Action Movie Friday: Star Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace

It is time for Action Movie Friday, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!

Title: Star Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace
MPAA Rating: PG
Release: 1999
Genre: action, science fiction, racing
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Ray Park
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Distributor: Fox
Budget: $115 Million
Box Office: $1 Billion

According to this trailer we should have focused on the Anakin story. According to the movie presented to us, it needed to focus on the Naboo story. Someone needed to make up their mind.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 57%

Gingersnaps Rating: Three and a half cookies!

Summary:

The once great and mighty Republic is failing. Headed by Chancellor Valorum, The Senate once a staunch proponent of justice has become corrupt. It’s decisions ruled more by bureaucracy than truth. Speared by the Trade Federation, the taxation of trade routes has ripped the Senate apart. Those who refuse to pay the taxes are placed under siege by the Trade Federation’s powerful droid armies, blockading off whole planets in order to gain control of them. The latest planet under siege is the small planet of Naboo, hoping to head of hostilities, Chancellor Valorum sends two ambassadors, Jedi Knights to negotiate a settlement. Quickly betrayed, the Jedi make their way to Queen Amidala, ruler of Naboo. Queen Amidala decrees that she will brave the stockade and go to the Senate in order to plead her people’s cause and force the Trade Federation to the table. A knocked out hyperdrive, sends the Queen and entourage to the Hutt controlled planet of Tattooine, where they meet Anakin Skywalker, a young slave who might be able to fix their ship and hold the key to the Force’s future.

Review:

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog how much I love Star Wars. And I haven’t actually reviewed the movies yet and yes, it is time to do that!

Okay, when it comes to money, we might as well not talk about it. Star Wars is a hugely successful science fiction movie franchise. Alien, Terminator, Star Trek, well maybe Star Trek, but Star Wars is probably the most well-known film franchises out there. And whether or not you love it or hate it, all depends on if you like science fiction and sometimes how old you were when you first watched it. I was in seventh grade (right about when they were releasing it again in theatres) and I promptly gobbled up a huge amount of the Expanded Universe.

There are two things to note about the Star Wars movies that must be taken into consideration when reviewing them. One, they take place on a galactic scale where entire planets hang in the balance. And two, they all follow a formula. The narrative of Star Wars is pretty blatantly laid out in John Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” If you know the basic outline of the hero’s journey, then you’ll know the basic outline of each of the Star Wars trilogies.

The first movie of the entire series is a bit bloated. There is a huge question of who the hero is supposed to be for this first trilogy. We are introduced to a great many characters over the course of the film and the one we feel that we should be watching whose identity is given such importance, is not only introduced late, but also feels forced. This is because the movie suffers from too many plotlines. It is hard to get a grasp on the entire situation when we aren’t actually shown any of the actual principal players of the game. The pawns we are shown are strikingly incompetent. For instance, we are never shown Chancellor Valorum, despite the fact he is incredibly important to the entire plot as head of the Senate. We spend very little time with Senator Palpatine. We have no backstory and no idea what is going on in the Jedi Council either. We don’t know what the prophecy is about. What are the indicators of the prophecy and why it is so important in the first place! In fact, we spend a great deal of time following two Jedi Knights as they ‘follow the Force,’ attaching themselves to a young child and watching a, admittedly exciting, pod race, learning absolutely nothing about well, anything significant.

The dialogue is stiff. It makes me want to take it somewhere and beat it until it loosens up. It has the bad habit of pointing out what exactly is going on screen at that moment which anyone could see for themselves. And most of the dialogue is delivered without any sort of emotion in incredibly stiff or inappropriate accents. (I don’t know if he was trying to be more accessible by using “standard” for most the aliens in this movie, but it really and I mean, really, tore me out of the movie whenever a strange looking alien opened their mouth and sounded like a bad posh British impersonator. And the Huttese was horrible. Slimo, poodoo, really?) I don’t know whose dialogue was worse, the dialogue written for the Gunguns or the dialogue written for the children. The one breath of fresh air was Ewan McGregor, who if he got direction to be stiff and emotionless, wisely chose to ignore it. Liam Neeson is always wonderful, but he played Liam Neeson with long hair. It wasn’t anything ground breaking or exciting.

The plot follows a formula and of course, by the end of the first movie we know what has to happen. And it does happen, with saddening predictability. Great world builder and character creator, George Lucus may be, ground breaking story teller, he is not. The only times I felt engaged in this movie was during the pod racing scene and the fight sequences. The rest was utterly flat.

Despite the illusion of conflict in the story, there really was no conflict in what was shown to us. Qui Gon runs the entire show with the power of the force. And the actual conflict of this story, the conflict of the Senate and the Trade Federation and what is going on with Naboo, is skipped to go to Tattooine and show a pod race. I know political intrigue isn’t as fun as pod races. However, that is where the true conflict in this story is, with Senator Palpatine, Chancellor Valorum, the pawns of the Trade Federation and Queen Amidala’s courage. They tried to create some tension with the dead hyperdrive, but it was just as dead in the water with Jedi at the helm. This story needed a lightsaber with the name of focus!

It is with utter sadness, I have to eat this cookie.

Okay explosions, yes, there are always plenty explosions. I’m going to count all the explosions in the pod race as completely unnecessary, because that pod race was completely unnecessary.

The fight scenes are riveting, when they aren’t being broken up to watch people run through the palace and shoot at each other. The fight coordinator really knows his business, giving Obi Wan, Qui Gon and Darth Maul different styles. Of course, watching this movie makes me want to go watch all the other movies the actor for Darth Maul is in with fight scenes. He’s just that good. (He also plays Toad in X-Men.) So, another cookie for this movie.

I think my favorite part of this movie is Queen Amidala. She’s not part of a love plot. She’s a Queen and she is extremely intelligent. When it is time to go into danger, she doesn’t send someone else, she goes herself. It is clear that she is a good shot. She also is a good diplomat and strategist. However, by ignoring the larger conflict of the story and focusing on freeing Anakin, the movie ignored the chance to give her a good story and plot of her own. She is the strongest character in the movie and it would have been nice to see her given more tension. Instead, we have an entire hour or so of her feeling and being ignored and left to pout as a flouted teenager on Tattooine instead of being a Queen. (Thank you Beckah for this observation.) So, I’m going to eat half the cookie for lost chances.

But let us give George Lucas credit where credit is due. He is an amazing world builder. The galaxy of Star Wars is colorful, rich and diverse. The advancement of computer technology has only made it possible for the aliens to be that much more outrageous and entertaining. Lucas has made a set of rules for the Star Wars universe and by and large he sticks to them. Because it is ‘soft’ science fiction and doesn’t necessarily go into the technical aspects of technology, there really isn’t much I can say about what is presented in the movie itself. So, another cookie.

For what is supposed to be a first movie in a franchise (despite being made fourth), this movie relies on the viewer knowing what was happening in movies 4 through 6. The plot, as presented, has no conflict, so outside of pod races and light saber fights, the movie feels stiff and flat. The poor dialogue choices don’t help this impression. There is a lot of potential in this movie story wise that just feels like it was wasted on pretty sets and fast ‘cars.’ Three and a half gingersnaps.

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