Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

(George Lucas, USA, 1999)


Films that come with the THX sound system – another George Lucas franchise, like the Star Wars movies – end with a written message that implores those few spectators still left in their seats to write in and complain if any external factor has detracted from their full enjoyment of the show.


It is probably not within the terms of this invitation to nominate as a prime irritant 'the hype' – but that would certainly be the most sensible and prevalent response when it comes to The Phantom Menace.


Publicity for this new Star Wars movie – zooming three episodes backwards from the 1977 original – has been maddeningly ubiquitous for at least three months before its release. Lucas' resolutely non-futuristic vision of the future has seemingly infected every section of every magazine and newspaper, resulting in journalistic conceits more fantastic and surreal than anything in The Phantom Menace. (My favourite being the weekend magazine travel item on Tunisia – a principal location for the film – which boasted numerous images from Star Wars and only one of Tunisia.)


I was 17 years old when Star Wars was first unleashed on the world. I hated it then, and have become merely bored with its progeny (on screens and in toy shops) ever since. Lucas' novel idea of restarting the series at Episode I at least offered the promise of a new beginning that could seduce recalcitrant non-believers like myself: a way of re-launching and reorienting the story, and introducing audiences to the whole, cosmic pattern underlying the saga.


In fact, The Phantom Menace starts exactly as Star Wars did: confusingly, right in the middle of things, after a scrolling printed legend jam-packed with meaningless names, places and facts. There is no exposition of any kind in this long, slow movie. All we need really grasp is that there are goodies and baddies locked in an eternal see-saw struggle for power, and that there will be, at regular intervals, the familiar generic set-pieces of the series: a high-speed spaceship chase, an intergalactic battle full of explosions, and a hand-to-hand fight with glowing lasers.


Each new Star Wars movie – as everyone, fan or foe alike, knows – is essentially a glorified shoot-‘em-up video game. So it doesn't actually matter whether you start at Episode 1, 4 or 8: it's the same generic pattern, the same escalation of levels and steps, the same gung-ho climaxes and supposedly teary interludes. The only real difference in Lucas' pitch to the mass market of 1999 is that he has at last eradicated all grudging gestures towards romance, and almost every trace of workable comedy (a procession of cute, baby-talking creatures notwithstanding).


I have never been persuaded by arguments that the Star Wars films represent a new mythology for contemporary times. Novelist J. G. Ballard was right to say that, while even the worst instalment (on small or big screen) of Star Trek or Dr Who has the kernel of a intriguing philosophical or moral problem built into its storyline, the Star Wars series has scarcely a single idea to offer.


Instead of having a theme or a vision of any kind, Lucas simply collects from other movies and pop culture traditions, almost at random. He began in 1977 by recycling moods and topics from Western classics like John Ford's The Searchers (1955); or heated family melodramas about evil, fallen patriarchs; or bubbly comedies built on playful, sexual tension. Today, Lucas' artistic ambitions are pitched far lower; he seems to recycle only himself, and – judging from the crazy array of sidekick figures with Indian, African, Jewish or Jamaican accents – the worst Disney animated features.


The wit and wisdom of George Lucas, as evidenced in The Phantom Menace, is meagre indeed. Despite the film's veritable anthology of cultural, historical, religious and mythological references – everything from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Triumph of the Will (1935) to Abraham Lincoln and Christ's immaculate conception – nothing coheres this ragbag of tired plot moves and stale heroics. Of course, there is The Force – but Qui-Gon's sermons on the need to ‘focus’ sound more like a seminar in business management than the insight of a sage.


In fact, there is a terribly banal side to the Star Wars epics. The constant references to taxes, treaties, bureaucrats and ongoing debates between political leaders make the unfolding destiny of the universe sound like an endless session of the Australian parliament. And Lucas' script is scarcely more exciting than a typical Hansard transcript – never has one heard such a deluge of droning, prosaic, dreary talk on screen.


One does not have to be a science fiction buff to wonder: where are the experiments in time travel? The puzzles and lures of alternate, virtual realities? The odd communities and subcultures scattered in every corner of every planet, with their perennial challenge to what we regard as normal and alien? Lucas cares not a jot for these realms of poetic imagination. Nor does he seem to have taken much account of all those fantasy movies of the last two decades that he helped inspire – the crowning laser-fight here has already been topped in at least a hundred Hong Kong ghost story movies.


Those who are alienated by the Star Wars phenomenon exaggerate its insidious, deleterious effects on the rest of cinema. The era of special-effects blockbusters has not exactly led to the wholesale dumbing down of popular culture (as many unwisely argue). But it has resulted in the de-skilling of America's most highly paid writer-director-producers.


It is hard to believe that the man who once directed a film as vibrant and energetic as American Graffiti (1973) now helms something as flat and inert as The Phantom Menace. In this regard, the film's closest cousin is James Cameron's Titanic (1997): from shot to shot and scene to scene, there is no spark of invention, hardly any sign of life – only the relentless display of big budget production values.


The Phantom Menace is undeniably spectacular on the visual plane (sound wise, John Williams' bombastic orchestral score tends to recycle the predictable fanfares and crescendos). Lucas and his collaborators seem to have concentrated primarily on the sets, costumes, and digital design concepts (such as the stunning glimpse of an underwater kingdom). But once these good-looking fixtures are up and twinkling, Lucas does precious little to animate them.


Actors and characterisation appear to have been on the very bottom of Lucas' directorial agenda. Performers like Neeson and Terence Stamp, who have fine, strong voices and solid, commanding presences, survive this neglect simply because they are well cast. On the other hand, Ewan McGregor – with his thin voice and all-over-the-shop acting style – seems misplaced and palpably ill at ease from first scene to last. Samuel L. Jackson, equally out of kilter with the generally wooden ensemble, at least brings a touch of nutty humour to his cameo.


The Phantom Menace is inoffensive, time-filling fluff – generally good to look at, and occasionally even slightly exciting. No disgruntled viewer or critic can ever hope to put the slightest dint in the juggernaut of Star Wars hype. But as Yoda says, in his stilted syntax: "See through you, we can".

© Adrian Martin June 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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