After countless revisits to the Star Wars cash well, with special editions and re-releases of the original trilogy, George Lucas decides to go ahead and take even more of our money in return for an atrocity committed to film.
Oh wait, I should save that for the summary at the end, right?
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Jake Lloyd, Samuel L. Jackson
Run Time: 136 Minutes
Release Date: 19 May 1999
Okay, let’s start on a positive note. Sixteen years had passed since Return of the Jedi, and the population was ready for a new Star Wars film. This time set before the events of the original trilogy, we would now get to see the start of the conclusion we had already watched. Forget the confusion of Episodes I, II and III coming after IV, V and VI, this was what fans the world over had waited for. George Lucas was going to introduce his universe to a new generation of fans and delight the existing ones, a new trilogy that would rival the original. And to help him do that was an all-star cast, packed with talent and ability that would bring to life what Lucas and his team had been planning for years.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Okay, let’s start with the annoying, universally-despised elephant in the room.
Included to make the film appeal to children, created to provide comic relief and play a major role in a movie with plenty of major characters, Jar Jar Binks is still to this day considered the most unpopular character in the entire Star Wars universe. Considering that encompasses six films, multiple books and TV series, that really says something. Obviously intended to be endearing and give viewers a hero to root for, it completely backfired and ended up becoming synonymous with the problems suffered by the film. Lucas’ insistence to keep Jar Jar relevant and involved throughout hurt the end product more and more as it goes on. His impact is also felt in the dialogue, where much of the humour that felt so natural in the original films now seems distinctly more infantile. It’s not all Jar Jar, of course, but it is certainly a fair amount. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there shouldn’t have been a sidekick – after all, the original trilogy has Chewie – but there is no discernible, likable feature about Binks. And what’s worse, as you get increasingly disgruntled while watching, he becomes the main target, the single biggest problem with entire movie.
And that is not fair. Jar Jar Binks is not the single biggest problem with The Phantom Menace, because to believe that and hold that opinion lets George Lucas off the hook for plenty of other mistakes made here.
In his planning, Lucas decided to focus on a young Anakin Skywalker. Given the journey the character would take over the three movies, this is no great shock nor is it necessarily a bad thing. The problem comes with the actor tasked to take on such a role. Jake Lloyd was 10 when The Phantom Menace was released, and while it made sense for a young actor to play a young role (obviously), for Lucas to place so much emphasis on lil’ Anakin has to be viewed as an error. Much like Jar Jar was there to appeal to young viewers and add humour, Skywalker’s trials and tribulations are there to inspire those same young viewers to live vicariously through him and have a natural role model to follow. The issue comes with Lloyd, who doesn’t have the talent and range to carry a role that demands so much.
The original trilogy was loved because it was about human emotion and good vs evil, not an expensive feature so heavily dependent on technology, clearly wanting to be the technological breakthrough Lucas wanted. With the talented folk at Industrial Light and Magic at his beckon call, you can’t help but feel that Lucas sacrificed the heart of what made Star Wars great in favour of winning awards for special effects. Watch the movie through and you will be hard pressed to find a scene that doesn’t contain CGI of some description. And while there were undoubtedly other films that came later – Lord of the Rings springs to mind – that relied heavily on computer imagery, that whole trilogy came down to two Hobbits taking a ring that was forcing them to test the very boundaries of their friendship. Here, any such human emotion or relationship is never given a chance to come to the forefront, because the search for the visual thrill came first.
And it is a shame, as there is some good in this movie.
The aforementioned cast should be very strong, and in some cases, is; Liam Neeson, dependable as always, puts forward a manful performance. Indeed, as the film goes on you realise that he is carrying things. Alongside him, Ewan McGregor seems almost overawed by the occasion (although does grow in confidence by the film’s end) and Natalie Portman can take solace in the fact that her double turn as Amidala and Padme ensured that the movie’s makeup budget was sufficiently spent. In all seriousness however, the cast is massively let down by scripting and character development that is nothing short of lazy from Lucas. His desire to make a great-looking movie causes him to overlook such trivial things like making his characters mean something, his scripting that puts long, action-less conversations ahead of exciting battle scenes. His main problem is that starting a new trilogy is considerably harder when you have already-established films you are trying to tie into. A New Hope had a clean slate to start from, he could tell the story he wanted to, with little exposition required. Here, it’s the opposite; a prequel means that we have to be introduced to these new faces, we have to be told what is happening and why, who the power players are. This is where George lets himself down, although to his credit, he does get some things right.
Despite it being longer than is really necessary, the podracing segment provides excitement. And while his insistence on Anakin’s starring role is never fulfilled by Lloyd, he does deliver on Vader Jr.’s emotional farewell to his mother, which gives us a genuine big moment. But the big one – the movie’s definitive redeeming moment that makes it’s existence worthwhile – is the epic lightsaber battle at it’s conclusion. As you’re watching, you actually find yourself forgetting all you have sat through; all the politics, all the boring non-events that have led to this moment. And that moment is why we are Star Wars fans.
Let’s go back to the start; George Lucas took even more of our money in return for an atrocity committed to film, a movie that even today is still the most disappointing of all-time. And yet it could have been so different, for there are elements of a great film wanting to come out, wanting to push past the boring non-events and become a true part of Star Wars lore, the Star Wars galaxy.
In a galaxy far, far away…