Movies That Settle: The Phantom Menace

Posted: December 9, 2015 in Movies That Settle, Uncategorized

Last night, I put in the DVD of Return of the Jedi, and I was immediately awash with feelings of nostalgia for the first time I saw that movie in theaters back in 1983. My whole family went, and it was a packed house, and what I remember most (I was only 7) was how cool it was when the whole audience erupted in applause when the title screen appeared the music of John Williams filled their ears. It was probably my first time experiencing one of those shared moments like that. I imagine it will be a similar feeling in about a week, when The Force Awakens plays to a hungry audience.

Then, harsh reality struck; I’ve had a feeling like this before. Strangely similar, in fact. Actually, almost exactly the same amount of anticipation I am experiencing now came over me in 1999, when everyone I knew was talking about the first new Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi: The Phantom Menace. Yes, perhaps the worst settling movie of all time.

Over the ensuing sixteen years, I’ve heard a lot of differing opinions of this movie, as well as its two sequel-prequels. I’ve known people who are so mad that they say that they don’t even exist, or that George Lucas raped their childhood.  Those are one extreme, obviously, because I’ve also come across people who think that they were okay, and if you take the entire story (all six of them) as a whole, it’s an epic hero’s journey.   And when I saw The Phantom Menace re-release in 3-D a few years ago, my fellow theater-goers applauded at the end.  Perhaps because it was over, but it was still applause.

In some circles, the Star Wars prequels probably evoke more emotion than any film series in history.  People certainly talk about them, positively or negatively, more than any saga in my life (maybe even the original Star Wars trilogy.)  But what really was going on there?  Certainly because of how beloved the original trilogy is, the new trilogy had an uphill climb, anyway, but not only did they not live up to the expectations, the prequel trilogy rolled down the hill and crashed.  But why?  And more importantly, how?  Everyone clearly has their own opinions, but I think enough time has passed now, and with three new films on the way, the first of which will be here in a matter of days, that it’s time to cut open the body and examine the cause of death. And thus, I give you the Biggest Burrito Movie of All-Time: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Basically, The Phantom Menace runs off the rails two sentences into the opening crawl.  The Trade Federation?  The planet Naboo?  Who the Hell cares?  After a few minutes, we see our heroes, the Jedi Knights, one of them being young Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom Star Wars geeks should actually be happy to see.  There is a mention by the oddly-Asian-like villains that the Jedi are bad news, although we don’t really know what great fighters they are yet.  They attempt to rub the Jedi out, but obviously fail (To think, all the needless suffering could have ended right then.).  Obi-Wan and his Jedi mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, flee the evil Asian’s ship and retreat to the planet Naboo below, which is apparently a planet we are supposed to care about because this Trade Federation is somehow repressing them.  Things go from bad to annoying as the Jedi soon encounter and mysteriously befriend Jar-Jar Binks, one of the most reviled characters in over a century of cinema.  Jar-Jar takes them to his subterranean hometown of Gungan City, and they meet his king, Boss Nass, who basically sounds like Big Bird on smack.  None of this seems to have real purpose except to be an elaborate introduction of Boss Nass, a character that we see three times in the whole saga.

I’m going to break from the riveting plot synopsis to talk a little about Jar Jar Binks. Seriously, is there a more polarizing character in all of history? Love him or hate him (I hate him, but I suppose someone must love him), he represents all that is wrong with the prequel trilogy: he is clumsy, he blathers on-and-on about nothing, and even though he is seemingly pointless, it all works out for him in the end.

But, as I said, he is polarizing. Some people think he’s harmless, and some others (including this Reddit user) who think that he is actually a Sith Lord who is pulling all the strings behind-the-scenes, and that Lucas’ master plan all along was for him to be revealed as the big baddie, until everyone simply hated him and never wanted to see him again, so George shoe-horned Count Dooku in. While the Jar Jar Theory couldn’t have been much worse than what they actually did, I’m glad they didn’t go that route. There was really no need to give Jar Jar any more screen time. And fear not, Jar Jar-haters. J.J. Abrams has heard your plea, and he has stated that the reviled character will not be appearing in The Force Awakens. So who cares if he was a Sith Lord or not?

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As is the theme with the entire film, nothing of note happens and Jar-Jar and his Jedi companions head back to the surface to rescue the Queen of Naboo, Amidala, whom we were told is a good person in need of rescue earlier in the movie, but we never saw any evidence of wrong-doing, so who knows?  They actually very easily rescue her, and decide to take her to the planet Coruscant, where she can stand before the Imperial Senate and ask them to tell the evil Asian bad guys to basically stop being evil. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the two Jedi were probably enough to whip the bad guys and their stupid droids all by themselves, but we have a lot of time to fill here.

Long hours seem to pass, and the end result is that our heroes are attacked and must land on Tatooine, the future home of Luke Skywalker, to repair their ship. Qui-Gon then makes a twisted deal with a flying frog named Watto for some spare parts.  The deal involves Watto’s slave boy, Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader), whom Qui-Gon has deduced is The Chosen One, and will become the greatest Jedi ever. Anakin, despite being a toddler, is somehow a great pilot, so he is tasked with winning the ship parts in what amounts to a really long NASCAR race, complete with incredible annoying Chris Berman-like commentators. The similarities are so rich, they should have just gotten him to do the voices.

As part of Qui-Gonn’s compulsive gambling, Anakin wins the race, the parts, and his freedom, and is convinced to leave his mother to go with these virtual strangers to Coruscant to learn the ways of The Force.  He says good-bye to Mom and all the other slaves (who Qui-Gon decided weren’t worth the effort. I guess Anakin literally is The Chosen One.), gets on the ship and is off to meet his destiny.  He begins to form a bond with Padme, who is apparently the Queen’s hand-maiden, although anyone familiar with the casting of the movie knew right away that it was all a big farce and that Padme is in fact the Queen, since we were all told that Natalie Portman was playing a Queen. There are apparently whole websites devoted to fans theorizing when it was Portman and when it was Keira Knightley. Personally, I’m not worrying about it (or even linking it. Sorry.)

When they reach Coruscant,” the Queen” pleads her case, although nothing seems to come of it (again.) Meanwhile, Qui-Gonn asks the Jedi Council if he can train Anakin, but they don’t believe he’s anything special, so Qui-Gonn reckons he’ll do it, anyway. So nothing comes from that meeting, either.

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Amidala then decides, although she’s not really the Queen (or is she?), that she must return to her repressed home planet and save it from the evil Asians.  The Jedi are instructed by their bosses to return with her to keep her safe, and they decide to bring the decidedly-unspecial Anakin with them. So basically, the same poor assholes that just flew across the galaxy and sat around on a desert planet forever to get to Corusant to accomplish nothing  have to turn around and go back to fight a battle that they probably could have won before they left and spared us a whole lot of talking. And wipes.

The Battle for Naboo is actually the best part of the movie, although two-thirds of it is not very good.  The battle unfolds on three stages, with some Naboo pilots waging war in space, trying to knock out the droid ship, which is no Star Destroyer, let me tell you. This battle isn’t very good because we don’t know who any of these pilots are.  In the second battle, we see Jar Jar Binks, suddenly a general, leading his fishy friends into combat against said droids.  This is also not very good because it has Jar Jar on the screen, and I would rather gouge out my eyeballs with a light saber than watch him fumble around on a battlefield, and yet somehow still take out several droids.

The third part of the battle sees Qui Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul in one of the best light saber duels ever seen.  It is something to marvel, and it would probably be remembered more fondly if there wasn’t two hours of crap before it.  Ray Park as Darth Maul almost single-handedly saved the whole movie, and he was on the screen for all of five minutes and didn’t even have any real dialogue. His voice was dubbed over, and even that was only three lines. And remember what I said earlier about Boss Nass having all that time?  Couldn’t we have cut a few chunks and given them to Darth Maul?

Still, for the brief period he’s on screen, Maul flips around, his double-sided light saber flashing like crazy, kicking the hell out of Obi-Wan and even killing Qui-Gon right in front of his helpless pupil, prompting the requisite Star Wars cry of “Nnnnnooooooo!!!!” It’s just too bad that there was no build-up to this duel, no prior meeting between Maul and Kenobi, and no reason to believe why this guy was a bad guy other than he wears a black cape.

Meanwhile, little Anakin manages to get into the space battle, flies his ship into the hangar of the droid ship (the same one that about 20 Naboo fighters have been trying to destroy) and ACCIDENTALLY fires his torpedoes into the hangar wall, naturally starting a chain reaction that destroys the whole ship, thus rendering all the battle droids inert (in typical sci-fi cop-out fashion) and simultaneously ensuring victory for the Gungans, as well.  I could have almost bought all that as simple feel-good cheese, if Anakin didn’t actually say “Oooops” after he fired the torpedoes.  Somehow, even though he was made aware of the entire mission, the fact that he made it into the main bad guys’ ship and didn’t actually mean to blow it up made the whole thing even worse.

In the aftermath, Obi-Wan swears to his dying master to train Anakin in the ways of The Force, the soon-to-be Emperor takes his place as Chancellor of the Senate, although I’m not sure if we’re supposed to know that, and Naboo is, well, about as irrelevant as it was at the beginning. We do learn, however, that even though Obi-Wan destroyed one Sith-Lord, that “always two there are.” Sith Lords are like these movies: one isn’t bad enough.

Unfortunately, like Anakin himself, this one bad movie started the whole series down the path to the Dark Side. The problems with this movie are many, and as I stated earlier, they start right at the opening crawl. “Crawl” is also an appropriate term for the movie’s pace, as it is basically a lot of people talking between wipes. Seriously, it’s like a child’s Powerpoint presentation. The few scenes that don’t involve a nice, long chat are imbued with childish Lucas tropes, like the young hero-in-training following the lead of the wise, old master who can act circles around him.

But even with all that, my main problem is that it could have been a lot better, and if George wanted to make it different than the original trilogy, he could have easily done that and accomplish all his story goals. He could have had Darth Maul do bad things, like hurt the people of Naboo, instead of just saying that they were being hurt. He could have had the Jedi do good things, like, free slaves. Last I checked, slavery was not cool, but when presented with the option. Qui-Gon Jinn clearly states, “I did not come here to free slaves.” Wha-huh? What kind of hero is he, anyway? Why let a planet full of slaves stay enslaved, but take one stupid kid with you? Basically, when your main character doesn’t want to free slaves, your main heroine keeps putting her lookalike hand-maidens in danger, and the child who is supposed to be the future savior of the universe is an annoying brat who wins battles by accident, it’s kind of hard not to root for Darth Maul in this one. Well, I guess those three minutes or so were worth it, right?

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As I said at the beginning, however, I was really, really looking forward to this movie when it came out, similar to how I feel now about The Force Awakens, and that scares me a little, but it would be tough for it to be as bad as Phantom Menace.  While I think that anticipation made me gloss over a lot of these faults at the time, there were certainly plenty of them. That is probably why it settled so badly. It was a long way down.

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