Review: Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I realize that my review style sucks, but I'm going to try to get through this without too many spoilers, feedback is appreciated.

Normally I wait two or three weeks before a movie comes out. But last Wednesday some members of our group here at work procured tickets, and not being one to miss an opportunity, I went.

My first reaction: Lucas may be able to plot a story, but he can't write dialog to save his life, and he should not be permitted to direct. Call your congress-critter, immediate action must be taken. We should also incarcerate all art directors; it's for their own good.

If you go, take heart, it does get better. But don't have your sights too high. The original Star Wars this ain't, a cheesey action flick it might be, but I'm not much into that genre.

With that out of the way...

The last half of this movie, after the much talked about "pod race", was pretty gripping. It resolved the primary plot rather nicely, opened up the secondary plots. The action covered for the lack of dialog.

The sword play, and the Darth Maul sequences, were awesome.

But the first half...

While we were eating lunch before the matinee we talked to someone who'd seen one of the Lucasfilm screenings this weekend. And he was doing his best to lower our expectations. I'm sure glad he did, had I gone in expecting anything but a cheesey special effects show I'd have left after the first 20 minutes or so. And then I would have missed what finally made this movie a semi-redeemable action flick.

The opening was forced, a way to tie a bunch of special effects together. Quite a few monsters and sets we see only once. The (and I don't think I'm giving away too much here 'cause one of these scenes is in the trailer) underwater sequences are completely superfluous, and use technology completely orthogonal to what the race that incites that sequence ends up using later in the film.

The characterization of the aliens seems like some bad racial stereotyping. Jar Jar Binks is straight out of some '70s blacksploitation film, substituting large floppy ears for the afro. The trading federation ambassadors are similarly undermotivated, why would they use English between themselves when they speak it in some sort of pidgin Chinese manner?

Vehicles and weapons are art directors run amok. One of the great things about the original Star Wars universe was that it was a gritty place, with grease and burn spots and weapons damage. The Phantom Menace is a universe of unmarred white plastic surfaces or mirror finishes, landing gear that looks more like it's some sort of modern chrome candle holder than functional weight bearing apparatus, the terrain looks like grand golf greens, the rolling hills of Napa in the spring.

My office-mate said that the acting sucked. I'm not sure if anyone could have managed to do anything with what was written, alternating between hip and formal with no real rhyme or reason. I'm sure part of the reason the actors had trouble getting in to the characters was that the dialog wasn't written to give each character a distinct voice.

Anakin should have been at least two years older, or at least he should have been a little less cuddly. This is a kid who's a slave in a smuggling society. He should be cunning. He should be cute because it suits his purposes. He can still be all the things necessary to make the story work, but as a kid genius who works for a slimy boss and still manages to put together protocol droids and pod racers in his spare time and keep this secret from the boss for whom he polishes doorknobs I expect a little more depth.

The pod race should have been dropped, or there should have been a reasonable alternative to winning. The kid was so goofy, we didn't care about any of the other participants and everything else was so contrived that we knew the outcome, and could have just skipped over it. Totally superfluous action.

The right way to present this story would have been as a miniseries. That way I would still care about the secondary story lines by the time the next movie comes out. But the fact is I think that what I imagine as the path through from The Phantom Menace to A New Hope is probably as good as anything George can come up with anyway.

And as for this being for kids, there were a couple of kids behind us in the theatre. They were bored, their parents were audibly wondering about refunds.

Wait for the video.

And we already know that the opening weekend will break all box office records, but I bet this one's gonna sink pretty quickly if there's anything else on the horizon.

Wednesday, May 19th, 1999