Saturday, December 12, 2015

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Film Review

by The World Weary

Director: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Jake Lloyd, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid
Series: Star Wars
MPAA Rating: PG
Length: 133 Minutes

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Naboo History 101

This article features spoilers for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I'll be honest...

When I was a kid, and The Phantom Menace hit theaters, I could not be more excited. I had the opportunity to see the re-release of the Original Trilogy in theaters and now, there was a brand new film, with new characters and worlds. Obviously, Darth Maul and the epic lightsaber battle at the end of the film were the highlights for me and my friends who, after the film, would pretend to be engaged in vicious lightsaber battles for the fate of the galaxy. I was a child, and as a child, it was impossible not to get swept away by the bombardment of toys, books, games, and comics, even if the movie felt a little different from the original films.

So now that I'm an adult, how do I feel about a film I once loved?
Well, it hasn't aged well.

A Jedi Knight, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and his Padawan Learner, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are dispatched to the planet Naboo to resolve a trade dispute between the planet's inhabitants, who are led by the young Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), and the ominous Trade Federation. Upon their arrival they discover that the Trade Federation means to invade Naboo with a massive droid army, and the Jedi scramble to find the Queen so they can take her off planet before the Federation uses her to assume total control.

The Jedi lead the Queen, her handmaidens, and bodyguards to Tatooine, a distant planet unmolested by the Trade Federation. There they meet a mysterious young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who appears to be incredibly strong in the Force. Anakin helps the Jedi repair their ship by winning a race and using the winning to buy the parts. Qui-Gon, sensing that Anakin may be an ancient Jedi savior of prophecy, decides that the boy must be trained to control his power, and takes Anakin to the home world of the Galactic Republic, Coruscant.

And, here's the first, and most devastating of this film's problems.

I just had to tell you what happens for about a solid hour and a half of this movie's two hour runtime just to even get close to something resembling a plot. This film's plot is like a live action Wikipedia summary for a chunk of the Star Wars timeline. There's tons of these kind of landmark events throughout, like "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi", or when Anakin reveals his home made droid, C-3PO. This kind of "landmark storytelling" (I couldn't think of a better name) would be awesome if this was a historical recreation in a documentary or a show on the History Channel, but it feels awkward and forced in a film.

Also, because there's no real grounding in any one moment all of the events and performances come off as stale. It seems like the only direction the actors got was, "your character needs to do this so we can film the next scene". There's not a shred of emotion, or a hint of stakes in anything that takes place in this film, up until the final thirty minutes.

Anyways, ultimately, Anakin, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Queen Amidala, return to Naboo after accomplishing precisely fuck all, and decide to team up with an underwater race of creatures to fight off the Trade Federation. Yay.

So many people have said so many bad things about this film, but frankly, after watching (or half-watching) it three times this week, I can honestly say that this film is not that bad. It's not good, but it's a far cry from the true depths of despair that these prequels reached (which I'll get to talk about tomorrow). It has some great action sequences, like the climactic lightsaber battle and the podracing sequence. They're not the smartest or most inventive action scenes, but they are fun to watch.

Also, Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid turn in some solid performances. Watching Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon get repeatedly frusturated with Jar Jar Binks is pretty hilarious, and McDiarmid turns in what will become the most consistent and entertaining performances in the whole trilogy. Ray Park shines as Darth Maul, mostly because his stunt training and physicality showed us a whole new, more raw side of the Dark Side, making his duel against two Jedi at the end of the film a blast to watch, and in general, the film just looks good. The aethetic of the different worlds and the beautiful cinematography look and feel great, and the sound design is brilliant as ever.

So, I'll say it again. I like this movie. It's not a film I would actively seek out time and time again, but it's fun to throw on every once in a while, in spite of the awful stereotypes and poorly aging CGI. For Star Wars fans, and people new to the series, this film may be a little off putting, and it certainly does set the bar pretty low for the next two films, but overall it's an inoffensive, brainless, pretty diversion that will forever live in the shadow of it's own trilogy.

Score: 6

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