Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 23/05/1999.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Well, if Episode I did have any theoretical promise back then, it was completely spunked away by Episodes II and III. Even my pet theory that Palpatine was Annakin's father (see upcoming repost of The Tempest for full details) came to nothing. I'd still say that this was the best film of the Shit Trilogy, regardless.
New York! Just like I imagined it! Skyscrapers! Everthang! To bring you up to speed: I was just about due a big dumb foreign holiday. My experience of America was fairly limited to date (a week in New Orleans and that was it), and it seemed about time that I broadened it. Obviously, given my cinephilic tendencies, one thing I was bound to do while in the USA was catch a few movies before they made their way over to the UK. And if you were looking for a movie this summer to see a couple of months before your British friends, there was really only one worth considering.
Which is why I'm in New York on the opening weekend of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It could have been any film, it just happened to be this one. Unfortunately, in the minds of one or two of Spank's Pals (yeah, Caldicott, I'm looking at you), I'm another one of those sad people who's flown across the Atlantic this week with the sole purpose of seeing this film. Which isn't the case, believe me. Sure, I went to see the original trilogy along with everyone else, but at the time I was a bit too old to start hoarding the action figures and treating it as a way of life.
Of course, the difference between then and now is that nobody's too old for that any more, apparently. When I first planned this trip, I assumed that the release of The Phantom Menace would cause a bit of a stir. However, I definitely underestimated how big that stir would be, with mad buggers camping outside cinemas for six weeks or more waiting to get hold of the first tickets for the 12:01am show on the day of release. Obviously these people haven't heard of online booking (see Links below). And what must their girlfriends think about them being away for so long? No, stupid question, forget I asked it.
The apocalyptic reaction of the fans has been equally matched by the opposing apocalyptic reaction of the critics. Given my current location, I should single out Anthony Lane's review for The New Yorker - "What is this? Crap. Say it out loud: Crap." - which would have had them pissing themselves down the Algonquin in the old days of the magazine, I bet. In the end, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes: it's the first act of what could turn out to be a damn fine fantasy movie when it's finished some time in 2005.
If there is a problem with The Phantom Menace, it's a fairly fundamental one: it's the first part of a trilogy, and that trilogy is the prequel to yet another trilogy. Most of the reviews treat TPM as a standalone movie in its own right, and while for the moment we have to consider it in those terms, it's easier to be more sympathetic if we think of the wider picture. There are a number of loose ends and underused characters that obviously will be exploited in the movies to come, but for now just look like structural flaws. Of course, if we get to Episode 3 in 2005 and those ends are still dangling, feel free to call me wrong.
The Phantom Menace deals with the early days of the conflict which reached its climax in Star Wars and beyond. The Trade Federation - led by the phantom menace of the title, Darth Sidious - is running a trade blockade on the planet of Naboo, much to the dismay of its ruler, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Two Jedi Knights are sent to negotiate a settlement: master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor doing a frankly disturbing version of Alec Guinness' voice). They discover too late that the Federation's plans are actually to invade Naboo. The Jedis accompany the Queen on a mission to appeal to the Senate of the Galactic Republic for help.
During an unscheduled pit stop on the desert planet of Tatooine ("aaah...", say the fanboys), they meet up with the young boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Qui-Gon Jinn senses that the Force - the mystical power of the Universe harnessed by the Jedis - is unusually strong in Anakin, and feels he has the potential to become a great Jedi knight. Of course, the key point here is that Anakin will grow up to become Darth Vader by the time we get to the events of the original Star Wars (or Episode 4: A New Hope, as we have to call it now). Interestingly, there's no explicit hint of this in the movie, apart from a couple of dark warnings uttered by Yoda, and a neat little touch in the final seconds of the closing titles to reward those people who've sat through eight minutes of credits.
The ultimate goal that creator George Lucas must have been aiming for was to make a movie that would fill in useful backstory for the fans, while still being a comprehensible story for viewers unfamiliar with the mythology. He's kind of failed with the latter aim: for one thing, the whole dramatic irony of Anakin's future fate means nothing if you don't know the earlier films, while the role of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is left confusingly vague (although pretty good guesses can be made, nothing's really spelt out). Having said that, there are at least one or two occasions where Lucas uses our knowledge of future events to spring a couple of neat surprises on us, and hopefully more of that sort of thing will happen in the subsequent films.
Another point that keeps coming up in reviews is the complaint that Lucas has made this a children's film. Well, duh. The original trilogy worked like gangbusters when we were kids twenty years ago, and now we're expecting the prequel to have grown up with us. In fact, Lucas is simply carrying on doing what he's always done - making high-tech moral fables for the young. The points of identification for kids are a little more explicit this time round, however. So Anakin is shown as a realistically whiny pre-teen brat (I hope that's a deliberate intention, anyway...), and the lead comic relief is a gloriously clumsy reptile creature called Jar Jar Binks. Some people may take offence with the gratuitous slapstick accompanying all his scenes in the movie, but look on the bright side - at least he's not a bloody Ewok.
There's an awful lot of good stuff in this film, although you wouldn't know it from some of the reviews. For someone who hasn't directed a movie for over twenty years, Lucas shows that he's still got it. Sure, the much-touted digital sequences are lovely to look at and flawlessly animated, but his key strength is in the action set-pieces. The pod race sequence manages to recreate the high-velocity excitement of the attack on the Death Star from the first movie, and sustain it over the best part of a quarter of an hour. There's a nifty underwater chase with all manner of giant aquatic beasties threatening our heroes. And the final twenty minutes is a headlong adrenalin rush, frantically intercutting four separate battle sequences and never dropping the ball once.
And surprisingly, there's a lot more human depth in this film than you'd expect. Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor play the master/apprentice relationship to perfection: Neeson all calm assurance, Macgregor eager and sometimes too impulsive, but actually maturing during the events of the story. Natalie Portman also deserves a mention for doing some very clever things with her role as the Queen. And let's face it, if this is a kid's film, it's got a rather good handle on the complex political shenanagans that actually drive the main plot along.
In the end, no film could possibly live up to the expectations that The Phantom Menace engendered. It's surprising that it's actually turned out as good as it did. The thing to watch out for now is whether Lucas can develop from this new beginning and come up with two more films that can really recreate the excitement of the original movies, rather than just coast along on our memories of them. Anyway, that's what I think. Now if you'll excuse me, I've just about got time left today to get to the top of the Empire State Building. I've got to do it, really. Being a monkey, and all.
Amazon.com are also getting in on the act with their own Star Wars store [dead link] selling the books, soundtrack albums and so on. They've even got a form [dead link] you can fill in so you can be notified by email when The Phantom Menace is about to be released on VHS. For Christ's sake.
Star Wars has its own official site: as well as The Phantom Menace it also covers Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, concentrating on the various things done to the movies for their rerelease a couple of years ago. Space has also been left for the next two films in the cycle, so expect this site to be around for a while yet.
Countdown To Star Wars [dead link] is the unofficial fan site you've probably heard about: in the months leading up to the release of the movie it leaked all the latest news, set up mirror sites for the download of trailers, and installed webcams following the progress of those fans who queued six weeks for tickets. Don't know if it'll stay up once the movie is actually released, but there's only one way to find out, isn't there?
Mos Eisley Multiplex [dead link] is the gateway to a whole series of Star Wars tributes and pastiches filmed by fans and put on the web. Dozens to choose from, but my favourite is Park Wars, made by the good people at Countdown To Star Wars: a magnificent piece of computer animation fitting the South Park crew to the soundtrack of the original trailer.
Moviefone.com does online booking of cinema seats over the Internet (US only, obviously). So rather than queue for six weeks in New York, I chose to order my ticket for the opening weekend from the comfort of a hotel bedroom in Birmingham. If you can call that a choice, of course.
I Hate Star Wars [dead link] is included here for the purposes of balance. Carefully pitched on the knife-edge between a serious analysis of the flaws in the movies and a simple pisstake of the fanboy mentality, it's the perfect antidote if you've become weary of the hype. Judging from the guestbook, very few people seem to get the joke.
ASCIIMATION Star Wars retells the story of the original movie using some of the most jaw-dropping Java graphics you'll ever see. And I don't use the term "jaw-dropping" lightly.
Cyber-Cafe may or may not be New York's finest Internet cafe, but it's where I wrote this, so I guess I should thank them for the computer resources and the killer Cafe Mocha.