We could call Episode I the first of the modern “digital epics.” It is perhaps the single most influential film on today’s Hollywood, the film that introduced the concept of the prequel, that turned a film series into a brand that could be rebooted and remade into an extended universe beyond the traditions of the sequel. There are almost no major motion pictures today that would exist without this one.
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Star Wars contains within it two exquisitely contrasting notions – of a childlike sensitivity to a film that tries very hard to be adventurous and the Taoist calm required to wonder why you would adventure in the first place. George Lucas is deathly serious about visual innovation (delaying his prequels for decades until computers could catch up with his imagination) but not about balancing this essential contradiction, which goes back to the original two films, the first which was made as philosophy for children (his words) and the second which was made by someone else in the hope of propelling that philosophy into puberty, doubt, and darkness. Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace was concocted in a setting so clinical by Lucas’ unrestrained imagination that his conscious control rivals that of the great auteurs, of Buster Keaton or Orson Welles. Lucas said in an interview that his mindset was to say, “no matter how outrageous, I’m just gonna see if I can pull it off.” The film certainly reflects this design, both in the wonderment of its vistas and in the bankrupt economy of its unedited vision.
If the opening of Star Wars is an oxygen-rich breath of visual storytelling, The Phantom Menace hyperventilates in literal exposition. In words and pictures it immediately overexerts, as though the audience is another species to whom patterns of visual logic don’t apply. In 1977 we were introduced to a blatant battle of resources between an empire whose reach extended as long as a battle cruiser and an underprivileged rebellion skimming in enemy fire and unable to escape. The Phantom Menace is more talkative but less informative: we hear words like “trade dispute,” “blockade,” “negotiation,” and we are introduced to characters before contextualizing them by the situation. Star Wars never had so much babble.
I admire the kernel of inspiration at the heart of this setup: to place the universe in context, a textual framework that can be built into and around the old material (beginning the titular star war, for example, as legal proceedings manipulated into war by an ambitious politician). This is so much braver than what J. J. Abrams did with The Force Awakens, which instead of attempting to refine Lucas’ scheme of contextualization relegated anything risky or new to the opening text. The title crawl of The Force Awakens is the only establishment we ever receive for how Episode VI became Episode VII, since the movie itself has drifted conveniently into a universe where all the pieces are aligned for a sloshy corporate remake. Abrams achieved the impossible, as far as this fan is concerned: with sheer corporate sleaze he made me miss the sloppy, misplaced, childlike creativity of these prequels.
Yet even though the story has context, it constantly strangles itself in its own threads. A forensics analysis of The Phantom Menace would require such point-by-point detail that this review would be longer than the script, as characters take such backwards logic as the shortest distance between pre-written script points that nothing, of great or little consequence, makes the slightest sense in The Phantom Menace. People go places and do things, not because it makes sense for them to do so, but because they must for the sake of the plot. The smallest details confound, as in the fact that the Jedis wear the robes that Obi-Wan Kenobi wore in Star Wars, just because we recognize them. But old Kenobi was wearing them undercover on Tatooine: whatever Jedi wear, it would be anything but that. They also all act like Guinness, distant, aloof, and monkish, as though the one Jedi we’ve seen must necessarily be the template for the whole order. This is what happens when you have imagination but no creativity.
With such dislocated details, even the pretentious effects excitement can become alien and uninviting. A race over Tatooine’s sandy wasteland tempts to be exciting, for instance, but the tension is unraveled by the contrivances that lead up to it. A confusing, multi-tiered bet by stoic Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) leads him to enter the race on a blatant lie. Before that, the backwards logic of a queen (Natalie Portman), CGI companion Jar-Jar Binks, and robot trashcan R2-D2 wandering around getting sand in their trundles allows them to find young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who solves their problem on a whim (“We must not attract attention,” someone says, as those that are helpless and clumsy wander out into the sands while the responsible and professional personnel stay behind, for no reason). From the path the Jedi take across Naboo, to finding Anakin, to fighting the robot army at the film’s climax, the infamously awkward slapstick in The Phantom Menace isn’t merely annoying – it infects and debilitates the film’s tonal bones, alienating any possible investment in the story by directing its plot in reverse, as though everyone’s read the script already and tries to make tripping into the next plot point look as convincing as possible. If it was less self-obsessed and more visually cheap it would be Space Balls rather than Star Wars. If it was more acquiescent, it would be The Force Awakens.
This applies equally to every line of dialogue, which is not merely hammed up by actors ignorant of their context as in Ed Wood’s old one-take wonders, but which seems to predict the script’s future without any context to do so. For instance, the Jedi council (unexplainably monkish for a group that refers to themselves as “knights” and not “priests”) refer to Anakin as being surrounded by a feeling of “grave danger.” This is because Lucas, when writing this film, knows that Anakin will of course become Darth Vader, and not because there is any pretext in this film for this to be the case. Every situation unfolds in this reverse logic; only things that are important to us viewers have any presumed importance in the story. The “prophecy” offered in The Phantom Menace as an explanation is really only our desire to see Star Wars stuff given a hasty and convenient name in the script. The council authorizes the training of Anakin despite sensing great danger because, and I can honestly think of no other alternative, at some point he really does have to become Darth Vader. “But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future,” young Obi-Wan pleads. “Not at the expense of the moment,” his master replies. Lucas wrote it but he didn’t hear it.
Thus, original characters like Anakin, R2-D2, and C-3PO are picked from a crowd as by some force of pre-destiny to adorn Episode I’s cluttered toy shelf. The exception is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), mysteriously relegated to the sideline of a film that should have featured him, and not merely for the actor’s talent wasted but for his potential as a more sensible protagonist to The Phantom Menace. Instead we get Jake Lloyd’s excruciating Anakin, made forced and unlikely by combining his babyish acting with his overblown relevance in a universe that, admittedly, never was much bigger than who is whose father (philosophy for children). And like the recycling of old faces, recognizable elements like the lightsaber and starship become bawdy and artificialized in the frame’s center while the story is left in stasis on the periphery. What once dazzled with internalized energy is now a series of fixtures in a sterile, epileptic series of colorful video game images and static references.
Everyone complains about the midichlorians, the reveal in The Phantom Menace that the Force comes from microscopic life forms that reside in living cells. But these are merely the name given out of necessity to the decision in Episode VI to make the Force hereditary: that was the moment that these prequels became misguided, because it introduced the opportunity to have a genetic chosen one in a series about ragtag adventurers. Trivializing the Force is peripheral to the larger issue in The Phantom Menace – that the script has been composed in reverse of Lucas’ expectations of his fan’s desires. It’s not enough that Anakin was strong in the Force by design, but that he believed we wanted to see how. And he wasn’t wrong – The Phantom Menace did no shirking at the box office. But the creative energy that once pushed an innovative film past a studio system unprepared for it now seems to be too enabled by that very system to be reliably artistic, too unrestricted in its medium to be thought-out, and too restricted by the series’ past to be especially original. Disney has brought this prophecy to more blatant fruition than I could have feared.
But Welles and Keaton made masterpieces with full control. The greater impediment than absolute power would seem to be the need to be liked by everyone. People accuse Lucas of abandoning his fans with these prequels, but I don’t think this is the case. Faced with having to top Star Wars, a film of near universal appeal, he tried to reverse engineer that appeal in The Phantom Menace, thinking that a film for all ages is one that incorporates things directed at each age individually. It’s a film that features puny word comedy and poopy comedy one moment, and in the next will linger on a chancellor as he says, like an alien who read Shakespeare without quite knowing what it meant, “Will you defer your motion to allow a commission to explore the validity of your accusations?” Welles made Citizen Kane most of all for himself, if history has it right. Lucas, as he has ever since he became a religion, cares about other people way too much.
Pretty images in The Phantom Menace – the underwater city, Venetian Naboo palace, and catacombic senate chamber stand out – were cited by critics at the time as evidence of its value through innovation. Even the motion-captured Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a bold-faced annoyance as a character, is technologically a template for such other figures as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and the whole cast of Avatar. We could call Episode I the first of the modern “digital epics.” It is perhaps the single most influential film on today’s Hollywood, the film that introduced the concept of the prequel, that turned a film series into a brand that could be rebooted and remade into an extended universe beyond the traditions of the sequel. There are almost no major motion pictures today that would exist without this one.
It’s hard to recall Lucas as a stalwart innovator, and easy to see the pimp of the modern brand-recognition epidemic, visual effects addiction, and prequel fetish. This explains Disney’s recent effort to douse his blatant creativity in more recognizable marvels, to pave the way for a clean, recognizable brand that no one can smudge without becoming a party pooper. In recent interviews, the once stalwart effects pioneer looks like a divorcee to his own work. What made his work so indispensable to begin with? A book would be in order to get it down right, but in short I believe it comes more from the dusty boots of the films to which it owes its life (and dedicates its gunslingers and cantinas), than to any specific ship or any one lightsaber.
Star Wars was made by a cinephile, by a young man who wanted to give kids the gift of Kurosawa and Lang and Leone. The Phantom Menace is not always in the same tradition, but it follows along a structure that recalls heavily the Harryhausen works like Jason and the Argonauts, or the travelogue of fantastical locations in The Thief of Bagdad, complete with a climactic swordfight and a numinous underwater city. The logic is barren but the locales are endless: as far as his imagination is concerned, he does pull it off.
I think Lucas just wanted to make his stories and be liked for them. Has it been long enough that we can finally say something unequivocally good about The Phantom Menace, despite its spiritual idiocy? Well here’s the heart of the thing, and it has nothing much to do with Star Wars: modern movies are so, so much worse. Nowhere in The Phantom Menace is there a macerated love story between blatant tweens. It is inventing the reliance on other series installments that now poisons everything, and perhaps deserves some forgiveness as the original sinner, the backstory prime. It contains plot-relevant references to the original trilogy and never devolves into Abrams’ blatant manhandling of all its old mechanisms in favor of a hand-me-down plot designed to make fans believe that the corporate takeover is in their best interest. Disney is exactly the kind of organization that Star Wars has rebelled against from its first moments above Tatooine.
The Phantom Menace by comparison infrequently reveals a self-serious heart for weird adventure, an Asian fusion swashbuckler, a technocratic religious odyssey, free of the self-congratulatory irony of the modern “cinematic universe.” The Phantom Menace is often jagged and unformed as a child’s drawing, and sometimes feels as innocent, and many times threatens through sheer force of straight-faced will to be almost charming. This is no solace for those that love Star Wars, and are unstuck from time in the new digital film spaces. The world you have to enter to take the visuals as the end in themselves is one where children live, where many blatantly wonderful bad movies have lived since the days of the old serials, and in which I resided when The Phantom Menace was released. Watching it again even tempts to take me back, despite the fact that it seems so far, far away, now that Disney has opened t-shirt kiosks there.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.