Written and directed by George Lucas — six of the most fearsome words to movie fans, these are.

“The Phantom Menace” is the first part of the prequel trilogy to the “Star Wars” movies.  Lucas goes way back here…before Luke Skywalker was born, before Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, before the dark times, before the Empire.

Senator Palpatine (who would become the Emperor) has created a false threat — a phantom menace — about a growing conflict involving taxation of trade routes and embargos and invasion and war, all to set in motion events that will allow him to rise in power as he promises to bring order throughout the galaxy.   Put into this turmoil are two Jedi Knights — Liam Neeson and his apprentice, Ewan Mcgregor (playing a young, Ben Kenobi) — who, throughout their mission, encounter the droids R2-D2 and C3PO, a young Anakin, and Anakin’s future wife (played by Natalie Portman).

One of my memorable moments of this movie is the scene when we are first introduced to R2-D2.  Portman’s ship is under attack, and her deflector shield has been damaged.  Four Astromech droids are sent outside to mend the broken parts, and three are quickly destroyed by enemy laser beams.  R2-D2 is the last droid standing, and it manages to bypass the thingamajig’s energy particle dilithium crystal thingies to repair the damage.  R2 saves the day, setting a precedent that will last all six episodes.

As most “Star Wars” fans may have guessed, my most memorable, movie moment of “The Phantom Menace” is the lightsaber duel between McGregor and Ray Park (playing Darth Maul).   Whatever problems the movie had — and it had plenty of them — they all went away when Darth Maul emerged and his light staff lit up to fight  Neeson and McGregor.  Unfortunately, when the duel was over, we were again in the world of Lucas’ shortcomings.

I want to be fair to Lucas.  I believe the man is a genius when it comes to filmmaking.  It’s not that he lost that ability, it’s that he lost his focus: instead of focusing on the story and characters, he started focusing on the costumes and special effects and sound effects and action sequences.   There are parts in “Episode 1” that shows his talents: the droid army entering Naboo’s capital is similar to the Nazis entering Paris during WW II; the duel between the Jedi Knights and Darth Maul; and Lucas’ great use of the subject of a government creating threats to instill fear in those they govern, in hopes the people will give the government more power to supposedly provide greater protection for the people.

All of the good things above are crushed by the following: Jar Jar Binks (and his way of talking that sounds like a black buffoon of early movies); horrible dialogue throughout the movie (“Are you an angel?” — I almost throw up every time I hear that line); the Trade Federation who sound like stereotypical, old Jewish men; the character Watto who sounds like a stereotypical Arab man; enemy droids who talk like idiots (“roger roger”); the lack of emotion on Anakin’s mother when Anakin leaves her (was she not capable of acting like a distraught mother who may never see her young son again — in which case it’s Lucas’ fault for not casting someone who was capable of doing so — or did she have the talent to do so but Lucas didn’t see a need for all that drama, in which case it’s Lucas’ fault for lacking the vision to know that the separation scene should have been more emotionally devastating).   Okay, I’ll stop beating a dead horse.

“The Phantom Menace” is light years away from being in the same league as “The Empire Strikes Back,” but it still has to be seen by every “Star Wars” fan because it’s part of the story, whether you like it or not.  We’re stuck with that movie…search your feelings, you know it to be true.

— M

 

 

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