Saturday, December 30, 2017
Not At The Expense Of The Moment
There is truth and there are details. The truth is that shortly after seeing THE FORCE AWAKENS when it opened back in December 2015, I collapsed on the sidewalk sobbing. This is the truth. The details behind that, in all honesty, have nothing to do with the film. At the time I was going through a few things (aren’t we all; like much of life, some of those things continue) but we don’t need to go into what they are. Nevertheless, the other secondary truth is that I still didn’t think THE FORCE AWAKENS was particularly good, playing as an empty homage to what STAR WARS is apparently supposed to be with director J.J. Abrams bringing less visual style to the series than anyone has ever done; this is the only STAR WARS film where characters go from one planet to another and you can’t tell the difference. This is all a lead up to recalling how my initial response to STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENANCE wasn’t quite so dramatic. It’s not that I thought it was particularly great or even good so much as that it simply was. But I’ve been forced to have a response to it ever since and to this day it feels like that will never end. May 1999 is a long time ago now but I remember so much. The unending wait for that film, the awareness that it was coming, the trailer, the second trailer, the toys getting released, that damn line of people waiting on Hollywood Boulevard to get tickets for the first show at the Chinese (which I didn’t get, so my first viewing was the second showing at 3:30 AM). And then the movie. It was all a long, grueling process that maybe drained out a lot of optimism in the film geek circles. By 2005 when REVENGE OF THE SITH hit that was mostly gone and there was a vague feeling we just wanted to get the damn thing over with already. The Chinese wasn’t even showing it. But to go back to ’99 is the reminder that STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is not what we wanted it to be but in some ways it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. It may not be good, but it is pure. This part gets forgotten.
Not much happens in STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE and in many ways that makes it the perfect film for 1999, a period where no matter how much was really happening it seems like nothing compared to now. Of course, there were many better films. ELECTION, THE LIMEY, THE INSIDER, EYES WIDE SHUT, FIGHT CLUB, MAGNOLIA, THE STRAIGHT STORY, THE MATRIX, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, THE SIXTH SENSE, OFFICE SPACE, GALAXY QUEST, the remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Not a bad year as things go but, regardless, THE PHANTOM MENACE still doesn’t go away. The characters in the film don’t know what’s coming and at the time we didn’t know what was coming either. What that was became clear by the time Lucas made REVENGE OF THE SITH and with the war on terror in full swing gave the film a fair amount of metaphor to dig into, as obvious as it was. In THE PHANTOM MENACE that metaphor hasn’t taken shape yet which means a good deal of stalling, an empty film that is mostly about stage setting, filling in a few blanks and appealing to little kids. And more CGI in every frame than we could possibly imagine at the time.
When the Trade Federation blocks all access to the peaceful planet of Naboo, Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) are sent there as representatives of the Galactic Senate in an attempt to negotiate and prevent a full scale invasion of the planet. But when Federation representatives immediately attempt to have them killed the Jedi escape to the planet where, joined by a native Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), finally make contact with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and escape Naboo. But when a ship malfunction strands them on the planet Tatooine they soon encounter a young boy named Anakin Sywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave who lives with his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) owned by junk dealer Watto who Qui-Gon, accompanied on the planet by the Queen’s handmaiden Padme (also Portman), soon comes to believe is the one spoken of in a prophecy to bring balance to the force. As he anticipates, Anakin turns out to be their best hope to make it to the Republic capital of Coruscant where Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) awaits Amidala in a desperate attempt for action to be taken and put a stop to the invasion.
Thus concludes just about the most useless paragraph ever written on this blog. Is there really anything left to say about this film? Maybe more to the point, is there anything new to say? You could easily fill a book with all the facts and opinions and feelings surrounding this film, I’m just not sure if it would be anything we haven’t heard. At the very least, in this case writing out a brief plot summary is a useful way to determine just how problematic this storyline is in terms of, well, telling a story. With the film so broken up into separate pieces there’s no one single person to lock into as a lead, no one to really connect with. There’s a reason why people respond to Mark Hamill gazing at the binary sunset way back when and even if the result had been better, and I like the film more than some, it still never feels like there’s a protagonist to follow through the film. The Jedi are essentially monks, Amidala’s plotline is based on a twist which keeps her as a sort of abstract concept for much of the film and Anakin is a little kid who we’re meant to feel sympathy for but, well, we all know his future. When first introduced, Luke Skywalker was as much of an avatar for Lucas as AMERICAN GRAFITTI’s Curt Henderson or even the character of THX-1138, each of them dealing with the ambivalence of whether or not they want to leave home but the closest this film has is a young boy living as a slave on a desert planet who is abruptly taken away from his mother so it’s not quite the same thing in terms of audience identification. As much as the film is packed with incident much of it feels clinical, concepts in search of a story.
There are good things to say about THE PHANTOM MENACE at the very least in terms of sheer ingenuity and the way it just throws us in to the middle of the action seems more radical now, even more than it did in the original movie. Lucas was still using film at this point, at least part of the time, and there’s a crispness to the imagery at times particularly when there’s something tangible in the frame as opposed to all those green screen shots—at other points where I suspect he was trying out digital (and Ewan McGregor looks considerably different) the look doesn’t fare so well. But he clearly still knows how to compose a shot so it often feels like he’s using the right angles to tell the story even if there’s not as much pulp flavor to the way things are staged as he might have done in the 70s. It’s the overall flatness of what the scenes become that is the problem which is helped by some enjoyably dry humor in the early dialogue between the two Jedi (sadly, I’ve never been successful at making “There’s always a bigger fish” into my own personal catchphrase) at least there is until there isn’t. The story is vague enough that it doesn’t stand on its own so there have to be allowances made for how things may or may not pay off later. Lucas wrote this screenplay himself and while there was a big deal made about Lawrence Kasdan returning to the franchise in recent years with this film I can’t help but wish that he’d sat down in a room with Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz, who worked extensively on STAR WARS uncredited as well as writing TEMPLE OF DOOM, to maybe add some Howard Hawksian flavor to the dialogue and plot mechanics in order to loosen things up but it feels like the emphasis on effects in every shot are designed to prevent such a thing from happening (Lucas had produced the flop RADIOLAND MURDERS for Hyuck & Katz in 1994 so maybe that soured him on any potential collaboration).
Looking at STAR WARS ’77 (Don’t make me call it A NEW HOPE, I hate calling it A NEW HOPE) these days it strikes me how much is left vague. The beats of the story were figured out and clearly magic was accomplished in the editing room but it’s clear that one thing which appealed to people was the potential richness of the universe and how much was left unanswered about it. Of course, more sequels means filling in some of those blanks and having to answer some of the questions there might be in terms of how things work, what people do for a living—are there newspapers? Is there entertainment? Do people live in fear of the empire and nothing else? The concept of government was vaguely answered in the first film and Lucas’s depiction of how fascism can rise in a galactic senate where almost nothing can ever get accomplished becomes clear in the later films. But it’s possible that the dreamlike flavor which can be found in the original trilogy, set far away from the capital of Coruscant and other such places, was ideal in leaving those explanations vague just as the first film never needed an explanation of The Force that was any more complicated than a single sentence. So the explanation of ‘midichlorians’ as Gui-Gon describes them to Anakin to ground The Force is some sort of science is an even greater mistake, almost willingly blurring the lines between the fantasy we thought this was with a stab at hard science fiction, grounding what was once meant to be oblique in a way that hurts it in the long run.
What’s even more strange is how much of THE PHANTOM MENACE (and for the record I still like that title, much more than a few of the others) is still legitimately dreamlike much of the time with images that almost manage to justify the existence of all this new technology, whether the view of Coruscant outside of the Jedi Temple, the underwater sea creatures chasing the Jedi in their transport or just the character design of Darth Maul who has famously little screentime but each second he’s onscreen is still arresting just from his presence. But in addition to the introduction of midichlorians to the mythology is what Shmi claims is the virgin birth of Anakin so along with the presumably virtuous Jedi who are essentially monks (unless you want to believe that Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker spent the night together, which seems like a possibility) and a group of children in the other main roles you have a film with no sex drive and no other sort of drive to the film, one where everyone comes off as so virtuous that you wonder if laughter even exists in the Star Wars universe and the tone becomes stifling as if none of the actors can breathe while reciting dialogue against all those green screens. Too much of it plays as a kids movie, as opposed to how the earlier films seemed to be aimed at kids of all ages, and the level of humor is mostly a reminder of the goofiness that can be found throughout Lucas’ brief filmography only not at its best here. Of course, it’s also a kids’ movie with extensive dialogue about senate politics and trade negotiations which is a balance that sometimes plays as flat-out odd. At the very least, it provides more complications to the plot than I would have expected and I always remember the friend who told me about seeing the film after smoking weed all day then when the opening crawl began with its intricate details about trade negotiations thought, “Oh fuck, I need to pay attention.” But there’s an irreverence needed to maintain that balance which never appears, a sense of fun missing that doesn’t even seem to be part of the original intent. The film is so focused on the big moments courtesy of the groundbreaking effects that it forgets to find pleasures in the small moments, the character bits so famous from other films throughout the series which would mean more than any spectacular effect ever would. Simply put, THE LAST JEDI, to name another film, fucks. THE PHANTOM MENACE doesn’t.
But this is pure Lucas uncut for all that’s good and bad about it in a way that the following prequels weren’t, probably because of whatever course correction was done with discarded plot elements and characters pushed to the background after the response to this film. Not all of these choices can be defended particularly the, um problematic depictions of the likes of Jar Jar and the Trade Federation, each almost designed to recall stereotypes that you might have found in cheesy serials made during the Golden Age of Hollywood but since the film was made in the 90s it can’t really be defended (this could probably be said about Watto too but I have a soft spot for the guy, I can’t help it). But just as Yoda makes his comment about how always two there are, a master and an apprentice are such halves found throughout the film whether the two identities of Amidala, the two Jedi or the people of Naboo and the Gungans living underwater, a symbiosis that effect each other as the Jedi point out but they still remove Anakin from living with his mother because of Qui-Gon’s certainty, whatever that really is, as if to say that since he’s deliberately breaking apart a symbiosis which may be his undoing, along with the rest of the Jedi. Along with these themes is the film’s undeniable grandeur, particularly during the pod race which is still a phenomenal set piece today, even if the film does stop for it. But it contains just the right pacing and cinematic ingenuity just as some of the imagery seen on the city planet of Coruscant which resembles the covers of science fiction novels I only half remember from when I was a kid.
During the best of these moments I get lost in just the vibe of it all and John Williams infuses even the quietest moments of his score with a true sense of myth as well as the way the music seemingly screams out “DARTH MAUL!” at that famous appearance as the doors open. Deep down I think the “Duel of the Fates” track and the imagery of the climactic Light Saber duel was what I imagined in my head for all those years when we wondered if there would ever be another movie. But it’s a little too episodic, things are broken up a little too much as if for all that was done in post-production some details were paid attention to more than others, like the Yoda puppet which is such a letdown (maybe the look is just more appropriate in the organic setting of Dagobah) that it almost feels like Lucas wanted to prove that the character would be done better digitally. The climax is broken into four separate places of action, which is fine, but the freneticism of the editing causes the Williams score to be constantly broken up, starting and stopping throughout so there’s no flow to the action in the way there is in the final Death Star battle STAR WARS or the desperate escape that climaxes EMPIRE. Individual moments hit like the icy coolness of Darth Maul bouncing his saber off the force field as he waits, but it never snowballs into a series of events that flow effortlessly from one beat to the next.
That’s part of the thing with STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE. Everything feels so hemmed in, there’s no sense of joy to the filmmaking and there’s not enough of a real sense of these worlds even when it’s presumably filmed on location whether Italy or Tunisia. As miserable as Lucas may have been at Pinewood back in ’76 there’s a sheer feeling of kineticism throughout that film in the camerawork and the way the actors play all that dialogue which was supposedly unreadable that it all somehow popped. THE PHANTOM MENACE feels like a movie where every day was finished on time and they got what was needed. And that’s it. In some ways, it’s a revolutionary piece of work and looking at just about any random comic book sequel now shows how much Lucas was ahead of the curve. But the film seems to think that revolutionary effects work and unique cutting patterns are all that is required. It hints at what we responded to in the first place, there are vague echoes if we look, but it’s not enough. Near the very end of EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH we’re finally told why Qui-Gon didn’t disappear when killed in this film and why Obi-Wan did back in ’77, something I think we’d long since stopped wondering about. The moment rushes by too fast for us to really register the implications of all this but one of the things it feels that the STAR WARS saga is really about more than anything is the idea of wrestling with the past and what it really meant, fearful of what we’re going to lose, worried about rushing too fast into the future. One of the key images of the film is even of Anakin as he stands alone, uncertain of whether to take the path to becoming a Jedi or stay with his mother who tells him that you can’t stop change, “any more than you can stop the sun from setting.” Qui-Gon Jinn for that matter reminds apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi to be aware of the future but always live in the moment and he knows that’s the only place you can find peace. These are themes that Lucas has explored in his films since before he thought of STAR WARS and now we’ve projected our own versions of that onto whatever these films mean for ourselves in our lives. They’re ideas that remain in STAR WARS even now. At the very least, THE PHANTOM MENACE raises these questions. But maybe not much more than that.
More than any other actor here, Liam Neeson is the one who seems at ease among everything going on infusing his character with a total inner life and finding more between the lines on the page than you’d ever expect. Up against him Ewan McGregor is cooped up in the ship on Tatooine for so long that there’s not much for him to do. He’s definitely energetic and has the air of someone who wants more to do which at least makes sense for the character but he mostly comes to life during the final light saber battle. Natalie Portman seems a little lost with steely determination coming through as Amidala but bland confusion of what she should be doing in various shots while in the Padme guise. Pernilla August also finds weight in her role while Ian McDiarmid projects the right sort of icy cool as this bad guy in plain sight—Lucas really hit the jackpot by casting him back in the 80s. Considering how distracted much of the film is, some of the other performances don’t register very much. Sometimes this doesn’t matter and Samuel L. Jackson playing Mace Windu clearly has little idea what’s going on and particularly care since he’s got dialogue with Yoda in a STAR WARS movie but Terence Stamp just looks confused, no direction, no idea how anything he’s doing fits into anything. As Anakin, Jake Lloyd is a kid. Not the best kid actor I’ve ever seen, not the worst. In some ways his awkward uncertainty is right for the direction we know the character is going. Let’s leave him alone. Even the occasional bit parts which feel like they’re not played by professional actors whether the cameos by Lucas’s kids (can hardly blame him for doing that) or even the old woman who says “Storm’s coming up, Annie, you better get home quick!” on Tatooine give the film its own unique feel, an awkwardness that almost becomes the most human element found in the entire film.
The truth is I don’t need to see the STAR WARS films I’ve already seen before much anymore. Sure, it’s nice to have those Despecialized Editions around just in case but in many ways there isn’t anything left for me to take from them. There’s so many other films to see. But, yes, this one is still there. It will still loom large. It’s not a question of whether STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is a good film. It doesn’t really matter anymore and if we’re going by Art or Not Art it qualifies as Art. That in itself doesn’t mean it’s good either. Anyway, there’s no point in getting into why I collapsed on the sidewalk that night back in December 2015. Not much has happened since then and in other ways way too much has. Certainly we now live in a world where Qui-Gon’s line “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent,” has more truth than I ever thought possible. And at least in December 2017 we all got a pretty great STAR WARS movie that I really do look forward to multiple viewings of. I wonder what sort of metaphor the world will provide future films that get made in this saga although it’s starting to look like STAR WARS will outlive everyone I know. And by this point it’s ok with me.