Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Let's take a step back a moment. What appeals about the first Star Wars movie the one now called Star Wars IV: A New Hope? The opening shot of the smaller spaceship running from the ... wait for it ... wait for it ... gigantic spaceship that fills and fills the screen. So immediately we know who the underdogs are. Immediately we know who to root for.
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Visual Effects
Best Sound Effects Editing
"When is yousa thinkin' wesa in trouble?"
This sense of identification is increased once we enter the ship. The faces of the rebels are visible, and even though they are pasty, white, British faces, they are preferable to the faceless storm troopers. Plus the first characters that emerge R2D2 and C3P0 are associated with the rebellion. They have a mission. And they are distinct. They are types. I can't stress this enough. C3P0 is the nervous, craven one and R2 is the courageous silent one who has information for the rebellion. Along the way these droids gather more characters, more types: Luke Skywalker, the young, idealistic kid with dreams of adventure; Han Solo, the cynical, devil-may-care mercenary with a heart of gold, and Ben Kenobi, the wise elder.
As a child I immediately identified with Luke; I was more Luke than Han. Do kids today argue who is better: Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) or young Ben Kenobi (Ewan McGregor)? Or aren't they distinct enough? At a meeting of Empirical governors in Star Wars IV, we saw the danger of Darth Vader: by raising a finger he nearly choked a doubting compatriot to death. Thus we knew what our heroes were up against. But Darth Maul? Does he do anything to make us fear him? Even Yoda, who stole the show in The Empire Strikes Back, is, in Star Wars I, so wise and noble as to be without personality. In the previous movie he uttered half a dozen lines that are still quoted fervently. Here he says nothing. Nothing. Whoever thought a round table of Jedi Knights could be so dull?
What drives this new Star Wars forward? The Jedi emissaries are attacked and betrayed and escape much like the droids in IV to a planet below, where they encouter, whoop-de-doo, Jar Jar Binks, a computer-generated character that seems like the Trix rabbit drawn by Ralph Bakshi. He becomes annoying fast. The bland Jedis (who look cool, don't get me wrong) aid the besieged Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), and escape the planet. Then they are forced to land on Tatooine, where we first meet Anakin Sykwalker, the boy who will become Darth Vader. But throughout is there any sense of peril? Anakin is a slave, but it just seems like he has an after-school job. The Queen mentions that her people are dying but we never see them dying. In Star Wars IV, we know why R2D2 must get the Death Star plans to the rebels, because we've seen what the Death Star can do. We're even made to feel for the destruction of Alderaan, a nondescript planet, by the reactions of Leia and, especially, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who collapses and tells us "It's as if a million voices suddenly cried out...and were suddenly silenced."
So the boy Vader wins the race and leaves his mother and Darth Maul arrives to battle the Jedis but they ditch him and take the Queen to plead her case before the Senate. The scenes on Coruscant are amazing, and the vastness of the Senate Chamber helps personify its impotence. It is too vast and unwieldy to be effective. But in a flash we leave Courscant for the final multi-faceted battle scenes which are, more or less, rip-offs of Star Wars VI: The Return of the Jedi. Just as Jedi gave us the cutesy characters (Ewoks) battling the Empire's groundtroops, the attack on the Death Star and Jedis battling Jedis (Darth, Luke, et al.), so Phantom gives usthe cutesy characters (Jar-Jar Binks and his ilk) battling the Empire's groundtroops, the attack on the Empire's ship and Jedis battling Jedis (Kenobi, Maul, et al.). In both movies the cutesy characters win. In both movies, the Empire's ship is destroyed. In both movies, two of the three Jedis bite the dust, and one death scene is prolonged so that the living Jedi can cradle the head of the dying Jedi as he utters his last poignant words.
Other movies have been derivative of Star Wars for years but what a shame that Star Wars has become derivative of itself.
June 13, 1999
© 1999 Erik Lundegaard