Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace

By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 1, 1999:  Before we get into this, let's lay down a little background: First of all, I was nine years old when Star Wars came out in the summer of 1977. I recall walking into a movie theater, the lights went down, I read the words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," the trumpets on John Williams' score started blaring ... and then things became a little hazy. Next thing I distinctly remember was waking up several years later in my own bedroom feeling vaguely fuzzy and disoriented. Star Wars posters plastered my walls. Star Wars sheets draped my bed. My closet was overflowing with Star Wars toys. All told, I had paid to see Star Wars in the movie theater 28 times. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Star Wars was one of the defining moments of my life. I may never have chosen a career related to film had it not been for my fanatical devotion to that spacey strip of celluloid.

As the years wore on, of course, my interest slowly waned. George Lucas, the God of my youth, continued to make Star Wars movies, but I observed them with a fading dedication. Maybe it's because I and everyone my age was growing up. Maybe it's because the movies got progressively less interesting. By the mid-'80s, my generation's attentions turned to R-rated teen sex movies on late night cable, and Lucas' attentions turned to cranking out fuzzy Ewok dolls.

Now, after years of anticipation and more broken promises than Tommy Lee's wedding vows, George Lucas has returned to the arena that spawned his legend by writing and directing Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace. Let's not beat around the bush here. There's a hell of a lot of pressure riding on Lucas' shoulders: the expectations of several million fans to fulfill, a whole new generation of filmgoers to ensnare and a multibillion dollar media empire to maintain.

Ultimately, it makes not one iota of difference what I or any other writer has to say about this film. Good or bad, people will flock to see it based on their own rabid need to keep the Star Wars mythos alive. Barring alien invasion, government collapse or The Rapture, Phantom Menace will go on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. When all is said and done and the mania has faded, though, each and every one of us will have to sit down and analyze what we really thought about it. So, for what it's worth, here's my self-confessed Star Wars fanatic take on Star Wars: Episode I: The parts in Phantom Menace that I dug outweighed the parts that I hated.

It was a real balancing act, trust me. There wasn't much middle ground. I put the whole movie on the scales and came out with about 59 percent that got me as jazzed as a fourth-grader on a Slurpee high and 41 percent that annoyed the bejeezus out of me.

Most of the reviewers who've weighed in on Phantom Menace are calling it a very juvenile effort. Defensive fans counter with the claim that the Star Wars movies have always been aimed at kids. True enough, but your reaction to Phantom Menace will depend largely on which you find more entertaining: the dark drama and soaring intrigue of The Empire Strikes Back, or all the cute puppets of Return of the Jedi.

With its concentration on a baby-faced, pre-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker and an abundance of computer-generated, action figure-friendly monsters, I was expecting The Phantom Menace to be a kiddy-fest from the word go. Thankfully, Phantom Menace is not overwhelmingly juvenile. Frankly, I can't see too many eight-year-olds even following the complicated economic blockades, bureaucratic bickering and trade route taxation issues that form this film's backbone. To balance this out, Lucas has tossed in plenty of eye-candy and goofball slapstick to keep the kids amused.

Perhaps the most telling criticism that could be leveled against The Phantom Menace is that it tries too hard to please too many people. There's plenty of grave, backstage intrigue to interest the adults (and bore the kids). On the other hand, there's a wealth of goony pratfalls and fart jokes to amuse the tykes (and embarrass the grown-ups).

There are so many elements at work in Phantom Menace, in fact, that it's hard to concentrate on any one thing. For being the "first episode," The Phantom Menace throws in far more backstory and brings up many more questions than Star Wars ever did. Instead of feeling like episode one, it feels as if we've been dropped into the middle of episode 17. There are so many plotlines to kick off and characters to introduce in our two-hour-and-ten-minute run time that no one of them actually gets much screentime. Stars like Terrence Stamp (as the head of the Galactic Congress) and Samuel L. Jackson (as a member of the Jedi Council) hardly get to speak two lines before they're shuffled off the stage. To be fair, Lucas is setting up more ideas to be explored in future installments of this first trilogy, and the expanding of the SW universe is a welcome treat to longtime fans. Still, it's hard not to feel shortchanged--like the entire film is just one big set-up for the real story to come.

With Star Wars, viewers felt privy to a larger, overarching storyline--but we were still struck by the immediacy of the plot at hand. The characters were vivid, the actions accessible. The Phantom Menace races along at such a frantic pace that it's hard to get a grip. Since the film never concentrates on one character for more than a few minutes at a stretch, we're never actually sure whose story this is. It's hard to empathize with characters and to develop an emotional involvement with what's happening to them when they're constantly hustled around like pieces in a game of speed chess.

Luke Skywalker, the wide-eyed farmboy caught up in a galactic war of good and evil, was our guide through the first trilogy of films. In Phantom Menace, we're introduced to Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a gruff, apparently rebellious Jedi Knight, and his apprentice sidekick Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). For a while, we follow the rousing adventures of this duo as they are sent to mediate a dispute between the mean, money-grubbing Trade Federation and the economically blockaded planet of Naboo.

The original trilogy presented the Jedi Knights as an aged, quasi-mystical organization in rapid decline. Here we get to see the Jedi in all their glory--a bad-ass contingent of galactic law enforcement agents whose reputation strikes fear in the hearts of everyone. This is the kind of thing that hardcore Star Wars fans want to see, and for the first half hour or so, it's a blast to watch Neeson and McGregor kicking ass and taking names. Soon after, though, we find ourselves on our old stomping ground of Tatooine where our Jedi duo meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jeremy Lloyd), a precocious, self-absorbed slave boy who, it seems, is "The Chosen One." For the next hour or so, we're paying attention to Skywalker and his antics, which don't really generate much suspense, since we already know this little cherub grows up, develops asthma and become Darth Vader. After some desert-dwelling hijinks on Tatooine, it's off to the planet Coruscant for some U.N.-style political plotting and finally back to Naboo for a big battle royale and a whole bunch of special effects.

It is these special effects that have enamored Lucas most of all. You could tell Lucas was obsessed with the technical stuff when he crammed every corner of the 20th anniversary Star Wars re-release full of useless special effects additions. Don't get me wrong; special effects have always comprised a heavy part of the Star Wars appeal, and The Phantom Menace shows off some of the most dazzling and imaginative designs in all the series. By relying so heavily on computer effects, though, Lucas has drained some of the more "human" elements from his saga. Although digital effects have got- ten more and more realistic over the years, they still aren't going to fool anyone into thinking they're watching anything other than a computer-generated image. For the most part, the computer creatures blend well with their human counterparts. But by the time Phantom reaches its climax--jam-packed with entirely computer-generated sequences--you may feel as if you're watching A Bug's Life all over again.

The light saber duels scattered throughout the film are extremely cool, and one of the reasons they stand out so well is that they involve real, live people. Watching Neeson and McGregor flip around in a kinetic battle with baddie Darth Maul (who, sad to say, is only in this thing for 10 minutes tops) is the film's high point. Watching the time-consuming pod race or the climactic showdown with the Federation's skeletal robot legions has about as much impact as staring at a videogame screen.

The acting, I suppose, is good, but it's really hard to judge since few of the stars get to engage in much character development. Neeson does his utmost to command attention and ends up carrying much of the film on his stoic shoulders. McGregor, so touted in the pre-release publicity, doesn't get to do much other than pose alongside Neeson. Still, they make for a heroic duo, and when this Jedi Batman and Robin are on screen The Phantom Menace sails smoothly. Unfortunately, most of the other actors are hampered by having to speak in corny ethnic slang. Being a princess, Natalie Portman is forced to speak in a snobby British twang. Being a money-grubbing alien junk dealer, another character is forced to talk with an outrageous Arabic accent. All the Federation bad guys, meanwhile, are required to converse in exaggerated Japanese tones-slap some thick glasses and buck teeth on these evil aliens and you'd have the most shocking of World War II propaganda. Why Lucas saw a need to include such borderline racist stereotypes is puzzling. Most annoying of all is the goofy, computer-generated character Jar Jar Binks, who comes within two seconds of ruining the movie every time he's on the screen blabbering away in his indecipherable Jamaican patois.

In the end, though, the giddy highs of a new Star Wars flick that edge out the annoying, Earthbound elements. Actual nine-year-old kids will probably find plenty in The Phantom Menace to become fanatically dedicated to. Meanwhile, the nine-year-old kid in us all is likely to rank The Phantom Menace somewhere between the Han-Solo-in-Carbonite/Luke-Getting-His-Hand-Lopped-Off of The Empire Strikes Back and the Leia-Is-Luke's-Sister/Those-Damn-Ewoks-Are-Singing-Again of Return of the Jedi.


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