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.
So 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
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THE 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 a couple lines 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.