Sunday, July 18, 1999

Film: Star Wars - The Phantom Menace

In a galaxy far, far away, a huge Publicity Department set about devising a way to sell work produced by the vast Special Effect Department. The Plot Department was happy, their week's work had been done. In fact most of it had been done 20 years ago. All they had to do was include all of the references made in the original. Hell, they wouldn't even have to make up any major character or planet names. Their only real work was shoe-horning in two very popular characters from the original film, that really had no place to be there. But that did not matter as the Genre Department had decided it was to be pure kids sci-fi adventure. The Characterisation Department had the biggest laugh of all. No character had enough screen time (not including battle scenes) to really warrant anything beyond a one line description. Even the character misguidedly given (what seems like) the most screen time, Jar Jar Binks (so called because he jars twice as much as any other character ever seen before), has a simple description: Clumsy and irritating. The Comedy Department, chuckled to himself because two paperclips had fallen onto the floor. Two paperclips! Why is that so funny? he asked himself. He was proud of his work on the film.

After the hype. After the pre-release merchandise. After the queues. Then there came the film. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The prequel to begin all prequels.

The film is a looker. If you saw it propped up against a bar, you'd possibly admire it from across the room, maybe you'd even go over and engage it in small talk, but you know there would be little point in brining up Noam Chomsky or the thawing in US-Soviet relations.

It looks very good in places. Of course, it has that strange, faint, not-altogether unpleasant odour that computer-generated images produce. But, every year, with every film, the smell reduces. And sometimes, it is impossible to tell.

With all these special effects, all you need is a decent story, and a solid set of characters. Had George Lucus wanted I would have gladly sold him my screenplay: 'Star Wars Episode 1: The Panting Princess'. He could have saved a fortune on sets, special effects, and would only have needed to employ a handful of the cast: Ewan McGregor, The Princess, and her hand maidens. But, he didn't.

So, what's in the film? It has a couple of silly in-jokes, and a few sub-spaceballs spoofs. (A two-headed alien sports commentator, bantering with itself, is a great concept, but comes across as irritating.) In fact a few things in the film are nothing more than irritating. The boy who will one day wear all black and develop the voice of James Earl Jones, is an irritating little brat. And he gets up to some 'Flight of the Navigator' spaceship mishaps, which are, of course, irritating. These mishaps, naturally, save the day.

Prescription Required
Who the Phantom Menace of the title is, is not clear. It's either the holographic form behind the dastardly invasion of the planet Greebo, or whatever it's called; or it's the evil Syph Knight with the Chessington-zoo-style face-painting. The Syph are dark Jedi knights, or rather they are Jedi Knights who have caught the Syph, and failed to take the penicillin in time. They are bad karma, and they fight with two light-sabres cellotaped together. But this knight of the Syph (I remember it well) was not really a menace. He came along, did a bit of fighting, killed someone who from what you knew of the future, had to die anyway, and then was dispatched by Obi Wan. Obi Wan then dropped his light-sabre down a murky toilet and dived in to get it. Hang on, I'm getting confused here.

The one good thing in these silly stories is The Force. The Force allows things to happen in these films which in other films would be a ridiculous coincidence or unbelievable piece of fate, to have been ordained by the force. They also allow the heroes to have much better reflexes than anyone else. The Force is not only all of this, but it is the glue that holds the plot, and indeed, the series, together.

Hence Obi Wan's rant at the beginning of the next film choosing the force, choosing Jedi training, choosing double-edged light-sabres, and how he chose not to choose the force, he chose the dark side. Hang on, I'm getting confused here.

It is the force that draws the Jedi to Manikin Skywalker, the Jedi subsequently known as Darth Vader. And it is the force that allows Jedis to survive battles against huge odds. Young Manikin was readily accepted as having the force, but he was not the only non-Jedi in the film who displayed very high degree of Forceness. One other character was drawn to the Jedi by fate. One other character survived a battle where the odds were very high, and killed many, many enemy without seeming to try. One other character starts off an unwanted loner and at the end is lauded as a hero. Ladies and Gentlemen, hate him or detest him, loath him or despise, there is no denying the facts: "Jar Jar Binks sun has the Force huge big in him." Let's hope he gets his own animated series.

In short, the Star Wars series is best not viewed as dynastic space soap opera. It is best not viewed as a multi-volume children's fantasy adventure yarn. It is actually best viewed as something akin to the series of 1940's Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour "Road To..." movies with CGI. Bob Hope is C3PO, Bing Crosby is R2D2, and Dorothy Lamour is the backdrop.

Well, that's what I think, anyway.

Preventative Medicine
For those of you who haven't seen it, I'm going to spoil it for you: At the end of the film, Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda and the boy who will be Darth are all still alive.

© 1999 Peter More.

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