Of the eighty quadrillion reviews written or televised in the last three weeks about this eagerly awaited Star Wars prequel, most seem to have a common summary: The film is technically brilliant, stunning and innovative in its scope and visual computer-generated wizardry, but painfully slow, actually dull in some places, and has little or no character development and little human drama.
I was disappointed to learn that the critics are correct. But let’s talk about the good stuff first.
First up, there isn’t a word powerful enough to describe the amazing technological leaps that Lucas had made in computer magic. Of course, Lucas founded the Industrial Light and Magic special effects company that has created some of the most innovative, impressive and memorable effects in movies for the last two decades. What’s amazing is that he keeps raising the bar — the effects just keep getting better.
A full 95% of the scenes in Phantom Menace have some degree of digital component, with live people interacting seamlessly with computer-generated characters. The fully-three dimensional landscapes and scenes are so realistic that you actually get vertigo. The Jedi temple and planet Coruscan scenes are breathtaking. Make no mistake, when it comes to cinematic breakthroughs, Lucas still sets the standards others are measured by.
The little touches in Phantom Menace are nice as well — the fact that spaceships and light-sabers cast shadows on the ground, that control panels are in an alien language and not English, that you actually see waterfalls flowing in obviously computer-generated vistas, all make for a more believable experience. Also, since this prequel takes place thirty years before the other Star Wars movie, Lucas made an effort to make the technology look a little more quaint and primitive. He succeeded.
The sets — the real ones not created by computer, such as the interiors of Queen Amidala’s place — shot in a real palace in Italy, are awe-inspiring. Speaking of the queen, I liked Natalie Portman as Amidala. Not just because of the interesting accent she speaks in, and the cool costumes she wears, but this 17 year old is terrific in her role as the young ruler of the planet Naboo. The movie doesn’t tell us, but we know from the hype, that Amidala is destined to marry Anakin Skywalker, the future evil Darth Vader, and give birth to the twins Luke and Lea, the heroes from the fist Star Wars movies. So it’s great that there’s chemistry between her character and young Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd. But we’ll get to him in a Moment.
Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are well-cast as the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobie. Kenobie, or course, was played with style and flair by Sir Alec Guinness in the previous Star Wars movies, and McGregor does the younger version of the character justice while still making it his own. Unfortunately, neither character is given a lot to do. Kenobie, in fact, spends much of the first part of the movie on board a ship, making repairs and talking to Qui-Gon Jin on a futuristic communicator.
Samuel L. Jackson appears in a cameo as a member of the Jedi Council; he has a lot of presence on film and you end up wishing he had more to do in the film.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot to dislike about the picture, and I’ll start with the most aggravating, maddeningly irritating character I have ever seen on film: The computer-generated Jar Jar Binks, who is a silly, floppy-eared vest-wearing frog-man with an absolutely incomprehensible accent. This character, supposedly played for laughs, hurts the film, and gives an infinitely greater weight to the word “annoying” than anything imaginable. This “comic sidekick” character detracts from the main story so severely that I honestly considered walking out twenty-minutes into the film.
And what’s the deal with the new villain, the devil-faced Darth Maul? We get no insight into this character whatsoever, except that he is obviously a very bad man with extremely fake-looking horns glued to his head, and that he’s very adept with a light-saber. Beyond that, nothing.
The battle scenes featuring entire battalions of computer generated robots and characters is breathtaking in scope, but quickly becomes a little boring. There simply isn’t anything compelling about watching thousands of robots and unreal characters being killed or exploding. It’s a big video game with no human connection, and really no reason to care what happens. In fact, the battle scenes are so massive and complex that the mind occasionally wanders with thoughts of, “This must have cost a lot of money to make.” When one lengthy battle scene ended, I almost expected the screen to flash “GAME OVER, insert 25 cents to play again.”
My biggest disappointment in the film is the waste of the character of Anakin Skywalker. This has nothing to do with actor Jake Lloyd, who plays the young version of the dark lord. Lloyd is very likable, and although his character seems written to be almost a “Home Alone” cute-as-pie moppet, you never get annoyed with him because he’s interesting: He loves his mother, is tough but vulnerable, can fix any machine, can build androids like C3P0, and pilots a pod-racer like Mario Andretti.
And that’s the biggest problem — We know that he’ll grow up to be Darth Vader. But we don’t believe it. Not for a second. It makes no sense. The kid is pure sugar, all “Gee-Whiz, Mom, can I go be a Jedi, yippee!” and there isn’t even a HINT of a darker side — he never even throws a temper tantrum. This kid should be on TV, hawking Grape Juice.
Yes, the two planned sequels will deal with Anakin’s transformation from good to evil, but the transition would be more believable if we saw even a glimmer of the evil that is to come. All we get is Jedi Master Yoda’s cryptic feeling that the boy is dangerous. We know he’ll be evil. This movie should have at least given is a glimpse of WHY. A hint. As “Austin Powers” Doctor Evil says, “Throw me a bone here!”
No doubt Phantom Menace will make hundreds of millions and Star Wars fans will see it in droves repeatedly. But remembering back to the amazing explosion of the original Star Wars film in 1977, how it changed the future of movie making, and having waited 16 years for the new sequel, I was expecting a lot more story.
Much like the first Star Trek movie, which had a weak plot and was bogged down by endless special effects, Phantom Menace could have been so much more if the special effects had been pared down a notch in favor of more character development and human drama. A little more humor wouldn’t have hurt either. The incredible visuals and good acting simply aren’t enough to carry a movie. The underlying story feels underdeveloped.
Hopefully part two will be better; it begins filming next summer for a 2002 release. Let’s hope the force will be with one.