The Phantom Menace - C
Viewed May 29, 1999 at Ziegfeld

The Phantom Menace is a cartoon. The sad thing is that it's not even a good cartoon. It's the great paradox that with CGI, Lucas could have let his imagination run loose with the design of the alien creatures; instead, it's contracted. The aliens in the original Star Wars actually looked and felt like aliens. In large part, this was because, with the exception of Chewbacca, there weren't any major alien characters; they provided background atmosphere and it's a lot easier to accept something as alien if you see it only for a brief moment. But with these newfangled computers, Lucas tries to make several of his major characters aliens. It's a disaster, largely because Lucas' ability to create character doesn't extend beyond a Saturday morning level. This is why The Phantom Menace has drawn such major fire for containing stereotypes; his characterization is at their same crude level. It's a lesson for Lucas that the one alien character that does work, Darth Maul, is the one that isn't generated by a computer and doesn't spout huge amounts of silly dialogue.

The cartoonish atmosphere in The Phantom Menace isn't helped by the fact that the comic relief in the film consists solely of slapstick.[1] I'd hardly call the original Star Wars films adult, but the comedy wasn't pitched solely at a pre-literate level. In Star Wars, the humor flowed from the characterizations: the petulant adolescence in Luke's "But I wanted to go to Taschii Station to pick up some power converters", the Laurel and Hardy bickering of C3PO and R2D2, the gruffly affectionate Han Solo wisecracks to Chewbacca, and the clash of personality types between Solo and Princess Leia. There's no trace of verbal wit in Lucas' screenplay; instead, we're treated to Jar Jar falling down and just being a general nuisance. I doubt The Phantom Menace will spawn much in the way of catchprases.

So we've got crude comic relief aliens. Things might not be so bad if at least the human characters were interesting. They're not. With one notable exception, the actors use the same stilted and somber tone which grows wearingly monotonous. For Pete's sake, even Samuel Jackson is boring. The exception is Ian McDiarmid, who as Senator Palpatine (the future Emperor), projects a charisma that's otherwise missing from the movie. I now suspect he takes over the galaxy because everyone else was bored into a stupor.

The Phantom Menace isn't a complete waste of time; if there's one directorial ability that Lucas has managed to retain, it's the ability to mount an exciting and breathlessly-edited action sequence. The pod race is a thrilling set piece[2] and the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is, on a pure adrenaline level, better than any duel in the first three. But there's little emotional pull to the sequences, which is particularly disappointing with the lightsaber duel (or is it a triel?). An odd thing about the Star Wars films is that the big emotional moment in *all* of them occurs as the climax of a swordfight.[3] The death of a man, Qui-Gon, we've barely gotten to know doesn't resonate as well as the redemption of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi or Vader telling Luke that Vader is Luke's father in The Empire Strikes Back.

[1]There's also the terrible, terrible two-headed alien that serves as annunciator/color man at the pod race. One of the charms of the Star Wars universe is that it works entirely on its own terms; its connections to ours are the wispiest of metaphors and archetypes. This alien is a thinly veiled comment on contemporary sports. It's not that bad a joke (by Saturday morning cartoon standards), but it's in the wrong movie.
[2]Even if it is a thinly-disguised commercial for the video game.
[3]What would Freud make of that?