Friday, December 2, 2016

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! Yes, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a couple of weeks from debuting, and I cannot wait! I've wanted to review the Star Wars films ever since I started this blog six years ago (I can't believe it's been that long!), and I even tried and failed to do so last year for The Force Awakens. I'm still planning to get all of these reviews out in the next couple of months, they may just be released in a rapid-fire manner. Like the Indiana Jones movies, no other film franchise was as influential to my childhood as Star Wars. If you've read my brief bio on the right side of this page, you know that I would intentionally stay home from school pretending to be sick so I could re-watch The Empire Strikes Back for a fiftieth time. In short, these movies are VERY important to me!

So much mystique and myth surrounded this series as a child, and I remember speculating endlessly with my older brother about the mysterious prequel trilogy that was supposedly coming (we also speculated about the sequel trilogy, but more on that later). I was 12 years old when Episode I was finally released, and true to our tradition, my brother took me to see it on opening day. And HOLY CRAP did I love it as a 12 year old! There were familiar characters I recognized, and the visual effects were mind-blowing! Even Jar-Jar wasn't a problem to me at the time. In fact, I found his goofy antics oddly funny at that age... though I honestly thought his whole androgynous look was a bit off-putting.

But enough about my 12 year-old review. What do I think about it 17 years after its release? Well, I've gone through a few different iterations in my reaction to The Phantom Menace over the years. There have been moments when I hated this film as much as anyone, and then times where I've completely overlooked its flaws. However, going to each of these extremes has eventually settled me into a more neutral position, which I think is a pretty fair perspective for George Lucas's first theatrical return to the Star Wars saga since 1983.

First off, I can't escape some of the nostalgia involved with this film. Despite seeing The Phantom Menace over a dozen times, I can vividly recall my initial reaction to seeing all of these scenes for the first time. Hearing the first mention of "Obi-Wan", seeing the first glimpse of lightsabers, and witnessing the groundbreaking technology on display in this opening scene is permanently implanted on my memory. While our current visual effects have moved far beyond this point, I still appreciate the jump into hyperspace this movie took compared to its contemporaries, and can't fault this opening even now.

On my first viewing, the opening crawl passed in such a blur, that I didn't focus on the dreaded "taxation of trade routes" that has since become the butt of a lot of jokes. This political subplot wasn't a problem for me at the time, and nor is it a problem for me now. I can appreciate the depth of the universe being created by Lucas, and though the story can get a bit convoluted, seeing it as an adult (with the ultimate direction of this prequel trilogy firmly in mind) helps me to give the politics in this movie a pass. Almost all of the new aspects brought into this movie enrich the world and deepen the mythology that I love... with a few major exceptions (midichlorians, Jar Jar Binks, etc.).

A problem I didn't originally have with the movie was the acting. Back then, I didn't pay much attention to line deliveries or believability. My bar for acting was that if they remembered all their lines, they did a good job. Now, however, I have a much more refined eye for the craft... which means I can recognize how dull most of the performances are in this film. Natalie Portman in particular is utterly bland in her role as the teenage Queen of Naboo. One could make the case that she's simply portraying a stately politician who wants to keep her emotions in check. That may be true, but it isn't exactly interesting to watch.

As bad as she is, though, the worst acting by far in this film is Jake Lloyd. I know he's gotten a TON of hate, and I don't want to add to that stink pile. It wasn't entirely his fault. Sure, he wasn't good, but George Lucas was the one who chose him and failed to extract a better performance out of the 9 year-old boy. We see this again and again when actors who are otherwise talented and engaging (Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson, etc.) go completely under-serviced by their director. One of the rare exceptions to this overall lack of acting prowess is Ewan McGregor's performance as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. He only improves as the movie goes on, but he's easily the most charismatic presence in this entire movie.

Another thing I have grown to dislike about The Phantom Menace was Lucas's incessant need to force in numerous characters from the original trilogy. Why is C-3PO here (let alone built by Anakin Skywalker)? Why do we have to give R2-D2 a heroic introduction in the middle of this story? Why is Jaba the Hutt here with Bib Fortuna by his side decades prior to Return of the Jedi? Why do we have to bring Yoda into this movie just to say Anakin is afraid and shouldn't be trained? So many unnecessary call-backs to the original trilogy that interrupt this narrative and distract us from the story on which we should be focusing.

Again, I am a Star Wars fan, and have mostly come to terms with these complaints. However, I have to acknowledge them when taking an objective (and, by its very nature, critical) look at this film. Even though there is plenty to complain about here, there is also a lot of entertainment value. Despite its seeming lack of importance in the story, I still enjoy the podracing scene as well as the Nintendo 64 game it inspired. It's a fun way to show Anakin's abilities and also display the visual effects at their very peak.

The lightsaber scenes are also incredibly fun, and the updated style of fighting was kinetic and a striking improvement over the duels in the original trilogy. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the climactic battle with one of the coolest Star Wars villains ever, Darth Maul. Their battle is an iconic moment of this saga, and the double-bladed lightsaber is still awesome after all these years. I'm happy they haven't gone back to it in the theatrical films, which keeps its appearance here special.

I could go on for pages and pages about this film, so I'm going to force myself to wrap this review up. Despite the low score, I still have a place in my heart for The Phantom Menace, and will undoubtedly watch it many more times in the years to come. This series is beloved as far as I'm concerned, and perhaps that's why I can look past the flaws all over this movie to find the good that adds value to the Star Wars mythology. Thankfully this trilogy will get better, and while I do struggle with the acting and the contrived story elements with unnecessary ties to the original trilogy, I'm still going to give this movie two and a half stars. Only for the least discerning or most hard-core and forgiving of Star Wars fans. Come back next week for my review of Attack of the Clones as I continue my Star Wars retrospective!

STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE is rated PG for sci-fi action/violence