This weekend, ten years ago exactly, Star Wars Episode 1; The Phantom Menace was released in cinemas. Ten years ago; time flies, eh? And given such an anniversary, I’m just going to talk a while about my take on the movie then, and now.
Now, truth be known, I was never a huge Star Wars fan when I was young. I don’t believe I sat down and watched the old movies in full, catching them instead out of sequence when they showed up on TV. The first one I saw was Return of the Jedi one Sunday afternoon. Although I hadn’t seen the others, I knew vaguely what was going on, and who everyone was, and that Vader was Luke’s father etc… probably through general pop culture osmosis. However, unlike some peoples accounts of Star Wars for the first time, I was never awe-struck or blown away… mainly, I was terrified. The opening of Jedi takes place in Jabba the Hutt’s palace, with all manner of frightening looking alien beasts wandering round. The gammorean guards frightened me. Bib Fortuna frightened me. And the rancor beast frightened the FUCK out of me, especially when Luke (dressed in black… something that my youthful mind always associated with villainy, coupled with the fact that he treats the droids like shit initially left me wondering whether this guy was good or bad) gets dropped into the pit, and the rancor picks up a nearby guard and bites him in half (Harryhausen-esque monsters picking people up and biting them in half always scared the crap out of me, and is mainly what I discuss with my shrink these days, except instead of monsters, its fannies, and instead of people, its my cock). So I probably went outside and played for a while, and then came back inside to see the forest chase on the speeder bikes. Any fast paced excitement such as that would always make me want go outside and run around screaming (rather than y’know…watch the movie), so I went out and ran around again. As a child, I was pretty much full-retard. I arrived back in time to see the petrifying duel between Vader and Luke, coupled with The Emperor electrocuting them both until you can see their FUCKING SKELETONS. So yeah, it scared the fuck outa me. As such, I didn’t really watch Empire Strikes Back, or Star Wars. I did, however, watch the Droids cartoon series. Again, I stress; full-retard.
So when Episode 1 rolled around in my late teens, I wasn’t really a fan. But I was, however, well up to speed with the series. I had re-watched the movies, and appreciated them as they were; all-round good entertainment, set in a fantastically deep universe populated with excellent creatures and characters, all wrapped up in a fascinating mythology. Knowing little else about the events preceding the original movie except that Ob-Wan and Vader were once master and pupil, and that Obi-Wan had thrown Vader into a volcano, (don’t ask me how I knew these things… I amass trivia unbeknown to myself; I also knew that Leah’s adoptive father was called Bail Organa, and that the Wookie home planet was called Kasshyk, shit that is never mentioned in any of the movies) I grew to eagerly anticipate the upcoming prequel (then such a fresh term) helped in no small amount by the most amazing movie trailer that ever existed (dual lightsabers? What is this new devilry??).
When released, the first new Star Wars in 16 years was met with a resounding… meh. The general consensus was that it was “ok”. And while some of the more hardcore fans screamed to heaven for vengeance, most were just crushed by the bitter, bitter disappointment of it all. Not being an uber-fan, it didn’t have that effect on me, and overall I could say that the movie was just alright. No-one, however, (and I mean NOT ONCE have I heard someone say this) ever said hand on heart that the LOVED the movie. People could force themselves to say they liked it, but that was about it. People have discussed at length where exactly they feel the fault lies, and fuck it, here’s my two cents worth;
- The storyline is initially too complex. The opening crawl, which in the older movies was generally a fairly simple synopsis bringing you into the movie, was for The Phantom Menace a baffling load of crap about trade blockages and congress disputing the taxation of trade routes. What? Straight away, the audience is in the dark, only aware that two Jedi have been sent to do something… somewhere, for some purpose. No child in that audience knew a fuck what was going on… most adults were lost, too. Ask the man on the street what the first (fourth? Fuck, that’s annoying) Star Wars was about, and he’ll say Death Star! Make blow up Death Star good. Simple. Ask Joe Public what The Phantom Menace was about, and he won’t have a clue. Further into the movie, massive plot and logic gaps confound an already mangled narrative (the sith want revenge for… some reason, and the Gungans hate the Naboo for… some reason). For a movie that’s got such a straightforward tale to tell (a pair of knights escorting a Queen enlist the help of a gifted child to evade the clutches of an unknown enemy), TPM goes out of it’s way to shoehorn as many varieties of bullshit as possible, ranging from runny bullshit (the knights leave Anakin’s Ma behind on the planet because they didn’t win her in the podrace, as opposed to just, I dunno, TAKING HER WITH THEM) to thick, crusty day-old bullshit with arrange flies on it (midichlorians? WTF? Lucas just pulled that out of his HOLE).
- Anakin is too young. Knowing what any fan would know going in to see Episode 1, it was an entirely creepy experience to watch a ten year old boy chatting up a much older girl, knowing that they’d end up fucking each other sooner or later. Why Lucas cast the part of Anakin so young, fuck only knows. Everything, from his romantic interest in Padme to his skills as a mechanic all went out the window. Ok, George was probably thinking that it would be interesting in later movies when Anakin went apeshit to remember back to when he was just an innocent little boy, but that was all lost when he gave that child as much dialogue as one of the kids on Barney. “Yippee!”, shouts Darth Vader, all too fucking often. How much more interesting would it have been, to have met Anakin in his twenties? The love interest would have been far more believable. He would have already begun to use his force powers, unaware of what he was doing (picture a shot of Anakin assembling his Pod using only his mind, as opposed to assembling it as a child that can barely lift a spanner). And it would have been far more believable to have him fly in the final space battle. “When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot”, Obi-Wan told Luke in A New Hope. “even more amazing for a toddler that couldn’t see over the fuckin steering wheel”, he might have added later.
- Too many effects. The thing looks like a cartoon at times. In the whole film, there’s only one shot (steam coming out of a vent at the start) that doesn’t have some sort of visual effect added later. As such, the film has dated horribly; many of the creatures look like pre-renders for today’s effects. Compare that against effect in earlier Star Wars movies (such as the Speeder swooping under the legs of the AT-AT in Empire, which still makes me dizzy today, or the chase through the asteroids field in that same movie; both far more accomplished effects in a film some twenty years older). Now, most people will take a swing at Jar-Jar Binks here, but at least some effort went into Jar-Jar, knowing he would draw the most focus. Compare Jar-Jar with Boss Nass, a hideous gelatinous CGI mess that makes you long for eight midgets in a rubber Jabba suit. The most hideous creature in the whole movie, however, is a disastrous Two-Headed racing announcer, voiced in part by Greg Proops. It’s… awful. Some sequences have held up (like the podrace), but it’s nothing like the old effects. I used to love this show on Saturday mornings called movie magic, that took a look behind how effects worked (50% Stan Winston, 50 % Remy Julennne). Were that show to exist today, it would consist of a Millhouse turning to camera and saying “We do it on computers” And this bit? “We do it on computers”. And the bit where…? “We do it on computers”. Particle animation? Particle my ass, bitch.
- The overall production design is ghastly. Other than the most glaring miss-steps (technology that’s twenty years older than what we’re used to in Star Wars is far, far more advanced), pretty much everything in the movie is hideous. From Queen Amidala’s monstrous hairpieces and gowns to ships that look incapable of fruit storage let alone space travel, everything is over-designed and messy. The older Star Wars movies had clothes and technology that you could believe in; creatures that looked like they could exist using machines that looked like they functioned. Worst offender of this is Watto, a bulbous slave trader that flies around on wings that are about the size of an Aishling notebook. The whole thing is such a technicolour mess that it literally hurts my brain.
- Darth Maul is wasted. It’s a special type of incompetence that creates the most striking-looking bad guy in years, then gives him two lines of dialogue and kills him like an extra. Everyone agrees that hyper-athletic villain Darth Maul is the best thing about the movie, so why does he not appear more often? With baffling motivations (he wants revenge! For… some stuff!) and no backstory, ray park still walks off with the film. What should have been the main bad guy in the prequel trilogy, is killed off to make way for Christopher Lee and general Grievous, another desperate looking creature (initial reports on half organic, half machine Grievous suggested that his droid body contained the re-animated corpse of Maul, something far too cool to be true). An utter, utter waste.
- There’s interesting stuff happening, but it’s sacrificed for garbage. The killing thing about TPM is how much great stuff there is, and how it’s not focused on due to other crap elsewhere. The lightsaber three-way dance at the end is fascinating, riveting cinema, but it’s intercut with a Gungan/droid face-off that no-one gives a shit about. Obi-Wan, who you’d be forgiven for thinking was going to feature heavily in the movie, takes a back seat to Qui-Gon, and spends the majority of the movie fixing the engine on the ship. Darth Maul gets less screen time than Sebulba. Background characters like Captain Panaka, the one character in the movie who acts like he’s in a Star Wars movie, gets about four lines (and to Hugh Quarshie’s credit, he acts it to the roof, giving a glimpse of a Han Solo-esque character waiting to be brought to the front to kick some ass, which never happens). In place of interesting developments, we get tripe (Anakin built C-3PO? How? Why?) that only shits on everything that has gone before. Baffling.
All these failing and more would have been forgiven in other movies, but dammit, this was Star Wars; people expected and deserved more. Calls were made for the head of George Lucas (although I place a lot of blame on the shoulders of Yes-man producer Rick McCallum, who could have stepped in to stop Lucas from losing the run of himself at any stage, but instead kept his gob shut and became a glorified accountant for the project). Lucas insisted that time would tell for The Phantom Menace; he countered criticisms of Jar-Jar with some nonsense about how the Droids were initially hated in the seventies, but grew to become beloved (Jar-Jar grew to be so “beloved” that he featured in the later movies for about thirty seconds). He based the popularity of characters on the sales of their toys… in actual fact, people were stockpiling toys in a hope that they would balloon in value like the original figures; yeah, Episode 1 toys are in HIGH DEMAND right now, dipshits. What had happened was simple; a movie was made, not with the die-hard fans in mind, but with an eye on the next generation coming along. Assuming arrogantly that the original fans would buy into any old bullshit with a Star Wars logo on it, Lucas made a two hour toy commercial, hoping to double his audiences for future movies, cartoons and spin offs. In actual fact, kids didn’t give a shit. Subsequent movies underperformed, with last years Clone Wars cartoon bombing like Porkins into the Death Star.
Many fans never got over The Phantom Menace. Personally, I never had that great an investment in the universe to begin with, so I could just watch the movies as they were; sub-par adventure with outrageously bad acting and dialogue. Ten years on, no-one gives a shit. If TPM comes on TV, no-one bothers with it. No-one discusses it in the same revered tones as the original movies. The experience, I’m sure. Humbled Lucas, to such an extent that when the time came to re-visit his other creation, Indiana Jones, he treated the material with the respect it deserved rather than an exercise in separating audiences from their cash, delivering a movie that delighted fans of the originals, entertained everyone, and set up the series for a long, prosperous future. Hey… wait a second…