Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Summer of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Written and directed by George Lucas, The Phantom Menace (Star Wars: Episode I) is the story of two Jedi knights who are asked by the Galactic Republic and a queen to settle a tax dispute where things go wrong as they land on a planet where they would meet a young boy who might be part of a prophecy to bring balance to the Force. The film is a prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy back in the late 1970s and early 80s where Lucas explore the origins of Anakin Skywalker and his eventual descent. Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Ahmed Best, the voice of Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Jake Lloyd, Ray Park, Pernilla August, and Samuel L. Jackson. The Phantom Menace is a visually-thrilling but extremely messy film from George Lucas.
The film revolves around two Jedi knights who are asked by Galactic Republic and its senate to negotiate a treaty involving a trade federation who refuses to bring shipment to small planet called Naboo. There, things go wrong where they meet an alien creature and help a queen escape while landing on a planet where they meet a young slave boy whom one of the Jedi knights believes is the one person that can bring balance to the Force as darkness looms. It’s a plot that is interesting but the fact that the story begins with a tax dispute is a pretty dumb way to open a story. It would set the tone for a story that doesn’t become uneven in its involvement of politics but also in the myth of the Jedi where there’s a lot of expositions that occur where it definitely raise more baffling questions than answers.
George Lucas’ screenplay does play into a traditional structure where it’s first act involves the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) trying to negotiate terms with the trade federation led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) where things fall apart. Upon landing on Naboo, they meet an exiled Gungan named Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) who would aid them in saving Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) as they try to go to Coruscant to talk with the Senate. Its second act is set in Tatooine where Qui-Gon, Jar-Jar, an astromech droid named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and the queen’s handmaiden Padme (Natalie Portman) try to find parts for their ship where they would meet the young slave boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) where Qui-Gon senses a strong surge of the Force in Anakin as he hopes to free him. Lucas’ scenario does try to keep things forward but there’s too many things as the character of Jar-Jar is this unnecessary comic relief that doesn’t really do anything for the story.
Instead, he’s a buffoon that is made to entertain kids except that he’s not funny nor is he engaging. It is among some of the problems with the script as well as the dialogue as Lucas is notoriously known for writing poor dialogue. Especially in the second act where the story moves to Coruscant as it plays into the world of politics and corruption where it does drag the story immensely to the realm of boredom. When its third act returns to Naboo where Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon confront a Sith lord named Darth Maul (Ray Parks, with the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) while Jar-Jar leads the battle against the trade federation’s army of robots where Anakin is in the action during a star fight between the forces of Naboo and a trade federation’s spaceship that controls the robots. It’s a moment where a lot goes on yet it is never meshes coherently since Lucas wants to really go for something that is intense. The result only works somewhat but it is handled very clumsily.
Lucas’ direction is quite sprawling in terms of the visual language that he creates to establish a world that is very diverse but is on the verge of becoming tumultuous due to greed and corruption. Shot on various locations such as Tunisia as Tatooine and Watford, Hertfordshire in Great Britain as Naboo with much of the production shot in studios in Britain, the film does play into something that is very diverse but it has elements of racial profiling in the way some of the alien characters are depicted. It’s among the negative aspects of the film that really shows how Lucas perceive the alien creatures as either bumbling idiots or greedy creatures with very little complexity into who they are. At the same time, Lucas’ direction also tries to create elements of foreshadowing and irony as it relates to the character of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who would talk about the greed and corruption of politics to get Queen Amidala to get a new Supreme Chancellor to head the Galactic Senate.
It is among some of the issues in the way Lucas directs his actors where he definitely states the obvious as it relates to Palpatine while it sort of kills the suspense for anyone that hadn’t seen the original trilogy. While Lucas’ approach to some of the scenes involving the pod race in Tatooine where Qui-Gon would make a gamble to free Anakin from slavery as well as the lightsaber and battle scenes are engaging to watch in terms of his compositions and the shooting styles he uses. He’s really unable to do the same to other scenes such as the moments of suspense as well as the scenes involving the political issues in the film which comes across as very boring. Overall, Lucas creates a very uneven yet nonsensical film about a dispute between two factions in the galaxy.
Cinematographer David Tattersall does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography to capture the hot and sunny look of Tatooine to the lavish lights of the city planet of Coruscant to play into the different worlds of the galaxy. Editors Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith do nice work with the editing to capture some of the action in the film though its usage of transition wipes does get overused very quickly. Production designer Gavin Bocquet, along with set decorator Peter Wapole and supervising art director Peter Russell, does brilliant work with the look of the different places from the palaces of Naboo and the Gungan palaces underwater as well as the look of Coruscant and the Jedi temple. Costume designer Trisha Biggar does terrific work with the costumes from the lavish clothes that Queen Amidala wears to the robes of the Senate along with the clothes of the Jedi knights.
Makeup artist Paul Engelen does fantastic work with the look of Queen Amidala in her fully-realized regalia along with the look of some of the aliens who are part of the Jedi council. Visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren, John Knoll, and Scott Squires do amazing work with the visual effects for some of the sequences in space and some of the battles though the design of some of the creatures aren‘t so great since many of them aren‘t engaging to care for. Sound designer Ben Burtt, along with sound editors Tom Bellfort and Matthew Wood, does superb work with the sound to play into the sound effects for some of the droids along with the laser cannons and other sound textures. The film’s music by John Williams is phenomenal for not just the usage of old themes but also some new ones with its approach to bombastic orchestral music for the pod races and the lightsaber battles along with some low-key pieces for the dramatic moments.
The casting by Robin Gurland is pretty good as it features notable appearances from Warwick Davis as a pod-racer spectator, Ralph Brown as the Queen’s starship pilot, Keira Knightley as the queen’s decoy, Oliver Ford Davies as Naboo’s governor who is forced to deal with the trade federation, Hugh Quarie as the queen’s security chief Captain Panaka, Pernilla August as Anakin’s mother Shmi, and Terence Stamp in a superb performance as Supreme Chancellor Valorum who tries to settle things between Naboo and the trade federation which shows how weak he is at his job. The voice performances of Anthony Daniels as an early version of C-3P0 and Frank Oz as the Jedi master Yoda are terrific for what they provide for the story. Other voice roles from Andy Secombe as the junk dealer Watto and Lewis McLeod as the villainous pod racer Sebulba are quite good despite the dialogue their given while Silas Carson as trade federation leader Nute Gunray and Brian Blessed as the Gungan leader Boss Nass aren’t given strong material to work with for their characters.
Kenny Baker is excellent as R2-D2 as the droid who would help the Queen’s starship during an escape as he becomes a close friend to the major characters. Ray Park is fantastic as the Sith lord Darth Maul as someone who is very skilled in the dark side of the Force with Peter Serafinowicz provides a brooding voice for the character. Ian McDiarmid is brilliant as Senator Palpatine as a Naboo government official who tries to deal with the Senate while being very shady in his dealings as he conceals a much darker identity. Samuel L. Jackson is wonderful in a small but crucial role as the Jedi master Mace Windu who, like Yoda, is suspicious about taking Anakin to be trained as a Jedi as it relates to Anakin’s own upbringing and feelings for his mother. The film’s worst performance is Ahmed Best in the voice performance as Jar-Jar Binks as this clumsy and idiotic Gungan who does nothing but make a full of himself and cause trouble as he is really one of the most atrocious characters ever created in the history of cinema.
Jake Lloyd is OK as the young Anakin Skywalker as a young slave boy who is very talented in making things and being a great pod racer as he copes with the new world he is to face where Lloyd shows a lot of energy but some of his line delivery isn’t very good. Natalie Portman is decent as Queen Padme Amidala as a queen who disguises herself as a handmaiden while dealing with the chaos in her homeland where Portman has some good moments but also suffers from the script’s weakness and poor dialogue. Ewan McGregor is amazing as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi as a Jedi apprentice who is in the final stages of his own training as he tries to reason with his master about taking Anakin as he speaks for the Jedi council while dealing with his development as a Jedi. Finally, there’s Liam Neeson in a remarkable performance as Qui-Gon Jin as a Jedi master who is wise while being a bit reckless where he believes that Anakin is the chosen one and hopes to train with or without the approval of the Jedi council while coping with the presence of the Sith.
Despite all of its amazing visuals, top-notch technical work, and some thrilling sequences, The Phantom Menace is a terrible film from George Lucas. Though it does have moments that are worth watching, it is hampered by a poor script as well as characters that serve no purpose to the film at all. Even as it features elements of political allegory and things that has no business being in a sci-fi adventure film. In the end, The Phantom Menace is mess of a film from George Lucas.
Star Wars Films: Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back - Return of the Jedi - Attack of the Clones - Revenge of the Sith - The Force Awakens - The Last Jedi - (Episode IX)
Related: Holiday Special - Caravan of Courage - The Battle for Endor - The Clone Wars - Fanboys - The People vs. George Lucas
Star Wars Anthology Films: Rogue One - (Solo) - (Untitled Star Wars Anthology Film)
George Lucas Films: (THX 1138) - (American Graffiti)
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