1/4, 1990s, Fantasy, George Lucas, Review

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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#10 in my Ranking of the Star Wars franchise.

With the advantage of having the whole trilogy, it becomes obvious what Lucas wanted to accomplish thematically across all three movies. This helps pull out individual elements of this film as more important than the others regarding the greater story, but they’re minor elements in a story that shoots off in every direction, never really establishes much in the way of character, and just kind of meanders from one action setpiece to the next. It also doesn’t make those individual elements any more compelling on their own. This movie is, at absolute best, a complete mess with a couple of very good special effects sequences.

I think that this was George Lucas’ attempt to become a serious filmmaker. There are two main things that drive me to this conclusion. The first is the attempt at a thematic core. If you look back at his previous creative work, theme is rarely a major factor. It’s probably most prevalent in THX-1138, but hadn’t been expressed since. The original Star Wars trilogy is mostly character and plot driven with thematic concerns popping up only occasionally. With the whole prequel trilogy in mind, it’s obvious that he was going for a large thematic point. In Episode I, he pursues it poorly, but he does pursue it.

The second factor is the fact that Lucas wrote Anakin Skywalker to be a child. Anyone with any proximity to Hollywood should know one of the ironclad rules of the industry is to never work with animals or children because both are impossible to control. Casting Jake Lloyd as Anakin when he was only nine years old is Lucas saying that he is a strong enough director to be able to get a good performance out of a child, but he’s never been that kind of director and didn’t become one through his experience here. Peter Bogdonavich directed Tatum O’Neil to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar when she was eleven, and he swore off working with children forever after that. He had to do 50 takes on literally everything to get the right performance out of her. Lucas, who is famous for directing people with “Faster, more intense” for everything, was never the person to follow that pattern.

So, Lucas seemed to go into the making of this movie with very grand ambitions, but he had cast off the people who were able to focus his creativity into something special (namely Gary Kurtz, the producer on the first two Star Wars films, and Marcia Lucas, his editor wife who divorced him during the post-production process of Return of the Jedi). Free from those chains and supported by his lapdog Rick McCallum, Lucas wrote and directed what feels like a first draft in desperate need of heavy revision with a real writing partner.

I think it’s a prime example of what happens when writers prioritize plotting over everything else. The movie has what looks like characters who move from one plot point to another purely because the story dictates. No one has any conceivable wants or desires that connect on any personal level except Anakin, and even he’s inconsistently presented at best. The plot chugs along, but because there isn’t a perceptible character with a believable motive to keep them going from one thing to the next, it feels plodding. There’s no investment in the characters because they never even talk like real people. The dialogue is stilted and literally every performance is as flat as a board. Even Samuel L. Jackson delivers his lines like he’s bored.

The alluded to theme of the trilogy begins its appearance here, but it’s muddled and hidden amidst all of the other stuff that’s happening. The theme is about corruption. It’s supposed to be mirrored between the fall of Anakin to the dark side of the Force and the descent of the Republic into the Empire, and there are touches of it here. However, it’s presented in really boring terms. The inefficiency of the current bureaucracy of the Republic really feels like you’re watching CSPAN with aliens. The detail around parliamentary procedure takes up large chunks of the middle of the film and are as exciting as learning the details of a foreign country’s representative body could possibly be.

There was a structural tic to the first Star Wars that I talked about in that review. It was that the actual story was complete with a beginning, middle, and end, but the movie felt like the universe of the story was spilling out on every side. The balance was perfectly kept in that film, and I feel like Lucas was trying something similar here as well, but he falls on his face. He doesn’t understand the distinction between the core story and the larger story anymore. They bleed into each other so much that it’s hard to tell what’s what, or even what the core story is. There’s no center to the film, and the thematic focus that becomes evident through the later films is shoved to the side for large stretches.

Even in terms of action filmmaking structure, the movie is curious at best. In particular, I think of the journey through Naboo’s core. The trio of characters are in their little water ship (apparently, Lucas not only doesn’t know that a parsec is a measure of distance but also thinks that planet cores are made of water, but whatever, fantasy) and encounter a series of dangers including several large fish that try to eat them. However, they just get through and to the capitol city without issue. You could hard cut that entire sequence and the story wouldn’t be affected at all.

That being said, the only saving grace is the two major action sequences. The pod race has a clarity of storytelling absent from the rest of the film. There’s a clear goal, antagonist, and established stakes. The effects still hold up fairly well as well. It’s an exciting fifteen minutes. The final action sequence doesn’t work as well and makes less sense, but it’s still dynamic and fun in a superficial way.

Overall, though, the movie’s a mess. Yes, it has some ambition, but its author fails at achieving that ambition on a massively public scale.

Netflix Rating: 2/5

Quality Rating: 1/4

4 thoughts on “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”

    1. Do you remember the licensing level of this movie?

      It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Star Wars was on everything because everyone wanted a piece of that action, and George was happy to sell it.

      I don’t doubt that merchandising was in his mind, but the pod race, where most of the vehicles really appear, is too ingrained as part of the hot rod culture he grew up in and centered American Graffiti around to just be a push for toy sales.

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      1. It’s possible the pod race meant a lot to George Lucas. I kind of found it annoying, myself, but I know lots of folks see it as the movie’s highlight.

        I remember either the second or third movie had Obi Wan jumping onto a dinosaur to chase Grievous, who was in this silly giant unicycle. It all just looked like something that would appear shortly in the toy aisle.

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