Be careful what you wish for. When the first film opened in ’77, it made its first impression with the fly-over by the Star Destroyer. “The Phantom Menace” gives you warning with its first real line of dialogue, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Just because George Lucas met the release date doesn’t mean he’s met anyone’s expectations. Were my expectations too high? Yup. Yours too. That doesn’t excuse all the problems of the film, though.
Most film buffs can point to a single film that triggered within them an epiphany about the power of film and maybe a few other things as well. For a lot of people in my age group (but not me), it was “Star Wars”. As such, no matter how hard everyone tries to play it cool, we all watch this film with a flutter in our hearts and a new hope. As the film unspooled, I scanned the faces of my friends as they slowly learned there was no Santa Claus; their father was really an idiot who had bullshit his way through their childhood, which had now come to a crashing end. What the hell happened? How had Lucas pulled a Malick and snatched defeat from the hands of an unlimited budget and final cut? As usual, I’ve got a couple of ideas.
Debatable as it is, I still believe great art usually comes from adversity. No one expected the original film to do well, and Lucas had to fight 20th Century Fox the whole way. Film is also a collaborative art, and no matter who you are, you need to have someone around you empowered to say when you’re screwing up. Lucas used to have producer Gary Kurtz, jettisoned after “The Empire Strikes Back”. More importantly, he used to have ex-wife, Marcia, who partially edited all three original films (and some of Scorcese’s). As Lucas has repeatedly stated, this time he “got to make the film he always wanted.”
I think the lack of adversity has generated a certain laziness. I have one treatment and four drafts of the script for what became “A New Hope” that are all radically different from the final product and each other. Lucas pounded away for years until he came up with his final, focused, full-formed script. It’s not unusual. Both of the last two Original Screenplay Oscars (“Good Will Hunting”, “Shakespeare in Love”) spent years being retooled. Those early “Star Wars” drafts bear more than a passing resemblance to the “Phantom Menace”. It feels like a first draft. There’s too much focus on characters, events, and plot points that don’t matter. Darth Maul has maybe ten minutes of screen time, all of it critical. Jar Jar Binks has nearly 90 minutes and is lucky to perform one significant act in any of that time. He’s just making noise.
Overall, the film has the awkward feel of a television pilot. A crisis forces together a motley crew of adventurers, introducing everyone, focusing on no one. There’s no good reason for R2-D2 or C-3P0 to be here, either. It’s difficult to determine just who the main villain is.
If I had to pick six words to describe this movie, they would be, “too busy, too silly, no mystery.” When George said it was a kid flick, he wasn’t lying. Is it necessary to fill every piece of the screen with ships and cute aliens with odd ethnic stereotypes? What kind of worlds could have spawned them? Did Anakin need to be ten years old? Why would you bring a ten-year-old into battle? Was it necessary for Jar Jar to have a “steppin’ in poop” joke, and an “animal farting” joke? Is it necessary for a character to explain every little thing EXCEPT for what the “Phantom Menace” actually is? Does night ever fall on Naboo? Is that the lamest explanation imaginable for “the Force”? Couldn’t George have kicked some money to Frank Darabont or David Mamet to fix the script?
Lucas, never very good with actors, proves to be even rustier than Malick. Too many scenes fall flat as the actors try to spew that Saturday morning dialog. This is not my biggest problem. I’m most disappointed in the total lack of elegance, of magic. The old flicks hinted at a much larger universe. Now Lucas is compelled to show us everything and it overwhelms the story. It’s like watching Stevie Ray Vaughn in concert. We know he can play, but he has to slow down and play some actual songs or the audience tunes him out. What we’re left with is a big toy catalog. It might as well be the “Transformers” movie. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Uncle George is having some trouble putting on the Santa suit. Look at the bright side. Now might be a good time to learn about girls.