IT's CGI Heavy
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg seems to argue that if tumbling over the edge of one waterfall is awesome, then going over the edge of three waterfalls in a row is three times as awesome. Naturally, he’s right.
Likewise, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace would have us believe that the only thing cooler than a giant fish-monster trying to eat our heroes as they navigate a series of tumultuous underwater caverns is an even bigger fish-monster showing up to eat the first one. This is also true, of course. Further, fully aware that there is no sense in going at such a concept in a half-assed (or even subtle) fashion, George Lucas chooses to have the same thing happen to our heroes again, just a few seconds later.
God bless him.
I do not know why this movie’s flaws irked me (and most everyone else) to the extent that they did back in 1999. A decade later, I smiled and chuckled and marveled at The Phantom Menace with all the happy abandon I brought to my viewing of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Even some of its flaws are fascinating. Firstly, filming any sort of science fiction prequel many years after its predecessor(s) can have a strange impact on what came before, owing to nothing more than the inevitable progress of technology. The Jedi-Sith saber fights and the various battlefield dramas in The Phantom Menace are rendered and choreographed with so much more complexity and at such a larger scale than those of the original trilogy that, taken chronologically, the Star Wars saga as a whole would almost seem to suffer from what could only be described as a case of diminishing returns in retrospect.
Put another way: if one were to sit down to a six-film Star Wars marathon, Episodes I through VI, each seen for the first time, would it not be anticlimactic to follow Darth Maul‘s dizzying, brutal dance with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan with the relatively stilted, kids-with-sticks style of fight that Darth Vader and Obi-Wan perform in Episode IV? Having seen Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon casually dispense with hordes of droids with a mere wave of the hand, would one not find Luke‘s stumbling efforts to master the Force less than engaging?
The Phantom Menace is of course one of the most CGI-heavy movies in history, and I have made no secret of my staunch opposition to CGI. That said, the effects in The Phantom Menace are approximately as effective and approximately as flawed as those in the original Star Wars trilogy. Still, had Lucas depended slightly less on CGI, the final result would have been far more effective; just look at the Special Editions of the original three Star Wars movies, where CGI was only used to supplement existing footage which had been produced with practical effects. Clearly, CGI works better as a tool on a canvas rather than as the entire canvas.
In the Special Editions of the old-school trilogy, there is no issue with actors struggling to “act” against a meaningless prop like a tennis ball that stood in for a creature that‘d be inserted into the scene on a computer monitor months later. Instead, actors interacted with other actors (or perhaps muppets), and so the footage appears real and lived-in, with gravity and shadow and weight.
When done properly, supplementing such practicals-based footage with CGI yields best-of-both-worlds results. The animated Dewbacks in Episode IV are an amazing example; in the untouched theatrical version of the movie from 1977, an actor in a Stormtrooper suit sat atop a motionless Dewback in the distand background, but the Special Edition has the Dewbacks weaving in and out of the foreground and interacting with the existing scene in stunning ways. That said, these and other CGI monsters are also often insubstantial in a way that those old props and puppets and costumed actors never were, and Lucas sometimes allows the CGI additions to intrude on the original footage in distracting ways.
Still, the CGI in The Phantom Menace allows for far more visual complexity than the original films could ever muster. (And the audio is no less complex; the sound editing during the podrace scene is one of the film‘s most staggering accomplishments.) Scenes in The Phantom Menace teem with incidental details and intriguing, half-glimpsed creatures and other delightful curiosities. And there seems to be something of an Asian influence on certain details of both the film‘s aesthetic (Queen Amidala‘s geisha make-up and posturing) and its action (light sabers are used much more cleverly and majestically here than the largely by-the-numbers swashbuckling of the original three films; who can say whether this would have been the case without the influence of samurais movies and Anime.) The architecture of the cities on Naboo is gorgeous, and the film‘s overall color pallette is richer than anything Episode IV, V or VI could have ever hoped to present; Queen Amidala‘s assistants are clothed in long, ceremonial robes that seem to be composed of every shade you see during the sunset.
Ultimately, and largely because of its heavy use of CGI, The Phantom Menace strikes the viewer as being somehow more cultural than the first three films. It is almost more feminine in some elusive, peripheral sort of way. And it is certainly more beautiful.
Would that its dialogue was so artfully crafted. Indeed, perhaps there is merit to my friend‘s claim that the film‘s woodenness is deliberate, the better to reflect its having been designed to pay tribute to Flash Gordon serials and their ilk. Still, one cannot help but wonder what might have been; imagine a series as visually complex and inviting as Star Wars, but with deeper characterization and engaging dialogue. That would be a film to behold.
Much has been said about The Phantom Menace‘s limp, uninspired political content; truly, senatorial bureaucracy is not the stuff of which space operas are made. Consider the opening crawl synopsis from Episode IV: A New Hope (which will always be simply Star Wars to me):
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…
Compare that to this listless offering from The Phantom Menace crawl:
The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute…
I could also do without the two-headed Nascar-style podrace announcer; his voice is such an overt nod to something so identifiably American and contemporary and mundane that one is completely pulled out of the film‘s otherwise otherworldly landscapes.
The slapstick approach to the climactic Gungan/droid battle (mirrored by Anakin‘s accidentally activating a ship‘s autopilot and unwittingly saving the day) is perhaps too silly for the film‘s climax, but on the other hand, we have by this point seen such scenes played out with complete earnestness in no fewer than three previous Star Wars films; perhaps a lighter approach is justified?
Episode I‘s biggest flaw might actually be an uncharacteristic show of less-is-more restraint on the part of George Lucas: how short-sighted to have so carelessly and quickly done away with Darth Maul! Actually, this flaw damages the two films that follow The Phantom Menace, and really, it would have been rather rote to have built Maul up for Darth Vader‘s same three-film cycle. Even so, Darth Maul‘s creepy appearance and Ray Park‘s chilling confidence during the final battle with Ginn and Kenobi are so gripping that one cannot help but wish for more of Darth Maul, even at the risk of spoiling his mysterious appeal somewhat.
Liam Neeson‘s Qui-Gon Ginn is missed, too, in the two follow-up films. One of the Episode I’s grandest moments (if also the plot‘s worst-kept secret) is Padme‘s revelation that she is in fact the queen, and that our “Amidala” has secretly been her bodyguard acting as a decoy. Part of what makes this moment so great is the way its dramatic impact is so deliciously subverted by Liam Neeson, who turns and gives Ewan McGregor‘s Obi-Wan not a stunned gasp or a wide-eyed look of shock, but rather a bemused, admiring smirk; the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, and Qui-Gon Jinn seems to respond with little more than an appreciative, I‘ll-be-damned kinda shrug: “Who knew?” Or perhaps even “Far out.”
While histrionic fans would have no doubt screeched in protest had his role not been diminished to the point of invisibility in Episode II and Episode III, I daresay that even Jar-Jar Binks might have made meaningful contributions to the rest of the prequels had he been allowed more than brief cameos. He does not grate on one’s nerves today quite the way he did a decade ago, and he even elicits a chuckle now and then in The Phantom Menace. My favorite example is the scene during which Qui-Gon asks Jar-Jar where his people might have disappeared to, and Jar-Jar says, “When in trouble, Gungans go to sacred place.” Then, practically in the same breath, he cheerfully adds, “Me-sa show you!”
I wonder what Lucas had planned for Jar-Jar Binks in Episode II and Episode III before fan backlash halted the character‘s momentum. I don’t believe for a minute that all those promotional tie-in products and all those advertising dollars were poured into the Jar-Jar character with the intention of so drastically reducing his screen time in the next two movies. It almost feels as if C-3PO took over for Jar-Jar in Episode II, for if anything, he is more tiresome in that film than Jar-Jar is in The Phantom Menace.