of love and longing and stronger than anything I ever saw between two actors on a stage.
The Phantom Menace is also a complete story on its own where the other two are not. Obviously it is the first installment of a bigger piece but much like its older brother, A New Hope (episode 4), the story concludes. Where Attack of the Clones falters is that it tries to tell a love story between two people on the eve of war. Both have opposing view points and allegiances but a traumatic event in their past ties them together. Exactly what is that traumatic event again? A pod race? A Trade Federation blockade? I fail to see the back bone to their story. Where is the human element that reaches out to the audience and makes it identifiable or even relatable? Throughout the Attack of the Clones the story takes tangents and lacks cohesiveness. Obi-Wan is trying to solve the mystery of the Clones and the Padme assignation attempt, where Anakin is hell bent on revenge for the death of his mother in between falling in love. The second act is very crucial in a three act play. Star Wars has a pedigree of delivering the greatest second act in what might be the greatest second installment ever. Attack of the Clones pulls us all over the place and before we know it Yoda has to come in to save the day after the biggest green screen battle ever.
Finally, The Phantom Menace delivers what a Star Wars prequel should have. In growing up with Star Wars, I loved the back story of Anakin Skywalker and the Clone Wars as told to us by Obi-Wan (see here at 2:48).
The look he gives, not only to Luke but the audience, indicates that there is more to this simple story. That look ignited hours if not days of daydreaming of the time of the old republic. The Phantom Menace delivers on those daydreams. We see Jedi at the height of their power and influence. The Jedi council, the simple day in and day out journey for the Jedi, and of course that incredible final three-way duel delivered in spades.
The villains here also feel like a threat. Darth Maul is not only terrifying to look at but a terror with a double bladed lightsaber. He is also both a pawn and tool used by something much worse just waiting in the wings. In Attack of the Clones, Count Dooku is the villain at the forefront of the story but even the great Christopher Lee himself can’t compare to a Sci-fi devil that has a chainsaw sounding lightsaber. Revenge of the Sith does have one spectacular fight in it and that is between Yoda and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. It is not between Obi-Wan and Anakin. To this day I struggle with why they were fighting. Anakin was obviously over the edge but Obi-Wan was both friend, mentor, and brother to him. In what way had the dark side taken him over? In Return of the Jedi we witness how Luke’s anger and rage (in protection of his sister) give him the strength to defeat Vader. Revenge of the Sith has a quick few lies from Palpatine and the promise of some incredible new power prompting Anakin to drink the cool aid. Should we go back and see Anakin’s slaughter of the Sand People as his turn to the dark side? I would buy it if it weren’t for the sweet wedding and love making to his wife.
The Phantom Menace is almost upon us, again. In a years time I doubt many of us will rush out to see Attack of the Clones in 3D or Revenge of the Sith. The odd thing is that, if Lucas keeps his promise, in 2016 the line will undoubtedly be wrapped around the block to see A New Hope in 3D.