July 1999: The Phantom Menace

So, okay. I've actually only seen The Phantom Menace twice, not because I didn't like it, but because there are lots and lots (and lots) of other movies I wanted to see this summer: The Matrix, Run Lola Run, Wild Wild West, The Blair Witch Project . . . the list goes on.

But The Phantom Menace is different. It's Star Wars. And I liked it.

Not to say that it was perfect, because it wasn't. Then again, no Star Wars movie is; we see them not because they're shining examples of artistic cinema, but because they hit us at the gut-deep level that wants to be a hero. That was the appeal of the original trilogy, and it's clearly designed to be the appeal here.

The one problem there is that the story centers around an eight-year-old boy. While this isn't a fatal flaw, it arguably prevented older fans from enjoying the movie quite as much as they would have had Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) been somewhat older. On the other hand, we older fans have Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson; although, as the quintessential tragic character, he dies by the end) and a youthful Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). And then there's Padme/Amidala, played by Natalie Portman. Mmm, Natalie Portman.

With such a stellar cast, along with Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine, and a brief appearance by Samuel L. Jackson, one might have expected the characterization in this movie to be stronger than it was. But this is Star Wars, and characterization has never been George Lucas' strong point. He lets us do that for him, by turning all of the major roles into archetypes: we have the young to-be savior, already set apart from his peers by virtue of inborn characteristics (Anakin); the elder sage (Qui-Gon); the virginal queen (Padme/Amidala; whether she's actually a virgin is moot, the point is that she's portrayed that way); the young sidekick (Obi-Wan); and the shadowy threat (Darth Sidious; while Darth Maul is inarguably cool, there's no reason for him to be in this story except to provide a few cool lightsaber battles).

Instead, Lucas offers us a feast for the eyes. If his settings in the original trilogy were otherworldly (the Death Star, Cloud City) and mysterious (Dagobah), and the technology fantastic (starfighters that maneuver like fighter planes, walking ground assault weapons), the development of computerized special effects has given him free rein to explore these things and more. While the realistic rendering of actual characters using these methods is still questionable (few secondary characters have elicited as much, er, discussion as Jar Jar Binks), the planets and technology in The Phantom Menace are, in a word, gorgeous. Whether it's the various locales on Naboo (and how refreshing to have a planet that doesn't have only a single climate), the all-city planet of Coruscant, or the spacious Neimoidian starships, Lucas successfully achieves a balance of the fantastic and the real. These places obviously don't exist-but they might.

Plot-wise, The Phantom Menace is surprisingly subtle-subtle for Lucas, that is. If your average art-house director made a movie like this, the audience would liken it to being hit over the head with a brick. Still, while Lucas presents us with dazzling eye candy in the form of battles (the first standoff between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and the Neimoidian battle droids is spectacular, and the acrobatics of the final duel equally so), a pod race that many have accurately compared to the chariot race in Ben Hur, and Queen Amidala's costumes (how can she walk without falling over in those top-heavy headdresses?), there's a fair bit going on behind the scenes. By the end of the movie, it's obvious that Darth Sidious has manipulated events to his own liking; if Sidious and Palpatine are one and the same (something that's never openly stated but is quite clear to anyone who's been paying attention), then things are gonna really hit the fan in Episode II.

The Phantom Menace is a setup, pure and simple. In a way, that's a problem. The first Star Wars movie was designed to stand on its own, because at the time no one knew if any more would ever be made. At the same time, it left a couple of loose ends trailing behind it, just in case.

Now we have a situation where even if The Phantom Menace bombed (unlikely even if it had sucked), Lucas could still go ahead with Episodes II and III. This has allowed him to make a movie that's like an opening chapter to a larger story; this opening chapter in particular suffers from a lack of character development and a surface plot that doesn't always make much sense (sure, the Neimoidians made a deal with Sidious, but what were they expecting to accomplish with that blockade?). In any movie but Star Wars, these would be fatal flaws; but Star Wars has always been exceptional, and Lucas has made transitional movies work before (cf The Empire Strikes Back).

In short, while The Phantom Menace doesn't hang together as well as the films from the original trilogy, and suffers from some of the same problems, it has got what we go to a Star Wars movie to see: stunning worlds, archetypal characters, and indescribably wondrous stuff. Start Episode II now, please.