As Bad As You Thought?: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

There are times when I think George Lucas feeds off the cries of pain he creates over the internet, but it was not always that bad. There was a time at the end of the 90’s where the original trilogy had been rereleased on VHS and a new generation of fans were swinging light sabers, and when it became known that he was working on a brand new trilogy of Star Wars films. To this day I remember the first trailer; the cool battle scenes, Jedis in action, and to top it all off a new character who was black and red and wielded a DOUBLE BLADED LIGHT SABER!!!!!!! Which made the end product that hit the movie screens that much worse; rather than embracing the fun and adventure that made the first three films so memorable and entertaining, Lucas gave us a really long toy commercial in the form of a bunch of meetings. Since then Lucas has even gone back to change to original films to fit his whims, using digital technology. People have argued that since they are his films he can do what he wished; but the way I see it great classic films are works of art; nobody wanted Salvador Dali to paint a picture called Clocks Getting Really Hot Before They Melt and they sure don’t want him going back with computers to add Big Bird into the background of The Persistence of Memory. Often seen as the beginning of the downfall of the Star Wars franchise, it is time to look back and ask if Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is as bad as you thought.

To be honest after two weeks, of reviewing movies that opened with Kristen Stewart moping and being melodramatic about something this feels nice. The movie opens with the now familiar text crawl through space, but instead of getting the audience psyched about an intergalactic war, it informs them of a political dispute between two groups they have never heard of before resulting in a blockade to set up a trade embargo. But fear not a pair of Jedi are on their way where they will surely go to town on the bad guys, whomever they may be, except the two Jedi are going to negotiate, man this plot is already brimming with good ole’ Star Wars fun. I wonder how. I still don’t see why, other than being told by Lucas and Co., that the Trade Federation is the big bad in all this; maybe they set up a blockade because Naboo is shipping out drugs and weapons to terrorists, making the Trade Federation the good guys. To introduce a new generation  to the joys of Star Wars I can think of about a gazillion better openings. Remember the way the original began? Two giant space ships shooting back and forth at each other before the bigger one overtook the smaller one and menacing guys in white boarded it by force, but oh boy in The Phantom Menace we get a meeting, how cute.

The two Jedi, Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn are welcomed aboard and taken to a nice polished meeting room, I guess the Trade Federation is the intergalactic distributor for Ikea. The bad guys decide that their best course of action is to gas the Jedi to death. Logically if you’re running a barely legal frowned upon blockade and the Republic sends highly valued ambassadors to negotiate a cease fire, and these ambassadors have light sabers and magic powers, this does not seem like the best course of actions. But the bad guys under the orders of Darth Sideous (oh boy does he look familiar) and after whimpering a bit go forth with it. Remember when Star Wars flicks had bad guys like; Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin and Boba Fett, real bad ass guys, I miss that right now. Anyway trying to gas guys with magic powers goes about as well as you imagine and the two Jedi knights easily carve a path through the Battle Droids trying to stop them, it would seem if you are fighting Jedi that you would make soldiers who might actually stand a chance and not be killed so easily that it’s almost laughable. Eventually the bad guys get the point and send a couple of droids with shield generators to chase off Obi Wan and Qui Gon, why didn’t they just make a whole army of those guys, they seem to have the money for it? Once the Jedi discover the invasion preparing for an assault they resolve to take two different shuttles to the planet. Why not stay in the same shuttle, how do they know the two shuttles that they are stowing away on are even going to remotely the same area on the strange planet they’ve never been to before? One thing that irritates me about the bad guys, is that they are financial and business based villains (exciting I know) who wear elaborate oriental themed clothing and talk like the owner of City Wok on South Park, how did that get passed those who were overseeing the script and production? Oh wait, the same person did both of those jobs.

In the palace of Naboo, Queen Amidala and her court discover that the Trade Federation has cut communication and is preparing for invasion, while talking to Senator Palpatine (how did he get out of his Darth Sideous robes so quickly?). Amadala resolves that there will be no war and her head security guy says that their troops are no match against a “battle hardened” federation. They’re little skinny robots with squeaky voices, just two Jedi can take out a couple hundred of them, how are they battle hardened exactly? By some miracle the two Jedi find each other and in the proccess make the biggest mistake of any character in any of the Star Wars films (including the guy who refused to shoot the escape pod the C3PO and R2D2 were on in the first one), Qui Gon Jinn saves the life of Jar Jar Binks, seriously. Like the stray cat you feed once and he keeps coming back to you, Jar Jar refuses to leave them alone. He comes in useful though telling them about his hidden home city, when the relieved Jedi discover this they ask him to take them to this city, and all of a sudden Jar Jar gets scared and refuses to, telling them that he is been banished. Then why the hell did he suggest it in the first place!!!!!???!!!

The trio dive into a marsh, which magically transforms into a vast sea once they’re under water, because of….yeah science. Once they enter the underwater city in a bubble, the two Jedi are magically only damp from the long underwater swim. The three of them go before the Gungan Council for help, who give them a submarine to go through….the planet core!! I guess in this universe planets, are hollow and do not have a solid foundation of bedrock and molten metal, is that even scientifically possible? Meanwhile the villains have an EVIL discussion about the Senate and voting and the political leaders of Naboo you known real EVIL kinda stuff. The whole time the heroes are in trouble I can’t help but wonder why I should care? The two Jedi have been bland and emotionless and Jar Jar does everything in his power to irritate anybody and everybody.

At the capitol of Naboo the evil Trade Federation makes their scheme known, they are sending Amadala and her posse to a prison camp until she signs a document making the invasion legal. How is that possible? In George Lucas’ mind, if Poland signed a treaty with Hitler after the blitzkrieg tore through the

Nope just a sensible and functional outfit here

country everything would be A-OK? It seems to me if you conquer a place you can pretty much make their leader sign whatever you want, and if not you can forge their signature if it’s that damn important to you. Luckily the gang is resuced by Qui Gon and Obi Wan who once again cut their way through the battle droids with so much ease that it looks boring. The entire time, Amidala is wearing another one of her ludicrous wardrobe choices, which to me would make her an easy target no matter who was wearing it, and the very least it can’t be functional when trying to run around and fight with bad guys.

Now collected together, the heroes board a space ship and fly off in an attempt to make it past the blockade. The blockade consists of several large and weaponized ships so this would seemingly be the end of the movie, except only one ship is shooting at them, and not even with any missiles or torpedoes, just lasers. The ship takes on a little bit of damage but it’s easily fixed by young R2D2, because he was a necessary character to the story of course. If it’s that easy to get past the blockade, then why aren’t tons of ships flying off to safety? They’re a bit battle damaged so the crew decide to land on the back water planet of Tatooine. You would think, Darth Sideous would fire his entire staff and hire a bunch of tough mercenaries to take over, but instead he dispatches the coolest element of this movie, Darth Maul. This character was solely designed to sell action figures and coffee mugs and T-shirts. He looks ridiculously cool as mentioned before he has a DOUBLE BLADED LIGHTSABER!!!! And he was heavily featured in the advertising campaign for the movie, but the kicker is he’s probably only in the flick for ten minutes and only does anything cool at the end, normally a character like that would just be thrown into an ensemble, but Darth Maul has all kinds of marketability for Lucas. It’s a shame if positioned just right, this guy could give Darth Vader a run for his money in the menacing bad guy category.

Our heroes land on the famous desert planet, and Jar Jar goes with Qui Gon and R2D2 to buy ship parts (why they don’t take a mechanic who actually might know what parts to get and for how much to spend on them is beyond me), Jar Jar complains about the sun hurting his skin (he should have stayed on the ship, the Queen orders one of her hand maidens join the party, which Qui Gon is none to thrilled about, dude, you already got an annoying whining idiot frog man why not a hand maiden? Afraid she might actually be useful? They go into town and Qui Gon gives a dramatic monologue about how space ports like this are havens for criminals not wanting to be found, maybe if you were a bit inconspicuous and not speaking dramatically about the economy of the planet with and obnoxious alien, and a teenage girl you can actually stay under the radar and not stick out, it’s sad the little robot has got the idea and you don’t.

While on their shopping spree they decide to patronize a small local business. To me, since they are trying just to get the parts cheaply and quickly they might want to check out one of the bigger dealers who would have a bigger selection for cheap, but I don’t have the force. They meet a nasty flying alien named Watto and is little mop headed annoyingly chipper slave, Anakin Skywalker. Naturally Watto tries to rip off Qui Gon, who tries to rip off the small business man he was desperate to give his business to by using a Jedi mind trick only to find that his whole race is immune to such things. Previous movies established the Force as an omnipotent spiritual entity, given that how does an entire race become immune to it, and if they are how come the bad guys don’t just recruit all of them into an army, that gift would be incredibly useful. Qui Gon and crew leave and run into trouble with Sebulba, a dangerous expert pod racer, and that combined with an incoming sandstorm, forces them to rely on their new friend, the young Anakin to shelter them in his house. They must be charmed by his standard talentless child actorness. He shows off the fact that he, lil Darth Vader, was the one who built, C3PO becuase Lucas felt like shoehorning in a character from the original series for the sake of selling action figures and to make fans wish they were watching the originals instead, relevance to story be damned. It still bothers me that Obi Wan, the coolest non Darth Maul character in this movie, who is supposed to learn how to be a full fledged Jedi is stuck just sitting on a ship waiting around. 

Over dinner, Anakin talks about his pod racing skills and generally just being annoying. I’m impressed though, that through it all Liam Neeson’s performance is still spot on. They come to the conclusion over dinner that their best bet, instead of shopping elsewhere for the ship parts they need, is to risk everything on a bet and endangering the poor kids life in a pod race, because Qui Gon is a stoic, compassionate, and wise Jedi and all.  Why can’t they use their communicators to call out to his Jedi colleagues for help? In fact, why don’t they call in the rest of their wise and good order who are charged with spreading justice, in to free all the slaves and kill two birds with one stone. They work on Anakin’s pod racer, and naturally Jar jar does something dumb and incompetent and gets his hand stuck in the engine when Anakin’s about to crank it up. I find this funny, because none of the other characters seem especially quick acting to save him, in fact they just sit there waiting and hoping, Anakin cranks up the vehicle and chops the Gungan up, until Padme begrudgingly moves his hand out and pushes him to safety and I can just hear the disapointed head shake from Qui Gon. After talking to his mother, Qui Gon gets the idea to check the boy’s Midichlorian count. Oh so that’s how Watto is immune to the Force, because the spiritual entity from the first trilogy is now biologically based and your Jedi abilities have to do with how many of these things are in your bloodstream and not how hard you meditate or practice, which takes a lot out of the mythology of the universe. One thing I really enjoyed about Star Wars as a young lad was the fact that in that universe where technology seemed to dominate everything, there was that spiritual side to it, which fleshed out the characters and the universe they lived in by giving many characters a sort of faith in something larger than themselves; but midichlorians ruins all that it’s like saying that someone is bound to be a Hindu because of the amount of microbes they had in their cells, it completely destroys the idea of a higher power in the galaxy.

The next day is the exciting pod race which is being run by Jabba the Hutt, because George Lucas needs to needlessly shove in another familiar character to remind us of the good times. I do have to admit aside from the annoying announcers doing a take off on annoying human sports announcers the pod race is really well done; it’s exciting, tense, fast paced, visually impressive, and Sebulba is a much better bad guy than the Trade Federation could ever hope to be, I wish this sense of fun had been in the entire movie in the first place.

Needless to say our young hero Anakin wins the race and in accordance with Qui Gon’s bet with Watto (that’s right our noble and just hero risks the lives of little kids AND gambles AND uses the Force to manipulate his bets). As part of his reward for helping out the Jedi and the Naboo, Anakin is taken in by Qui Gon and his crew to go with them to Coruscant. After a tearful good bye to his mother and C3PO (man he made a huge impact on the story) and a brief and pointless battle with Darth Maul, they set sail for more meetings, man way to kill the goodwill you’ve won with fans from the awesome pod race, but hey at least the planet looks awesome. When they land they meet Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Valorum who are spewing their political rhetoric about saving Naboo, but with Terrence Stamp AKA General Freakin Zod is playing the leader of the government I am rather suspicious.

Son of Jor-el kneel before Chancellor Valorum!!!!!!!!

Amidala and Palpatine thrill audiences with their talks of political hierarchies and the idea of voting out the current head of state, you know kick ass Star Wars stuff. As if that meeting weren’t exciting enough for you, we get another meeting, with the Jedi council. Qui Gon is brought forth to tell of the possible return of the Sith in the form of Darth Maul and about Anakin and his power over the Force through blood microbes. Oh man I need to catch my breath from all this entertainment, I mean parliamentary movements and politcal figureheads, and council meetings and oh crap, the mother of all political shindigs…a Galactic Senate session! The Senate refuses to believe an army is invading Naboo and demand a commission be sent to verify it; didn’t they send the two Jedi to do just that? Why not just ask Qui Gon and Obi Wan about it? If that fails why can’t they use the Star Wars version of Google and look it up? In our world when one nation invades another we know about it instantly, even in the Middle East where tyrannical governments try to silence uprisings, through the internet the news of what is going on inevitably gets out, and I would think a galaxy far far away that is vastly superior to us technologically speaking, they would have something like that themselves to check on.  But in a clever reference to their previous meeting, Amidala pushes for an election for a new head of state. I miss the good old days, when the heroes in Star Wars had no problem sneaking on space stations and taking on giant AT AT Walkers, and waging battles where they were the underdogs.

FINALLY they decide the best course of action is to go back to Naboo and fight the Trade Federation! I mean between them, the Gungans and whatever resistance group is there planetside can easily take on the single ship that cares about shooting and ships leaving the planet and a few weak droids right? The crew easily lands despite the blockade surrounding the planet, I guess the Trade Federation figured if the ship was coming back then good on them. As Queen Amidala goes to meet with the Gungans to forge an alliance between the two groups, Qui Gon tells Obi Wan they can not use their Jedi powers to help because……I’m not sure why. And man they weren’t kidding, the Queen reveals that she has been disguised as a hand maiden the whole time and the great and powerful Force utilizers did not notice or just did not care either way it works. And because the Gungans are apparently stupider than we were originally led to believe they put Jar Jar in charge of their army for the battle. The crew plan an elaborate three pronged attack to fight the droid army and attack the capitol and fly into space to destroy the last Trade Federation ship left (don they even know what a blockade is at this point?).

During the battle Anakin seeks safety in one of the fighters because it’s the safest place for a kid who’s been dragged into a war zone and of course he accidentally flies off into battle. It is at the capitol that hands down the coolest part of this entire movie happens; Darth Maul versus Obi Wan and Qui Gon at the same time. If the entire three hour movie were just this I would be completely happy. But alas we must also see Anakin and Jar Jar have seen too many episodes of Hong Kong Phooey which have taught them that incompetence and luck our the best ways to win their respective battles. In the end the Naboo retake the capitol and capture the Trade Federation heads and Qui Gon is killed by Darth Maul, but Obi Wan proves himself by killing the sadly underused villain.

Obi Wan Kenobi honors his fallen master’s final wish and takes on Anakin as an apprentice. We see that the new Chancellor Palpatine is clearly up to something. And the villains at the Trade Federation lose their trading franchise, I’m not really sure what that means but it does not even remotely sound like a punishment that fits the crime of conquering and enslaving an entire world.

So was it as bad as I thought? Yes, but what can I say about this movie that has not been said before? There’s the stilted dialogue the bad acting the racial insensitivity, and just the overall feel that only purpose for this movie to exist is for George Lucas to make even more money at the expense of his beloved creation. The characters in this movie are not nearly as memorable or great as those in the original and in fact I’m not sure who the main character was really supposed to be; in the original saga we had Luke Skywalker who was our window into this strange and exciting universe he was the kid we could relate to and watch as he grew from a farm kid into a full fledged hero and along the way we got introduced to many other great characters through his encountering them. In this movie we don’t have that; the natural characters to fill this role seem to be either Obi Wan Kenobi the young apprentice trying to become a Jedi or the teenage Queen Amidala who has found herself in a position of tremendous responsibility; yet both of these characters spend a huge chunk of the movie (no her pretending to be a hand maiden does not count because the character served no purpose) sitting on a space ship waiting on Qui Gon Jinn. Speaking of Qui Gon, he fills the role of the wise mentor who already knows all and is approaching the end of his long and illustrious life making him hard for the targeted younger viewers to relate to. Anakin is also in the movie too little to be the main character and like Jar Jar all he seems to do is irritate everybody in his path of destruction. I wish I could say Lucas learned from his missteps and makes the next two movies better, but we all know that’s not true and that the worst is yet to come and perhaps one of these days I’ll tackle those, but next week I return to the streets of Gotham to give you my take on Halle Berry’s Catwoman.