Friday, September 25, 2015

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace ★★★1/2

Image result for Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace film stills lightsaber battle

    Much criticism has been aimed at George Lucas and his prequel trilogy of films, the latter being an attempt of the acclaimed director to bring the story of his unique universe into full scope, and, honestly, much of this denunciation is nothing more than a simple case of fault-finding. Sure, both individually and collectively, these installments pale in comparison to the original three pictures, and while the focus undeniably shifts from character to political happenings, there does seem to be an indefinable void present. Yet, as far as Lucas' first indulgence into Anakin Skywalker's tale is concerned, there is little fuss to be made, unless, of course, one just has the hankering to yield to what can be characterized as misguided lambasting.

    One of the most heavily scrutinized aspects of "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" is its irregular dramatic structure (seeing as there is hardly an exposition), and there has also been some highlighting of the fact that there is no discernible plot. Now, although our storyline here centers on Galactic Republic Senates, trade route taxations, seemingly insignificant yet riveting things called pod races, and on several uneventful meetings of congress, a distinguishable narrative certainly exists. In fact, every event that takes place (including the Trade Federation's invasion of Naboo, the fateful meeting of a young boy on the desert realm that is Tatooine, as well as the voting of Senator Palpatine to the position of Supreme Chancellor) sets things up perfectly for the following two chapters.

    And what about the lack of an exposition? Well, that observation is undoubtedly true; however, it is quite obvious that anyone making that particular assertion has not heard of the latin phrase "in medias res," which, in terms of a picture's structure, alludes to times where the major complication of the story has already taken place when things pick up. Thus, not providing audiences with a detailed sketch of character. The utilization of this strategyalong with the fact that there are no flashbacks to fill in this absence of informationdoes create another issue, which, predictably, has been attacked by fans of the franchise: that issue being the creation of weak characterizations.

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    "The Phantom Menace" clearly suffers from a deficient display of characterization. (I mean, we never even hear of the name of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), the senior lightsaber wielding swordsmen, until thirty minutes into the picture. Moreover, our prominent antagonist, Darth Maul, only has about three lines of dialogue; I would say that this bestows him with an air of mysteriousness, but that is beside the point.) When examining this particular film, one has to come to the conclusion that character is surely not the most salient aspect of Lucas' aim. The goal here is to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, and it would be somewhat unprofessional to degrade a film just because its theme rests on plot instead of something infused with a little more profundity. (Although there are a number of lines that advert to ideas such as fate and humanity's amicableness, the events that take place have the most significance moving forward.) Qui-Gon Jinn's dialogue and external actions adequately give us a portrait of a wise and peaceful individual, and, as far as Darth Maul is concerned, obscurity rarely hurts a villain. Did we need a thorough backstory on Jaws before he proceeded to dine on the inhabitants of Amity Island? I think not.

    Also under the microscope are what seem to be a handful of performances defined by this sense of distance and indifference, which, unfortunately, becomes merely another ramification of committing to things such as plotlines. But to say that our actors here are striving for inauthenticity would be downright doltish. Neeson gives us as much as he can, and he does well with this rather reserved disposition and with dialogue that, at times, can seem a bit silly. Likewise, Natalie Portman, who steps into the role of Queen Amidala and leader of the Naboo, provides us with an applaudable performance, as she is somehow able to live up to this prestigious rank of character and as she dons outfits that recall the term excessive more often than not. (Imagine trying to execute lines of dialogue with any seriousness wearing garb that calls for such an over attentionit mustn't have been easy, and Portman delivers in the direst of instances.)

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    Which brings us to George Lucas, the man behind what I deem to be one of the greatest franchises ever developed. There is a lot of scrutiny surrounding Lucas' directorial execution when it comes to this specific installment, and I find this to be quite concerning, especially considering that much of this pedantic perusal comes from individuals who have little to no knowledge of film technique or theory. Granted, Lucas works from the simplistic fixed frame position for the majority of the picture, and he surely seems to be off on several marks, which ultimately leads to a handful of scenes that suffer from awkward positioning. However, as an author of this work, Lucas should be commended for a multitude of reasonsmost notablyfor his ability to blend real photography with computer-generated imaging in order to construct a universe brimming with visual impact. In fact, his excellence in this area even led renown film critic Roger Ebert to comment that, "We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema," a statement that I most likely would have reserved for Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy of films; nevertheless, hinting at the movie's ability to capture sublimity. It is to be viewed as pixelated glory.

    From scenes that take place in the inner palaces of Naboo (which were filmed on location in Italy) to the computerized city planet that is Coruscant, Lucas seems to present us with eye-candy time after time, and it never fails in its attempts to enthrall. If anything, Lucas should be berated for his overzealous behavior behind the camera as he toys with a number of techniques which hurt the continuity of the picture. (The use of the fish-eye lens during the climactic lightsaber battle is rather perplexing and, in some measure, unflattering.)

    Inevitably, any discussion of "Phantom" will lead to the topic of Jar Jar Binks, an individual who can be seen as a pure caricature of clumsiness. This is one facet that I cannot defend. Nonetheless, is it politically correct to discredit this work entirely for the inclusion of a single minor character? No, it is not, yet I will admit that I have indulged in such condemnations before, and it is distinctly possible that I will succumb to such temptations at a future point in time, but this is not one of those moments. Binks' presence, albeit distracting, is plainly a ploy to satisfy younger audiences' needs, and, sadly, it cannot be helped.

    In spite of its flaws, "Episode 1" does find success in its design, objectively speaking. It lays the foundation for the following two chapters, and it revels in its capacity to transfix audiences. Unfortunately, I think, "The Phantom Menace" suffers from what I designate to be disapproval via word of mouth. Many fans were displeased with the picture during its initial run, possibly because it was not what they had hoped it would be, and now the reputation has stuck. Luckily, for many critics, we can see beyond the condemnatory ribbing.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I completely agree. Episode 1 gets a bad reputation but I still love it to this day. Not so much the other prequels, but this one is a classic. It's cool that you get to see the origins of C-3PO and R2-D2, and they even throw in Jabba the Hut. The Pod Racing sequence and end duel are awesome as well. Qui-Gon Jinn rules!