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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review
By Roman Martel
May 20, 1999
Well, here I am reviewing the newest Star Wars movie. And let me get one thing straight from the get go. I am a huge Star Wars fan. I am also a huge film fan in general, and I am able to be both at the same time. Is this an easy task... well for some it isn't. Star Wars has its share of supporters and its share of people who wish it were never created. I can see both points of view, but I am a fan none the less. To me Star Wars is one of the best examples of story telling in cinema. Its story is so basic and yet works on so many levels it really is a wonder and an inspiration to me. To me the best example of story telling in the Star Wars saga is The Empire Strikes Back. It takes our characters and moves the plot forward. It includes moments of action, comedy, romance, and of course heartache. It takes almost every character and turns their world upside down (for good and bad). It moves everyone toward the end and leaves the audience gasping for more. All parts of the film work together to make it cinematic pleasure at its best. All in all it is as close to a perfect Star Wars movie as you can get. And yet it still has some faults; the lack of a clear timeline, no real reason for C3PO to be around (other than comic relief), and in the Special Edition the adding of a yell (and a bad one at that) to Luke's self inflicted plummet to the Cloud City core. But even these faults can be forgiven (no movie is perfect) and so Empire gets an A in my book.
So the question here is what did I think of Phantom Menace (yes I am getting to that!!)?
Well if you don't know the story here it is in six sentences. The greedy Trade Federation has blockaded the peaceful planet of Naboo. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon-Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, are sent to settle the dispute. Of course things turn out to be more complicated than they first appeared, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan manage to rescue Queen Amidala from a uncertain fate. The two then help the Queen in her quest to save her planet. In the process they meet Anakin Skywalker, a boy with a powerful connection to the force and face a dangerous Sith Apprentice, Darth Maul. Thus the saga is set in motion to be continued and concluded in a total of six episodes.
This movie is worthy of a place in the Star Wars cannon and yet it seems like a weaker entry. I certainly liked Empire Strikes Back much better, and I think I like A New Hope a little better as well. This doesn't mean I didn't like the movie. I was thoroughly entertained the whole time and feel that it's definitely worth the price of admission. But this movie does have a couple of flaws, and they are large ones. You've got a choppy feeling first hour, which keeps you distanced from the characters. Then there is the problem of the distracting, and often times, goofy accents for some of the aliens. These just seem to pull you out of the Star Wars universe instead of enhance it.
But this movie makes up for it with wonderful sequences that instantly become Star Wars classic moments, like the Pod Race and the end Sabre Duel. Beyond that you also have wonderful sound design by Ben Burtt, an almost perfect score by John Williams and some of the most realistically crafted worlds in the Star Wars universe to date.
When viewed on its own Phantom Menace seems a bit wobbly and almost off balance, but when put in the context of the existing trilogy the movie shines out. Hopefully when the future installments arrive this movie will do its part to add to the whole Star Wars saga.
Well for my in depth review, I'm gonna give some stuff away so beware, incoming spoilers may fly from my lips. I'll start first with the main problems with the Phantom Menace and then talk about its strong points. For me the beginning of a story is always the hardest thing to write. Once I get past that hurtle I can usually let the characters and story pull itself along, but that initial starting point is always the hardest part. I think that Phantom Menace suffers a bit from this basic problem. How do you start the epic tale of the Skywalker family, and the impact they have on the galaxy and the force. It's a huge daunting monster that seems to stare you down and burn you alive before you even start. But George Lucas did what he does best, and surprised me. He starts quietly. The movie doesn't begin with a raging war, but with a simple dispute to be handled by our two Jedi.
This would have worked fine except we have a problem here. This is a different galaxy than what we are used to in the classic trilogy. There is no Empire or Rebellion, there are many Jedi, there is a Republic and a Senate that we knew nothing of before, there is so much to explain before the story can truly begin that it becomes a dizzying series of edits and exposition. You are not left enough time to get to know our Jedi heroes, the Queen or even the Trade Federation. By the end of the film you are able to know the main characters, but you still don't have a clear idea why the Trade Federation tried what they did in the first place or why they thought they could get away with it.
I think part of the problem is that this universe is much more complicated an intricate than the one in the classic Trilogy. I'm not complaining, that's a good thing, but the more complicated things get the more background you have to give. Unfortunately, that just doesn't happen. Instead the story moves along developing further and further, while I felt left behind still trying to get my bearings. The other problem is the focus on the story and the lack of showing us more about the characters at the same time. We get enough information to work with, but we can't truly care about them.
Then in contrast to this there is a moment in the first hour that has nothing to do with anything... the submarine ride through the core. Sure the scene looked good, but it wasn't needed. All we needed to see was the submarine leaving the Gungan city, and then later see the submarine rising to the surface. We didn't learn anything useful in the scene (except why Jar-Jar was banished) and it was filled with hollow danger, mostly because we don't know the characters to care about them yet. If the scene had developed the characters at all, then it would have been fine, but it didn't even do that. We just learned more of what we already knew, Qui-Gon is calm, Jar-Jar is clumsy and flighty, Obi-Wan is the competent apprentice. We knew all that from the first moments with these characters.
Once we hit Tatooine we slow down enough to get to know our characters and then we start getting into the story, but it takes an hour to get to this point... a little too long.
What's a possible solution? Extending the beginning by another hour or so. We would get enough info to develop the characters, and the situations so we get a good grasp on the coming moments of the movie. However, this movie is already long (roughly two and half-hours), and making it a three hour plus movie might turn people off. Also, how important is this conflict to the rest of the trilogy, probably not too much. Remember the Star Wars saga is about the Skywalker family. The next episodes will be more about Anakin and his place in this universe, while this film just serves to get all the main people together (much the way the first movie got all the mains together, while the following films developed plot and character). So, too much set up may not be necessary to the whole of the series.
Now on to the accents in this film. I already suspect the reason for these accents and can't truly find a better way to do it, but it is still a problem. Several characters in the film have very identifiable accents. Instead of adding to the movie they only served to draw me out of the experience. I kept thinking, why does Watto sound like he was about to offer Qui-Gon some tasty pizza pie, and why did I feel like I was in Chinatown whenever we were on the Trade Federation ship. I kept getting grounded in the theatre instead of in the film.
What to do? Well the obvious solution would be to have the aliens speak their native languages and subtitle them. Good idea, it would definitely add to the film. Unfortunately, most casual watchers of movies HATE subtitles and when the movie would end up half subtitled you'd have lots of very unhappy customers. Another solution would be to have the aliens speak their native language and then have it translated for us by a droid or machine of some kind. However this could also prove distracting... My final idea is just too much work to do, but would have been effective as well. Invent languages for our aliens and then figure out what the accents of those languages would be like when applied to English and then apply them to the actors. Now if that isn't a headache I don't know what is. Given the choices I think George did what he could. Too bad it was a lose, lose situation.
There were some other minor problems that I found in the film, but many of these I feel (and trust in George and The Force) will be addressed at a later date. The biggest problem I had was the explanation of The Force and how one's connection to it is effected by the (I don't think I'm spelling this right so please forgive me) Mitichlorians. I know that this was needed to show how strong Anakin's connection to the force was, but it also served to take away some of the mysticism that makes Star Wars, well, Star Wars. There were other ways to explain Anakin's connection to the force and they involve more dialogue or more scenes of Anakin doing the incredible. We merely get a glimpse of his coming power and it's not enough. Unfortunately it feels like the Mitichlorians were a plot device that could have been solved in a different way. But I also have a feeling that we will learn more about these mysterious microscopic beings in future installments of the series. With those problems the movie ran into some stumbling blocks but it still manages to shine in several instances. Everyone will tell you that the Pod Race and the end Sabre duel are worth seeing the film for and they would be right. But there are other reasons as well.
The sound in this movie is stunning. Not just the use of channels of sound but the actual design of the sound themselves. Ben Burtt is truly a master of his art and this movie may be one of his best yet. We get new ships, vehicles, blasters, droids, aliens and worlds and with them a whole host of new sounds that make the worlds very, very real. But with them are mixed some familiar sounds that ground us in the Star Wars universe (lightsabres are a great example). It is amazing how much the sound adds to the experience of any film, and Star Wars has a whole host of sounds that are unique to it and its world. And of course the sound design has influenced countless other movies (and anime, Tenchi anyone?). I have heard "borrowed" speederbike, landspeeder, blaster, and of course lightsabres sounds in tons of movies. So it comes as no surprise that this film contains some great new work by Burtt and team. John Williams has done a similar and no less remarkable job in his crafting of the score for the Phantom Menace. We are introduced to new themes and musical motifs that could only fit in the Star Wars universe. From the stirring "Duel of the Fates" to the quiet and foreshadowing of Anakin's theme, and the dark and mysterious music that accompanies Darth Maul to the appropriately goofy theme for Jar-Jar this score not only works with the film, but is the lifeblood of the movie. It's truly amazing how much the film depends on the movie and vice versa (this is true for the whole trilogy). Remove the score and movie would definitely lose its power. Of course Williams also uses hints of his tried and true Star Wars work. You've got Yoda's Theme, the Opening theme, the Emperor's Theme, Obi-Wan's theme, and of course the hint of Darth Vader's theme. The combination is nothing short of perfect for the film and to me it works just as well as the previous scores did. If only the CD had a more comprehensive selection of the music in the film I would be a happy man (only an hour of the two hours plus score....grrrrrr).
Of course I also have to mention the technology used to create the worlds in the film. This is some of the best work I've seen yet out of ILM. They have worked wonders and created three different worlds each with their own feel, look, and atmosphere. I was impressed on how far they were able to push the "digital backlot" idea. Yet this film also shows a great deal of restraint (for the most part) on their side as well. I never felt overwhelmed by the special effects. In fact I think that they made the worlds that much better because of the use of the effects to create our environments. And keep in mind that almost all the environments in this film would have been damn near impossible to create without a "digital backlot". The only scene that I felt was a little too much was our submarine ride. There are only so many cool giant fish you can see before it become redundant. But other than that this film shows us what is possible in the world of computer-assisted effects and how far films can now go. ILM has shown us that now a director is only limited by their imagination, and that's something many directors seem to have plenty of.
Those were the key high points of the film to me, and the rest of the elements worked just fine. The acting and script were just what I've come to expect from a Star Wars movie. I wasn't disappointed in anyone's performance, I was only disappointed in the lack of development of characters. This is not the actors fault. Check out the acting next time you see it, you'll see that everyone seems to have a depth of character in them, there are elements that hint at more, we are just never shown it. I can only fault the editing (hmmm...isn't that George's department as well?)
And what of Jar-Jar. Well to tell you the truth, I was so prepared to loathe him that I found him funny. Now of course there were scenes that went a bit too far and would have been funny if I was between the ages of six and twelve. But overall I enjoyed him and felt that he wasn't in the movie too much or too little, just enough Jar-Jar. If he comes back in further films, I won't be unhappy, but if he doesn't come back I won't be unhappy either.
And what of our villain? I've heard so many people say that there wasn't enough Darth Maul. And to a point they are right. He's intriguing enough to want to know more, but I like the mystery around him. Remember also that his is not the focal point of the story. He is only a bit part, a tool to move the story. (Again, this may be the movies key problem. Everything is a tool to move the story, and the result is a mechanical film).
So would I recommend the film? Yes. It's a blast and you'll probably have fun while watching it. But if you examine it on a emotional level you will find problems. This film has the problem that it may depend too much on its coming sequels to really work on it's own. I don't think the other Star Wars films had that problem. So go see it if you haven't seen it already, and if you did see it and disliked it, you might want to see it again. I've talked to many fans that hated it on the first viewing and really enjoyed it the second time. Too much hype and expectation, perhaps. Remember George is only human and I don't know how many Mitichlorians he has in him but even Jedis make mistakes. Just don't do it again, George :-)