Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Last night I ordered my favorite pizza: Canadian Bacon, Mushrooms, Onions, and extra cheese on a crispy, thick crust. When my local Pizza Palace informed me that it would be a 2-hour wait, I was crestfallen, but hopeful. A pizza like that is worth the wait. Two hours passed, and my anticipation grew. Visions of hot gooey cheese and thick juicy slabs of meat filled my mind. As time passed, I found myself sitting by the door, check in hand, waiting anxiously for the only thing which could satisfy my vicious craving. And then it was there, hot and delicious, steaming, streaming grease and fattening goodness. The first bite was… not quite what it could have been. Those bastards undercooked it!! BLECH, what’s up with this crust? It’s all raw and doughy in the middle… holy crap I can’t believe I paid 20 bucks for this. Dammit these toppings are great though. Much like my much lamented, overpriced pizza, The Phantom Menace delivers a great heaping help of delicious topings, but unlike its delicious predecessors, forgets to bake the crust.

If you don’t know what Star Wars is, you must be from Siberia. Since you are Siberian, chances are you can’t read English anyway, so I’ll not waste any time explaining what it is to you. Suffice it to say that the Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a prequel to 3 really great films made in the 70’s and 80’s. Perhaps really great is an understatement, but there are only so many ways to get across to a Siberian the depth and wonder of my previous Star Wars viewing experience.

Such groundbreaking amazement and excitement is a tough, nay, impossible act to follow. But let us not use that as an excuse for bad filmmaking. The Phantom Menace, reveals the origins of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the man behind the mask of the evil Darth Vader, as he is discovered on the corrupt planet of Tatooine at a tender and innocent age by a pair of crime-fighting Jedi. All is not yet rotten in the state of Skywalker, as Anakin proves himself and honest and kind child. Thrust into the middle of intrigue in the galactic republic, Anakin and his Jedi sensei, Qui-Gonn Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), save a planet and its beautiful queen, Padme-Amidala (Natalie Portman), from the slowly rising forces of a mysterious dark Sith Lord.

Unlike its predecessors (and in a way its progeny) Episode I seems to be missing many of the key elements that make the original three Star Wars films such a memorable and undeniable part of modern pop culture. The staggering effects are there, so are the mysterious Jedi and their light-sabers. In fact, you’ll see more of that than you have ever seen before. Cool starships? Yep. Huge battles in which desperate people fight against hopeless odds for freedom? That too. Ok, maybe they left out that wicked gold bikini this time, but I don’t know that Portman would look all that good in it anyway.

No, what’s missing are the people. Yes yes, there are lots of new characters in here. Problem is, not one of them is really all that interesting. Or, rather we don’t know if they are because Director/Writer George Lucas really doesn’t make much effort to let us get to know them. You see, the beauty, the charm, and the magic of Star Wars never was explosions or bikinis, it was the people, the characters that inhabited the Lucas universe. And I don’t mean all the different and weird varieties of aliens. I’m talking personality, I’m talking dialogue, I’m talking meaningful and occasionally funny interaction from one character to another.

The Phantom Menace has decided to take out all of that, and instead replace it with a strange phenomenon known as “Jar Jar Binks”. Rather than have the characters actually TALK with one another, thereby forcing Lucas to get off his ass and write REAL dialogue; Star Wars creators have stumbled upon a digitally created replacement. This “Jar Jar”, a computer generated “being” (a term which I use loosely) is present in every scene of importance, making mildly annoying noises, cutting off conversations, and generally stopping anyone from ever saying anything of interest. As a result, Episode I teaches us a great deal about the finer nuances of what it takes to be the next Steve Urkel, but avoids creating exciting and unique characters for which the audience can develop any kind of attachment.

Let us not conclude from the above rant that The Phantom Menace is a bad movie, for even with a pretty rotten crust the toppings are still delicious. And, perhaps it is unfair to say the crust is all bad, because around the edges there are still a few crispy spots. Most notably in Qui-Gonn Gin, the only character with much to say that wasn’t recycled off a Campbell’s Soup label. He’s the “crazy old hermit type” like the old Ben Kenobi we’ve grown to love. Mystical and confidant, Neeson clearly loves being a Jedi, and we love watching him. And then there’s the toppings… perhaps some of the best toppings ever to grace the humble screen of my local megaplex. If this film consisted ONLY of the pod-racing scene, it would still be worth 8 bucks to grab a seat in the middle of the theatre. And if you have ever seen sword fighting, you have NEVER EVER seen anything like the mind-boggling, eye popping, and simply incredible Jedi light-saber duel at the end.

Not enough? How about a little sauce, spicy and hot, what’s the cheese without a good sauce? Lucas has doled out a healthy helping of villainous herbs and spices in the form of the conniving Senator Palpatine (someday he’ll be emperor) and his evil Sith apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park). Maul doesn’t have much to say, and this Hobbit suspects that its because Park, while an amazing stuntman, can’t really act, but then he doesn’t need to. Maul can just stand there and scare the crap out of you. Sure, he’s no Darth Vader, but then he’s still in diapers.

So look, you may be a little disappointed, but what did you expect? Lightning doesn’t strike twice, and Lucasfilm never really had a chance to top the original. Still, a crispy crust would have been nice. Comparisons may be unfair, but Lucas has already proved he can do better… in fact he’s proved it three times. Episode I is a great film, but its nothing like the three before it… er after it. I hate talking about prequels. But wait, what about the DVD? You didn’t tell me about all the whizbangs and gizmos and froody cool whatzits on it! Hey! If you don’t like the film don’t get the DVD genius! If you do, then buy it and you’ll enjoy it. The whoozits are whooing and the whazits are whazing just fine. In fact, this DVD’s whizbangs whiz better than any DVD I’ve seen before. Features flow fast and freely, and while it may have taken over 2 years to get the thing in stores, this puppy was worth the two hour wait.