Watching 'Star Wars' For the First Time: 'The Phantom Menace'
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Before I start, please take a moment to sign this petition demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26 year old black woman who was murdered in her sleep by three police officers that broke into her home: https://www.change.org/p/andy-beshear-justice-for-breonna-taylor. Say her name.
It's about time I admitted something: I've never seen Star Wars. OK, that's not actually entirely true. I watched Episode III when I was a kid on DVD and I saw Rogue One and The Force Awakens in the cinema. Growing up, though, Star Wars was always my brother's thing. He played Rebels on GameCube, had a Darth Maul-themed football and went to see all of the prequels in the cinema while telling my mum that I was 'too young' to tag along.
I enjoyed The Force Awakens and I honestly really liked Rogue One, but it was around this time that the dude-bros surfaced and Star Wars developed a pretty toxic fan-base. Kelly Marie Tran, one of the stars of The Last Jedi, was even bullied off of social media by fans who didn't like her role. All of this hubbub made Star Wars feel a little inaccessible. I wanted to immerse myself in the franchise but - to put it bluntly - I just didn't like the vibes.
Thanks to cultural osmosis I already know a fair bit about the series. I know about Porgs and Mandalorians, I know about Storm Troopers and Death Stars, I also know that sand is coarse and rough and irritating, and that it gets everywhere under your clothes. As a boy with a film blog during a time of global cinematic shut-down, I suppose it's as good a time as any to start connecting all these dots. That's right, I'm sure you'll all be sufficiently relieved to hear I'm finally clambering into my Tide Fighter cockpit and embarking on a voyage to the planet Tattoo-weenie.
Note: I've decided to watch the films in narrative order, not in the order of their release, which means I'm starting with 1999's Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
What struck me immediately as I settled into The Phantom Menace was that the film suffers from a tremendous identity crisis. It seems as if the film wants to do four things simultaneously; create nostalgia for returning fans; set-up a new and exciting adventure; draw in a new (and, therefore, younger) audience; and contemplate moralistic philosophies of power. Unfortunately, the film fails to do almost any of these with great success - though I'm sure the return of R2D2 and C-3P0 was well received by contemporary movie-goers.
While the droids are brought back to the silver screen with tenderness and care, The Phantom Menace fails to offer the same attention to the rest of the returning cast. Yoda and Jabba the Hutt, for example, are clunkily recreated in CGI that's as jarring and unconvincing as Dominic Cummings in a Downing Street press conference. In fact, it seems like the entire film is packed with examples of sloppy digital effects that pale in comparison to the puppets originally used in the first Star Wars trilogy. In actuality, it's the existence of these puppets which make the sins of Episode I seem more egregious. Perhaps this CGI was impressive for it's time, but it obviously would have been better to re-use the original trilogy's practical props rather than let them continue to rot in some dusty corner of Leavesden Studios.
The worst offender is Jar Jar Binks, a character who I know has caused great controversy over the years. For the unacquainted, he's basically Star Wars' Olaf - a digital fool who's sole purpose is to provide comic relief for young audiences while the grown-ups progress through the narrative. The best example of this kind of character I can think of is Shrek's Donkey, a character who is supported not just by an excellent script but by the film's pacing - you never get annoyed by him because he isn't constantly on-screen.
Unfortunately, Jar Jar is. And The Phantom Menace's bad script lets him down as much as the film's sloppy digital effects. While the character could have been redeemed through physical comedy, especially in the final battle sequence, his CGI is never convincing enough to make the slapstick very effective - I never quite bought into his existence. Don't get me wrong, the CGI isn't all bad; the digital landscapes of the planet Naboo are genuinely gorgeous and so are its underwater settlements. It just seems that, in 1999, computer effects weren't at all ready to create convincing characters in live-action settings.
That's enough about the film's visuals, though, because I wanna take a look at its narrative. The Phantom Menace tries to tell two different stories, one about political corruption and the other about Anakin Skywalker. Now I'm a sucker for a good political drama, but Episode I's space-senate sub-plot is irredeemably boring and dull. I suppose The Phantom Menace relies too much on the assumption that returning audiences will be interested in watching Palpatine manipulate his way into power, but there's little here to entertain new arrivals to the franchise.
Anakin's origin story feels similarly half-baked. While I was interested in the film's alignment of Anakin with Christ (both being born of virgin mothers, both being destined to perform great miracles) the script never really takes it far enough. The script also raises interesting questions surrounding morality, destiny and power. If you knew that a child would grow up to be all-powerful, would you train him and hope he'd remain morally un-corrupted or risk creating a terrifying threat? It's an idea reminiscent of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman (another Christ figure) is weaponized by the American government and becomes "the interventionist tool of a neoconservative, neocolonialist superpower." It's unfortunate that these discussions didn't take more prominence in The Phantom Menace, but I'm hoping that they'll do so as the trilogy progresses.
Before I wrap up this review/discussion I have one more small complaint: I don't understand the Force. I don't understand what it can and can't do, and I don't understand how it's linked to lightsabers. Now that I think about it, is the Force linked to lightsabers? Or are these glowy-fire-wands just the Jedi's snazzy weapon of choice? And why did they just leave Anakin's enslaved mother on Tatooine? You're telling me it's okay for a Jedi to blow up a spaceship but it's unthinkable for them to rescue a literal slave?
I guess the issue here is that The Phantom Menace tries to appeal to younger audiences (through the inclusion of grating comedic sidekicks) while failing to actually educate them about how the world of Star Wars works. It's entertaining enough for young children to watch and sufficiently cosy for long-time fans, but Episode I isn't nearly inclusive enough for older newbies. I guess I'll just have to pick this stuff up as I go along...
TL;DR: I really love the droids, I really dislike CGI and I don't understand the Force - but I'm trying.
Next Up: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Written by James Green
P.S. I can't believe they killed Darth Maul so early on? That guy was bad-ass. I know Ewan McGregor kinda cut him completely in half but I'm hoping the Force somehow brings him back. Can it do that? I hope it can do that...