Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ★★½

This, like the original Star Wars, is a tricky one, sort of. I remember sitting down in the theater with friends in 1999 when this came out, after the release of the original trilogy, the whole 'Greedo Shoots First' thing and all, kind of amazed that we were getting new star wars, new films actually from George Lucas -- not a tv show or a cartoon or a comic book or a novel written by someone else, but a direct chunk of the story that was missing -the whole rise of Darth Vader and the empire and young Obi-Wan Kenobi and all of that.

Expectations crashed head-first into the movie on the screen and....well, there was a sort of begrudging disappointment, as I think there was from many at the time Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd got the worst of it, I think, but Lucas's vision took a LOT of heat as well - criticism that continued throughout the trilogy (one of the things that led him to sell to Disney, perhaps).

After the Sequel trilogy wrapped up last year, and after the Mandalorian, which I found more or less a fine, entertaining slice of pulp sci-fi, I thought I should maybe go back and reevaluate the Prequels. After all, the Phantom Menace is 21 years old now! These movies are as old as the original Star Wars trilogy was when Lucas was working on the Prequels. As Jarring (Jar-Jar?) as it can be to think about, there's a generation out there with many people in it for whom Obi-Wan and Darth Maul spinning around each other, dropkicking each other in the face and performing aerobics with glowing swords is far more resonant an example of watching your mentor sacrifice themselves for your success than Obi-Wan and Darth Vader warily shuffling in circles around each other on the death star. And I think maybe this works best in snapshots, or set-pieces (it probably peaked with the podrace for me) the line delivery is erratic enough to be unable to overcome Lucas's famously weird dialogue, the CGI is shiny to the point of making the galaxy feel like a simulation (might be unconciously part of the point?) the universe here feels like it's leaning into Lucas's boyhood space daydreams from his own childhood, in both good (hey, what if there was a chariot race like Ben-Hur, but in SPACE) and bad ways (racist aliens, good lord) and the plot itself is a weird mix of naive pulp escapism -(a democracy with a queen? It's never really explained why the Gungans don't like the people of Naboo, but given the colonial positioning of the two groups, it's probably not pretty--the Jedi are are Nyquil'd up) thrills for kids (funny robots! That pod race!) and stuff that manages to be both venal and boring (slaves and unfair tax regimes, political corruption, manipulated crises as a chance to seize personal power in an overburdened democracy, etc) So there's.....a lot here. Some of it's even compelling, and benefits from re-examination (it doesn't hurt that John Williams brought his A-game and his score is legitimately rousing) --Anakin for instance. Jake Lloyd's portrayal was REALLY criticized when it came out, but this time, I was thinking of how annoying Luke was in the original New Hope, and how Mark Hamill mentioned that he got the role after playing Luke exactly like George Lucas was during the auditions --- Lucas is sort of an odd cat, and while people wanted a prequel trilogy that was essentially three movies of the corridor scene from Rogue One, I Think (possibly including me at the time) Anakin here plays a lot more authentically....awkward, sort of what a preteen would be like if he was going to grow up to be some sort of hyperstatially gifted Jedi Knight combat wizard. In that sense --the kid who wants to be an adult already, and is capable in some ways, but still a kid in others, the awkwardness really helps, from his horrific cringeworthy flirting with Natalie Portman, to the whole following Liam Neeson around like a puppy dog routine. Jake Lloyd does a good job with the role, I think. The problem is (as others than me have said many times) this wasn't the Anakin Skywalker that a lot of fans wanted to see, at the time, I don't think. This time though, I was interested in the kid. Wanted to see how he'd manage, growing up with Ewan McGregor (Ewan is great, btw. Definitely underused in this one)

Jar-Jar Binks, on the other hand..................

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