I liked it.
I liked it a lot. I saw it four times.
The first time, midnight on the day of release, I admit that I came out dazed and with a slight sense of anti-climax. I think with all the hype, with the twelve year wait, with all the endless rumours and speculations, the film itself could not fail to be a let-down. (I recall feeling the same way about Return of the Jedi, come to think of it.)
I sat in the cinema, not looking forward to the film but feeling acutely nervous. Please, be a good film; please, be a good film. At the end, I suppose I felt relieved, relieved that it wasn't a turkey, but too burnt out to actually think in terms of liking or disliking. And certainly, as Brian Blessed yells 'peace' in a silly voice, I had a sense of 'Is that it? Is that all I get for three years?'
But I went back and saw it again the next day (sad fanboy, me?) and was left with a strong sense that I wanted to and see it again, immediately. Since when I have bought the visual guides, scripts, comics, and have been eating unreasonable quantities of Rice Crispies in an attempt to complete my set of statuettes. If anyone has a Darth Maul to swap for two 3P0s and a Jar-Jar, please contact me at the usual address. I am, in short, an unreconstructed fan.
It wasn't the greatest film ever made: that is still a dead heat between Duck Soup and A Short Film About Killing. It wasn't as good as Star Wars. It didn't magically make me into an eleven year old again, nor give me the experience of watching Star Wars for the first time. It wasn't a religious experience which changed my life. It's a film, a space adventure film in the same idiom as the Star Wars trilogy, with many of the same faults, many of the same strengths, and many of the same pretensions. It has, like Star Wars, bad acting, corny dialogue, and a plot that risks getting swamped by special effects. Like any sequel 10 years after the event, it veers at times to far into pastiche, at other times too far into 'commentary'. It contains a couple of dodgy bits of ret-con. But ultimately, it was a Star Wars movie.
The opening minutes of the film are a little like being banged on the head with a sledge hammer or winning the lottery: the experience of sitting in the cinema watching a new Star Wars movie (new Star Wars movie!) is just so strange that you can't respond to it as a film. A young Obi-Wan; people in Jedi robes, light sabres. Oh god, the titles are rolling, and it says 'Episode One, (Episode 1!) The Phantom Menace'. Those opening minutes feel slightly knowing, slightly like self-parody. George Lucas is simultaneously fulfilling and undercutting our expectations. The opening lines of the scrolling text have an intentional sense of bathos. 'Turmoil has engulfed the galactic republic. A dispute has arisen over taxation…'; and just as we are waiting for the huge space ship to fly across the screen, a teeny-tiny little space ship appears. Obi-Wan has not been on stage for five seconds before he refers to Master Yoda and utters the magic words 'I have a bad feeling about this.' But Qui-gon replies 'I've felt nothing': 'bad feelings' are evidently part of the day to day stock in trade of the Jedi. We have robots that look like C-3PO but are treated as servants, and, very rapidly, a fight scene in which the Jedi do melodramatic things with lightsabres—lightsabres which are no longer arcane duelling weapons, but day-to-day side arms. The choreography of the fight, and John Williams acheingly familiar music tell us that we are on familiar territory. The universe (galactic republic, taxes) is set up in opposition to the expected Star Wars world, but the construction of the film is familiar. We've come home.
I guess that the biggest problem with the film is the omnicompetance and gravitas of its heroes. The atmosphere of the original films is nicely summed up in the Alan Dean Foster novelisation: 'they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so of course, they became heroes'. Luke and Han are engaging because of their incompetence: they never seem to know what they are doing; they bungle and improvise. 'How we doing kid?' 'Same as usual' 'That bad huh.' Obi- Wan and Qui-Gon are, by definition, calm, confident and in control. (So, oddly, is Anakin.) This makes the underwater sequence feel a little too much like a fair ground ride: all very pretty, but you somehow assume that they aren't going to get eaten by a whale in the first reel.
This is, of course, the point of Jar-Jar Binks, a character who I don't object to nearly as much as everybody else in the universe. But then, I didn't find the Ewoks irritating until everyone told me that they were, so I guess I'm not as clever as the average film goer. Jar-Jar is there to panic, to not be in control, to be the antithesis of the Jedi's oriental calm. However, he is too alien and silly to work as a viewpoint character, as a point of identification for the viewer. He is occasionally funny and often gets good lines ('mesa wonda why da guds invent pain') but is really little more than comic relief, fulfilling essentially the same role that C-3PO had in Empire Strikes Back—the comic foil who sits at the back of the space ship saying 'oh my' in the scary bits.
A number of critics with too much time on their hands have suggested that Jar-Jar was a racist caricature. The logic of this appears to be that since old films often represented black people as stupid, stupid aliens must be intended to be thought of as black people. It would be at least as plausible to denounce Return of the Jedi for depicting the Ewoks as comic savages with bones through their noses, prone to either worship the White Man or serve him up in a cooking pot. I simply didn't see it. Granted, the Trade Federation had Japanese accents, but they weren't otherwise given stereotyped Japanese characteristic. If we are going to worry about patronising foreigners, I suggest we devote out time to removing the Klingons from Star Trek.
Star Wars is frequently praised for its tight construction—Darth Vader finds Leia, Leia finds the droids, the droids find Luke, Luke finds Ben, Ben finds Han and Han takes everyone back to Leia. Phantom Menace is more sloppy, but there is something of the same feel about it. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan gradually acquire an entourage of player-characters ("pathetic life-forms" as Obi-Wan put it) and when they stroll off into the Tatooine desert, one feels that one has passed the establishing section of the movie, and established a new party of characters who one can relax with and relate to. I guess that is the point of the lengthy prologue. We have to have time to perceive Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Jar-Jar and R2 as a group before they encounter the key element and the subject of the film, Anakin Skywalker.
A lot of people have claimed to find Anakin irritating. This always happens when children appear in sci-fi movies. I recall Star Trek fans talking about wanting to throw Wesley out of the airlock; we've seen reviews in computer gaming zines and other lad publications about wanting to strangle Anakin or send him to the Dark Side. This is a symptom of the English dislike of children in general, and not a criticism of the film per se. On the whole, Anakin is an excellent creation. Granted, he has to deal with a George Lucas script; and one has to be a fairly experienced actor to deliver lines like 'Yippee' with much conviction. But he straddles the two sides of his role—spunky boy-hero and wide-eye innocent—rather well. His first scene with Padme is very nicely judged; the meal at the slave hovel I found to be the most engaging scene in the whole movie.
It is significant that the image of Anakin casting Darth Vader's shadow does not appear in the film. Indeed, we are never forced to become aware that Anakin is Vader: he is an independent creation. Indeed, several times I found myself thinking of him as a young Luke, which is, I guess exactly what I am meant to think. My understanding is that he will be a young man of seventeen or eighteen in the next movie, which seems rather a shame: it would have been nice to say him grow up along with the films. Leonardo De Capprio has already turned down the role, but then, a film isn't really a film these days until Leonardo De Capprio has turned down a role in it.
I admire the pod-race sequence for its audacity—re-shooting Ben Hur with aliens—and for its technical execution, but although I tried hard, I failed to find it exciting. Although it had lots of action and strange aliens and was vertiginous and clever, it was only a Pod Race. It was important that Annie get the prize money, but nothing in his development as a character depended on it. I think this is the key weakness of Phantom Menace as a whole. Annie wins because he was a better pilot than Sebulba; not for any other reason. In all the key action sequences in the original Star Wars movies, the action reveal a key point of characterisation—the flight through the asteroid field is not really about big rocks, it is about the Han Solo's relationship with Princess Leia. The attack on the Death Star isn't about saving the rebellion; it's about whether Luke will trust to the Force, and whether there is more to Han Solo than money. The Pod Race is really only about which chariot drives fastest.
There is a lot of retroactive continuity in Phantom Menace, as is I suppose is inevitable in any prequel. Anakin is presented as a very significant and important individual. In Star Wars, Darth Vader is 'a young Jedi knight, who was a pupil of mine before he turned to evil'; a jedi knight, a pupil, the one who helped the emperor hunt down and destroy the jedi knights. Granted, the word 'Lord of the Sith' was associated with Darth Vader but I'm not sure where the phrase comes from. No-one uses it in any of the films. But we haven't spent ten minutes in Anakin's company before Qui-gon realises that he is the Chosen One, a long prophesied being who will Bring Balance To The Force. He is the result of an heroic (although as Lucas is at pains to point out, not Christ-like) virgin birth, and has more innate Force powers even than Yoda. The Sith, which Darth Vader was Lord of, are part of a 1000 year conspiracy of evil Jedi.
And, of course, the midichlorians. More Star Wars fans have objected to the midichlorians than almost anything else in the film, which is significant, given that there are about two and half lines referring to them. The idea that we get our Force powers from little symbiotic micro organisms is, apparently, a really bad idea which undermines the whole notion of the Star Wars universe. Well, maybe. One can see why Uncle George has put it in: he is already committed to there being a genetic element to the Force (it runs stronger in some families than others) he requires some pseudo science explanation of how it works. I admit that I preferred the Force as it was in Star Wars, mysterious, abstract, unexplained. At the time when Empire Strikes Back came out, there were reviewers who objected to the whole notion of Yoda, to the whole idea of Luke Skywalker using the Force for telepathy and telekinesis, and to the whole idea of Ben Kenobi appearing as a ghost, rather than as a disembodied voice. This made the Force too specific; too much a religion, rather than the abstract symbol of religion in general. When Return of the Jedi came out, people similarly objected to the portrayal of the Emperor—the novelisation had clearly stated that the Emperor was simply a corrupt bureaucrat, and here he was as the dark lord on his dark throne in the land of mordor where the shadows are. Point being: any Star Wars film is going to extend and manipulate the mythology; and any extension and manipulation of the mythology is going to take it off in directions other than how we Star Wars fans expected. So I can live with Midichlorians, with Anakin having made C3PO from a kit, and with Ben having had a mentor called Qui-Gon who he never mentioned.
Certainly, the section of the film I most enjoyed was when the action shifted back Coruscant, and we got the Senate, the Jedi council and lots of really big buildings. This was also the point at which a lot of the plot momentum started to come to a head, and I had a sense that things were happening. There was such a large amount of visual stuff that you wished we could have lingered: could we not at least have panned around the Jedi council so we saw everyone in the room, or had a close look at some of the delegates at the senate?
I felt that the film was enhanced on my third viewing of it by having read the script, the comics and the wonderful wonderful Dorling Kindersley visual dictionary. The photo-book listed all the Jedi councillors by name; showed us close ups of many of the senators; explained to us precisely why Jar-Jar had been exiled, how an elective monarchy works, and why there are only ever two Sith. This also makes it the ideal train-spotter movie. There is so much going on on the screen (Screen One at the Odeon was clearly to small for it) that you feel the need to go back and try to pick up the details, and the merchandising books tell you what to look for: a female Yoda on the Jedi council; a group of Wookies at the senate. I am, however, glad that I did not know when I first saw the film that Amidala's elderly adviser is called governor Bibble, or that the Jedi master with the long neck is called Yareal Poof.
This is one of the oddest things about the film. I went to a lot of trouble to avoid knowing the plot in advance. I didn't go into Forbidden Planet for a month; avoided TV, and got someone to walk in front of me in the street ringing a bell and shouting "does not want to hear about Phantom Menace." Several of my friends had the pirated DVD, but I explained to them that if I heard any details about the plot, I would strike off their privvy members. On the whole, I'm glad I did this; it meant that a number of the plot twists—the relationship between Padme and Amidala, and indeed the fate of Qui-Gon, took me moderately by surprise. And yet there were several moments when I wondered whether this hadn't been a mistake. There were such a large number of minor characters—the members of the Jedi council, Amidala's entourage, the pod-race crews—that you felt, watching the film, that you actually wanted a score card or a guide book. In the olden days, when I still cared about Walt Disney films, I felt nothing wrong about having seen important clips from the movie on Blue Peter, about having collected models of the characters from corn flake packets or seen them referred to in that estimable publication Donald and Mickey and Also Goofy. By the time The Aristocats arrived at the Barnet Odeon, the characters were already familiar to you—part of the texture of your life. Perhaps this is how George Lucas intended that we should watch Phantom Menace. It doesn't matter that Darth Maul plays such a relatively small part in the actual movie: we already know him as an icon through countless bubble bath containers and duvet covers.
A cynic might suggest that the reason that these characters are under developed in the film is that Lucas wanted to leave some spaces to be filled in by subsequent sub-contracted novels and TV shows.
I felt that the film's climax, the big battle, veered towards the dull. For one thing, it seems that Return of the Jedi has established a formula for Star Wars: that you have to engineer a land battle, a space battle, and a Jedi battle to go on simultaneously. In Return of the Jedi, the folks on the ground have to destroy a generator so the space battle can win; in Phantom Menace, the folks in space have got to destroy a computer control ship so the folks on the ground can win. The only real point of character interest was Anakin blundering around in his space ship.
And then there was the battle with Darth Maul, about which the most that one can say is that everyone jumped about a lot. In Star Wars, Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi fight a stately, ritualised, Arthurian battle, 'frozen like titans from a lost time.' In Empire Strikes Back, Luke discovers the benefit of doing somersaults during a sword fight; and in Return of the Jedi everyone spends a lot of time jumping of platforms, with their cloaks flowing dramatically behind them. This battle turns into a non-stop martial arts gymnastic display. One imagines that the battle between Darth and Ben in Episode III will involve people doing hand stands and manipulating their light sabres with their toes.
Compared with the lightsabre duels in previous movies, it seemed pointless: nothing was riding on it, it was simply a confrontation and an exercise in sword play. Obi-wan wins because he catches Darth Maul off guard, not because there has been a key moment of spiritual growth. Indeed, by the end of the movie, none of the characters have significantly changed or grown: even Anakin, although his exterior circumstances have changed beyond recognition, does not appear to have experienced any personal development.
Phantom Menace is painfully aware that it is the first volume of a trilogy, laying down the ground work, establishing setting and situation, but not really going very far along the narrative path. One has a sense of George Lucas going to his safe and finding the legendary envelope on the back of which he wrote the plots of all nine Star Wars movies in 1976. We can imagine what he wrote:
'1999 - Episode 1
There are two Sith, a master and an apprentice. Alec Guinness and his mentor find a little boy with Jedi potential, and decide to train him. Evil Jedi apprentice kills Alec Guiness's master, so he must train boy himself.
2002 — Episode 2
Sith master needs new apprentice, and turns little boy, to the dark side. Little boy turns into Leonardo de Capprio, to the dark side. Boy falls in love with woman who is very beautiful, kind, but sad.
2005 — Episode 3
Alec Guinness and Leonardo de Capprio have a fight. Leo falls into volcano and turns into David Prowse. The end. '
It's not a bad back story, but there is an awful lot of fleshing out and padding to build it up into an actual film and the gungans and the Trade Federation and the Pod Race really feel like padding. And somehow, I don't quite believe in Darth Maul. One feels that he is there because he has to be there, because he has to be killed so there is a vacancy for Evil Jedi 1st Class, but that he's just hanging around in this movie waiting for the main, how-Darth-Vader-Turned-Evil story to happen in the next one.
It's been said, particularly by Jar-Jar apologists, that Phantom Menace is a children's film—that the target audience is nine year olds.
It isn't, of course.
I was in a Bristol toy-shop the other day, looking for a lightsabre, and there was a kid of about eleven or twelve, on the point of bursting as he tried to work out which bits of his pocket money he would spend on which toy, oh wow, they've got one of those amazingly cool ones, wow.
Be careful, I said to his mother. He's going to grow up to be me
George Lucas didn't make his films in the wrong order; he knew what he was doing. Milton knew what he was doing when he started his book in Hell after the fall of Lucifer, back tracked to the Creation and placed the Angelic rebellion in the exact centre of his narrative. Francis Ford Copola knew equally well what he was doing when he introduced us to Don Corleone as an old man, and only embedded the story of his youth and childhood into the second film, a prequel within a sequel. (I gather that the projected Godfather IV is going to occur 'after part II but before part I.') What Star Wars is ultimately about is nostalgia; recovering the past, recovering childhood. The point of Star Wars is that its 'the sort of film which George Lucas used to like when he was a kid' — a comic strip adventure of the sort that they don't make anymore. There was time of peace and justice, before the dark times, before the Empire—and this just happens to be associated with Luke's lost Father. So Luke meets the wise old man, and his surrogate parents are murdered, and he goes off into the world and buckles lots of swashes and in the end, he takes away the mask which separates him from Dad, and they smile at each other, and he dies. Luke goes back to Endor, and makes Darth Vader's funeral pyre. And Luke then skips merrily off into the forest, and joins the party which the Ewoks are having, a veritable teddy bears picnic, complete with fourth of July fireworks. But wherever they go, and whatever may or may not happen to them on the way, in that enchanted place at the top of the forest, a little boy and his Ewok will always be playing.
Ostensibly, it’s a right of passage movie, but its actually about the return of the Jedi. We don't go forward, we go backwards: back to the days of the Old Republic; back to the time before Dad turned evil and put on his mask; back to childhood. And back, therefore, to Episode I.
We rewind. Back to Tatooine. Back to when the Jedi were a going concern and everyone had toy lightsabres. Back to Tatooine where it all started. Anakin Skywalker is, to all intents and purposes, a younger Luke. But Luke is us, the everyman hero through whose eyes we saw the film, and Anakin is us as we were then: young, innocent, faintly annoying and prone to say 'yippee' at all the wrong moments. Can I be a Jedi Knight Mum, huh, huh? It's what I've always wanted. Hence, the films relentless naivity. This is a world where lonely little boys really can make robots out of kits in their bedrooms, like we all tried to. 'You've been a great pal' says Anakin to C3P0, speaking for action figure collectors everywhere. It’s a world where Mum may not like it, but does let you pilot your own space ship in a pod race; where Jedi knights do wander into your house; where your girl friend suddenly turns out to be a princess and where little nine year olds can find themselves at the helms of spaceships, accidentally saving the universe.
But of course, this is Episode I, and there is a dark shadow following us. With Episode II comes loss of innocence. Annie and Amedila become an item and beget twin children. Jedi-Annakin goes back to Tatooine to free the slaves. Yoda and Obi-Wan don't approve. Darth Sideous is waiting for him, and tempts him. I can give you the power to free all the slaves, to get your revenge on Watto. When his mother is killed, his anger is too great, and he goes over to the Dark Side. In a great symbolic scene, he announces to the world that Anakin Skywalker is dead, and he is now a new person, Darth Vader. In Episode III, the confrontation with Obi-Wan (now Ben) Kenobi. But still in the future are Episodes IV, V and IV—a new child, beggars canyon, Ben Kenobi, the Death Star, redemption—taking off the mask, innocence regained. And then the cycle begins again.
With, presumably, lots of merchandising, and me in the back row of the Odeon feeling terribly nervous.