A Nebulous Beginning
A Film Review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
We are fast approaching The Force Awakens opening on December 18th and that day may be recognized by fanboys and girls across the globe as a triumphant return for one of the most beloved fictions ever to grace the silver screen which captured the imagination of innumerable human beings. Or it could be marked as the final line drawn in the sand between those that still “get” Star Wars and those that are finally done with wipe transitions, midichlorians, bland CG and the most cockamamie dialogue presented to audiences this side of the Force. I am preparing for the inevitable surge of nostalgia accompanied by the equally powerful blowback of regret that only the internet can supply by revisiting every Star Wars feature film and reviewing it under the MPS system. The purpose of which is to form the freshest and most organized mind set going into this new era of Star Wars filmmaking under the watchful eye of J.J. Abrams (financed by Mickey Mouse), while establishing the best means of comparative subjectivity I can present to you, the reader.
With that, let us dive right into The Phantom Menace which is a film that is by no means “perfect” as far as sci-fi/action/adventures go, yet not quite as dreadful as the internet would shame you into believing. As the first segment in a multi-generational saga, this film has a high expectation of establishing a fictional universe in a galaxy far, far away as efficiently as possible, and that means hammering the audience with a relentless barrage of Star Wars vocabulary early and often. The first hour of this film is a parade of five line vignettes and five second action sequences that do their best to cram as much exposition as possible to present this reality to audiences as just another day of galactic conflict where this kind of thing happens often enough. While this strategy certainly gets the concepts out there, the larger conflicts that drive the overall plot in this film are lost on an audience’s sympathies because there are few moments of sustained drama to give those moments meaning. All of the stylized diction hinders the audience’s ability to identify with several of the characters due to a dedicated aura of formality that hovers about most of them with the exception of Jar Jar Binks who, quite frankly, is a train wreck of a character and a complete waste of time. Please drop the prim and proper and show us some old reliable joy, hate, confusion and desperation.
The computer generated special effects and images used throughout this film are inconsistent at best. As simple as it is today to create light sabers for simple YouTube videos, it still happens to be a very effective digital effect even in Hollywood features. The starships look sleek and beautiful and some of the fully CG rendered characters seem as “real” as their costars, but sometimes the framing of these fabricated images flattens the screen which breaks the suspension of disbelief many times. Scenes that feature CG demonstrate virtually no depth of field which feels false to those who see in 3 dimensions. It seems as though the filmmakers were indeed aware of this effect because several of these shots favored close-ups as an attempt to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, the problem persists even during wider angle shots such as those depicting large scale battles. The frame still demonstrates the same level of flatness even here.
Where this film doesn’t get enough credit is in the action department; the bread and butter of every Star Wars film. Sure, there isn’t heart pounding explosions of eye candy every second of this film, but when the time comes to introduce motion to the frame, it gets the job done. The best example of this is the climactic light saber duel at the end of the film which is not only masterfully choreographed, it does two things that few final battles ever do in Hollywood: 1) features a 2-on-1 handicap and 2) completely stops the combat twice without breaking the tension (in fact, it heightens it). Another good example of this is the assault on the Royal Palace which features a practical setting and more live actors than CG combat droids. The gunplay during this sequence was very entertaining. Pod racing was good enough for giving the audience the obligatory first person cockpit view that is present in every Star Wars film, but suspiciously absent during the space combat sequences which were a tad weak. The absolute worst was the sea of khaki colored droids fighting a mob of light brown toned Gungans over a never ending bed of the cleanest, greenest grass you’ve ever seen.
Gunplay, spaceflight, racing AND laser sword dueling? Even if all these elements can exist in one film, can they all be executed with any semblance of proficiency? Yes they can.
The frame is most “animated” during CG heavy scenes, which isn’t particularly cinematic or believable with virtually no depth of field.
Liam Neeson is a charismatic leading man that can make you believe Jedi Knights could exist. Ewan McGregor effectively channels a younger Alec Guinness. Natalie Portman … has a very beautiful face. But, everyone’s just a little too uptight.
Ian McDiarmid and Pernilla August as Palpatine and Shmi Skywalker demonstrate how much an actor can do with very little screen time so long as they understand and fully commit to their characters. The voice actors for CG support sounded good sometimes, but that didn’t mean the characters were effective onscreen all the time.
100% of John Williams’ orchestrated score is immense, inspiring and fits the emotional tone of every scene in this film.
Legendary and iconic sound effects created for this film franchise never fail.
“Moving” = 25/33
Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. It literally is 50:50.
It didn’t seem as if there were any practical effects in this film, but they had to have some right? Oh yeah, the animated masks moved somewhat ok for some of the alien heads not fully rendered by a computer.
The Amidala fashion show commences with a multitude of extravagant styles and shifts while everyone else is relegated to effective yet bland robes.
Hair & Makeup
Once again, kudos for Amidala designs, but man, Darth Maul’s entire facial concept and design was amazing!
Just about every exterior location was a bright, but flat green screen effect.
Interior locales just seem to work better with CG.
“Picture” = 21/33
There was something about a blockade and taxes that got abandoned for something about Jedi and Sith.
If the Trade Federation is the immediate threat, I still don’t see what’s in it for them. Will the Sith kill their families if they don’t do as they’re told? Who knows? It’s never explained. Jedi fight Sith because that’s what they do? Also, not explained.
Good guys win, bad guys lose, and there are losses on both sides. This is only half as surprising as seeing Qui-Gon eliminated in the first film he’s introduced. Oh wait, Lucas did that to Darth Maul, too.
Long story short: not particularly natural, nor compelling.
There’s a ton of information laid out there except the stuff we really want to know like: What is this trade conflict about? What are these Jedi about? What are these Sith about and why do they want revenge?
Space wizards with laser swords make queens, senators, viceroys and chancellors seem rather pedestrian, don’t they?
Qui-Gon, yes. Obi-Wan, yes. Shmi Skywalker, SUPER yes. Everyone else … meh.
“Story” = 15/34
Overall MPS Rating: 61/100
Step one in the Star Wars Saga must fall on its own sword to some extent for laying the necessary groundwork for everything that follows. Certainly, improvements could have been made in the acting department as well as better decision making in the writers’ room, but every legacy has a beginning and they don’t always bolt out of the gate at top speed. Perhaps all of the spectacle could have been retained in favor of trimming the extra subplots that ultimately go nowhere. The Phantom Menace seemed more of an experiment in what can be done with the technology of narrative filmmaking when it never should have lost sight of the fact that if any aspect of the film doesn’t serve the story, it is not necessary. Star Wars may have the heart of a visual effects film, but without story, all that remains is CG porn.