Sep 16, 2013

Star Wars Week: Day 1

I am, at best, a lapsed Star Wars fan.  I grew up on the films, and one of my first memories is figuring out that I needed glasses because I was sitting incredibly close to the TV to be able to see A New Hope.  We had the films on VHS when I was young, and I watched them a lot.

As I grew up I began to find Star Wars less interesting, first becoming bored with the more child oriented tone of The Return of the Jedi, and then, especially following the Special Editions, beginning to see increasing problems in the original film.

What really killed the series for me was Episode 1.  I was 18 when the film came out in 1999, and I had been looking forward to it, sure, I had drifted away from the series, but the trailer was great and I had never been able to see the original versions of episodes 4 - 6 in the cinema.  I admit, I got chills when the music kicked in.  And then... well, you know what happened.  That was 14 years ago.  Since then I've seen the subsequent prequels on their cinema releases (I didn't like them much), but otherwise I've not touched Star Wars in all that time.  

So, why revisit them now?

There are few series' of films with anything like the kind of audience love and following that Star Wars has.  These films mean so much to so many, and that level of devotion always makes me wonder, if I am not part of that fanbase, what people see that I don't.  After nearly fifteen years of essentially ignoring the franchise - though the original trilogy is burned into my memory from when I was a kid - I feel that I have an appropriate distance to look afresh at the series and to form a definitive opinion of where I stand on these films as an adult and as a critic, which I was really just starting to be when Episode 3 came out.

I'll be looking at the series this week, covering one film a day.

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Dir: George Lucas
It's never a good sign when within 20 seconds of a film starting it makes what seems like a massive miscalculation.  Consider the first two sentences of the opening text crawl of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. "It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire."  That sounds pretty cool; civil war; hidden bases; rebels against an evil empire.  Sign me up for some sci-fi action.  Now consider the opening two sentences of Episode 1's crawl.  "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute."  Taxation.  TAXATION?!  Have I walked in to the wrong film?  Why the blue hell is Star Wars talking about taxation (and trade blockades)?  That sounds exciting, right?  When you were playing with Star Wars figures as a kid surely you had them sit around and discuss tax policy.  It's not a good sign, and the movie delivers on this astounding lack of promise.

The Phantom Menace makes a two-pronged misjudgement of tone, at once skewed too mature for youngsters, with its endless political machinations and talk of tax and trade and too juvenile for adult fans, thanks to the twin annoyances of Jake Lloyd's Anakin Skywalker and Ahmed Best, hidden behind CGI, as Jar Jar Binks; a crude caricature who descends to near Stepin Fetchit levels of uncomfortable stereotyping.

There's no problem with making a political sci-fi film, even one that is concerned with the machinations of government, as this one is for much of its running time, but George Lucas is not the person to write or direct it.  Episode 1 is hardly The West Wing in space, rather Lucas' bald and expository dialogue, coupled with the determinedly monotone performances of the whole cast make these sequences incredibly boring.  There's a further problem if you don't already know the series, and haven't figured out the 'twist' about the identity of Darth Sidious, because without that foreknowledge even the supposed (but not very effective) sense of menace that should come from the birth of the Empire is totally absent, rendering these scenes even more tedious.

It's not just the political side of the film that is boring.  When Jedi Qui Gon (Liam Neeson) and Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor, doing a decent Alec Guinness, but not being allowed to act beyond that) arrive on Naboo they are stuck there by a deus ex machina that takes nearly an hour of nothing much happening to resolve.  Of course we have to be introduced to Anakin, but it feels so - ahem - forced.  This might be less of an issue if when we met him there was something even semi-competent about the way the character was written and acted, but unfortunately this is un film de George Lucas.  

Anakin is incredibly annoying, and Jake Lloyd gets the performance completely wrong.  Anakin is painted as smart (he built C3PO) and energetic, but Lloyd fumbles both of these basic traits.  To be fair to Lloyd, the fact that you don't buy Anakin's precocious intelligence isn't his fault.  Lucas simply tells us that he's a genius, but never really shows us.  C3PO is already the droid we recognise, and we never see Anakin work on him, nor do we see him build the podracer that figures in a key scene.  The fact we don't buy into Anakin's intellect is perhaps also down to the way Lloyd misses the mark on the character's energy.  Even when he's called upon to shout "Yippee" (which he is all too often), Lloyd delivers his lines as if he's coming round from an anesthetic.

The rest of the acting is no better.  Neeson tries, he can't get much out of Lucas' tin-eared dialogue, but there does seem to be some effort there.  Ewan McGregor is a legitmately great actor, as good as Neeson on their respective best days, but he too is hamstrung both by awful dialogue and by the fact he's shackled to the ghost of Alec Guinness.  Natalie Portman - a variable talent who seems to need strong direction - offers a monotonous drone of a performance in a dual role as Queen Amidala (who is elected, because that's how politics works) and her handmaiden Padme, the drone is on a different register as Amidala, but I suspect there may have been some post production work on that front, so it's hard to credit Portman for it.

The Star Wars films have always displayed a great visual imagination, and if nothing else Lucas has shown himself, in this series, to have knack for world building.  To be fair, much of the new design, especially Darth Maul and the half finished C3PO, is extremely cool.  I'm not a fan of CGI, nor some of the other design work (especially the laugh out loud funny Amidala costumes and make up and the younger version of Jabba, which still has little connection to the amazing puppet in Jedi), but Lucas does capably expand the universe in the visual respect.  

The problem is that there is nothing to engage with beyond the creature design this time.  The main plot is insanely dull, the Jedi plot is stuck in neutral for a good hour (bar the podrace sequence, a boring - if competently executed - scene that seems shoved in because Lucas realised he needed some action) and the sense of a building threat that should come from Darth Maul never does, because he is such a muted presence; anonymous despite his striking look.  When Darth Maul does finally, blessedly, pay off it results in the film's one legitimately decent scene; the three way lightsaber fight between Maul, Qui Gon and Obi Wan.  It's well choreographed and executed, and it's incredibly irritating that Lucas cuts away for minutes on end to the wacky adventures of Anakin and R2D2.  However, in this film every silver lining must have a cloud, and Lucas manages to end that battle in absurdly brief and anti-climactic fashion.

Star Wars Episode 1 is a boring, stupid, annoying, badly written and acted piece of work.  The tone is totally miscalculated, and the attempts to combine the serious and silly sides of the franchise simply don't work.  Had this actually been the first film in a series I would never have had to do a Star Wars week, because it would likely have been - rightly - rejected and forgotten.  To be fair to Star Wars fans, I know that most of what I'm saying about this film won't be very controversial, and that even people who love the series will not often stand up for this film.  I'm just glad that Star Wars week has already hit its low point.

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