DIRECTOR: George Lucas
May Contain Spoilers!
Dreams shattered. Never has a film or a film maker been subjected to such castigation as The Phantom Menace or George Lucas for adding to their own body of work like this.
Alarm bells rang out once the title was announced. The Phantom Menace… What do that even mean? It wasn’t The Clone Wars or Rise Of The Sith, or anything that we had come to expect, instead, like the entire contrived screenplay, we were subjected to a campaign of “This isn’t gonna be what you think it is.” (Or want, apparently!)
The problem here is that if you wait 16 years to begin a three film prequel arch, then you better have one hell of a story up your sleave and maybe you should have been a little more selective over the vast array of tie in novelisations, comic books and computer games, all of which seem to have used the best elements and plots for Star Wars.
What’s left? Well, nothing except for what we would expect, but is that bad thing? No, not really. We all knew that the Titanic would sink but that didn’t prevent a film about it becoming a top grosser in 1998. The problem here is Lucas himself.
He believes, and I’m sure that the entire company of sycophants which he surrounds himself with would agree, that Lucas is a fantastic director and screenwriter. WRONG! He is a decent, and no more, decent producer and visionary as to visual effects and the infrastructure of film making, but nothing more. His work to advance sound and picture quality with his THX standard is worthy, as was his now seen as rather hypocritical stance against colouration in 1980’s, only for him to butcher his own films and reissue them in 3D later! (This included)
I feel that he thought that he could give his loyal audience a new and fresh take on his saga, whilst tying it in to the established back story. That’s before the more cynical me would suggest that he also wanted to secure his toy and merchandising industry for decades to come, and sort out any plot complications by re-editing his treasured originals until they fit the new mould, something which first reared its ugly head in 2004 with his second Special Edition versions for the DVD’s.
But here we are in 1999, and the opening titles appear on the screen. Words such as “Trade Federation” and “Taxation” began to appear. Gone was the standard opening of an Imperial Star Destroyer and welcome some tiny rubbish looking spaceship, as it approached a fleet of little Death Stars.
Soon we meet Qui Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) and the childish adventure begins. My first thought as a 20 year old was, ‘Was Star Wars really this childish? The answer: No. It was a family adventure and it wasn’t as high brow as many fans would like to believe but it wasn’t anything like this either.
Jar Jar Binks was a prime example of where this film went wrong as per the tone, as was the entire Gungan plot; Pointless. Eventually we finally end up on more familiar ground, Tatooine and we meet an 8-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). The future Darth Vader was far from the villain which we all wanted but it could have worked if executed better, but instead this was cynical move to add something more relatable to Lucas’ key demographic, the toy buying children.
Is this what we wanted. No. But does Lucas care? No. What he seems to think is that we should swallow whatever pills he gives us and we will, quite frankly, but he is hardly doing himself any favours in then process. Star Wars has become his own personal toy to tinker with at his leisure and this was phase two for him, after his Special Editions in 1997.
The main problem is here is the back story. As I said earlier, he didn’t seem content to give us the most plausible and thematically relevent version of events before A New Hope, instead in an attempt to give us something new, he contrived a story out of elements dismissed on never even dreamed of by others.
And there’s a good reason for that, because it’s crap! It seemed that Lucas was intent on having Anakin turn to dark side in Episode III, which is fine, so he needed to build a story to work towards that. But he never really archives this and starting here, 30 years earlier when nothing will have a direct influence on Anakin’s motivations to turn, seems to be waste of time.
And then there’s the lack any real villain. Granted we have the double act of Darth Sidious (Get it?) and Darth Maul (Ray Park), who is without a doubt the best character in this and they kill him off! For a franchise which delivered one of cinemas greatest villains in the form of Darth Vader to ignore this most basic need, was ludicrous. Maul was a wasted character and would have made the subsequent prequels better with his inclusion, I have no doubt about that considering what we were given. Sorry Christopher…
To me, this film should have started the franchise with something closer to what Episode II’s was in terms of plot, if it were, as with The Empire Strikes Back, making the second part the pivotal one, with the introduction of Darth Vader in the second film, leaving an entire third film to Darth doing what was quoted in A New Hope, “Hunting down and destroying the Jedi”.
This just seems a long, long prologue and extended filler. But as filler goes, there’s no arguing with some of the sequences here, particularly the Pod Race, based on Ben~Hur’s Chariot Race, even down to the hero and villain’s flag colours and the march of charioteers homage. And then there’s the lightsaber battle at the end, which in spite of many complaints about it being unfair, two on one and all that, I don’t care, it was cool!
Overall, it would appear that Lucas still has a flare for the visuals, but lacks any real story telling ability and anyone to edit his rubbish, but that’s not to say that if you let it wash over you and watch it with the children, it can’t be a reasonably enjoyable two hours especially, the Pod Race and The Final Duel.
But in an attempt to be clever and outsmart his own fans, he lost sight of his own intriguing back story which he penned over 20 year earlier, one in which Darth Vader was a pilot, not a smart-arse kid who raced jet engines around sand dunes and The Clone Wars sounded pretty cool.
And the two plotting styles of trade disputes and Jar Jar Binks style comedy just didn’t work well together. But I think it’s fair to sum up this film with one question:
To start with, for this example, there never was an original trilogy. It’s 1999: A film called Star Wars: The Phantom Menace comes out as a tent-pole summer release. The director was previously responsible for flop Howard The Duck and this film has a plot which is as all over the place as this. Would there have been a sequel?
If the answer is no, then you can surely agree that this is not the film to start one of cinema’s greatest and most successful franchises and there would never have been episodes IV or V, let alone VI. In real terms, this must be one of the most success films to be derided by its own fans in movie history. What kind of accolade is that?