May The First Be With You: The Phantom Menace

James Proclaims (4)

star_wars_episode_1_the_phantom_menace

Thus, begins my mission to write about Star Wars for days, if not weeks, on end.

And where better to begin than Episode One?

That would seem like the obvious place to start.

Except for two important reasons:

  1. As most people know, it wasn’t even close to being the first Star Wars film to be made.
  2. It’s not a very good film.

Allow me to deal with both of those points.

With regards to it not being the first film to be made, I’m working on the assumption that everyone knows that and I’ve decided to deal with the nine episodes of the ‘Skywalker Saga’ before looking at other movies and spin-offs. And I’m doing that in episodic order rather than release date order for the very simple reason that it naturally allows me to write about the very first Star Wars film on May the fourth. Which as everyone knows is Star Wars Day.

With regards the second point, if I restricted myself to only writing about the good Star Wars movies, then I’d have to rule out quite a few. Indeed, based on the various opinions that seem to float around the internet, I could perhaps find myself only writing about two movies. Which doesn’t seem in the spirit of this endeavour at all.

And while I acknowledge that ‘The Phantom Menace’ is objectively not a very good movie, I still quite like it.

No, I love it.

I love all things Star Wars, therefore I love this.

But also, I really do love it.

However, it is a bad film and if you’ve never seen Star Wars before then probably best not to start with this one.

Even though it is technically supposed to be the first episode.

Nonetheless, it is the movie I’m writing about today and why I love such a bad film will hopefully become apparent as we go on. Before we go any further though, I should probably issue that whole ‘spoiler alert’ thing that people do when writing about films.

Spoiler Alert – There is a more than reasonable chance that I will reveal some plot points in the subsequent text. Whether this will genuinely spoil the movie for you is anyone’s guess. It’s such a bad film that there is every chance that nothing I could write here would make the viewing experience worse. Also, it came out in 1999 so really you should have seen it by now if you were ever going to bother watching it. Although if you didn’t bother watching it then no-one would judge you. It’s a really bad film.

And so, on to ‘The Phantom Menace’.

‘The Phantom Menace!’

Even the title annoyed people.

Before the movie came out, back before we knew what a colossal disappointment this film was going to be, there were mutterings about the title.

‘The Phantom Menace’? Really? Is that the best George Lucas could come with after eighteen years?

Oh, those halcyon days when all we were annoyed by was the title.

Because this movie was a big deal.

Arguably no Star Wars movie has ever been this anticipated. Possibly ‘Return of the Jedi’ might have been. But in truth, however big Star Wars was in 1981, it has become bigger. And this was the first Star Wars movie to be released since ‘Return of the Jedi’ (if we don’t count the Ewok films. Which I do. But more about them in a couple of weeks). Maybe 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’ was awaited with similar anticipation, but I suspect the disappointment surrounding the prequels quelled expectations a little. Plus, the gap had only been ten years between movies at that point.

No, I’m pretty sure that the expectation surrounding the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ was massive. I doubt any movie has ever been quite so overhyped as ‘Episode One’ was.

So, when it came out, and it was a bit rubbish, the vitriol of the response was all the more acute.

And perhaps the vitriol was a little unfair with the benefit of hindsight.

Because it is a bad movie as a whole, but there are some good bits.

No, really there are.

More than anything it is a movie of missed opportunities.

It could have been so much better.

The reality is that George Lucas had a bit too much control over ‘The Phantom Menace’. Why wouldn’t he? Not only did he bring us the original trilogy, but he was also the brains behind Indiana Jones (another legacy he would go on to tarnish but not until 2008). Before ‘The Phantom Menace’ the man could do no wrong.

But in those earlier films, he collaborated with other people. Notably for the original trilogy, script doctors were employed to improve the dialogue he wrote. Because George Lucas cannot write dialogue. As not only ‘The Phantom Menace’ but the ensuing prequel movies confirmed.

Also, he got a bit overexcited about CGI. We’d already seen this when he decided to ‘improve’ the original trilogy by unnecessarily inserting CGI creatures (and some other changes that we’ll get onto when I write about those movies) but he really went to town on the prequel trilogy. To the extent that they look like cartoons rather than live action movies at times.

But this could all be forgiven if the plot had been any good.

And for ‘The Phantom Menace’ it cannot be overstated how dull the plot is.

It revolves around a trade dispute.

A trade dispute!

In Star Wars!

Ok there are more nefarious dealings going on in the background, all controlled by our friend, the actual ‘phantom menace’ whose identity was a secret to no-one who had seen the original trilogy.

But it was still a bit dull.

Nonetheless, a boring storyline wasn’t even perceived as Lucas’ biggest crime. That fury was reserved for one character who irritated like few others can.

And his name was Jar Jar Binks.

I get why people hated Jar Jar. I didn’t love him. He was beyond annoying. And far too much screen time was given to him and his ‘exploits’ and too little to a character that had been heavily utilised in the promotion of the movie and who has gone on to become a fan favourite in spite of hardly being in the movie at all – one Darth Maul.

But to blame one stupid character for this film’s failings is to miss the point. And in any case, if you blame Jar Jar Binks, then you really are blaming the wrong annoying character.

Star Wars films have always had irritating characters (C3PO and the Ewoks spring to mind). Comedy is also not among Lucas’ arsenal and whenever he has introduced ‘comic relief’ it has only ever served as a distraction and irritation. It never actually made anyone laugh. When Star Wars has succeeded with comic relief it was usually because someone else was at the helm and/or the aforementioned script doctors had made the dialogue wittier.

Jar Jar Binks perhaps still stands head and shoulders above all the others as the worst and most misjudged attempt at comic relief in cinematic history, but if he was the only problem there would be no problem. People would have got over the gungan if the rest of the movie worked.

And it doesn’t.

Really, what Lucas actually got spectacularly wrong was a failure to acknowledge that a core section of the movie’s audience were not going to be the kids he appeared to be pitching this towards but adults who loved the original movies. People who probably by this point remembered the finer details of the early films in greater detail that even he did. And narratively he made some huge mistakes.

What George Lucas needed was someone to tell him when he was getting it wrong.

“George, mate, you know those midi-chlorian things you’ve come up with?”

“Yes,”

“The things that apparently mean you can do a bloodtest to see how ‘strong the force’ is with someone?”

“Yes, I know. Great idea eh?”

“No George, totally rubbish.”

“Oh”

“Also George, while we’re on the subject, why would Obi Wan Kenobi already know the results of Yoda’s blood test? Wouldn’t that information be highly confidential?”

“Nope, you’re right. Midi-chlorians are rubbish – I’ll take them out. The movie will work just as well without them. Probably better in fact.”

Those conversations needed to happen a lot more than they apparently did.

But the worst thing about the movie was Darth Vader himself. Or as he’s known in this abomination, ‘Little Anni’.

Why the decision was taken to cast a ten-year-old as the young Anakin Skywalker is anyone’s guess. It makes no sense narratively and massively undermines the original trilogy. If ‘Little Anni’ is deemed to be already too old to be trained to be a Jedi, then why wasn’t Luke too old in the original trilogy (I know Yoda says he is too old in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ but Obi Wan certainly has no qualms about his age in the first movie)? He was obviously significantly older when he started his training so a precedent had already been set in the Star Wars mythology that roughly sixteen years old was about right for Jedi-training (admittedly it also sets the rather worrying precedent that killing your father is the only way to complete that training…). It would have made far more sense to have had an older Anakin, who was already established as petulant and angry. ‘Little Anni’ is far too innocent for us to believe that he would eventually become cinema’s ultimate bad guy. Plus, he is really annoying.

I feel sorry for Jake Lloyd, the actor who played the part. He must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when he was cast in Star Wars and to play the young Darth Vader of all things. But it was wildly misjudged and from what I’ve read, the impact on Lloyd’s life post-Star Wars, given the hatred directed towards his portrayal, was nothing short of horrendous. It wasn’t his fault was it? He was, to be fair to him, only ten.

That casting decision is really what undermines the whole movie more than anything else. Plus the whole ‘immaculate conception’ thing. Utterly unnecessary. There are ways to explain it that kind of fit with other narrative points within the saga as a whole but it would have been better if Anakin had just had a father. We’d all have been more comfortable with that.

So why do I love this movie?

Nostalgia really. I remember when it came out, and it was a pretty rubbish time in my life. A new Star Wars film always perks me up, but this was the first new Star Wars film in eighteen years (again not counting the Ewok movies. Which I do. But I shouldn’t) and I didn’t really have much else going on. I was properly excited about this. And I enjoyed all the hype. I knew, deep down, that the movie could never really meet my expectations, but I loved all the build-up.

For that, I’ll always be grateful to ‘The Phantom Menace’ and watching it now still brings back all of those feelings, in much the same way that a song from a particular era, whether you loved it or not, can evoke the emotions of that time. ‘The Phantom Menace’ makes me feel weirdly optimistic about life. I can only imagine how I’d feel if it was any good.

Plus, as I’ve said before, there really are some good bits. Darth Maul was massively underused, but he was really cool. And Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman are all good actors who really do the best with what they’re given (which isn’t much admittedly). And the whole thing looks fantastic. Better when there is less CGI, but there are some spectacular scenes in this movie. And the final lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and the two Jedi is easily the best lightsaber fight in any Star Wars movie. I’d have bought tickets to see the film for that bit of it alone.

Also the double-bladed lightsaber – just awesome. Probably quite impractical as a weapon in reality but it looked amazing.

 

Best character – Darth Maul

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Not in the movie enough, and stupidly killed off at the end (I know that according to ‘canon’ he survives and comes back in ‘The Clone Wars’ cartoon and also makes an inexplicable cameo in one of the spinoff movies, but as far as the main saga is concerned he dies here. And he is cut in half so he should be dead). Ray Park is a fantastic martial artist and Darth Maul moves and looks like a total bad-ass. However much people hate this movie, most people love Darth Maul.

Worst Character – Anakin Skywalker

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It pains me to say it but Anakin, not Jar Jar, is why this movie is not good. Without wishing to repeat what I’ve already said, if he’d been older it could have made the movie much better and also stopped the unnecessary and somewhat cruel anger aimed at a real life ten year old boy.

Unsung hero – Captain Tarpals

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Not all the gungans were idiots and bless him, Captain Tarpals seemed like a pretty nice guy who was half decent at his job. And he had to answer to the newly promoted ‘General’ Jar Jar Binks in the final battle, which was a total slap in the face. Frankly, he conducted himself with aplomb. Deserved far more credit than he ever got.

 

And that pretty much concludes my views on ‘The Phantom Menace’. And I didn’t even mention the Battle Droids. Which were also rubbish.

You’d imagine it could only get better from here really.

But you’d be wrong. ‘The Phantom Menace’ is not the worst thing ever produced in the name of Star Wars.

But it probably is comfortably the worst of the nine ‘episodes’ that make up the ‘Skywalker Saga’.

Although ‘Attack of the Clones’ was only a bit better really. Tune in tomorrow to find out what I thought of that one.

Spoiler alert – I’ll be saying it’s a bad film, but I still love it.