I am by no means a long-time Star Wars fan, but I have been trying to understand Star Wars for a long time. And I finally did a couple of years ago. Star Wars isn’t about a weird mix of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, and it isn’t about odd, even ridiculous-looking creatures. It’s about courage and hope and friendship, and even a little about spirituality. And, of course, it’s about good old fun. This is what I understood from the original trilogy, which changed the world of cinema for the better a long time ago, in the late 70s and early 80s.
Watching “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”, I couldn’t help thinking that George Lucas had forgotten all that by the time he made it almost two decades after the original films. The surface elements are still there: there are Jedi knights, lightsabers, the Dark Side of the Force, droids, Tatooine, and so on. But the deeper purpose of Star Wars seems to have been lost along the way.
“The Phantom Menace” is not a bad film, but it seems more concerned with showcasing big household names such as Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson, and with recreating the world of Star Wars with the latest technological tools of the time than with telling an actual story, or with giving us new strong characters to love. This is a film that does not sparkle with enthusiasm, nor does it celebrate its own rugged charm, as “A New Hope” did. Instead, it gives us an artificial, distant version of Star Wars by overusing CGI and by infusing the characters and settings with a pompous vibe that does not resonate with Star Wars. One must look no further than the exaggerated make-up and hair, elaborate rituals and grand interiors of “The Phantom Menace”, which come into such underwhelming contrast with the fresh simplicity of “A New Hope”.
I’m not truly about to complain about seeing Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor together on screen. I thought that they were maybe the only ones who carried some of the original feel of Star Wars. But did Samuel L. Jackson really have to be in this? I didn’t think he brought anything to his character other than the wow factor of having Samuel Jackson playing a random Jedi.
While I liked the performances of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor best in this film, their characters lacked depth as well. They did their best to create an image of the Jedi as noble, skilled warriors, but the way they are introduced waving their lightsabers around reduced them to conventional action heroes. There was no build-up of the philosophy of the Jedi before that, no insight into the Force and what it means for them and for the entire universe. Perhaps Lucas assumed that people already knew all that because Star Wars was so famous, but what about new viewers? And what about the fans who still need to be drawn into what gives Star Wars its heart and soul before they can enjoy the cool tech and the cool visual effects?
Speaking of big actors, as much as I respect Natalie Portman, and as much as I liked her portrayal of Queen Amidala, her character simply falls short of matching the raw nerve of Princess Leia. Amidala is a conventional female royal figure, one conditioned by protocol rather than an independent, outspoken woman.
The one character I was most curious about in this film was Anakin Skywalker. It was interesting to see the origin story of Darth Vader. This is where the film displays some substance in terms of building a theme and adding to the philosophy of Star Wars. He is described as the one who will bring balance to the Force and he is even the result of an immaculate conception. I found these details interesting because Anakin is painted as a sort of Messiah, and eventually he turns into a version of Satan when he falls to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader. This brings together into one character two opposite aspects which are represented by two separate entities in the Biblical story, and this journey from one end of the spectrum to the other made me want to watch the remaining two prequels just to see Anakin’s development.
One major disappointment, however, was Darth Maul. He felt like a call-back to Vader, but a very cheap one. Vader had an ominous presence that was built up through musical theme, costume, line delivery and the reactions of the other characters to him. Darth Maul has none of that. He’s just an empty action villain whose appearance is more ridiculous than it is scary. Why is his face painted black and red? Why does he have red eyes and why does he have horns growing out of his skull? Does the Satan connection have to be made SO blatantly and boringly obvious? Does Lucas have to revert to such jaded clichés? I can’t help thinking that, if Darth Vader had seen “The Phantom Menace”, he would find Lucas’s lack of faith very disturbing indeed. Vader was a hit with viewers from his first moments on screen, in spite of his mostly villainous character. And that’s where the key to a good villain lies: the ‘mostly’, the glimpse into the heart that even villains have. Darth Maul has no heart. He has no brains either. He only has a silly Halloween mask and admittedly entertaining ninja skills. But I expect more from Star Wars.
I can’t really end this review without mentioning the infinitely annoying Jar Jar Binks and his whole race of annoying sea-dwelling creatures. I suppose Lucas was trying to recreate some of the old creature magic with Jar Jar and with the leader of his people, but they only come across as ridiculous. What also struck me this time around was that a lot of these supposedly alien creatures spoke in various Earth accents of English. Jar Jar’s boss sounded African, while the senators doing Palpatine’s bidding sounded Japanese. Why do something so obvious? The original films had alien characters speak in all sorts of chirps, whistles and gibberish, but we managed to understand them through their body language and the responses of the English-speaking characters. That was fun and smart. This was neither of those things.
This film also does a serious disservice to the droids. It treats them more like expendable goods than like actual characters. There was a scene where a group of droids repair Amidala’s ship and they all got blasted out into the sky by enemy shots, with only R2-D2 remaining operational. After having become so attached to the droids of the original film, this came across as particularly cruel and immediately devalues R2-D2 himself by having us see him as an ‘it’ actually, as a machine that does stuff for people, rather than a little loveable robot with a soul.
The army of CGI droids replacing the stormtroopers also contributed to the major devaluing of the idea of droids. If anything spells ‘expendable’, it’s an army of brainless, soulless robots. It’s boring and uninteresting and unoriginal. And pitting an army of robots against an army of CGI creatures completely annuls the human dimension of war. With all its fun, the original Star Wars had real people in stormtrooper armors and creatures that looked alive, and so the conflict felt real and you really got the impression that lives were being lost. Here, life doesn’t really seem to matter much unless it’s that of the good guys. And even some of the good guys are CGI.
As a conclusion, I will say that “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” is not the film I was hoping it would be. To me, it spells loud and clear that technology alone does not make a good film, nor can it replace a solid story.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.