Friday, April 3, 2015

Why did I support 'The Phantom Menace' for so long?

Call it the rationalization of a diehard "Star Wars" fan. My one-time support of "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" also could be considered "drinking the George Lucas Gatorade."

"Every saga has a beginning" —
and unfortunately, "The Phantom Menace"
kicks off the "Star Wars" saga.
Or better yet, I'd consider myself an "Episode I" apologist. But no more! I make no apologies about what I think about "The Phantom Menace" (more on that later); having rewatched it for the first time in about a decade, I think I'm good for about another 10 years or so. …

My lifelong best friend Mark Willis put it best: It's as if when Lucas was making "The Phantom Menace," nobody could tell him "No."

I especially support Willis' assertion when it comes to casting Anakin Skywalker (both times!) and Lucas creating the CGI character we'd all wish we could forget: Jar-Jar Binks.

First, some background.

I've been a long-time advocate for movie fans — especially critics — taking a second look at films they've dogged for years. My belief is watching them again could give you a new perspective; it's possible — no, likely — you'll get some insights you never expected. Or you simply will have your original opinion reaffirmed.

Since I need to practice what I preach, I've done many second-look reviews. Three of them are of superhero films I actually enjoy that fans have loved to hate: "Daredevil," the original "Fantastic Four" films and "Spider-Man 3." For my count, I've reviewed "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" twice and "Superman Returns" four times just so I could get my head around them and finally say what I had to say after repeated viewings.

Cary's Comics Craze re-reviewed all the solo films leading
up to the 2012 release of "The Avengers" — starting with "Iron Man."
In a different setting, to get perspective on the immense project Marvel Studios was about to undertake before the release of "The Avengers," I re-reviewed the solo films that essentially are its prequels: The first two "Iron Man" films, "The Incredible Hulk" (as another best friend David Hudson has said, Edward Norton did us all a favor by getting himself fired after that dud!), "Thor" and just like "The Avengers," another Marvel film that's the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, "Captain America: The First Avenger."

Now onto "The Phantom Menace" — a film I hadn't seen in nearly a decade until about a week or so ago.

Kinda like the feeling after devouring a big meal, for years I couldn't believes I'd watched "Episode I" at least four times in the theater. Four times!

For longer than I'd care to admit, I actually defended "The Phantom Menace." Actually, I was more of an "Episode I" apologist.

"Lucas hadn't directed in a while; maybe he needed help with writing dialogue; somebody had to be the comedic touch since R2-D2 and C-3PO don't meet until well into the movie; it's political movie — of course there's going to be a lot of talking …," were the type of things I found myself saying.

Being a diehard, first-generation "Star Wars" fan, I must have felt obligated to defend the film from the haters. Or at least explain its inadequacies. It seemed to be the natural thing to do — "from a certain point of view," as Ob-Wan Kenobi would later tell Luke Skywalker.

Now I find myself (kinda) re-reviewing "The Phantom Menace" just a month or so short of 16 years after its theatrical release.

But why? In short, I recently pulled the trigger on buying "Star Wars: The Complete Saga" on Blu-ray. Having seen the original trilogy to break in my new TV, I felt somewhat obligated to watch the six movies in order. So I bit the bullet and rewatched "The Phantom Menace" — having sold the DVD close to 10 years ago.

And as I said earlier in this ope-ed, I had some new insights — and had my original opinions reaffirmed.

First, the positives.

A tip of the lightsaber to Lucas and Lucasfilm for so aggressively going all-in with the computer-generated characters, vehicles, scenes, etc. But this is a double-edged lightsaber. The CGI characters, in the eyes of a 2015 audience, look somewhat fake. But it is impressive for 1999 technology.

Speaking of lightsabers, the duel pitting Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul remains intense. Still the highlight of "The Phantom Menace" — by far. It also foreshadows just how much of a badass Kenobi is in the subsequent sequels.

The podrace also remains thrilling. Supervising sound editor Ben Burtt is a genius at creating sound effects, giving each pod its own unique engine noises. Regardless that it's highly unlikely Anakin Skywalker would win the first race he finished, it's a fun sequence.
 Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi fiercely battle Darth Maul, a Dark
Lord of the Sith, in the docking bay of the Naboo palace.

Finally, the casting: Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala and Samuel L. Jackson — "The Ultimate Fanboy Actor," as I call him — as Jedi Master Mace Windu. What a wealth of talent!

This brings me to the negatives: Jake Lloyd as Skywalker and of course, Jar-Jar Binks.

Neeson brings the proper gravitas to Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, but Lloyd brings nothing redeeming to young Skywalker. Nothing. He brings no magic to the character, which means we could care less about his fate. In Lloyd's defense, the only time his acting rings true is when he hugs his mother good-bye before he leaves Tatooine with Qui-Gon Jinn.

To make it worse, Lloyd has no chemistry whatsoever in his scenes with McGregor, Neeson or Portman. Unfortunately, Portman got the raw end of the deal in the prequel trilogy as she had an even worse onscreen match-up in "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" with Hayden Christensen, a tightly wound and wooden actor if there ever was one.

Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) says good-bye to her son.
And while I understand Skywalker has to be young enough to make the separation from his mother an issue as he learns to be a Jedi years later, knowing the 8- to 10-year-old character will marry Amidala, who is about 14 or 16 in "The Phantom Menace," in 10 to 12 years is just creepy. No — check that, disturbing. Yuuuuck!

I have one question for George Lucas: Jake Lloyd was the best actor you found during your massive casting call for the main character in the first film you've directed in 22 years?!? Oy!

So it's no wonder that Lucas would be so out of touch in not realizing Jar-Jar Binks would be a failure to epic proportions. Thank the Force that Lucas was smart enough to reduce Jar-Jar's screen time significantly in "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith." The Force was with us there.

But Jar-Jar is to blame for being the weak-minded fool in the Senate to give the power Chancellor Palpatine needed to be the Emperor. …

Grade: C

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