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Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas, 1999, 135 min.

Spectacle carries a heavy burden these days. Why should a movie that is designed to be entertaining have any social value? Or possess any elements of logic or rationality? Spectacle is eye candy, not the answer to weighty philosophical problems nor the reason why any of us should go on living. In the wake of the hype that surrounded Episode I, it's clear that our society puts a lot of weight on spectacle, much more so than is healthy in any way. The backlash to the hype was only appropriate, and it was reacting to two things: the unreal expectations of the fans, and George Lucas' mistaken belief that he could create something profound. I don't mean to say that two hours of diversion is itself a trivial thing. Writing a diverting bit of entertainment is a difficult task -- just consider how many comedies are poorly-written and not funny in the least. But it's a crucial problem to mistake spectacle for something other than eye candy, and it's even worse when someone flubs the even more difficult task of integrating the spectacle into something serious.

A week before Episode I hit the theatres, Time magazine ran an interview with George Lucas. Apparently, all that poor old George wants to do is help the youth of today look a bit beyond their consumeristic bent and focus on the spiritual things. A good message, but what a bunch of deceptive, pseudo-mystical horse puckey. The message is wrapped up in a consumeristic orgy that doesn't even need a neo-Marxist viewpoint to make one sick. Lucas might see no discontinuity there, but the fact of the marketing means something. Yes, Episode I made a great deal of money, and its market penetration was more like market flooding, as merchandise of every kind hit the shelves. This is spirituality? Count me out, George. Perhaps entertainment needs a few gestures in the direction of deeper meaning in order to succeed, at the box office or as art, but there's such a thing as taking yourself too seriously.

It might all be a different case if Episode I were a better movie. Let me work through my list of ridiculous and annoying things about the movie.

Virgin birth. Let's say that Schmi Skywalker, who is the mother of Anakin Skywalker, is a humanoid alien of some kind. Her species has an unusual method of reproduction... and seeing as she's alien, it can be anything, anything at all, granting the limitations of her humanoid shape. But a virgin birth has connotations to the audience far beyond such science fictional speculations, and Lucas grasps too far after significance. It's simply silly, if not offensive to some.

Battle droids. The Phantom Menace has finally resolved a burning question of mine: who or what could possible be more ineffective than storm troopers? The answer is battle droids. They looked interesting, and they certainly chopped up real nice when faced with a light sabre. But if anyone seriously meant to use them as an invasion force, they were out of their tiny minds.

Jar Jar Binks. This alien was simply not funny. A completely digital character could have been anything, anything at all, but instead Lucas gives us this nonsense, which is perhaps why Jar Jar seems like such a stinging insult. Lucas was apparently surprised by the vehemence of the reaction against Jar Jar.

Aliens with foreign accents. You can put Jar Jar Binks in this category too, along with almost all of the aliens. Lucas resolved this problem correctly with Chewbacca in Episodes 4 - 6. Chewie was never translated, and didn't need to be. In Episode I, the pod dealer gets subtitled a few times, which served to remind me of better moments in the other movies where humans would reply in English to untranslated (ie, unsubtitled) dialogue from aliens. Very disappointing to find such nasty caricatures in this movie.

Enough complaints. No movie could withstand the hype that came with this film. And I would like to point out that Lucas might have contributed to technical aspects of movie-making more than the creative aspect. He plows his money back into ILM and Lucasfilm, and The Phantom Menace is an independent movie, if you want to look at it in that way. This of course puts all of the perceived flaws right at Lucas' doorstep, not spreading the blame to a bunch of studio suits or test audiences or focus groups.

I will also add that I enjoyed the movie more the second time that I saw it, for a few reasons. I had been playing the computer game, Star Wars: Episode I: Racer, and I became much more familiar with the music. The main theme is pretty catchy once you're used to it. Having seen the movie once, I could easily tune out during the boring parts. And the last reason is that I liked the character of the young Obi Wan Kenobi a great deal. What sarcasm!


Last modified: October 22, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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