Last Friday was Star Wars day (cause of May the Fourth get it lol) but I was too sick to post anything about it. However, I did realize: I’ve never reviewed these movies that were so pivotal to my youth. Which is a huge oversight, because I was a Star Wars freak. I had a Star Wars room under the stairs, where I kept my posters and toys. With my brother, I tried to recreate The Phantom Menace shot for shot. I read all of the Extended Universe books, and wrote a novel and a half of my own fan fiction (the main bad guys: Jabba the Hutt’s clone, Boba Fett, and Darth Dryandera, a tall Sith Lord who wore a black cloak and a breathing helmet; yeah, I was super creative).
Enough embarrassing self-admission: let’s review these puppies. I’m doing them in Episode order, not because I think this is a good order to watch them, but because I want to end on a high note.
THE PHANTOM MENACE
Quick! Who’s the main character in the Phantom Menace? Sure, you’ve probably repressed most of it, but with most crappy movies you can at least identify the main character. Could it be the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, as most of the posters would suggest? Is it young Anakin Skywalker, the future Lord of the Sith? Is it Oskar Schindler with a laser sword? Is it creepy-doll Natalie Portman?
NOPE. It’s this guy.
Jar Jar Binks is the one of the few characters who has a backstory (he lived in an underwater city, caused “one or two-ie itty bitty accidenties,” and was banished). He’s the only character who has any defining characteristics (“curious, stupid, lazy, servile”). He’s the only character who has much of an arc (he starts out an exile and ends up a hero to his people). He’s the closest thing to a protagonist this cluttered movie has. He’s also f#&ing terrible.
Now this is not news. For the last 13 years, any mention of this movie had mentioned the fact that Jar-Jar is an annoying, distracting collection of racist stereotypes.* It is known. But when I re-watched TPM a few years ago, I was blown away with how omnipresent Jar-Jar is. He’s inescapable – he’s there putzing around when Anakin and Natalie Portman** meet for the first time, he’s sticking his tongue out like a jag when the Skywalkers are talking about the hardships of slavery, and whenever there’s the threat of any action in this action/adventure, Jar-Jar is on-hand to smell a fart and yell “Pee-you-suh!” There is maybe at most a ten-minute stretch where Jar-Jar doesn’t have any high-pitched interruptions.*** He’s not just a fly in the ointment; he’s a big ol’ turd right in the middle of a sandwich you were thinking about eating.
Not that the rest of the sandwich is very promising. For a movie that I’ve heard excused as a dumb-but-fun popcorn movie for kids, The Phantom Menace is frequently really boring. Various good guys hang out in the desert, leisurely introducing fan favorites like R2-D2, C-3PO, and Jabba the Hutt, none of whom, it’s worth noting, have a purpose being there. The Jedi council sits in Lay-Z-Boys and tries not to fall asleep. Natalie Portman wastes her time fighting bureaucratic red tape. The numbing grind is exacerbated by the fact that no characters in the film ever register a facial expression (except of course friggin’ Jar Jar who has both “Yes-massah”-grins AND cowardly screams).
Even the famous pod-race is actually dull. Let’s dissect this scene. Its only purpose is to deliver special effects and make the audience gasp. And I want to make it clear: I have no problem with that. Action-adventure movies like Star Wars should have scenes that are mostly there to look awesome. Not every scene in every movie needs to be a complex character study…people come to these things to watch explosions.
But have you actually watched the pod race lately? Here it is, if you’re curious. The first warning sign is that the pod race is over ten minutes long. That’s a long time to maintain an adrenaline-pumping, camera-shifting action sequence. How does TPM keep up the suspense? Well, it doesn’t, really. The film follows the race for a bit, then gets bored. It cuts to the insufferable CGI announcers. It cuts to the vendors selling bantha burgers or whatever. It cuts to Jar-Jar sitting and making shrill noises. It cuts to Jabba the Hutt, who is so bored he resorts to throwing frogs off buildings to entertain himself before, eventually, he falls asleep (Dear George Lucas, if you want your action scenes to be exciting, maybe don’t show other characters falling asleep during them). At the very end of the race, the film-makers realize that, for the sake of the flimsy plot they have thrown together, Anakin should probably win the race, so they keep their attention on the race for one gorram minute and it’s passably entertaining, except for the fact that Anakin doesn’t seem in real danger.
Let’s compare this to a good action sequence. In this scene in The Empire Strikes Back (filmed about thirty years earlier), we quickly establish that our heroes aboard the Millenium Falcon are at death’s door. Explosions crash all around and even the cocky Han Solo is freaking out. There’s a brief moment when we think the Falcon might be safe…but the smug smile fades from Han’s face as the engines shudder and die. Han and Chewie desperately try to fix the problem, when the ship starts getting pummeled by asteroids. With a quippy line (“Never tell me the odds!”), Han flies his ship into the chaos while 3PO screams in terror. The deadly asteroids chews up the enemy ships, which disappear into awesome explosions, but Han’s piloting skill keeps our heroes alive and they take refuge by hiding in one of the larger rocks. Total time: about 3.5 minutes. Compared that to the 11 minutes TPM took to establish “Anakin wins the race.”
See, you can’t just have explosions to make things exciting. You need pacing, and succinctness. You need to create likable characters like Han and Chewie and then convince the audience that they are in actual danger. If comic-relief characters try to steal the spotlight during exciting or emotional scenes, you yell “SHUT HIM UP OR SHUT HIM DOWN!” like Han does.
The Phantom Menace utterly fails these basic lessons. It rarely suggests the characters, like the solemn, invincible Jedi or the too-cute-to-harm Anakin are in any peril. It juxtaposes serious moments, like a major character’s death, with Jar-Jar and other cartoon characters slipping on banana peels and talking baby-talk. Most damningly, it fails to give us characters worth rooting for. And why watch adventures, after all, if you don’t care about the adventurers?
Best Scene: Lightsaber Fight with Darth Maul, obviously. Maul is the one thing in this movie that makes it seem like anyone is in real danger, and he doesn’t have any stupid dialogue. The fight is well-choreographed and exciting. It’s just too bad that it’s intercut with Jar-Jar doing stupid stuff.
Best Line of Dialogue: Uhhhhhhhh…let’s go with “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent,” said by Qui-Gon Jinn to Jar-Jar.
Worst Scene: Qui-Gon explains midichlorians. Let us never speak of them again.
Worst Line of Dialogue: God, how do I choose? Basically anything said by Anakin or Jar-Jar. A tie between “I’m a person and my name is Anakin!” and “YOU’D say boom de gassuh, den crash into de bosses hey-blibber, den banished!” (I am not making that second line up)
*Some aliens in The Phantom Menace: a shuffling, big lipped goofball who commits himself to a “life-debt” of servitude to the white characters, a money-obsessed, big-nosed slave owner, and some sneaky, cowardly creatures with such obnoxiously accented voices that they would make Fu Manchu himself go “Dude, why do you hate Asians?”
**For whatever reason, I can’t bring myself to type Natalie Portman’s stupid “character” “name.”
***The Jar-Jar free section is during that interminable C-SPAN scene where Natalie Portland monotones on the finer points of Coruscant parliamentary procedure.