Thursday, 9 February 2012

Movies - Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: George Lucas
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid
Running Time: 132mins

First off, this review is not based on the 3D version of the film. By all accounts, the content of the original and new versions are identical, save for the visual depth effects and a few brief additional scenes which do not affect the story in any way. Given my views on 3D, I would not be the ideal person to assess its worth in the re-release anyway. This review will therefore concentrate on looking at how the film holds up twelve years after its original release.

Of course, Phantom Menace is most notorious for being among the most reviled sequels in film history. For many fans it represented the moment when George Lucas gave into creative bankruptcy and reduced the beloved Star Wars saga to a personal vanity project. The backlash was swift, intense and driven by the burgeoning internet. There's no point pretending I wasn't part of it: my feeling upon sitting down to watch the film was dread at the two hours ahead of me, my brain fogged with memories of stilted dialogue, awful performances, lethargic pacing and, urgh, Jar Jar Binks.
First things first, Jar Jar hasn't improved at all in the interim. He's still superfluous to the narrative, aggressively unfunny (aggressively because Lucas never ceases trying to push his unbearable antics into the midst of the action) and one of the more appalling examples of racial caricaturing in modern times. The only thing impressive about him is that there is not a single moment, not a frame, where he is not completely loathsome in every conceivable capacity. It might be argued that he's there for the children, but that's redundant: there are already enough colourful creatures roaming the screen to keep younger viewers entranced without resorting to insulting comic relief, no doubt with both eyes on toy sales at the time. Besides, the Star Wars films are for families, not children alone, and a large percentage of the film's audience would have consisted of adults with fond memories of the original trilogy. Having a child-friendly character is fine, but not one abhorrent for anyone over the age of five.

The good news is that, freed from the shackles of insurmountable expectation, the film is better than remembered. That's a barbed compliment, because it's still not very good, but merely flat rather than (Binks aside) offensively awful. It will be interesting to find out if the subsequent prequels also improve with age, although since a greater number of specifically dreadful lines and scenes from those two are imprinted in my memory - especially from Revenge Of The Sith, which I saw with no expectations and came away hating even more than either of its immediate predecessors - let's diplomatically say that any lingering optimism will be kept at bay for now. Phantom Menace is still a drudge, but one at least interspersed with a few decent set-pieces and dialogue closer to the amusing clunkiness of the original trilogy than the intellect-compressing horrors to come. Nobody here explains their dislike of sand or why the Jedi are evil from their point of view.

Having an actor with Liam Neeson's earthy charisma to hand certainly doesn't hurt. He sells Qui Gon Jinn's calmness and wisdom with an effortlessness that Ewan McGregor never came close to matching when handed the reins, no matter how bushy his beard. McGregor is weak in this as well, although his absence of personality and gravitas can at least be explained by Obi Wan's lack of experience. (His killjoy personality, always complaining about something or other, is less excusable). Qui Gon's assuredness is the star around which this galaxy revolves, representing the best of the Jedi order while slightly older than he needs to be to handle the rising threat of a resurgent Sith, in the shape of Darth Maul and his behooded boss, Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious.

Crucially, the two villains are equally effective: my memory tells me that McDiarmid's Palpatine was the most compelling aspect of the two remaining prequels and his deviousness even manages to bring a spark to a plot revolving around bureaucratic inefficiency and trade disputes. Maul doesn't have much in the way of character, but looks sufficiently nasty to be fearsome on sight and his lightsabre battle against Obi Wan and Qui Gon demonstrates the perilously capable threat facing the Jedi in the near future.

Those positive elements are unfortunately in constant conflict with a plot that too often slows to a crawl, delivering reams of exposition between action set-pieces - which, between the pod race and aforementioned lightsabre showdown, are pretty enjoyable, although the Binks-centric battle between droids and Gungans is as insufferable as feared - and too concerned with explaining the bureaucratic minutiae of a fictitious intergalactic senate, when broad strokes are all that is needed and wanted. The crucial subplot involving Jake Lloyd's Anakin is undermined by the character's dialogue in the second half of the movie consisting entirely of astonished exclamations. Lloyd himself isn't too bad, a bit stilted but mostly betrayed by the material he is forced to deliver.

The Jesus parallels are ham-fisted at best (a virgin birth, really?) and unconvincing, especially since nobody seems particularly bothered by how powerful he is supposed to be. There are a few nice touches foreshadowing his fall from sweet-natured boy to corrupted adult, like Yoda sensing his emotional weakness and clouded future, or Palpatine taking a sinister interest in his future, but his demotion to comic relief after the pod race is immediately grating. Likewise, there's something a tad unsettling in knowing that he's later going to be getting funky with Portman (who is dreadful here, expressionless and delivering lines in an inexplicable, nasally accent), given how their age difference must be at least twenty years.

Phantom Menace's principal crime is reducing a once exciting franchise to mediocrity, putting too much focus in all the wrong places and only occasionally showing glimpses of the action that should have been driving the storyline, rather than shoehorned in. Lucas' direction and dialogue is clumsy and the editing lax, but nowhere nearly to the extent that the film's reputation suggests. John Williams' score elevates the material as stirringly as ever, while two of the three big action sequences are just enjoyable enough to mitigate most of the blunders, except Binks, in-between. If you are going to subject yourself to any of the prequels (with the added frustration of 3D), this should probably be the chosen one. [ 5 ]

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