We are no longer dealing with Star Wars as a franchise, a pop culture phenomenon or a repository for modern mythology. It has officially become a game of chicken between George Lucas and his fans. Every time some new permutation (or violation) of the series arrives, the fan base starts swearing like Australian sailors: promising that this time – this time for the love of God – they won’t be suckered into buying it. And every time, they ultimately cave in and funnel more of their hard-earned cash to the giant sucking vortex of Lucasfilm. Lucas, perhaps invoking his hot rod past, knows how to stare down the competition. And as much as they may despise him for it, his increasingly exasperated ranks of fans invariably swerve right into the ditch.
If you need any evidence, check out sales figures for the recent Blu-ray set – devoid of the original editions and containing such blasphemies as Darth Vader’s infamous “NNOOOOOOOO!!!” The frothing pile of nerd hate resulting from such infractions lasted just long enough for the set to hit shelves… at which point it shattered all existing sales records and sent hundreds of millions of dollars rolling into Lucas’s pockets. Now comes another test for the fans: a new version of the much-reviled The Phantom Menace, revamped in 3D and with an accompanying boost to the ticket price as well. The question remains: will audiences finally stay away, as they have always threatened to do? Or will this effort confirm Lucas’s ability to cram whatever he damn well pleases down the sputtering public’s throat?
Devoid of the 3D equation, there’s more to recommend it than its detractors like to admit. I count myself as an ardent defender of the latter-day Star Wars films (my friend Lyda periodically refers to me as “the Jar Jar apologist”), and looking at The Phantom Menace again, I see no real reason to change. Yes, the film has problems – big ones – and I will not deny them. The kid whines. The dialogue grates. Those commentators in the pod race need to be repeatedly punched in whatever passes for the junk in their species. None of it should be excused and all of it drags the film down in ways that few of us could have imagined.
But leaping on its problems does a disservice to very real strengths on display: the ways in which The Phantom Menace broadens and enhances the Star Wars universe rather than detracting from it. For starters, it delivers our first glimpse of the Jedi before their extinction: their role in the galaxy and the means by which they enforce their mandates. This pays off in the film’s extraordinary lightsaber duel, which I have yet to hear any detractor say “boo” about. In three previous movies we watched whoosh-laden throwdowns between old men, untested youths, and an aging cyborg who was king of the hill for so long he had forgotten what a proper challenge looked like. Here, for the first time, we see the Jedi in their prime: three fully trained warrior monks with the Force at their fingertips, trying their hardest to kill each other. It took the breath away and its power has not diminished in the years since its inception.
That fight further highlights additional strengths of The Phantom Menace, such as Lucas’s canny casting choices that counter his obvious inability to relate to actors. Poor Natalie Portman gets eaten alive, but Liam Neeson – with more experience and a better-established onscreen persona at the time – rocks the house as noble Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn. He conveys the right mixture of nobility, tragedy and iconoclasm that the dialogue never could, aided by strong showings from fellow Jedi Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson. (Neither of them have much screen time, though they certainly make the most of it when they do.) The other side of the battle offers some juicy appeal as well. Star Wars never lacked for enticing villains, and while Darth Maul (Ray Park) doesn’t have three lines of dialogue in the whole film, that constitutes an active selling point thanks to Lucas’s tin ear. Park’s physicality and Maul’s iconic look combine for striking effect, even without the support of Ian McDiarmid as his scheming master.
With the figures defined, the universe itself becomes the glorious playground it was always intended to be. The planets and cityscapes hum with their own identity, with every detail meshing elegantly into the greater whole. This fairy-tale cosmos carries a cache of reality that helps us buy into it instantly. We’ve become so accustomed to such sights that they now pass by us unnoticed, but The Phantom Menace never lets technical polish eclipse organic plausibility.
As set-up, the storyline needs to do a great deal of heavy lifting for comparatively little reward. It works best as a footnote to later Star Wars chapters: for example, the way it accentuates Yoda’s bitterness and defeat in Empire with his quiet caution onscreen here. Young Anakin Skywalker actually has more going on in that regard than Jake Lloyd’s wooden performance suggests. Yes, he’s irritating, but that’s kind of the point, and Lucas finds something quietly chilling in the actor’s eyes: something that notes every veiled put-down and stores them away for future restitution. In and of itself, its story is serviceable, but in light of the bigger picture, it becomes absolutely indispensable.
A great deal of The Phantom Menace hits similar high points… which actually makes its serious problems stand out all the more. The corny lines and gratuitous use of Jar Jar grate all the more because they stand amid some truly terrific material. What kind of a masterpiece would we have if, say, Lawrence Kasdan had returned to spruce up the script, or the comic relief actually made people laugh instead of cringe? The bitter disappointment many fans felt is accentuated by the film’s better elements: making them look like part of the problem rather than the assets they truly are. The Phantom Menace is far from perfect, but it still does justice to a saga that, for better or worse, most of us still hold dear to our hearts.
All of this speaks to the film itself, of course, not its use of 3D. Here, my conflicted feelings enter their most potent phase, and encourage me to write this effort off rather than encourage anyone to see it. The 3D looks good, but – as usual – fails to enhance or accentuate the overall experience at all. The Phantom Menace benefits from being up on the big screen for reasons that have nothing to do with a faddish cash grab. The detail becomes more apparent and the immersive experience can be felt more keenly than at home… things that those awful glasses can’t improve upon. In light of that, and the fact that 2D versions don’t seem to be part of the plan, this Jar Jar apologist is inclined to pass it by. You’ll be surprised at how well its assets hold up and how much easier its liabilities slide away as a result. But $15 a ticket? Please George. Some of us have kids to feed… and yours don’t need the money.