Review/Commentary: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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It’s what we’ve been waiting for for 16 years. It will no doubt reel in fans of all ages once again just like it did to me when I was seven years old. It will break all kinds of records and make all kinds of news. It will be torn apart by critics who refuse to open their minds. It is Episode One: The Phantom Menace and it is good.

First and foremost, let me just say that I walked out of the theater thinking, “F*** the critics. I loved this movie.” As fast paced and kid-orientated as it was, I had a great time and loved every second. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, of course but as far as pure entertainment goes, this was top notch. Due to high expectations and big hype, it will probably never end up being referred to as the “best” or anyone’s “favorite” film in the franchise, but it’s great nonetheless.

The critics are saying that it’s not like the originals at all. There’s no rogue Han Solo character. There aren’t any witty lines. There’s no magic. Well, no, it’s not the same film and it’s not told the same way, but do you want the same movie over and over again? I was looking for something different and I got it. Why does everyone want George Lucas to just re-make the same films again? These are totally new, totally fresh, and have a whole new look and feel to them which, in my opinion, will not benefit us until Episode II or Episode III when we see that times have changed and the galaxy has put on a new face. The folks who are complaining that it’s not like the old films are the same people who would be complaining if this film was exactly like the old films. If George just used all the same jokes, character types, ships, tensions, dialogue, and whatever else from the original films, they would complain that it was all rehash. If Lucas makes a totally new film, he’s screwed. If he makes a film in the old style, he’s also screwed. George chose to do new things and I think he made the right choice.

Do we really need to have a rogue in the story just for the sake of having one? Why does the evil presence need to be visible all the time? Do we need romance in every movie these days? Sorry to disappoint, but this is not a typical Hollywood film. What everyone is really complaining about is that George Lucas didn’t follow “the rules” of Star Wars. George has his own style and own rules. Having writen those rules himself, he retains the right to break them and modify them as he sees fit. If romance is not needed to tell the story, out it goes. If we don’t need a cookie cutter rogue, we don’t get one. What we do get is whatever is needed to tell the story. No more, no less.

The timeline here is critical. Think about the world we live in. The 1990s are (or should I say were?) a pretty liberated time, full of change and development. Most decades are, but with the expansion of the Internet and with the Milennium approaching, the 90s have been a pretty wild ride. Now think back to what you know about the 1950s. They were very different, weren’t they? the 50s had a completely different look and feel. Remember the dramatic change in feel during Back to the Future when Marty McFly first arrived and looked around his transformed town? The people, their clothing, their attitudes, the music, the cars, the buildings, their designs were all different. The 50s and the 80s were only 30 years apart, but what a big difference! Episode I and Episode IV are nearly the same distance apart. Imagine the differences in a whole galaxy, never mind just one planet.

The point is that this film has a whole new look and feel to it and there’s a reason for this. This film takes place “before the dark times, before the Empire.” Episode IV takes place during these dark times. The galaxy is a much different place; more rough around the edges, more Rebellions and uprisings, more hatred and discourse in the galaxy. There are no more Jedi to keep the peace. There are depressed civilizations living in anarchy. Before the dark times, there was little of this. The Republic flourished. The Senate ruled and the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice. Things were good…until the Sith returned, which is where we are now in this saga. I don’t think people are keeping this in mind while watching Episode I.

Another thing to remember is that all these movies tell one big story. Although this film has a beginning and an end, the end is not really the end. We are left ready for Episode II. When I saw little Anakin with his Padawan outfit and haircut standing there, I was dying to know what happened next. I know where’s he’s heading but it’s how he gets there that is exciting to me. You have to keep in mind that a lot of the young people watching don’t actually know this kid is going to grow up to be an evil Sith Lord. We think he’s this “chosen one” that Qui-Gon speaks of, but we don’t really know. Yes, good triumphs at the end of this film but that closure does not (and should not) fully satisfy.

Then there’s Jar Jar Binks. Before I saw the film for myself, all I heard was complaining and that he should be called “Jar Jar Stinks.” So naturally, I went in thinking I would come out hating the guy. However, I liked him. I liked his wacky dialogue and accent, too. He made me laugh. He looked impressive for a computer generated character. I did not find him nearly as annoying as everyone made him out to be. I expected him to have even more goofy lines of dialogue than he did. I think the case with Jar Jar is you either like him or you don’t. I suppose Watto should be discussed here as well. As a character, I liked him even more. He had some fun lines, a great voice, and the animation was wonderful. I have to applaud ILM on this guy. You totally forget that he’s not on the set at all and was created in a computer. You could say the same for Sebulba, too.

Natalie Portman is getting a lot of criticism these days. We all know she’s a great actress, even at a young age. The biggest complaint I have yet to hear about her is that she’s flat and monotone, delivering emotionless lines of dialogue. Have you ever met royalty or talked to an actual Queen? I think monotone is their thing. It must be a royal trait or something. I like to believe that Portman was directed this way for a reason. She doesn’t give any impassioned speeches in the film, even when she reveals herself to Boss Nass.  She talks the way a Queen would; regal, composed and in control at all times. She was consistent with the way she talked throughout the film. There is one scene when she tells Palpatine she will not sign the treaty on Coruscant. She says, “My fate will be no different from that of our people.” Watch her right after she says that line. She does this little move with her head as she’s glaring at Palpatine. It’s pretty awesome.

The Pod Race sequence was slick and had me charged. They started out with a lot of Racers but only one made it back intact. I wish we could have seen what happened to every one of them but once again, it’s not crucial to the story. The whole scene was perfect. It was a good length, had great action, with thrills, cheating, and crashes. It had me on the edge of my seat. It was at that point that I felt just like a kid again. I was glued to the screen and a tornado could have come twisting in behind me and I wouldn’t have noticed. The crowd went nuts when the sandpeople started howling. That was very cool. My favorite part of the Pod Race was not a scene involving a Racer, it was the end when we see that Jabba has slept through most of the race. Bib Fortuna wakes him up, startling him like he did in Return of the Jedi. That was a neat little callback.

I can’t even begin to describe the feeling I had when Obi-Wan got medieval on Maul after the laser wall opened. I thought my head would explode. That has got to be my favorite scene in the film. It was so dizzyingly fast that I can’t wait to get it on DVD and watch it frame by frame in slow-motion. I was totally floored. I only wish it went on for a little while longer. The Galactic Senate and Jedi Council scenes rocked my world, as I knew they would. Coruscant is such a great looking place and the detail on those sets is incredible. The Senate, Palpatine’s arena, was chock full of aliens but I wish we had more time to see them all. Palpatine’s horns were showing and the look on Amidala’s face the whole time was priceless. The Jedi Council scene was also well done. We finally got to see a little of Anakin’s “special powers.” Yoda and Mace were quite impressed.

Many critics seem hesitant to acknowledge some of the more subconscious themes in the film, even though they are fairly evident. Cultural equality, respect for life, wrong and right, government politics, scandals and deception, environmentalism, greed and manipulation, jealousy, and others are all there to be digested. I will probably continue writing more about the film as time goes by but at this point just know this: the critics are gravely mistaken. They have missed the point of the film. What they wanted was a Hollywood film. What they got was a Lucasfilm. This is part of George’s vision and about as far from Hollywood as you can get.

My suggestions for maximum enjoyment of this film:

1. Forget everything you already know about Star Wars films and how they look and feel. Unlearn what you have learned.

2. Go rent some movies like Jason and the Argonauts or an old Sinbad film. Perhaps a Zorro or Flash Gordon flick. It’s that kind of movie: Non-stop, simple-plot, running into barriers, good vs. evil kind of adventure stuff. It’s pure fun.

3. Open your mind. Expand your imagination. It’s Star Wars, not Citizen Kane.

4. Don’t over analyze it.

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