Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

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I promised myself that I was going to approach the prequel Star Wars trilogy with as much enthusiasm and excitement as I did the original trilogy. However, I will state right from the outset that I was very disappointed in this film, and I really tried my best to enjoy The Phantom Menace, but the film is just deeply flawed and has so many problems, it became somewhat impossible to ignore that this film was not great, nor was it as magical as the original trilogy.

However, how can someone possibly top the splendid and iconic original trilogy? It is nearly impossible to even conceive the idea of making a film on equal footing as that. Also, when you have established such wonderful characters as Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, who the audience becomes attached to, removing them from the film altogether is maybe not the best way to convince fans that the prequel trilogy is absolutely worth it. However, there are some very good moments and aspects to the film, which I will certainly not forget to discuss, but we just need to get the first order of business out of the way.

Jar Jar Binks is perhaps the worst character in cinema history. Annoying, ridiculously stupid and completely unnecessary, as much of a genius as he is, George Lucas really made the worst mistake of his career putting this character in his film. I understand that comic relief is important in a film like this, but the comic relief is supposed to break the tension and bring much needed levity to otherwise serious films. It doesn’t help that the comic relief is someone that causes even more tension, as while the characters fight to the death on screen, the audience wants to engage in a fight with Jar Jar Binks himself, and reach into the screen and strangle him. This may seem harsh, and I may just be reiterating the popular opinion, but let’s be honest here – this film would’ve been a whole lot better if that character had been left on the cutting room floor. He does almost nothing to advance the plot, and his character could’ve been a more subtle but effective character instead of an annoying, stereotypical idiot. To be perfectly blunt, I am so glad I watched the original trilogy first, because if I went by chronological order and watched The Phantom Menace first, I doubt I would’ve dared continued the series, because Jar Jar Binks is enough to turn any viewer off of the films. Honestly, if I never have to see Jar Jar Binks again, it will still be too soon. The problem with Jar Jar Binks is that not only is he a ridiculously irritating character, it is also what he represents – he is a symbol of Lucas attempting to create a film that will appeal to children, and in his billionaire mind, the only way to appeal to children is to have a goofy looking character with a strange voice and a penchant for clumsiness. I really hope very few children were convinced by this, because I don’t want to believe there are children that are stupid enough to fall for such a blatant act of stupidity. However, I will say that if somehow, in the upcoming films, Jar Jar does return as the villain, it would not be a bad idea, and perhaps the best way to redeem this character is to perhaps just make him evil…at least if he is equally irritating there as he was here, we can be guaranteed an incredible death scene that will surely bring out the cheers from the audiences around the world.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s continue. The two great aspects of this film were Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who were wonderful in the leading roles. McGregor didn’t go too much here, but understandably so. Neeson took on the lion’s share of the film as Qui-Gon Jin, the wise and powerful Jedi. Neeson has such natural charm, it is a shame that he has wasted his career on bad action films these days. He has never been more likable than he is here, and his performance was the only bright part of this otherwise dreary film. He and McGregor alone make this film worth having a look at, and without them, this film would just have been a dismal creation. A film like Star Wars relies on the charms and abilities of the protagonists and the antagonists. As this film didn’t have a fully-formed antagonist (well, other than Jar Jar Binks, but that was unintentional), the film rested solely on Neeson and McGregor, who delivered well enough for this film to not be completely unbearable. They alone make this film worth it, and actually give very good performances that are great additions to the Star Wars universe.

Now I want to talk about the children that are in this film – there are two that played major roles. One of them has gone on to be an Academy Award winning performer with a highly profitable career, and the other has become a recluse, who quit cinema after this film and resents it. I’ll let you have a guess as to which is which. I will be blunt here again, but not in the vicious way that I attacked a certain character only a few paragraphs ago – both of them give pretty bad performances. Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin Skywalker, was wooden and unconvincing. I feel really bad about criticizing his performance, because in the end he was a small child who was doing his absolute best. The fault lies in George Lucas himself, who thought it would be a good idea to actually cast Lloyd. I fail to believe that there were not hundreds or thousands of children that auditioned for the role. It is bizarre that Lloyd was chosen, when he clearly isn’t nearly charismatic, nor does he possess the necessary acting range to convincingly play the character. Lloyd has now retired from cinema, and that might not be a bad thing, because it didn’t look like he was even having fun in this film. I feel bad about criticizing him, because this film is his legacy, and what made him famous, and all that he will be known for. Natalie Portman, however, is free to criticize, because she’s made a ton of money from her acting career, and her performance here (especially when she was presenting as the dreadfully boring Queen Amidala) was also pretty bad, and I felt ashamed for her, because it isn’t even like she was an unknown actress that had her big break here – she was already and established star in great films like Leon and Heat, where she gave great performances. This was just poor writing, and bad direction. The character wasn’t great, and I wish they paid more attention to her. The worst part about Lloyd and Portman’s performances were that despite being pretty bad on their own, Lucas tried to convince us that they had chemistry, which is laughable. Their chemistry is so non-existent, they develop a new, revolutionary form of anti-chemistry, which is perfect to describe the lack of chemistry these two had, to the point where it was cringeworthy. It does feel a bit cheap to be attacking the performances of children, but it is as much their fault for not giving good enough performances as it is Lucas’ for just writing their roles badly and directing them poorly. I wish I could blame Jar Jar Binks on something like this, but that was just plain stupidity that he was created.

I wish this film was better, because it looks absolutely gorgeous. Lucas clearly made use of the new technological advances made by the time he got around to making this film, and brought Star Wars into the world of CGI beautifully. It is beautifully dazzling, and the production design is impeccable and beautiful to look at. Each frame of this film is a masterpiece (well, except for the ones with Jar Jar Binks in them, and perhaps they are masterpieces because Jar Jar Binks isn’t in them). Lucas may not have made great use of character development or directing his actors effectively, but he certainly broke the bank in regards to making it look stunning, which is a major benefit of this film. It is a visually dazzling and exciting film, and that alone makes it worth it, and if anything makes me confident that the sequels to this film will be great is because Lucas clearly has an eye for visuals, and with the passing of time, cinematic technology improves, so I look forward to the two sequels to this film to see how Lucas continues to make his Star Wars universe look and feel wonderful.

I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I would have liked to. I honestly considered turning this film off after an hour had passed, because it looked beautiful, but it was empty and soulless. Neeson and McGregor were great, but the rest of the cast was pretty mediocre. However, it did improve (around the same time acting saint Terence Stamp showed up – he was the savior of this film, for some reason) and the final hour was somewhat thrilling, and it was at least mildly enjoyable. I am looking forward to the next two films, just because I know, deep down, there is absolutely zero chance that the film can sink lower than this one, even though it had some great benefits. It wasn’t a terrible film, but it was mediocre, and considering how wonderful the previous films were, that’s shockingly bad. The only way from here is up, and I am ready to continue my journey…just as long as Jar Jar Binks can be left behind, please.

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