Star Wars Rewatch: The Phantom Menace

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The Force Awakens opens on the 18th.  Star Wars fans can barely contain themselves.  They got the original band back together (mostly), and the epic saga continues with a new generation.

To better prepare ourselves, we here at Gabbing Geek are doing a Star Wars rewatch, with a movie covered a day until the 18th rolls around, skipping weekends.

Here’s our first installment on Episode I:  The Phantom Menace.

TOM:  The prequels have a reputation for being, well, bad.  I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall quality of the prequels, at least compared to the original trilogy, but I’m not sure how much I would consider them outright bad.  The AV Club actually did a think piece arguing the prequels are, at the least, not deserving of the hatred they receive.  At the very least, it would have been impossible for Lucas to meet the expectations of the fanbase who had lionized Star Wars for the better part of 15 years between movies.  Anticipation alone probably couldn’t meet expectation…which I really hope doesn’t have history repeat itself with The Force Awakens.

So, I’m going to take a little time here and actually talk about the stuff in The Phantom Menace that actually works.

First off, there are two bits in this movie that I think even the biggest prequel-haters can agree are top notch:  the pod race, and the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul.  Both are actually well-constructed bits of action, using the special effects to their best advantage.  It probably helps that no one really talks during these scenes aside from a two-headed announcer in the pod race and some random cheering fans.  Dialogue is not George Lucas’ friend.  Getting a high quality performance from his actors likewise isn’t his friend.  I’m not even sure how interested he was to actually direct these movies.

The lightsaber duel between Maul and the two Jedi is a prime example of doing something right.  Between the high speed fight choreography, John Williams’ score, and the sense of urgency the fight gives, the battle grabs the viewer’s attention and doesn’t let go.

Even better, the movie actually gives a great deal of attention to world-building detail.  The different pod racers and their pods all have distinct looks, and lots of little things are going on in the background for many scenes.  I don’t really want to credit Lucas for this, but he did have some talented designers working for him.  Each planet the movie visits has a distinct look.

I mean it about those small details.  Watch the backgrounds and you see stuff, like Maul’s probe passing behind Qui-Gon when he goes to collect his winnings from Watto, or my personal favorite of the gungan in the background of a battle scene repeatedly punching a battle droid in the head.

But for all that there is stuff to admire about the movie, there’s plenty to dislike.  The dialogue is often mediocre at best, and some of the key performances are a bit flat.  There are some decent performances, but they come from actors who realized the material wasn’t to be taken all that seriously.  Reportedly, Mark Hamil was asking Lucas about how the group wasn’t wet and dirty when they emerged from the trash compactor when Harrison Ford basically turned to him and said, “Kid, it’s not that kind of movie.”  Liam Neeson  and Ewan McGregor seem to get that.  Natalie Portman does not, and neither does Jake Lloyd.  To be fair to Lloyd, kid actors often have it rough, but we may want to ask ourselves who the better actor playing Anakin actually is.  It may actually be Lloyd.

Actually, no, its James Earl Jones.

Much of the movie seems to echo other films in the series.  Lucas actually said he did that on purpose, just like he repeats certain lines over and over.  He liked to show different characters reacting differently to the same scenario, like how Anakin jumps at the chance to leave home and become a Jedi, while Luke initially declines until circumstances more or less force him to.  The final battle sequences of the movie reflect both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.  Anakin alone manages to destroy the giant ship that needs to go for the good guys to win, and the simultaneous fights of a primitive tribe against a high tech army, while a space battle occurs to destroy a killer ship, and a deadly lightsaber battle occurs, could be gungans, ewoks, Maul, Vader, Anakin or Lando, and the results are fairly similar.

Trivia notes to end:  Keira Knightly is Padme’s decoy for those scenes when both Padme and the Queen are both onscreen.  Reportedly, in the make-up, even Knightly and Portman’s own mothers could tell them apart.

JIMMY:  In 1999, I was 24 years old and one of the many that stood in line for tickets to The Phantom Menace. I had never been so excited about the release of a movie. And probably have never been as hyped since. (I still don’t have Force Awakens tickets or definitive plans on when I am seeing it.) Camera crews were there. My colleagues at work saw me on the local news. No, I was not dressed as Darth Vader or Chewbacca or Slave Leia. It was like a Hollywood premiere, and that was just to buy tickets. Remember, back then there was no buying tickets online. There was hardly even an online. There was you and the crowd and the anticipation and this was going to be the best thing ever. The thing you tell your kids about. This was STAR WARS! A new STAR WARS! From LUCAS! It could NOT get better than this!

Unfortunately…then I saw The Phantom Menace. And if the phrase existed then, my review would probably have been “meh”. Which is likely a hell of a lot nicer than some people’s reviews. I know many around the Gabbing Geek offices absolutely hate the prequels to the point of ignoring their existence. I’ve never been fully in that boat, maybe just one foot in. There were aspects of the TPM that still managed to be awesome. I liked the pod racing. Darth Maul? Awesome. The light saber battles? Awesome. Duel of the Fates? Awesome. Of course, it had it’s problems. Jar Jar. The Trade Federation plot. Jar Jar. The acting. Jar Jar. Jake Lloyd. Jar Jar.

In fairness, given what we had just experienced in 1997-1998 with the tweaks to the Original Trilogy with the Special Editions that angered many fans, I guess we should have seen this coming.

When Tom announced he was going to do a rewatch of all six films leading up to next week, I used it as an opportunity, again, to try to convince Ms. Impossible to watch them with me. I believe she has probably seen the original trilogy like 30 years ago, but none of the new films. She is not a big sci-fi/fantasy fan. But finally I convinced her (i.e. she agreed to shut me up). Hopefully we get them all watched before The Force Awakens debut, but it seems unlikely that I’ll meet Tom’s deadlines for his posts. I’ll try to add my $0.02 in the comments after the fact if I can. So for now, I’ve only gotten as far as about halfway through rewatching The Phantom Menace. Do I still feel the same way 16 years later?

My first thoughts were…I don’t remember this being so bad. The acting is horrible. Liam Neeson is good. Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are ok. Everything/one else is just bad. It drives me crazy that the mouths of the Neimoidians at the beginning doesn’t sync up with what they are saying. Jake Lloyd? Still horrible. How this kid got through a casting process and through initial shoots and people thought he could pull this off is beyond me. I’ll likely bitch about Hayden Christensen as well in subsequent films, but this has got to be among the worst casting decisions ever.

When Tom requested that we start with Episode I and work our way through, I thought that it was interesting as I had never watched them in that order. Even after all these years (though I haven’t rewatched the prequels often), I always watched them in theatrical release order. I did discover a problem with this order though. There are some winks and nods to the original trilogy that fans will get more out of, but they don’t bog TPM down, so it’s not that. The biggest problem is how horrible the movie is. The story, Jar Jar, Boss Nass, Anakin. Maybe horrible is harsh, but it is not good and so childish at times. Which is great for kids (I guess) but not when you are trying to convince a 39 year old woman to watch 6 of these and spend over 12 hours in front of the television. It would be a much easier sell to hook a newbie in with A New Hope and then run with things from there. But this is the order we were tasked with. So while I felt like apologizing over and over and wanting to say “it gets better” every time Jar Jar did something stupid, I do think this order works in anticipation of The Force Awakens. Being fresh off Return of the Jedi is surely the way to head into the new movie I imagine.

So I’m hating the acting, hating the story, hating Jar Jar, hating Jake Lloyd…was there anything I still liked? Pretty much the same things I liked before, it just seems like the divide between good and bad has grown immensely. I still like Qui-Gon. I still like the pod racing sequence. And though I only saw the first Darth Maul/Qui-Gon battle on Tatooine, the saber duels and Darth Maul are still the highlights of the film.

I’m looking forward to rewatching that final fight between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and will add some more thoughts in the comments assuming I ever get it watched.

<one half watched movie later>

Well what do you know?  I actually finished Phantom Menace and made a deadline!  If Watson was here and not lost in the Himalayas during some kind of climbing excursion I would tell him “In your face Watson!”…but also not to expect a repeat of it anytime soon.

The second half of Phantom Menace is actually not that bad.  The light saber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is still epic.  Even the Gungan/Naboo versus the Trade Federation and their droids is ok…minus any slapstick comedy moments from Jar Jar and Anakin.  It was a much more enjoyable hour than the first, and since it was mostly action we weren’t subjected to much “acting” which was a huge bonus.

I did remember one thing that I hated that I never touched on above.  The creation of and discussion of the concept of the Midi-cholorians.  Perhaps the most unnecessary and most unwanted addition to Star Wars lore after Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd.  The conversation where Qui-Gon tries to explain the Midi-cholrians to Anakin is one of those cringe worthy “acting” moments that was mostly avoided in this half of the film.  Why take one of the coolest things about the Jedi and try to explain it in a biology lesson?  It’s THE FORCE!  Why does it need any more explanation than that???

And what was Ms. Impossible’s reaction to the film you ask?  Well, she said it was “ok”.  She thought that it felt dated and it’s 16 years were showing.  (Which may not look good for the original trilogy, but I think they’ll hold up.)  I don’t really agree with her.  There are some effects that were a little weak from a “it was made in the late 90’s, it was the best technology we had” perspective, but nothing that really stood out to me.  Her biggest complaint surprisingly was that she couldn’t understand why we were starting with Episode I and not the original trilogy.  I shrugged and blamed Tom.

RYAN: What can I say that hasn’t already been said by my two more capable sitemates?  Hmmm…

Oh yes, this.  THE PHANTOM MENACE IS A PUTRID PIECE OF PETRIFIED BANTHA EXCREMENT.

Episode I doesn’t just crap the bed, it stained the mattress and had inappropriate relations with the box spring.  I get what Tom and Jimmy have said about the “positives” of the movie (and yes those are sarcastic quotation marks) and I disagree.  No, I strenously disagree.  Because while you can take out bits and pieces and say oh this moment wasn’t so bad or this moment was actually okay or hey look they actually hired a fight choreographer to put together a lightsaber fight that isn’t just swinging and blocking–NONE OF IT MATTERS!  

It doesn’t matter because the movie fails.  Fails to capture the imagination.  Fails to bring back the sense of wonder we felt with ALL THREE original movies.  Fails to deliver on the promise of a Darth Vader prequel and, even worse, it sets the stage for three movies with a cracked foundation that prevents any of the others for ultimately delivering because at the end of the day they all started here.

Here.  With a tax dispute.  I still remember sitting in the theater.  The lights go down.  The room is packed.  I’m in Silicon Valley so every single person in the room has had multiple lightsaber fights (possibly that week) and can hum most of the the Star Wars theme in unison.

The previews play, we endure.

The drums play.  The searchlights appear.  The time has come.

The green sparkly Lucasfilm dances on the screen.  Oh my god it’s real, it’s real.

The trumpets blare and the music starts.  We are all split into two people–the children we were in the theater the first time we saw Star Wars and the adults we are now, seeing the start of a new story in a galaxy far, far away.  It is…perfection.

The words appear.  Episode I.  The Phantom Menace.  We’ve known the name but have no idea what it means.  We all have ideas.  It doesn’t matter.  We will know soon enough.

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic.

You’re darn right there’s turmoil!  Because Star Wars is about war.  In the stars!  Fighting and evil and good and heroes and villains!  YES!!!

The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Wait.  What?  Taxation?  Trade routes?  Um, that’s not war.  That’s like whining about money.

The crawl goes on but it doesn’t do any better.  Blockade.  Negotiations.  This is not a war.  This is not exciting.  This is…boring.

And sure they insert some Jedi into…a tax negotiation.  Because it is Star Wars after all.  But it doesn’t make sense.  And it’s boring.  And it just keeps going.

Because this was the foundation for the Emperor taking control?  Taxes over trade routes?  He consolidates power because…why?  A few Jedi and underwater energy globes can take out these robots–how is this a threat at all?  A little kid punches a few buttons and blows up their headquarters.  From here the rest of the Galactic Senate is supposed to be scared?

The rest of the movie has been covered, there’s no need for me to pile on.  Piling onto The Phantom Menace is redundant anyway.  Put more crap on a pile of crap and it’s still just a pile of crap.  With lightsabers.

And yes we can identify pieces that work–but this isn’t a movie of pieces.  This isn’t even a single movie.  It’s a piece of the Star Wars story.  Or at least it was supposed to be.  It’s all well and good to try and see if TPM deserves the hatred it receives because, by itself, it wasn’t that bad.

But by itself WE WOULDN’T HAVE SEEN THE PHANTOM MENACE!  By itself, this movie would have gotten horrible reviews and wouldn’t have had two sequels.  By itself, I wouldn’t have been looking forward to the movie and downloaded the trailer and bought merchandise.  This isn’t a “by itself” movie and shouldn’t be judged as such.

Oh, but by itself it still had Jar Jar.  So by itself it can go &%(# itself.

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