I have to admit that I loved everything about this film except for two things – the writing and directing. Yes, it is an understatement to say that the movie is a disappointment; it is the disappointment of the millennium. Fans may try to convince themselves that they have seen a great film, but the truth is that if this film did not bear the title “Star Wars” it would simply be a bad sci-fi flick and no one would think twice about trashing it.
It’s difficult to approach reviewing “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” as simply a film since the Star Wars saga is so much more than that. It is a cultural phenomenon bordering on religious fanaticism that goes far beyond being a mere movie – it is an unprecedented pop culture experience shared by legions of fans who got hooked in the seventies. I am one of those fans. I first saw Star Wars when I was an elementary school kid in 1977 and I fondly remember it as a life-altering experience. The viewing of that movie propelled my interest in films and filmmaking.
I was ready to see it and love it. I have loved everything I have seen so far – the design, the costumes, the casting, the posters, the trailers, the music – everything. My expectations were lowered after hearing initial negative reviews, but the negative reviews we have seen so far do not even begin to touch the surface of what is wrong with this film.
So, what exactly is wrong with the Phantom Menace? So many things that it is difficult to discuss them all, but let’s start with the most basic problem, which is the story – an element creator George Lucas prides himself on caring so much about. It is weak. Partly because it’s hard to identify with the main character, that of nine year-old slave boy, Anakin Skywalker. I wonder what other slave boys around the world see in him that they may see in themselves? None of the characters are ever really developed enough for us to care about them, so it’s hard to get swept up in the convoluted storyline. The plot involves a Trade Federation blockade of the planet Naboo and the Queen of the planet, Amidala, will not sign a treaty, so killer droids land and take over. Trouble is, we just never seem to care. The story never reaches the level of an epic conflict and it seems better suited for the television screen.
Other problems abound, so let’s take them one by one:
Jar Jar ^ Imagine if Luke, Han and Leia brought Barney the dinosaur along with them on their “Star Wars” adventures and the purple t-rex commented on everything that happened? Now you have some idea of what Jar Jar is like. Got the picture? Strangely enough, Jar Jar ends up being the ONLY interesting character besides Anakin because he actually has a journey – he seeks to be accepted and his clumsy nature comes in handy in the final battle scene. Jar Jar accidently dumps a cart filled with energy balls that end up momentarily stopping the marching battle droid army. Jar Jar kind of works, but he is the least of the problems with this film. Jar Jar is made less real by the actors around him who can’t quite seem to know where their eyelines are. (It’s a directing thing – but it makes Jar Jar seem less realistic.) ^
Out of Place Humor ^ Three fart jokes. Count them – three. I remember reading somewhere that Lucas wanted this film to be an epic on the scale of “Lawrence of Arabia,” which, strangely enough, features no fart jokes at all. The humor is throw-away and infantile. There is a two-headed announcer during the pod race who exclaims in cliché sportscaster speak, “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt in any universe.” These attempts at comedy fall flat and only serve to take away one’s enjoyment of the film. If there are any employees of Lucasfilm or ILM reading this now (and I know there are since you are on our mailing list) please politely ask your boss to steer clear of the temptation to use this distracting six year-old sense of humor in future films in the Star Wars saga. If there are any. ^
Annoying References ^ Be sure to look in the lower left-hand corner of the screen during the suspenseless Galactic Senate scene. The screen is filled with aliens sitting in these floating booths and one can easily spot three familiar aliens – yes, it’s E.T. the extra-terrestrial! E.T. is in the new Star Wars movie! I wonder if he and Yoda hang out? ^
Star Trek Evil? ^ The bad guys are an alien race called the “Neimoidians” (pronounced “Nimoydians” as in Leonard Nimoy) and are from the trade “federation”. Is this a reference to Star Trek? It sure seemed like it. Will there be “Shatnerians” in the next film? What about “Chekovians”? ^
Stereotypical Alien Races ^ Alien caricatures like the greedy, weasely Neimoidians (Asian stereotypes) and the miserly and big-nosed Watto (you guess) made me sick to my stomach. Did Lucas think that stooping to ethnic stereotypes for his alien races was somehow creative? It was sheer laziness on his part. To make up for this, there are two African Americans in the film in bit parts with nothing to do. ^
Lack of Suspense ^ There is a great scene that might be considered a throw-away in the original “Star Wars”. On the Death Star a group of generals are discussing “the ultimate power in the universe…” while Darth Vader and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin look on. The scene is tense even though not much really happens. There is not a single scene in “The Phantom Menace” that even comes close to that level of intensity. In fact, the Jedi are undefeatable, which makes them really boring since every time they turn on their lightsabers, the other guy loses. ^
Bad Dialog ^ “Yippee! I get to be a Jedi Knight!” And it’s downhill from there. Remember lines like, “Millions of voices cried out and then were suddenly silenced.” You won’t find it in this film. ^
Meaningless Action Sequences ^ The original “Star Wars” contained action scenes that forwarded the story and tied into character. The final attack on the Death Star is not just about saving the rebellion and the planet, it is about Luke learning to trust his feelings as demonstrated when he turns off his targeting computer. The much-hyped pod race sequence isn’t about anything. There are no deeper layers to it. Anakin gets in trouble in the race, so he rewires his pod and that’s about it. Ultimately cool, but meaningless. ^
Overuse of Effects ^ After a while, the effects begin to look like an intro to a PlayStation video game. And they are not as impressive as you have heard. ^
Blood Force ^ This is the part of the film that offended me the most. Qui-Gon Jinn explains (in two separate scenes in case you’re not paying attention) that Jedi Knights have high midichlorian counts in their blood which explains why they are so adept at using the Force. This scientific explanation of the Force is totally unnecessary and ruins the magic and mystery of what I thought was supposed to be something spiritual. So, basically now, it really doesn’t matter if the Force is with you or not since you simply have to have the right blood. This overexplanation of the Force actually ruins the spiritual mythology contained in the original three films as it makes the phrase, “May the Force be with you” meaningless. ^
Unanswered Questions ^ Questions arise about Episode II and the film’s conclusion. So Anakin Skywalker has just saved our heroes by winning the pod race and blowing up the command ship controlling the battle droids on the surface. You would think that his next line of dialog would be something along the lines of, “Uh, hey, could we trade a few of these starships to Watto to free my mom from slavery?” And if Jedi can kick a*s so well, why don’t they just free the slaves on Tatooine themselves? ^
Also, we are led to believe in blatatanly obvious and amateurishly directed shots that (gasp!) Darth Sidious and Senator Palpatine are one in the same! I never would have figured that out! Either Lucas is being clever by misleading the audience into believing this fact only to turn it into some kind of twist later or he has really lost his directing touch.
I get angry when I hear defenders of the film say, “This film is not for older Star Wars fans, it’s for kids.” Well, I am a fan of Star Wars – if this film is not for me, then who the hell is it for?!
All in all, not everything is bad. The production design is awesome, Ewan MacGregor is excellent as young Obi-Wan Kenobi and some of the effects do not look like they were created on a computer.
May the midichlorians in your blood be with you!