The Unifying Force

28 Jun

It’s rare to find a film as famous, yet universally hated, as 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Even now, the mere mention of the film is enough to attract derision from critics and something akin to pure hate from fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why has it attracted so much criticism, and is this justified? Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One? Well, since I always like to at least start my posts by saying something positive, let’s look at ‘The Light Side’. First off there was the trailer, which seemed to promise everything that we ever craved from a new Star Wars film (it’s a shame they had to blow it by adding 132 minutes of padding!). Then there are the backdrops – the grandeur of Theed and the Art Deco wonder of Coruscant. There is the CGI in the first journey to the underwater city – a fine fantasy moment that is truly breathtaking. On a girly note, there is Queen Amidala’s geisha get-up and a range of nice frocks. Lastly, two words: Darth Maul. Unfortunately, we now have to look at ‘The Dark Side’.

Things do not start well. In place of the Imperial Star Destroyer-sized sense of wonder of A New Hope’s opening, you get an apologetic pan of a spaceship with all the cosmic majesty of the 8:15 train to Tunbridge Wells. Then there is the lack of pace and tension. Where Star Wars hurled us into a life or death situation from the get-go, The Phantom Menace basically starts with two all-powerful Jedi passing the time, being offered refreshments by the cringing Neimoidians. Lucas does not seem to realise that having such an imbalance between the heroes and villains creates a lack of tension and it does not help that, with their dreadful cod-Chinese accents, the Neimoidians are a fairly offensive racial stereotype to boot. Then there is the fact that Lucas, for some inexplicable reason, decided to film a space opera about the ‘taxation of outlying trade routes’. A script that contains the words committees, commissions, procedures, debates, delegations, negotiations, ratifications and nominations is overwhelming in its mundanity. With A New Hope we had the wonder of fairy tale; with The Phantom Menace we have the churning of bureaucracy. While the actor can hardly be blamed, Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jinn is just plain dull. We needed a wizard – Anthony Hopkins in The Mask of Zorro – but instead we were given a walking, talking fortune cookie. Call the script doctor George!

Apart from the magnificent Darth Maul, the villains in The Phantom Menace are a crushing disappointment after the compelling evil of Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Emperor Palpatine. Heroes tend to be defined by their foes and having weedy Destroyer Droids and feeble Neimoidians is hardly an encouraging start. Then we come to Jar Jar Binks – Oh dear. Lucas is not a funny man, he’s a well-meaning uncle invading your party with his sock puppets, and it really shows with the crude insertion of this ‘comic’ character into the film. The original Star Wars trilogy got the balance between comedy and tension just right with Chewie, Artoo and Threepio, who were endearing, amusing and had the good grace to remain largely in the background. The trouble with Jar Jar Binks is that he is thrust to the fore and rammed down the unfortunate audiences’ collective throats at every opportunity. Another example of Lucas’s inept handling of comedy comes in the form of the Padme/Amidala deception, which any competent writer could have had an immense amount of fun with, creating endless comedy romance out of the double identities of a commoner and royal. By the way, George, a ‘Queen’ isn’t usually elected…

There are several things in The Phantom Menace which just make no sense at all and/or are totally unnecessary. I mean, why have that ‘midichlorian’ nonsense? It’s like someone performing an autopsy on Santa Claus. The Force is interesting when it is an unknowable, undefinable thing – it quickly loses this aura when you start to dissect it with silly cod-scientific explanations. Ditto Shmi Skywalker’s ‘virgin birth’. But the gaping hole in The Phantom Menace is its ostensible star, Mannequin Skywalker himself, Jake Lloyd. Again, the actor cannot possibly bear the full brunt of the criticism for the daft script that he is given but, on any analysis, Lloyd is not up to the challenge of carrying a major Hollywood film. Just look at Haley Joel Osment’s performance in The Sixth Sense, released the same year with a young star of about the same age, to see how far Lloyd falls short. Anakin should have been an angry brat, briefly succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force, not a jolly, heroic young moppet. Although all of these criticisms and more have been put to Lucas on several occasions, his stock response time and time again is that The Phantom Menace was ‘only a kids’ film’. Yes, but so was Jason and the Argonauts, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Antz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Railway Children, all of which managed to have comedy, tragedy, compelling stories, witty scripts and fine acting. Just like a sweet old film called Star Wars: A New Hope.

25 Responses to “The Unifying Force”

  1. Nathan June 28, 2012 at 4:10 am #

    Queens aren’t usually elected, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be. The Holy Roman Emperors were elected, after all.

    • ashsilverlock June 28, 2012 at 7:38 am #

      Very true, but if you’re going to have an elected monarchy, at least have one that makes sense. No 14 year old was ever ‘elected’ to rule the Holy Roman Empire!

  2. Mike Sirota June 28, 2012 at 4:36 am #

    I’ve seen worse. Losing Jar Jar Binks would’ve helped. But “The Empire Strikes Back” will always be my favorite.

  3. Noelle Campbell June 28, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    “Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One?” It proves, without a doubt, that George Lucas has been insane for years and no one will tell him or commit him.

  4. aahabershaw June 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Generally agreed. Here’s my take on how to repair the movie, if interested:

  5. blissflower1969 June 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    I didn’t mind Menace when it first came out, mainly because I was just hungry for something new on the Star Wars front. That said, I still like the original trilogy better (and of course Empire is my favorite- anything else is sacrilege) and when I have my series screening for Star Wars Day next year, I’m doing them in Machete Order.

  6. LillianSkye June 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    You’re such a fantastic writer!!! I really enjoyed this article! No Sith could ever be as menacing or as terrifing as the Lord Vader we grew up with…
    Fellow Fan,
    Lillian Skye

  7. jamiebmusings June 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on jbcultureshock and commented:
    I didn’t really have any problems with this movie, but it is an interesting perspective and she brings up some good points. I actually enjoyed seeing Anakin as a enthusiastic, heroic child. It shows just how easily circumstances can inspire drastic changes in us. I wrote a piece about this and how Anakin is a wonderful example of a modern tragic hero. Link to come shortly.. What do you all think of The Phantom Menace? Great movie or Mistake?

  8. akellyanderson June 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    There is no way that the film could have lived up to the hype and expectations. However, for me, this movie was like Star Wars: Intergalactic C-SPAN. Part of the issue is that George Lucas is not actually a great writer–idea guy, you bet. But his dialogue is terrible and he seems to have this fear of grittiness in his characters and settings (which is hard to do considering how much time they spend on a planet covered in sand). I would even go so far as to propose that the advances in technology worked against him. Watching the original films, there is this unpolished feel to them. Mos Eisley looks like a real bar. Everything in Menace is so glossy that it becomes flat, including the performances.

  9. Jenny Morris June 28, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

    Oh, my favorite topic. Haha. My kids LOVE this movie. But they didn’t see A New Hope first. They love Jar Jar and the speed races. So in all aspects Lucas accomplished what he wanted. The kids love it. But I totally agree with you on all your points. I would also like to throw in that in general they didn’t do a great job filling the iconic Anakin role. It was a huge thing to live up to, and neither actor filled Darth’s shoes. But I still love the movies because they are part of the whole. Lucky for George, New Hope came first.

  10. Angelya June 29, 2012 at 1:17 am #

    To be honest, I really enjoyed the movie when I first saw it *hides from the rotten tomatoes* I think it was the fact that it was a new chapter in the Star Wars story and I loved it from a lore perspective! It was only later after watching it several more times that I realised just how terrible the dialogue, the acting, the storyline was.. pretty much everything except the scenery, really.

    Great article, you made me laugh out loud at work, thanks xD

  11. Grace June 29, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    I think that The Phantom Menace was definitely the best of the prequels, mostly because Anakin isn’t so whiny and emo yet. The biggest problem with the prequels is that the old movies were too much to live up to. Any modern adaptation won’t have the same charm.

  12. Satis June 30, 2012 at 2:38 am #

    Oh, sigh…it is what it is, and today it is a piece of popular media history. I don’t fault George; it was his vision, and he’s entitled to it. What I do fault, largely, is the script. The best actors in the world (Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, for example) can’t work miracles with shoddy dialogue. It almost feels as though George was trying too hard to capture and bottle the magic of the original trilogy…and in doing so, created tinned spam. If you look past the dialogue and the script and the overabundance of political details, the story at heart is excellent – lost innocence and shattered love – and completes the story in the sense that it is now Anakin’s redemption, from start to finish.

    Good story – poor storytelling.

    • ashsilverlock July 2, 2012 at 6:59 am #

      Definitely – good basic story but poorly executed

  13. moderndayruth July 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

    What an indepth review, i did enjoy reading!

  14. Tapdancing Lexicon July 1, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    I am an enormous Star Wars fan (I have over seventy of the novels) and I always feel like enormous failure as a Star Wars fan because I always enjoy the Phantom Menace. It’s cute.

    I am a poor excuse for a geek.

    • chroniclesofcovent January 31, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

      Well said, Ash! You were right on point with everything! This post makes me want to get back into blogging. I’ve long had an idea of how I would have written the Star Wars Prequels, working with Lucas’ content, but cutting out what was good, fixing pacing and leaving far more room to build the chemistry of Anakin and Obi-Wan, so Anakin’s turn to the dark side would have actually felt more tragic. You’ve inspired me to get that post done one of these days!

      BTW, love your comment Tapdancing Lexicon. I would agree the Phantom Menace was cute. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot to hate, but I found myself looking past more issues since Anakin at that time was just a boy and did not come ripping out of his mom’s womb with a lightsaber. I have a lot more I could say about it, but I’ll say it in a blog. Attack of the Clones actually rubbed me more wrong than the Phantom Menace, but after seeing the complete botch of all three prequels I realized that only Darth Maul should have been salvaged from the Phantom Menace plot. Potential, there was so much potential. Sigh. Buttoning my lips. More on that later…

  15. misspetrachikasa January 3, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    Reblogged this on The Mishaps & Escapes of the Afro Jedi.


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