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The critics agree: Jar Jar Binks must die. But is Star Wars worth all the global fuss?

MAY 24, 1999: 

Ed. Note: If you haven't seen Episode I—The Phantom Menace yet, perhaps you should do so before reading this expression of crusty cynicism.

At first, for a few moments in the space-time continuum, all is right with the universe. Everything is happening just as you'd been imagining for the last year: The 20th Century Fox logo appears on the screen, announced by its portentous fanfare; then the quiet green glow of "Lucasfilm," causing a few yelps from the audience. A pause. And suddenly, a walloping blast of John Williams bombast as that groovy old Star Wars logo fills the screen before receding into the stars. The crowd roars, and it's 1977 once again—or whenever it was when you first saw our popular culture's defining piece of entertainment.

And isn't that really what we're all here for? To feel that same contact high from being immersed in a new paradigm of amusement: the E-ticket ride movie. But that paradigm is now a stultifying template followed by every Hollywood studio, and we're no longer impressionable tykes. Try as we might, even with George Lucas doing his darndest, there's no going back to 1977; sadly, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace won't take us there. Our expectations are too high, and Lucas' creative judgment is too poor.

But forget for a moment that Star Wars ever happened; that all its characters have become ingrained in our societal subconscious; that the trilogy became an American cultural export as big as McDonald's; that there are people out there who actually believe in The Force. If none of that ever existed, could Phantom Menace stand on its own as a movie? Could we enter theaters without any preconceived notions and leave thinking, "What a great movie!"?

Nope. I could give you a list of reasons longer than the number of Star Wars product licensees. But let's just say Lucas succumbed to his own creative freedom by indulging his worst instincts, dumping whatever silly notions he had into this overlong, messy, excessive production. There's Lucas' geekish aspirations for technological envelope-pushing. ("Let's make half the characters digital graphic constructs!" Too bad they mostly look like cartoonish puppets, destroying any sense of the movie's "reality.") There's Lucas' desire to court the kiddies. ("Let's make an impish 8-year-old a main character!" Too bad Lucas doesn't know how to write for an 8-year-old, and casts a boy who doesn't know how to act.) There's Lucas' rapacious marketing instincts. ("Let's get a wacky sidekick in there and sell some more action figures!" Too bad the aptly named Jar Jar Binks is the single most annoying character in all human creation, and almost single-handedly torpedoes the entire movie.) There's Lucas' hardware fetish. ("Let's put in more robots! More space ships! More blasters!" Too bad they overwhelm the cast, with Lucas totally wasting the talents of fine actors like Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman while crowding the screen with yet more toys.)

Certainly, many critics and moviegoers will lash out at this betrayal of their hopes, and there'll be much recrimination in the media and in the newsgroup discussion lists. In the end, though, we should remember that it's just a movie...which is a shame, really, because it could have been more than that.

But don't worry—we'll always have Episode IV.

—Coury Turczyn

George Lucas must be stopped before he films again.

The proof is to be had in Phantom Menace, a movie that stands poised to go down in the history books as the most over-hyped, highest-grossing dismal failure of all time. Banking on a past framed here as future—that is to say, Star Wars—this first chapter in the saga rewarms every tired cliché spawned by the ultimate space fantasy dynasty and feeds it to eager viewers like so much premasticated sci-fi goo. The question is, will space fans far and wide simply open their throats and take it? Or will the collective gag reflex cause us to cough this dud back up before it's drilled further into our national consciousness by the real "force" of the '90s: marketing?

Not that Phantom Menace is entirely without merit. It's a special effects fun house, to be sure—full of nifty 'droids, mind-boggling 3-D space shoot-outs, and scads of cute anthropomorphic muppets rendered disturbingly lifelike by the latest in computer technology. What it lacks are the elements that made the original Star Wars so great: character development, plot, dialog, message, central conflict, acting, pace, and whatnot.

Rather than unfolding before you, Phantom Menace hurtles herky-jerky through a procession of obligatory and by now tired scenes—the cantina scene, the Jedi master-student scene, the rebel forces attacking the planetary evil space ship scene, the light saber battle on the scary high-tech precipice scene—toward a familiar ending that rehashes the irritatingly jubilant celebration scene of Return of the Jedi.

Along the way, it wastes the time of some pretty good actors—a Jesus-like Liam Neeson as the trite aphorism-spouting Jedi master Qui-Gon; Ewan MacGregor as the trained monkey who can ape Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan with unsettling accuracy; Samuel L. Jackson as an afterthought; and Natalie Portman as, well, a piece of wood. They try, mind you, but the movie's high-tech bells and whistles and hyperdrive pace pass them by. For one thing, it's abundantly clear that most of the movie was shot against a blue screen, with characters and action added in later. For another, no more than two consecutive lines of dialog are uttered, then—WIPE, PAN, FADE OUT—it's on to the next scene.

The movie's fatal flaw, however, exists in the obligatory cute and bumbling side-kick: in this case, one Jar Jar Binks, a half-man, half-Sea Monkey creature with a cutesy Jamaican-inflected patois uttered in a strangulated falsetto. "You's a in big doo-doo dis time!" Jar Jar squeals in a representative line of what passes for Phantom Menace dialogue. What's more irritating is that Jar Jar gets all of what passes for character development here—the frantic camera pauses lovingly to capture his every bumble and stumble, and he works his way into nearly every scene.

But perhaps the biggest Phantom Menace deficit is the yawning chasm where the movie's soul is supposed to be. Star Wars traded heavily on its simple morality tale, charming viewers with bits of Eastern-inspired wisdom that have worked their way indelibly into the national psyche (three words: "Use The Force!"). Here, nuggets of Buddhist wisdom ("Concentrate on the moment; feel, don't think," instructs Qui-Gon) are mashed with Christian symbology (little Anakin Skywalker is cast as "The Chosen One," the product of a virgin birth) into a New Agey pabulum that left this viewer wanting to spit, not swallow.

What's called for here is a national intervention—George, we're doing this because we love you, man. Your movie sucks. Get help.

—Hillari Dowdle

Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace... the fourth best Star Wars movie ever (well, fifth if you count the brilliant TV movie The Moons of Endor).

A friend of mine offered an excuse for Star Wars. He said that the center of George Lucas' universe wasn't the Star Wars franchise or better audio standards for movie theaters, it was his children. Mind you, he didn't mean this as an excuse as to why the movie sucked—he thought it was damned entertaining. He meant that the movie was designed to please, and ostensibly protect, children. Which puts Phantom Menace on the long list of the crimes perpetrated in the name of children.

Children, it seems, are best raised on a strict diet of banality, portentousness, flaky philosophy, mindless violence, dubious politics and thinly veiled racial stereotypes. Most damaging to their tiny, still-soft heads are interesting characters, coherent plots, physical affection and any emotion not generated by adrenaline.

This is not the usual complaint that the movie is just a thrill ride. Believe me, it's not. I like thrill rides, and action movies. Nor is it that human actors were clearly second in importance to computer generated characters and worlds. Toy Story is a fine example that an adventure movie for children can be made completely without physical actors. The problem with Phantom Menace isn't the lack of humans, it's the lack of humanity. Phantom Menace bears its closest resemblance, not to other action/adventure films, but to the brief clips shown before the motion simulator ride begins. Which would be fine if the seats in the theater would just shake a little harder.

—Zak Weisfeld

"He always said, 'Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.' ...So finally George said to me, 'I'm gonna show you how easy it is. I'll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.'"

—Marcia Lucas, ex-wife of George Lucas, quoted in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bull

Here's how I imagine him: he sits by himself in the evenings out there on Skywalker Ranch, in some massive study heavy with oak and teak. He doesn't even like oak and teak. He'd rather have something shiny and hard, metallic. But he's conscious of the trappings of success. And so he sits, ill at ease.

He has money, God knows. Even though he almost managed to blow all that cash from American Graffiti and the first trilogy on this vast, scrubby estate and all those bad movies (he still winces when he hears the words Howard the Duck), the technical guys always came through. Industrial Light and Magic, THX, Lucasfilm—the best mechanics in the business. And when all you were doing for some movie was the sound or the visuals, who really cared whether the product was any good? Let the "artist" whose name was on it worry about that.

But still...he wanted to be an artist once. A pure filmmaker, an experimenter and innovator. He dreamed of films made only of light and sound, no "story," no "characters," preferably no "actors" to get in the way of his vision. He has fantasies sometimes that when he dies, God will look down at him and say, "You've had your chance and you blew it. Get out." It's been, what, 22 years since he directed a movie? His old friend Steven has made more than a dozen in that time. The thing is, directing movies is hard and unpleasant. He doesn't enjoy it. He suspects, he has always suspected, that he's not really very good at it.

But what else was he going to do? Sitting there in the evenings with the long shadows stretching out across his trout-stocked lake, he can't think of an answer. After Jedi, he had sworn to himself and his friends that that was it, no more Star Wars. Not making the movies didn't bring him any more satisfaction than making them, though. And it didn't pay nearly as well. So he would start the machine back up. He would wring the kitten's neck again. Maybe this time he could have cute aliens, funny robots, and a little boy. That would get to them. Wouldn't it?

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

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