Sunday, January 1, 2017

Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, Movie Review)


       When “Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace” first premiered back in 1999, it was a big deal. Audiences were hyped as hell to see a new Star Wars movie for a new generation. Marketing was everywhere you looked, I couldn't even walk into a local gas station without seeing some kind of advertisement or merchandise on display. Then after its big premier, the movie was met with surprisingly pore reception from critics, and an even bigger negative reception from fans. Much like “Batman and Robin”, this movie has gained the distinct reputation for being the absolute worst film in the franchise. I’d probably be lying if I said this wasn’t my least favorite entry in the series, but I also don’t think it’s completely terrible either, it’s just...not that good. When I was a little kid I loved this movie and watched it all the time, but it’s gotten worse with repeated viewings, to the point where I just don’t watch it anymore.


        Our story begins on a planet called Naboo which is apparently going through problems regarding taxation and trade disputes. Gee, nothing starts an outer space adventure off on a high note like tax violations and legal proceedings, right? Anyway, there’s a fleet of ships orbiting the planet that are supposedly there to help with taxes, and two Jedi knights named Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent in to investigate. It’s soon revealed that the trade convoy is merely a disguise of sorts to mask a massive invasion army of battle droids that aim to capture the planets queen and take over the system, or something like that. Our hero’s soon rescue the queen and race across the universe to the capital planet of the galaxy to seek aid in the crises. Along the journey our hero’s meet some new allies, including comedic side characters, some familiar faces from the original films and a young boy named Anakin Skywalker, who’s the proclaimed chosen one that will bring peace to the galaxy. My first problem with the film is that the details of the plot are never made 100% clear. What do the villains hope to gain by taking over the planet, what are their motivations, etc. As the movie goes on more topics are only mentioned in passing, as if the audience is already supposed to know what they’re talking about, but it just comes off as vague information to me.   



       Now the set up itself isn’t bad, I actually really like the idea of following a small group of people who escaped from a planet that’s under invasion, and are forced to go traveling across the galaxy. Unfortunately, while the concept has potential, everything just feels slow, tired and surprisingly lifeless. From the under explained stakes and organizations, to the wooden characters, to the passively diverting fight scenes, there’s just no story being told here, and it makes the movie come off like a complete snooze fest. Their space ship never feels like a home the same way the Millennium Falcon did, and there’s a noticeable lack of emotional depth in this film. We’re constantly being told that the civilians on this invaded planet are suffering and dying but we never even see a glimpse of the supposed hardships this planet is going through, and it’s hard to get emotionally attached to this world without seeing any of that. None of the characters are that developed either, and they lack the individual personalities that characterized the hero’s from the original films.


      The only person that I really liked in this film is Jedi master Qui Gon Jinn himself. This is the role that introduced me to Liam Neeson, and it wouldn’t take long for me to become a fan of his in following movies. He is just spot on in the role of Qui Gon, making the Jedi master come off as one of the most passionate and humble of all the hero’s in the series. The young Obi-Wan Kenobi is played well by Ewan Mcgregor, but the movie just never gives him the chance to do anything. Other popular characters like Yoda, C-3PO, Jabba the Hutt, the Emperor and R2-D2 are present but only seem to function as fan service. They do at least have some nice moments, and I especially like when C-3PO meets R2-D2 for the first time, that was a cute moment.


     The villain of the movie is Darth Maul, who has a great design, coming off like something that belongs in your nightmares, and of course he has that awesome double bladed light saber. Unfortunately, this guy is supposed to be like the next Darth Vader, but he’s more like the next Boba Fett because all this guy dose in the film is look cool while standing in the background with little to say or do. In fact, I actually think that Boba Fett had more lines of dialogue then him. We actually see more of the boring trade federation bad guys than our lead antagonist, which just makes Maul feel like wasted potential. Thankfully his legacy has grown in the expanded Star Wars universe, so he at least can shine as a memorable Star Wars villain is other mediums. This movie also introduces us to the concept of the Sith, but it never really explains what they are. We can assume that the Sith are evil versions of the Jedi, but there’s so much about their back story that’s kept incredibly vague.


       Now let’s talk about the little boy hero named Anakin Skywalker. One of the chief complaints from fans is Jake Lloyd’s annoying performance in the role, but personally, I don’t mind him. Sure he’s a little silly but I was just like that when I was seven. Besides, this version of Anakin is actually a good guy, or good kid anyway. He’s selfless, thinking of others before himself, and he does help our hero’s in more ways then one. So I’d much rather watch this silly little kid instead of the whinny, brooding, emotionless, self centered Anakin played by Hayden Christensen. No ... Jake Lloyd isn’t an issue, the real problem is that this character dose absolutely nothing related to the force throughout the whole movie. How ironic is that, the characters refer to him as a proclaimed chosen one that will bring the force back into balance, but we never see him do anything with the force. He wins a race, but that was all on skill. He destroys an enemy battleship, but that was just dumb luck. It wasn’t like the force guided him the same way it guided Luke when he destroyed the death star.


      Also, I hate that Anakin’s officially labeled “The Chosen One”. I’m so sick of every lead character being part of a great prophesy. Why not just have a normal guy be a great hero, that’s what they did with Luke in the originals and that was excellent. In my review of the original Star Wars I praised it for subtly incorporating deep biblical references into its story telling, but this movie on the other hand is anything but subtle, it’s more like a jack hammer to the skull. To further emphasize that Anakin is “The Chosen One”, he was born under “Immaculate Conception”. No joke, the mother states that she got pregnant and gave birth while still a virgin and never once had a husband. This just feels uncomfortably out of place by “Star Wars” standards and may even offend Catholic or Christian viewers. The force is also screwed up big time with a biological explanation, which defeats its whole spiritual theme and identity.   

           

      I almost forgot to talk about the queen character named Padme Amidala, and this is yet another issue I have with the film. However, this is a strange anomaly of a problem because it’s so different from the others. Basically, I feel that this character has absolutely no identity to speak of in the whole movie. Half the time she’s played by Keira Knightley of “Pirates of the Carrabin” fame, while in the other half she’s played by Natalie Portman. You see, there’s a twist reveal at the end of the film that the queen was a fake decoy queen the whole time, and the real queen was under the guise of a hand madden, which just doesn’t work at all. First off, why didn’t she drop the act earlier when she was clearly out of danger and among allies? Second, the decoy queen is the one played by Keira Knightley and she seems to do some BIG things that the real queen should be doing. This includes putting in a vote to dethrone a chancellor during a court session, and declaring a privet war to win back her planet. Second, it’s really hard to tell when it’s the real queen or the fake one, and that makes it almost impossible to care for this character on any level. Third, Padme will eventually fall in love and get married to Anakin, even though Anakin is half her age, maybe even less then that. Fourth, there’s an easy way they could have fixed this, why not have Padme be the queens little sister in disguise as a hand madden, that would have at least made more sense, would have given her a little more of an identity, and it would be a nice throw back to the original films to have a new princess character.


      For whatever it’s worth, I think the movie looks terrific, if fact, it’s the best looking of the three prequel films with some real locations, and some hand built sets as opposed to entirely blue screen locations like in the latter films. I also like all the different worlds, and how diverse they are. There’s a planet that looks like one big futuristic city, and then by contrast, there’s a planet that looks more like a medieval Kingdome, with big castles and renaissance style clothing. I especially love the design of the underwater city, I swear that has to be one of the coolest locations in all of Star Wars, right up there with cloud city. Now, do I think the film over utilizes its special effects, of course I do. In fact there are several scenes that have nothing to do with the plot or characters and only exist to show off the effects. Take that scene with the giant fish monsters for example, it’s completely pointless, isn’t the least bit exciting, doesn’t develop the characters and is just there for the sake of eye candy.   


       The worst scene by far is the pod race that goes on for way too long. In comparison to the Quidditch matches from the Harry Potter films, those were pleasant little diversions, as well as colorful, exciting, they never overstayed their welcome, and they even helped progress the story a little. This pod race on the other hand is long, boring and waists precious time that could have been given to developing the characters. Worst of all, its set in this ugly, dull looking desert, which has to be the most boring place you could possibly set a race like this. Things only get more boring after this when our hero’s arrive on the skyscraper planet, where we get lots of meaningless political talks, council meetings and the movie just drags itself by the feet.  


      Things do liven up when we get to the climax, which is a fun mish-mash of four different battles all happening at once. The queen leads a small band of troops on a mission to retake the castle from the villains, there’s a battle waging in outer-space as a fleet try to take down a supper battle ship, and there’s an army of battle droids waging war on an open field against another warrior breed of aliens that are trying to reclaim their home planet. Some may complain that there’s just too much going on, that it’s too complicated to follow, which is understandable, but personally, I enjoy this. There’s a great verity of fun and action on display, and I’d much rather watch this then one single boring space battle like what we got at the end of the first movie.


      Let’s cut to the chase, the best part of the whole movie is the final light saber dual between Darth Maul and our two Jedi hero’s. This is nothing short of ... AWESOME! From the swift sword fighting choreography, to the exhilarating music, to the awesome interior design where the fight is staged, it’s just a thrilling finally and one of the best light saber duals in Star Wars history. In fact, I’d put it among the top three best action scenes in the whole franchise. John William’s musical track called “The Dual of the Fates” is just fantastic, and really livens up the action. If I was to nit-pick at anything, it would be that silly hallway of shields randomly turning on and off. Seriously, why would they install that in the castle, what purpose dose that serve?       

    
     So how do I feel about this movie overall? Honestly, it’s stuck in this void where I neither love it, nor hate it, I just sort of okay it. This certainly isn’t a movie I watch that often, and it’s obviously my least favorite of all the theatrical Star Wars movies. However, that’s only because of how boring it gets, to be perfectly honest I actually have more problems with “Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones” then this film, but I’ll talk about that one later. Even at their worst, it is still a Star Wars movie, and I can enjoy it on some small level. Plus, it at least has some moments I like, which is more then I can say for other bad sequels. This is by no means a good movie, and it’s deserved the bad reputation it’s gotten, but at the very least, I don’t think it’s completely worthless either. It’s just a very average Sci-Fi adventure that pails in comparison to its predecessors.   
        

                  I give Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace 2 ½ stars out of five.

To Be Continued...

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