Each of the Star Wars films takes its tonal cue from the age of its protagonist. With Luke in A New Hope a similar age to Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, the throughline from the plains of Naboo to the forests of Endor is of increasing maturity and psychological depth.
The Phantom Menace is thus the lightest and most childlike instalment of the saga. Its characters are simply drawn and often simple-minded, from the naive Viceroy to Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans. The Phantom Menace has a wide-eyed, four foot high point of view far removed from the meaty complications of the Original Trilogy. The narration of the TV Spot One Friend perfectly captures that gentle mood:
Sometimes the one that's clumsy, different or even a
little strange just might be the friend you're looking for
It is important to remember that Anakin is on the outside looking in and that our protagonist has yet to take the reins of his destiny or of the film itself.
Therefore, although the world, tonally, is filtered through Anakin's eyes, The Phantom Menace doesn't really help us identify with him narratively or emotionally. In A New Hope Luke's dreams, and the story, are propelled by the discovery of his family's charred remains. In The Phantom Menace Anakin's dreams of going with the Jedi are fuelled by a wish to escape slavery. Yet his slavery is a korma slavery, meek and mild. I understand that this is a hard subject to deal with within a film targeted at a universal audience but Anakin's successive enslavement to Watto, to Jedi rules and to the whims of the Emperor should have been one of the most powerful unifying themes of the saga. The tighter the chains, the more force needed to break out. By underplaying and understating his family's circumstances and the impact this has on his character, the potential of this angle is frittered away.
Luke left out of revenge, ambition, necessity. To all intents and purposes Anakin leaves out of boredom and curiosity. With a lack of emotional thrust, the film struggles to recover dynamism. It does, but slowly.
For all its superficial visual splendour and raw kinetic energy, watching The Phantom Menace again it is surprising how little excitement comes from the plot itself. The film simply does not work sufficiently well either as a stand-alone feature or as the first of a series. It functions only as a fourth episode, as an extended flashback. It is over-reliant on knowledge of what is going to happen to gain momentum in the here and now. It borrows from the future, a debt that compromises its integrity. The information within these films is of the sort that could have formed appendices to the Originals, much as the explanatory addenda in the back of an epic novel.
So Anakin is going to be a Jedi? So what, we could say, if we do not know what a giant leap such a small step will imply. Would I want to see the second episode, unaware of episodes IV to VI, when The Phantom Menace's cliffhanger is as underwhelming as: PEEAACE!! In reality The Phantom Menace has little cluster plots that appear and must be resolved, but no true arc - because its arc only touches down in Revenge of the Sith. Can this film stand up in a few decades time if one comes fresh to the Saga?
The very first sentence that begins the title crawl is a build-up to instant anticlimax:
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
George Lucas's subtlety (charting the rise of a dictatorship over seven hours) comes at the expense of instant gratification.
The original films took inspiration from many sources. The prequels do too but they take too much inspiration from the Star Wars films themselves.The Phantom Menace is creatively constrained, in-bred, sporadically resembling a holographic ghost on a digitised Star Wars stage. The narrative is perfunctory, joining too many dots to get to its pre-arranged destination. Early scenes are very short, rushed like infobites. At times it is short on ideas, even repeating the visual gag of "a bigger fish" rescuing our heroes. Suffocated by a lack of energy, the dialogue and the acting suffer.
An inherent danger and temptation of prequels is to tinker with or dissect the work for which you are, essentially, providing a foundation. It is also a danger to want to gain credit for the intelligence behind a magic trick. The most contentious of all decisions taken by George Lucas was to 'explain' the nature of The Force. Long-term admirers of the Saga may have felt as appalled as C3PO at the kind of damaging demystification that it appeared to crystallise: "My parts are showing!?" In fact Midichlorians, the symbiotic organisms that Qui-Gon says live inside of us, only explain our receptiveness to The Force, leaving the ultimate mystery just that: unsullied and immaculate. Yet I think it is a mistake to even begin to explain it, to intrude on the fringes of sacred ground. It took too long for a character to ask the questions Anakin asks but, in fantasy, an audience's ignorance is bliss.
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Computer Generated Imagery is used extensively in The Phantom Menace. Hackneyed as it is to say it, it lacks weight. It's not quibbling - the significance of special effects goes far beyond mere window-dressing. Weight gives a sense of scale, one of Star Wars' great atouts. Scale is the seedbed for scope and an awareness of the importance of what is happening. Without these things in place it is harder for an audience to grab onto the world and its stories.
In past Star Wars episodes superimposition might have been inadequate and scales distorted but the elements were real. They could be touched by our minds. It isn't a matter of looking real but, in whatever way, being real - a matte painting, a miniature, a model.
There is nothing that can be imagined that cannot be presented, with effort, care and ingenuity, in front of the camera. That said, Watto's furiously flapping wings must have been a blessing on those sweltering Tunisian summers.
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Star Wars has always been bloodless - cauterised wounds, Jedi vanishing into their cloaks when they die - and, aside from the cloud of red that bursts from Darth Maul's halved body, The Phantom Menace, a young person's film, may be the most anaemic of all: droids that offer no resistance and a space battle that proves to be child's play. The Phantom Menace is also blinkered to the world outside of the mission's immediate battlefield. It is difficult to imagine that "the death toll is catastrophic" as a Naboo official tells us, when the ordinary lives on the ground are either not shown or shown chiefly untouched. Where are the bodies, the ruins, the refugees? For all we know the Clone Wars of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are no more than a firework display on Coruscant's night sky.
So little time is spent elaborating the supposed suppression suffered by the galaxy under the Emperor's rule, the sort of oppression that would warrant the outpouring of glee at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. Our milieu is that of generals and power-brokers but it would have been better to ground the film in the compassion that is the cornerstone of Jedi teaching.
George Lucas is keen on echoing historical and political movements and revolutions but from an academic, detached point of view that borders, ironically, on the autocratic.
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And yet, art appreciation is not an exact science. The Phantom Menace has things wrong with it. It could have been better. I love watching it. There is no but in between. I love R2D2's beeps. I love the revelation of Padme's identity to Boss Nass (she is a handmaiden in a Queen's outfit, not the other way around). I love the glorious Gaudi Art Nouveau of the Gunga City's pearl-like world. I love the exquisite Renaissance domes of Theed. I love the Hindu inspired statues half-buried in the undergrowth. I love that the aural text is so evocative that it can stand in for the whole world. I love the eye-popping delectable miasma of speed and colour. I love the droid army's approach over the crest of a hill under a blue cloud-flecked sky, growling with corruptive power, resuscitating Kurosawa's Ran. I love how the light sprinkles over the Lucasfilm logo. I love the architecture of the lightsaber battle, the red force fields, the low hums, the black gleaming amphitheatre and its pupil's abyss. I love how the humblest are exalted and how humbling oneself leads to salvation. I love how Padme, and Natalie Portman, feels so perfectly like Luke and Leia's mother. I love the podrace, even if it goes on too long. I love the pause for breath and for silence once the crawl has faded away. I love the details and the thrill that has gone into its making, that there is not a corner of the canvas unmarked. I love Darth Maul's unexpected, extraordinary entrance, unveiled behind a blast door curtain, evil daubed on his face. I love how droids are unloaded as foetal Airfix kits. I love how the worldly-wise Qui-Gon Jinn is so willing to use his powers to con Watto. I love the sun-baked shades of sand and rock on Tatooine. And yes, I love The Phantom Menace because it enriches its ancestor offspring.
Regardless of everything, even in the weakest moments of the film when I see that the band is not playing, I can still hear the music.