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Star Wars

Star Wars
Star Wars Title

By C. Antonio Romero

Scotts Valley, CA, 12 June 1999
- Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, one of the most overhyped films of the last twenty years, finally faded in on screens across America recently. The film's inevitable financial success is more a testament to the Star Wars brand and the marketing machine behind it than any indication of anything about the film itself.

It should hardly come as a surprise after all this that the film is basically dreadful - if 1983's Return of the Jedi was any indication, Lucas ran out of steam on this project a long, long time ago, and is now mostly going through motions to take advantage of his license to print money. Seventeen years away from the project have done little to restore Lucas' energy; if, as it is represented in the press, this film is as purely as possible a creation of Lucas' vision, then he would do well to bring in other eyes when he moves on to finish the remaining films.

But beyond its mundane awfulness, this film is actually pernicious - resurrecting, perhaps, more phantoms than it means to from a Hollywood not so long ago or far away, in a botched attempt to construct a dime-store allegory on race on Earth that gets hopelessly tangled in its own internal contradictions.

As far as the overarching plot is concerned, the film is basically what was promised - the first chapter of a story whose second half we already know. In the unfolding of the military and political conflicts that surround the planet Naboo, the seeds of the later chapters of the story are certainly visible: the emergence of the Sith, an evil counterforce to the Jedi; the first appearances of the heroic droid R2D2, the creation of C3P0; the discovery of the young Annakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader, for those few not in the know), a long-awaited "chosen one" whose troubled life is the center of the six-film arc; the rise to power of Palpatine, senator from the planet Naboo (scene of most of the film's action) who will eventually become the Emperor of the later films and Darth Vader's master.

Lucas' claims that this whole backplot was in his mind when he set out to make the original film are credible enough, given what's here; and those with an investment in the original films and in knowing more about that plot will probably want to see this film and the two more likely to come, purely for completeness' sake.

But even for those who grew up with the original story, it is ultimately hard to care about anything that happens in this film. The end is of course overdetermined at this point - we know Annakin Skywalker's fate from the original three films. But even within those constraints, a writer who cared about character could have given us creations more fleshed out, more engaging, than Lucas has. The characters are in most cases not so much flat as schematic - even Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi utterly fail to engage the audience, mostly because they are hardly here as characters at all.

Very few characters (except the "comic relief" figures like Jar-Jar Binks - of whom more later) have anything to do besides move the story along. Darth Maul, the face of the Phantom Menace represented by the Dark Side of the Force, is a pure cardboard cutout - mouthing perhaps five lines of dialogue in the whole film (though he acquits himself quite well in the action scenes).

Compounding matters, the acting is uniformly wooden. A fine adult cast-- headlined by Liam Neeson (as Qui-Gon Jinn, an older Jedi), Ewan MacGregor (the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, here Qui-Gon's apprentice), and the young but accomplished Natalie Portman (as Queen Amidala of Naboo) - is wasted, and Samuel L. Jackson makes an entirely too brief appearance as a senior Jedi. Child actor Jake Lloyd (mostly remembered, prior to this film, for his part in the excruciating Schwartznegger-as-comedian vehicle Jingle All the Way) is the center of the film, playing the young Annakin Skywalker. Lloyd is clearly the weakest link, at least among the actors, more than earning the rather nasty nickname "Annakin the Mannakin;" but given the fate of the very capable adult cast, it's unclear how much of this to blame on him and how much on Lucas' script and direction.

The dialogue is utterly devoid of wit (when was the last time a robot actually said "That does not compute" in a science fiction film, even as a joke?); it is as if no one a long, long time ago had a sense of humor. Even the film's two major action sequences - a "pod race" meant to recall full-contact chariot races à la Ben Hur, and the by-now-obligatory dogfight - fail to make one feel that anything is at stake. Lloyd is at the center of each sequence, and frankly isn't likeable enough to even get the audience rooting for him.

The Phantom Menace Cont'd


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