The Phantom Menace (Episode I)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Though suffering from lackluster characters and a plot that lacks common sense, ‘The Phantom Menace’ still manages to get back some of ol’ ‘Star Wars’ charm.

Such a great poster.  Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any film.

Such a great poster. Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any franchise.

Review:  I admit it.  I’m a sucker for ‘Star Wars’.  I’m a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, but I was also one of those people whose childhood was jazzed up considerably by the anticipation and experience of the new Prequels, and who then ungratefully proceeded to denounce them as inferior.  I think it’s totally fair to say that the Prequels are inferior, but in a stunning twist, I’ve finally made peace with my generation’s installments of the beloved space saga.  I don’t hate them anymore.  In fact, I like them.  A lot.  The trick is to recognize what exactly Lucas was going for.  It’s supposed to be his own kind of ‘Flash Gordon’ or ‘Buck Rogers’, not an airtight, gritty sci-fi movie along the lines of ‘Blade Runner’ or something.  These are family-oriented fantasy films, so ‘kiddy-ness’, in varying doses, is to be expected.  The bad writing is another issue, but we’ll tackle that film-by-film.

‘The Phantom Menace’, while a great, accessible sci-fi adventure in the same vein as the Original Trilogy, has one central weakness:  It lacks a strong dramatic train of thought.  The Originals all had their great focuses that fueled the action.  This first Prequel starts off with a pretty good pace and suspense, but this kind of erodes, only to return at the end of the film.  It gets bogged down.  The podrace sequence is pretty cool and dangerous, but should have been less of a detour.  It is necessary to the plot, but lacks the tightness and character impact that practically every moment has in ‘A New Hope’.  This signals the beginning of a problem that plagues all three Prequels, that of a sense of unpolished scripting that could’ve been fixed by a rewrite or two, or three.  Episode IV, by contrast, was practically overwritten, and was fully mature as a story.  It’s not that George Lucas is a bad storyteller, but I suspect that he was unwilling to replicate the painful process that created the Original Trilogy, which I can’t blame him for.

Anyway, nevertheless, the film is pretty strong.  Liam Neeson plays the best character in the piece, as Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon.  Actually, that master-apprentice relationship is the best written part of the movie, with a pretty good conclusion in their duel with Darth Maul.  Which segues me to the villains, the weakest aspect of the film, and of the Prequels in general.  Darth Maul makes an excellent Sith villain, mysterious, dangerous, and used like a potent seasoning.  The shadowy Darth Sidious, later the Emperor in the Originals, is great.  The problem is, they’re mostly in the background in this film, and the up-front bad guys — the Trade Federation — are pretty darn lame.  They are not intimidating in the least, and suck the urgency right out of the movie.

The other supporting characters are also pretty weak, especially the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks, who isn’t that bad, except for being slathered all over the movie like barbeque sauce.  Young Anakin and his mother, Shmi, are actually an exception to this rule.  They do pretty well — despite slowing the pace down far too much.

Philosophically, here’s my take on it.  An interesting — and very controversial  — addition to the Force mythos is the idea of a biological connection to it through “midi-chlorians”, apparently symbiotic creatures that live inside of everyone’s cells in differing concentrations.  There is some complaint that this saps the mysticism out of the Force/person relationship, but it can be argued that this was a pretty clever way of showing synchronicity between science and spiritually in ‘Star Wars’.  Because the midi-chlorian count in Anakin’s blood is the determining factor of his special identity, this shows that this new take on the Force is a subtle but central theme in ‘The Phantom Menace’.  Lucas has said that part of his motivation for making ‘Star Wars’ was to reintroduce a mythological and religious logic to youth of his generation.  Since he’s continued to be interested in educating young people, it may be that ‘The Phantom Menace’ includes this theme in order to combat a burgeoning anti-spirituality, embodied in “The new atheism” of my generation.  It certainly seems consistent with Lucas’ understanding of fantasy that transforms real paradigms.

The next major theme I want to cover is the titular threat, ‘The Phantom Menace’.  There are several interpretations of what this refers to, the most common — and possibly canon — guess being that it is Darth Sidious, the evil Sith pulling the strings to topple the Republic.  Or, I would suggest, it refers to Anakin Skywalker.  Lucas has stated that the story of ‘Star Wars’ is all about Anakin, and since this is the chronological first in the series, it would make sense to refer to the protagonist.  Yoda states, when young Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council, that he senses a dark and evil future for the boy, or, one could say, a phantom menace.  This nagging fear of Anakin’s evil fate will eventually swallow up the story of the Prequels, as it rightly should, so even though Darth Sidious becomes the mechanism by which Anakin is brought into his destiny, it’s reasonable to conclude that the phantom menace is Anakin himself.

Anyhow, this is actually a pretty good and fun ‘Star Wars’ movie.  It’s arguably the most kid-friendly (the intense climatic lightsaber duel notwithstanding).  Certainly, there’s no good reason to be bitter about it or condemn George Lucas to fanboy hell for “ruining your childhood”.

Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.