Film reviews

The Phantom Menace (1999).

Darth Maul pic 1.

At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.”

Let’s establish something straight away. There are certain things about The Phantom Menace that are just atrociously bad no matter what way you look at it.

One of those things is dialogue, which is not only written badly but delivered in the same bland style by every character. With the monk-like Jedi, who are taught to keep their emotions under control, one can maybe let it pass – but they lose their sense of uniqueness when you have Natalie Portman as Padme and even a nine year old Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd, who we’ll be getting to later) also talking like they do.

It’s telling that this film’s best character is one who only has a few lines of dialogue in one scene. Darth Maul is a badass for this very reason – in his case, the lack of character development only adds to his shadowy mystique. Everyone else in this movie wasn’t so fortunate.

Liam Neeson, when he heard about the chance to play a Jedi knight in a new Star Wars film (the first in a trilogy of prequels intended to fill in the backstory of iconic characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, as well as show what led to the fall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire), reportedly accepted the role without first looking at George Lucas’ script… which may hint at one of the main reasons why things went south with the finished product.

You had a writer-director at the helm who was responsible for conceiving what became one of the biggest franchises in cinema history. His record for making successful movies spoke for itself; and who was really going to turn down the chance to be involved in the hotly anticipated next instalment? Moreover, who was going to stand up and tell him some of his ideas sucked when he seemed so childishly excited about the whole thing?

This documentary about the film’s production sums up why we got all the bad – and admittedly some good – parts of The Phantom Menace. Coming alongside Lucas for this film after working with him on the similarly polarising Star Wars special editions was producer Rick McCallum, who was clearly as excited and passionate about the project as its original creator.

McCallum’s favoured area was CGI, and his extensive work on The Phantom Menace went some way to ushering in the new era of digital filmmaking that is so prevalent today. If one is to praise the film for anything they must surely start here – though it’s debatable whether it has aged well overall.

Many shots in the film are so clearly dominated by CGI, and acting performances suffer as a result of often being placed in front of a blue screen rather than in real environments. In time The Phantom Menace risks looking increasingly dated, whereas the original trilogy for the most part is still enjoyed by many today. The reason for that perhaps is; while the original trilogy was certainly also impressive in its use of special effects for the time, it relied more so on strong characters and an engaging script to connect with its audience. Here we don’t find any such luxuries.

Indeed this film is at least significant within the context of cinema history in that, among other digital advances, it featured the first fully computer generated character: Jar Jar Binks. Many people have criticised this infamous character extensively – and their issues are largely justified. Sure, you rarely hear anyone complaining about Jar Jar because of a terribly unconvincing design. On a technical level the character is undeniably impressive. The problems most people had pertained not to this aspect, but to pretty much everything else about him.

When I recently viewed the film again for this review, the first moment at which it loses me completely is that same moment when Jar Jar first appears on screen. Master Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, who along with his ‘padawan’ Obi-Wan Kenobi has just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, is running for his life from the droid army that has just touched down in the forests of Naboo. The tone is reasonably well set in this opening sequence – while the dialogue may be dry, it is (as I’ve alluded to) more forgivable when spoken by a Jedi.

Seeing Jar Jar standing there like a goof with his hands in the air, unable to decipher Qui-Gon’s simple command to ‘get out of the way’ while making all sorts of embarrassing noises, I find my feelings change instantly. Jar Jar Binks, each time he unceremoniously appears in any given scene, turns me into an angry viewer – because if I’m being totally honest I think everything about his character is utter trash, garbage, outside of his aesthetic value as a piece of CGI. And that is a very shallow defence.

I realise his main purpose was to appeal to the kids. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like him. Perhaps some adults may say they find him funny; that Lucas’ cringeworthy attempt at ‘comic relief’ actually worked on them here – though I dare any grown man with a sense of self respect to admit to that.

Jar Jar’s presence offsets the tone for the entire film. One could argue; if the rest of this movie had been superb, most audiences may have been prepared to look past their gripes with this irritating, child-friendly ‘gungan’. But I’m not sure this film was even capable of being good once George Lucas had uttered the line “Jar Jar is the key to all this” (check the documentary). Lucas was right – Jar Jar was the key… to why The Phantom Menace sucked so badly in the eyes of so many people.

In a way the Jar Jar character perfectly sums up how and where it all went wrong. During production of this film, George Lucas came across as a big child; one with lots of unquestionable influence over others. While that is no bad thing in itself – Hollywood could do with more independently minded directors like him – I think it had a large part to do with why he thought his sillier ideas for The Phantom Menace were good, and why they all made it into the finished product.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not closed-minded towards this film’s appeal. Indeed from my own experience I can say yes, it is actually rather good from the perspective of younger eyes.

When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, I was at the prime age for it, and I still remember enjoying my time watching it at the cinema. As a nine year old I was blown away by the action sequences; the Jedi seemed cool as hell; I ended up owning the action figures and played the video game based on this film. Even buying and reading the novelisation was pretty exciting.

Back then I glossed over trade disputes, political meanderings and any related dialogue in favour of cool lightsaber battles and an exhilarating pod race; things that people often point to in defence of this movie. And make no mistake: the climactic lightsaber fight in The Phantom Menace is hands down the best one in the entire saga – on a technical if not emotional level – though looking back at the pod race, I can’t help but think that particular scene is overrated (every shot is from the right, often panning right to left as it follows the pods, and as a viewer the scene quickly becomes bland when you realise that).

As fun as they are, what these well executed set-pieces highlight is how poorly paced the rest of the film is. Watching it now feels like a grind before Darth Maul’s appearance, as his appearance signifies something’s going to happen soon; his first fight with Qui-Gon is pretty damn thrilling, though far too brief. It does leave you wanting more, but honestly, if the second lightsaber fight towards the end wasn’t there to look forward to, it’d be somewhat of a struggle to keep watching all the way through on repeat viewings.

Almost every scene is filled with exposition, and not the exciting kind. When we first see the Jedi council on Coruscant, over an hour into the film, we discover their main purpose is to sit in a circle and talk. They discuss Anakin Skywalker and the return of the Sith in a calm, collected manner.

There’s no urgency in any of these performances, and I think that can be attributed more to the director than his actors. You get a strong sense that they’re all following a tightly laid out process, with little room for improvisation or manoeuvre. Lucas knew exactly what he wanted to achieve on paper and everyone followed it almost too rigidly in practice. Ewan McGregor, though reaction to his casting as Obi-Wan is mixed overall, is one of the few actors in the movie to show some much-needed urgency in his performance towards the end.

Then, of course, we have Jake Lloyd as a young Anakin, who perhaps would have become known as the most irritating aspect of this movie if not for Jar Jar taking the spotlight. This is the ‘boy who will become Darth Vader’, whose origin story was among the main attractions of these prequel films. The biggest criticism of his performance is, again, attributable to the dialogue fed to him by his director – dialogue which simply doesn’t fit. No normal nine year old boy would talk like that.

Furthermore, seeing a nine year old Anakin leaving his life as a slave on Tatooine to become a Jedi creates a slight continuity issue (I say ‘slight’ because there are bigger ones to be found elsewhere in this prequel trilogy). In the original Star Wars, both Luke’s uncle and an older Obi-Wan speak of his father as if he was a young rogue-like man who followed Obi-Wan off on a journey to the stars. His uncle never approved of this way of life, feeling Luke’s father should perhaps have stayed and helped out on the farm. There was never any mention of him being a slave.

In The Phantom Menace, we get little indication from his portrayal that Anakin is set to become a villainous tyrant in the future, aside from what Master Yoda describes as ‘fear of losing his mother’ (which apparently will lead to anger and then to hate); a mother who he has had no problem leaving behind to start training as a Jedi on the other side of the galaxy. This fear never comes across from Anakin himself and we once again have to rely on being told rather than shown what is supposed to be a vital element of his character.

Also, having spent his childhood as a slave on a desert planet, a far more humbling upbringing than the privileged, detached surroundings of the Jedi temple, one would think Anakin is in a better position to become a thoughtful, kind, understanding Jedi than most?

But let’s say it’s true – that Anakin is at risk of ‘turning to the dark side’ due to his inner fears. Are we to believe then, that the Jedi do not have some sort of counselling service to help their younger members deal with such issues? That a Jedi counsel full of wise sages, one of whom has 900 years experience, couldn’t come up with ideas for combating an issue that they themselves acknowledge could eventually lead to evil?

And then, that the Jedi would just approve his training anyway at the end of the film (presumably because the plot needed to move forward), having seen firsthand the dangerous untapped emotions in him? Their policy of simply avoiding the issue is a terrible example to set.

This whole situation was nonsensical, and it is indicative of a plot driven by the fixed destination George Lucas saw ahead of him, rather than organically developing in its own right. Numerous parts of this film don’t make narrative sense (and its sequels would be worse when it comes to this kind of thing) unless you come to it knowing yourself where it’s heading and therefore justifying it in the same way Lucas must have done when he was writing it.

Now, here’s the thing; for all the criticisms I’ve thrown at this film, I don’t hate it. I don’t even consider it ‘bad’ overall. Part of me still looks forward to watching it even today. My reasons for this are slightly unconventional.

First, I kind of like that The Phantom Menace inverted certain rules that most other mainstream films follow. For example, there is no real central protagonist in this movie. And the Jedi, the perceived good guys, are vastly overpowered compared to their flimsy adversaries – at least until they come up against Darth Maul.

Speaking of which, the Sith are the underdogs in this trilogy. The roles we saw in the original films, in which the Rebel Alliance was up against the oppressive, unstoppable Galactic Empire, are here reversed: the Jedi knights and the Republic are the major force in the galaxy, and it is the Sith planning to overthrow them.

Second, I must admit to actually (almost) enjoying the political backdrop against which this film is set. In large part this can be attributed to Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine. Even at my young age when I first watched this movie he quickly became my favourite actor, based on his performances in The Phantom Menace and its two sequels. Also, on that first viewing – and even up until I saw Attack of the Clones – I didn’t connect the dots that this guy was the same evil Emperor from Return of the Jedi. This part of the plot, with Palpatine’s subtle manipulations in the political background, I thought was executed well, though much of that rested on McDiarmid’s capable shoulders (undoubtedly the best performance in the film). People can say the focus on politics was boring – but I think that was the entire point from the perspective of a Sith.

That awkward dialogue, the terrible pacing… these things contribute to what I’d say is essentially one of the most unconventional mainstream films ever released. For all of the criticisms you could justifiably throw at George Lucas, his outright boldness in making this film the way he did is something one can almost respect – at least until you remember… Jar Jar was the key to all this.

5 / 10

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