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Suffers from lack of developed characters and plot
on May 26, 2005
I saw this film on theatrical release in and was very disappointed. Of course, alot of the disappointment initially had to do with the incredible hype build-up that accompanied the new trilogy. Nothing could have lived up to the public's expectations.
That having been said, The Phantom Menace is disappointing not so much because it stinks, but because, I felt, with some additional tweaking, it could have been much much better. Its almost as if Lucas got the plot ideas and character concepts developed to a schematic level and then sort of lost interest in them and did not develop them any further.
1. We never really bond with or understand Qui-Gon's character or his relationship with young Anakin. He states that he thinks Anakin may be the chosen one, but that is not really sufficient. We need to see an emotional bond or some kind of identification between the two, but it just isn't there.
2. Not to pick on Jake Lloyd (he's probably a great kid), but Lucas or whoever just did not get a good performance out of him. Plus, there is no hint in young Anakin at this point of character traits or flaws that might later foreshadow his fall. Yoda says he sees anger and fear in Anakin and the Jedi Council make vague predications that he may eventually be dangerous, but we as audience members just don't see it. We are supposed to infer that Anakin is somehow damaged by his life as as slave and subsequent separation from his mother, but again, we don't see any of this. His life as a slave doesn't seem to indicate any hardship; his big scene saying goodbye to his mom is not particularly moving (mainly due to wooden acting by Lloyd; Pernilla August as his mom does a good job thought). Also, if he's a slave, how does he have time/resources to build robots and pod racers? Just not very true to life.
Perhaps if we had seen Anakin and/or his mom subjected to some sort of abuse or exploitation we would have a better indication both of the fear and anger in Anakin and also a potential emotional reason for why Qui-Gon wants to rescue Anakin. When I reflected on it, I thought it would almost be better if Anakin were like the feral boy in Road Warrior II: an unkempt, unclean, and agressive character that had to be somewhat tamed and civilized by his Jedi rescuers. We don't see any character flaws, any little hints of selfishness, anger, fear or frustration. As is, young Anakin is just an average cute kid; we don't see any depth to why he wants to escape his life as a slave or run off to join the Jedi so we don't really care.
3. Source of humor: The original series had a mix of humor based upon the droids 3PO and R2D2 and also with the human characters (primarily interactions between Solo, Leia, and Luke). In TPM, the primary source of humor is generated from droids and Jar Jar Binks with little or no humorous banter or interaction between human characters. This has two effects: 1)relying on computer-generated characters for humor means the primary form of humor becomes physical slapstick, which is one of the main complaints about the Jar Jar charcter; and 2)the interactions between the human main characters, when deprived of humor, makes their relationships seem dry and mechanical, another source of the shallow characterizations.
The one humorous moment that stands out is when, after being ambushed by the Trade Feds at the beginning, Obi-Won says to Qui-Gon with a wry smile: "Well, you were right about one thing Master....the negotiations were short!" This one moment stands out because it is one of the few jokes between human characters and it works and expresses some of Obi-Won's personality. It also effectively echoes some of the banter and attitude that made Solo's character so liekable and crucial to the original films, an attitude and sensibility that is lacking in TPM. As is, we are stuck with Jar Jar's pratfalls for yuks, and it just doesn't work unless you are 5 years old.
4. The shallowness of Darth Maul: Similar to other problems with character depth, we don't know enough about Maul. He says early in the film that at last he will have revenge on the Jedi. Revenge for what? We never know beyond vague notions that the Sith and Jedi are ancient enemies. That is not enough. We either need to be shown more back story on this or have some reason for Maul's motivation. His fight scenes with the Jedi at the end are dynamite and clearly the actor is very skilled in martial arts and projects a menacing attitude with only minimal dialog or screen time, but we never really know anything about him other than "he is a bad guy" and that is not enough.
5. Plot goofiness. As others have pointed out, all the midi-chlorian business is a red herring of mumbo-jumbo that takes the mystical mystery out of the Force and reduces it to a medical condition. The Jedi are supposed to be wise, powerful seers, but them seem oblivious to the presence and intentions of the bad guys over and over again. Having young Anakin build C3PO is silly and seems like a forced "circle closer". Further, having Anakin start out on Tatooine doesn't seem right and seems like another circle closer that is forced. Wouldn't he remember all this years later as Darth Vader in Episode 4? Wouldn't there be some result of this coincidence? As noted above, having a slave that doesn't seem to be deprived or suffering and has the time/resources to build robots and pod racers as a hobby seems goofy too.
Again, it seemed to me like Lucas got the plot and characters to a certain point and then quit on them. With only a little extra effort or different emphasis on certain elements, the movie could have been much improved and the audience would have had more insight into the characters and identified with them more. As is, the lack of character development combined with wooden acting makes it hard for the audience to care. The special effects set pieces are spectacular, and the computer generated elements are pioneering and well executed, but without a reason to care about or like the characters, its hard to get too excited.
Again, not a horrid movie, but frustrating because with just a few changes or extra effort, it could have been so much better.
POSTSCRIPT (2011)to my original year 2005 review:
This movie does not get better with time or repeated viewings. Further, the contention of some fans who like this movie and claim it should be viewed in the context of the other films (now complete) is not only a misguided apologist stance, but outright doesn't hold water. Why? Because if you compare TPM to any of the 5 other SW films, it is clearly the idiot bastard son of the bunch, wheezing and drooling in the corner.
In review, I give credence to a theory that a lot of other reviewers have given: in essence, Lucas was boiling everything down in this film to aim at the 5-year-old to 8-year-old demographic (probably to sell toys and mechandise, the real unexpected treasure that the original trilogy coughed up back in the 70's and 80's) and, as a result, bored everyone else to tears and/or made older fans hopping mad. However, huge stretches of this movie are so slow-moving that I bet a lot of the the target audience squirmed around in their seats anyway.
The second theory that other viewers have posed that seems to ring true with me as well is that Lucas is in a position now where he's THE MAN and, as a result, has no one around him that is willing to bring up constructive criticism to him or challenge weaknesses in the plot, script, or characters. Back in the day, while the original SW was certainly his vision, that film had to rely on a far more collaborative process to get made and address the many challenges its making entailed. With TPM, Lucas had total personal control and it seems like no one around Lucas had the guts to say: "George, we need a good kid actor to play a central character like Anakin, not some cutesy wooden mop-topped kid from TV commericals" or "Damn, George, that Jar Jar is irritating as hell!" or "George, did you realize all the aliens seem to be stand-ins for offensive real-life planet Earth racial / cultural stereotypes?" or "All the scenes with Kabuki-Natalie are boring boring boring" or "This movie is all-CGI and no plot and no character depth!" or "This movie is full of jumbled-up crap that makes no sense!". Further, modern movie technology further consolidated control with Lucas in that the 1970's technology required many people's input to solve technical problems and was far less malleable; modern CGI allows Lucas to personally review, tweak, and endlessly revise every aspect of the film just the way he wants it.
In a nutshell, there is a reason that the Irvin Kerschner (R.I.P.)- directed "Empire" is widely viewed as the best of the 6 films. How Lucas could see dailies of some of the performances he got out of his actors in TPM and not realize things stank or, at the very least, weren't working is beyond me, unless he was constantly surrounded by lackeys and toadies saying "That's great, Mr. Lucas! Not explaining anything about Darth Maul makes him sooooo mysterious! Having Jar Jar be a moron who speaks like Stepin Fetchit is really cool! He needs more screen time! You're a genius!". In retrospect, I wish that Lucas had handed over all the remaining films from "Return" all the way thru the newer Pre-Quel trilogy to others with Lucas only having an overall story arc / consulting role.
I know that Lucas is irritated by fans who act as if he "owes them" to handle all these movies a certain way (its HIS vision, as I'm sure he'd point out), and maybe it is unfair to whine about how Lucas could have / should have directed the story a different way. But the fact is that TPM is not a very good movie, and regardless of quibbles about overall direction of the story line, Lucas did owe it to fans to at least not make a stinker-roo that not only insults fans above the age of 8, but really tarnishes the legacy from the first trilogy. Lucas seems to think these movies are only for kids now, and has, at least in the case of TPM, clearly targeted them accordingly.
However, while I guess one could argue that adults should only go to see films like "My Dinner with Andre" or the oevre of Ingmar Bergman and leave anything less mature and intellectual to the kiddies, the fact is millions and millions of adults went to and enjoyed the first trilogy (and other action-adventure-fantasy films) and it is not unrealistic to expect millions of adults would have some interest in the Pre-Quel trilogy as well. Further, it is not unreasonable to expect those adults would have some expectation that the Pre-Quel trilogy would not only have something worthwhile for grown ups, but would also build and expand upon, in a worthy way, the original trilogy that was so well-liked. Lucas, frankly, dropped the ball on this one; contentions that it should be enough simply because it sprang out of Lucas' mind and vision are not sufficient.
One could even argue that Lucas now has more contempt than anything else for his adult audience and for the fanboys who gripe about things like "How could he make Greedo shoot first?" (the big Special Edition tweak that many felt was a poke in the eye.) Lucas seems to go thru great lengths to tweak things that don't need it and then ignores or is oblivious to things that are huge, infected carbuncles staring him right in the face, like crappy dialog, unrealistic plot devices, bad casting, and wooden acting. Its almost as if with TPM he's saying "Grow up, already! Trix are for kids! Don't forget to buy your kid a Happy Meal with an authorized LucasFilm toy on the way home!"
In short, Lucas seems to be taking his own films far less seriously than his fan base (and probably movie goers in general) does, and it clearly irritates the crap out of him (and/or he doesn't understand it). However, it also irritates the crap out of his fans and the audiences who loved the movies of the original Trilogy and expected more of the TPM. At worst, as some other harsh reviews have pointed out, TPM seems like just another cynical Hollywood-as-usual souless big money cash-in; was it so wrong for fans to expect something more than that? Until TPM, everyone felt that the Star Wars series was somehow different from the myriad of sci-fi / fantasy effects-laden movies (many of them awful; others: naked cash grabs) that its success inspired and spurred from 1977 onwards. The Star Wars series seemed to have a spirit of its own. The reason, whether Lucas understands it or not, for the vitirol spewed about TPM is many fans felt this "special-ness" was betrayed or sold short (either out of laziness, sloppiness, ineptitude, or worse, greed).
In short, TPM is a stinker. I surmise that even though he seemed to discount it in the press, Lucas took some of the fan reaction to TPM to heart as he stepped his game up somewhat with (the marginally better) AOTC and certainly with the much better (and darker, natch) ROTS. (Granted, no one is going to think ROTS was directed by Kubrick, but you get my point). Too bad TPM seems, still, like a serious and uncertain mis-step, almost like a rough draft concept that should have been abandoned and re-done from scratch. "Super Special Edition" anyone?