Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
reviewed by Greta Christina
There's a story about this.
I wrote a review of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace for San Francisco Frontiers when the damn movie first came out. After I sent the review off to my editor, I kept thinking of things I wish I'd said the first time around; especially since my initial review had been more or less positive, and my opinion of the movie was sinking lower and lower the longer I thought about it. So at the end of my next film review column, I wrote a short "Things I forgot to say about Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace the first time around" piece.
And then I did it again in the next issue.
And then it turned into this stupid running gag. I just didn't want to let the joke die. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace opened in May of 1999; I continued writing things I'd forgotten to say about it the first time around until the end of September.
Here, for the first time, are all those pieces gathered together.
(Oh, all right. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Jeez, what a godawful klutzy mouthful of a title.)
There is one point about this film that I would like to stress above all others. It's a very important issue for me; it seems to cut to the heart of the film, to strip away the hype and the buzz and speak to the very essence of Lucas's work. And that point is this: Nyah, nyah, nyah nyah, nyah. I got to see it, a whole week before you did, 'cuz I'm an important film critic.
Nyah, nyah, nyah nyah, nyah.
So sorry. Couldn't help myself. Now that I've gotten that bit of childishness out of my system: Zoom! There's Obi-Wan and his master-dude Qui-Gon, and they go down on the planet and get in a fight with their light sabers -- Whiz! Zap! And then they go in the underwater city, with the big ooze-bubbles that you live in and the giant underwater dinosaurs and the talking fish, and that was pretty cool. And then they rescue the queen from these bad guys, I'm not sure who they were or what bad thing they were doing but they had gray uniforms and mean sneaky faces so you knew they were bad. And then they go to this other planet and the queen changes her outfit, and they find this little kid who has The Force more than anybody in the universe, except I don't know why 'cuz he was really boring, but anyway he gets in this great land-pod race -- Whoosh! Zip! Crash! Foom! like a hundred times better than the coolest video game you've ever seen in your entire life, and if the boring Force kid wins then the spaceship gets to be fixed and the kid gets to be free and go off with Obi-Wan and his master-dude and get trained to be a Jedi Knight, so guess what happens, big whoop. And there's all these robots, and then they go to this other planet and the queen changes her outfit AGAIN, God she must have like a million outfits that she takes with her everywhere. And then the drippy Force kid who is so stupid and boring and mushy and awful and dumb that I wanted to punch him gets to meet with Yoda and the Jedi knights, and he totally doesn't deserve it 'cuz Yoda is the coolest and the Force kid is SO SO SO SO boring and I hate him. And then they meet this other really icky bad guy with creepy eyes and all this orange and black makeup and a double-light-saber that's, like, two light sabers at once, and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon get in a big light-saber fight with him -- Voom! Zim! And then some more stuff happens, but I shouldn't tell you 'cuz it's the ending and my mom says you shouldn't tell people the ending of movies.
Okay. That was it, really. The childishness is gone for good. No more childishness, in this or any other of my film reviews, ever. I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
There is, in fact, one point about this movie that I genuinely would like to stress above all others. And that is this: It's a movie, folks. It really and truly and honestly and from the bottom of my heart is just a movie. It's a reasonably entertaining one overall, with incredible visual effects, super-whizzo action sequences, bitching costumes, and unbelievably crappy writing. But it is not the central defining feature of our culture. It's Star Wars, for crying out loud. We can all relax about it just a little bit.
Anyway. Lots of fun. Looks great. Looks truly, tremendously great, not just slick and cool but deeply imaginative and creative and stuff. The creatures and the robots and the sets and the backgrounds and the costumes and the spaceships and the zooming and the makeup and the everything, it all looks amazing, gorgeous, stupendous, lavish and rich and grand and detailed. There's robots and effects and pretties that would have been the complete center of attention in any other movie, but that Lucas just tosses off in passing, zipping by for a second or two, just part of the general ambience. He really does know how to create an engaging, all-encompassing fantasy world; the visual coolness completely fills up the screen at just about every moment (well, okay, except for when they have close-ups of the boring kid).
And crappy writing? Holy jumping Mother of God. It's not just the usual bad science-fiction writing, either, where the techno-babble is perfect and the dialogue sounds like it came from the worst soap opera you've ever seen and makes the best actors in the world seem like pompous, wooden dorks. It definitely is that, in trumps; but it's poorly constructed as well, with some plot bits that are skimpy and muddled and some plot bits that are whanged over your head like a blackjack. It manages to be heavy-handed and totally confusing at the same time -- kind of a neat trick, when you think about it.
It could have used a much tighter hand at the editing table as well. As much as I like to rant about creative control and the freedom of the artistic spirit and all that crap, I have to admit that there's something to be said for the Hollywood movie-making system, where some greed-blooded studio hack stands over the director with a meat cleaver saying, "The pacing is for shit and it's too fucking long by at least a half an hour. I don't give a flying bugger how important they are for character development or how hard you had to blow the producer to keep them in the script -- cut out two-thirds of the teary scenes with the kid and his mom, or we'll cut them out for you." I love Lucas's creative vision, but he really does need someone standing over him with a meat cleaver. He didn't have it here, and as a result -- well, the pacing is for shit, and it's too fucking long by at least a half an hour.
But it really is fun. And it really does look great. So sure, see it. If possible, see it before everyone you know has seen it and has ruined the plot for you; but honestly, it's probably not going to make all that much difference. The plot is pretty much stupid and predictable (I picked out the dead-meat character within the first fifteen minutes), and you could probably know every single plot thing ahead of time and still enjoy the movie tremendously. So relax. If you don't see it this week, you'll see it next week or the week after. It's going to be around for a while.
Some things I forgot to say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. Diddly-squat for female roles. There's Darth Vader's mother, who is long-suffering and noble and patient and nurturing and a virgin for crying out loud; and there's Queen What's-her-name, who gets to do a little adventure stuff but is mostly distinguished by her clothes and hair and makeup. Geez Louise. I mean, would it have killed Lucas to have more than one woman on the Jedi council, or at least to have the one woman on the Jedi council get to open her mouth? Would it have killed him to have more than one female Jedi starship fighter going after the bad guys? Would it have killed him to have a few women in his movie who actually get to do something? What a mongo sexist jerk. Sheesh.
2. I didn't believe for a nanosecond that the awful drippy blonde kid was Darth Vader. It's not that he wasn't evil; it's that he was so fucking dull. I mean, the Jedi dudes are all looking solemn and concerned and going, "The Force is stronger in this young one than in anyone else in the whole fershlugginer galaxy, he's just oozing with charm and charisma and magnetism, and yet his Force is dark and scary and creepy and gross and he could turn out to be the meanest ickiest bad guy ever," and I'm thinking, "Huh?" The kid has bupkis. He is totally generic. He looks like they took every towheaded moppet from every second-rate Disney movie ever made and somehow managed to fuse them all in an evil genetic experiment. He has the charm and charisma and magnetism of a damp cow. He looks like he could have been on Eight Is Enough. If this kid is Darth Vader, then I'm Doris Day.
3. So there's this scene where the Jedi Council is grilling the young Darth Vader to see if he can be a Jedi Knight, and one of them says something like, "Fear is the root of all evil." I would just like to say for the record: What a load of crap. Fear is important. Fear is useful. Fear is what keeps us from running out into the street and getting hit by trucks. Yes, fear can be dangerous and destructive and crippling and all that; but to call it the single root of all evil is a transcendently dorky oversimplification. Fear works for good and evil; and besides, evil is vast and complicated and no one thing could possibly be the root of all of it. This has got to be the dumbest piece of Jedi wisdom I've heard in all four movies to date.
Some more things I forgot to say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. Yes, there's definitely a racist undercurrent to the movie, especially in the accents, and double especially in the character of Anakin's slaveowner (I forget his name, the alien with the giant hooked nose and the quasi-Middle-Eastern accent), and infinity especially in the character of -- shudder -- Jar Jar Binks. And yes, Lucas's reaction to having this pointed out (said reaction being, essentially, "What are you talking about, they're not humans, they're aliens, and besides you're taking it too seriously, it's just entertainment") is, at the most generous interpretation, hopelessly naive. In particular, "It's just entertainment" has got to be the lamest defense of stereotyping around. As if bigoted stereotypes are somehow free of importance or impact if they appear in popular entertainment. I feel a little silly chiming in on this so late, after every other writer and their great-aunt Martha has already commented on it; but never let it be said that I wasn't willing to jump in with both feet and a hearty "Me, too" on the burning issues of the day.
2. Re the ever-so-profound piece of Jedi wisdom, "There's always a bigger fish." Correct me if my math or logic or astrophysics are wrong here, but it seems to me that, in any given finite non-empty set containing fish, there is at least one fish which is greater than or equal to every other fish in the set. Now, as far as our current knowledge of astronomy goes, the physical universe is a finite set (at least as far as fish are concerned); even if it's not, a galaxy certainly is, and a planet even more certainly is, and an ocean or a river or a pond even more certainly is. It's possible, I suppose, that the physical universe is an infinite progression of larger and larger systems, each of which contains fish increasing in size into infinity; however, even that were true, even if our entire universe as we know it were just an atom in the stomach lining of some unimaginably enormous fish, said fish would be completely outside of our experience and would have no meaning for us as a fish. Therefore, any given set that contains fish and that we might experience in any practical or meaningful sense will always include a fish which is the biggest, or at least a fish which has no fish bigger than it. Therefore, there is not always a bigger fish. Therefore, the Jedi have their heads up their butts. (I know, I know, I need to stop analyzing the philosophical validity of Jedi wisdom. Clouded with rational thought, my mind is.)
3. For all my carping and criticism and nitpicking about it, I do have to acknowledge that The Phantom Menace is by no means the worst of the Star Wars movies. That place is still securely and unquestionably held by Return of the Jedi.
3a. On that topic, I'd like to pass on something my friend and esteemed colleague James said during a commiseration session over Jar Jar Binks. He pointed out that, as intensely and viscerally annoying a character as Jar Jar is, even an entire city filled with Jar Jars wouldn't be anywhere near as annoying as just one Ewok.
Even more things I forgot to say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. As a lifelong Trekkie, I am vastly amused by the fact that the evil scary bad guys in the new Star Wars movie are "The Federation."
2. From the opening crawl (the huge yellow letters running over your head at the beginning of the movie explaining the back-story): "The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute." Taxation of trade routes. Now, there's a compelling basis for a shoot-'em-up space-opera flick. What's the next Star Wars movie going to be about -- the prime lending rate?
3. Darth Maul has got to be one of the lamest sci-fi villains around. I mean, all he ever does is run around in face paint fighting people. He doesn't torture them with weird futuristic torture devices, he doesn't threaten them with a scary wheezy machine-voice, he doesn't choke them to death just by pointing at them. Nothing. He just waves his damn light-saber around and does what the Emperor (or whoever the uber-bad-guy in the hooded cloak is) tells him to do. Big whoop. He needs evil lessons from Darth Vader, and badly.
4. Something my friend Marian pointed out about the scene where Qui-Gon uses the Force to win a dice game with Anakin's owner. "Cheating at dice," she says. "Now, there's a good example for the Jedi Knights to be setting. I bet they're a blast at poker games."
5. I've now seen the movie a second time, and I have to admit, it held up okay. I actually found it more enjoyable the second time around, probably because I wasn't scratching my head and frantically trying to figure out what the hell was going on and who the Viceroy and the Chancellor and the Federation and the Senate were. I pretty much knew what was happening from having seen it the first time around, and could just relax and enjoy the pretty pictures. And the pictures are awfully damn pretty. I don't take back a single word of my carping -- it is an eminently carp-worthy movie -- but just because it's stupid and annoying and inconsistent and sexist and racist and badly written and sloppily edited and philosophically flimsy doesn't mean you shouldn't see it.
Still more things I forgot to say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. Re the annoyingness of Jar Jar Binks: I think one of the problems, apart from the guy's actual innate annoyingness, is that positioning every solitary bit of a movie's comic relief into one and only one character is a remarkably bad idea. I mean, if that character turns out to be not as funny as you thought -- if, in fact, that character turns out to be the single most irritating thing about your movie -- then you've got no comic relief at all, and you wind up with a ponderous, self-serious movie that collapses under its own leaden weight. (Unless, of course, you're Ingmar Bergman or something, and even then you've got to watch it.) Besides, as my girlfriend Ingrid points out, if you only have one character in your movie who's allowed to be funny, none of the other characters can play off of that character. You've got no repartee, no interplay, no razor-fast wit zipping back and forth across the screen like a laser. All you've got is a bunch of ponderous, self-serious characters standing around grinning weakly while one character makes a total buffoon of himself. A bit limited in the comic relief department.
2. A correction. In my last review, I said that Darth Maul was an incredibly lame sci-fi villain who pretty much did nothing but wave his light-saber around and do what the Emperor told him. I do still stand by that statement; however, my friend Marian has forced me to acknowledge that, while Darth Maul doesn't do much other than wave his light-saber around, he does that exceedingly well. The light-saber fight scenes with Darth Maul are probably the best of any of the light-saber fight scenes in any of the Star Wars movies to date.
3. So why in hell didn't the Jedi go back to rescue Anakin's mother from slavery, anyway? I understand why they didn't rescue her right away, they didn't have the cash on hand and they barely managed to rescue the little brat-boy Anakin. But why didn't they go back later, after they were off the planet and had won the battle and everything? I mean, they're obviously not doing too badly in the moolah department, they've got that nice big office in midtown for their board meetings, and they obviously have quite a bit of pull with the grand high poobahs of the galaxy. Why didn't they go back and buy her freedom? It would have been easy as pumpkins, and it would have kept this dangerous, scary, cloudy-futured Force kid from going into conniptions about her. I swear to God, the more I think about it, the more I'm of the opinion that the Jedi are the dumbest, lamest bunch of wise philosopher-sages in movie history. (I know, I know. The reason they didn't rescue Mom is so her tragic death in the next movie can scar young Anakin's soul to its depths and give him a reason to turn to the dark side of the Force. They're foreshadowing it with a goddamn jackhammer. But it totally gets up my nose when people in movies do things just so the next thing can happen, and not because it makes sense or fits with their character to do them.)
Yes, that's right, even more things I didn't say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. My friend Charlie has been arguing with me about my assertion that, contrary to Jedi philosophy, there is not always a bigger fish. He points out that there are an infinite number of numbers between zero and 1, and that no matter what number you pick between zero and 1 there is always a number between zero and 1 that's bigger than the number you picked. He argues that therefore, in an infinite universe, there could be an infinite progression of bigger and bigger fish without said fish being unimaginably and impossibly huge; the fish could approach a finite size limit and still increase in size infinitely.
However, according to my understanding of current physics (which admittedly is somewhat limited): a) the universe is not infinite, and b) physical matter cannot be split into infinitely tiny portions the way the number line can. In order for a fish to be bigger than another fish, it has to be bigger by a given finite amount (an atom or a quark or something), which means that an infinite progression of bigger and bigger fish could not approach a finite size limit. As you moved up the line of bigger fish, you would eventually get fish that were so unimaginably huge they would violate the rules of biology (the square cube law governing how big animals can get and all that), and even if said fish didn't violate the rules of biology you would not experience them as fish, but as galaxies or vast expanses of empty space in between fish-atoms or something.
I am willing to concede that if the universe were infinite, and if there were an infinite amount of water in this infinite universe for fish to live in, and if physical matter could be split into infinitely small segments, then it would be theoretically possible, however unlikely, for there to always be a bigger fish. However, this is still a very far cry from the Jedi assertion that, in plain fact, there is definitely always a bigger fish. I stand by my original conclusion, which is that the Jedi have their heads up their butts. However, I do thank Charlie for helping to clarify my thinking on this issue, and I welcome further debate on this highly significant issue.
2. Re the Jedi having their heads up their butts, what with their leaving Darth Vader's mother unrescued from slavery and their cockamamie notion that fear is the root of all evil and their infinite progression of fish: My friend and esteemed colleague James has a fascinating theory about all of this. He believes (or claims he believes, anyway) that the butt-headedness of the Jedi in Phantom Menace is intentional. His theory is that, as Phantom Menace opens, the Jedi have moved too far away from reality, with a philosophy that has become too detached and remote from actual human experience (or actual alien experience, for that matter). He argues that this is the meaning of that whole bit about how Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a., the future Mr. Vader) is The Chosen One who is destined to bring balance to The Force -- that Vader, in bringing great evil and destruction to the Galaxy and forcing the Jedi to battle against him, will compel them to re-evaluate their priorities and find a more balanced position between entanglement and detachment. I'm not sure I agree with James; I think he's giving Lucas waaaaay too much credit, I think it's far more likely that Lucas either actually agrees with the bone-brained Jedi philosophy or just didn't think about it very carefully. But I do think it's an interesting theory, and I thought I'd pass it along.
No, I'm not kidding -- even more things I didn't say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. My girlfriend Ingrid has reminded me that I've written six columns about Star Wars and have yet to rant about C-3PO. Always happy to oblige, sweetie. Here ya go.
1a. So if Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader) built C-3PO when he was a kid, why is it that we never heard about it until now? Why is it that, throughout the entire course of Star Wars Episodes IV, V and VI, this singular and crucial relationship between two major characters never, ever, ever got mentioned even once? Why didn't the two of them have some special knowledge or insight about each other, or even recognize each other, or anything?
1b. How exactly would a poor slave boy from a podunk planet build a protocol 'droid? Wouldn't he need to know...well, protocol? How could he know how to program a 'droid with the customs and manners and languages of sixty zillion planets, being as how he's six years old and has lived his entire life working his butt off as a grease monkey on this crappy little desert planet in the Nowheresville sector of the galaxy?
1c. Why exactly would a poor slave boy from a podunk planet build a protocol 'droid? He says he's making this thing for his mom; so what exactly is his poor, enslaved, raggedy mom, who's clearly been doing God's own shitwork since the dawn of time, going to do with a protocol 'droid? Why didn't he build her a floor-mopping 'droid, or a neck-rubbing 'droid, or a poisoning-the-evil-slaveowner-and-escaping-off-the-planet 'droid, or something she could actually for fuck's sake use?
(I know, I know. The answer to these and other questions is: Because Lucas just made it up this second. He thought it would be cute to have 3PO be created by Vader, and so he just tossed it in, and he obviously didn't give a whole lot of thought to the subject. Probably not as much thought as I seem to be giving it right now. Scary, that.)
2. On a non-C-3PO topic...My friend Dan points out that, depending on which source you depend on for your film budget info, Star Wars cost anywhere from 100 to 4,000 times as much to make as The Blair Witch Project. He finds this ironic, seeing as how it's anywhere from 100 to 4,000 times less effective a movie.
Yep, you got it, toots -- even more things I didn't say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace the first time around:
1. My friend Dan has reminded me to mention the strangest and most repulsive Star Wars merchandising tie-in that we've seen so far. It's a plastic Jar Jar Binks toy, sort of along the lines of a Pez dispenser, with a long candy tongue that protrudes obscenely from Jar Jar's mouth and that you are apparently supposed to lick, suck, and chew on. No, I'm not kidding -- it's the Jar Jar Binks French Kiss Toy. Bleeaaccccch. I feel soiled even just mentioning it. (Now, a Ewan MacGregor French Kiss Toy I could understand...)
2. My friend Paul has an interesting point about the hype surrounding the movie. He went to see Austin Powers shortly after both it and Star Wars Episode I opened, and noticed that, despite all the Star Wars crap enveloping the multiplex and all the daunting signs posted about not being able to use passes to see Star Wars, Austin Powers was playing on four screens and Star Wars was only playing on two.
3. Ummmm....that R2-D2 character sure is cute, isn't he?
4. Okay. I am clearly running out of things to say about this damn movie. And yet I find myself bizarrely attached to this ridiculous running gag, and am reluctant to just let it die. So now it's your turn. If you have something you'd like to say about Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace that I haven't said in my column yet, please write: "Keep the Joke Alive," c/o San Francisco Frontiers. Better yet, send an email with the subject line "Keep the Joke Alive." I don't promise to print your contribution, but I do promise that I'll credit you if I do. Remember: you can save this joke, or you can turn the page.
Nope. Sorry. I don't have a single interesting thing left to say about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace that I haven't already said before. That's it. All done. If you want any more, you can sing it yourself.
Copyright 1999 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Frontiers.