{Pop Culturally Insensitive will now be co-hosting (De)Constructing the Ion Canon, an ongoing blog surveying the entire official Star Wars canon according to its timeline.}

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The year is 1999. Spongebob Squarepants has just hit the airwaves, Michael Jordan has announced his retirement a second time, and my old man has set the record for most money spent at our local store for the first-ever Toys R Us Star Wars Midnight Madness. Coming home after the long haul, he plunks down two giant garbage bags onto our living room floor, telling my nine year old self, and my 4 year old sister, that we can each pick one toy. Feverishly tearing through the bag of 3 3/4 inch plastic new fantasies, for reasons that defy stereotypes of both gender and age, through logics unknown both to others and indeed perhaps herself, the four year old plucks out Darth Maul, the red-faced, snarling, horned demon with the double lightsaber who adorned all the packaging, whose visage conquered the silver screen before we’d ever even heard the word midi-chlorians, bathed in that haunting choral score in the trailer we all bought tickets for The Waterboy and Meet Joe Black just to see. Everyone was obsessed with Maul, the “new Darth Vader”, poised to be the prime antagonist for this new trilogy of films. Maybe that’s why she picked it, just seeing the face so often, perhaps it was mere recognition. Indeed, maybe it was just the color of his face, the vibrant red. I’ll never quite know. All I’ll ever know is why I made my pick. Even at nine, I was strategic. I saw Maul as but a distraction, the big face on all the packaging that could well wind up the next Boba Fett, a highly overrated character, beloved because he “looks cool”, of no actual consequence to the plot. No, I wanted to be special. I wanted to find the breakout star, to be the first one to latch on to the new Chewbacca. If I was starting with one figure to join my old Hasbro Han and Leia, it was gonna be one that had the potential for countless adventures, for brilliant quips or iconic sound effects, wild action and commanding the immediate empathy of the audience, and judging from the mass amount of merchandise, from figures to plushes to fast food prizes at Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, the answer seemed obvious.

So I chose Jar Jar Binks.

Now let’s talk about Episode I:

Oh boy.

God damn did I love this movie as a kid. Within a few months after its release, I had everything you could get from this film, from the Naboo starfighter with the launching missiles to the Sebulba koosh ball to the podracer video game for the N64 (hell, I had that Amidala Starship right up until I sold it for a plane ticket). And so, so much Jar Jar. I couldn’t understand the hate. To me, he was Buster Keaton with a Carribean accent. The educational tie-in PC game, the sculpted posable cup lid, the giant plush that talked and told you the time? Had it all. I was a staunch defender of this film, too, well into my twenties, thinking the prequel haters were just reactionary neckbeards jumping onto a dog-pile of hate like we all love to do, failing to reconcile what flaws they saw in these films with the flaws they refused to recognize in the films from their Amblin kids childhood.

Needless to say, revisiting this film took a bit out of me, and to be honest, I wish could have still kept it aloft in that cloud of nostalgia, wrapped up in Pokemon TCG strategies and Tomagachi feeding schedules.

From here on out, we’re gonna be delving into spoilers, so please don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film yet. Give it a watch, then check back in and join in the discussion.

For the rest of us, let’s fast forward through that triumphant opening scroll, instilling hope for thrills despite its talk of taxes and trade agreements that makes it read more like an economics text book that a fairy tale, and zoom right into Viceroy Nute Gunray’s ship, and the two visiting emissaries from Coruscant.

Right off the bat, this film is exciting with very little needing to happen. I mean, it’s two guys in robes in one part of a ship waiting for two aliens. Yet look at how sleek it is. These shiny, new sets immediately ignite the imagination, and for all the buzz about CGI being the future, when we meet these two Jedi’s Nemodian hosts, they’re composed not of pixels but gorgeously executed latex and paint, so meticulously crafted it puts some of that high tech CGI to shame. And I say some, because the minute those spindly, emotionless battle droids enter the frame of the first time, they’re transfixing. They’re the first thing onscreen that’s never been seen in the Star Wars universe before, never been possible for these films until now, and it’s so exciting. Sure, maybe their appearance is just a contrived design in order to sell toys, but damn it, as soon as you see them, you know you want those toys.

Even our two protagonists, upon first meeting them, already branches of infinite possibilities ignite in our minds. This mysterious new Jedi master, Christ-like in appearance, diplomatic in demeanor, but his eyes belie a quiet, tranquil fury beneath, evoking thoughts of Blondie in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Robert Mitchum’s Max Caddy in Cape Fear, and yes, even telegraphs the “beast beneath the businessman” Neeson brings to peak perfection in the original Taken. With him, this young but wise new face on a familiar name, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Another trilogy begins with a seemingly diplomatic mission, introducing us to two characters, complex and entrancing; and already those who’ve seen the film before recognize the chief flaw is that only one of these two characters lives to see the the sequels (and they don’t even bother to bring the other back as a Force Ghost. Hell, even The Dark Knight Rises brought him back as a Force Ghost, and that made no ****ing sense).

The villainous Darth Sidious tells the Nemodians to kill the Jedi and invade the planet Naboo with battle droids rather than negotiate an end to the taxation on trade routes that caused the Trade Federation to create a blockade around the planet (you can say this sounds really boring, but you eat this kind of political s**t up in Game of Thrones and House of Cards). But as anyone whose watched Neeson bare-knuckle box wolves would know, he’s gonna go out swinging, so the gas they leak into the room is quickly noticed, and the Jedi cut their way through the door, gloriously hack their way through a myriad of battle droids, and are confronted by the film’s most badass robot creation, the rolling, shielded, quad-cannon-ed destroyer droids. Deflecting blasts and fleeing the ship, they make their escape to the planet Naboo (without Obi-Wan falling down a shaft and having to navigate a pitch-black corridor filled with exploding droids as the tie-in PS1 video game had me sincerely remembering was part of the plot until this re-viewing).

It’s on Naboo we see the two sides of a conflict that’s kind of on the peripheral for the whole film, and never really fleshed out enough to be justified as the focal point of the film’s resolution, the conflict between the Elysian Fields of the humanoid Naboo and the underwater dwelling amphibious Gungan race. Both locales feature some of the most inspired and enthralling art direction ever committed to film, with stunningly pristine pillars adorning this awe-inspiring but lifeless bureaucratic beauty of a world, and sweeping shots of near-Atlantean bubble cities and the strange creatures who inhabit it. We’re introduced to Amidala, Queen of Naboo, a young Natalie Portman who starts out a strong presence which seems to weaken as the film progresses, being coerced by the brilliant Ian McDiarmid as then-Senator Palpatine, planting the seeds for an eventual vote of no-confidence in General Zod…I mean, Chancellor Valorum (Terrence Stamp) after the Jedi fail to return (you’ll see as these films progress that no matter what is asked of them, Ewan McGregor and McDiarmid continue to knock it out of the park at each turn). Meanwhile, the invasion of the droids has already begun in the swamps of Naboo, and Qui-Gon, much to the chagrin of many a Star Wars fan, rescues the Buffy’s sister of the prequel trilogy, Jar Jar Binks, who takes them to his underwater civilization, despite his own banishment from it. Endeavoring to broker peace between the peoples, all they can procure is transport to the surface (if they addressed why a Jedi Mind Trick wouldn’t have worked, someone reminded me, perhaps I’ve forgotten already. Otherwise, man, we could have avoided so much destruction with the wave of a hand), where they rescue the Queen and her entourage (which, fun fact, included three Oscar nominees: Kiera Knightly, Keisha Castle Hughes and Sophia Coppola), who all escape in the Royal Starship.

For a film with serious pacing issues throughout, it’s weird to long for more Terrence Malick-esque meditative surveils of the surroundings, but with worlds so imaginative and dazzling, it’s disappointing to only get brief establishing shots before spending most of our run time dwelling on the familiar and quite frankly dull landscapes of Tatooine, which is where the ship is forced to land after sustaining damage crashing through the blockade you definitely already forgot was a thing by this point in the run time.

Look, I’ve not taken the vitriolic tone most do about this film thus far, and I’ll stand by the fact that overall, even if there’s so noticeably jarring CGI (mostly Jar-Jar), and some stuff that could have been dwelled upon a bit longer, location and information both, overall so far we’ve been treated to an exciting, beautiful, imaginative and fun film that’s true to the spirit of the original films, and it’s an absolute delight to watch and rewatch.

This all comes to a screeching halt on Tatooine.

Look, it’s not that a sandy landscape itself is inherently boring. Hell, Lawrence of Arabia made sand absolutely thrilling. But our time on Tatooine in this film feels about as long as Lawrence, and without one iota of the thrills.

The first issue is the the film’s utter abandonment of effort. Not in the visual, as Watto, Sebulba and the whole cast of alien characters are still complex masterworks of a budding new special effect, but rather in plotting. Everything now happens for convenience’s sake. Qui-Gon agrees to take one of the Queen’s handmaids (the only one who’s extremely talkative while the rest are virtually silent the entire film) onto the planet’s surface for…reasons. R2-D2 also tags along for…reasons. Jar-Jar’s bumbling ignites an confrontation, Qui-Gon stumbles into a shop that conveniently contains the child that will bring balance to the force, a kid who also conveniently is building the droid who will eventually team up with the droid conveniently brought with this royal convoy to take down the empire the handmaid that’s along for the journey helps build (along somehow with the bumbling Gungan, spoiler alert) which will be ruled over in part by the little kid building the robot. Geez, for a franchise that prides itself on it’s expanded universe, this is a pretty f***ing small world.

Look, I recognize this is a mystical universe, where a mysterious deus ex-machina force is so prominent, they just straight up call it The Force. But there’s a marked difference between using such a device to advance the plot, and using it in lieu of one; where “it was all destiny” becomes a cover for lazy writing. From here on out, everything happens through unlikely events, bumbling mishaps, all in the name of convenience, as though the film was being guided by a checklist rather than an outline.

The (again, unnecessarily large) group departs the ship and heads for Mos Espa to acquire the parts necessary for repair, and they encounter Watto, an engaging (if maybe a bit mildly semantically caricatured) flying creature, and his 9 year old podracing and engineering savant of a slave, Anakin Skywalker, whose anything but engag…I’m sorry, I can’t. We gotta do this. We gotta just address the 800-lb Bantha in the room.

You know, you feel bad s**t-talking a nine year old. Like, when you step back and remember this is a human being, god, you feel like a monster for savaging some kid. Sure, we could use this space to talk about Qui-Gon’s force-fixing of fate with a dice-roll. We could talk about Watto’s immunity to mind tricks, all the prophesy talk between the two Jedi, what have you, but you don’t remember any of that. You don’t even remember just how painfully long this segment of the film is. Why? Because this kid is a black hole, a vacuum from which no plot-point can escape. Natalie Portman gets noticeably worse around him, Jar-Jar far more groan inducing in his presence. Neeson seems to be attempting to raise the Titanic with the sheer force of his acting trying to elevate these scenes with the young Skywalker, but to no avail. From his epitome of Amblin kid dialogue to his dead-eyed, deadpan delivery and contrived “cute” moments, its impossible to fix. Now he is become Dull, destroyer of pacing.

Let’s just hit the bullet points and try not to be sucked in to this vortex of the vacuous, shall we? Qui-Gon believes this boy is the chosen one, in part because “he can see things before they happen” (dialogue in no way justified by what we see in the film), and in part because of a blood test that reveals that Anakin is more in tune with the Force because of his high midi-chlorian count, which is a biological explanation for connection to the Force that literally no one ever asked for. There’s a dinner scene, with more Jar-Jar slapstick, Anakin and his mother trying to out-dead-weight each other in their delivery, and so many really awkward reaction shots of Qui-Gon, after which Anakin’s mother reveals to Qui-Gon that Anakin has no father, and hers was a virgin birth, because obviously…what? Hold on, what?!?! Why? Why did this need to be a thing? Were we going with some Christ parallel for, you know, the one hour of screen time he’s not murdering somebody or on the path to murdering somebody? Cause there ain’t one single piece of apocrypha where Jesus won a podrace and years later cut off his son’s hand (though he may well have made snakes explode and straight up killed a kid, so maybe that’s the Christ Lucas was modeling Vader after?).

There are several fan theories as to who the father of Anakin is out there, from Palpatine to Qui-Gon, to Watto (yeah, ****ing Watto) to the now non-canonical Darth Plagieus, all because none of us can really accept how ridiculously stupid “Anakin’s a force baby” really is. I mean, almost guaranteed, half the people reading this forgot that this was even an element brought into the films, mostly because it’s never acknowledged again. Midi-chlorians, sure, not the greatest idea, but you see where they were going with that, add a biological element to the supernatural. But nothing about the arc of this character necessitates immaculate conception. Really, just…nothing. I vaguely remembered this, and it still blindsided me to hear the line, only for it to never matter again. Holy…let’s just skip to the podrace, shall we?

Just about the only worthwhile sequence involving the young Skywalker in Phantom Menace comes in the form of a thrilling race stemming from what Lucas does best: reimagining classic cinema, in this case, Ben Hur. From the introduction of a dazzling array of intricately designed racers and vehicles to the general ambience of the arena, to a brief shot of a lone bounty hunter overlooking the race (to later be dubbed Aura Sing in the “Expanded Universe” now called Star Wars Legends) that opens up this world to so many possibilities, I don’t recall there being anything in this scene but pure cinematic thrills (though I do have a note from my viewing that just reads “Jar-Jar smells a fart. **** you.” so there must have been something).

Obviously, this 9 year old boy is a ridiculously skilled pilot and wins the race, therefor being freed by Watto per his agreement with Qui-Gon. Anakin’s going off to become a Jedi now, and after a painful-for-all-the-wrong-reasons goodbye to his mom, he and Qui-Gon head for the ship, when OH S**T DARTH MAUL IS GONNA DO SOMETHING. THIS WHOLE CHUNK OF FILM MIGHT BE WORTH IT. That’s right, in a long, flowing black cloak, the demon-faced blend of Darth Sidious and Insidiousdescends upon the Jedi master, who sends Anakin to the ship so that we might be able to truly enjoy ourselves as he dukes it out with the dual-bladed Sith. This is hands down one of the best scenes in this film, whose only fault is it should have been longer (and apparently it was originally meant to be, with Maul jumping aboard the ship’s ramp along with Qui-Gon and such, which we really could have used in lieu of a few “Are you an angel?” exchanges).

After fending off the attacker, the group return to Coruscant, which places us around the one hour and 22 minute mark, also known as the first time I had to check just how much more was left to this film. Let’s be real, Coruscant gets pretty dull. After two pulse-pounder sequences, there’s just a lot of talking, be it Qui-Gon pleading with the council to let him train Anakin (with Samuel L. Jackson conveying so much badass in so few lines as Jedi Master Mace Windu) or Padme pleading for help from Chancellor Valorum, only to be so let down by political corruption that Palpatine is finally able to push her to make that vote of no confidence, in a scene of brooding political machinations that Anakin and Jar Jar apparently just had to be in. Meanwhile, back at the Jedi temple, Qui-Gon attempts to console a young boy who misses his mother, except this time instead of leading to a Mariah Carey cover and an airport love confession, it leads to a “What are midi-chlorians” discussion that further breaks down the biological elements of the once mysterious force, as though just to give hyperbolic neckbeards who claim this film “ruined their childhood” just a hair of credibility with this “Santa Claus isn’t real” exchange.

After ultimately setting up Palpatine’s ascension to Chancellor, Amidala returns to Naboo and uses one of her many decoys to plead with the Gungan leader Boss Nass to join them in the fight against the Trade Federation, before revealing herself in her handmaiden disguise of Padme to the assembly as the real Queen Amidala, a sequence crammed with far too many “reaction shots”, primarily from Jar Jar and Anakin, neither of whom make this non-surprise any more enjoyable to just now get out of the way. Nass agrees, and assembles his troops to fight back the encroaching battle droids, and he makes Jar Jar a general, because…reasons. That said, the actual sequence of the Gungan army marching on the battle droids is a terrific piece of imaginative visuals and beguiling CGI that my by-this-point weary notations describe as “boss as ****”. Simultaneously, three other events occurs, fracturing the narrative that could work really well if all the events carried the same amount of gravity and intrigue (spoiler alert: they don’t). Padme whips out a bit of her own commanding badassery hunting down Nute Gunray and his aide in Theed. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are set upon once more by the sneering demon Darth Maul, and Qui-Gon commands Anakin to stay inside a ship for safety while they go off to battle the Sith. From here, we watch as Anakin undoes all the necessity of us watching him be an expert flyer by accidentally activating the ship’s autopilot, and fumbling his way into an adventure, as seems to be the way things unfold in this film.

Ultimately, we’re treated to two sequences of cool, controlled action (Padme and the Jedi), with two of the hokey bumbling and fumbling their way into heroism schtick (Jar Jar and Anakin), and its at this point in the film that you may have checked out completely, or else you realize that the “comic relief” zaniness of Jar Jar and it’s ilk aren’t inherently awful in their own right. In some cases, those sequences are more in line with the spirit of New Hope than the Darth Maul fight. Indeed, we can’t scorn a sense of whimsy when a blind man with a stick takes out a feared bounty hunter on accident in Jedi. The problem is not the whimsy in and of itself, its that it clashes horrifically with the otherwise very dour tone of the film.

After Kasdan and co. decided to take Empire to a very dark place, we’ve forgotten at times that the original Star Wars is very blatantly a fairy tale, replete with wizards, princesses and silly quips and bits. Classic things like “I thought they smelled bad on the outside” and “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” would also induce groans now in this cynical crowd. But were the rest of Phantom Menace possessed of the kind of light-hearted adventure that the original trilogy at points contained, things like Jar Jar and the accidental triumphs, while still too prevalent, would have been far more accepted. Right now, as best exemplified by cutting between the epic, serious showdown between Sith and Jedi and Anakin genuinely accidentally blowing up the droid control ship and deactivating the entire droid army, the result feels insanely disjointed and incongruous, causing the less dour to stick out as almost insipidly juvenile (and admittedly, in the case of Anakin, it is), the way John Williams’ passionately light Superman score feels utterly out of nowhere in Bryan Singer’s 2006 stalker drama(which would have been better suited with the score to Halloween. Seriously, try it.).

So, with Gunray captured, the droids deactivated and the battle seemingly won, there’s but one plot thread left to talk about, and my god does it almost make everything bad up until this point worth it. The fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul is absolutely stellar, with gorgeous set pieces, inspired fight choreography, and hands down the best piece of Star Wars score short of the Big Two (the “Imperial March” and the “Main Theme”), “The Duel of the Fates”. Though undercut continually by Anakin’s antics, nothing could truly kill the momentum of this exhilarating display of acrobatics, hampered by only one flaw, the utter silence of Darth Maul. Were he pushed a bit more to the primitive, in the fashion of the animalistic characters of Toshiro Mifune in those classic Kurosawa films Lucas so admires, where he was just as likely to snarl and snap than use his words, where his very posture and movements even in moments of calm suggested the primal, then the moments of silence, primarily when blast shields separate the three, and Maul stands before Qui-Gon, whose knelt in meditation, could have been powerful and intimidating. But in Maul’s introductory scene, we hear a voice that’s elegant, and even here we see a posture that’s refined and controlled, so instead, we’re left to watch Maul pace almost regally and silently in front of the serene Jinn, in a moment that lingers far too long for the sole silence it contains. There could have been a moment for a monologue, or even an antagonistic spat of derision. But after that uncomfortably empty break in the action, the shields drop once more, and one after the other Qui-Gon is stabbed, Obi-Wan forced to hang for his life, force jump back for a triumphant swing of the lightsaber, and 300-style plunge a now halved Darth Maul to the depths of the cavernous opening, comforting his master in his final moments and being charged with training the young Skywalker himself.

Finally, we reach our conclusion, starting with Obi-Wan confessing he will follow his deceased master’s orders to the Jedi council, a still reticent Yoda relenting slightly. Returning to Naboo, we discover that Palpatine has in fact been elected Chancellor, while the victory celebration concludes with Boss Nass holding up an orb and shouting “Peace!”

And that’s it.

That’s how it ends. It ends with a character we’d seen twice prior holding up an orb, declaring a victorious resolution to the D-storyline of this film. Then credits. Sure, there’s some blips of set ups for the sequel, like the discussion of the Sith being always an apprentice and a master, and then panning over to a grinning Palpatine, and there’s nothing wrong with that when you’ve got more films in the pipeline (unless you ask a middle-aged critic watching a Marvel movie, in which case its the most egregious cinematic sin of all time). But the ending is so abrupt, and feels almost unconnected to the actual plot we’ve been focused on this whole time. Anakin and Obi-Wan get almost sidelined in favor of what attempts to be a blend of the ending of New Hope and Jedi, without the satisfaction of either.

So that’s it. Overall, it’s not an atrocious film the way some make it out to be, but it hits a molasses patch towards the middle that it never quite recovers from, and you’ll find yourself glancing at your watch from Tatooine on. Then again, it does a decent job of setting up new worlds and there’s a lot of potential for some really engaging stories to be told afterwards with all the threads it lays out. There are still some parts that are truly exhilarating, and will remain exciting parts of Star Wars lore for decades to come, and even for someone whose childhood love of the film has been shredded by a later viewing, “Duel of the Fates” can still evoke an unparalleled emotional rush.

Do you need to watch it? It certainly helps. But if we’re being honest, there’s so much slow and hokey that could potentially turn some folks off to the franchise, you may be better off just letting Weird Al sum it up and skipping straight to the next one:

Come back next week (with your Midnight Madness haul in hand) to talk about Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and please feel free to chime in in the comments about your thoughts on the film.

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12 thoughts on “(De)Constructing the Ion Canon: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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