Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a traitor unto itself and the audience. It ropes us in with promise and surprise and then leaves us stranded in an empty world of visual effects, crazy Jedi stunts and characters so frigid they’d be more animated at Madame Tussauds. Who could possibly like Darth Maul as a villain when measured against the iconic Darth Vader? George Lucas hides himself away with this film, which is partially negligence, partially greed. He trades in all the files he has on his characters for the advent of high-tech computers, and he lets them carry him away.
Effects have always been a key part of the Star Wars universe. None of the movies could have existed without them. They gave us the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, the ridiculously massive Super Star Destroyer, lightsabers. They were intrinsic to the art direction. But I think when you create whole characters out of effects, especially when costumes and masks worked so well for you before, you’re just showing off. You’re not reaching for higher ground; you’re on the highest ground proclaiming it to the world.
We get a sense of this with Jar Jar Binks, a gratuitous character (Gungan) created fully by computers, who mumbles and fumbles and stumbles and somehow stands up tall as the hero. He is voiced by Ahmed Best, whose life’s regrets just grew by one. He makes Jar Jar a weird cross between a Jamaican and a slurring chipmunk, which isn’t praise. Jar Jar’s voice is cloying. His gait ungainly. His necessity minimal. His impact none. What was Lucas thinking? Was he so desperate for a comedic character after his victory with Han Solo? Did he watch Jar Jar being born and think to himself “Success!”? Observe Jar Jar falling around the battlefield during the movie’s major climax. You’d wish he had died on his way out of the computer’s birth canal.
Many other characters are also made out of pixels but are less irritating. There’s Watto, the ugly spare parts salesman (sales-thing?), who is actually quite effective as a smelly, conniving flying weasel (we can almost suffer his stench from our side of the screen); the big Boss Nass (Brian Blessed), leader of all Gungans, who has a habit of shaking his head vigorously; and Jabba the Hutt makes an appearance, but the computers make him look so weightless that the voice that bellows from within sounds like a hollow echo.
Halfway through The Phantom Menace we find ourselves locked to a pod race. This is a super high speed race through the caverns of Tatooine, on hovering vehicles that remind me very much of chopsticks tied together with loose rubber bands. A lot of computer graphics are employed here too. The race is to determine if young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) will be freed from slavery and allowed to begin Jedi training. Because we’ve seen Episodes IV, V and VI, we know that Anakin does indeed become a Jedi. So he will win the race, which makes us watching it a redundancy. And it goes on and on and on.
Computers are also used for the ultimate space battle between Naboo and droid fighters, which promises a lot and is really quite exciting, but gives way to the less interesting battle between the Gungans and the Trade Federation’s droid army, which is composed of robot soldiers so astoundingly inefficient the company that manufactured them must have done it as a joke.
Everywhere you look on the screen, The Phantom Menace is dominated by computers. It is so dominated that the production and costume design flutter by almost unnoticed. Even Queen Amidala’s colourful wardrobe struggles to make it to the foreground. And what of the characters?
The plot of the movie runs two parallel threads. One involves trade embargoes on the planet Naboo. The other centres on Anakin’s discovery by a Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), whose apprentice is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Trade embargoes are boring topics for a Star Wars movie, which should be a perfect balance of swashbuckling action and space opera. Anakin’s story lacks real emotion. All the characters seem old and frail, afraid to punch out with enthusiasm. Qui-Gon is too busy fulfilling his prophecy. Obi-Wan is a nuisance. Amidala saunters around with her perpetual grimace and succumbs to a weak mind. Anakin may be a prodigy, but no one in the film thinks so. And Darth Maul is a villain as deep as a Petri dish (with all those horns on his head, how does he sleep at night? Does he have a closet full of disposable pillows?).
If The Phantom Menace does anything right, it is, ironically, its effects. If you take them out of context, they are superb. In the grand Star Wars tradition, they continue to create new sights and uphold the visual integrity of faraway planets. The Gungan home, spread across the ocean floor in self-sustaining bubbles, is gorgeous. Naboo is a throwback to Venice and Ancient Rome. And Coruscant — “The entire planet is one big city!” — is the pinnacle of futuristic city planning. But really, what good are all these sights when the characters who walk through them have to bring along a lousy script?
I’ll leave with two examples of the script’s irregularities (trust me, there are countless more). In an early scene, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan dash away to safety from attacking droids in a flash, literally, like The Flash. Later, when the epic Jedi climax arrives, and Obi-Wan has to catch up with the fight after having been kicked off a ledge, logic says he should dash like The Flash again, but he doesn’t. Because the plot requires him to fall behind (I cannot say why), he forgets he has the ability to sprint super fast. Then consider the moment when Darth Maul reveals himself to the two Jedi and the platoon of Naboo soldiers (including Queen Amidala) in the hangar. He is greatly outnumbered by people armed with guns, and yet, somehow, no order is given to open fire. I’d wager a fairly confident bet that Maul, in all his infinite malice, wouldn’t be able to deflect a hundred laser blasts all at once. End the movie right there.
Best Moment | Any time Qui-Gon’s in battle.
Worst Moment | No particular moment. Just observing all the narrative flaws and inconsistencies is bad enough (how can the Naboo fighters have a forcefield when the X and Y-Wing fighters, which are far newer and more advanced, don’t?