The Phantom Menace (1999)

Director: George Lucas

It’s… really not very good, is it? On TV tonight, so I decided to give it a second go, mostly cos I frankly didn’t remember it very well; I never saw it at the cinema, only on VHS, so tonight was the first I actually viewed it in widescreen (and HD, cos it was on 7mate). I don’t know, my interest in the Star Wars series cooled around 20 years ago, i.e. the last time the original trilogy was actually reissued before Lucas decided to tamper with them and shit on our childhoods, etc, so I had no great desire to see the new trilogy of prequels. And, yeah, I’m not sure that lack of interest was ultimately misplaced, considering how those films turned out…

Anyway, I wasn’t bowled over by Phantom Menace when I did finally see it, though I don’t recall loathing it or anything either. On rewatching I find myself rather less forgiving of its faults, the most notable of which, obviously, is that Binks fellow. I don’t know how convinced I ever was by the argument that the Gungans were meant to be some sort of racist stereotype—which may just be me; I do think the “Chinese” accents of the Trade Federation members are far more overt and dubious on that front—but dear god/dess Jar Jar is irritating. The weakness of the comic elements in this film (I mean, Jar Jar is surely not meant to be treated as anything else) really is impossible to overlook, as is the sheer badness of much of the acting. I mean, the original trilogy was hardly a masterclass in the Method, but there was a charisma from those performers remarkably absent from these ones.

And the story, well, who even really cares? It looks like Lucas certainly didn’t. If you’re one of those people who likes arguing that the modern blockbuster is all about the effects at the expense of the narrative, you really could use this as key evidence. In fairness to it, it does look amazing, if sometimes rather on the video game level (the CGI in which PM is drenched is never as engaging as the original trilogy’s practical effects); as a piece of technical and production design, it’s quite something. As a piece of storytelling… less so. Quite apart from the specifically clumsy and weakly managed not-quite-subplot of Queen Amidala’s “decoy”, the rest of the thing’s just generally as clunky as hell. The sheer amount of stuff Lucas tries to fit in is, frankly, too much for the film’s good. And, as Mr Machete notes, in the long run not much of it was important anyway.

In fairness, again, the film had a frankly impossible task, having to start laying the groundwork not only for episodes two and three but also for the original trilogy—everything had to lead back to that (I recall the film poster featuring young Jake Lloyd as Anakin casting a long shadow in the shape of Darth Vader, which I always thought was a brilliant illustration of the new trilogy’s purpose)—and to do so without disgracing that trilogy. You can judge for yourself how well it managed that, personally I kind of come down on the negative side, obviously… it’s an undeniably flashy bit of product that is, ultimately, somewhat cold and remote; when it comes to the crunch, Phantom Menace just isn’t anywhere near as fun as the 1977-83 films were.

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