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Episode I: An imaginative and vivid waste of time

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Peter Serafinowicz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Frank Oz
Screenplay: George Lucas
Producers: Rick McCallum and George Lucas
Director: George Lucas
MPAA Rating: PG for sci-fi action and violence

Does it really matter what a critic is going to say about Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace? It's been 16 years since the release of Return of the Jedi and that is 16 years of impatiently waiting fans, just hoping for the first three episodes (and if possible, the last three). Admittedly, I never saw the Star Wars trilogy as a child--or not that I can recall. I watch them now and see two great films and one so-so film. Return of the Jedi was a rather disappointing ending to the trilogy, but the intensity and vision of Lucas still was able to remain shining through (even if he didn't direct it). The story of Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Princess Leia is still as fascinating and intriguing today as it was oh so many years ago.

So it does me great pain to reveal (and I'm probably not revealing much) that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is a bomb. Certainly, a visually impressive bomb. Yes, George Lucas imaginatively dumps his creative worlds onto us, letting our eyes feast upon the gorgeous colors and extravagant set designs (and let's not forget the beautiful costumes). Unfortunately for us, our eyes feast while our brains sleep. Lucas has apparently forgotten something since his last directing job 22 years ago: how to create a film. Then again, what difference will it make? The film will go on to rake in huge profits at the box office, and my opinion will matter to no one but myself. Do I care? Not really. However, I do care that this film in particular may result in the start of the digital age of filmmaking. If this is how "digital" is going to be, I'll start buying all the books I can.

Before I go on, I must tell you the reader some details concerning my Star Wars experience (normally, this is a big no-no, but this isn't your normal film). If you might have noticed, I am not a Star Wars fan. I find the films to be entertaining and fun, without requiring a lot of thought on the part of the viewer. They are essentially space soap operas, but of the highest quality. Star Wars: A New Hope began this crazed phenomenon with its spiritual overtones and slam-bang action. The special effects were a huge advancement, giving us some rather breathtaking scenes. But underlying everything was the story of Luke Skywalker, the lone hero who must team up with Han Solo and Princess Leia to defeat the evil Darth Vader. We weren't privy to character introductions, considering that it was, in fact, Episode IV, meaning there were three parts of the story that preceded it. The lack of character development was more than fulfilled by this fact. And over the period of three films, we grew to love them.

Now we are back, only this time, many, many years before Episode IV even began. It's the first time in history I can remember a follow-up going back in time to explain the origins of the characters. The film begins with the familiarity of John Williams' infamous score, and at this moment, a smile crept across my face. I knew I was going to like this film... I had to like it. What could possibly go wrong? Alas, one should never prejudge this much, as what occurred later during the 131 minute film is exactly what could have gone wrong. Lucas singlehandedly destroyed his own indestructible series, resorting to some of the most obvious and ploying tricks to ever grace the silver screen in years. Suffice it to say, by the midway mark, I did the unthinkable--I checked my watch (and checked it often, I did).

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace deals mostly around the discovery of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who later grows up to become leader of the Empire, Darth Vader. Certainly, Anakin is a complex character, and one that needs thorough explaining. But when that explanation comes at the price of getting to know the protagonists, something seems to be off-kilter. The film begins with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (now played by Ewan McGregor) arriving on the planet Naboo to aid in the negotiations of a Trade Federation treaty. Unwittingly, they have stumbled into a trap, set up by Darth Sideous (Ian McDiarmid), who is trying to capture the Galactic Republic. After escaping, Jinn and Kenobi rescue Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the elected official of the planet Naboo which is in direct conflict with the Trade Federation. Amidala decides to travel to the Galactic Republic and get the votes necessary to put an end to the blockade. On the way there, they take a quick stop on Tabooine in order to fix their badly damaged spacecraft.

It is here that Anakin comes into play (this is about an hour into the film). Working for Watto, a junk-yard merchant, Anakin does slave labor, forced to stay on the planet with his mother (Pernilla August). Jinn soon believes that Anakin is the "chosen one" (The Matrix anyone?), the one who will bring balance to the Force. For a nine-year old, he is more powerful (unrealized power as of yet) in the Force than Yoda (Frank Oz) himself. Yoda, however, believes that Anakin is too old to be trained in the ways of the Jedi, already struggling with "evil" emotions such as fear and anger. Jinn disagrees and decides to take him in as his apprentice, since Obi-Wan is ready to become a full-fledged Jedi Knight. This is all very interesting, but the problem is that this story is stretched out for over two hours. There is just not enough story and plot to cover the length. By the end, when the climactic events begin, we haven't become attached to anyone on screen. How are you supposed to care about characters you don't know? Anakin is really the only fleshed-out character, but we already know his fate. Of course, that is the whole point of Episode I, to give us the character backgrounds of those we have grown to love after Episodes IV thru VI. And there is the biggest problem with Episode I.

Episode I, which is supposedly the first in the Star Wars series, does exactly the same thing Star Wars: A New Hope did: it launches us into a story before telling us who these characters really are. My question is, "Are they going to make Episode .5?" For those of you who think this film is great, let me ask you one thing, "Take away the title and the references to the Force, and what do you have?" I'll tell you the answer: you have a special effects-laden picture with no other purpose than to display its special effects. And yes, that is all this film really is. It's a gigantic, overlong special effects extravaganza that is more empty and pointless than any other film of the nineties. Episode I should have adequately let us in on the cryptic nature of Episode IV, and instead tells us nothing. When this film is watched, you really need to have seen Episodes IV, V, and VI, but why is that exactly? Why should we have to watch those before Episode I? Someone needs to remind Lucas that 1 does not come after 6. Yet that's his plan. We don't get to know who Obi-Wan is anymore than we get to know who Watto is. It's that lack of character development that causes this Star Wars entry to be such an unemotional experience. Even the pod race halfway through, which is said to be the highlight of the film, is more a practice in stretching out the proceedings.

A lot has been said and written about the special effects, which further the advancement towards creating digital worlds that look realistic. It's a real shame, then, since the digital worlds Lucas has created feel so artificial that I kept yearning for some authenticity. This is exactly the same problem that plagued The Mummy. It's the kind of film that makes you want to travel to Montana or Utah to view the gorgeous landscapes that have been created by nature. There is not one scene within all of the film that does not make use of the computer's technology, and for me, it got boring. I was reminded of The Matrix, and how its special effects seemed just that: special. Here, Lucas goes so overboard that they no longer seem special but overbearing. We can't perceive them as being special because we aren't given any time to see anything without them. The Phantom Menace also is the first film to use an entirely CGI-created character, interacting with the human beings on the film plane. I dare you to look at any still image from the film and argue that Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) looks like he is actually there. It isn't possible, because Jar Jar is obviously digital. Yet, Jar Jar may just be the most annoying character ever put on a piece of celluloid. He's obviously been created to entertain children, but Lucas actually (and rather insultingly) included fart jokes. Lucas has bended to the nineties mentality that fart jokes are the way to get children to laugh. I typically don't mind, but here it is really uncalled for. I don't remember any flatulence in the previous series.

Then again, the resemblance of this film and its counterparts is virtually non-existent. Instead of magic and creativity, we are given special effects, and a lot of them. Lucas parades the fact that the film is about 95% digital. What he essentially is covering up is the fact that he had 16 years to work out a complete story and was only able to come up with this below-average screenplay. In fact, for those of you who thought James Cameron's dialogue for his masterpiece Titanic was wooden and stupid, I offer you this film to see what really bad dialogue truly is. Lucas, who had help with his dialogue in his previous films, decides to solo it this time, and the result is some of the most painfully bad dialogue heard since the very recent The Mummy. To give an example of how bad it really is, when Anakin is told he can go home, he shouts, "Yippee!" Sure, young Jake Lloyd's uttering of the line isn't strong, but Lucas could have easily corrected the mistake. If Lucas' point was to create a film pointed at the younger audiences, those who probably haven't even seen the originals yet, he inadvertently alienates that audience by including a plot centered around embargo talk and trade negotiations. Perhaps Lucas wanted to include a story that would keep the attention of adults, but it's so thin that adults will be more interested in spotting the matte lines around the CGI characters. His attempt to create a film for both audiences backfires, and the result is a film that fails on virtually every level of the medium.

Many of you are probably getting ready to write an e-mail bashing my critique, but before you do, know this. I've never been a huge fan of the series, and my expectations were not influenced by the hype. I hoped for a good film, and I tried to ignore all the negative publicity that appeared before the initial release. This is not an anti-hype/backlash opinion (you know, the kind of opinion people have of Titanic now). Instead, it is a pure opinion, based on exactly what I saw on screen. This is not a film. When viewed by itself, it is disjointed, confusing, and leaves a thirst for knowledge. Yes, it made me want to see Episode II, but only because I felt disappointed. It's an episode, like something you'd see on the Star Trek TV shows--I half expected the ending of the film to contain the words "To be continued..." But this is supposed to be a complete film, and the joy that held the initial three entries together was the fact that you didn't have to see the other two to be satisfied. They were all complete motion pictures, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Here, we have a middle, and nothing else. Sure, there is the climax which is reminiscent of Return of the Jedi's multiple-event ending, but there's no resolution. We are left hanging, wondering what the hell we just saw and what the hell will happen next. It's incomplete, and if this were any other film, it would have been received extremely poorly. Then again, this is not just any film.

Yes, The Phantom Menace is a bad film. In fact, it is a very boring film. For 100 minutes, we sit and wait for anything interesting to happen. There are moments when the film spurts to life, but it never remains. Finally, Lucas does what he is best at. He ends the film with a thoroughly enjoyable climax, topped by a light saber duel between Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the two Jedi Knights. Strangely enough, the most impressive moment of this sequence is when Darth Maul and Jinn end up separated by a force field. The film calms down for a few seconds as they pace back and forth looking at each other. These few seconds are a breath of fresh air. It gives us a time to breathe, but not for long. Perhaps if the rest of the film had been as interesting as those few seconds, I would have been more generous. But it isn't, and so I'm not going to be. These few seconds remind us how slow, well-paced sequences can enhance a film. Too bad there isn't more of them around.

The actors themselves had a difficult task to overcome: how do you portray characters that we already love? Liam Neeson gets off easy with a character we've never seen before, and yet he seems so stiff that I wondered if perhaps Lucas could have saved money by hiring the cardboard cutout of Qui-Gon Jinn that stood in the theater I attended. Ewan McGregor portrays Obi-Wan, and he virtually nails the character Alec Guinness made famous. Unfortunately, he is given about ten lines of dialogue, and only becomes essential to the plot in the last fifteen minutes. Much has been said about Jake Lloyd's performance, and all I can say is that he is certainly more animated than any of the leads. He's not great, but he's not bad either. Natalie Portman portrays Queen Amidala about as accurately as could be expected, and she evokes the spirit of the original series. But the standout here is the Swedish-born Pernilla August who, despite being onscreen only ten minutes, gives us a fully realized character and a powerhouse performance. She goes up against some of Hollywood's biggest and most talented actors and beats them at their own game. I, for one, hope to see more of this talented actress. Her scenes are heartbreaking and remind us of what we are really missing. And what about Ahmed Best, otherwise known as the voice of Jar Jar Binks? Well, all I can say is that I hope Lucas kills off the character in the next episode. His dialogue is painfully bad and at times undistinguishable. Ray Park is given virtually nothing to do as Darth Maul, the supposed villain here. But he's no villain. He's an imitation of a villain. The only thing he is here for is to create suspense during the climactic events (which he does rather well). Ian McDiarmid tries his best, but again, he's not given enough time on screen. The film is held up by Neeson and McGregor, and neither are up to the challenge (it is understandable why Neeson would want to retire from film).

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is rated PG for sci-fi action and violence. Nothing is offensive, and the film is quite suitable for all ages. After 16 years of waiting, it will be hard for fans to realize that the film is a major disaster, and they will more than likely be adamant in their belief that the film is superb. Of course, how would you react to a bad film you've waited for for 16 years? There are people who will hate it extremely, and there are people who will love it extremely. I don't necessarily hate the film, but it is a very bad one, and I hate Lucas for making us wait all these years for it. You would think that amount of time would give anyone to perfect the story. He obviously didn't, and the result is this muddled mess. Even John Williams' score is lacking (it seems to me Williams is slacking off, producing two so-so works in a row: this one and Saving Private Ryan). The visual effects may be impressive, but effects do not a movie make. Sure, Lucas has crafted a visually imaginative film, but visuals only help a film when they enhance a story. In this case, they are the story. Hopefully, Lucas' next two installments will be vastly superior. As of now, he has failed to make a film. And that is the worst part of it all.

*1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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