The Mothership Has Landed
Go See 'Star Wars' So We Can All Get On With Life Here On Earth.
By James DiGiovanna
JUNE 1, 1999: I WAS ONE of the lucky few who got to see an advance screening of Star Wars: Episode 1--The Phantom Menace. My first thought, of course, was that I should try to steal the print. When I realized that the squadron of Jedi-esque security guards would make short work of me, I switched to Plan B, which was to walk out after 15 minutes...not because the movie was bad (it hadn't even started yet when I hit upon Plan B), but just because I thought that would be the "cool" thing to do.
But then the scrolling text started up the screen, and man-o-Manishevitz, was I glued to my seat: it turns out that a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...a trade war was underway! Yes, this wouldn't be your ordinary sci-fi...it would focus on fiscal policy and open borders and the flow of goods and monies into and out of entire planets. Now I was hooked.
See, there were these evil salespeople, and they were blockading the planet of Naboo because they were opposed to the tariffs that the Naboobians wanted them to pay. It was just like the banana war that U.S. businesses and congresspersons are fighting against Europe even as we speak.
Oddly, though, it turns out that we're supposed to be on the side of the Nabooine, or whatever they are called, in spite of the fact that they're the ones opposed to free trade! The Trade Federation, which just wants to ply goods without governmental interference, is actually allied with the Dark Side of The Force. The Dark Side of The Force is inherently evil, in the way that Nazis and Jenny Jones are evil. Not only that, they speak with Japanese accents, which I assume was some kind of commentary on Japanese business acumen and the evils of capitalism.
Could this be the first truly anti-capitalist sci-fi? I buckled in to see what sort of Greenspanian tactics they would apply to squeeze a NAFTA-type deal out of the Naboosers.
Pretty quickly, the Trade Federation gets all violent and starts sending robot troops onto the surface of Naboo...see, they didn't want to actually risk hurting any of their people, so they flew high above the planet and just dropped their robots down. Kind of like the way the U.S. is handling its wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq.
Luckily, these two Jedi Knights, played by foreigners Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson, are there to rescue the queen of Naboo, played by Natalie Portman. So there's this Scotsman and this Irishman getting this teenager out of Naboo to safety while these Japanese-accented American business types try to enforce a completely open market. So I'm thinking: things are really heating up.
So, as they're flying her to safety, trouble ensues, and they have to set down on the backwater planet of Tatooine, which you all will remember as the home of Luke Skywalker in the first movie, which was just called Star Wars, because back then nobody had thought to put a lot of punctuation in the titles.
Anyway, the queen, whose name is Amidala, which I'm sure will become as popular a baby name as "Luke" and "Leia" did 20 years ago, keeps talking about how they need to protect the democratic system on Naboo, and I'm thinking, "If it's a democratic system, how come she's the queen?" I mean, on top of "queen" not being an elected post, she looks to be about 16 years old, so one assumes that she would have been too young to run, anyway.
But all this is beside the point, I'm sure, as the queen and the two Jedis (who, as mentioned, are Irish and Scottish) have to repair their ship and get to some planet where there's a pan-galactic senate so they can complain about this whole business invasion of their world.
They find this little boy--he's like, 10 years old--and for some reason they put their fate in his hands. He's going to get them off the planet, repair their ship, lead them to victory, etc. This struck me as odd, but I guess youth-oriented culture was a much more severe thing a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Well, that's where the problems really begin. Up to this point in the film, the most annoying thing was this character named Jar Jar. Not only is it a stupid name, but he's a computer animated version of the bumbling side-kick. He talks in some weird, Jamaican-meets-Stepin' Fetchit voice, saying things like "you-sa in big doodoo!" This wears thin before it even starts. As if to reinforce the discomfiting aspects of his dialect, he's made the slave of these two Jedi, who, you may recall, are white guys from Scotland and Ireland.
I try to ignore this, and I'm attempting to enjoy this movie, but then they stick in this cute kid. All he does is look cute all the time. The Jedis are like, "We must take you away from your mother and make you a Jedi and blah blah blah," and he's all, "Look how damn cute I am. Could my eyes be any bigger?"
No, they couldn't be, but making big, pouty eyes is not the best substitute for what theater-goers like to call "acting." After that the movie really slows down, as there are long sequences of negotiations and bureaucratic dickering and political shenanigans. Things pick up later when the Jedis decide they've had enough of the working-it-out-peacefully thing and just start slicing stuff up with their cool laser swords, but it's a long wait.
The dialogue is consistently lame, the story drags, and there's too much cuteness, but Star Wars: Episode 1--The Phantom Menace is worth seeing anyway for one reason: the art direction is fabulous. Every planet has a completely different feel, and each captures an entire culture in its architecture. Tatooine is a world of mud huts with electronic sliding doors and hand-held video screens with elephant-tooth handles. The Galactic Senate world is an entire planet covered by urban sprawl, where even the skies are crowded with floating buildings. Naboo has beautiful cities that span waterfalls, and underwater villages with delicately curving steel girders reinforcing glowing glass bubbles.
And that's really what counts: for Star Wars fans it's not about the quality of the story or script, but about the cohesiveness, completeness and believability of the world presented. In that regard Episode 1 doesn't disappoint, as it presents one of the most real sci-fi universes ever to appear on the big screen. So you might wear ear-plugs, but you might as well go see it. Besides, everyone else is gonna.
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