Star Wars is the single most influential film to come out in the latter years of the 20th Century and is one of the most important movies ever made. It used a number of filmmaking methods for the first time that we take for granted today. It was charming, fun and successful both monetarily and also in its attempts to recreate the classic serials from the 50’s and 60’s and bring them to life in feature length on the big screen. It was also inspired greatly by one of my favorite films, the Hidden Fortress from director Akira Kurosawa, or at least the plot was. So I have a lot of reasons to like Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. So... Why did the Phantom Menace suck so much?
I had higher hopes for this than my friends did, I don’t know why today, but even then I was a movie geek and I was the one who introduced many of my colleagues to Star Wars for the first time, given that we were young enough to have missed it in theatres. We got to see the disgraceful “Special Editions” that cluttered the screen with so much crap you couldn’t tell what the hell was going on (I now call this the Avatar method) and re-cut a couple of the scenes for no real reason, but those in no way could have prepared us for what George Lucas had in store for us in 1999.
The Phantom Menace’s plot involves two unscrupulous merchants who are using trade routes to force an embargo on a peaceful planet. The Jedi Council gets word of this outrage and sends their best heroes, Qui Gon Jin (Who doesn’t live to see the sequel) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Who is the exact opposite of Obi Wan as you remember him) to “talk some sense into them”. This doesn’t really go as planned and they end up (for some stupid reason) in the water clear on the other side of the planet (“Computers are about trying to murder you in a lake...”) They outrun a big carnivorous fish that looks like he belongs in a different movie and they meet Jar Jar Binks (Please kill me). Jar Jar is one of the single worst characters in the history of ANYTHING. I will take Carrot Top impersonating Navi while dressed as Ruby Rhod from the Fifth Element over freaking Jar Jar Binks.
So, the screenplay says they have to go to Tatooine, so they do. There the three badly-written characters meet Anakin Skywalker. Now, fans such as myself knew at the time of this film’s release that Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader, but the way this “saga” makes this transformation is dumb and uninteresting. Anakin is played by Jake Lloyd (that brat from Jingle All the Way) who speaks like he has six gumballs in his mouth as he is constantly trying to channel Shirley Temple (kind of an odd choice but I digress). I think some exec/s thought he would grow to be some great child actor at the time, but unfortunately for him a lot of people saw this movie. Hands down, Lloyd gives the single worst (human) performance in this film. He is bumbling, loud and just plain aggravating.
More plot contrivance ensues, we get a massive chunk of the film wasted in an over-produced throwaway scene in the form of Podracing and we then end up back on Naboo, where the plot is. So our heroes meet up with the queen, her identical servant Padme and her useless guards. They run around a bit and the Trade Federation’s Sith-for-hire Darth Maul kills Qui Gon.
The film closes after a big battle scene and we finally are graced with the sweet release of the closing credits. This is a loooooong movie too. Not that it is actually all that long, it just feels long. George Lucas crammed so much crap into this film that it feels like he wanted to overwhelm everyone, instead of entertain. The Phantom Menace and the other prequels get a lot of crap (from others and myself) for the bad dialogue and worse execution by the bad actors, but it’s more than that (or should I say less?).
Star Wars was the film that defined a generation of movie fans and created a pop culture icon that endures heavily to this day. The fact that the prequels released more than twenty years after the original film would be THIS bad is not just a slap in the face, but was a devastating blow to many fans’ childhoods. The unapologetic Lucas tries to babble his way out of responsibility for this mess, but he holds 100% of it. Films are a collaborative effort, so putting the blame on one person is harsh, but this truly was his fault. To add insult to injury, we would be “graced” with two more bad prequels and the utter raping of the Indiana Jones franchise in the coming years. So thanks again George Lucas... and I still hate you.