Retrospective: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Oh yes, I went there. Perhaps one of the most ridiculed yet financially successful films ever made, it has now become passe to make a Jar Jar Binks or “Mannequin Skywalker” joke when referring to George Lucas’ return to directing, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Few films over the past ten years have endured as violent a public response as The Phantom Menace and its easy to see why. It is on so many levels a completely different beast from the classic trilogy that encapsulated the mythic battle of good and evil for a generation of filmgoers. When one expects the sly wisecracks of Han Solo and the feistiness of Princess Leia, and is instead supplied with the clumsiness of Jar Jar Binks and the excessive formality of Queen Amidala, it makes perfect sense for there to be an uproar within the hardcore Star Wars fan community. This “disturbance in the Force” has been well documented over the last decade, so there’s no need for me to chronicle it here. Instead, I’d like to point out that The Phantom Menace is actually a solid film unto itself if one is to divorce it from the expected style and execution of the classic trilogy. Granted, I readily concede that The Phantom Menace is nowhere near the greatness of the classic trilogy, but in terms of its purpose within the saga as a whole, it does have some very strong moments in it.

Of course, I am one of the few who considers all six Star Wars films to be individual chapters in the context of one massive thirteen hour epic, so it makes perfect sense that The Phantom Menace is, well, episodic. In terms of the larger narrative, the film essentially sets the stage for everything else that follows in the next five films, and that has always been George Lucas’ intent.  In fact,  A New Hope is the only film of the six that can stand alone unto itself. All of the remaining sequels and prequels are dependent on one another since they comprise a greater story. Therefore, looking at The Phantom Menace as only the first act of the entire saga is essential to appreciating its narrative structure. If one looks at the entire saga in terms of a six act structure, one could point to the catalyst as the introduction of Anakin Skywalker, which only happens about forty minutes into the first film. This has led to the admittedly glaring issue that The Phantom Menace is lacking in a compelling protagonist, who ends up being a ten year old boy, and who does not really have any strong desire or motivation once he leaves home. The same is true that none of the other characters are central protagonists either. I submit that this is the biggest narrative flaw with The Phantom Menace by itself, but in the larger scale of the saga, seeds are sown which will take greater effect in the future films. What are its key points and developments?  Obi-Wan Kenobi takes on Anakin as his apprentice, the Jedi Order is made aware of the reemergence of the Sith, and Palpatine becomes Chancellor of the Republic, thus setting the rest of the saga in motion.

Another thing I should mention outright: George Lucas has never been a strong writer of dialogue. It remains the most consistent flaw of the prequels as many fans will be quick to point out, but it also remains true for the first Star Wars film that George Lucas wrote, A New Hope, which happens to be listed at #13 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films of All Time. The reason that the lackluster dialogue in A New Hope is not as noticeable is due to the initial novelty of the film, in addition to the fact that much of it functions as exposition. There isn’t a significant amount of character development going in that film, as is the case with The Phantom Menace. Rather, the writing flaws become more apparent in Attack of Clones and Revenge of the Sith, where Lucas is forced to develop his characters. So yes, I agree with the sentiment that the lack of strong dialogue weakens the film, but I posit that George Lucas has always been a visual storyteller ever since he began his career in filmmaking. This is not to say that there are no good performances can be found in The Phantom Menace. Liam Neeson’s work as Qui-Gon Jinn, while not anywhere near his best, elevates Lucas’s mediocre dialogue with meaning and gravitas and his presence becomes the most reliable in the film. Another standout is Pernilla August as Shmi Skywalker, who conveys a great deal with very little. A veteran of Ingmar Bergman’s television work, August knows precisely that it is one’s face which carries the most emotion, and hers is a subtle and overlooked performance. Another pleasure of the film is Watto, who despite being an animated character, brings some nice gusto to the proceedings, and Ian McDiarmid is nicely cunning in the few scenes he has as Palpatine.

Cinema is primarily meant to be told visually and that is precisely the perspective that Lucas subscribes to, thus serving as the reason for why his prequels can seem visually stunning yet emotionally inert. Rather than rely on dialogue to convey feelings and emotions, Lucas instead focuses on the two most important and basic aspects of cinematic storytelling: the shot and the cut. Though many may disagree with his ideology, Lucas is (and has always been) more focused on cinematic language than he is on spoken language to tell his stories. Case in point: “In my films, the dialogue is not where the move is. The emotional impact comes from the music — and from juxtaposing one image with the next.”

Here’s an example of two simple cuts that join together three images and creates, in my opinion, one of the most subtly powerful moments of all the films.

Moments like these are precisely what Lucas aims for in carrying across emotion, as opposed to his dialogue driven scenes. In any case, outside of his smaller scenes, Lucas continues to be a master of staging action set pieces. In contrast to the chaotic editing and hand held cinematography that has infected nearly every action film over the past decade, Lucas’ understanding of composition and editorial coherence makes him a genuine master of action on film. He favors open compositions like his predecessor Akira Kurosawa, and has a natural understanding for movement within the frame and the relationship one shot has with the next. Nowhere is this more evident than in the central spectacle of The Phantom Menace, the podrace, which I personally consider to be easily one of the best action scenes of the last fifteen years on every single level: cinematography, editing, sound design and mixing, visual effects, and especially the score. This is Lucas at his most imaginative and fun, while constantly orienting the viewer to what is happening on screen. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of The Phantom Menace is, indeed, the score, proving to be one of John Williams’ best, which is saying something, considering the master’s body of work. Creating an entirely new palette to play with, Williams created new themes such as Duel of the Fates, which would prove to be the overarching theme for the prequels, while also hinting at future themes to play prominently in the classic trilogy. To listen to it as a standalone piece is remarkable, and then to experience its application to each scene is quite extraordinary.

So, after thirteen years, what has become my opinion of The Phantom Menace? Ultimately, the film is a flawed wonder, a visual and aural rush that focuses its intentions on storytelling from a strictly cinematic context. It needs to be seen as the first of six acts, as opposed to a standalone film itself, and its dialogue could have been greatly improved in order to provide the story with more life. If anything major was needed to improve The Phantom Menace, perhaps like its predecessors, it needed a few rewrites and maybe a different director behind the helm with Lucas overseeing as producer. As I had mentioned, the narrative elements are there, but the execution does not always serve those elements perfectly. Nevertheless, the film succeeds with its strengths: strong photography and editorial clarity, lively visuals, immaculately constructed set pieces, and a score which adds a sense of discovery in nearly every scene. Also, the recent 3D conversion is quite well done, enhancing the depth of field and complementing Lucas’ mis-en-scene. Is The Phantom Menace anywhere near the quality of the classic Star Wars trilogy? As a whole, no, but at times, there are moments that remind you what it was like to be seven years old (or younger) and to experience the wonder of an entire galaxy.

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~ by romancinema on February 10, 2012.

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