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From the Vault #13: STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 25th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

In 1987, after a costly divorce settlement that undoubtedly dampened his enthusiasm for playing in a fictional universe, George Lucas unofficially cancelled his long-held plans to produce a prequel trilogy to Star Wars, his magnum opus & arguably the most iconic Hollywood movie franchise in cinematic history. It didn’t last long.

The technology Lucas felt wasn’t around to realise his grand vision for the series was becoming a reality thanks to leaps forward visible in such movies as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park and by 1994, imagination forever burning to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker became cinema’s most infamous villain, Darth Vader, he was writing what would ultimately become The Phantom Menace. To say ‘Episode I’ was anticipated would be an understatement – millions spent on marketing, thousands queuing for weeks outside cinemas for tickets, the press in a frenzy. Star Wars had struck such a chord from 1977 onwards that by 1999, as the internet was exploding into the household, fandom was at its expectant peak.

Think back… how old were you? What were you doing? And when you finally saw The Phantom Menace, did you wonder why you’d spent so long excited?

The warning signs were there right from the off. After the spine tingling blast of John Williams’ legendary theme, the opening crawl begins… and we have a problem with taxation of trade routes? Right. Not exactly the stuff of thrilling sci-fi, George.

Then the second worry: why exactly do the Trade Federation aliens sound like a racist impersonating the Japanese? They’re supposed to be Thai apparently, but it’s such a miscalculation and Lucas’ choice to try throwing ‘ethnicity’ into his alien mix isn’t helped by a duff script that from the beginning sees men in very silly costumes churning out cardboard, dull, Basil Exposition dialogue. It’ll surely pick up when Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn & Ewan McGregor’s younger Obi-Wan Kenobi ruck up? Marginally.

Despite the neat casting of Neeson adding Alec Guinness-style gravitas to the pulp, and McGregor doing a neat take off of Guinness himself, they both immediately look bored with the banality they’re spouting. We all knew Lucas was no wordsmith but this script is really really bad, and it never gets any better. His direction tonally fits with the child-friendly escapism of the originals, but the fun is gone – from the off with the first movies it was excitement or droids squabbling, here it’s racism, taxes & the po-faced Naboo worrying about the bingly bong thingamibibbles invading their planet. And then–then–the piece de resistance. Jar Jar F*cking Binks. It’s best to skip over him because far more erudite, scornful things have been said over the years but, honestly, an hour of Lloyd from Dumb & Dumber screaming ‘the most annoying sound in the world’ in my ears would have been preferable.

Tatooine surely, then, is our saving grace. The plot is moving, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan taking Natalie Portman’s robotic Queen Amidala on a mission of peace, Ray Park’s Darth Maul (by far the best thing about this entire endeavour) begins snarling his way through occasionally with Peter Serafinowicz’s voice… and then YIPPEEEEEE! we meet Jake Lloyd aka Anakin aka The Chosen One… and he’s bloody irritating. Of course he is, George, that was the plan right? Introduce the child version of the enemy of our nightmares, and make him an annoying little mop who exclaims every five minutes and creepily starts eyeing up Padme at every given opportunity. Great. Nice work.

Lloyd does what he can, to be fair, but he’s purely been hired because of his youthful, all-American chops & not his ability to make any of his inane babbling worth a dime – and he’s redeemed as a character purely by the pod race, the single best ten minutes of the movie which Lucas stages with a verve & intelligence lacking from almost anywhere else. We spend a lot of time on Tatooine & we didn’t need to, Lucas taking forever positioning Anakin where he needs to be. Let’s not talk about the Midichlorians thing either, because it’ll only upset you again and that’s not fair.

Let’s just move on to more snooze inducing galactic politics and the painfully painfully obvious fact Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine & Darth Sidious–the Machiavelli–are one & the same, which the title itself tells us but the script seems intent on trying to disguise. Said politics make slow episodes of Star Trek look like rollercoaster rides, causing the mid-section to drag before Lucas admittedly does a decent job of bringing everything together on Naboo for a four-pronged climax that isn’t half bad, even if it doesn’t touch the originals.

One element of The Phantom Menace you can’t really criticise is the production design, because Lucas & his crew do a fantastic job of bringing the Star Wars world back to life, able to fuse modern CGI into the mix which does revive the colour & spectacle of the saga; it often looks sumptuous. The problem is simply that it’s a badly written, at times leaden, immensely childish piece of filmmaking which singularly lacks the charm, swagger & heart of the original trilogy. You want to love it. You want to embrace it. You want to feel the fun, the excitement, the spectacle, in a way Star Wars always captured with a certain magic few can replicate. Even with the passage of time, it’s just not here. It never will be.

The Phantom Menace will always be possibly the single biggest missed opportunity in modern cinematic history. It’s not terrible, it has the occasional moment, but for Star Wars it will just never be good enough.

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