The idea is simple enough - Star Wars is 30 this month, and to celebrate the franchise that has spent more time on my television than most things, I’m going to watch all six films and review them here. Hell, if I can be bothered, I’ll do one episode per day, and let’s throw in Genndy Tartakovsky’s superior Clone Wars series also.
So join me, in what I hope will be a highly opinionated gloss over this much discussed series, and see which Wars I think rules, which doesn’t, and just who is more annoying - bloody Jar Jar, or the flipping Ewoks?
Like any fan, I start my viewing with the first instalment, not in order of release. That makes today’s subject the critical un-darling that is:
Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999)
Whether any title was doomed to critical flagellation to quite the same extent as The Phanton Menace remains to be seen. Certainly, with George Lucas making us wait sixteen years for a new Wars, the hype surrounding this one reached ridiculous proportions. When it turned out to be somewhat less than a miracle in celluloid form, the knives were out, both from audiences, and from a press that doled it the sort of beating normally reserved for something that tried to argue racism isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Is it really that awful? With the dust long settled where Episodes I - III are concerned, it’s far easier to see TPM for what it is - a genuine attempt at providing something for kids’ matinees, which is pretty much all that IV - VI tried to be. For the adults, there’s a story about a labyrinthine intergalactic trade dispute to follow, one that masks the megalomaniac scheming of Darth Sidious/Chancellor Palpatine. Despite those weighty issues, it’s all worn lightly within a movie that’s clearly intended for younger audiences. The focal characters are Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), who was 15 when TPM was released, and child prodigy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Surrounding the pair is an internationally renowned cast, but it’s these on whom the camera rests the most. These are people with whom the target audience is expected to find the greatest degree of empathy.
All of which is well enough, and TPM certainly made its gajillions at the box office. It’s just a pity that those writing the reviews and providing the most articulate opinions aren’t young children. Though there’s always a tingle to be felt when the 20th Century Fox logo is followed by the timeless legend ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ it’s clear that, as far as grown up viewers were concerned, something was wrong with it all. To begin with, TPM was quite dull in places, filling large blocks of time with Senatorial debate or Jedi banter, both of which seemed to be written as overly formal dialogue that was going nowhere. There’s just no comparison between Samuel L Jackson as Mace Windu, and as Jules Winnfield. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, he’s the deliverer of clever line after clever line, jawing with John Travolta at one point, outlining Biblical text as a portent of doom the next. In TPM, his character - a high ranker within the Jedi Council - has almost nothing to do, mumbling a few comments to Anakin and Yoda, but very little else. In other words, he’s wasted, as is Liam Neeson as Jedi knight, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ian McDiarmid as the slithery Palpatine.
The twin accusations of poor plotting and terrible dialogue - which would dog Episodes I - III - were seen as being allowed to occur as a consequence of the CGI budget. Though by this stage, computer effects were well established, TPM clearly pushed the envelope in terms of what it showed, beginning with a brilliantly realised spaceship once the initial credits had passed, and moving on quickly to the breathtaking shots of Naboo. Amidala’s home world looks like it belongs atop Mount Olympus, the Royal Palace in Caserta, Italy being used as a backdrop to millions of dollars of CGI that produces an earthly paradise. Later, we get characters that have been created entirely by digital effects, not to mention detailed views of the city world of Coruscant and the gleaming silver ship used by our heroes. TPM looks fantastic, granted, but its beauty just seems to bring into sharp focus the weaknesses mentioned above. Added to this, some of the actors appear to have real difficulty interacting with their computer-generated peers, in particular Portman, who is often as wooden as the materials used to create the models of old, before CGI took over the effects department of Industrial Light and Magic.
Then there’s the Jar Jar syndrome. Forget that the maligned Gungan is the first ever occasion that a photo realistic CGI character interacted with live actors in a movie. What remains is the impression we get of an ill-conceived alien that speaks some form of Pidgin English, is a bit dopey in general, continually gets into unfunny scrapes and epitomises the dumbing down of the franchise. Lucas argued that Binks was intended for kids to have a laugh with, but for everyone else, it’s difficult to be anything other than irritated whenever he pops up on the screen to provide a moment of slapstick. Worse still, his dialogue led to quite serious accusations that TPM was racist, Jar Jar sounding and moving like a black stereotype. This, accompanied with the assertion that money-obsessed Watto was mimicking Jewish clichés, led to the kind of questioning of TPM’s imagery and motives that must have made for uncomfortable moments where Lucas and his ILM boffins were concerned.
For me, it’s hard to believe that TPM, a film made to shift as many tickets as possible, wouldn’t have this base firmly covered, and that Jar Jar was conceived with only innocent comedic intentions in mind. Still, given the character’s spectacular failure, you have to wonder how he made it through the obligatory slew of sketches, paintings, animation sessions, and so on, without someone, at any given point asking what this shower was doing in the Wars. R2-D2 and C-3PO - the comedy interest in the ‘old’ trilogy - were still around, so why did we need a new character to laugh at?
That said, as bad as Binks is, we also get one of the best baddies within the franchise here, in the shape of Sith apprentice, Darth Maul. Performed by dancer Ray Park, and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, Lord Maul’s crime is that he doesn’t appear in the movie long enough. When he does, the catlike, tattooed villain brings fight scenes that are balletic and a genuine sense of menace to the proceedings. There’s little doubt that his climactic tussle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) is the best conceived of either trilogy, that it is the definite highlight of the film’s battle told from three different perspectives, and that his double-edged weapon is a superb piece of Sith kit. When he springs into action, Maul is electric to watch, a somersaulting dervish who could have just about anyone, and is despatched by what can only be described as an exceedingly lucky shot. It’s sadder still that he could - and perhaps should - have survived throughout the first set of episodes. But oh well. Perhaps it is in fact Maul’s blessing that less is more, and we get a few very, very good scenes instead of overkill.
Tasked to provide the back story that leads up to the state of affairs in ‘A New Hope’ Lucas comes up with a political theatre, behind which the workings and devices of Darth Sidious are bent towards creating a set of circumstances in which the Galactic Empire will ultimately be instilled. This story - one running through all the ‘prequels’ - is very subtle in TPM, showing how Palpatine engineers a situation that will lead to him being made Chancellor. Though some of this appears to be a little ambitious - are we really supposed to believe that Palpatine is cunning enough to foresee Amidala escaping with two Jedi once her home world is invaded, leading her to Coruscant and eventually to no-confidencing the incumbent Chancellor? - it’s always good stuff, suggesting a Machiavellian presence working quietly behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, this careful unravelling of the power story behind Star Wars is undermined by much of the lazy plotting to be found within TPM. One example - Anakin destroys the trade ship blockading Naboo, but does so by happy accident, which kind of rubbishes all the build-up that has taken place beforehand, including his own performance in the spectacular pod race. Another - what’s the deal with midichlorians? Why do we have to have the motivating power behind the force explained to us? And another - why does the Jedi Council do a sudden about-turn regarding Anakin’s training after Qui-Gon’s death? And so they continue - inconsistencies that insult the audience and show where the money went in this movie. It’s a rather sad reflection on I - III that for all the attention and planning that went into making the films look as good as possible, the same wasn’t often done in regard to the script, though things do go uphill from here.
A flawed first effort then, one with some very, very virtuous moments, but is let down by elements fairly basic to good film making - plotting, acting, dialogue. For all that, as a kids’ movie, it works just fine. You can imagine TPM playing to perfectly satisfied young faces on Saturday morning showings. Sadly, it also just happened to be the latest instalment in the most eagerly awaited franchise of all time. Fans who were children when the original Star Wars movie came out expected the series to grow up with them. It didn’t, hence the backlash.