June 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Dark Side Story or
Phantom Menace to Society

God save us from hype. Some hate it because there's no Wookiee. Others love it because there's an 800 number you can call to get some action if it was shown out of focus. No matter what your viewpoint may be, I'm sure we're all happy as ducks in wabbit season that the damn movie finally came out and we can go about our business as unusual.

Those who are old enough remember Episode Four of Star Wars as the surprise hit of the decade. In future times, The Phantom Menace will be remembered as the Anticipation That Would Not Die. The publicity, whether engineered (some) or a natural phenomenon (most), became completely unbearable. I found myself shuddering in cultural paroxysms whenever the film was mentioned. Forget hearing the two words together, I couldn't stomach either alone. I'd rush from the room whenever people began to discuss any "wars" in particular, and I'd jump through a window if conversation turned to astronomy.

It wasn't enough that we were drowned in an ocean of ink running off cutesy "entertainment news" pieces in every single newspaper, magazine, and church newsletter. It wasn't enough that we had a mountain of heartfelt - if lame - testimonials from a generation of fans that wet the bed for the last time on Return of the Jedi sheets or turned their life around because of the shining example provided by Boba Fett. No, we also had to endure an endless stream of Star Wars parodies. From elaborate films to email Top Ten lists, everybody who thought they were the least bit clever (and they were right) was pasting the CEO's mug over Liam Neeson's on the PM poster or writing a new commercial featuring a Chihuahua, a Jawa, and a can of beer.

That reminds me - why isn't Jabba (who plays himself in the movie) the spokesman for Pizza Hut?

Of course I wanted to see it just as much as anybody else, but that only made it worse. As much as I hated that dread invasion of attention snatchers, I had to admit to keeping a Pod waiting under my bed, too.

It's a darn shame really. Anyone born before 1961 can't think of the Beatles first hits without also recalling the accompanying hysteria. And now, The Phantom Menace is forever stained by this image: Grandpap sitting by the Christmas tree each year, proud even in his decrepit haze, telling a group of disinterested and embarrassed youngsters about the time he waited in line for 74 hours to be the first to buy a toy based on a movie that he hadn't even seen yet.

The Phantom Menace doesn't deserve that - it's really a much better film than I expected it to be. Good enough that, from time to time, I actually forgot about all the crap for awhile. Heck, I even forgot it was a movie sometimes and just got into the story. I'm fully aware that certain sequences were designed to springboard video games and amusement park rides, but that awareness didn't get in the way of the thrill I got seeing a thousand lizard folk battle a thousand robots in a valley the size of Scotland. Real? CGI? Whatever, who cares? I didn't waste my time looking for matte lines when there's so much pretty stuff to see. Strange that George Lucas should still have all the same strengths and weaknesses that he had 20 years ago.

Strengths: He's a true innovator, using new technology to his advantage. When the technology doesn't exist to create the image he wants, he gets somebody to invent it for him (and every movie made after that benefits). He has a great knowledge and respect for movie history - and he learns from films past, modeling his work on proven movie techniques. He understands that a strong vision can be stronger and more enduring than any story. And he approaches film as a true art form, the same as painting - in fact, many images in The Phantom Menace remind me of paintings. He keeps in mind at all times that people go to the movies to be entertained. He gives the folks their money's worth.

Weaknesses: He uses "cute" aliens as substitute racial slurs - it may be affectionate, but it's not complimentary. He knows nothing about directing actors and the performances in his films are extremely uneven, compounded by the use of untrained performers (annoying li'l Jake Lloyd as Doogie Vader) and animators and "voice artists" who make the real-looking CGI creatures act and sound like Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters. Ewan McGregor brilliantly mimics a young Alec Guinness, and Natalie Portman shows us the performance behind being a head of state, but any good acting in a Lucas film is to be credited to the actor alone. He is not really a very good director. To be sure, there are many masterful sequences in his films, but that has more to do with him hiring good designers and storyboard artists, as well as swiping pace and POV from sequences in classic movies. Lefty to his own options, he almost always opts for the wrong shot. And that brings us to another flaw: he lacks a good sense of humor. I was fed up with the antics of Jar Jar Binks long before he ran away from boulders down a hill like Buster Keaton. At that point, my right hand darted out instinctively for a remote control to change the channel.

And he's not content to swipe from others - he insists on recycling his own material. Just take a look at this handy chart:

Episode Four

Episode One

State of the art f/x beyond anything anyone had seen. Ditto. But now we're used to it every few months.
Dark Lord of the Sith duels Kenobi with lightsabers. Ditto. But in a much better choreographed fight.
Whiny junior jedi Luke Skywalker, accompanied by R2D2,  flies his little fighter spaceship flies into a big huge one and blows it up. Whiny junior jedi Anakin Skywalker shows us the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Spunky Princess Leia, sporting a bizarre hairdo,  fights alongside the troops, except for the final battle. Spunky Queen Amidala, sporting a very   bizarre hairdo,  fights alongside the troops for the final battle
Comic sidekick Chewbacca speaks in unintelligible grunts and howls. Comic sidekick Jar Jar speaks in unintelligible English dialect.
Han Solo is a rogue and a rascal. Qui-Gonn Jinn won't play by the Jedi council's rules.

Plot points are borrowed from Episode Six (Return of the Jedi) as well, specifically in the final battle. Once again we see an army of cute-but-noble aliens using low-tech weapons to battle the mechanized bad guys, while fighter pilots try to destroy the enemy's weak link.

But let's try to forget all the crap. This is a great movie, with something interesting in the frame at all times. It creates a conflict: shots are so beautiful you don't want to leave them, but you can't wait to see what happens next. Lucas takes time along the way to answer nagging questions about the series - such as: why doesn't the Empire just use armies of robots to do their fighting?

He also raises some intriguing new questions, like: why doesn't Anakin have a father? And: How does the underwater city fit in that little lake? And: what is written on Mace Windu's wallet?



in the junk drawer:

and such
and such

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