Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd, Natalie Portman
By Alan Bacchus
Yeah, I don’t hate this movie, and sure it’s a slight disappointment, especially when compared to the first and second original films. But The Phantom Menace successfully puts us back in the tone, style and pacing of the original series, however cartoonish and wooden most of these new characters are.
Like everyone, my expectations were high. Not only for the return of the characters I grew up with and loved, but more for George Lucas’s return to the directing chair – the first film he directed since Star Wars (1977). Unfortunately, it’s marred by a strong feeling of laziness on his part. But more on that later.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The main reason this film succeeds is Liam Neeson, the guiding force (pun not intended) of this movie. He’s a commanding physical presence, which lines up perfectly with the powerful and Zen-like existence of the Jedi knights. I’d argue that it’s the best performance by any actor in a Star Wars film.
Lucas also sets up a strong political plot, laying the seeds for the eventual takeover of the galaxy by the evil Emperor whom we got to know only briefly in Return of the Jedi. While in the previous films the journey we’re taken on is a relatively simple trajectory from the point of view of a naïve country boy-turned fearless Jedi Knight, these new films, based on Phantom Menace, promised a complex chess games of sorts.
The character of the Phantom Menace, as referred to in the title, unfortunately fails to provide any tease or mystery. The man under the hologram cloak looks and sounds exactly like the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, who looks and sounds exactly like Senator Palpatine, the wily seat-filler who engineers most of the action. By the time Revenge of the Sith comes around there’s almost nothing to reveal.
The laziness referenced above is the over-reliance on computer special effects, which moves beyond a mere technical aid and overwhelms the drama. Lucas accomplished some remarkable achievements in technology, but he also pushed it so far as to show its seams. Most of everything in this picture is shot on a green screen soundstage, a process which is more invisible to its technique than ever before. But it’s still not 100% photorealistic. Unfortunately, our human eye can tell even the slightest variance from reality, thus creating a barrier between us and the characters on the screen.
Lucas also overpopulates this film with non-human characters, seemingly caused by this same overconfidence in the technology. He did the same thing with Return of the Jedi, using more alien creatures as main characters than in Star Wars or Empire. Unfortunately, in any of these films the best characters are always the human ones. Yoda might be the exception, but he was operated as a physical hand puppet by the great Frank Oz. In these new episodes much is lost in the transition from human to puppet to CG. As such, Jar Jar Binks, Anakin’s Tatooine slave master Watto and the Japanese nose-less Trade Federation boob Nute Gunray are ineffectual supporting characters that can’t match the heart or soul of human actors.
That said, Lucas has also crafted what is arguably his best villain, Darth Maul, the red-faced acrobatic Sith warrior who looks absolutely menacing with his Maoris-style face makeup and snarling teeth. Lucas is smart to tease us with Darth Maul's abilities until the film’s absolute best scene at the end (and probably the best scene in the entire 6-film series), that is the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Maul lightsaber battle. This trump card, which he keeps in his pocket until the last 20 minutes, is enough to make up for any ill-feelings from Jar Jar, the over-reliance on CG effects and the usually stiff human acting.