Some Thoughts on The Phantom Menace

So I, like a many a geek, have my shiny new blu-rays of Star Wars.  Last night I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the first of the prequels (in Pink Floyd’s words: “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”, though I hesitate to call these films meat).  This isn’t a full review, just a collection of thoughts as I was watching the film.

I really like the opening 20 minutes or so.  In fact despite the Trade Federation’s silly accents the opening, while a slow burn compared to A New Hope, it is fairly solid.  Things are all well and good right up until we meat Jar Jar Binks.  I’m willing to support decisions that make the prequel films more accessible to younger audiences.  However, I’m not willing to admit that Jar Jar is actually a step in that direction.  He is neither cure nor funny and his constant muttering of “How rude!” is ripped straight out of Full House.

As the film opens the Trade Federation have set up a blockade on Naboo.  We never really know why.  At some point I think something is mentioned about trade route taxes.  Or does Naboo have some kind of export that is worthwhile?  Some have complained about the style of Naboo’s starships and weapons.  I rather like it.  It has a sleek retro-futuristic design that idealizes aesthetics over function.  I think its neat.

Jake Lloyd is about as solid an actor as Hayden Christianson.  Kudos for consistancy.  Between Lloyd and Portman age differences and Christianson’s non-existing acting skill I figure that casting department aught to have been fired.  I am, and always will be, a fan of age appropriate casting.  As things stand now it feels sort of like Anakin ends up banging his babysitter.

The Jedi are inconsistent and baffling.  First off, Padawan haircuts look like something you might see at a Lynard Skynard concert.  Qui-gon’s rebellious nature is mentioned more than once over the course of the film.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself but since this is the first time viewers are seeing organized Jedi there is little impact and no real way to differentiate Qui-gon’s methods with the rest of the Jedi.  There could have been some interesting sub-text here and I thought I got a hint that Qui-gon is sort of like the council’s bullyboy, otherwise the use of a fractious, rebellious Jedi in an obviously delicate situation makes no sense.  The Council’s decision to ignore Anakin on the basis of his fear is as noteworthy as it is baffling.  I get that they don’t want to risk his falling to the Dark Side but as the presence of the Sith is revealed it seems to me that leaving a potentially powerful force user running around untrained would be a seriously bad idea.

There is a lot made about Anakin’s potential to “bring balance to the force” but no one ever openly questions what that might mean.  The Expanded Universe does a better job about exploring that but in the films Lucas barely touches on the dangers of the Jedi’s hard-lined decision between good and bad sides of the force.  There is a sort of laconic arrogance to the Jedi Council, particularly in Sam Jackson’s performance, that felt extraordinarily galling.  Having read enough EU books before seeing this movie the revelation of midichlorians didn’t bother me.

Ian McDermind is awesome and that starts here.  His bald manipulation of Queen Amidala is wondrous to behold and his smarmy smile oozes devious charm.  Terrance Stamp is woefully underutilized.  The same can be said of Ewan McGregor.  I rather enjoy his performance in later films and his ability to mimic Alec Guinness is absolutely fantastic.  Unfortunately all he does here is sit around a lot.  The fight with Darth Maul is cool but I would have loved to have seen more use of force abilities.  Ray Park really owns as Darth Maul and that character wouldn’t really work without him.  As it is the lightsaber battles, starting here, in the prequels blue the staid, stiff combat of the original trilogy away.

The Droid Army is neat and the final battle with the Gungans is cool….up to a point.  The final moments of the battle with the Droid Army and Anakin’s fumbling in the Starfighter are the start of Lucas’ bumbling Benny Hill/Three Stooges homages that mar this film and the next.  Jar Jars bumbling attempt to escape and Anakin’s accidental success are precursor to the vaudevillian antics of C3PO and R2-D2 in the next film.

At its core The Phantom Menace is a solid film marred by poor and questionable decision making and unreachable levels of pre-release hype.  There is the skeleton of a good space-adventure film buried beneath the dross.  The blu-ray transfer of the film looks and sounds great.  There are some spots where the special effects of 1999, especially some of the CGI that is a bit glaringly obvious.  The new CGI Yoda actually looks really good and in truth better than some of the films original effects.  Williams score is as top-notch as ever.

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