And I could easily have put another ten...
So what are you expecting? Are you defining The Phantom Menace in terms of recent blockbusters, like Independence Day? Don't worry, I can tell you straight away it's infinitely better than that. Or are you wondering how it will compare with the Star Wars canon thus far? Maybe hoping it will be strongly reminiscent of one of the other Star Wars films; perhaps moody and deep like Empire, or full of fun and muppets, like Jedi - or perhaps just classic, timeless entertainment, like the first one. Well... it's none of these things, and yet all of these things. What it is not is the Star Wars remake aimed squarely at nineties kiddies which Lucas seemed to be promising and many (including me) were expecting.
This is at once Stars Wars writ large and writ rather small. The film's epic quality is by far it's greatest strength. It looks extraordinary - both the scenery and its inhabitants are perfectly realised and perfectly framed. If you've ever doubted the ability of CGI to produce genuinely photo-realistic characters, worry no more. Here they integrate seamlessly, to the extent that some characters realised with animatronic masks look distinctly dated. The use of computer generated backdrops gives it the feel of the old Hollywood epics which the earlier SW pictures strained for. John Williams' music enhances this. TPM has less memorable hooks and bombastic themes than its predecessors, but instead a more restrained, sweeping grandeur. This is Star Wars in the mould of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' - those Ben Hur comparisons don't only apply to the chariot/pod race.
And yet at the same time, the background to the story is all rather small beer. As Roger Ebert noted, "the plot details (of embargoes and blockades) tend to diminish the size of the movie's universe - to shrink it to the scale of a 19th century trade dispute." I'm not convinced that the political and economical aspect of the film - which had been nicely understated in Star Wars, but here is moved centre-stage - will hold any great interest for the kids. The link between Darth Sidious, Senator Palpatine, the Trade Federation and the sleepy planet of Naboo is tenuous at best and cannot be easily grasped on first viewing. Perhaps the questions which remain at the end of the film are designed to keep us interested until Episode II, but if cliffhangers were needed, I would have preferred something a little more subtle. Remember that Star Wars only needed to show Vader spinning off into space to tell us there was more to come. By contrast, TPM closes with a series of portentous signposts.
These minor defects in its rationale also adversely affect the plot, which, while better than the messy Jedi, has more in common with the headlong rush of Empire than the classically elegant structure of Star Wars. What it could do with is a more obvious and visible threat, such as the Death Star signified in the first film. Without this, the film cannot propel itself towards the conclusion with any real sense of urgency, relying instead on the momentum of its set pieces. There is also no obvious 'maguffin' - again, in the first film, R2D2 and the stolen plans focus our attention much more vividly than TPM's quest to deliver Queen Amidala to the galactic parliament so that she can - er - table a motion. But these are only minor problems - they are mainly important in figuring out why, although it is relentlessly impressive and often exciting, the film fails to grip in the way the much simpler Star Wars did.
Perhaps because of this incessant vastness, the film's most memorable scenes for me are the quieter, more intimate ones. Those between Anakin and Padme are excellent and very touching. They were among the few sections of dialogue to really come alive in the script book, and the same is true here. Natalie Portman, occasionally annoying in her scenes as the queen, is at her best, and it bodes well for her forthcoming relationship with the older Anakin.
So what about all those critics who have complained of the film's soullessness and lack of humanity? Here I must leap to Lucas' defence. I fear they are confusing flat dialogue with flat characterisation. Yes, there's a lot of the former; far too much of the dialogue is concerned with exposition and logistics. But, as ever, Lucas has cast well, and the characters come alive more though their actions than their speech. Liam Neeson is the lynchpin; his relationships with Obi Wan, Anakin and Shmi Skywalker are believable and often moving. These three characters, along with Queen Amidala, have humanity with a capital H. Yes, their dialogue can lack sparkle, but that's mainly because it has a "quasi-classical formality" (Ebert again) - more concerned with getting across big ideas than indulging in the sort of flippant small talk we now expect from our blockbusters. Lucas's business is making grand, legendary films which, through their use of archetypal characters and well-worn mythological narratives, last far longer than other fashionable trivia. Wait a few years, then look back on this film and on Titanic. I promise you that TPM will be less redolent of the 1990's than James Cameron's ostensibly historical muddle.
So what could I have done without? Minor things really: the appalling Trade Federation representatives, with their dreadful masks and comedy Oriental accents; worse, the attempts to explain 'the Force' in scientific terms (ie. technobabble) - the new Star Trek has a lot to answer for. A lot of the politics should have been excised, and left to the novel to explain to those who care. And I really would like to have seen a more cynical, Han Solo-esque figure, just to interject a bit of wit and dissension into the procedings. But some other things are better than expected. For example, that fan bete noir Jar Jar Binks is actually rather likeable! No, really... He gets two or three genuinely amusing moments, and overall his function is more like C3P0 in the first film than Chewbacca (the comparison most have made).
We've been living with the Star Wars films for over 15 years, and awaiting Episode I for almost as long. Obviously these movies are built to last - more specifically, built for the long term - and this one is no exception. You may initially be disappointed; in fact, you almost certainly will. But you'll see it again, and again, and before you know it, you'll be returning to The Phantom Menace like an old friend - unlike so many recent of-the-moment blockbusters (which you can already hardly remember), which cynically provide cheap, instant thrills, and little else. Listen to Mr Lucas - he speaks in sentences.
I've read a lot of pretty stupid criticism of TPM - the sort of half-baked attacks which can be dismissed one by one. So that's what I intend to do. As and when I remember them.
|There's not enough of Darth Maul.||Darth Vader was in Star Wars for less than 20 minutes. Count 'em! I did. Maul has long enough to do his stuff. (Although it would be better if he didn't speak.)|
|We don't learn enough about the Sith.||During Star Wars, we learn precious little about Vader, other than that he is a badass. That sort of thing generally waits till the second act.|
|Having to do an impression of Alec Guinness deprives Ewan MacGregor of his natural charm.||No, it doesn't! Ewan can make any character come alive, and that's a fact. His vocal impersonation is actually much less forced than expected.|