Battle Beyond the Stars
A three-way lightsaber duel over "Episode I--The Phantom Menace"
JUNE 1, 1999: George Lucas started his career by making a movie about a sexless, emotionless future; now it seems he doesn't know how to make anything else. The difference is that THX 1138, Lucas' 1971 debut, was meant as a warning call, a vision of the world we could expect if we allowed hardware to govern the heart. Episode I--The Phantom Menace, the first/fourth film in Lucas' Star Wars saga, is an entertainment that could've been dreamed up by THX's oppressive regime: a paradise of digital enslavement in which human beings are marionettes.
I had similar feelings about Star Wars in its 20th-anniversary reissue two years ago. In 1977, Star Wars was a 12-year-old's delight, both in its hip reworkings of after-school B-movies and its alien universe, as lovingly detailed as a model-railroad set. But after 20 years, two subsequent episodes, and 2 million imitators, what struck me most about Star Wars was how much more interesting the HO-scale details were than the supposed human engines. Except for Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford, the actors looked ridiculous, and listening to Lucas' deliberately flat, callow dialogue was like chewing someone else's spit-up cotton candy.
The same goes double for Episode I. The opening salvo of Lucas' preliminary trilogy, Episode I is the first installment of a tale told backwards, and it plays that way. The film opens with the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young protégé Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) dispatched to negotiate a trade dispute (excitement ahoy!), which quickly turns into an ambush. Soon Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her peaceful planet are facing the same threat.
Thus the stage is set for confrontation, and the battles are bigger and the alien landscapes much more imposing than in the first (second) three films. What's missing is any reason to give a damn. While Lucas had an emotional stake in his namesake Luke Skywalker, no figure here seems to hold his attention. Even though this is essentially the first of three movies' worth of backstory, the movie's central relationships, especially between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, are woefully underdeveloped. The overall impression is that Lucas got so carried away filling up the screen that he left his characters blank.
Thus the future Darth Vader, young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), is a bratty kid without a hint of future greatness or megalomania; Amidala lacks even Princess Leia's feistiness; and Obi-Wan never shows a single personality trait worth investigating in future installments. These nonentities are supposed to carry three movies? We might as well be watching the action figures, for all the care Lucas invests in their performances. With the chief exception of McGregor's nifty Guinness imitation, the actors' line readings are purest Al Gore, and their movements are awkward, presumably because their surroundings had to be inked in around them.
Which brings us to the whole CGI problem. When Star Wars was made, the special-effects limitations of the time gave the locales a gritty, concrete look--as was apparent when Lucas inserted glaring computer-generated imagery into the reissue. Episode I, on the other hand, is indeed the state of the art in digital effects, the limits of which have never been clearer. Digital technology is great for replicating forms and patterns, hence the battle formations that cover horizons and the skies that buzz with ships. But the robot hordes have the same synthetic, insubstantial presence as the mechanized swarms in other CGI films, from Starship Troopers to The Mummy. And don't even get me started on Jar Jar Binks; movie technology develops for 100 years so we can get a Rastafarian kangaroo doing a bad impression of Fat Albert's Mushmouth.
That isn't to say Episode I doesn't have witty flourishes, or the stamp of its creator's obsessions. The movie's highlight, a rip-roaring "pod race," works because Lucas the American Graffiti gearhead knows his car culture: The recreation of track details, from pit crew to announcers, is affectionate and funny. And the margins of each frame are packed with swell Aragones-like fillips: off-world vermin, buzzing little robots, futuristic funnycars. That's the trouble. George Lucas is a wizard at populating a world with everything but people.
So will I see the next one? Sure. The Empire Strikes Back, a disappointment when released, looks better every year, and maybe Lucas will entrust the next installment to collaborators who can flesh out his sketches. Maybe they can do something with Anakin Skywalker's immaculate conception (Christ as Darth Vader?!?), or the alien races designed along weird ethnic stereotypes, or the idea that Jedi power is somehow carried in the blood. And maybe they'll help George Lucas find a way out of his plastic alien funhouse--or at least remind us why we ever went inside.
Yes, Episode I is flawed. The two lead Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor), lack the fire of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and Jake Lloyd's interpretation of the 10-year-old Anakin Skywalker lacks gravity. The bumbling Jar Jar Binks is too low-comedy, much of the dialogue is corny (and too contemporary), and it's not until the final half-hour that Lucas brings out the ingenious, tension-building cross-cutting that marked Episodes 4 through 6. But sometimes it's the flaws in a gem that make it beautiful. The Phantom Menace is Lucas' vision, and it has his own personal quirks and kinks.
As a man who believes in the power of mythology (and faith), Lucas is content to keep his characters on the iconic level, as carriers of ideas more than multi-dimensional human beings. This is a methodology he draws directly from epic science-fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who tend to be more interested in what a person does (and why, on a basic level, he does it) than in how he feels about it. This approach, though unemotional, seems more honest than the fake sentiment that so often creeps into current action pictures.
Plus, Lucas still knows how to shoot a movie, despite his long layoff from the director's chair. Every frame of Episode I is lovingly presented, and the images are indelible--not just the breathtaking new worlds, but the striking faces in quiet contemplation, and the visual representations of the different planetary cultures. Several action sequences--especially the whiz-bang pod race and the final duel with Darth Maul--are exciting, skillfully filmed, and much easier to follow than some shaky-cam Michael Bay monstrosity. There's a reassuring confidence about the film, which comes with the knowledge that the filmmaker has command of the environment he's creating, and has secrets that he's not yet ready to reveal.
It would be silly to pretend that Lucas was completely out on a treacherous limb with this film. He knows he's got a presold property, and he doesn't want to foul the air by taking too many chances. Still, the plot of The Phantom Menace is more complex than has been acknowledged, and it subtly sets up the films to come. The justly maligned Return of the Jedi (still the weakest entry in the series) disappointed mostly because it tried to sum up a speech we had missed the beginning of. Now we're starting to understand the full story, with its shifting loyalties and dread temptations. If there's anything really disappointing about Episode I, it's not being able to line up for Episode 2 tomorrow.
If the best way to judge a post-Star Wars episode is to analyze its place in the overall story, then The Phantom Menace is a clear winner. More than ever before, Lucas endows his film with the pace and structure of an old-time serial: Early scenes are short, and optical wipes move us quickly through the setup. And, as in a serial, the immediate pleasures are clearly secondary to the eventual payoff next week (or in this case, next millennium).
But because we know Episodes 4, 5, and 6, we're aware this time that cracks and fissures are lurking beneath our feet. Quite aside from the obvious transformations to come--Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, the Galactic Republic into the Galactic Empire--much that's taken for granted in The Phantom Menace has changed by the opening of Star Wars. The Jedi Knights and Jedi Council are well known everywhere in the prequel, but for the original's characters, they were half-forgotten legends or myths. Qui-Gon Jinn would look like the perfect Jedi master if we didn't have the mature Obi-Wan Kenobi, his student in this episode, for comparison's sake; since we do, it's clear that Jinn is deeply flawed. Even technology marches on between the films--ranks of gun-toting battle droids that attack like Spartacus' Roman legions give way to an infinitely more efficient planet killer, the Death Star.
The chief accomplishment of The Phantom Menace is that it presents a story like that of Star Wars, but in a universe that's subtly different. Without Lucas overtly directing our gaze to the changes, we see what will be lost by Episode 4 and get a better idea of what Luke and Han are fighting for in the original trilogy--while knowing, to our sorrow, that those characters in Episode I's future are ignorant of their origins.
The prospect of Star Wars sequels had fans anticipating the defeat of Darth Vader, and The Phantom Menace also inspires anticipation. But this time we await with dread what we know must happen. Like Athenian theatergoers in Sophocles' audiences, we fear the approach of unstoppable fate--and feel the universe in which we all travel our appointed routes shift beneath our feet.
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