Friday, June 4, 2010

"Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999)

"Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999)
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor and Natalie Portman
Written and directed by George Lucas

Yeah, I can't believe I watched this steaming pile again, either.  Back in 1999, the anticipation of the first new "Star Wars" film in nearly two decades was massive.  "Star Wars" is huge, let's admit it; even if for some reason you hadn't seen it, you knew who Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and Han Solo and Chewbacca and the droids all were.  It's become part of our culture, as identifiable as Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, Superman, apple pie and baseball.

So imagine if you will 17-year-old Ben, high school nerd, excited for the chance to see a new "Star Wars" film on the big screen.

Then imagine the disappointment so great that I didn't see a movie in a theatre by myself again until 2006's "Superman Returns."

"The Phantom Menace" fucking sucks.  Saved only by a few well-staged action sequences, the rest of the film is failure of galactic proportions: The plot is nonsense, bogged down by obtuse political junk about trade route taxation and senate votes as well as mystical gobbledygook from the douchiest Jedi you could conjure up.  The acting, from what should be one of the finest casts in modern filmmaking, is like watching a junior high production.

Several decades before the events of "Star Wars" (or "Episode IV - A New Hope"), the corrupt, greedy Trade Federation has set up a blockade of the peaceful Republic world of Naboo... for some reason.  Two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent to resolve the situation.  However, when they arrive, their ship is destroyed and they are attacked by Trade Federation warrior droids.  Fleeing to the planet, the meet the clumsy, idiotic Jar Jar Binks.  From there, Binks guides them to the capital city of Naboo where they join up with Queen Padme Amidala and rescue her from the Federation droids.  Deciding their only chance is to flee to Coruscant, capital of the Republic, and plead their case to the senate.

But on their run through the blockade, the ship's hyperdrive is damaged and they must set down on the desert world of Tatooine to find parts to repair their ship.  There, Qui-Gon meets Anakin Skywalker, a young boy with an exceptional connection to the Force, the mystical power which guides the Jedi as guardians of justice in the galaxy.

Basically a bunch of stuff just sort of happens, and then in the end, everyone goes back to Naboo (even Skywalker for reasons that are never explained, even though his presence there is plain retarded) to fight the Federation's invading droid army.  They sneak back to the planet in the same ship they left in, with no extra help or weapons and manage to form an alliance with Jar-Jar's Gungan swamp people and defeat the Trade Federation.

So essentially what this means is that everything in the middle part of the film involving Tatooine and Coruscant is utterly pointless, except that it introduces us to Skywalker (who will obviously become more important in later films).  This would be totally lame except for the fact that it's also exceedingly boring, which means that it's not just lame, it's downright unforgivable.

Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is a waste.  As a ten-year-old boy, he contributes nothing of value to the movie in terms of character, but his presence moves the idiotic plot along one or two steps, and then sticks around for no good reason.  The character's back story as an immaculately-conceived slave who may or may not be the prophesied "Chosen One" who will balance the Force is ill-conceived at best.  The fact that Lloyd is one of the worst child actors ever to step foot in front of a camera doesn't help at all, either.  His line readings are atrocious, and he has absolutely zero chemistry with any of the other actors.

Oh, and the other actors aren't much better.  With a cast sporting the likes of Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan MacGregor and Samuel L. Jackson, you'd expect this movie to be loaded with excellent performances.  It's not.  Neeson is the only one who comes out seeming relatively okay, but he's bogged down by his character's ridiculous dialogue.  MacGregor doesn't seem to know what to do with himself, and Portman is saddled with... Jesus, I don't even know how to describe it, but it's easily the worst performance of her career.  Samuel L. Jackson sounds like he's reading off cue-cards with bad handwriting.

Ugh... so, what works in "Phantom Menace"?  Precious little.  The effects work of Industrial Light and Magic is A-plus material, as always.  John Williams' score is exceptional.  The fight choreography between the evil Sith, Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the Jedi is pretty dang cool, too.

But everything else?  Sucks.

I didn't see a movie by myself after this one for seven years.  Seven years.  Because I couldn't stand being by myself, watching a terrible movie, without someone there to rag on it with.  This was probably also partly the genesis of Bad Movie Night.