Friday, February 10, 2012

Star Wars—Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I was 16 years old when The Phantom Menace was released. And for the previous 10 years I had watched the three Star Wars films with what some would call an unhealthy regularity. When I saw Episode I for the first time, I didn't mind or even notice many of its problems. I left the film exhilarated by the visions I had seen: dangerous encounters with underwater leviathans; a maze of Venetian streets and pathways; a machine army marching in perfect unison; an entire planet covered in cityscapes. More than a decade later, I am pleasantly surprised by how well many of these images hold up. And I would still argue that the three-way light saber battle at the end of the film is one of the high points of the entire series. Having said that, George Lucas’ failure to meet the most basic criteria of competent filmmaking makes The Phantom Menace feel like an amateur film at times, proving every bit as grating as its reputation suggests. Lucas has become infamous for bad dialogue since the prequels, but this was also a trait of the original Star Wars and can quite honestly add to the fun of storytelling. Where the film really suffers is with its schematic narrative, poorly staged and edited scenes, and a misguided sense of humor that veers on embarrassing. In addition, Lucas' drawing of the young Anakin Skywalker—most notably his accidental late-film heroics—is so wrongheaded that one has to wonder whether Lucas had been questioned at any point as the movie was being made. Unfortunately these flaws are so pronounced that they overshadow what the film gets right. For instance, Liam Neeson is convincing as a calmly defiant Jedi and the villain Darth Maul has a palpable screen presence. I also love the frenzy of the opening scenes and how they move from location to location without allowing much time to take in what's happening. Then there are also the smaller pleasures like the background activity to the marketplace scenes on the desert planet, which very much capture the spirit and detail-oriented sense of the original films. But, in whole, The Phantom Menace is glaringly disjointed. I still maintain that its qualities are overlooked, but Lucas' startling ineptitude with some elements of filmmaking/storytelling craft make it a hard film to defend. (George Lucas, 1999) **½

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