WFTB Score: 3/20
The plot: A trade blockade against the planet Naboo becomes a full scale invasion, much to the dismay of Queen Amidala and the Jedi knights who hoped to enforce a settlement. Amidala and the knights head off to plead their case to the Senate, but get diverted to Tatooine where they encounter Anakin Skywalker, a boy racer who has caused extraordinary ripples in the Force. Meanwhile, although Senator Palpatine has assured Amidala that the Republic is working on her behalf, he is working to consolidate his own power, and has secretly sent a Sith Lord called Darth Maul to eliminate the Jedis and secure Naboo for the aggressive Trade Federation.
If I might be allowed a little autobiography… I missed Star Wars the first time round, having been too young for the first film and too involved in my snooker table and model cars to get caught up with the toys (my friends had AT-ATs and Millennium Falcons but I didn’t really know what they were, so bore them no malice). By the time I saw the original movie I was pretty nonplussed; after all, it was no Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nonetheless, in the summer of ’99 I lined up with everyone else to experience the new Star Wars film, and even felt a thrill as John Williams’ stirring theme struck up and the familiar yellow logo appeared. And then something terrible happened. The film started.
As everyone must know, The Phantom Menace pre-dates the action of the original Star Wars trilogy, portraying a time when Obi-Wan Kenobe (Ewan McGregor, fitfully channelling Alec Guinness) was a slip of a lad under the tutelage of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). The pair arrive on board a Federation ship to end the blockade of the planet Naboo, but under the influence of a cloaked figure the Federation’s Viceroy Nute Gunray tries, unsuccessfully, to kill them. The Jedi knights then land on Naboo where they run into Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a clumsy, cowardly Gungan who leads them to Queen Amidala and her handmaiden Padmé (Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman, but which is which?); Amidala insists that she will not surrender, and on the advice of Qui-Gon the group head for the city planet of Coruscant to make the Republican Senate intervene. However, their ship is hit and they are forced to land on Tatooine, a desert planet where gambling on high-speed pod racing is an obsession. Looking for parts to repair the ship, Qui-Gon encounters slave boy and aspiring racer Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), with whom the Jedi knight senses the Force is incredibly strong. This intuition leads Qui-Gon to bet the ship on Anakin winning the race, which he duly does, earning the young boy his freedom; and only just in time, for the cloaked figure has sent evil Sith apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) to finish the job Gunray stuffed up. When the eerily-familiar Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) manipulates Amidala into increasing his power within the Senate, all the while encouraging the conquest of Naboo, a four-way battle is set up: between the Gungan race – with Jar Jar as a general – and the Federation’s army of droids; between Naboo’s resistance (joined by Anakin and faithful robot R2-D2) and the ship controlling the army; between the Jedi knights and Darth Maul; and between Amidala and her retinue and the guards protecting the Viceroy.
That’s honestly as concise a description of the plot as I can manage whilst retaining all the key points, and complexity is just one of The Phantom Menace’s many problems. Whereas Star Wars (or A New Hope, as I suppose I should call it) had back story, mythology and a sprinkling of exotic creatures, they were wisely kept in the background so that bickering robots and exciting dogfights in space could command the viewer’s attention. The Phantom Menace has taken the bits nobody ever cared about, such as the origins of Darth Vader, and turned them into more than two hours of over-complicated twaddle. In doing so, George Lucas has written a clunky script which has talented actors grasping at such bottom-burstingly bad dialogue as ‘I need parts for a J-type 327 Nubian’ and giving them nothing whatsoever in the way of character development. The invasion of Naboo is enough to be getting on with, but Lucas insists on detailing Senator Palpatine’s machinations to depose the Supreme Chancellor (Terence Stamp, given a miserable handful of lines) and introducing Qui-Gon’s argument with the strange fellows of the Jedi Council (including Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson, doing solemn as Mace Windu). This not only slows down the action but introduces elements that the viewer patently doesn’t need to know and/or will find mind-boggling – I’m thinking specifically of the concept of midi-chlorians, elements within cells that act as a gauge of how much ‘Force’ people have within them (Anakin is ‘off the chart.’)* It’s unnecessary and ruins the myth and mystery of the Force, and the suggestion that Anakin was an immaculate conception, created by midi-chlorians, is as weird as it is pointless. Other elements of the story are less contentious, though since nobody makes an attempt on Amidala’s life there’s little point in giving her a decoy; and while the pod race is generally a well-executed tribute to Ben-Hur, there’s an awful lot of flannelling before the race is shown in all its 8-minute fury. It must also be noted that the film contains little in the way of fighting in space, the one thing that made Star Wars such a hit in the first place.
Problem number two on my list stems out of the action, namely that hardly any of it is real. CGI has done much to unleash filmmakers’ imaginations, but Lucas lacks the discipline to control himself and make sure the CGI action complements the live actors. Examples here are numerous – there is nothing very exciting about watching the Jedi knights scatter numberless soldier droids into pieces (at least Stormtroopers looked menacing) – but the most telling comes early on when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan find themselves among the water-dwelling Gungan people in a world where nothing is real except themselves, and soon afterwards talking to a character that’s not there in a computer-generated ship being chased by assorted, unconvincing sea monsters. The clean, unreal sheen to the film distances us from the action, much as the imperfect but lovingly-made puppets and models of Star Wars drew us in.**
The third problem, I’m afraid, has to be split into subsections, and it concerns the new characters in The Phantom Menace. I have no problem with either Qui-Gon, Amidala or the performances of the actors playing them, but that’s about as much praise as I can give. The main offender is Jar Jar Binks, a character so annoying that everyone in the film dislikes him and spends as much time as possible ignoring him as he clowns around, getting himself into scrapes, destroying droids through dumb luck and expressing his stupidity through an inexpressibly irritating patois which, though I’m sure is not meant as such, can only invite accusations of racism. Of course he is meant to be a comic character, but he proves that George Lucas doesn’t do comedy (Harrison Ford’s quips? Ad libs, mostly).
Barely half as annoying, though much more damaging given the overall story arc, is Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker. Anakin will become Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and one of the most iconic bad guys in movie history, so making him a sparky, gee-whizz all-American mop-haired cutie who exclaims things like ‘This is tense!’ goes against type. It’s not as if Jake Lloyd’s performance is bad, as such, but kids in films need to be handled with kid gloves (sorry) and the part is played such that many children will struggle to identify with Anakin, while adults will be itching to send him to bed without supper for his precocity. What’s more, young Skywalker is saddled with the terrible diminutive ‘Annie’, which makes you long for a scene of the boy looking wistfully up from the roof of his mother’s hut singing ‘The suns’ll come out tomorrow…’ On top of all that, as a ‘vergence’ of the Force, Annie is lumped with the ‘prophesied chosen one’ tag that was all the rage around 1999, what with Harry Potter and The Matrix both ladling on the symbolism.
Finally, and briefly, there’s Ray Park’s Darth Maul, about whom there’s nothing much to say – because he’s hardly in the film. He turns up, scowls, disappears for a bit, turns up, fights Jinn for a few seconds, disappears, then turns up in time for the (admittedly quite exciting) two-on-one fight with his double-ended lightsaber. Maul is presumably the Phantom Menace referred to in the title (or is it Palpatine and his secret identity?), so his non-involvement in the majority of the film is most disappointing. Might he not have menaced Amidala a bit, or shown young Anakin a glimpse of the Dark Side?
Well, I could go on, but I won’t. Lucas obviously believes in his story, but so much of The Phantom Menace is irritating, amateurishly-written and naive that the viewer clings to the familiar – R2-D2 and C-3PO, Palpatine and Yoda – like lifeboats on a stormy sea. As the film finishes with a gaudy, computer-generated (naturally) parade, complete with children’s choir, one is left with a sense of wonder: not at any of the film’s content, but at how such enormous amounts of time, money and effort were invested in the creation of something so relentlessly daft.
NOTES: 1Savour the incredibly subtle way the script coaxes an explanation out of Qui-Gon. Anakin: ‘I’ve been wondering…what are midi-chlorians?’ It’s a thing of beauty alright.
2The fabulous ships, robots, weapons etc. create a huge problem down the line, when the end of Revenge of the Sith has to marry up with A New Hope and Vader makes the bold decision to go ‘retro’ with the design of the Deathstar.