Guilty Pleasure – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)6

star_wars_episode_one_the_phantom_menace_posterI have a question for you. Which of the six Star Wars films is your favourite? Be honest here. I promise I won’t judge. I imagine this question will get a pretty varied response. I believe the overwhelming majority of Star Wars fans out there will say their favourite is Episode IV: A New Hope. The original 1977 classic, by which all else is measured. Some sentimentalists may say Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi, for being the big climactic ending to the saga. For me it remains Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, for taking a truly brilliant groundbreaking film like Star Wars and taking it to whole news levels, raising the stakes, darkening the horizon, and of course giving us the immortal twist: “No. I am your father.” A few of Star Wars’ younger fans may even say that one of the prequels is their favourite. One thing’s for sure, I imagine very few will say their favourite is Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

For all the hype leading up to its 1999 release, Episode I left a sour taste in many mouths, with its strange title, its plot fraught with complicated politics previously unheard-of in a Star Wars film, its script that sounded like a first draft scribbled on the back of a beer coaster after a few schooners in the pub the night before filming began, it’s just-too-convenient plot points (a nine year old kid who can build a complex protocol droid from spare parts in his bedroom. Yeah, right. Okay.), and of course the insufferable Jar-Jar Binks. But even allowing for all these short comings (among others I could mention), Episode I has its moments, and some rather good ones at that. And now, with George Lucas finally re-releasing all six Star Wars films in 3D as he has been threatening to do for the past six years, starting with Episode I, I figured this would be an ideal guilty pleasure to take a look at.

One thing that keeps me eagerly re-watching Episode I is the lightsaber battle scenes. George Lucas himself points out in the DVD and BluRay special features that the film is set “in the prime of the Jedi”. In the original films the lightsaber battles were between old men, and/or students (or Padawans as we now know them), and by comparison were somewhat subdued.  Lucas made some horrible casting choices for the prequels. Most Star Wars fans I talk to can’t stand Jake Lloyd as the nine year old Anakin Skywalker. Oliver Ford Davies was disappointing as Sio Bibble. And likewise, Ray Park failed miserably at delivering his half dozen or so lines of dialogue as the monstrous Darth Maul. And yet Park remains a somehow inspired choice, because while he cannot act his way out of a wet paper bag (and if his IMDB profile is anything to go by, the fact that he is repeatedly cast in heavily made up, barely speaking roles such as Toad in X-Men, and Raptor in Mortal Kombat Annihilation, is a testament to this), you have to give him credit for one thing: the man can sure move!  Ray Park is one of Great Britain’s top martial artists. He grew up with a love of movies, with a particular admiration for Bruce Lee, and went on to master Shao Lin Kung Fu, and later Wushu as well. With his rapid, free flowing moves, swift, aggressive sword play, and a lot of menacing make-up and prosthetics, Ray Park  took the character of Darth Maul, and made him a force to be reckoned with, resulting in what is arguably the most energetic, exciting, and fun lightsaber sequence in all six of the films.

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Speaking of cast, one cannot help but feel a bit bad for one particular actor: Ahmed Best. I can clearly recall watching TV interviews with the cast back in 1999 leading up to the release. All the main cast were interviewed, and most of them (even that irritating little shit Jake Lloyd) seemed pretty grounded and at ease with their celebrity, answering Angela Bishop’s questions as if in a normal conversation. The exception was Ahmed Best. He was clearly blown away by all the glitz and glamour that he had obviously worked so hard to break in to. Playing Jar Jar Binks in the new Star Wars film was clearly his big break. “I always dreamed of being in a Star Wars film,” he reminisced wistfully. “I just never imagined I’d be the funny guy.” Then, a week or so later, the film hit the screens, and fans everywhere began their hate campaign against the annoying Gungan. His character is clumsy, infuriatingly inane, and yet maddeningly endearing, which of course only fuels the fires of hatred for the hapless amphibian. Fans brayed for blood, hoping for his death in one of the two prequels that followed. I even found a comedy artist on MP3.com soon afterwards who made a mock trailer for a film titled “507 Short Films About The Death Of Jar-Jar Binks”.

Imagine being Ahmed Best. While the rest of the cast were cheered, idolised, and photographed on the red carpets as their careers went from strength to strength, with costumed fans embracing them as new favourites, collecting and treasuring their action figures, hermetically sealing them inside their packaging for all eternity, Ahmed Best must have been terribly shocked at his reception. One cannot help but imagine him showing up to film premieres sneaking in through the service entrance in a big hat and sunglasses with his coat collar up as visiting a porno cinema, fearful of being recognised, shying away from the merciless fanboys ready to pelt him with rotting food stuffs for his alleged crimes against the Star Wars galaxy. In the thirteen years since Episode I’s release, Best’s career has not amounted to nearly as much as many of his fellow Star Wars cast. His filmography since then has consisted mainly of making brief appearances in the other two Star Wars prequels, as well as a few cameos in Star Wars computer games, and other spin offs, in between the occasional guest role on TV shows and low budget films. And yet, Jar Jar is memorable. Maybe not for the right reasons, but he remains important, as the character who proposes Palpatine’s emergency powers, setting in motion a cataclysmic chain of events. Hate him you may, but he’s still an important character in the Star Wars universe.

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But of course, Jar Jar was not the only character to be widely reviled. This movie is positively crawling with memorably awful characters. I have already cited the comically one-dimensional (and rather inebriatedly named) Sio Bibble, whose portrayal by accomplished actor Oliver Ford Davies suggested he had never read the script before, and was probably being fed his lines by the work experience kid with a big texta and a bunch of white sheets of cardboard standing just out of shot. Many would agree that Jake Lloyd was a poor choice to play Anakin when Hayley Joel Osment was, at about the same time, making a name for himself as a far superior child actor. Even the great Samuel L. Jackson, a phenomenal actor, and now one of the highest paid leading men in Hollywood, delivered an uncharacteristically monotone performance as Jedi Master Mace Windu. The simplest explanation for all this is to blame it on the bad script. And its true. The script sucks like an industrial vacuum cleaner. I’m sorry George Lucas, I know Star Wars is your baby, and I know you’ve made a an absolute fortune from it, and spawned an entire franchise not to be scoffed at, but still, the simple fact  remains that you, George Lucas, couldn’t write a decent screen play to save your life. I mean, seriously! You managed to do the original trilogy without confusing us all with complex politics. Why do it now?! What you do do well, is stories.

And therein lies the big redeeming factor: story. George Lucas is an untalented writer with an imagination in which the very outer edges of the universe is the limit. And it was through this, coupled with his love of film and film making, that he introduced us to this now legendary story, and changed the way we make movies. If George Lucas had managed to swallow his pride and stop short at writing the Episode I story and then entrusting the screen writing and direction to someone a tad better (as he did with Episodes V and VI) who knows by what margin the films may have been improved?. Read the novelisiation for Episode I, hell read the novelisations for ALL SIX of the films (I have) and you’ll see just how brilliant they could have been. Particularly Episode III. Revenge Of The Sith was novelised by Matthew Stover, working from Lucas’s treatment, and created settings and dialogue far superior to that of the films. I cannot help but imagine what might have happened if they had simply taken the novels and used them as scripts. I’m sure it would have been a logistical nightmare on set to have thick novels with scribbled notes all down the sides, but I’m sure the end would have justified the means.

In any case, I am getting off topic here. My point is, if you take away the bad script and look at the story itself, you’ll see an epic story of adventure, excitement, and other things that a Jedi craves not, according to Yoda. And that is at the core of what keeps me coming back to this critically battered film. It is the beginning of a story we had all longed to hear for years. We had all been excited by it in the lead up to its release. Admit it, you were too. The letdown came due to details that would have been sadly unavoidable due to the inevitable comparisons people would draw. Of course people would be comparing Episode I to the original films, and of course they expected something far more, which is a tough thing to deliver when you already have three huge hits behind you. Episode I is not the best of the Star Wars films, nor indeed will it be many peoples favourite. It doesn’t try to be. Instead, it is simply the beginning of the rollicking ride we all know and love. The climax never comes at the start of the story. It comes toward the end. To have such massive expectations of the first chapter of a story is foolish. Had Episode I been a standalone movie it probably would have gone straight to DVD. Instead, as the first chapter of a beloved saga, it serves its purpose well: to set things up for a truly epic tale to come.

 

Guiltiest Moment:  Darth Maul’s big reveal. His features masked by a menacing black cloak. Our heroes are stopped in their tracks. Maul glances up with his blazing demonic eyes. Enter the Jedi, calmly declaring “We’ll handle this.” All agree and clear off. Maul removes his cloak to reveal his monstrous features, whips out his double bladed lightsaber with a flourish, igniting each blade one at a time. The Jedi do likewise, and with that… it’s on.

Guiltiest Dialogue: Yoda tells it like it is: “Always two there are. No more. No Less. A master, and an apprentice.” “But which one was destroyed?” replies Mace Windu. “The Master, or the apprentice?” Say what you like about the film as a whole, but this brief exchange of dialogue, flowed by a subtle pan across the attendants at Qui-Gon’s funeral, is the ideal lead in to the events still to come. Brilliant!

Guiltiest Performance:  I think we can all agree that Ewan Macgregor was extremely well cast as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Young, and likeable, he manages to portray a believable likeness to the kindly old Obi-Wan of the original trilogy, without simply attempting a blatant Alec Guinness impersonation. I had my doubts before I saw the film, but now I can think of no better actor to do the role justice.

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6 Comments on "Guilty Pleasure – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)"

  1. Wow Felk, you’ve managed to do an impossible — make me want to rewatch a(ny) Star Wars film! I did always love Darth Maul though, for sheer coolness, and actually didn’t really hate Jar Jar. Maybe because I’m not a Star Wars nerd

    • Heheheheheh! Cheers Nis! Worry not, I shall be keeping a lid on the Jar-Jar bashing in future. :)

      And Sio Bibble fans can rest easy too… :)

  2. Bossdog said Feb 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Great article – Bossdog approved.

    For any Star Wars fan, watch at least the first 10mins of this (its hilarious): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ezeYJUz-84

  3. I’m with Nis, I kinda wanna watch this again now, too. I remember being 12 or so and not so well read in Star Wars lore at the time and I found the film rather engaging – mainly for the special effects and modernised light sabers. I didn’t hate JJB but I did hate the kid…

    And just for the fun of it Episode V, VI, III, IV, II, I

    • I saw the new version on the weekend. It didn’t need to be in 3D, but it was great just to see it on the big screen again. What I’ll be interested to see is what the hard core fans make of the newly animated episode I Yoda. (Yoda was originally a puppet in Episode I).

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