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Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (No Baggage Review)

tn_phantommenace'I guess now they’re saying May 4th is Star Wars Day. Yet another fake holiday created by Hallmark and Kenner. At first I assumed they chose May 4th because it’s 21 days before the anniversary of when STAR WARS was released and they are planning seven STAR WARS trilogies. But then somebody explained that it’s supposed to sound like “may the fourth be with you.” Get it. From the nerds who brought you Talk Like a Pirate Day: Seriously, A Whole Day of This Would Be Fun Ye Guys.

Well I’m sorry to perpetuate it, but I decided to use this as an excuse to try to finish a project I started last year when the Star Warses came out on the blu-ray and I watched all six of them again.

I like these movies. Like anybody I especially like the original versions of the original three. But – I think I mentioned this before – one thing I am sick of god damn ever fucking hearing about is fuck George Lucas, he changed the movie that I like, he made a new movie that had farting in it, he owes me, this is at least equal to child rape, most likely way worse, now I finally understand the type of psychological struggle that a 14 year old molested junkie prostitute is going through, boo fucking hoo, etc. Not that it was not a legitimate topic at one time, and inspired by true incidents, but now it’s a decades old discussion done by everybody always and still people will bring it up as if it’s a fresh wound or, worse, as if it’s some sort of rebellious cry against the system if they point out the same damn thing that everybody of their generation also thinks and always will.

I mean honestly, I don’t know how you could verify this but I bet there are more than a billion words on the internet complaining about George Lucas. They hate that motherfucker so much they saw it as a dream come true when he sold his independent artistic creation to the Disney corporation to be used as a licensed property trademark franchise product. Hopefully now the curse is on some other sucker (J.J. Abrams now and whoever takes the gig after him), ’cause they really gotta give the People vs. George Lucas topic a rest, the same way a comedian would at some point just have to leave it be about the airline peanuts, no matter how strongly he feels about how hard it is to open those bags.

Even around here where we have the best god damn commenters in the world (am I right outlawvern.com? I can’t HEAR you!) it’s risky to bring up STAR WARS or George Lucas in any context. But I was watching those blu-rays and I thought it might be a good challenge to try to write reviews of the star warses that I would consider worth reading. I’m not saying I’m gonna succeed, I’m saying I’m gonna try. I’m watching all of them yet again and they’re in these special editions that tie them all together so I might as well write about them from a perspective few have ever considered: as the guy now intends them. One long six chapter story watched in order from 1-6.

nobaggageSo here are the No Baggage Review rules. According to these principles, no matter how much I want to, I cannot talk about the usual things people bring up when writing about a star wars.

Off limit topics:

1. Nostalgia. No reminiscing about my personal connection to the movies, when I first saw them, what type of pajamas I wore, etc.

2. Its place in pop culture or cinematic history. Yeah – important, groundbreaking, influential. We get it. Not mentioning that here.

3. What I or anybody else wanted it to be. This might be extra hard with THE PHANTOM MENACE because it’s a prequel and has all these scenes that you’re obviously supposed to think “oh, that’s the first time gold robot and round robot ever met, I wonder if they had some inkling that they would become life partners.” And because it’s hard to separate it from the hype at that time and the expectations and the people that were disappointed. But I’m gonna try to do something that might not have been done before, I’m gonna try to write about THE PHANTOM MENACE as, you know, just a fuckin movie. Just a sci-fi movie that was made a while back that they got on a blu-ray that you could rent if you want and you could watch it. If you’re interested, you know, or if ENDER’S GAME or whatever is checked out. It’s got Liam Neeson and some other people in it. Natalie Portman. Might be decent.

4.  What has been changed in this version. There is some weird tweaks Mr. George Lucas did on parts 4, 5 and 6. I don’t like it, others may resort to murder over it. Won’t come up here.

And it’s not in the rules but as a special bonus conceit I’m gonna try to write it as if it’s the first time I’m seeing these stories and I’m going through in order not knowing what’s gonna happen.

I think a while back I said I would write “a defense of the prequels,” but that’s not really what this is. This is an approach not that different from what I did in Seagalogy: a non-judgmental celebration of what I love about these movies, both the legitimately great stuff and the silliness. These special NO BAGGAGE rules are like the DOGME 95 type deal. By cutting out the topics that dominate discussion of these movies I will be forced into limitations that will hopefully lead me to a semi-refreshing view of the topic. Or I will just waste everybody’s time. Time will tell.

But I ask that you play along if you comment. If you want to talk about any of that stuff or skip ahead to other movies or the new ones they’re working on I believe there are one or two places on the internet where that sort of thing is discussed, including  that other post I did. I’m not saying you have to be positive here, you’re allowed to complain about the many things that are wrong with the movies that are NOT related to any baggage about the history of the series. But try to play along with the spirit of this experiment or I may resort to redacting comments using advanced space magic technology.

thanks guys and now star wars presents part 1 the phantom’s menace

* * *

mp_phantommenaceTHE PHANTOM MENACE is the story of Q.G. Jinn (Liam Neeson from DARKMAN), a member of a warrior religion called The Jedi Knights, who are sent by the Space Republic as negotiators to deal with some dispute with aliens who started blockading the food to the planet Naboo to protest taxes.

Now, there have been many legitimate tax protests throughout history, such as Robin Hood, some samurai movies I saw, or me swearing alot while trying to do my taxes this year. But I got some suspicions about these Trade Federation guys. I think it’s an ideological thing more than a “got bad advice” Wesley Snipes type deal. Did you catch the robes and space ships on these guys doing the blockade? They don’t exactly look like they’re struggling. I don’t for a space-second believe that these dicks are giving back to the galaxy. In fact, I bet you money they pay way less taxes than any of us people who actually have to work do.

I fuckin guarantee you these hypocrites list their address in some obscure moon somewhere as a tax shelter, they got space loopholes (black holes?) their Galactic Senators put in there for them. Who do you think pays for all the spaceports and shit that they use to transport their goods? Not them. Fact: The Trade Federation pays less taxes a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away than at any other point in history. Still they complain.

I don’t know what Mr. Jinn’s position on taxes is but the point is he and his understudy O.W. Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, NIGHTWATCH remake) are sent in to make peace the way Jesse Jackson might go in to negotiate the release of some hostages. But they get attacked by the tea party battle robots and have to fight their way out. Not cool. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a star war.

Jinn and Kenobi end up in a swamp on Planet Naboo running from a robot army. Jinn offhandedly saves some cartoon amphibiman named J.J. Binks (Ahmed Best, REDBELT) from getting run over by a tank, so to return the favor Binks brings them to the underwater village it got banished from. But you know how it is, you try to do one nice thing and then you gotta do something else for them and next thing you know you got a bunch of orphans sleeping on your couch wearing your clothes. The amphibimen or “Gungans” are gonna “pyoonish” Binks and Jinn feels bad for it so he claims it owes him a “life debt” and takes it with them. You can tell Kenobi is like “oh jesus, not another one of these.” I think he even refers to it as a “stray.”

Anyway they go to the surface, where the people (not shown) are starving, to warn the Queen of the humans (Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, YOUR HIGHNESS) about the robots. Next thing you know the Jedis, the queen (badly pretending to be an exact lookalike of herself) and the cartoon guy are crash landed on the desert planet Tatooine, where they take shelter from a sandstorm with a little bowl-cutted slave boy named Anakin (Jake Lloyd, JINGLE ALL THE WAY) who Jinn quickly decides is “The Chosen One”. Also they bring a heroic robot named R2-D2. So it’s kind of a WIZARD OF OZ type deal where they keep adding more people to the group as they meet them. More strays.

The ghostly threat of the title is an old guy in a black robe named Darth Sidious who’s masterminding the star war and has a badass student of his own: D. Maul (Ray Park, GI JOE), a swordsman with red and black face tattoos and a crown of horns. He’s a scary looking henchman who you’ll see on Mr. Jinn’s trail for a little bit and then the threat of his presence looms, like the shark in JAWS. He has the climactic sword fight with our Jedi boys and only one line of dialogue (dubbed) so he is the best character. I mean, Chuck Norris didn’t have very many lines in WAY OF THE DRAGON either, but he was still a good villain and a great final fight.

Jinn and Kenobi are both likable spacebucklers and they make a good team, but they split up for the middle of the movie while Jinn gambles with a bugman to get space ship parts he needs, meanwhile using it as a scouting mission to recruit this kid Anakin to the Jedi team. It’s kinda like HOOP DREAMS. That is one of the best parts of the movie though, the little boy irresponsibly being allowed to risk the lives of himself and others by participating in a high stakes, extremely high speed flying race around the desert called a “podrace.” The people and creatures sit in the stands and watch as the ships zoom by, and luckily they already have iPads on Tatooine so they watch the parts of the race that are out of their eyesight on their little tablets.

It’s a masterfully put together race sequence of computer animation and models tearing past each other at ridiculous speeds, elaborate soundscapes depicting the chugging, popping, roaring engines, the scraping metal, the popping bolts, the pieces falling off, the spectacular wipeouts. Only thing I really hate is the two-headed alien commentator who looks like he’s from the movie “ANTZ” and talks in the voice of some dipshit from “Who’s Line Is It Anyway USA” and says terrible “jokes” that don’t even make any sense, like “I don’t care what universe you’re from, that’s gotta hurt!” What does he mean? How is there more than one universe to be from? Why does the guy who lives on this planet think he should make space references? Is this guy a narc?

Eventually they do get off the planet (spoiler) but their best efforts fail to stop the star war, and the shit is on. The movie culminates in an intercut three-prong battle:

1. On a field in Naboo, Binks and thousands of other Gungans use their relatively primitive weapons in a LORD OF THE RINGS type battle against armies of robots and tanks. Binks is I guess doing a tribute to Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL, so he ends up doing all his damage on accident, getting knocked around and accidentally causing tanks to shoot each other or dropping explosives in the correct places or whatever. Pretty dumb. But the visual detail is impressive and the animation (I’m assuming this is all pretty much computer animation, no live action) looks really vivid on the blu-ray.

2. Up in the sky there’s a star skirmish going on between Naboo space pilots and robot space pilots. Li’l Anakin and his friend R2-D2 hide in a ship that Anakin ends up accidentally launching (you know how kids are) and goes for a joyride, doing hood rat stuff with his friend.

Because of his skills in the podrace though he does a good job and makes the crucial shot that wins the battle for everybody. (spoiler)

3. But the highlight of the movie is the more intimate battle, the one where everybody is fighting on purpose. On board a space station or something the two Jedi bros Jinn and Kenobi have a big sword fight with Maul. Jinn is all like “I have a special set of skills, take the fuckin elephant!” It’s well choreographed and uses the sci-fi locations well. For example they seem to be running around inside some type of giant machinery, and there’s a section where a series of force field things periodically come up as part of the process of the engine or whatever. They’re chasing Maul and they get stuck between some of these shields. Then they can’t do anything but wait for a bit until the shields close again. It’s a great fight scene moment when the characters are forced to stop and stare at each other. Jinn takes the time to calmly meditate, Maul paces back and forth scowling at them bitterly, so it’s not only a quiet moment but also characterization. And it’s just a thing that happens, they don’t have some character explaining what’s going on or what the purpose of the machine is. It just exists in this world and sometimes this is what can happen.

Maul is a great example of a simple, iconic character, so much personality expressed so simply. Another nice touch is when Kenobi is hanging from a ledge and rather than stepping on or chopping off his fingers or some other instant finishing move Maul sadistically toys with him by scraping his saber on the ground, showering sparks on him.

I know I’m not the first one to notice this, but the death of Maul (spoiler) is done in a way that’s weirdly similar to the death of Randall “Tex” Cobb in the Rutger Hauer ZATOICHI ripoff BLIND FURY. Nice homage.

The world and sub-worlds of the movie are very detailed. There is a “Republic” that democratically rules the galaxy (which universe?) through the means of a Galactic Senate with representatives from all the planets and alien races. There is the religion of the Jedi and the schism of evil Jedis called “Siths” (such as Phantom Menace and Maul) and there is a Jedi Council who act as advisers to the Senate (no separation of church and state here I guess). There are different cultures: the rag-wearing desert dwellers of Bumfuck, Tatooine who worship “podracing” like NASCAR, the white waterfall-resort-dwelling people working for the Naboo government, the “Gungan” underwater cartoon primitives of the same planet. There is a planet called Coruscant that’s entirely covered by one giant city, which looks amazing on blu-ray. The costumes are fantastic, especially the prohibitively elaborate ceremonial dresses and hair-show-ready dos of the Queen. She has the extravagance of a Chinese Emperor, the alien voice of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth, and decoys like Saddam Hussein (one played by Keira Knightley, one by Sofia Coppola [I only noticed her in one shot]). Then she dresses down and talks normal to pass herself off as “the Queen’s handmaiden Padme” to go with the Jedis on their mission. You know how royalty always does that, for example in ALADDIN, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and of course that documentary where Pras lives on Skid Row.

The treatment of slavery is weird because they don’t actually make it seem that bad. Padme is surprised when she finds out Anakin and his mom are slaves – it’s supposed to be because as Queen she didn’t know the senate’s anti-slavery laws were being ignored on some planets, but it’s also because how would she be able to tell they were slaves? Anakin lives with his mom, he gets to build machines, enter races, play with friends and walk around town freely, they eat a real dinner together, they can have guests over. Slavemaster Watto doesn’t seem to beat them or anything, and they don’t seem to have to do much work, if any.

It’s an odd choice because then when Jinn gambles to free them but can only take one of them it seems like a shitty thing to do, to take this kid away from his mother, especially since we know Jinn has the ulterior motive of wanting him to become a Jedi. He doesn’t even ask her what she thinks about it, he just kind of announces that this is what’s gonna happen. If it was a traditional bad type of slavery we would understand instantly, she would be willing to sacrifice being with her son to free him from bondage. Instead she’s sending him away from his house and his robots to learn swordfighting from the strange gambler guy he brought in from the desert.

And keep in mind the race took place on Boonta Eve, so she is missing out on doing all the Boonta traditions and everything, it’s really sad.

I mean I guess it’s supposed to be a Siddhartha type deal, giving her son over to destiny for the greater good, but she doesn’t express a strong view about the chosen one thing either. I guess she’s smart enough to get it, she did give virgin birth to him, after all.

The biggest problem in the movie is some stilted acting by Lloyd. It’s not his fault, he’s a kid, but the adults who made the movie gave him lots of goofy dialogue and didn’t direct him on how to make it come off naturally. It would be annoying enough if he was excitedly yelling “Awesome!” or “Radical!” but they take it to the next level by giving him space slang. “Wizard!” If they coulda got a natural performance like Henry Thomas in E.T. it would go a long way to making this a better movie.

There’s also alot of talk and pretty slow pacing between the big exciting scenes, but in a way that I think is similar to alot of the fantasy movies that have come out since then like the LORDS OF THE RINGSes, the HARRY POTTERs and even the X-MENs.

I think overall it’s a heavily flawed but unique movie that takes you away to a detailed world and I enjoyed watching it although I didn’t get a boner for it or anything. Maybe an intermittent boner. Not literally. Forget about boners.

Okay, the fight at the end is great. Any action movie that had a villain and final fight that good would get an automatic pass. So this is some greatness with mitigating factors.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 4th, 2014 at 12:00 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

64 Responses to “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (No Baggage Review)”

  1. Vern— I’m sure your intentions with this review were good, but you do not understand the mindset of SW geeks. It is all but impossible (not to say heretical) to review a Star Wars movie on its own merits. Invariably, it comes back around to how any one SW movie compares to the other five.

    No one’s going to refer to The Phantom Menace as a sci-fi movie or an action movie. It’s labeled as a Star Wars movie, part of its own unique movie genre, and also the genre with the least depth and the most immense breadth. It’s like a hexagonal room of mirrored walls.

    OK, I’ve said my piece. Now to await Majestyk’s predictably smug, pedantic retort.

  2. Great observation about the nature of the slavery that Mr. Jinn freed Anakin from. The life of Tatooine slaves did not seem harsh enough. This movie would have been elevated if the character of Anakin was a little older and turned the tables on a horrible slave master like Kirk Douglas did in Spartacus.

    The stilted dialogue and lack of direction given to young Jake Lloyd unfortunately holds this chapter of the War in the Stars back. The good things however are GREAT. The sound design you already mentioned, but I want to draw attention to the music by John Williams (MUNICH). Many will choke on this statement but I think the soundtrack in The Phantom Menace exceeds any of the other entries in the series. The piece called Duel of the Fates married with the final duel between Maul, Jinn and Kenobi is sublime. When I close my eyes and think of that sequence and the choral voices it sends a shiver down by spine.

    I wonder if the bile and criticism (some of it justified) toward this entry made Mr. Lucas second guess himself for parts 2 and 3 and hampered his creativity. I don’t think his imagination was firing on as many cylinders as it was for the Pod Race and Final Duel in Episode I.

  3. Great idea and great review, Vern!

    Though you might have inadvertently violated your principle #2, as I don’t think you would have possibly remembered all those names and details if not for this movie’s “place in pop culture or cinematic history”. But no matter, we understand, and I guess we should now discuss PHANTOM MENACE as if it had just come out and as if nobody has ever heard of STAR WARS before. This should be fun.

    What a strange movie this was. Didn’t it seem weird to you that they spent all this money on production design and effects (which were marvelous) but didn’t seem to make any effort to make it cinematographically interesting like the original trilogy? I mean, all the backgrounds look great, but the people in front are just sort of standing boringly in front of green screens, and seem to be all too aware that they are in a confined sound stage type of situation. That kind of ruined the illusion for me. And that’s probably why the acting was so stiff. It’s 1999 after all, and we are not yet at that point when actors are comfortable shooting a whole movie in a green box pretending it’s a spaceship. Maybe that will work better in the future, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

    Whenever no actors are involved, the movie looks much better. That must be because for these sequences, they handed the filmatic decisions over to the visual effects artists and didn’t have to work on blocking or choreography or timing or acting or whatever. The pod chase (is that what it’s called?) was great for this reason. The final space sword fight with the double sided space swords was well done too. Didn’t they get the Matrix choreographer guy to do the fight choreography? Not sure about that.

    For what it’s worth, this was a good exercise in world building. I’m not sure if I want to see any of those characters in a sequel, but it probably won’t make its money back anyway, so we needn’t worry about that. I mean, they must’ve spent 200 million dollars on the effects alone, and I don’t think so many people are going to watch a space movie about trade federations and tax disputes and a robot war on a lavish planet with virtually no people on it. But who knows? I’ve been wrong before.

  4. This showed up on TV the other week and I had it on in the background while I was cooking.

    It reminded me a bit of one of those sleepy 80’s kid fantasy movies like Flight Of The Navigator or Return To Oz, where you have a child being sort of amiably led around from place to place while whimsical characters and events appear every now and then.

    It’s often stilted and a bit awkward, but watching it 15 years on it seems odd that this weird and basically harmless little (and it does feel mellow and low key compared to the relentless bombast of most modern genre fare) family movie brought so much seething fury into the world.

  5. “It’s a great fight scene moment when the characters are forced to stop and stare at each other. Jinn takes the time to calmly meditate, Maul paces back and forth scowling at them bitterly, so it’s not only a quiet moment but also characterization.”

    What an amazing moment this was.

    How cool would it have been if they had kept the dual-sided lightsaber thing under raps and the first time you saw it was when it’s actually deployed?

  6. I have always liked the Prequels, and George Lucas is still okay by me.

    Can’t wait to read the whole six-part saga.

  7. all I’m gonna say is this, when TPM came out I was at the target demographic age for it and sure enough, I enjoyed it reasonably enough when I saw it in theaters, but a funny thing happened when I watched it again less than a year later on VHS, I found it boring, really boring, taken out of the context of the big screen with the big sound system there’s nothing left to the movie that’s entertaining

    and it is that way with all the prequels in my humble opinion, they all contain great eye candy, great special effects and some good action, but built around a hollow center what stilted acting and flat characters

    and that’s the fatal flaw, you just never really give a shit about these characters, people didn’t react so strongly to the original STAR WARS purely because of the special effects, it was because they loved the characters, all the characters had heart and you wanted to spend time with them and see them succeed

    so Vern, I’m gonna have to respectfully disagree that any of the prequels are in any way good movies, I know nerds can be fucking annoying sometimes and I know you hate that kind of stuff, but don’t let that cloud your judgement, the prequels are shit, Search your feelings, you know it to be true!

  8. I’ve to say that Red Letter Media really exposed the flaws of the prequels. Not that i cared much about them in the beginning.

  9. This was a joy to read, Vern. Just to hear this story summarizes from the beginning with no baggage is a great way to show how much the much-reviled PHANTOM MENACE actually does do a lot of the things people wanted it to do. It’s got plenty of flaws, but somewhere along the way all its good parts got swept under the rug.

    Those good parts are: all the action, minus perhaps the amphibiman battle, which has its moments. The incredible, probably should have won the oscar score. Darth Motherfucking Maul. (I love how he paces like a caged tiger and then just launches into action. Great character.) the beautiful, unprecedented CGI backdrops that you actually get a chance to savor, like interstellar Bob Ross paintings. Liam Neeson proving he just doesn’t know how to give an unbelievable performance. Ewan MacGregor’s obvious relish. Threepio’s random POV shot. Sudden sea monsters.

    So much to enjoy, so little reason not to. It feels good to not have to be a cynical prick today. Thank you, Vern. I needed that.

    That smug enough for you, Larry?

  10. The Original Paul

    May 4th, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Majestyk – what, no smugness?

    Fine, then I’LL do it, damn you.

    I carried no “baggage” into this movie when I saw it first – at that time I hadn’t even seen two of the original movies, I’d only seen the third when I was about four years old (and then under some circumstances that were… trying, to say the least. But I’ve been through that story before and this isn’t the place, so I won’t go there.) My point is that this was my first “real” exposure to “Star Wars” as an adult, either as a cultural entity or as a film franchise… and holy crap, was it disappointing.

    Let’s start with the characters… or let’s not, because there basically aren’t any. Darth Maul undoubtedly gives the best physical performance, and is probably remembered because he doesn’t get to spout any of the incredibly pompous, stilted, unrealistic dialogue. He’s an example of what this film could’ve been if it had focussed on the visual art of storytelling.

    The second huge problem I have with the characters is that the “wars” in the title seem to be for and between the elite of this world. There are token mentions of “the people” but we hardly even get to see any of them, except Jar Jar, and he’s well on his way to joining the “elite” by the end. (And when we do see them – like on the planet where they do the podracing thing – they’re mostly either animated grotesques or non-speaking extras.)

    And I could pick at this character, or at Jake Lloyd as Anakin, or at snot-Jedi Yoda, or the blank slates that are the human Jedis, or even Sam L being miscast as yet another elite and never getting to “let loose” as a result, but honestly to do so would be criticising the symptoms of a problem where the root cause is clearly that the protagonists in this movie aren’t the plucky underdog “rebels” but the kind-of-asshole bureaucrats. I say “kind of” because they don’t really do anything that bad, but they don’t seem to have anything in the way of honest-to-God human sympathy either.

    Oh, and Natalie Portman is in this… and I got nothing.

    To this day I don’t understand the decision to use CGI in this movie as much as they did. It’s fine in small doses, but altogether gives the whole thing an air of “uncanny valley” that isn’t helped by the stilted dialogue or underdrawn characters. The end result is a fatally flawed movie, for me, because I just didn’t believe anything that I was seeing. This film failed to adequately convince me that I was watching anything other than a bunch of actors doing random stuff in front of a green-screen.

    Yeah, “cynical prick” is right I guess. Just wait until we get to the third one is all I’m saying.

  11. I haven’t seen this movie in a long, long time. But the other day I was talking about it, and what’s really frustrating about The Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) is that there are some really wonderful moments. If these films were across the board awful, then it would be easy to dismiss them and move on. But the fact that Lucas is able insert some really fantastic moments makes them all the more frustrating, because he was actually pretty close to making films worthy of the original trilogy.

  12. Good point about the music, Tim. You’re right, it’s great. Especially in an age of forgettable scores it’s pretty great to have a joint like that Duel of Fates.

  13. This movie always reminded me of what a big budget Cannon flick might’ve looked like.

  14. I refuse to believe “May the 4th be with you” is a real thing, and you can’t make me log on to any social mediums to see this “Star Wars Day” being celebrated by adult human beings. That being said, I enjoy all these films, so it’s nice to see the Star Wars Saga honored by its many fans who agree with me about how good all the movies are, especially Chapter 1. Seems like their enthusiasm for a 1999 release would have subsided by now, but, hey, people love what they love.

    At the risk of bending Vern’s “No Nostalgia” rules here, I’ll state for the record that I have owned a plastic Darth Maul lightsabre for approximately 15 years. It’s awesome. Sometimes I take it out, in public, like to restaurants and parties and such, just in case I run into another person who has a lightsabre and wants to spar. I’ll start with only one sabre-edge extended, and then when I feel like I need to really intimidate someone I’ll twirl out the 2nd sabre-edge, and then all the onlookers are like, “Whoa man, this guy is not to be fucked with,” and it’s doubly awesome. Don’t even get me started on the button that makes the light-blades light up and make a “whoosh” sound, holy shit.

    Anyway, fun movie, takes the viewer to other worlds, arguably other universes?, lots of explosions & weird interactions with weird creatures, and that fake-identity subplot with the mysterious 2 Natalie Portmans (Portmen?) is a visionary piece of cinema that set the stage for future classics like BLACK SWAN. I’m for it.

  15. Mouth, it’s “Natalies Portman”.

    An interesting review, Vern… I enjoyed reading it, although you can kinda see the seams where the rules apply: no speculation about who this phantom menace is, how come the Jedis can only run super fast sometimes, etc. But a refreshing take on a reviled film. I don’t think it’ll make me appreciate the movie any more, but it made me appreciate your site more. So that’s a win?

  16. Jareth Cutestory

    May 4th, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Vern: I haven’t seen this movie. From the moment it was released it’s reputation has been dogged by accusations that several characters are thinly veiled racist stereotypes of Asians, Middle Easterners and Jamaicans, much like Michael Bay’s “ghetto robots” in the second TRANSFORMERS movie. Would you be willing to address this accusation?

    Also: Who wants to be the one to tell Mouth about all the adult human beings who live their lives as Bronies, Plushies and Otherkins?

  17. Just looking at this thing as a movie, and not as Lucas’ raped my childhood or nostalgia or who gives a shit…this is just a really boring movie. A movie with no narrative thrust, no real protagonist, endlessly dull arguments about politics, languidly-paced and plotted adventure that flows from one deadened space battle with zero personality or dramatic stakes whatsoever to the next.

    the pod race is a remarkable set-piece in its own right, but comes out of nowhere and, worse, doesn’t mean anything. It is quite obviously based on the thrilling chariot race in Ben-Hur, but let’s compare the two for a moment. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is, narratively speaking, the culmination of a lifetime of tension, sexual and otherwise, between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, his boyhood friend. The two of them have been best friends, worst enemies and almost lovers, and the stakes of the chariot race are unbelievably high. That’s what gives the sequence its charge. What are the stakes of the pod race? The stakes of the pod race are we need a part for our spaceship and a boy we just met wants to get off Tatooine. It’s worse than slender, it’s actually contrived. We don’t need a pod race there, if Qui-gon is so sure the boy is the Chosen One, why doesn’t he just steal the parts he needs and take off with the kid? Who’s going to stop him? He’s a fuckin’ Jedi Master, you’re a flying CGI carciruture.

    The movie is shit

  18. The phantom menace.. I haven’t seen this movie in years.
    But one thing always stuck with me the most. And it’s not some exciting dual or anything.
    It’s that liam neeson, arguably the lead since he is in almost every scene there is, is absolutly fucking boring. He just this guy with no real personality other than being an asshole at times. As stated in the review, he sometimes completly forgets the feelings or opinions of other people involved. I remember in ond scene he is totally ditching obi wan for anakin. like it’s no big deal.
    “Ow yeah obi one is ready guys, I know, convienent right? But.. can I start training anakin now?”

    Also I think the battle between maul and the jedi’s is the part where they spent the most time on. It’s just of a higher quality than the rest of the film. You can just feel they really wanted to for this scene and show you something new and amazing.

  19. Greetings, Pod Person Majestyk. I hope you enjoy your stay on Earth, however brief it may be.

    Jeremy’s entirely correct about the pod race sequence being an extraneous element, but that’s one of many: Anakin’s childhood and his Virgin Mary mom (“There was no father”—WTF!?), Qui Gon Jinn thinly-sketched role as mentor, Darth Maul (whose only real purpose is to be The Bad Guy for The Big Lightsaber Duel), the Gungans, Anakin’s kiddie crush on Padme, the genesis of C3PO. Most of it’s poorly executed and none of it’s truly required to push the story forward.

    Lucas himself stated that Episodes 1-6 is essentially about Anakin’s story arc. It’s not just that Episode 1 is a weak movie, but also that in the larger scheme of things it serves little or no purpose. Lucas could have begun the Prequel Trilogy with [what was] Episode 2 as the first installment without skipping a beat, which might have been a little jarring to OG Star Wars geeks but probably made little difference to new fans. Lacking that, he could have compressed the events of Episode 1 into a 20-30 minute prologue, then fast forward into Anakin as a young adult.

    There was a great story to be told about Anakin’s ascendance to hero and the circumstances that led to his fall from grace, one that in the right hands could’ve been tantamount to a modern day Greek tragedy. Sadly, Lucas was both too superficial as a writer/director to give the story any substantial amount of gravitas, and too lazy to flesh the story arc out properly. I’m betting that’s a large part of why SW geeks wanted to parade through the village square with his head on a pike.

    And if Asi’s instincts are correct, you can count on J.J. Abrams being next.

  20. caruso_stalker217

    May 4th, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    I still think this is the best of the prequels. But only because each one was worse than the last.

  21. The Original Paul

    May 4th, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Jareth – I didn’t even notice the stereotypes until they were pointed out to me. To be honest I think those are the least of this movie’s problems.

    What the heck is a Plushie and an Otherkin?!

  22. Paul— I didn’t know either, so I Googletized it:

    http://gawker.com/5940947/from-otherkin-to-transethnicity-your-field-guide-to-the-weird-world-of-tumblr-identity-politics

    Damn, that’s some creepy shit. And I thought SW Geeks and Trekkies were bad. Nope, not even close to these twisted gomers.

  23. Larry, I’m sure your intentions with your comments are also good, but you don’t get me. Of course I understand what you’re saying about “the mindset of SW geeks,” and also wrote about it in too much detail at the beginning of this piece. That people have always treated these movies that way is exactly why I chose this approach.

    It seems to me that you’re saying “you don’t understand Vern, you have found a fresh new angle on this tired topic. Please go back to the well worn thing that everybody else does because that’s the rules.”

    No, I stated what the rules were. In case I was in some way ambiguous, everybody, please do not write your feelings about “the prequels” here. We’re not talking about “the prequels” here, that’s TheRestOfTheInternet.com you’re thinking of. Here we’re talking specifically about The Phantom Menace if it existed in a vacuum. If you’re not able to discuss it in that way that’s fine, just write what you wanted to write in the other thread.

    If there are no rules there is anarchy and I’m gonna have to call in the battle droids.

  24. “What the heck is a Plushie and an Otherkin?!”

    plushies are people who like to fuck stuffed animals and otherkin are people who literally believe they are fictional creatures like dragons and elves (back in my day we used to call that “suffering from a mental delusion”)

  25. The Original Paul

    May 4th, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Vern – we have battle droids? Why am I only just hearing of this?!

    Griff – damn it, I was just going to go and eat. I just had to ask, didn’t I? Stupid curiosity.

  26. I know it must get old seeing the same old Star Wars bashing over and over again, but ignoring reality doesn’t defend the movie at all and is just creating a straw man debate. This thing doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s origin of creation, box office success and fan backlash are all related to it being a Star Wars movie. It saddens me that knowledge is now considered baggage.

  27. The Original Paul

    May 4th, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Idiot boy – I think the purpose is to try and use only knowledge of the film itself. There’s plenty more I could’ve said regarding what I think of the direction the prequels took as a whole, but just looking at “The Phantom Menace” as its own isolated work is one of the few things that’s not been done all that much so far so I appreciate Vern’s intentions here (although I obviously don’t agree with the result that he came up with. To me the film is terrible even when viewed in isolation to the rest. It just doesn’t work as its own self-contained story, any more than it works as part of the larger franchise.)

  28. CrustaceanLove

    May 4th, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Interesting thought experiment, but I don’t get the point of defining the terms of engagement so narrowly unless it’s simply to stifle criticism. Everything about the way this film was written, constructed and marketed is based around its place in a larger mythology, and many of its problems can be traced back to that fact. I can’t let go of my baggage because the film keeps handing it right back to me. And if we learn anything from THE PHANTOM MENACE, it’s that divorcing yourself from all earthly and emotional attachments just leads you to being a boring, holier-than-thou asshole.

    Anyway, in isolation the Darth Maul fight is excellent and Duel of the Fates is head-and-shoulders above anything else on the soundtrack. That moment where Darth Maul is pacing back and forth like a panther behind the forcefield is some great physical acting. It’s a pity he serves so little purpose in the story. He would make a great recurring villain if they were to make any sequels (am I doing this right?).

    I agree that the pod race is well-constructed (save some dodgy acting from Lloyd) and I like the design of the pods. There’s a great sense of speed and the sound design is excellent. I like Sebulba too, and hope his humiliating defeat by a little kid didn’t affect his pod-racing career too badly. The two-headed announcer sucks, a jarring pop-culture reference that completely seems out of place in an otherwise well-realised world.

    For a film dealing with war and slavery it’s curiously lacking in grit. Bureaucrats in a giant, gleaming metropolis assure us that the galaxy is on the brink of war and people are suffering, but we see little evidence of it. Slavery is dealt with such a light touch that I’m not sure why it’s a plot point at all. Other complaints have been done to death. Acting is flat. Characters are poorly defined. Jar Jar Binks’ slapstick comedy is terrible. The movie pinballs between serious and goofy in a really inelegant way.

  29. I think Jeremy sums it up well. Its hard to view this til as anything but a squandered opportunity, but hats off to Vern for trying.

  30. Well, I had fun writing the reviews at least.

  31. Don’t give up, Vern. I really appreciate the sentiment you are going for here, and so, I’ll try to follow along…

    So, this new movie, Phantom Menace…huh. Well, it’s clunky and tonally inconsistent, has some huge pacing issues on Tatooine, and the characters and acting lack a lot of life or personality. But that said, DAMN this has some great visuals and a magnificent score. The duel at the end is a perfectly-realized moment, and for what it’s worth, I liked Ewan MacGregor as young Kenobi. He convinces as a kid Alec Guinness.

    And Liam Neeson, I personally feel, brings some gravitas to Qui-Gon, and his more unethical moments actually make him interesting. He’s not a squeaky-clean Jedi, he’s a rogue, a maverick, a rebel to the system. But his heart is in the right place, and its nice that he shows Anakin genuine support, when the rest of the Order is like, “hell no, this kid’s an accident waiting to happen!” Which, he is, but at least Qui-Gon gave him benefit of the doubt.

    I think the problem, among many problems, is that the main cast are all composed of characters who, in universe, either suppress emotion (Jedi, politicians, robots :P) or are pretending to so as to not draw attention (Padme) or just plain incompetent acting (poor Jake Lloyd, he’ll never live this down). In-universe, the World of Stoics makes sense, but makes for boring and unrelatable heroes. So it hurts the movie that we can’t connect with them properly.

    Overall, visually compelling, with a few nice bits here and there, but an ultimately superfluous story and lack of relatable characters (as well as an unfortunate overdose of stupid ‘humor’ from Jar Jar Binks) and tonal inconsistency results in a very mixed bag. Not a complete waste, but overall, a pretty crazy mess.

    -Jonathan

  32. I’m on your side 100%, Vern. Can’t wait to see how this sequential approach works with any potential upcoming installments, should those happen. I mean, who knows, right? Always in motion is the future. I don’t know why I said that backwards like that, that doesn’t even make any sense.

    But seriously, I’m kind of disappointed in you fellas. I’m a negative nelly most of the time, too, but you guys can’t check your butt-hurt at the door for like five minutes and just try to do what the man of the house asks? What kind of manners are those?

  33. Did something crazy today and actually watched this movie. The dvd cover says “Episode 1,” suggesting this story & dramatis personae are further explored in future chapters. Sounds interesting.

    For example, I wonder if little Anakin Skywalker will ever get the chance to apply his skills as a pilot-racer with other spacecraft on other planets. And maybe it’ll turn out that those skills are somehow hereditary, just in case he has a son and/or daughter one day and they have to fly through some tight spaces while stuff blows up around them.

    On the important matter of the infamous Jar Jar Binks, I think the haters might need to go fuck themselves. Yeah, he says some stupid shit, and yeah his dialect is a little grating, and yeah the way the real human beings somewhat awkwardly interact with him via some of the more static greenscreen moments is a mark of imperfection, but then you have to remember this is a space opera primarily intended for an audience of children. For the movie’s first half-hour or so, Jar Jar helps make the movie stimulating for the kids, while the adults get their kicks from the heavier story about tax policy and elected political leaders drifting toward war. Fun for the whole family.

    But then the movie pulls a trick on you by making Jar Jar’s goofballness into an important character trait in the middle of a huge battle. He’s like Jackie Chan or Charlie Chaplin out there, trying to be brave but screwing up and resorting to pure self-defense tactics & buffoonish overreactions that just happen to result in a bunch of dead enemy droids. He’s like Jamie Lee Curtis dropping the uzi down the stairs in TRUE LIES.
    That accidental-hero moment wouldn’t be as solid & believable had we not established his klutziness earlier, like when Jar Jar tries to steal that street butcher’s space chicken with his mouth, or like when he sort of mysteriously explains why he was banished from his underwater home-world.

    The podrace announcer[s] is wack, though. You’re all correct on that one. One being with 2 heads, so is it just podrace announcer, singular. I wonder if they have separate drivers’ licenses. Would it be voter fraud if they cast separate ballots?

    And the podthings in the podrace are not very structurally sound in my opinion. And the race-track doesn’t make much sense either. That planet is populated by a bunch of ruffians, slavers, and weirdos, but if they are able to organize the podraces they should be able to put in place some basic safety measures to make the races a sustainably attractive option for potential participants. I mean, you can’t really tell where the path is, which rock-arches you should go under & through. There’s way too many narrow cave passages that have to be littered with pod-debris and dead racers’ body parts. And jeezus man, they got fuckin’ snipers hanging out on the backstretch. What do the Tusken raiders even get out of that? They don’t seem interested in looting the fallen racer’s pockets. They don’t go after the spare engine parts. Seems like a weird waste of a bullet just so they can shoot a podracer and giggle about it. That’s some scary shit. The Federation or Republic or whatever should send someone to enforce some law & order there. And do some emancipating while they’re at it, fuck.

  34. Yeah man, this flick assumes a lot. Even Italian joints don’t usually jump in with tax laws and trade tariffs, so it’s really confident that it’s got an ace in its sleeve. Not sure what engendered this goodwill, but the pod race and everything else speaks to big money, so maybe the backers had an “in” with Golan-Globus.

    I’d say it’s ballsy, but honestly I was looking for clearer direction on who the goods and bads are. You’ve got stuffy monks, uptight galactic princesses, and comfortable slaves, and man if there weren’t times where I wasn’t siding with the big bads. At least they showed initiative. At least they were fun. This thing could’ve used a swashbuckling rogue, and real brigand with a heart of gold, like Robert Ulrich from ICE PIRATES. That would’ve lightened things up.

    Also, the monks make a big show about their training, but apparently its the bugs in their bloodstreams that hold the magic. Midisomethingsomethings, right? Way I see it its these FANTASTIC VOYAGERS who can claim responsibility on all the awesome stuff, so if these Jedis can read them on the sensors then why not take the next step? Why don’t they synthesize them bugs and shoot them into the princesses, like in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? Then you’d have a scene of Natalie Portman eats raw steak and spin kicks Darth whats his face into a combine harvester. That would’ve been sweet.

  35. Vern, this is not what I expected, and I hope you keep doing these.

  36. I like the word “spacebuckler” and wonder if Vern is one who coined it.

  37. Vern, I really hope that you aren’t discouraged by some of the comments posted thus far and that you continue with these reviews. This is a really admirable attempt to add a unique position of criticism to the 15 fucking years of cyclical regurgitation of opinion that make up the majority of the available readings of this movie. It’s a pity that not everyone seems to be able to get behind it though.

    Anyway keep it up man, your commitment to eschewing cynicism in areas where others tend to revel in it is a constant and significant inspiration.

  38. I enjoyed the review Vern. I’ll put my self-prescribed Star Wars ban on hold to have a look at TPM without the baggage.

    Stuff I liked:
    – Visually impressive. Although the CGI doesn’t work a lot, and I prefer more physical effects, the CGI use was (at it’s time) ambitious. The sets, costumes and designs are all good
    – As most others have said, a really good score
    – Darth Maul is awesome
    – Liam Neeson gives a solid performance, as well as Ewan McGregor for the most part
    – The pod-race is genuinely exciting and well done
    – The lightsaber battle at the end is great
    – The final land and space battles are visually great

    Stuff I didn’t like:
    – Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd’s acting was terrible
    – Unclear story. Jedi’s, trade taxation, Trade Federations general motivation, the prophecy and other major plot points are unexplained or brushed over
    – Character’s are unrelatable
    – Could have been shorter

    Overall a slightly below average sci-fi action movie with good design and ambitious use of visuals

  39. Wow, this movie is fucking weird. How did this Lukas guy get this financed? It starts out really well, with a heavy nod to the Flash Gordon serial from the thirties, with crawling credits and everything. The theme is frigging awesome. It´s old school, full blown orchestra, building up an awesome sense of afternoon adventure for the whole family. And then your smack in the middle of the story, with some sort of space samurais discussing space taxes with lay-offs from the muppet show. It´s clearly for kids, but the story is not kiddie-friendly, but epic and serious. I´m not sure I understood what the hell was going on, but it does´t really matter, cause soon enough the Jetis start fighting robots, big harvesters, sea-monsters and droids. Even if the plot is dead serious, the humour is lame, and you never really get to know any of the characters. You just get thrown into this universe and try to keep up. Thankfully, the effects, score, and overall design of the movie is frigging amazing. It´s kinda directed in an old-fashioned way, with static shots and characters talking a lot about very serious and important stuff like the force, politics, responsibility, etc. Allright, then they land on this desert planet, and the movie stops stone-cold dead with some of the most embarrassing acting ever. This little kid and his mother take in the space samurais and try to help them out with spare parts to their broken spaceship. It turns out they have to win some race to get money. It´s a kinda weird plot. We have already met a whole bunch of characters, and they have to deal with a civil war, but suddenly the movie seems more interested in an entirely new story about the little kid being some sort of space-messiah with superpowers. Anyhow, it´s boring and badly written/ directed / acted. On the other hand I kinda like how everything just slows down, unlike the Mummy, where you get kinda tires by the non-stop action. And then the race starts, and the slow build up pays off. This is one of the best action-scenes I`ve ever seen. Maybe one of the best chase-scenes ever. The score drops out for like 15 minutes, just like in Ben-Hur, and when it kicks in again, you´re totally pumped. It´s awesome. Then more boring talk, the most akward mother-son scene ever committed to cellouid, and the guys are off to another planet. And then they talk about politics and religion. I actually likes all these scenes, but it´s kinda weird for a kids movie. But the universe is really fascinating, unlike anything I´ve ever seen before, and you really buy into that this is a real world (or galaxy…). It´s pretty original too, I mean, what other scifi movie dedicates half an hour to talks about politics? It`s really weird… Then they travel back to the first planet and fight. It´s kinda like an old ww2-movie, but in space. It´s all pretty harmless and kiddie friendly, with mostly robots being hacked into pieces, and the little space messiah blowing up a space station by accident, but the final fight between the good and evil space samurais are pretty awesome, and actually ends with our hero being killed! (spoiler). Again, the score and etc is amazing, but the fight itself is amazing. It´s almost as good as The Matrix, but still really old-fashioned. Anyhow, the hero gets killed and everybody celebrates, but nothing really gets resolved. It is really mysterious and stuff, but you don´t really care, cause all the characters are really annoying. I still liked the movie a lot. Its a weird mix of lame and brilliant, with some of the best action scenes I´ve ever seen, and a tone so schizophrenic, that you don´t believe it. I have absolutely no idea where the story is going, but I would guess that they train the space messiah into a space samurai and go back to the desert planet to free the slaves. Maybe the space-messiah gets tired of the stuck-up and kinda useless jetis, and the desert planet starts a war with the city planet. I dunno, this story could go anywhere as long as it includes stars and wars. In conclusion, I ´m gonna buy this on video and watch it over and over in secrecy, but make fun of it in public so my friends don´t think I´m a nerd. It has the most amazing design I´ve ever seen, is so original and weird, and has amazing action and music. And I really like the guy from trainspotting and the kid from Leon, even if they never really has anything to do with their roles. Maybe I like it so much because it reminds me of the Flash Gordon serial I watched in my summer holidays, maybe I´m just totally amazed by the originality of it. I feel its better than Lost in Space and The Mummy and other so called old-fashioned adventure movies, but not as good as Starship Troopers. I have no idea how to rate this movie, but I`m defenetly looking forward to the next one. (ps, they should have called it episode 37 or something, cause it kinda feels like an extended episode of some obscure sfi-fi saga). This must be the most expansive cult-movie ever. If they cut out the bad stuff, it could have been the new Star Trek.

  40. Fuck yes, Vern, this is what the world needs.

    I really like some parts of this movie, but there are other things about it that make it verge a bit too far into kiddie territory for my tastes. I mean, I’m not ten. I’d probably love the whole movie if I was ten, but it seems like there are long sections of this movie that are overly serious and then too-long sections of kids movie bs, like this Binks character slipping in dogshit and talking in a silly voice, or this little kid who is really important to the story as a whole and has a shit-ton of screen time, but gives this really horrendous performance that is kind of hard to watch. The music is super great, that “Duel of the Fates” song is one of the few pieces of movie score I’ve ever heard random dudes talking about and actually putting on while just hanging out. The sword fight at the end is incredible. I loved how you pointed out how the room they are in makes no sense, but it doesn’t matter at all, in fact, it makes the fight a million times more awesome. I dunno, thinking about the good parts of this movie kind of makes the memories of the bad stuff melt away, and I feel like watching it again now.

  41. Hey Vern, great review! I agree that the highpoints are the lightsaber fight at the end and the CG worlds they created. Especially for the time this movie came out it was pretty amazing. The bland characters, especially Anakin, are the low point, but they seem to mainly just serve the plot anyways, so you hardly even notice.

    Do you think you could do a no baggage review of Batman and Robin next? You may want to wait a few weeks and watch some Seagal movies to clear your first, though, I would hate to see you have an Arnold-induced mental breakdown!

  42. You know, I never could hate this movie, despite it’s many hateful things (the biggest for me is the atrocious acting by the kid) and I think that is solely due to the fight at the end, which includes the incredible score. Like Vern says, a fight scene that awesome can give a movie a free pass.

  43. Also, Vern, let me add that I approve of your approach here. We all know what the Nerd group-think is about the Star Wars prequels; I think the fact that you’re not steeped in the hater culture and you don’t take Star Wars too seriously make you the perfect man for this job.

    I used to be a huge Star Wars fan, and its hard to actually see this movie for what it was: a big budget children’s space adventure movie, which made an obscene amount of money. Its clear that’s what Lucas attempted to make, and he succeeded on his own terms. I think the usual criticisms of this movie (eg Red Letter Media) are valid but the 12 year old boys and girls of 1998 clearly did not care.

  44. I am a STAR WARS nerd. It just isn’t possible form me to look at these films as films because (some of them) meant so much to me as a kid and are ingrained in my personality to this day.

    The good things in this movie (for me) were:
    – The design is magnificent, coherent and easily understood.
    – The music is good, but I suspect it will get much better, in 3 or 4 episodes time.
    – Darth Maul is almost the greatest character in it – he owns most every scene he’s in and perhaps he’s this good because he doesn’t outstay his welcome.
    but he crowning moment of awesome for me is always the little jig/loosen up shake Obi-Wan gives behind the laser gate thing before he and Maul really beat seven bells out of each other. That tiny moment shows what could have been if it all hadn’t been weighed down by cartoons and buffoons.

    I also love Nute Gunray, but that’s just me.

  45. I’m confused — does the No Baggage approach mean we’re only allowed to say nice things about the movies? It’s not as if everything Vern said in the review was positive.

    Is there an underlying assumption here that if it weren’t for all the baggage everybody would definitely have thought the prequels were pretty good if flawed movies, and if you have a sufficiently negative view of the films it means you’re breaking the rules?

  46. Not at all. Vern says in his rules that you can complain. You just can’t complain about something baggage related. It needs to be based solely on the content of the movie and not how it relates to the original trilogy, how you dreamed it would be since a child, etc.

  47. Great review Vern. I am not sure how I feel about a SiFi film from the guy that brought us RADIOLAND MURDERS, but I love India Jones so I am willing to give it a shot.

  48. All kidding aside this isn’t a bad film but it is heavy on the exposition dialog for what is essentially a children’s adventure film. I am sure Lucas is laying the foundation for a larger universe and story with all the talk of trade federations, taxes, and separatists but I could see that all going over the head of a younger viewer. I understood what they were talking about and was still board by it. However, overall it is a fun movie.

  49. Well done Vern. As this site’s resident Prequel apologist, I really appreciate the effort it takes to try to divorce these films from all the cultural and personal baggage that accompanied them. A worthy goal, and well-executed. I’m excited to read the conclusion.

  50. The title is a serious mouthful, don’t you think? “Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace”? That’s a bit much, right out of the gate. Why not just call it Star Wars, full stop, and if Fox ponies up the cash for future “episodes” (unlikely), then Lucas can just call them Star Wars 2, Star Wars 3, etc. You know, like *every other movie in the history of movies*.

    Anyway, title just struck me as kinda presumptuous. Carry on.

  51. Vern, you’ve topped yourself yet again with this series of reviews. TPM is pretty bad but nowhere near the disaster it’s purported to be. The pros are few (the fight scene, the pod race, Darth Maul’s 2 minutes onscreen…), and the cons are many (uninteresting characters, weirdly structured and rambling story, too much political nonsense, the wooden “acting” by Lloyd and the pod people that replaced Neeson, McGregor, Portman, Stamp, and Jackson onscreen). But whatever, those two action scenes are incredible (the pod race was amazing to watch in the theatre – you could hear a pin drop because everyone was so into it), and I don’t care, I sorta think Jar Jar Binks is fun in the way that a bad SNL skit that goes on and on so long it goes from not-funny to really lame to somehow back to funny. The guy literally can’t take two steps without stepping in poo or having someone fart in his face, he’s like the animators didn’t give a shit and threw in a whole bunch of lowbrow easter eggs to keep kids entertained while the adults onscreen babbled on and on about taxes and tariffs and shit. He’s awful but the movie would be so much worse without him.

    Super Baggage-added note: I think this might actually be the start of the stupid “callback” nonsense that reached it’s saturation point in the climax of Star Trek Into Darkness last year. Young screenwriters back in ’99 were probably all like, “Holy shit, he said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this! Like that guy said in the other movies!! BWAHAHAA!’ Also, is the midichlorians nonsense the start of the Nolan-esque demystification of things? I can weirdly see some asshole wanting to put a scientific rationale behind the Force in today’s Hollywood where every movie is dark and gritty – i can’t believe Lucas did it himself back in ’99.

  52. STAR WARS: EPISODE 1: PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS would have been a whole lot better if they had a couple script rewrites (eliminate all the boring crap and put in some dialogue that the actors would be happy saying), and if the director had allowed more than a couple takes before he yelled “cut” or “it’s a wrap” or whatever they yell. It is painfully obvious at times that the actors are simply getting used to their lines, as if they filmed the first or second take and just went with it. Kubrick took dozens of takes on important and even “unimportant” scenes in his films, at times borderline torturing his actors with the monotony and pressure of the process. So he got great results. Not here. You simply can’t imagine this happening on the set of PHANTOM MENACE.

    Part of the problem is the obvious lack of proper preparation but the stilted dialogue is just as big of a problem. It’s difficult to get good performances from even a bunch of extremely talented actors (Portman, McGregor, Neeson, Jackson? This is a fantastic cast…) when they have to say horrendous lines, but give that quality dialogue to some poor kid and it’s impossible for it to turn out to be anything but complete dog shit. And that’s what they got. I don’t think any child actor could have overcome the combination of poor dialogue and bad “actor direction” that is apparent in this film.

    As a Red Letter Media – style exercise: Quote one good memorable line from this movie. And it can’t be “Whoopeee!!!” or “Meesa goin home!” I think I’ve seen this movie 3-4 times and for the life of me I can’t remember a single line.

    The only “good” scenes in the movie are pure action scenes with zero meaningful dialogue. I am not particularly fond of the pod race, but I will admit that the lightsaber fight in the reactor is the best action scene of all the prequels by far. It is probably actually a better action scene than most anything in the original trilogy (sorry Vern for mentioning those) except for the lamentable fact that Darth Maul (the most and maybe only interesting character in this movie) dies after only about 3 minutes of screen time (SPOILER). There should have been more buildup, more badassery, and a lot more screen time for this guy so that you could relish his death rather than be disappointed that he is gone so soon.

    As a result, you could pretty much watch the 3 minute Darth Maul fight scene at the end completely out of context and skip the entire rest of the movie. It’s not like it has any relevance to the rest of the plot, or like you would be missing any subtle emotional cues because you didn’t see the part earlier where you saw Darth Maul’s unfortunate upbringing or whatever. All you ever really know about him is contained in those 3 minutes.

    And this is the third big problem with this movie, is that the scenes that are put on the screen don’t seem to have a whole lot of relation to each other. It’s as if the director had 3 good ideas and strung them together into a workmanlike plot with some horrible dialogue and that was that.

  53. It´s hilarious how this film try to sell us Liam Neeson as an action hero! Oscar Schindler?! Gimme a break, nobody is ever going to buy that. In 20 years time this travesty of an idea will look like a non-stop joke that´s been taken to the extreme.

  54. insert name here

    May 7th, 2014 at 11:42 am

    I think I can say without baggage that the Jar Jar stuff really does inhibit this movie. I’m not apriori opposed to there being a Disneyesque sidekick in this thing. In the case of another film, Frozen, I thought that the snowman was going to be the Achilles Heel of the movie, but it actually kind of worked, because the the character was kind of charming and had an emotional reason to be there. Jar Jar, by contrast was just horrendously misconceived. Who thought to themselves during development, that what this movie really needed was a Rastafarian Jerry Lewis?

  55. Vern – I’ll bite. I can concede that this film has plenty of interesting stuff and that the business with Maul is top-notch shit. And don’t even get me started on the score for this thing. It’s powerful, it’s memorable and if it were a lady I’d take it out to eat ALL THE TIME.

    My problem with this Lucas outing is that the narrative at once feels too big and too small. It seems to me that he had an idea, like a world-building idea, ala Frank Herbert of DUNE fame, but instead of writing an epic he decided to film a truncated version of his idea. And that makes me sad. For instance, that taxation shit seems to bother folks who’ve seen the movie, but I’d argue that it is bothersome because it’s obviously important but gets short shrift as far as explanation, or exploitation as a storytelling device; we never really see its effects on the people. Now, I’m maybe the odd man out, but that kind of stuff is interesting to me. It’s the kind of thing, like in Jurassic Park’s glossing over the actual creation of its theme attractions (dinosaurs), that you watch it and know the book just has to do a better job of explaining the details.

    This kind of writing (or not writing) extends to the characters, too. They just come across as too broad. THE best moment in the film, the one moment where I thought, YES-THIS IS VERY GOOD is the three-way at the end, when they’re all huffing and puffing and staring at each other but they are all obviously coming at this moment in very different ways.

  56. The biggest problem with this Jar Jar character, IMHO, is that he’s weirdly isolated from the other characters and plot. No one else likes him, talks to him, or interacts with him if they can possibly help it (possibly because he’s not really on set with them, I really hope this CGI character thing doesn’t catch on) and Jar Jar himself has no investment in the plot at all. What the fuck does he care about the Trade Federation’s tariff protest, or Naboo itself, for that matter — they were gonna pyoonish him! So you’ve just got this character who’s always walking around behind everyone, not really serving any purpose except to occasionally remind you that everyone else finds him annoying (and not in a loveable way. They really, truly despise him). He’s just completely unsympathetic and uninvolving, with no arc or reason to exist (although I do admit I think it’s funny when Qui-Gon grabs his tongue out of the air).

    Really, though, Jar Jar is only the most extreme version of the definitive problem with the whole movie: EVERYONE is disconnected from each other and the plot! No one really has a personal stake in this, nor do they seem particularly seem to like each other very much. They mostly argue about what to do, they never really joke around with each other or seem to relate on a personal level; it’s basically just a normal day on the job for these two Jedi, and while things are a little more personal for the Queen, she isn’t too pleased with the way Qui-Gon is handling things for most of the runtime. The only person who ends up actually having a character arc is Anakin, who is absolutely 100% unrelated to anything having to do with Naboo, they just randomly find him while they’re doing something else. The sequences on Tatooine with Qui-Gon, Padme, and Anakin fitfully find time for character moments, but they’re frustratingly dissociated from the “main” plot about the Trade Federation, etc. Otherwise, everyone else is pretty much exactly the same at the end of the movie.

    I mean, from a structural perspective, who is THE PHANTOM MENACE even about? Who is the main character here? Who actually undergoes a journey which changes them in some way? What is the conflict for any of these characters? How does that conflict change them? I really don’t think there’s a good answer to this question. THAT is the fundamental problem here; it’s not the acting, its not the dialogue. Those things wouldn’t make a huge difference if the central conflict were more clearly articulated and the characters relationships were stronger. Without that, though, it’s a movie which lacks focus and drive, it just sort of drifts listlessly from one unconnected event to another.

    But, man. Some of those events are just too fucking cool to dismiss. The movie is just absolutely stuffed with cool sequences, even if its frustrating that they don’t add up to as much as they should.

  57. grimgrinningchris

    May 7th, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Speaking of coming into this movie with no baggage…
    Although with the internet, trailers, 1000 media articles etc at the time… it would have been nearly impossible to keep a “secret”- but imagine what an incredible moment it would have been when Darth Maul ignites the second blade of his lightsaber… if you had no idea that was coming. Theaters would have crumbled from the reaction to that.

    Something that has always bothered me about Maul though. His face/head markings are supposed to be tattoos, right? Well it’s not super noticeable in the movie itself since he is moving around so much, but it’s REALLY noticeable in still photos.
    Despite the DESIGN being fucking killer… the execution was actually kind of lazy. There is very skewed symmetry in the application of the make-up (take any still and look at the left versus right side of his face) and very little continuity in it from scene to scene (take two different stills from two different scenes and you’ll see glaring differences in its application). Also, they made very little effort to blend/conceal the edges on the prosthetics on his horns (again, look at any close up still) and I also think the makeup that they used was too shiny- where it really LOOKS like Halloween makeup and not actual skin coloring and/or tattoos.

    Don’t get me wrong and I’m not doing rule-breaking fanboy nitpicking. He’s still the second coolest new character in the prequels and in motion, on screen most of this is much much less noticeable.
    It’s just something that has always kinda irked me… and figured a talkback where “the usual” complaints were taboo would be a good place to post this particular one.

  58. Ben (the other one)

    May 7th, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    This is a great idea and I liked the review.

    My only complaint is, where’s your action scale thing you do now for most action movies? Because Phantom Menace deserves a top score there. No shaky cam. No post action. That climactic lightsabre duel is crisp, clear, has discernible geography, is beautifully choreographed, and amazing sound work. One of the best action scenes of its decade and one of the very best sword fights of any kind ever put to film.

    I actually think that the good in Phantom Menace outweighs the bad, albeit by a modest margin. Yes, Jar Jar is annoying and yes, Jake Lloyd is a stiff actor. But the Jedi in their prime are a pretty thrilling set of action heroes, and the world-building special effects and sets in places like Coruscant and Naboo are breathtaking. Phantom Menace is 15 years old and it still LOOKS more amazing than most big budget spectacles that come out today.

    Finally, off-topic, but I downloaded Niketown to my Kindle yesterday and I can’t fucking wait to read it (just gotta finish another book first).

  59. These comments have already gotten way too ahead of me but I love the cleverness of some responses, like the 20 year prediction of Liam Neeson action.

    Have to second Neal2Zod’s compliment. This is some next level reviewing and I cannot wait to read the rest. Especially the Neeson quote “specific set of skills take the fucking elephant.”

    Loving movies is about loving the bad ones too, assuming one may think this one is bad, I don’t know. This exercise finds a new way to approach that conflict, like how I had to watch LICENCE TO KILL six times until I finally liked it. Four more to go with SKYFALL.

  60. Funny theory, well thought out. But there are only two Sith. “At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi.” I didn’t see no Jar Jar in that scene. MYTHBUSTED.

  61. I like to think I’m a reasonable old-school Star Wars fan. I demand (perhaps with pitchfork at the ready) that the original films be available, of course it’s nostalgic but I also look at it as cinema history, for posterity. Why did Spielberg bother to have both versions of ET available? Like that.

    I didn’t hate this movie (I haven’t seen it since 1999) but I found it disappointingly underwhelming. Though moments have stuck with me. The design, for sure, as Vern wrote about, and the action. But I have to admit Mr. Plunkett’s analysis of the trilogy have really influenced me – he takes a lot of time to show why they just don’t work.
    The whole story for me just doesn’t gel, or even make sense. There’s no dramatic arc to speak of, which to me is the biggest crime. That’s what these stories are all about: drama on an archetypal, mythic level. It’s ultimately failed story-telling.

  62. World Eater, its been rumoured for a while (ever since Disney bought LucasFilm) that they are working on releasing the original cuts of the original trilogy remastered. There are distribution rights issues with Fox though which is apparently a legal roadblock they need to overcome. Disney are not stupid and know there is big bucks to be made by putting out remasters of the untouched original trilogy.

  63. The Original Paul

    December 17th, 2015 at 9:07 am

    What the fuck? I wrote that Jar Jar theory ten freakin’ years ago! In great and exhaustive detail! It might still be lurking around in a Potpourri somewhere…

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