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A Phantom Menaces

May 16th, 2005

I intend to take a little time each day this week to write about the Star Wars prequels. To that end, this weekend I did something I hadn’t done in a surprisingly long time: watched Episodes I and II in full. You’d think that a major geek like myself would have seen them enough by now to have memorized the dialogue, but the beauty of owning them on DVD is that I can skip straight to the “good parts.”

I was especially interested in rewatching The Phantom Menace. Had the passage of six years blunted what was, at the time of its premiere, a crushing disappointment? Would the knowledge of what was to come in Episodes II and (to a large extent) III cause me to look at it in a different light?

Eh, not so much.

In the film that has now been retroactively dubbed Episode IV: A New Hope, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the lightsaber as “an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.” The Phantom Menace sets out to portray this more civilized era, and the result is in nearly every way the furthest removed from the rest of the cinematic saga.

When the original Star Wars debuted in 1977, much was made of its design aesthetic, which replaced the familiar, gleaming corridors of 2001: A Space Odyssey with homely living quarters and cobbled-together, hot-rod starships. Later films such as Alien and Blade Runner further developed the notion of a lived-in universe.

The look of The Phantom Menace appears to be a counterpoint to the tradition begun with Star Wars: almost everything outside of Watto’s junk shop is clean, sleek and shiny. There’s a sterile beauty to the skyscrapers of Coruscant and the underwater bubbles of Otah Gunga.

That sterility, unfortunately, extends to much of the dialogue and performances. Gone is the casual banter and bickering of the weary rebels of the original trilogy. Instead, Episode I is populated by politicians, royals and knights, all of whom speak very formally, rarely cracking a joke or even a smile.

A few characters break out from the stuffy pack: Watto, the flying junk dealer, young Anakin Skywalker (yes, he’s still stilted, but it’s not entirely his fault), and everyone’s favorite Gungan, Jar Jar Binks.

Ah, Jar Jar, arguably the most-maligned character in sci-fi film history. Is he as bad as all that? Yes and no.

Jar Jar’s primary crime is that, for a comic relief character, he’s just not that funny. His difficult-to-understand pidgin English dialect doesn’t help, but I think Ahmed Best’s flat performance torpedoes any chance the character had. A really good voice actor might’ve made it work.

Charges of racism were levelled in reaction to the Jar Jar character, and while I do not accept (or, at least, choose not to accept) that this was intentional on the part of writer/director George Lucas, it was very clear from the first that Binks was designed to fill the role that Stephen Fetchit played in the 1930s: the wide-eyed, cowardly, clumsy minority. Perhaps Lucas felt that he could get away with it, given that Gungans don’t exist in our world. If so, casting a black voice actor was a major lapse in judgment.

Episode I betrays the influence of ’30s and ’40s genre flicks more than any of the other Star Wars chapters. The Trade Federation aliens speak like classic Yellow Peril villains, and I still wonder whether their addiction to technology and economic might are intended to be reflections of a certain wartime island nation. Various flourishes invoke the old-time serials; for instance, the Federation cruiser’s viewscreen uses a swirling effect that’s a direct swipe from the Flash Gordon adventures.

What works in The Phantom Menace? Lots, actually. There’s plenty of eye candy: the rolling, deadly Destroyer Droids; the massive underwater monsters of Naboo; the various podracing aliens.

The Podrace itself is a wonderful sequence, and very welcome as it breaks up what is otherwise a lengthy and deadly dull middle section. Some complain that it goes on for too long, but I think it’s an exquisitely constructed action setpiece. Lap one sets up the course and its hazards (including some redneck Sandpeople in one of the film’s few truly funny moments), lap two pits little Anakin against the pack of also-ran contenders, and lap three is, of course, the showdown between Anakin and one of the film’s best creations, the sneering, egotistical, hand-walking alien ace Sebulba.

Qui-Gon Jinn, the elder Jedi who takes Anakin under his wing, is the most interesting of the human characters. On one hand, he is compassionate and has the appearance of wisdom, yet his judgment and even his ethics are somewhat questionable. (Using the Force to cheat at dice, and, of course, defying Jedi wisdom to demand Anakin’s training.)

Also of note is the wonderful Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine, who quietly schemes his way into leadership of the Republic, all the while putting up a charming facade. Although it may not have been immediately apparent to non-fans who didn’t realize that McDiarmid also played the Emperor in Episode VI, Palpatine was on his way to becoming one of the most sinister, Machiavellian villains ever.

It’s Palpatine’s schemes which prove, to me at least, the lie that claims George Lucas makes Star Wars movies solely for the money. Many people complained about the political maneuvering throughout the film, and indeed, it does at times slow the action to a crawl. It certainly doesn’t sell any toys.

There’s a creepy undercurrent to the hijinks of Episode I. While it will not become fully apparent until Revenge of the Sith, all of the heroes’ struggles, sacrifices and victories accomplish little more than setting the Phantom Menace on his path to power. It’s telling that the joyful childrens’ chorus in the closing celebration scene is singing an upbeat version of the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi. That’s pretty damned cool. And it’s what keeps the first Star Wars film from being nothing but a frivolous exercise.

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