Monday, May 19, 2014

The Unnecessary First Chapter of the Star Wars Saga

"Every Generation Has A Legend. Every Journey Has A First Step. Every Saga Has A Beginning."


Every story must start somewhere, and I suppose that the Star Wars saga needed a first chapter. (I was OK with leaving the original "Star Wars" as the first chapter — forget this prequel stuff — but no one asked me ...)

But I really felt like "The Phantom Menace," which made its highly anticipated debut 15 years ago today, was the weakest of the six Star Wars movies that have hit the theaters — so far.

I didn't see it at the theater. I was never terribly excited about it, even though I saw the fan frenzy that the movie inspired among supposedly otherwise normal people who stood in long lines for tickets. I didn't go through that; a co–worker bought it when it was released on video tape, and I borrowed it from him.

I could understand why reactions were mixed.

Film critic Roger Ebert said it was "an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking."

Mark Deming of was less glowing in his assessment.

"While the computer–generated alternate universe was top notch and [George] Lucas' knack for whiz–bang special effects action reached an apex in the Ben–Hur–esque pod race," Deming wrote, "critics (professional and otherwise) objected to the wooden human characters, overly kiddie–friendly atmosphere, and goofy alien sidekick Jar Jar Binks."

That pretty much covered it for me.

When I watched it on video tape, my initial impression was that the entire project was designed to market a line of children's toys. Oh, sure, there has always been an element of that in the Star Wars movies, going back to the original. But it was always kept under control in the first trilogy (OK, things were starting to unravel in "Return of the Jedi").

It was rampant in "The Phantom Menace." For a long time, I was convinced the movie had been written to support the toys that were flooding the market. (There's a part of me that is still not convinced the movie wasn't motivated entirely by commercial interests.)

And "goofy" is only one of the words I would use to describe Jar Jar. Others would be "annoying," "stupid," "distracting."

"Grating," possibly. Definitely "irritating."

But certainly not "endearing."

I know some people who liked Jar Jar. I didn't. That won't change. Let's move on, shall we?

I had to agree with Deming when he praised the special effects in the movie, and the pod race did bear a striking resemblance to "Ben–Hur." I suppose it was a glimpse into what that chariot race scene might have been if the makers of "Ben–Hur" had the technological advances that were available to the makers of "The Phantom Menace."

Ebert was enamored with the whole eye candy thing.

"Unlike many movies, these are made to be looked at more than listened to," Ebert wrote, "and George Lucas and his collaborators have filled 'The Phantom Menace' with wonderful visuals."

If the visual was more important than the audio, then perhaps anyone could have played the parts, but I didn't really think that was true. Some people complained that the actors were wooden, but I felt they did as much as their parts would let them. Liam Neeson made a strong contribution to the story as the Jedi knight who trained Ewan McGregor as his apprentice, a young Obi–Wan Kenobi. It gave the audience some new insights into the old Obi–Wan Kenobi.

Please don't misunderstand. I thought the visuals were impressive. But, for the most part, I thought that was most of what "The Phantom Menace" really had to offer.

And I expect more from a Star Wars movie. Or I did — until 15 years ago.
Likewise, Natalie Portman did a good job as Queen Padmé Amidala, who went on to marry Anakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader) and give birth to Luke and Leia. (I don't need to tell you who they were, do I?)

In "The Phantom Menace," Anakin was portrayed by 10–year–old Jake Lloyd. His character was played by an older actor in Episodes II and III.

Actually, I am inclined to think that maybe Ebert was on to something when he spoke of the appeal of the visuals, possibly at the expense of the story.

"We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema, I think, in which digital techniques mean that budgets will no longer limit the scope of scenes," he wrote. "Filmmakers will be able to show us just about anything they can imagine."

From the perspective of a mere 15 years down the road, it seems positively prophetic, doesn't it?