Star Wars: Episode I
It's a cliche of the movies that a narrative feature film must have a forward thrust, a momentum, an engine driving it, so that it will be carried from one place (the beginning) to another (the climax, catharsis, resolution, call it what you will). There can and most likely should be stops along the way -- stops that deepen and enrich the story and its characters, scenes and episodes that act like pieces in a mosaic, adding complexity to the plot, piquing our interest, and strengthening our response and our identification with what we see.
The first three Star Wars films had that thrust, with clean plot lines and a triangle of heroes -- each with his or her own strong personality -- fighting against a fascinating pair of villains, one, the seemingly stronger, actually under the command of the apparently weaker one. Each of these five had personal motivations and goals, by no means in harmony with anyone else's, and the plots had an organic relationship with their characters. It was a brilliant construction, well able to sustain our interest and excitement through all three films.
George Lucas wrote them all, of course, though he only directed the first, and he is credited here as the sole writer of Episode 1, but as we watch and listen to the film we must wonder if some dreadful mistake -- an alien inhabiting Lucas's body, or at least his writer's brain -- hasn't been made. Episode 1 is the setup for a story, but it is not a story. It is 140 minutes of staged tableaux, separated by various battles, but they do not feed into each other, grow out of each other, or build from one to the next. At the end we are in almost the same place we started from, back on Good Planet Naboo. Naboo is ruled by Queen Amidala, played here by Natalie Portman as a Jewish Princess in a Scarsdale High School production, whose idea of royal speech is not to close her lips when she talks, perhaps out of fear that the stripe of lipstick on her lower lip will smear at the wrong time.
Naboo is invaded by what we should call the Dark Forces of Taxation, the Trade Federation, but two Jedi knights, who fortunately happen to be around, take Princess Natalie, I mean Queen Amidala, away just in time. But they must make a stop at, where else, Tatooine, yes, the very planet where we will in three episodes meet young Luke Skywalker. This time, though, it's his father-to-be Anakin, as played by young slave Jake Lloyd, who at the apparent age of eight or nine can handle a chariot, here called a pod, with the best of them, and like Ben-Hur he defeats the dreaded Hutt in a chariot race and is freed and -- well, you understand. He is, after all, going to grow up to be a Jedi.
There are many missteps and a few very good things in the film. One peculiar misstep is the creature JarJar Binks, a human body with a kind of horse's neck and head, who walks like the leader of a drill team and talks like Butterfly McQueen. He flutters and simpers and panics and squeals until you wonder whether the NAACP should be called in. Another is the waste of half a dozen fine actors in roles that require them simply to stand around and tell each other what's happening.
Having said all that, there is still much to admire here. Liam Neeson as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ewan McGregor as his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (one dies, one lives, and you guess which) are just fine. They invest their parts with humanity and thought, and what forward motion the plot has is due mainly to them.
And the effects. Here Lucas is brilliant. He can fill whole battlefields with computer-generated armies of strange creatures and droids and make them look real. Yes, his battles are reminiscent of 'Spartacus,' but they are utterly believable to watch. I don't find his various aliens very interesting on screen -- most of them seem to have two legs, two eyes, and a mouth, as though he's afraid to go truly bizarre -- but there isn't much for them to do here anyway. The sky and space battles, oddly enough, aren't as interesting as those in the earlier films. Of course they're well made, but without motivation and suspense there's little tension to them. Once again we're watching tableaux.
Maybe the ominous cloud on the financial horizon is that at a morning screening on May 19th, after all the hype, the theatre was just half full. I don't wish Mr. Lucas ill, but I do wish that for Episode 2 he get some help with his plotting.
The most perceptive comments I've seen on Episode 1 so far have come not from me, nor from any other critic I know, but from a committed filmgoer who happened to read my review and send me her notes -- Jessica Robin. She credits Sam Marks with helping her formulate her response.
I just read your review. I agree. Lots of amazing things to look at (how about those droids that roll down the halls and unfurl!! and that amazing senate chamber!!), but nothing happening.
Mostly I wanted it to be more EPIC. The other movies tapped into all these great, timeless myths. Greek myths, the Bible, hero stories, etc. Those universal tensions added so much to the drive of the stories (in spite of the ever-present bad dialogue).
We're supposed to believe that this happy-go-lucky kid will become Darth Vader? He's a SLAVE and he doesn't have a dark side?!?!? Wouldn't life as a slave in any galaxy be just a bit rough? What if his owner gave him up partly because he was afraid of Anakin's emerging powers? What if Anakin was just starting to discover his powers, and used them to kill his opponent in the pod race? He'd be committed to the goals of the good guys, justifying the means by the end, and we might feel a bit conflicted about his choices. I wish the pod race had had any tension. Of course, we know who will win, and who will be the last opponent to go down.
What if he had been 14 instead of 8, and starting to separate from his (VIRGIN- ug!!!) mother anyway- so his leaving would play into an existing (and universal) dynamic. Would any mother (even Mary) give up her son so readily?
And why did Yoda buckle (for no apparent reason) and agree to have Obi-Wan train Anakin? What if the Jedi council forbade O-W from training Anakin, and then he was torn between the Jedis and his promise to his master. Also- we don't see Obi-Wan learn anything from Qui-Gon. What if he weren't ready, but was too cocky and trained Anakin even though he isn't a master yet, and it is Obi-Wan's arrogance that ultimately causes the creation of DV?
OR, what if Anakin was starting to figure out how to use the force, but Q-G wouldn't let him play with it until he was ready- and he was facing years of hard and un-fun work- but then Darth Maul (he scared the shit out of me, I must admit) somehow got a hold of Anakin, and let him use his powers, and taught him fun tricks, and then the Jedi counsel would be forced to agree to train A for fear of his choosing the fun dark side.
Whose idea was it to explain the magical, mystical force away with the science of midi-chlorians?
And why does Lucas let the adults in on the secret that the Senator is also the Emperor, but leave it as a surprise for the kids? Couldn't we all be surprised to find that out in the next movie?
JarJar walks like a drag queen. Why didn't Q-G know that the handmaiden was the Queen? He's a JEDI!! How dumb was it to have Anakin blow up the federation ship accidentally? Really dumb.
And with regard to your review, I happen to be a Natalie fan, Jap or no Jap.
I do love Lucas' names. "Amidala," "Obi-Wan," even "3PO" is pretty cool sounding. (Speaking of which, I find "Slobodan Milosevic" to be a great sequence of sounds- the way it slopes down and then up again. Too bad he's such an ass.) And I loved the light-saber fight.
And since when are Queens elected? And who would vote for a 14 year old? (Even in those kick-ass outfits.)
Oh well. Better luck next time. The next two are supposed to get darker. Clone Wars. Darth Vader.