Sixteen years after the grand finale of the Star Wars saga, The Return of the Jedi, George Lucas decided to take us on a fantastic journey to a “galaxy far far away” one more time. After years of waiting and hopes, at last we were going to learn about the beginning of that fantastic story. Those hopes were elevated by an amazing trailer released by Lucasfilm, two minutes of joy and excitement – lightsabers and speeders, aliens and epic battles. On 19th May 1999, our dreams were going to come true.
Then that day arrived, and our collective childhood was over.
In The Phantom Menace we were promised the story of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to become a Jedi against a backdrop of the Old Republic in its final days, as the stagnation of bureaucracy was replaced by the corruption that led to its downfall, but instead George Lucas showed us taxation and committees, bland characters and slapstick comedy, turning the excitement of our “galaxy far, far away” into a juvenile playground into which we were no longer welcome.
With hindsight, some of the shock of the mismatch between this new vision of Star Wars and what the original fans were expecting is understandable. If the fabric of this universe feels different, it must be realised that this is a very old and sophisticated culture before it was replaced by the military technocracy of the Empire; the design of the hardware and costumes is radically different, as would be expected.
While there is continuity with the original trilogy, it is more subtle, through John Williams’ soundtrack and the distinctive sound effects, and here Lucas succeeds. If anything, some of the visual effects go even further back to the stories that inspired Lucas as a child; Qui-Gon Jin melting the blast doors is taken straight from Forbidden Planet as the Id monster breaks into the Krell control room, and the Trade Federation seem to have a Flash Gordon televisor.
The generation raised on MTV, Cartoon Network and Playstation found the prequels more acceptable entertainment, yet even they failed to engage with these films as completely as their parents did in the seventies. It is obvious that Lucas conceived the prequels differently from the previous trilogy, and many feel that while his focus was on the scale and detail that he was now capable of creating, he lost sight of the story and the characters who made those originals beloved.
In those, the power of imagination came through; we bought the toys because we wanted to be a part of that universe. In contrast, The Phantom Menace felt like an industrial machine created for the sole purpose of selling those toys. George Lucas changed from visionary to telemarketer, obsessed with computer generated effects over story and characters. Choosing what Yoda would describe as quicker and easier, he himself was seduced by the dark side he had warned us of, cheating not only the audience but the actors, often directed to play characters in a literal vacuum, without physical sets around them to create atmosphere for their performance.
In the thirteen years since it was originally released, The Phantom Menace has been subjected to as much analysis as the most profound literature and art. Now rereleased, it is apparent the passing years have not made the obvious flaws less exasperating, and perspective has unfortunately shown other problems originally overshadowed in the original excitement and condemnation.
The greatest sin of any drama is time wasting, and if that sin could be given cartoon flesh, it would go by the name of Jar Jar Binks. So much has been said before, what is there left? His tiresome pratfalls and slapstick saving the day are just as juvenile as a decade ago; he does not benefit the story in any way. His only defence is that he is at least representative of his species; the Gungans as a whole are no better, but while they have been singled out for hatred, they are not the only guilty party. In fact, Jar Jar does serve a purpose while on Tatooine; to distract attention from the character who truly deserves condemnation by fans.
Shmi Skywalker is really a terrible parent. Other than pulling faces during the podrace, which could as easily have been for any of the pilots, she cares nothing for her child, is indifferent to his life, his goals and his fate. When Qui-Gon announces his intention to take Anakin from Tatooine, does she express any emotion – hope, sorrow, gratitude, despair? How much more heartbreaking would it have been if she hadn’t wanted her son to leave, if Anakin had wanted to stay with his beloved mother, but she had forced the Jedi to take him because she knew it would be better for him in the long run, even though it broke her heart to see him go. Not only would the decision would have made her plight deeper, it would have set up the resentment of the Jedi that would lead Anakin to the dark side. At least Shmi’s actions are consistent with the story as it developed in Attack of the Clones, as they explain why Anakin never bothered to visit his mother for ten years.
For a prequel to be successful, it has to surprise the audience; they know how the pieces will land when they eventually fall, but they do not know who pushed them. It is a matter of record that Senator Palpatine will become the Emperor, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out the guy in the heavy cloak plotting against the Jedi is said Emperor in waiting. Can’t we at least pretend we don’t know so we can watch the story unfold? Instead, Lucas chooses to spoon feed every clandestine meeting, with the result so stage managed the only people unaware of exactly what is going on behind the Senate doors are those onscreen. An obvious alternative would have been for Darth Maul to have orchestrated the Trade Federation boycott for reasons unknown, leaving the lingering question of who is the master, who the apprentice, with Darth Sidious never revealed to the audience at this time.
As presented, with Palpatine in regular contact with the Jedi Council who are somehow unable to perceive the rumblings of the dark side within him, the impression they leave is of absolute incompetence, without any hint of wisdom or insight. We are supposed to be in awe of them, this legendary gathering of power and knowledge, yet the one decision they are called upon to make in the film, whether to admit Anakin Skywalker as an apprentice, they apparently decide simply because it will require least involvement or effort on their part, an impression largely conveyed by Samuel L Jackson’s narcoleptic performance.
But this is Star Wars! We are at least guaranteed space battles, are we not? From a point of view, as Obi Wan would tell us, yes, but the attack on the Trade Federation Command Ship does not compare to the assault on either Death Star, even though that is what it hopes to emulate. The conclusion of the battle is unconvincing and bereft of drama, as Anakin happens to fire a torpedo that happens to set up a chain reaction that happens to blow up the command ship. Even if he had the Force guiding him, never hinted at by John Williams who can be relied on to highlight these things, nor by George Lucas who never misses an opportunity to hammer home the obvious, it’s still s
hoddy design on the part of the Trade Federation. Wouldn’t it have been more believable had Anakin just knocked out the shield generator and let the Naboo fighters take over?
The battle on the surface of Naboo is no better; the Battle Droids make Stormtroopers look competent. When they are unleashed upon the Gungan armies, the audience is supposed to be concerned; instead we have a whole race of sloppy amphibians who we despise facing off against the most clumsy, inept and unthreatening strike force ever assembled. What drama is to be found in a battle between two incapable forces, neither of whom the audience have any interest in, on a planet we have never even heard of before now? Even had this been Alderaan, the Gungans fighting to defend the Royal House of Organa, we would have felt this was the story we paid to see rather than some lengthy overture.
George Lucas is well known for revising his work, and many hoped, some feared, that he would take this opportunity to reconsider some of the creative decisions he made during the original production as the print was prepared for release in 3D. It is important to remember that The Phantom Menace was neither conceived nor shot in 3D, but has been digitally converted, a process that is notorious for unsatisfactory results, but despite the heavy marketing campaign, it is surprising to find that very little of this release is actually in genuine 3D, and what has been rendered is the backgrounds, artificially receded into the imaginary distance. It’s much more subtle and successful than was expected from someone who has previously been known for their heavy handed approach as George Lucas. Most importantly, it doesn’t stretch the process beyond its well documented limitations.
From a technical viewpoint, other than the inevitable loss of brightness in the picture, The Phantom Menace is probably one of the most successful conversions, but it is disingenuous to market this as a 3D release; at most it is an enhancement, and it does not deserve the marketing campaign that has preceded it by months. The podrace, originally an exercise in indulgent tedium, has been marginally improved, but is still overlong, a glorification of speed and computer animation for children addicted to video games instead of a scene that advances the plot; curiously the space battles, the most obvious candidate, have been barely altered.
The Phantom Menace isn’t deliberately bad, just dull; the evil isn’t the Sith, it’s bureaucracy, and while that can make for fine satire, it’s not Star Wars. In the same way that the films bluntly offer the different points of view of the characters on the light and dark sides of the Force, it has divided viewers into those who despise it, and those who love in unconditionally simply because it is Star Wars, but one thing is certain: any opportunity to see all six Star Wars features on a cinema screen in chronological order, is a good thing.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D is currently on general release