Friday, September 25, 2009

“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get out of here.”

Fifty reviews ago, we (in the royal sense) started this insane project of breaking down and analyzing movies and their component parts with a franchise that was near and dear to my heart. If you would’ve asked me ten years ago what my favorite movie franchise was, without hesitation I would’ve answered Star Wars. Of course, that was 1999 and I was sixteen and…things began to change. 1999 was the year of the hotly anticipated return of Star Wars with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Before the movie was released the anticipation was at such a fever pitch that you would’ve thought it was the Nerd Rapture, and I was one of the faithful. Then the movie came out and the world found itself scratching its head trying to figure out what the hell happened. Now RMWC returns to Star Wars to examine the Prequel Trilogy.

I hope you appreciate this.

So two super-powered warrior/monk/diplomats visit some alien businessmen who are blockading an entire planet over some sort of trade treaty hissy fit. The aliens don’t like the fact that there are Jedi on their ship, react violently and the Jedi are forced to fight their way down to the planet so they can warn the locals that the ships above are sending down an invasion force. That’s the first ten minutes, and you know what? Its great. Sure, the hook of a “trade negotiation” isn’t really interesting, but then it reveals that there’s more going on than that and we get action and pretty quick pacing. Sadly, around the ten minute mark, the heroes accidentally rescue a character who is nothing but dead weight, travel to his undersea alien city, travel through the…aquatic center of the planet in a submarine?? Okay… Arrive at the planet’s capital, rescue the beleaguered leader and run the blockade so they can tell the universe about the shady dealings going on. The dead weight character really is the point where the movie starts falling down, but the pacing is still fairly good (except for the sub scenes).

Their ship gets damaged running the blockade so they have to touch down on a backwater desert world for repairs. One of the heroes, along with the dead weight and the obviously disguised female leader of Naboo travel into town and meet a kid who’s got crazy Jedi abilities who also happens to be the slave of a junk dealer with the only part in town that can fix their space ship. A lot of words are thrown around and ultimately its decided that the kid’s going to pilot his custom built pod racer in an all or nothing race. He wins: he goes free and the ship gets repaired. He loses: it sucks to be the protagonists. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens here, and it doesn't, but it takes up a lot of time.

Anyway, the kid wins (obviously) and the Jedi have a brief encounter with a Sith (their evil opposites) that they kind of freak out about since the Sith are supposed to be long gone. They get to Corsuscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic and here’s what follows: “Words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words words.” A chancellor gets ousted from office and the Jedi Council decide that the boy, while powerful, is too dangerous to train and refuse to enroll him (which implies the alternative of an incredibly powerful Force prodigy running around the galaxy without ANY kind of training or discipline whatsoever until he gets taken under the wing of the Sith that the Jedi now know are out there, gets himself killed, or blows up a planet, or some combination thereof. You know…the Jedi are stupid). Oh yeah, and the dead weight character mentions in passing that his people have a grand army, which prompts the Queen of Naboo to return to her planet to take it back. That’s all that happens on Coruscant, and it takes over twenty minutes!

Ugh, moving on. They get back to the planet, meet up with the Gungan Army, plan their assault and go to it, which, is actually kind of fun. I mean, at least its got wars going on in Star Wars at that point. There’s a ground battle, a skirmish/city fight as the Queen tries to retake her city, the Jedi square off against the Sith in a final duel and there’s a space battle. They win (obviously) and this unevenly paced almost-ADVENTURE! film finally ends at the 133 minute mark.

Qui-Gon Jinn: Veteran actor Liam Neeson does a very good job of trying to make all of the scenes he’s in interesting, even the “words words words” ones. He’s a veteran Jedi who’s been around, has tremendous street smarts and is incredibly capable. He’s also constantly in the dog house with the Jedi Council for questioning their decisions (and, as their stupidity is already established, I can’t blame him). For the first half of the film I’d say he’s easily the badass as he talks back to the Queen and politely but consistently insults Jar Jar, but then he finds Anakin and becomes single-mindedly obsessed with him being the Chosen One. Sigh.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan MacGregor is Qui-Gon’s apprentice (padawan) and really does his best to be the understanding, supportive but by-the-book apprentice to Qui-Gon’s renegade. He’s really pretty good, but doesn’t get a whole lot to do in the movie aside from fight scenes.

Queen Padme Amidala: Natalie Portman plays the newly-elected Queen of Naboo, which isn’t how queens work. Maybe Naboo works under an Elector Count System like the Holy Roman Empire did, which, while not an efficient government system, has some precedent, even though its for Emperors/Empresses not Kings/Queens. Dammit, I can’t even throw the movie a bone without stretching too far. Okay, so the Queen is a fairly wooden character with a wardrobe bigger than Barbie’s entire backlog and a mess of “handmaidens,” young girls of around her age (including Keira Knightley) that hover in her background and wear identical hooded robes that can serve as decoys when need be. That…doesn’t sound like a royal entourage, that sounds like it belongs in Thulsa Doom’s snake cult. Also, why would a planet that is so fanatically committed to pacifistic ideals that they don’t even have a standing army and the Queen’s own personal starship is completely unarmed, use young women in the same way that Castro used doubles?? That’s barbaric! This kind of dissonance reflects on the character of the Queen herself, who’s all about protecting her people’s lives, but she also escapes into space, leaving her occupied planet behind in the hands of a bunch of aliens who promise to oppress the people if she won’t sign a treaty. Why didn’t she just sign the goddamn treaty and take it up with the courts as an illegally extorted document instead of being all selfish and “I need to tell the Senate personally that my people are being oppressed instead of actually making selfless decisions for their greater good.” She’s a shitty queen. As for Portman’s performance, I thought it was wooden, uninspired and unsympathetic, all bad traits for a main character, but then again, look at the material she had to work with.

Jar Jar Binks: A vein is throbbing in my head at the though of having to write about him, but I shall persevere. Ahmed Best did the voice and motion capture for the all-CGI gungan outcast. Qui-Gon rescues him by chance and for the rest of the movie Jar Jar just won’t shut the hell up. The root of the rage is in the way he talks. Obviously it got a lot of flack for being “ethnically offensive” and I won’t beat that dead horse (not when there are other related horses that deserve sound thrashings). For an example of his speech “Yoosa should follow me now, okeeday?” He’s like that FOR THE ENTIRE MOVIE. I’ve heard excuses saying that he’s innocent like a child and as smart, but no. That’s no excuse because the character is too dumb to live and wouldn’t if not for the fact that he’s surrounded by competent characters. The CGI effects for the character have also started to age too. He’s also completely useless to the plot. Sure, they make it seem like he’s the one that brings the Naboo and the Gungans together against the Droid Army, but really, the line about how “the Naboo don’t like the Gungans very much is because of their military inclination” could have been explained early on, or told by another character in the Naboo government: Information like that should be common knowledge for the leaders of said planet. Jar Jar is Dead Fucking Weight.

Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd’s generally bad performance is common knowledge, so we won’t beleaguer that point. Little Anakin is blessed with all sorts of “plot-hax.” He’s a mechanic that builds a robot and a pod racer in his spare time, knows all sorts of local lore despite being a slave, its implied that he was conceived by the “midi-chlorians” which is a bullshit way of dancing around immaculate conception (made worse because after this movie they quietly brush that aside in the next movies. Yes I hate those two concepts, but Lucas went so far as to include them in his movie as important plot points and its lazy storytelling to completely ignore it rather than come up with some way to make it work in the context of the greater story), and his Force levels are OVER 9000!!!!! Clearly, he must be the Chosen One!

But wait. Is he really a great mechanic? During the pod race, his ride gets sabotaged by having a part broken off, but that only explains one of the breakdowns. His racer almost doesn’t even start at the beginning of the race, costing him time and one of the connecting cables to an engine flies loose during the second lap. Neither of these look like they’re related to the sabotage, so the only explanation for that is slipshod mechanical skills that aren’t as good as he says they are. Then there’s the whole feelings of self-importance he has. Sure, kids are disobedient, but he’s consistently so and, oddly for a slave, goes un-reprimanded for the most part. When he confronts Qui-Gon about his Jedi status, Qui-Gon playfully tries to hide it and Anakin gets incredibly defensive about the possibility that maybe he’s wrong about something, which is fantastic villain building actually because it makes him a budding egomaniac, but I don’t think its intentional. He also gets some flashes of crazy. Padme, from her sheltered, aristocratic life, innocently enough asks if he’s a slave. He snaps back with “I’m a person and my name is Anakin,” which I guess is normal, but he gets a look in his eyes like he’s going leap at her with a wrench and a feral howl if she so much as mentions it again, which is not a normal reaction to give to a character that you’ve just hit on moments before. Which is actually pretty fun villain foreshadowing, but again, the way the character is being sold to the audience is as a heroic, kind, honest boy when that’s clearly not the kid we’re actually seeing. Also, his “big damn heroes” moment where he blows up the enemy flagship is so damn contrived that it hurts. The damn fighter’s on autopilot most of the fight and its through blind luck and plot armor that he is able to hit the critical juncture. Force powers my ass.

Captain Panaka: Hugh Quarshire plays the stoic, loyal captain of the Queen’s bodyguards. He’d probably be an interesting character if they’d actually given him anything to do other than look concerned.

R2-D2: So Artoo it turns out was a maintenance droid on the Queen’s starship. Artoo is Artoo, and thank god they didn’t derail the character. Still, connecting him to the main action of this movie doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever for the original trilogy and only serves to make the Star Wars universe a much, much smaller place where everybody knows everybody somehow. This is going to be a recurring theme.

C-3PO: First, the puppet is really nice and Anthony Daniels returns as the voice of the fussy droid. That’s the good part. The bad is that Anakin builds a protocol droid skilled in complicated diplomatic procedures for his penniless slave of a mother. Second is that he serves no purpose whatsoever to the plot. Third is that a character crucial to the original trilogy and a unique character just happens to be built by Anakin Skywalker just so you can have the “first meeting” between him and Artoo makes the universe smaller.

Supreme Chancellor Valorum: Terence Stamp (Zod from Superman II) has a really small role as the head of the Republic and an established ally of Naboo and the Queen. His loyalty and friendship are rewarded with Amidala triggering a vote of no confidence in him. That’s awfully considerate of her.

Watto: Andrew Secombe voices the Toydarian junk dealer who owns Anakin. The CGI on the character is well done and the guy’s an interesting character in a sleazy, backwater way.

Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious: Ian McDiarmid returns to the franchise as the man who will be Emperor. He’s really good as a Senator from Naboo who is constantly working angles against other characters for his own ends. He’s also obviously the Sith Lord who’s the man behind the scenes, but the movie plays the duality straight, never outright showing it. As a manipulator and magnificent bastard, he’s pretty great for his screen time.

Yoda: Frank Oz returns as the ancient Jedi master. There’s a new puppet to reflect the younger Yoda, and it works great. That, combined with Oz’s voice work, keeps the character a welcome sight, despite giving him some pretty cheesy lines and being part of the idiot ball carrying Jedi Council.

Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson is the other member of the Jedi Council that gets major screen time and lines. He and Yoda mostly just echo each other’s thoughts.

Boss Nass: BRIAN BLESSED lends his booming voice to the CGI leader of the Gungans. It was he who banished Jar Jar from their city (good so far) and after making peace with the Naboo, he makes Jar Jar a general, throwing the coward into harm’s way (likely in the hopes that it’ll get the guy killed in action, or perhaps fragged by his own men. Oh, if only). For that, I salute him.

Sebulba: Lewis Macleod lends the voice of the CGI pod racer with a bad attitude and a bizarre physiology. He’s played up as the local racing hotshot and asshole who cheats to win. He’s Anakin’s racing rival, but he also beats up Jar Jar, so he’s a pretty cool guy.

Darth Maul: Talented martial artist Ray Park is the demonic-looking Sith Apprentice. Sure, he’s a little bit gimmicky with his dual bladed lightsaber, but he’s there to bring the pain, and he does. Unfortunately, he’s given no development whatsoever, few lines, and is dispatched in a punk-ass way. His bitch death is what’s holding him back from being the movie’s Badass. If he’d been better handled as a credible threat, it would’ve worked.

The Niemoidians: The Trade Federation honchos. They dress in odd clothes, have ridiculous accents, but are animatronic heads on top of actors, and that’s kind of cool. They are cowardly and more than a bit silly, so they’re not a credible threat as legitimate villains, but as manipulated minion fodder for Sidious, they get the job done. They’re not even really villains. The worst thing they do is invade Naboo and threaten pain upon the Queen and the people. Throughout the movie we’re repeatedly told that people are dying on the planet, but we never ever see anything to support that, which is bad storytelling. The Trade Federation just wants their stupid little trade agreement signed, probably for a monopoly or something. The invasion is meant to bring the hostile party to the bargaining table (and it fails). Sure they threaten violence upon the people, but in all honesty, in what way would systematically executing potential customers be a good business strategy?? Lackeys? Sure. Major, murderous villains? No.

The Battle Droids: The mechanical soldiers of the Trade Federation. I actually really liked these guys. Sure, they’re no stormtroopers, but as far as low level minions, they get the job done. Hell, they’re even pretty sympathetic when it comes down to how outclassed they are against the Jedi. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guys as they get violently dismembered on screen. And during the final battle, they also manage to secure a legitimate victory against the “vaunted” Gungan Army. Seriously, they overwhelm the amphibians and start rounding up captives with the intent to get shit done, and its only the plot railroading of Anakin’s piloting “skills” that snatches victory away from the hapless droids. I’m going to go with these thankless workhorses as the movie’s badasses. Roger, roger, you selfless metal men. Roger, roger.

Eye candy. That’s what George Lucas has done as the director. The pacing of the film might be awful, but at least the boring parts are pretty to look at. The movie features a mix of live action, physical effects and puppets and CGI, and on that technical level, it works great. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous in the film, with shots framed beautifully and progressing mood or story. It would make for a great graphic novel that way. Action scenes are usually really solid, but I have to talk about the end battle.

The end battle is divided into four concurrent storylines, which could be a problem, but the way its edited, its actually pretty coherent. Unfortunately, not all of the segments get proper development time. The land battle between the Gungans and the Droid Army is bright, flashy and pretty inventive (even with the Jar Jar stuff), the problem is that it feels like a cutscene from a game and not a climactic moment. The city fight with Amidala’s men is pretty well done too, but there’s not a lot of it and it doesn’t really feel dangerous either because the only casualties are droids and nameless stuntmen. The three-way fight between Darth Maul and the Jedi is absolutely fantastic and everything you could ever want in a fast-paced lightsaber duel to the death. It’s the highlight of the movie, easily. The space battle. Star Wars was known for its incredible space battles, but what the hell happened here? Let’s explore. First, Anakin “Lucky Shot” Skywalker is not a legitimately plausible fighter pilot. Second, it has no flow, no choreography whatsoever. Its just fighters flying up to space where the battle plan is to “blow up the control ship” (sounds like they got handed a suicide mission by their wise and benevolent leaders). Third, it has no tension whatsoever. A total of four other pilots get any kind of face time and only one of them has received any kind of development whatsoever because he was on the Royal Starship during their jaunt through the backwater planets. Out of those four, only one gets a fiery death in cold space. An epic battle with emotional investment in their success this ain’t.

George Lucas probably should have had help tightening up the script. The dialog is stiff, stiffer than the original trilogy, and the pacing is, as already mentioned, awful. The ideas are pretty neat though, and the plot isn’t bad if you boil it down to its bare minimum structure without the ponderous overuse of “words words words” Its also abundantly clear that Lucas does not write political drama/thrillers very well because he fails to capture the nuance of the subtle game of diplomacy and instead the Senate scenes are just exposition vomited out onto the screen (with the exception of McDiarmid’s oily delivery).

John Williams on soundtrack and Ben Burtt on sound editing. It feels so good to write that sentence again. They again do glorious and fantastic work.

It was twenty-some years between the first movie and Phantom Menace. The technology has progressed in making Star Wars but the storytelling has degraded. The end result is a long, ponderous but lushly-shot film that makes great use of special effects, but is dragged down by its delivery. Some good performances are countered by really bad performances, and of course, there’s Jar Jar Binks to assault the audience. Visually it and its effects pushed filmmaking tech forward, but the movie as a whole lacks the energy and fire that made the original trilogy so damn infectious. This movie is a yo-yo of quality. When it actually clicks, its pure Star Wars magic. Sadly, it doesn’t click as often as it misfires. If you love Star Wars, of course you’ve already seen it and more than likely been disappointed (or at best found it “okay”). If you love awesome movies with heart and soul, this film will not satisfy you.

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