Saturday, November 14, 2015

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) - FilmReview

"Hello, I'm going to be responsible for helping to eliminate the Jedi."
It had to happen! Following on from my review of Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones comes a look at how it all began: Midi-chlorians included!

Back in 1999 I had been excited at the news concerning brand new Star wars; George Lucas was a Hollywood God in my eyes, a man who could do no wrong: he had given my childhood an amazing gift, one that I am eternally grateful for, so no "He's ruined my childhood" comments in this article! I was 25 years-old when the eagerly awaited Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace was released, and there was so much excitement it could barely be contained in one body. Thankfully I didn't explode. But witnessing the birth of a new trilogy in the Star wars saga was almost like discovering a single rare crystal leading to a pool of treasure. My first taste of this new movie wasn't at the theatre but on VHS cassette - yes, I was yet to embrace the beauty of the DVD player! And so, crystal in hand, I sat to watch this magnificent piece of cinematic magic...

Trade dispute? Strange-looking aliens out of lip sync? Not exactly the beginning I was looking for, but still... plenty of promise... Then come the Battle droids, not exactly Stormtroopers, are they? So we are introduced to the Trade Federation. I guess the main issue with TPM is just how political it becomes, and how we witness Senator Palpatine's manipulation as a shadow threatens to engulf the Senate. We already know that it is Palpatine who ends up playing such a vital part in the "original trilogy", and that he is actually Sith Lord Darth Sidious. But it seems we must learn just how he becomes so powerful politically. And we get to meet a young Anakin Skywalker, portrayed by Jake Lloyd (who has gone on record saying that the film actually did ruin his childhood, and acting career - I've seen "Jingle All The Way", so I can honestly say George Lucas can't be completely blamed).

Of all the actors to star in TPM, Ewan McGregor is the most interesting, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, apprentice to Liam Neeson's Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Originally played by legend Sir Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan remains an intriguing character, whose eventual escape following Order 66 (Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) leads him to live as a hermit on the planet Tatooine. In "Episode I" he is young and impatient, more reflective of how Luke Skywalker appeared in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. That said, the "prequels" are less about the heroes and more about how Anakin Skywalker becomes the evil Darth Vader. Young he may well be but Anakin is already showing signs of being exceptional, even if he does ask the strangest questions: "Are you an angel?" No, she's co-star Natalie Portman aka Queen Padmé Amidala!

"Meeza fan!"
I find it fascinating how any actor can claim that a movie either destroyed their career, or nearly did so, and Portman is another reported to have made such a statement. Personally I rate her highly, and have enjoyed performances in movies such as Léon (1994), V for Vendetta (2006), and The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). To step away from near disaster and actually make good is a sign of a talented actor! I like Padmé very much. And though she doesn't have the strong character of Leia Organa, her presence in TPM is a vital one, giving warmth to an otherwise lifeless world. Considering how the next two instalments connect the Queen of Naboo and a future Sith Lord romantically, it certainly would have been far more consistent for Anakin to have been represented by someone older than Lloyd, too - I find it odd how we leap from Lloyd to Hayden Christensen in the first two films.

Just imagine if, for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, we had had someone other than Mark Hamill to play a young Luke Skywalker, only for Hamill to take the reigns in TESB (The Empire Strikes Back).

Much is made of the mystery surrounding the Sith Master (Palpatine) and his apprentice (I shall come to Darth Maul in a moment), just as TPM seems obsessed with suspicion and plot: it could almost be a futuristic Guy Fawkes feature, with the Jedi Council stepping in for Parliament. If it had morphed into a sci-fi thriller then okay, I'm totally fine with that, but George Lucas' script fails to satisfy any need for true suspense or drama. Instead, everything feels convoluted and in need of strict editing. The Battle Droids make for a weak nemesis. Even the Jedi never live up to expectations - "For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times... before the Empire." If Ben Kenobi's mention of this ancient "religion" felt exciting and mysterious then going back to a time when they were still present only goes to show them as lacking in greatness. Sad but true! Only Nute Gunray, viceroy of the Trade Federation, seemed wary of them. There is also so much going on in this movie, including the Battle of Naboo, that most Jedi are off "investigating", it seems, or sat around pondering. After doing some research into Jedi mythology, I am amazed by its richness, something that is never truly realised onscreen.

Many fans have taken dislike to both the Midi-chlorians explanation regarding the Force, and the introduction of Gungan Jar Jar Binks. The latter is fine with me, a character that brings light relief. Let's face it, the original trilogy had enough light-hearted humour to entertain, such as the Ewoks, Chewbacca's Tarzan antics, and most of C-3PO's scenes. Is a native of Naboo (Jar Jar) really that big of a deal? And I certainly don't get the racial caricature allegations: he's an alien from a galaxy far far away, not a Jamaican... He certainly doesn't deserve to be described as "the most hated character in cinema". How wude!

Alistair Crighton writes an interesting article on Star Wars stereotypes for Aljazeera. On a personal note, all I see are characters whose motivations have nothing to do with the real world - it's called escapism...

So, back to the film. If TPM delivers an ace from up its sleeve then let's take a look at Sith apprentice Darth Maul, whose presence is severely lacking and needed much development. For the most part he skulks, only fully engaging in the movie twice: both times to clash lightsabers with Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). The climax sees both Qui-Gon and Maul killed, but what a waste of an opportunity to extend the latter's legacy - it could have been him instead of Christopher Lee's Count Dooku who faces off against Yoda in Attack of the Clones and is eventually executed by Anakin (at Palpatine's invitation) in Revenge of the Sith after he outlives his usefulness, marking a path for the new Galactic Empire (and Darth Vader's rise to power within). Just like Vader, Maul is portrayed by two people: Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz (the latter for the voice). It is a crime that this Sith wasn't given more to do other than looking like a model for a toy line. Yes, in the end it's all about profit but let's make the character earn his money, shall we?

As Qui-Gonn is cremated on a funeral pyre, Yoda says, "Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice." We know the answer. But the mystery remains for the Jedi, as the Clone War approaches. Thankfully by then C-3PO will be less "naked"; Jar Jar will appear less frequently, and Anakin will have grown to fancy his "angel". Sadly, Samuel L. Jackson's look of boredom will continue. At least Mace Windu has something exciting to do in the sequel, with a purple lightsaber...

Article author: Alwyn Ash