The Phantom Defense

June 22, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has become fashionable over the last five years to bash all things related to George Lucas in general, and The Phantom Menace in particular. Let me be the first to say that Lucas deserves a fair amount of criticism. He's not what one might call a fan-friendly man, and, over the years, he has been guilty of money grubbing of the worst kind (think of all those people who bought about eight different versions of the original Star Wars movie on VHS and laserdisc, just so they could have the new bells & whistles). But casting down a perfectly entertaining space opera on the grounds that it's not the second coming of Star Wars is ludicrous and unfair. So the time has come for someone to step up and defend The Phantom Menace. And, since I gave the movie ***1/2 at its release, and have not changed my opinion since then, I'll accept the task.

Think back to May of 1999, a week before the release of Episode 1. No film in the history of cinema had been more anticipated. The level of expectation was through the roof. Hardly anyone was talking about anything else. You couldn't go anywhere or read anything without running into a Phantom Menace reference. I was asked dozens of times each day whether I had seen the movie (I had, but was sworn to secrecy until the day before it opened). Not since the opening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture had I witnessed such a fan-inspired frenzy. However, this time, the spillover washed over all aspects of pop culture, spreading far and wide from the hardcore fan base. It was insane... glorious, but insane. And it necessitated a major letdown.

It isn't possible to have that kind of humongous buildup without a similarly large letdown. You drink too much and get high, then crash and wake up with a hangover. The two go hand-in-hand. Those who went into The Phantom Menace expecting it to be the best movie of the year, or the decade, or the century, or ever, were misguided from the start. Why saddle any movie with such unreachable expectations? I approached the film modestly, remembering that Return of the Jedi had been a disappointment, and there was no reason to expect The Phantom Menace to be better. What I saw on that evening when I attended a pre-release screening was a movie that was more engaging than the Ewok-infested, poorly-paced Episode 6, but something that was not quite up to the level of storytelling provided by Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In short, the biggest foe faced by The Phantom Menance was the level of anticipation. Fair? No. But realistic.

Frankly, a lot of people went into this movie expecting to have a similar experience to what they underwent on a balmy summer evening in 1977. No matter how good The Phantom Menace was, that wasn't going to happen. The genie was out of the bottle. In 1977, Star Wars was new and fresh (although not original). It crashed unexpectly into pop culture and dug out a niche. By the time The Phantom Menace arrived, the niche had become a well-fortified trench. And everyone around it had grown up.

Most die-hard Star Wars fans are around my age - between 30 and 40. They saw the first film when they were a child, and it left a lasting impression. The passage of time, which always amplifies a cherished memory, made the experience of seeing Star Wars something more than just sitting in a darkened theater watching images on a screen. There's magic in the memory, and to ask The Phantom Menace to re-create the magic isn't fair, because the circumstances are so different. Ask a 9-year old kid who saw The Phantom Menace in 1999 what he/she thought of the film, and you're likely to get a postive response. (I know, because I have asked quite a few.) 9-year olds liked The Phantom Menace. With them, it wasn't competing with any ghosts. 35-year olds didn't. The question is, is that because it wasn't a very good movie or because their perceptions were colored by shades of past Star Wars images? I believe it to be the latter, and I'll continue this defense by looking at some of the most common charges leveled at Episode 1.

The Plot: Considering the corner he backed himself into by deciding to make prequels (rather than sequels), Lucas did a respectable job crafting the story. It's got all the important bits - a beginning, a middle, and an end; segments on various planets; comedy, action, and tragedy; and it introduces all of the major characters and themes. Like the original three movies, it's a simple tale of good vs. evil. And, in the climax, it uses the same kind of intercutting that was a hallmark of Return of the Jedi. This generates a surprising amount of tension and energy. The main complaint about the plot seems to be that it lacks originality. You won't get an argument about that from me, but I don't see it as a drawback. The same criticism can be leveled at Star Wars, which was just as straightforward and occasionally hokey. Yet what was viewed as charming in 1977 is suddenly crass and creatively bankrupt in 1999? Huh? Lucas isn't cannabilizing himself any more in The Phantom Menace than he was stealing from Kurosawa, earlier serials, and space operas in Star Wars. Plus, I think a lot of the die-hard fans are simply pissed off that the movie didn't go in exactly the direction they had wanted. Expectations again.

The Screenplay: I hear all the time about how painful the dialogue is. Granted, it's not Shakespeare, but it gets the job done. Lest a reminder be needed, the original Star Wars had its share of clunkers and howlers, and even the line that everyone remembers ("May the Force be with you") is silly - it's just that it caught on and was repeated everywhere. If you're attending a Star Wars movie in search of meaningful dialogue and deep character interaction, you have wandered into the wrong theater.

The Actors: The actors appearing in The Phantom Menace take a lot of abuse, but I would argue that this ensemble is an improvement over the group that headlined Star Wars. Okay, so Jake Lloyd is a little raw, but he's also a kid. Natalie Portman is a better actress than she shows here, but she's okay. Ditto for Ewan McGregor. Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid are good. Look back to 1977, when it's hard not to cringe every time Mark Hamill utters a line of dialogue. Harrison Ford's woodenness is striking. And Carrie Fisher's performance doesn't scream "Oscar." All we're left with is Peter Cushing and Alec Guiness, both of whom are admittedly superb. (I don't count Darth Vader, since he's wearing a mask and is voiced by someone other than the actor playing him.)

The Villains: Here's where The Phantom Menace falls short of Star Wars. There's no Darth Vader. And, although Darth Maul is a perfectly acceptable short-term bad guy, there is a little bit of a vacuum, because Vader is only ten years old and is still on the good side. In limited screen time, Maul radiates enough malice to capture the attention of kids, proving that Lucas understands what's needed to fashion a villain. And Sidious, although more malevolent, is too much in the background to be a factor.

The Pod Race: A lot of people don't like this sequence, but I think it's one of the most exciting and visually interesting portions of the movie. And, in addition to being fun, it reveals a few things about Anakin's character.

The Special Effects: It's hard to imagine anyone complaining about the effects in Episode 1, but some people did. I guess they thought there were too many or that the movie looked overly computer-generated. Personally, I thought what Lucas accomplished added a rich texture to the story. For the most part, the effects were integrated seamlessly. Lucas has always been about pushing the edge when it comes to visuals, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the effects eclipse the characters. To an extent, they did that in 1977 as well. (It doesn't look that way in retrospect because, by today's standards, those effects are modest. But that wasn't the case when the movie came out.) The light-saber battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul showed us a battle the likes of which we had never seen in a Star Wars movie.

Jar-Jar Binks: Sorry, but I don't have a defense for this one. It was a colossal mistake, although kids seem to like the CGI embarassment. Fortunately, Lucas dramatically downsized his role in Attack of the Clones.

I have a feeling that, once all six movies are available, The Phantom Menace will be looked upon more kindly. Stripped of expectations and set in its proper place as the first chapter of a six-part story, it is a more appealing experience. It's hard to imagine anyone expressing dislike of The Phantom Menace without using the word "disappointing." That's a subjective evaluation that can't be argued against. Ultimately, this is Lucas' vision, and not anyone else's, and, as far as I'm concerned, what he has done with The Phantom Menace (and also Attack of the Clones) is consistent with the way in which he developed and concluded the original trilogy.

Feel free to argue, but I'm holding my ground...