Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). Directed by George Lucas. With Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd and Ian McDiarmid.
George Lucas is responsible for my happiest and most disappointing cinema experiences. Nothing could surpass the elation of the three-in-one cinema screening of the original Star Wars trilogy in the summer of 1985. I was 8-years-old. Those movies were pure magic to me.
Fast-forward 14-years. It’s the summer of ’99. The Phantom Menace is released to the world. I’m seated in the auditorium, anxious for more magic. New magic.
The opening crawl begins with talk of taxation and trade routes…I understand none of it. But it’s OK, because John Williams is blasting my senses with music that defines the sound of excitement and adventure. The movie starts and the air is slowly sucked out of the room. The film ends and I slowly trudge out. I try to tell myself it wasn’t that bad. The power of denial. I see it two more times. It doesn’t improve. Worse still, I think it is a disaster.
Fast-forward another 20-years and I’m seated with no expectations on Star Wars Day – May 4th 2020. By now I have made my peace with the prequels. I’ve chuckled at Obi Wan GIF’s and Anakin meme’s. The films had been kicked around town by critics and venemously obliterated by ‘Red Letter Media’. If anything, through the prism of internet ridicule I’ve found a warped affection for their critical failure and my own resulting fan deflation. In short, they’ve become a bit of a joke.
The movie begins will dry, robotic dialogue. Use of the line “I have a bad feeling about this” could not be more ironic. One character says it in the first 5-minutes! It all goes south from there. What ensues is talk of trade routes, treaties, chancellors, senates, beaurocrats…none of stitched together with any kind of elan.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi Ewan McGregor is so wooden you could varnish him. He looks self conscious, almost afraid to open his mouth. Most of the cast are badly hamstrung by porridgey writing that clogs up almost every story artery. Natalie Portman, so mischievous and alive 5-years earlier in Luc Besson’s ‘Leon’ acts like a Natalie Portman replica speaking doll. Press her tummy and she says 8 different phrases.
Then there’s Jar Jar Binks. A cinematic abomination. Roger Rabbit looked more ‘in the scene’ than this look-what-CGI-can-do-now experiment showpiece. Binks is to George Lucas what the monster is to Dr Frankenstein. Only, Binks never really comes to life…he just sucks life out of the film by hogging screen time to become orchestrator of all manner of calamities for our ‘amusement’.
Amid all of this Liam Neeson musters pleasant touches of fatherly warmth as a senior Jedi Master but by this time I’m looking for things that work. Watching Jake Lloyd as Anakin is akin to watching a school play, hoping the kid doesn’t fluff his lines. I’m too conscious of the poor kid’s acting for it to be a performance.
The CGI is badly overused. A detailed set or physical location will suddenly ‘screen wipe’ to an inflated cartoon canvas of Gungan’s and battle droids. These CG-heavy moments are lightweight and overblown. They don’t belong in the junkyard playground that established Star Wars as a familiar, lived-in universe. Lucas keeps misjudging it. He doesn’t seem to understand the basics of why audiences love his own creation. At turns, it’s painful to watch him repeatedly playing bum notes in front of an audience who are willing him to succeed.
John Williams could never be accused of bum notes. His interweaving themes are clever and when ‘Duel of Fates‘ strikes up it’s hard not to feel awe striking as lightsabers crash and the film threatens to become half decent.
But sadly, by the climax it’s too late for a salvage job. The damage is done. We’ve endured three laps of an overly indulgent podrace, the mystery of the force has been painfully explained and the script has felt like an embellishment of a Lucasfilm tax audit.
Lucas is a visionary. A great man endowed with a unique sense of adventure, but he somehow (maybe hubris) managed to make himself the ‘phantom menace’ of this piece. It sounds like Star Wars but doesn’t wholly look or crucially feel like it. Lucas can muster no momentum, conjure no spark between his actors. Their school play is falling apart. We are desperately adrift with him in a vast ocean of Star Wars.