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Monday, 22 July 2013

In praise of Star Wars Episode I;The Phantom Menace

All right, I'll get this out of the way straight away….

I LOVE The Phantom Menace 
- I truly do. It is in no way the disaster that many people suggest that it is. In fact, It quite simply is something of a sublime movie…..

So, there I said it. Now I could sit back and wait for the avalanche, the Tsunami, the absolute cacophony of outrage that will come from many in my fellow Geek fraternity at the sheer audacity of that comment. For few movies in the history of cinema have been condemned  and criticised as much as this was and in many ways, still is. For example, only yesterday I saw a "Kill Jar Jar Binks - save the series" t-shirt advertised on some online store. The strength of 'anti-Phantom Menace' feelings amongst many is frankly disturbing in its intensity. I would argue it is time for a re-appraisal.

For those of us that experienced the first wave of the force back in 1977, we were quite simply blessed to be part of the whole insane adventure. Prior to the arrival of Messrs Skywalker, Solo, Vader et al, the science fiction scene was dire. Star Trek was nothing but a distant memory and the genre was wallowing in memories of well meaning (and some not so well meaning) B-movies. The injection that George Lucas provided to sci-fi was seismic in proportions and arguably the greatest revolution in cinematic history that can still be felt in the genre today. 

To those that weren't around in those heady days it is difficult to explain just how exciting and new the Star Wars universe was. It was everywhere; in film, literature, merchandising, music, in fact there wasn't one facet of popular culture that wasn't affected during those mad early years which evolved into living through the release of three truly iconic films. The news. some 20 odd years after the first release that not just one, but three new Star Wars films were going to be made simply sent us all into further geek rapture.

The original three movies, and the subsequent build up to the new releases had heightened the expectations of fans to the impossible extent that I firmly believe that no film would have ever been able to meet them. Now, don't get me wrong. I am in no way way saying The Phantom Menace is the best of the lot or that it is perfect - It certainly has numerous flaws, a couple of which I'll talk about in a moment. What I am saying is that this movie such not be treated as the much maligned Star Wars pariah that it has been since the day of it's release.

So before I go onto to change the minds of all you Phantom Menace doubters out there, i feel for evenness sake it is only fair that I mention what are regarded as two of the major flaws in the film.  Yes Jar Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker, I'm talking about about you two!


Jar Jar Binks

Grab him by the throat Qui-Gon, grab him by the throat!
Of course he's one of of the main problems with this movie - that fact cannot be denied, even by we lovers of the film. The character has few redeeming qualities at all. It's almost as if George Lucas sat in his office one day and thought to himself "I want to make a character that will irritate, anger and quite possibly offend as many people in the world as possible" Well congratulations Georgie boy, you did it. I'm assuming that Binks was intended as a source of comedic relief, rather along the lines of C3P0 in the original series. 

However it all goes badly wrong. It's difficult to know whether it is the pseudo-Rastafarian voice employed by actor Ahmed Best, the offensive racial stereotyping, or simply the fact that the character is a complete moron that grates so much. His inclusion in the film was a miscalculation of gigantic proportions for not only did he seem to piss the whole of the world off, he became the focal point for all what was regarded as wrong with The Phantom Menace. 

Anakin Skywalker

It's a close call, but the second most annoying character in the film isn't too much of a stretch for most people. Now I don't want this to turn into a personal attack on the boy who played the future Mr Vader. However, Jake Lloyd was at best a bit rubbish and at worst, completely annoying. There wasn't a stage at any point in the movie where there was even a hint of the turmoil or menace that should have lain beneath the character. Whether it was Lloyd's acting inability, or bad direction from Lucas, the seminal role in the film was badly put together and ineptly one-dimensional.

In my view, people tend to overlook the some of the weaknesses of the first three movies, the clunky dialogue, the holes in some of the plot-lines to name but two things. For those that propose that the likes of Jar Jar Binks and Annakin Skywalker ruin the film beyond redemption - let me leave you with this thought. Ewoks.


Darth Maul

Darth Cool
The Phantom Menace may not have the pervading intimidation of a heavy breathing & Asthmatic Darth Vader. It may not have the enigmatic yet charismatic presence of Boba Fett. It does however have a character that if at all possible, could arguably out-Darth Darth Vader. 

The Lightsabre fight involving Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan has the excitement and complex choreography to rival anything that had been seen before, thanks in no small part to actor Ray Park's martial arts skills - and you can never go wrong in character's death scene involving him being cut in half!
Darth Maul's character had all the charisma and depth that was missing form the Anakin Skywalker character - and yet, and yet. A chance was possibly missed by Lucas as his screen time added up to approximately 3 minutes. Now that is a crime.

The visuals

Yes, The Phantom Menace has strange and confusing plot twists, dialogue that puts the cheese in Cheesy and a list of loose threads galore. However, so did the original series - for instance there is the well told story of Harrison Ford telling George Lucas that he couldn't write dialogue for shit.

There is still so much to love and appreciate about this film. Some of the battle and action scenes are quite simply breathtaking in their scope, excitement and their intricate production. The pod race through the desert has some obvious Ben Hur chariot race homage going on in it's excitement and stature. The special effects are incredible, taking the Star Wars Galaxy to new levels of colourful textured complexity. The detail afforded to the various creatures, landscapes, underwater cities, interiors and general scenery are staggering and completely convincing. These help provide the movie with a mythical storybook feel, the colours, textures and hues are simply beautiful - never has a Star Wars film looked better.

You could also add to that some magical central performances from Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid. It's also only for Samuel L. Jackson in it for crying out loud!

I believe that in part the movie suffered greatly from unfair comparisons to the earlier films - I agree with the people that argue that it is far inferior to any of them - barring the bloody Ewoks. What we need to do is celebrate The Phantom Menace partly on it's own merits as a singular piece of work and also as prologue to the catastrophic changes that are going to take place in the Galaxy in the years to come.

When you look at it dispassionately, it is actually a very good piece of cinema that takes us through the straightforward plot of a planetary trade dispute at an often steady and understated pace. Whereas the previous movies were seemingly a sequence of one cliff-hanger after another, this is a story that needs to take it's time to allow the viewer to immerse himself or herself in the experience by providing the underpinning of the story that has begun - The disintegration of the Republic and eventual emergence of the empire. 

There are glaring weaknesses in the film, but the various strengths far outweigh the few weaknesses. So open your mind and watch it again and see if you change your mind. If it doesn't change then that is ok. It's still a fine film in my eyes.

And remember, as great as the first 3 Star Wars movies were, one of them contained those bloody Ewoks.

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