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STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE

1999, Dir. George Lucas
133 min. Rated PG.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, Jale Lloyd.

Review by Noel Wood

THE TOP TEN THINGS THAT SUCKED ABOUT EPISODE I OTHER THAN JAR JAR

Well, just to show you what kind of a hip, groovy, and with-it kind of guy that I am, I've decided today to dwell over a subject that tends to be a sore subject for most STAR WARS fans: that which is THE PHANTOM MENACE. Yes, the movie came out three years ago, and there's been another STAR WARS movie since. I don't give a shit. I was too busy to lend my thoughts on this subject when this topic was poignant, so you'll read with my musings now. And you'll like it.

As we all know, the first of the STAR WARS prequels sucked donkey ass. It was quite a disappointment to millions of people worldwide. I'm talking the levels of finding out Santa Claus isn't real or that your daddy wears women's underwear disappointment. People waited SIXTEEN years for George Lucas to release the backstory of the man who would become Darth Vader. Fanboys camped out in front of theaters for weeks to be the first to see Ep 1, no matter how shitty they thought the title of the movie was. People gobbled up hundreds of dollars worth of Ep 1 merchandise months before the film was released. People were expecting to see the greatest movie of all time.

What they got was Jar Jar Binks.

Yes, Jar Jar will probably go down in history as the worst character in all of Star Wars lore. After the first screening of the film, hundreds of people stood outside the theater talking about how annoying that little Gungan shithead was. And they were right. Jar Jar was annoying as fuck. I knew well in advance that he was going to be annoying as fuck, so the moment that his digitized ass walks in to frame I started to cringe. For the next two hours I squirmed in my seat every time he came on screen.

People hated Jar Jar. Anti-Jar Jar web sites popped up all over the net almost immediately. His action figures quickly became what toy collectors refer to as pegwarmers, cluttering toy shelves to the point that retailers were reluctant to order any additional toys from the line. He became the butt of jokes on Television and Movies. The backlash was amazing. I can't possibly imagine how many times I heard people say, "Star Wars Ep 1 would have been great if not for Jar Jar!" A group of industrious armchair critics even went so far as to create the now-infamous "Phantom Edit", where they removed the majority of Jar Jar's scenes to make the movie better.

Which leads me to my point today. I have a theory, and the more I think of it, the more it makes sense: Jar Jar Binks was a mere distraction. He was a patsy. Nothing but a diversion from the real problems at hand. That's all Jar Jar was intended to ever be. George Lucas knew that he had a stinker of a movie in his hands; so to avoid people relentlessly picking it apart, he threw Jar Jar in front of the firing squad as a bulletstopper. And considering the general consensus of "Jar Jar ruined Star Wars", it looks like his mission was accomplished.

But I ain't buying it. I 'm no dummy. I see Jar Jar for what he is, and have focused my attention on the underlying evils that exist in Episode I. Others might have overlooked some of these things, but I haven't. Let's see what was REALLY wrong with Episode I:

1. MIDICHLORIANS.

This was my BIGGEST gripe about Episode I. I don't care how many people tell me otherwise, the only thing that Midichlorians serve a purpose for is to take this grand, magnificent, magical religion known as The Force and turn it in to an easily-explained-away biological oddity known as the force. Yes, it's no longer a proper noun in this context. This fantastic idea I had of a mythical phenomenon that requires skill, concentration, and years of focused training to master has been reduced to nothing more than a disease. Little bacteria that swim around in your blood and help harness this power for you. No longer is it possible for just any character in the Star Wars universe to train to be a Jedi given that they have the desire, patience, and ambition to do so. In other words, when Han Solo tells Lando Calrissian "May the Force be with you", he might as well just be spitting in his face. After all, Lando doesn't have that that high Midichlorian count that Luke and Anakin do, so you might as well just tell him he's gonna die. You know, the parallel to this in our world is saying "God bless you" to someone. Now that's something you can't really go wrong with Nobody has more or less of any biological trait that makes them more or less acceptable to God. But if someone has faith in God, then they may or may not be better off for it. The same should be true of the Force.

The other thing regarding this issue that bothers me is the way that it's measured. In the original STAR WARS, Darth Vader is following behind Luke Skywalker's X-Wing when he says a simple phrase: "The Force is strong with this one." How does he know? Well, it's because he is strong in the ways of the Force and can just sense it. That's all the explanation you need. Meanwhile, in Episode 1, Qui-Gon Jinn has to determine that Anakin is a Jedi by taking a blood sample and inserting it into a medical device. When did this shit become Star Trek all of a sudden? I want my Jedis back who just KNOW these things.

Notice how they never get mentioned in Episode 2? No coincidence, I'm sure.

2. JAKE LLOYD

Yes, I'm still going for the obvious here. But we all know that Jake Lloyd sucked in this movie. Child actors are generally not a good idea and it's best to write scripts around using them in excess, but when you have a story that requires one, it's best not to get one that sucks this friggin' bad. 'Nuff said. I'll get in to more about him later.

3. THE POD RACE

This saddens me the most, because when I heard about it, I was looking most forward to this scene. I was expecting something as cool as the Speeder Bike scene in ROTJ. Instead, I got a reject from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. The action was cool in places, but every single character in the thing was annoying, ESPECIALLY Greg Proops' role as the two-headed Steve Albert wannabe announcer. Let's not forget the bumbling pit droids or the "Yippee"s coming from Anakin. The only saving grace for this scene was the Tusken Raiders blasting folks from afar and the first ever Warwick Davis non-masked appearance in a Star Wars movie.

4. OTHER ANNOYING CGI CHARACTERS.

Jar Jar wasn't the only CGI character that annoyed the piss out of me. Boss Nass and Watto, among others, served the same purpose. One of my biggest annoyances with Jar Jar wasn't that he was stupid and talked funny, it's that the CGI animators felt they had to show off by making him be CONSTANTLY in motion. There's the one scene where Amidala goes to Boss Nass and asks for his assistance and while all the LIVE actors are standing perfectly still, Jar Jar is fidgeting and wagging his ears and just doing everything possible to be distracting. Boss Nass had the same quality about him. Watto was perhaps the worst. Sad, really, because Watto COULD have been a great character. But there was no need to have him be a flying CGI ball that had to constantly be in motion. Those wings were just annoying. Did he REALLY need to hover everywhere? Yes, we KNOW that LucasArts has the best CGI equipment in the world. You don't have to remind us every chance you get.

5. DARTH MAUL

No, Darth Maul didn't annoy me, but they way they portrayed him did. Darth Maul was a Sith Master. He is the apprentice to the Dark Lord of the Sith. In other words, he's supposed to be the second baddest mofo in the entire galaxy. And while he looked cool and hung around with Sidious, he sure as hell didn't come off as being as badass as he should have. Having his ass handed to him TWICE, the second time allowing a friggin' Padawan just chop him in half like he's a common soldier? And I'd like one reason why Darth Maul was only in the movie for a total of like 15 minutes when Jar Jar spent like an hour on the screen. Darth Maul merchandise was the hottest thing on the market.before people saw the movie. After people saw that this character that was seemingly destined to be the baddest man in the galaxy go down quicker than a Vietnamese hooker, the value of those mint-in-package Darth Maul figures that were going for 20 bucks on the secondary market just weeks before suddenly weren't worth so much.

6. THE SCRIPT.

I mentioned little Jake Lloyd as Anakin racing around saying "Yippee". This is only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I know that Star Wars movies in general have never been famous for great dialogue, but this one takes the cake because Lucas was trying to write for a small child.and made him sound retarded in the process. The whole time watching Anakin on screen, I kept thinking to myself that there's NO way this kid is going to grow up to be the coolest motherfucker ever to wield a lightsaber. Some less cartoony and generic little-kiddish dialogue would have helped. It's also kind of a letdown when the resolution of the movie occurs when an 8-year-old blows up the Trade Federation's Mothership by accident. I don't care what anyone says about this being his "destiny as a Jedi." It's bullshit. It was a copout because they hadn't written any real pilots into the story that were important enough to accomplish the task. And while this also is covered in the Jar Jar thing, I don't need fart jokes and lines like "Exsqueese me" and "How Wude" in a Star Wars movie. In WAYNE'S WORLD and "Full House" that shit might be acceptable, but I came to see STAR WARS.

7. BATTLE DROIDS.

Okay, first things first: Stormtroopers are pretty inefficient soldiers. They rarely hit their targets, die quicker than 25-cent guppies from the pet store, and tend to bump their heads on metal doors. But they're still far better than the battle droids from Episode I. These things are even WORSE shots than Stormtroopers, and tend to fly apart if a stiff wind hits them. It's no wonder they eventually scrap them in favor of Jango Fett clones. And while I realize that Lucas likes to give his droids personalities, I didn't need to hear the battle droids saying things like "Roger Roger". AIRPLANE! Jokes belong in AIRPLANE!, not in Star Wars movies.

8. THE TRADE FEDERATION.

What the hell? The big, evil, menacing villain is a big corporation run by a couple of Japanese-sounding aliens? Is this suddenly John Grisham's version of Star Wars?

9. YODA.

What the fuck is up with Yoda? How did they fuck up Yoda? Seeing Yoda there looking the way he does is like seeing George Lazenby in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. You know who he's supposed to be, you just don't want to bring yourself to believe it. At least they fixed this in Ep 2 and had Yoda looking like he's supposed to.

10. LIAM NEESON.

Liam Neeson is a great actor. Usually. He's known for some turkeys as well as some classics (THE HAUNTING, anyone?). Unfortunately, his performance in Episode I is pretty forgettable. Part of that is due to the fact that he's written to be pretty dull. Jedis are supposed to be patient and reserved and disciplined, but they need to be interesting at the same time. Qui-Gon really doesn't get interesting at all in the course of the movie. Neeson, who showed such intensity in performances in ROB ROY, SCHINDLER'S LIST, MICHAEL COLLINS, and NEXT OF KIN (okay, I'm fucking around with that last one), frankly looks bored here. He doesn't seem to put much effort into his performance at all. Of all the major characters in this movie, for better or worse, he was probably the most unmemorable.

------------

And on top of those reasons, there's Jar Jar.

Yes, Episode I, whether I like it or not, is official STAR WARS lore now, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. There's many things I didn't cover here as well, including the lack of suspense, the focus on unnecessary characters and scenes, and unexplained plot holes. And no, it's not without its good points as well, but there are plenty of apologists out there that have that part covered. I like the analogy that Chad brought to my attention after Ep 2 restored our faith in Lucas's ability to craft enjoyable Star Wars movies. He suggested that Episode One is kind of like The Hobbit is to the Lord of the Rings series. It's there, it's officially part of the story, but it's a safer, more accessible introduction to what you get in the end. As Norville Barnes would say while swinging around a hula-hoop, "You know, for kids."

All Material Copyright 1998-2004 Movie Criticism for the Retarded.

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