Saturday, February 11, 2012

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D (PG) ***

Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson
Queen Amidala/Padmé: Natalie Portman
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor
Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd
Senator Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
Jar Jar Binks: Ahmed Best
Shmi Skywalker: Pernilla August
Darth Maul: Ray Park

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by George Lucas. Running time: 136 min. Rated PG (for sci-fi action/violence).

A little less than 13 years ago, I wrote my first movie review. I’d been a cineaste for years and had long yearned to get my opinions of movies out for others to share. The movie that was probably most responsible for sending me down the road to cinecstacy to the degree I have gone was probably 1977’s “Star Wars”, which I still vividly remember seeing in theaters for the first time when I was six. I took George Lucas’s return to the series as my queue to begin my film criticism hobby.

“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” was the first movie review I ever wrote. Unfortunately, that review no longer exists (although all my reviews from 2000 on do, and I’m in the process of transferring them to a format that will allow me to archive them in the future). I do remember that my review was fueled more by my excitement that the “Star Wars” saga had finally continued than by my actual reaction to the film. I gave it an enthusiastic three and a half stars, but I didn’t so much critique it as proclaim its existence. Upon its re-release in 3D, I feel I’ve gotten a second chance to truly consider George Lucas’s expansion of his beloved creation.

The first of the prequel trilogy, “The Phantom Menace”, has been the most maligned of the franchise by fans and critics alike. I think this is because Lucas attempts to do two things with this movie. One is to tell a very different story than what was presented in any of the previous films. The other is to recapture everything he felt the fans expected in a “Star Wars” movie based on what people liked the most about the original trilogy. These ends are in opposition to each other. What results is a film that is not secure in its outward structure, but has a strong core beneath its surface.

Twelve years ago, the movie was correctly criticized for failing to develop its characters fully and for going off on story tangents that were more concerned with showing off Lucas’s special effects advancements. The central action piece of the film is a pod race that, while exciting and visually stunning, has little to do with the politically fueled main plotline involving the strategic control of intergalactic trade routes and a very mysterious plot to take over the Republic Senate.

Lucas is confident enough in his story to take his time with the political misdeeds taking place in the Senate and amongst the evil Trade Federation. He barely explains what has really happened with the trade embargo against the seemingly insignificant planet of Naboo by the end of the film. This is appropriate since the whole incident is a ruse to distract the Republic and their peacekeeping organization, the Jedi Knights, from a plot to take over the Senate. That plot isn’t fully revealed in this film, just set into motion.

Instead of spending his time explaining his true purposes of exemplifying just how easy it is to rest the power from the people in a democracy filled with corruption, Lucas attempts to bedazzle his audience by expanding the highly imaginative universe he’s created. For the most part, he’s successful at developing a rich landscape that works as a backdrop for the series’ growing mythologies.

The Jedi Knights are fleshed out into a functioning organization of warriors who work with a philosophy based on mental discipline and understanding. Not all Jedi’s agree with the entire program, such as this film’s primary hero Qui-Gon Jinn, played with the measure and meter that has made Liam Neeson (“The Grey”) an unlikely action star. Despite his differences with the Jedi Council, Jinn is respectful of his place in the grand scheme of things. He trains his padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, “Beginners”), who retains Jinn’s slight hot-headedness, but sees more of the council’s wisdom than his master.

One performance that might have been overlooked for its artistry at the time of the film’s initial release is Natalie Portman’s as the Queen of Naboo, Amidala. She plays a duel role, disguising herself as one of her own attendants, Padmé. Her commitment to the regal behavior of spectacle and manners of the Queen are original and consistent. She may appear wooden in this role dictated by tradition and ceremony, but she does a good job giving the audience slight glimpses of her underlying emotions. As Padmé, her illusion of becoming another person is sold very well by her natural concern and an unrecognizable Keira Knightly (“Pirates of the Carribean”) as her Queen double.

One major point of criticism upon the film’s original release is the performance by Jake Lloyd as young Anakin Skywalker. Lloyd’s performance isn’t great, although I’m not sure that’s the poor kid’s fault. Too much emphasis is placed on his character as the boy who will grow up to become Darth Vader. His role is too serious. He isn’t allowed to be a kid. Certainly there are child actors that could’ve pulled off what is asked of Lloyd in this role, but to ask a child to become an early version of a cinematic icon is a tall order, and he’s not given much help by the screenplay.

There are other missteps. Jar Jar Binks is a little too cutsey for the political weight of the story, but he doesn’t bother me as much as he does most people. Keeping the levity in the realm of C-3PO’s and R2-D2’s roles would’ve sufficed and allowed the filmmakers to develop their early relationship better. I can understand counting these points against the movie’s ambitious intentions.

Despite it’s drawbacks, the film is a visual masterpiece. The still state of the art special effects allow Lucas to fully realize an intricate alien universe without the confines of the physical creation sets that he felt held him back with the original trilogy. It looks good even twelve years after the fact. It looks great in 3D, although the effect is far from necessary.

I still contend that “The Phantom Menace” is a good movie despite the fan backlash against it. It is a let down compared to what came before, but if you look past Lucas’s unwise attempts to recapture the past with many of the film’s details, what’s new here is worth exploring and gives the promise of more intrigue to come. It’s also important to note that my children were as excited to see this movie that they’ve already memorized as we were to see it the first time. That’s got to count for something.

No comments: