A Pretty Good Bad Movie

Everyone keeps asking me about the hype. Does The Phantom Menace live up to its hype? There's so much hype! What about the hype?

I don't know. I'm not necessarily sure what the hype is, whether it concerns the grand scope of the film, the plot, the performances or what. It seems like the buzz on this one has presupposed a buzz--people just assume they're supposed to assume something. Meanwhile, the filmmakers have never made any indication that the latest installment in the Star Wars series is anything but an attempt to relive the exhilarating escapism of the first three films. But somehow, that label has been translated into "grand cinematic event." Guess again.

Is Episode I everything you've been wishing and hoping it would be? Not if you expect George Lucas' second coming to be the Second Coming, no. Is it everything you've heard it is? Probably, if what you've heard is that it's a dazzlingly picturesque, sporadically intense, well-engineered but not-entirely-satisfactory installment of the world's most revered B-movie series.

That's ultimately how The Phantom Menace measures up: it's a pretty good bad movie. It does everything it means to do, creating a visually remarkable world inhabited by strange and fascinating creatures, introducing the key players for the next two episodes and playing upon the audience's sentimental attachment to its predecessors. Its nostalgia about what's to come is perhaps its greatest strength and driving Force (forgive me); the plot borrows liberally from Episodes IV, V and VI both in structure and theme, and to good effect.

We encounter two cloaked figures, Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who are trying to prevent a war between the greedy Trade Federation and the small, peaceful planet of Naboo. Traveling along with the planet's teenaged queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to appeal to the senate of the galactic republic, they pit-stop on the desert planet of Tatooine to make crucial repairs on their damaged ship.


It's here that they stumble upon Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a confident and too-cute 9-year-old slave who possesses an unprecedented potential for the all-powerful Force. Qui-Gon believes that the boy may be The Chosen One, the one who will restore balance to the Force. There's all kinds of ridiculous scientific mumbo jumbo about Anakin's seemingly immaculate conception, but Qui-Gon's so far-gone by this point that we have no choice but to follow his lead.

Of course, there's a lot going on here that's simply implied by our familiarity with the characters and storyline of this saga. We know that Anakin and Amidala are destined to marry and bear twins Luke and Leia. We know that the smug Senator Palpatine will eventually reveal his dastardliness as he transforms into the creepy Emporer we've seen in Return of the Jedi. And we know that somehow, he will act in turning the thoughtful and loving little Anakin to the Dark Side to become the monstrous Darth Vader.

But even with all that doom and gloom threatening the future, The Phantom Menace isn't all that menacing. It doesn't let on what's in store for Anakin or even hint at a latent evil within him (although master Yoda is fervent in his assertion that he senses danger in the boy). The story doesn't really center on Anakin but on the Jedi, which is probably a mistake, because neither Qui-Gon nor Obi-Won is an engaging enough character to give the movie the gas it needs to really move.

Which is not to discredit the performances. Neeson is a rock as the stoic Qui-Gon, an aging longhaired maverick among the Jedi who is uncannily certain of Anakin's great potential. And McGregor gives good Alec Guiness in a role that rarely gives him much to do but look concerned and buckle swash. Which he does splendidly--the lightsaber battles are perhaps the most authentically exciting parts of the film, and he and Neeson give us what we secretly missed in the original series--real fighting. We finally get a chance to see why the Jedi are considered the badasses of this galaxy.

As for the kids, they're passable. Portman is also not given much to do as the divinely painted-up queen, and she seems a little overwhelmed by the giant scale of the project. Sometimes her lines (which were redubbed in post-production) don't exactly synch with the scene, but she's a pretty young thing, and it's forgivable. And talk of Lloyd's wooden performance (he had been dubbed "Mannequin Skywalker" by certain crewmembers) isn't really fair. The kid's no natural, but he gives a straightforward, acceptable read, especially considering the artificial dialogue he's given--that second "Yippee" really grates. Perhaps most affecting, though, is Ingmar Bergman regular Pernilla August (what's she doing here?), who plays Anakin's mother, Shmi. The lines she's given are just as pat and clich as the rest in the film, but the expressive lines of her face more than make up for it.

In the end, though, The Phantom Menace is not about the performances or even really about the characters. It's about the whole scene, the blissful dream of the Star Wars experience. Lucas delivers on the visuals--he paints breathtaking vistas and wondrous creatures that prove he's got imagination to spare. It's a little too clean for my taste--part of the charm of the original series was that it made the long, long time ago seem just as grungily medieval as it was techno-cool--but it's still pretty darn impressive. Even while the film's big showpiece, a pod race of gladiator-like proportions, plays a bit like a video game, it's a marvel to behold how far the achievements of special effects have come.

Lucas is even ballsy enough here to give us a fully computer-generated character in the form of Jar-Jar Binks, a goofy-looking rabbit-like amphibian who is (sadly) a major part of the film and who interacts with virtually everyone. He's totally life-like and technically fascinating, but he's so annoying it's almost criminal. I cringed every time he opened his big floppy mouth to spit out whatever nonsense it was he was saying. Jar-Jar is at the root of many of the film's moments of misdirection; I guess he's in there to appeal to younger kids, but even so, Lucas is playing down with the character's clumsy shenanigans. And when he steps in manure and gets a faceful of flatulent gas, I was really embarrassed (Yeesh, there's farting in Star Wars...).

But all that aside--even if it is a lot to put aside--The Phantom Menace is just what it seems: a good time and a chance to spy in on a world that's just as pretty as it is cheesy and dumb. Should you go see it? Well, yeah. That really isn't the question, though; it's whether you'll be satisfied with what you see. The answer is that you will, but only if you don't go in expecting to be magically transported back to your youth. Things have changed since then, and The Force can only do so much to convince you otherwise. Episode I has its share of charged moments and plot twists, but the biggest surprise may be a big letdown for its viewers: the reality that "oh, after all that, this is just a movie."

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