|By Joshua Zyber
May 9, 2000
Early in The Phantom Menace one of the alien villains turns to his comrade and says, “Are you brain dead?" The same might be asked of Star Wars creator George Lucas, who has taken the long-awaited prequel installment to his beloved movie series and dumbed it down for the new generation.
The movie’s failings are mostly in the scripting. Purportedly written by George Lucas himself but feeling very much like the work of a committee, the screenplay needed at least three or four more drafts before filming. The basic story is serviceable enough, though hardly the kind of grand start expected to kick off an epic saga. The evil Trade Federation has formed a blockade and wants to take over the peaceful planet of Naboo. We are never told what exactly this Federation trades in or why they want Naboo, but I suppose the fact that they deal in commerce is enough to make them evil (an odd sentiment this is, coming from the man at the head of a multi-billion dollar merchandising empire). A pair of Jedi knights is sent to negotiate, but the situation quickly escalates and much lightsaber-swinging havoc ensues. A series of convenient plot turns then leads to the discovery of gifted superchild Anakin Skywalker, who as fans already know will grow into the villainous Darth Vader in future installments.
There are several missteps in logic along the course of the plot, the crux of which is the decision by the mystical and wise Jedi Master Qui-Gon to place his important wunderkind directly into harm’s way. He enters the boy into a dangerous speeder race to earn a few bucks so that Qui-Gon can buy spare parts for his ship. I can think of at least a half dozen less life-threatening ways to resolve this dilemma (do the cantinas on Tatooine not need dishwashers?), but unfortunately none of them leads to a fabulous special effects showcase.
I haven't even gotten to the real problems with the script. For one, the dialogue is atrocious. From Darth Sidious calling his Federation lackey “stunted slime” (I still can’t figure out how this differs from regular slime) to the Queen’s bodyguard telling that same lackey to “kiss your trade franchise goodbye”, the screenplay is loaded with one piece of inappropriate slang after another. I am the first to admit that the original trilogy had its share of poor dialogue, but not even the worst one-liner (“Laugh it up, fuzzball.”) can compare to some of the groaners in this film (“Yousa in big doo-doo this time.”). Furthermore, it is simply shameful to see the writer(s) dragging this film down to a level where it would indulge in fart and poop jokes. When I saw this film on its opening weekend the audience burst into derisive objection at these scenes, as well they should.
All this, and I haven’t even gotten to Jar Jar yet.
The worst crime committed against a viewing audience since Sophia Coppola (who also appears in this film!) single-handedly destroyed The Godfather Part III, the creation of Jar Jar Binks is at once a technological breakthrough and also the single most irritating fictional character in the history of the narrative form. A cross between a hairless platypus and a mutant Roger Rabbit, Jar Jar speaks with the undeveloped vocabulary of The Teletubbies and seems specifically catered for that audience. His presence in this film is a disgrace, and he only gets more hateful with each repeated viewing. Almost as bad is Boss Nass, a slobbering lump of pure idiocy who has less screen time but makes the worst of all of it. Given the amount of special effects work necessary to create the these fully-CGI characters, it is almost inconceivable that no one along the production chain stopped Mr. Lucas in the hallway to ask if he’d had a brain aneurysm.
It seems almost too easy to lay the blame for all the movie’s faults onto the shoulders of one obnoxious character. In fact, if one is looking there are plenty of other discrepancies to get upset about. The acting is mostly wooden. Young Jake Lloyd is particularly bland as Anakin, but what can one really expect from a child when the script calls for him to yell “Yippee!” several times? Has any real child ever actually said "Yippee!" outside the confines of a Dennis the Menace cartoon? Something makes me doubt it. Natalie Portman has two roles in the film and is thoroughly dreadful in both of them. Aside from the fact that her big plot revelation is the most misconceived and unconvincing case of mistaken identity ever put to film, her flat line readings and expressionless face are enough to get her SAG card revoked. It is also never explained why a “democracy” like Naboo would have a queen in the first place. The politically correct replacement of enemy stormtroopers with disposable non-human robots is the type of thing you would expect in a Saturday morning cartoon, not a feature film. The self-described warrior race of Gungans, technologically advanced enough to develop force fields and submersible vehicles, enter battle carrying spears and catapults. There is a misguided attempt to explain away the mystical and religious implications of the Force by making it the work of Star Trek-style microorganisms, while at the same time overdoing the messiah metaphor in the discovery of Anakin. The film can’t seem to make up its mind which way to go.
Not to mention that almost all the alien characters in the film are depicted with distasteful racial stereotypes. The evil Federation representatives speak with a heavy Asian accent, the conniving junk dealer Watto is obviously Middle Eastern, and the bumbling Gungans are clearly of Caribbean descent. I have heard it argued on the film’s behalf that this was some sort of attempt to diversify the cast, but I still don’t buy it. If this were true, I must ask why Mr. Lucas chose only to portray these ethnic-sounding characters so negatively whereas almost all of the intelligent characters in the film are pure White Anglo-Saxon. Samuel L. Jackson has a bit part on the Jedi Council, but his is every bit a token role as Billy Dee Williams’ was in the previous trilogy. He essentially has only one scene in the film and is never even seen standing up.
This racial bias is especially mystifying given the strong Asian influences in the costume and production designs of the film. It has been long acknowledged that Akira Kurasowa’s samurai film Hidden Fortress was Lucas’ inspiration for the first Star Wars picture. That influence extends clearly to this film, evidenced in the Kabuki-like wardrobe of Queen Amidala and the Japanese-sounding names of the Jedi knights. The Jedi, who wear hooded brown robes and do battle samurai-fashion, are obviously meant to take a warrior-monk role. Why, then, do we have such incompetent evil henchman with Asian voices?
It has been suggested that the Star Wars films were always meant for children and that perhaps those who found fault with this film have simply outgrown it. I must disagree. The original three films have their limitations but they did not condescend to their audience as badly as this one. If Star Wars is meant for children, then The Phantom Menace is aimed squarely at toddlers. This is confirmed by my recent viewing of the film with a three year-old, who I noticed was completely transfixed by Jar Jar.
Why do I own a copy of this film?
The answer to that is simple. It is Star Wars, and so cannot be all bad.
The success of the Star Wars series thrives largely on several factors: innovative special effects, thrilling action scenes, and fantasy elements grounded in an elaborate mythological framework. The Phantom Menace does not disappoint in these areas.
On a strictly technical scale the movie is quite an achievement. Even by impossibly high Industrial Light and Magic standards, the special effects work is staggering in both its quality and volume. Unlike most effects pictures which center around two or three major set pieces, there is barely a single shot in The Phantom Menace that has not been aided by extensive digital tinkering. Many of the alien and robotic characters (including Jar Jar) are created entirely out of computer animation, as is a great portion of the film’s production design. Some may see this as a cheat, but it’s hard to criticize when it is blended seamlessly into such a rich and detailed tapestry. Surely, no one would complain that it stands out as badly here as it did in the misguided Star Wars Special Edition films, which attempted to add CGI work to older movies that were not filmed with such intentions in mind. The CGI animation in this film is a noticeable leap forward for the technique, especially when compared to the crude and cartoony computer effects in many comparably budgeted Hollywood pictures. The Phantom Menace sets a new standard for what will be expected out of movie special effects from this point forward.
The action sequences are plentiful and spectacular. From the space battles that are a hallmark of the series to the breathtaking pod race, the film’s forward momentum keeps it going past the weaknesses in the script. Even the lightsaber duels that might have seemed stale after three previous films here have a reinvigorated freshness when bad-ass character Darth Maul fights off two Jedi at a time with fancy martial arts moves. The lightsabers themselves take on new functions in this film as well. There is more stabbing and thrusting this time, with Qui-Gon melting through some blast doors at one point. In previous films we have seen the lightsabers used to deflect laser blasts, but in this one they can even redirect the blast back to the person (or droid, as the case may be) who fired it. Yet none of this seems terribly inconsistent with the rest of the series and all makes for some terrific visceral excitement. Naturally, the whole thing is backed by another outstanding John Williams score.
The original Star Wars (now deemed Episode IV) garnered such attention in the first place due in good measure to its creative variety of strange and quirky aliens. That inventiveness has become a trademark of the series and is carried through to this film as well. Not only is there an interesting assortment of new alien weirdos (including one that walks on his hands and performs tasks with his feet), but the film also pays knowing tribute to fans with cameo appearances from previous Star Wars films. There are Jawas and Tusken Raiders, one character that appears to be a young Greedo, and even a Wookie or two. We also see familiar faces from other notable films of importance to George Lucas. Warwick Davis from Willow (he also performed under heavy costuming as Wicket in Return of the Jedi) makes an appearance in a crowd during the pod race. The loveable creature from Lucas-friend Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is vaguely discernible in the background of the Senate deliberations. At one point we can even spot a statue of the robot from Metropolis, clearly the inspiration for the C-3PO droid.
It is reasons like these that occasionally make even sub-par movies into great home video. This is where The Phantom Menace truly shines. The special effects and action scenes make repeatability a given, and to be honest some of the movie’s flaws diminish in annoyance after a couple of viewings. Jar Jar will forever be an irritation, but I suppose we can’t have everything.
George Lucas and his THX quality-assurance program have long held a commitment to high-resolution home video. The Star Wars Definitive Collection box set, though overpriced given its lack of extensive supplemental content, remains one of the highlights of any laserdisc owner’s collection. Knowing this, it is hard to imagine why Lucasfilm chose to release The Phantom Menace in the United States only on low-resolution VHS tape for so long. Given current market considerations, I understand why a U.S. laserdisc release might not be profitable, but to also ignore the burgeoning DVD market is foolish to say the least. Yet that is exactly what happened. It took over a year and a half after the videotape release before Lucasfilm bothered to announce a DVD.
This laserdisc simply begs to be the default demo disc in any home entertainment system.
The movie is spread to three sides in CLV. The side breaks are well chosen, but it is bothersome that Side 2 (which begins with the pod race) was not presented in CAV format even though the movie’s running time leaves plenty of room to accommodate this. There are no supplements of any kind. I suppose that is fitting given the dirth of bonus material even on previous “definitive” Star Wars collections. The fabulous teaser trailer that built up so much excitement for the film would have been nice, but even that has not been provided. On the plus side, the disc jacket is a very stylish gatefold that opens up to a nice skyline shot of Naboo.
As for the minutiae: The disc has Japanese subtitles burnt into the image, but they appear entirely below the picture in the lower letterbox bar. They are, however, right below the picture, pressed up against it. They are also a little large and somewhat distracting during the opening prologue scroll, but once the movie starts up are easily enough tuned out. None of the English-language subtitles for the alien dialogue scenes are present here, and even though the disc does have English closed-captioning those particular scenes are left uncaptioned. The most plausible theory is that the captioning was prepared primarily for the American video releases, which would provide on-screen subtitles to translate. Still, the number of scenes containing such untranslated dialogue is minimal, and the general meaning of each conversation is easily apparent from the on-screen actions. This was not a film renowned for the sophistication of its dialogue anyway.
The price is quite steep for a movie-only disc. You can
blame 20th Century Fox for that. Their laserdiscs have always been overpriced,
and throwing importing fees on top hardly helps. Regardless, a Star
Wars and laserdisc fan can hardly do without it. Its price will certainly
drop to more reasonable levels on the secondary market, especially after
the much-delayed DVD announcement. Personally, I’d rather have the film
on laserdisc anyway for the sake of consistency with my other Star Wars
lasers. Let’s just hope that the LD market in Japan hangs on long enough
to see the next two episodes as well, though unfortunately I am not holding
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Disc jacket inner gatefold spread
Disc jacket back
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