My friend Aaron Aradillas wrote the below piece for another website, but due to an editorial mixup, it could not run there. That site's loss is SCR's gain, though, as Aaron generously offered it to this blog. His piece begins below the film still.
Back in 1997, when the first STAR WARS movies were re-released (when they started be known as the Original Trilogy), the tagline in the ads said, “See it again for the first time.” Beyond being a shrewd marketing ploy, it was also an instance of truth in advertising. While it may be difficult for some to imagine, but there was a time when STAR WARS fandom (and hatred) wasn’t so omnipresent. The time between the release of Return of the Jedi and the re-released Special Editions (1983-1997), the STAR WARS movies were part of the culture, but they were in more or less the right proportion. The expanded universe of books, made-for-TV Ewok movies, commemorative VHS releases were gobbled up by die hard fans, but mostly STAR WARS was something from the past that got passed down from older brother to younger brother. (When, in 1987, Mel Brooks came out with the gentle spoof Spaceballs, the STAR WARS movies were looked at as almost quaint and possibly a little outdated. Who needs STAR WARS when you had Predator?) The “What if” fantasy of Episodes I, II, and III was that—a fantasy. We were all waiting for the next Star Wars, but in the meantime we made due with Tim Burton’s Batman, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and Independence Day.
What the box office success of the re-released Special Editions told Hollywood is that the only way to create another global phenomenon is to make a new STAR WARS movie. 1997 was the start of the modern-day fanboy/geek culture that now runs Hollywood. Fanboy culture (Comic-Con, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Marvel comics, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Glee, Aint-It-Cool-News, Attack of the Show) is a groupthink mentality that claims to be democratic, what with its we-know-what’s-best-because-we’re-fans ethic, but is really pop culture fascism. And it’s the fans’ demand (remember, fan is short for fanatic), that led to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace—the most hyped (and possibly most reviled) blockbuster in movie history.
The re-release of The Phantom Menace in a converted 3-D edition allows us to see it again for the first time in the harsh light of disappointment. And what does The Phantom Menace look like? It looks like what it always was; an exceedingly well-made spectacle hampered by the limitations of being an origin story.
(For the record, the 3-D adds more or less nothing to the experience. It’s mostly relegated to background effects. Nothing is thrown at you. And the newly added digital Yoda looks like the old Yoda, except maybe a little brighter and younger.)
The Phantom Menace is like the George W. Bush of STAR WARS movies. If you make your expectations low enough it won’t seem half bad. (Okay, The Phantom Menace isn’t that bad.) With very few exceptions (Superman, Batman Begins) origin stories play like homework. There’s very little drama in seeing characters before they became interesting. This is what doomed the Prequels to be such a letdown. Audiences just wanted to see the key moments of Anakin Skywalker’s story. They really didn’t want to see his childhood. (Basically we all just wanted the last hour of Revenge of the Sith.)
Of the three Prequels The Phantom Menace has the most heavy-lifting to do. It’s storyline involving “trade routes” and “taxation without representation” does not resonate. What does come across (especially after seeing it again in theaters) is just how elegantly detailed George Lucas has made everything. The Phantom Menace kicked off a new era in digital filmmaking. Everything from The Lord of the Rings trilogy to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to Sin City to Transformers to 300 to Avatar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used digital effects and environments in ways that forever altered how we view space and movement. What’s shocking about The Phantom Menace is just how stately it looks compared to something like, say, Transformers. Lucas, a student of silent movies and cliffhangers, still believes in the action happening within the frame. He doesn’t go for fast cutting and arbitrary jump-cuts. This allows him to do a slow build that, seen today, is kind of refreshing. Believe it or not, The Phantom Menace dares to take its time. You’re allowed to take in the visuals. You aren’t being forced to scan the frame in the hopes of not missing anything before the next edit. The detail of the city-planet Curoscant or the desert vistas of Naboo have a tactile quality that is rare in today’s all-CGI-all-the-time filmmaking.
As Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, Liam Neeson proves to be a genius with his line readings. The character is nothing but exposition. Neeson knows this. He also knows the only way to make the character stick in our heads is by underplaying him with just a hint of bemusement at the situations he finds himself in. Neeson’s delivery of the line “There’s always a bigger fish” perfectly illustrates his ability to say a clunker of a line with just enough conviction that he gets a laugh. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as the young Ben Kenobi. He nails Alec Guiness’ dashing quality while suggesting the gravitas that is soon to come. Seeing The Phantom Menace again I admit I didn’t despise Jake Lloyd’s performance as young “Ani” Skywalker as I once did. Granted, he has some awful lines that would trip up the most seasoned actors. (His opening line of “Are you an angel?” is a real groaner. Also, no one should ever utter the word “yippie” unless they’re being ironic.) But he’s very good at getting across the mix of impatience and bratiness that would give the Jedi Council pause in accepting him. When he says, “I’m a person,” he shows just the right amount of anger that tells you this kid is potentially a bad seed.
(Hayden Christensen would take brattiness to near operatic heights in Attack of the Clones and especially Revenge of the Sith.) It’s clear now that the one-and-a-half note acting style that garnered Natalie Portman an Oscar started with her portrayal of Padme Amidala. The only difference is that that acting style is perfectly suited for a square sci-fi fantasy, not a psychological freak-out like Black Swan. And Jar Jar Binks? I’ve never been a hater. (I’m not a lover either.) In fact I’ve always marveled at how well he was integrated into the action. Interestingly, people have always complained about the character, but no one has ever objected to Jar Jar Binks looking unreal. (Granted, Gollum in The Two Towers would take CGI-created characters to a whole new level.)
Like Star Wars (or is it A New Hope?), the first half of The Phantom Menace is creakily paced. It’s all setup. (This may be the rare instance of the majority of a movie is setup within a movie that’s setup for a franchise.) But then the pod race occurs and the movie starts to gain momentum. The pod race remains a marvel of movement, speed, and special effects. It’s like the chariot race in Ben-Hur gone galactic. Seen today, in the wake of countless smash-and-grab chases, there’s something almost old-fashion about the way Lucas allows certain shots to last more than a couple of seconds. The three-pronged finale of space battle, droid battle, and lightsaber duel (echoes of Return of the Jedi) is even better. The cross-cutting between the three sequences is surprisingly precise. The lightsaber duel with Darth Maul (he of the facial makeup that makes him look like a demented Studio 54 dancer), is genuinely exciting. And John Williams’ score, which is rather minimal throughout most of the movie, comes alive with the rousing and foreboding “Duel of the Fates” theme. It’s the lightsaber duel where The Phantom Menace starts to get the blood pumping. We’re startled by both the death of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s genuine flash of anger at the death of his friend. The next two episodes would be better movies overall, but it was moments like Obi-Way striking down Darth Maul that would rekindle a new hope in the STAR WARS universe. The ability to navigate unreasonable expectations and disappointment might be the ultimate trial of any true believer in the Force.