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Lucas may have problems as a director and writer, but I've always
thought that those flaws are balanced by his great storytelling
ability. The problem with "The Phantom Menace" is that he simply has no
story to tell. The film merely adds an introductory chapter to a story
that has already been told, and stretches it out into a two-hour movie.
It is no accident that prequels of this kind are rare. They are very
difficult to make properly. And apparently he's just not a
sophisticated enough filmmaker to pull it off.
For one thing, this project is limited by the fact that anyone familiar
with the first trilogy knows the story's outcome, and it therefore
lacks some of the suspense associated with a gradually unfolding saga.
More importantly, however, this situation leaves Lucas with very little
freedom as a storyteller. It also encourages him to gloss over key
events; because their outcome is a foregone conclusion, he forgets to
bring them to life.
For example, we know there will eventually be a romance between Anakin
and Padme. So Lucas has the two characters meet here and--surprise,
surprise--they seem to like each other. Their developing friendship
isn't portrayed that clearly, and their motivations for becoming close
aren't explained. Because Lucas fails to make scenes like these
believable, we can't help being conscious of how he's manipulating the
plot in his effort to connect the two trilogies. Another good example
of this problem is Anakin's portrayal as a potential Jedi. There
doesn't appear to be anything about this kid remotely out of the
ordinary, even though the other characters keep talking like there is.
Our only reason for thinking he's special is that the plot requires it.
If the story fails to be engaging, it is because we never see the
important events. Lucas makes a fatal error in not showing what's
happening on Naboo, the small planet whose capture is the focus of the
plot. Numerous atrocities are supposedly being committed against the
planet's inhabitants, but we only know about this because the
characters on screen refer to the events, usually rather woodenly.
The deadpan performances are a problem in themselves, but they only
highlight our lack of involvement in the story. Think of Han Solo
sweating in fear, then think of the emotional vacuums passing for
characters in this film. Whenever any of the characters do express
emotion, as in the scene where Anakin and his mom part, it still seems
awfully restrained. Somehow, Lucas manages to keep the emotional
reactions of his characters to a minimum, which gives the film an
almost mechanical feel.
It's true that "A New Hope" never showed Alderaan's inhabitants, but we
still could feel the tragedy of the planet's destruction through the
horrified reactions of Princess Leia and Obi Wan. Moreover, there were
many other involving events which we witnessed directly, such as the
slaying of rebels at the beginning; the capture and torture of the
princess; and the murder of Luke's foster parents. Furthermore, the
major plot elements were intriguing in and of themselves. They weren't
there merely to show us how they were to be linked to later events,
which seems to be the case with the new film.
I suspect that Lucas was not as concerned in the first trilogy with
what had to happen later in the story and was therefore able to focus
his attention on the events at hand. The weakest segment was "Return of
the Jedi," which had the task of bringing the story to an end. Only
then did Lucas start to show signs of forcing plot points. In "The
Phantom Menace," he gets so bogged down in the task of bringing his
story from point A to point B that he ends up with only the bare bones
of a plot, and none of it comes alive.
This is especially true of the characterization. In the old trilogy,
characters like Yoda and Han reveal distinct personalities in their
first few minutes on screen. This film goes for more than two hours and
the characters, including the familiar ones, come off vague and
nondescript. We aren't given much of a chance to experience their
personalities in the way they interact. We must take Qui Gon's word for
it when he describes Obi Wan as "headstrong." What's most odd is that
the cartoons seem better developed than the humans. The scenes where
Qui Gon negotiates with the birdlike slave-owner Watto are amusing and
well-done--probably the movie's best scenes aside from the stunning
action sequences--but they can't hold a candle to the constant
interactions throughout the first trilogy.
One thing I cannot do is accuse the film of lacking creativity. The
design of the creatures, the technologies, and the planets is
impressive. Watching the film is sort of like reading a children's book
that isn't very good but abounds with beautiful illustrations. There is
certainly a "wow" factor in the movie's visuals, but the effect of it
I get irked when I hear fans talk as though the "Star Wars" movies were
never about anything beyond special effects. While the inventive
visuals are part of what made the originals so revolutionary, they're
not what made the films so fun to watch. And in no way can they explain
the trilogy's continuing popularity today. After all, many of the
original effects look primitive by today's standards, and their novelty
has certainly worn off. Only an enduring and compelling storyline could
have allowed the first three films to become the classics they're
almost universally acknowledged to be.
Tags for Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace Full Movie
, Jake Lloyd
, Liam Neeson
, Natalie Portman
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