Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Phantom Menace (1999)

This movie is ten years old. Wow. Ten years since George Lucas went from creator of beloved universe to "childhood memory rapist" as some of the most disappointed fans put it. Ten years since the greatest confluence of hype and mediocrity in the history of cinema. Had Lucas made a decent movie in that ten years, all would be have been forgiven, but sadly the other to "prequel" movies were just as deeply flawed in different ways as "Episode One."

Phantom Menace was always my favorite of the prequels because though it is long, uneven, busy, overblown and creaky it had a few advantages over the later installments. The twenty year hiatus allowed Lucas to indulge the audience a bit in seeing the origins of characters from the original trilogy. The later installments do this as well, but it seemed more ok, somehow to indulge in this one. The first time R2 saves the day, a character actually shouts, "that little droid did it!" Moments like that worked for me in 1999 and they are still fun. Phantom Menace also has Liam Neeson, which the later films do not. By being the first Jedi in his prime that we'd seen, fans finally got to do more than just dip their toe in lightsaber fights, mind tricks and that special combination of kung fu and pseudo religion that we'd been teased with in the original trilogy.

I dragged Episode One out recently because my kid plays with my Star Wars toys and he has taken a shine to a twelve inch figure of Qui Gon. He was so happy to find out that there was a "Qui Gon movie" as he calls it, that I dug it out for him, even though I was pretty sure it was a little old for him. Maybe it's just not old enough since he was bored a great deal. He watches Cars which is just as long and more character-driven. He liked certain action set pieces, but there are too many talky meeting scenes that aren't really made any more bearable by the fact that the people in them are crazy long-necked aliens. They still suffer from Dam Busters syndrome.

The effects were a major selling point of the movie and I think they still hold up. I'm no huge expert in this area, though. I still watch the unadulterated Original Trilogy (no special editions, thank you) without being bothered by the effects. Heck I watch Errol Flynn movies and am not bothered by the effects. The film is busy, but not as cluttered as the last two installments in the prequel trilogy.

George Lucas really only has one way of ending a movie. An outnumbered squadron of underdogs must blow something up (a death star, a shield generator, a control ship, a series of Dams that provide hydroelectric power for Nazi Germany....oh wait, that was Dam Busters again) before a bunch of other characters get wiped out. There will be spectacular effects as the squad moves through a purpose-built landscape that only exists to give some variety for the matte painters and to tantalize the viewer with how spectacular it all is. This may sound harsh, but I really mean it as a compliment. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies are to dancing on improbable staircases what Jedi Knights are to fighting in reactor cores. Any franchise with a successful formula has to simply shuffle the elements and give the people what they want. In that respect, The Phantom Menace is more of a success than a failure.

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