THE PHANTOM MENACE
Alright, now we’re getting serious here.
This film stands as one of more memorable movie experiences of my life, as the opening night of the film also coincided with the grand opening of the phase 4 expansion of West Edmonton Mall. When the Silver City theatre opened it was a true marvel at the time (the dragon show and the over all decor being unseen in theatres in Edmonton at the time). Not to mention that we were all excited just to see a new Star Wars movie.
I’ve held onto the wonder that the film made me feel. It really did come as a bit of a surprise during my early days of internet surfing that a film that i thought was pretty good, was actually considered an abomination in the eyes of seemingly every other person on planet earth.
yes believe it or not there is a lot of good things to say about The Phantom Menace. The most obvious being its wonderful visual design; as i mentioned earlier Star Wars has always lent more to the side of Fantasy then to Science Fiction and the trend continues here. Upon the planet Naboo, we get a lot of Renaissance inspired architecture and costume design. Queen Amidala’s memorable and eye catching hair/makeup are the most blatant examples of this. The use of colour is once again emphasized with the film displaying a more varied pallet then we have seen in the previous films.
The greatest triumph in terms of visual impact of the film however will have to go to the presentation of Darth Maul. Everything about him is designed so he can be both a physical and spiritual menace to the Jedi. I can imagine that my feeling of awe when the huge doors leading to the space dock open to reveal him just standing there and waiting, is the same feeling people felt when Darth Vader took his first steps upon the captured rebel ship. Its an absolute shame and disappointment that they kill him off here as he remains the biggest draw to this film.
John Williams, who has produced some of the most memorable melodies in film score oeuvre has not failed in adding yet more additions to his already impressive body of work. The most obvious of these triumphs is the “Duel of Fates”, its driving strings and pounding choir serving to sear it into anyone’s auditory memory on first listen, however i would also mention that “Anakin’s Theme” is an absolute wonderful statement that beneath the young boy’s youth and potential is a sinister future.
The special effects of this film displayed at the time the absolute cutting edge of what was possible. Using a combination of traditional models and CGI Lucas can finally explore areas in a sense of scale that he was never able to in the past. From the soaring city scape of Coruscant to the blistering speed and danger of the pod racers, the film doesn’t lack in any sort of way for effects and trickery.
When we get straight down to the nitty gritty about this film, its biggest problem is that it really doesn’t have a very memorable or driving story behind it. I wrote a log line for the film in my rebuttal pages i will re-use that here:
Due to some trade route taxation disputes the galaxies trade federation has moved to blockade the planet of naboo. Although this is just a ploy as they are really being used as pawns for Darth Sidous to get the current chancellor out of power so he can begin the chain of events that will lead to the creation of the galactic republic.
Ya… That really is a sum up of what is happening in the film. It doesn’t really describe the more interesting details (Anakin being found for the most part) it really wouldn’t matter as it wouldn’t help the fact that the story is still just simple and dull at its very core.
The characters also suffer from being mostly forgettable, apart from Anakin, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon no one really leaves very much of an impression… … …
With the exception of Jar Jar Binks that is. I suppose this is a can of worms that i will have to elaborate on, if i’m going to expect that people will take this as a serious critique.
Jar Jar’s inclusion is because something wonderful and terrible happened to Lucas; this being he got kids of his own and probably when this film was made, those kids had fathered grand kids. In my post script to ROTJ i said kids will watch anything and the biggest example of this is Jar Jar. A child that is 4-5 years old will eat up anything he does because his clumsiness and funny sounding voice is just that, funny to them. Unfortunately its left to us as adults to put up with him, and he is awful to watch because there is just such a huge gap between what the different audiences want out of characters. My personal experience with Jar Jar is i was still a kid (i was 12 years old at the time) when i saw the film the first time, so i did laugh at some of the things he did (i would say when he shocks his face numb with Anakin’s pod racer is probably the funniest thing he does in the movie, as its the most unforced out of all of the gags). As i got older i do see him for the nuisance that he is for most people, however the scorn i feel is exponentially less (were talking in to the powers of tenth here) then seemingly most people. To close this up i do agree that he is one of the films biggest sores but it really depends on who you talk to in regards to this.
Although the special effects were great and most of them have aged quite well, Lucas experimented with some things that perhaps most audiences were not willing to accept fully. These being the complete CGI renderings of some of the characters, these being most prominently Jar Jar, Watto, and the droids that make up the trade federation’s army. These have not aged well at all, and stick out like sore thumbs when surrounded by everyone/everything else being breathing and real. It is unfortunate for the series that he would take this ball and run with it for the next movie, but that is for another review.
There are more things to pick apart with this film (Anakin being too young, Obi-Wan being uninteresting), but in hopes that i can keep this a manageable size i will just conclude with saying that the acting in this film is pretty terrible in some parts, in fact when the bad acting does become apparent it is absolutely awful to watch. Jake Lloyd is the worst offender as the little guy just doesn’t have anything in him worth watching. In fact had they cast a better actor i think that would have went to great lengths to help ease the Anakin being too young problem that the film has. He is down right terrible in every scene. Natalie Portman doesn’t come out looking very good either, the worst scene would have to be when she talks to Boss Nass as she could literally be replaced with a plank of wood with some eyes glued on and we as an audience wouldn’t know the difference. Thank God that she blossomed into the actress she is now (if you haven’t i suggest you watch Black Swan as it is her best performance to date).
The duel presented in The Phantom Menace is i would say a highlight of the entire series. Visually it is very much a break through in terms of its complicated choreography and varied settings.
i wrote an extensive break down of the duel in my rebuttal pages that i’m quite happy of. I will repost that here and i will include some of the lead in from the rebuttal. It will be all in Italics so if you don’t want to read it just scroll to where it stops. Oh and if the Italics make the whole thing sound a little snotty: loosen up, you’ll live longer.
Here i’m gonna do an actual break down of the duel just for this guy as he obviously needs some help with these things, and i feel like geeking out some more. Anyone reading this can just skip ahead if they want to. I’m not a martial artist by any sense of the word, give me a sword and I would be hopelessly clumsy with the thing. But i’ve watched many an onscreen fight, choreographed by people who know their shit, and i keep one thing in mind whenever i watch one. Something Bruce Lee stressed: the importance of space between you and whom your fighting.
The Duel Starts:
So Darth Maul makes one of the best onscreen entrances put to film, seriously when the door opens and you hear the opening notes of John Williams epic “The Duel of Fates” you know shit is about to get real. He’s immediately at a disadvantage here as the space is open and he’s fighting against two highly trained adversaries. They can attack him from anywhere, so he is going to have to be on the defensive most of the time, pick his shots carefully, and tire the attackers out. So unlike in the first clash with Qui Gon in the desert he makes sure to fight with as much safety to himself as possible, so out comes the second side on his weapon to make it a “light staff”. Awesome by the way. He may have scoped out the palace in preparation for this as he immediately attacks and starts to move towards the large doors that lead to the reactor room. He’s aggressive but remembers to keep his head and remembers that there are two of them at all times.
The Duel moves into the reactor room:
So he opens the door to the reactor and starts to back in through the door he stays on the defensive but they can now only approach him from the front so he is in control of the space here. He starts to move into the open reactor room but quickly runs out of room to move, as the platforms are narrow. He knows better than to fight with his back against the wall so he jumps to the narrow bridges between the plasma columns. This is advantageous to him as well, as again they can both only attack him clumsily from the front; as the bridge is narrow or one of them can jump behind him.
The duel moves out of the reactor room:
so the nature of the space allows him to take a risk and kick obi wan off of the bridge to separate them. He does this and now he only has to worry about one attacker coming from one possible direction. This is what he was aiming for in the first place. Now Maul is at the advantage. But Qui Gon does something he doesn’t expect and backhands him hard enough to send him off of the bridge too. Qui Gon goes on the offensive and Maul gives him ground, perhaps in hopes of tiring him out. Obi Wan tries to catch up but he is far behind. So they reach a corridor but become separated by some laser walls. Why they are there is anybodies guess. So they wait it out, Maul paces while Qui Gon meditates and rests up giving credence to my assumption on Maul wanting to tire him out.
Qui Gon Dies:
Qui Gon starts this phase rested and comes out swinging but Maul, cornered in a small room with a giant whole in the floor as his only exit knows he has run out of time. He has to even the odds as quickly as possible or he will die. So after Qui Gon’s attacks fail again to break his tenacious defense Maul takes to the offensive and starts pushing Qui Gon back limiting his attacker’s space for the first time in the duel. Qui Gon wants to keep attacking and doesn’t give ground as quickly as Maul did, all so he can get a hit in there now and then. As a result this allows Maul to get right up in Qui Gon’s grill. Qui Gon does an over head swing not realizing that because Maul is so close its unsafe to do this in case he counters. Maul does counter; with an unexpected move and gives Qui Gon a hard hit in the head with the hilt of his weapon that stuns him long enough for the killing blow to be delivered. Liam Neeson actually comments on this in Kingdom of Heaven when after almost killing his opponent with the hand guard of his sword he states: “the blade isn’t the only part of a sword”. Wise words, and Qui Gon forgot this and paid the price.
Obi Wan attacks:
Obi Wan is angry and he’s out for blood. Maul knows this and takes him seriously. When Obi Wan attacks as fast as he can he keeps up and tests Maul’s defence. Obi Wan knows he can’t fight against two blades at this pace forever and remembering how his master died he does two things, and shows himself to be a thoughtful and skilled opponent. First he slices through Maul’s hilt and evens the playing field between the two, now maul can only attack and defend the same way obi wan can. Obi Wan is also careful to stay in the entrance to the room where he has more space to attack and defend from. His anger though despite his skill makes him take a few chances, neither of which pay off. First he kicks Maul to the ground then jumps behind him in an attempt to deliver the killing blow Maul quickly runs away to the entrance and waits for obi wan to attack. Which he does, after displaying a good chin and weathering a nasty kick to the face, he tries to over power Maul with some brute strength. This does not work out. Maul is physically stronger than obi wan and pushes his way out of Obi Wan’s trap, then as he is not as angry as obi wan and as a result is more focused; Force Pushes obi wan and sends him flying into the hole in the center of the room. Maul wins the duel and proves that he is a better fighter than two Jedi combined, as he exercised self control and discipline. Unlike either of his opponents who frankly should know better as they are Jedi.
Darth Maul Dies:
Cracked did a great little article about this its funny i will link it for you
Yes they bring up a good point but i can offer the explanation that the writer of that article asks for. In a display of arrogance Darth Maul doesn’t take the time to finish Obi Wan off and just waits for him to loose his grip and fall to his death. He looses his self control and as a result he neglects the light sabre at Qui Gon’s side. The fact that obi wan may be able to use it also leaves him. To illustrate this look at the way he saunters up and kicks Obi Wan’s sword into the pit, this guy is on top of the world here and he knows it. Much to the surprise of Darth Maul, Obi Wan Collects himself jumps out of the pit uses the force to get Qui gon’s weapon and slices his opponent in two. Much like Anakin’s arrogance and hubris would cost him his duel with Obi Wan in episode 3 here Darth Maul’s arrogance costs him his life.
There is despite what that 90 minute review says a lot of things riding on the outcome of this duel. Namely that Obi-Wan will be the one to train Anakin in the years to come. That is a pretty serious outcome to the life of Obi-Wan which in turn has an effect upon the story as a whole. What the duel lacks is a dominating sense of good against evil (despite Darth Maul’s physical appearance) that the best duels had in the original trilogy. Is that a shame? Perhaps, but then again i will always say that all of the duels had different goals in terms of presented metaphors or story beats, and this one is no different (its just not what the creator of that review wants, and to that i say too fucking bad).
I believe that this film is not an abomination, no matter how shrill the voices of decent are. A lot of that has to do with how i experienced the series as a whole and honestly i’m quite grateful for it, its allowed me not to take things so personally when the creators of the things i love take them in different directions (the biggest example is what happened to Star Trek but again that is a whole other can of worms).
The film itself is a pretty hum-drum experience overall, and its fantastic visual design cannot prop up a story that is only just the opening act to a new trilogy. That being said i do return to this film much more than A New Hope and honestly i do indeed like it better than the opening of the original trilogy.
*** Out of Five Stars
Jim Sterling defended the film on his Movie Defence Force segment on the escapist, while i do not agree with his view on Lucas or his defense of the hatred spilled towards him and his movies, people who share Jim’s point of view may agree with him more than me. Also Movie Bob did a review that i agree is quite fair in his Escape to the Movies segment on the escapist as well (hell he basically likes and dislikes everything that i do). I do indeed suggest that if you don’t agree with the points that i make perhaps listen to the ones they do. As there are indeed plenty of worse movies out there than this one.
Also the biggest problem i have with the fandom of these films that has effectively alienated me from their ranks with their aggressive and violent attitude towards these films as well as to George Lucas (who has done absolutely nothing to deserve the hatred and bile flung at him) is the fact that whenever a new Star Wars anything comes up they buy it up in droves. All of the prequels made tons of money, all of the DVD’s of those films made tons of money (i’m sorry i can’t cite a source but i’m positive just about everyone on this continent has that box set sitting on their shelf and that was released after it was apperent that the francise is awful and had destroyed countless childhoods), Video Games made after the fall out of the prequels made tons of money , i’m deathly certain when Episode VII: The Attack of the Mystery Box comes out it will make tons of money. Even the re-release of this film was a modest success, given that what i made was probably mostly pure profit as the cost of making the film was already spent.
If everyone hates this series and lucas so bad At least show you are sincere in your feelings.
its either that or this whole “i hate star wars and lucas he destroyed my life and my childhood” is just a very vocal and very spiteful minority.