By: Muneeb Arshid
I promise I won’t rant about this movie. I must resist THE FORCE to rant!!
See what I did there?
Yes, that’s what Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace has left me to resort to – STUPID PUNS to keep me amused. I’m going to start this review by saying this was terrible, much more terrible than I remember this movie to be, because, being someone who grew up with these films, I do remember watching them and kind of enjoying them as well (YES, that was my 10-ish-year-old brain then). The Prequel trilogy is the series that was forced upon our throats by George Lucas the Great because, well just because really. As you all know, the original trilogy has all been reviewed by The Film Lawyers, in order from Episode IV to Episode VI. In terms of all time trilogies, the original is probably not the best trilogy out there (mostly due to the weak link in Return of the Jedi. But is nonetheless, a very good set of movies, which make a lot of sense historically, as they’ve set the precedent for all future series to come, except the prequels of this series.
What the original trilogy does, is ensure that every viewer and Star Wars fan out there has it cemented in their brain that this trilogy may well be one of the worst ever. So let’s try and work out this review systematically, but if you want to take a guess at what my grade will be at the end of this review right now… Go ahead, it won’t be very hard to figure that out.
So the opening narrative crawl that has become iconic for the Star Wars movies is back for this film, and what it tried telling me was that the movie was going to be about the taxation of trade routes and how there was a blockade of trade between Naboo and The Trade Federation. A TAXATION, TRADE, SOMETHING, SOMETHING MOVIE!
To help alleviate this conflict, two Jedi Knights have been sent to act as mediators to help draw a close, the conflict between the two groups. The Jedi Knights – Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) – are sent as allies to Queen Amidala/Padme (Natalie Portman). Along the way they meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) on Tatooine, and because Qui-Gon feels it in the Force, he must make sure that he brings Anakin along on the adventure, so he may become important later this movie and in the trilogy. Also, the beginning of our favourite movie relationship commences between Padme and Anakin.
That has to be the worst conception of a plot ever! Certainly takes Quantum of Solace’s money to the bank, with its plot about a Bolivian Water Crisis. Could there not have been anything else that could’ve gotten us from Tatooine to Naboo with Anakin in tow.
Anyways, let’s move on, or else I’m going to start breaking my promise of no rant.
WOW, I’ve gotten this far without even talking about the greatness that is Jar Jar Binks. I don’t think I should spend too much time talking about him because that would be giving the character too much credit. Bless Ahmed Best for doing the voice of Jar Jar, because if not for him, we never would’ve, as critics and fans, gotten an opportunity to rip on that character. Did George actually think that the character in the form that we got him in, would suffice for the fans?
However, there is one group of… Well, let’s just say that it’s the federation droids, who are insanely annoying with the voices, and may even contend against Jar Jar for the worst sound out of their mouth-hole in the entire Star Wars universe.
Wait, I said I won’t get started on the rant *calm*
In terms of the other characters, many of them aren’t any better than Jar Jar, NO, they don’t have annoying voices either, but for the most part, there is some seriously lazy, unaspiring acting going on. From the likes of Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd (granted, he was still a kid), and even Ewan McGregor is kind of hard to watch in this film. And it’s not like they were rookies at this stage. Of course, Portman was only 19 years old, in her portrayal of Queen Amidala, but she had been in five feature films before this including Leon: The Professional as a 12-13-year-old. There were instances where it felt like she was just there for the cheque. At the time of writing this review, I’ve yet to rewatch Episodes II and III, so I don’t know if I feel that she improves, I seriously hope so, considering the large role that she has.
I won’t comment on Jake Lloyd, because he was a child portraying Anakin, and children always tend to be a hit and miss in terms of acting. But Ewan McGregor, my goodness. He may not have had the largest role in this film (he probably wanted a larger role), but wow, were his scenes bad. There was no heft in his dialogue delivery. He can’t have the excuse of being inexperienced, he’d been in movies like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting before The Phantom Menace. However, was he utilized properly, probably not. Is it his fault? I don’t know. The script is that bad, that it might not even be his doing of his stilted character.
Two performances do stand out for me, obviously Liam Neeson’s calm and collected performance as Qui-Gon as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s limited performance as Mace Windu. The two actors really do make sure that their acting is not at fault in this film, and show that even in a terrible film, signs of proper acting can come through and show itself to the audience.
The villain in this movie, Darth Maul, who of the iconic double-bladed lightsaber fame, is the apprentice of Darth Sidious. I don’t have much to say about him, he’s here and there for most of the film and then engages in a very ballet-like, choreographed lightsaber duel with both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan but ultimately falls to a certain moment of Qui-Gon ex-machina and has a very underwhelming death at the end. To be one of the more iconic villains, and having so much potential to start the movie with, there is a massive underwhilming feeling to the way Darth Maul is ultimately dealt with.
If you thought the CG was better in parts of the original trilogy than what’s found in this, then join the club. It doesn’t become apparent right away, but when the battle between the droid army and the Gungans commences, the field that they are fighting on, is so horrendously green-screened. It literally looks like they’ve put down green carpet (with the colour as close to grass as possible) in a room and filled it with CGI droids and Gungans and tanks. I have to say, the CGI that was used, especially in Empire Strikes Back looked absolutely great, especially the introduction to Cloud City. The fact they were able to get a beautiful rendering like that back in 1980 is a sight to behold. I don’t know what George thought, by saying that there were better CG effects possible in the 90s because he did not hit the mark with all the so-called “advanced-level special effects” he was going for.
But, I will give two points to George, one of them is in the cinematography (it’s not all bad). The depiction of the cities is very beautiful indeed. All of Tatooine, Naboo and especially the Underground Gungan City. Naboo looks great due mostly to its complex architecture, which gives it a very modern day Egypt or Morocco feel to it. While the Gungan City is not only an architectural marvel but also just how the city is initially presented, is visually beautiful. It looks similar to how Cloud City was presented in Empite Strikes Back and absolutely is a beaut to look at. You might be thinking that I just ripped the CG and now I’m saying that some of the cinematography was actually good. But when there is only one sequence in the film that wasn’t filmed with effects, two points out of the entire movie does not make a dent into the rest of my grade towards the effects.
The second point that George gets, well, the Star Wars franchise as a whole, is the continued use of the score by John Williams. It is such an iconic piece of music which as I said in my Return of the Jedi review, it not only sets the tone for this movie, but it has contributed to the norm of using big symphony orchestral scores for many movies recently. And the one great thing about this film, is that we may have lost the Imperial March from the Original Trilogy, but what Williams has done, is to incorporate and reflect the childhood of Anakin with the variation in the Imperial March that is presented in this film. It allows a certain foreshadowing to occur with just the music itself for the eventual transformation of Anakin to Darth Vader.
Whenever, a new movie in a series is released after a very long hiatus, there is always a sense of doubt, of whether the director will be able to nail the essence of what made the original movies great. For Episode I, George Lucas has not done that at all. He has misjudged what the fans wanted, he’s probably also misjudged what he wanted in his subconscious. But the people who suffered were the fans at the end of it, not Lucasfilm and ultimately George himself who was able to rake in all that dough for himself. Which is why there is still a little bit of anxiety with the upcoming release of The Force Awakens that a sequel after 10 years may not work. I sure am hoping it does, and I think it will, since George isn’t on that production side of the new series, and we’ll get a fresh take on the Star Wars saga.
In terms of The Phantom Menace, the couple of characters, and moments of cinematography and even the outstanding score by John Williams were not enough to save it from a failing grade. So Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace just fails Jedi Training and receives a grade of F (3.8/10).
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