May the Fourth Review: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

phantom

They’re not small, Neeson is far away: Lucasfilm

Yeah, that’s right, for Star Wars Day 2019 I’m reviewing this one. It’s not that bad. Alright it’s bad, but it’s not that bad. George Lucas knew what he wanted to achieve with THE PHANTOM MENACE, his vision remains clear and striking, but he could have definitely done with someone to hold him back every now and then and limit his worst excesses.

A planetary blockade attracts the attention of two Jedi Knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) who by necessity become bodyguards to a teenage queen (Natalie Portman), find a chosen one (Jake Lloyd) along the way and battle sinister forces who have been gone for a millennia…

Qui-Gon Jinn has a lot to answer for. Yoda (Frank Oz) at least attempted to advise him and Obi-Wan against his risky course of action, putting all his faith in a powerful but untrained and potentially dangerous pre-teen. A lot of people forget that. Yoda saw the danger in Qui-Gon’s misplaced faith from the start, the one outlier on the Jedi Council who disagrees with Obi-Wan training Anakin at the end of the film. Unfortunately for the galaxy, Yoda was outvoted: “Agree with you the council does…agree with their decision I do not”.

It’s not the wooden line readings (which don’t help) or the over-expositionary dialogue (which doesn’t help either) that sucks the life out of this film. It’s all the relentless politicking. It’s people describing what’s going on, who’s where and why and on what side rather than just showing us in interesting ways. The plot lurches from one side of the galaxy to another, lacking the momentum and strong through-line that pretty much every other Star Wars film has. We move from one location or plot development to the next not because of any organic reason to but because we’ve spent enough time on this bit of the story.

Lucas for some reason decided to retroactively explain the Force. The concept of medi-chlorians is like trying to come up with a scientific thesis to support any religion, or spirituality in general. The influence this prequel had on almost all others to do the same, that now nearly every film that leaps backward in an established universe now feels the need to justify every ambiguity, is a lasting damage to the medium.

So, about Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). I understand Lucas wanting a colourful mascot character, someone to appeal to younger kids in the audience and break the monotony with slapstick humour; that’s a very Star Wars thing to do. What most everyone does understandably object to is his presentation and what that might say about Lucas’s politics. Yes, he’s a big orange space frog-giraffe thing, but pop culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the way he speaks, acts and effects the plot is clearly based on some outdated and offensive views of black communities. Let’s not even get started on the stereotypes employed for the other alien races…

Liam Neeson is much better than this material deserves and it’s a shame if he asked to be killed off and not come back as is rumoured, because Qui-Gon’s continued presence in the Prequel Trilogy, even in Force Ghost form might have added another layer, if could have witnessed the fallout of his greatest mistake and perhaps even atoned. Pernilla August absolutely kills in Anakin’s goodbye scene – crueller critics have had a go at her delivery (she’s Swedish and doesn’t generally do English-language films) but she still has that special extra something going on behind her eyes, because she’s a good actor. Senator Palpatine’s subtle sleight-of-hand that gets him well on his way to ultimate power is also extremely well-played. I think Iain McDiarmid got a kick out of playing this characterisation out without having to exert much effort on Shakespearean dialogue (which this isn’t).

The Duel of the Fates is still good. But it’s not great, not anymore. We’ve come a long way in action choreography in 20 years. For years I was convinced Ray Park’s Darth Maul was quite diminutive, forgetting that he’s nearly always fighting the towering Neeson. Judge me by my size, do you? The pod race has aged far better, it’s still exhilarating and fun, the hard work of the effects wizards at ILM and Ben Burtt’s peerless sound design still leaving an indelible impression.

Twenty years on (Jesus, that’s depressing) and I’ll still go back and re-watch The Phantom Menace relatively happily. There’s enough imagination and space opera spectacle to divert even if the dodgy politics, stodgy storytelling and below-par performances still understandably attract derision. We’d have to wait another three years for a truly terrible episode of Star Wars, and maybe next time I’ll tackle that one as well. May the Fourth be with us all. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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