With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here. The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore. However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted. Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all. So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic. This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic. After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her. After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers. The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety. Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector. However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them. Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.
While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film. Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered. It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it. Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand. Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures. So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking. Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations. Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin. It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit. So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.
On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez. That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist. Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre. That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.
Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters. Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes. He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around. A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi. He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now. His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace. It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character. McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here. Of everyone in the prequels, his performances feel the most natural and dimensional. I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.
The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku. I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film. This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie. And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well. There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth. Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view. He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain. His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions. It is a pleasure indeed.
Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow. Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions. While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism. The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter. Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations. She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence. She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film. She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities. She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought. However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals. There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.
Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents. Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all. He played the character that was on the page. There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character. Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden. Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality. As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said. Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled. Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels. So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.
There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms. However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut. So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool. He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them. And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea. Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga. They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing. However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.
For example: the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan. The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss. This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader. Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further. Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime. The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker. So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes. They serve a very specific plot purpose. That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.
They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along. Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose. In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose. By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku. And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin. In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease. There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat. This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies. Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force. If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited. This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength. By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi. Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.
Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence. I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate. That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion. As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power. Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army. This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this. I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate. Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic? As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds. Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.
I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting. However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character. Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba. There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions. I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself. It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing. Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter. Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot. It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin. Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.
Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role. He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman. Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant. He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words. It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.
On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film. The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku. The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades. It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle. It’s shoddy work. There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences. However, the sound design in the film is excellent. The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard. The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.
What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story. The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly. The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film. As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango. The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable. Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive. This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.
Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates. It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild. It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points. In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told. It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous. Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers. Here, it’s just a nice visual. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film. The duel itself is not that impressive, either. Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film. It’s entertaining and exciting. While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.
While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever. Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino. Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers. Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do. This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could. It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it. Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved. I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done. Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out. It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence. It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party. However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.
Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together. The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love. The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions. It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them. Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days. Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is. They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong. What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction. And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too. Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror. I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness. No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this. It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man. She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator. That doesn’t compute in my brain. No other reason is ever given. She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date. That’s her entire reason. No expansion on that at all. It’s ridiculous.
Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences. While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed. They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point. The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes. Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time. While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding. It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out. This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant. It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point. If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.
Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO. I won’t get into it. It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners. This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development. It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.
I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw. It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me. I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality. I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it. I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something. Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets. Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed. Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so. I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive. Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it. But that’s another review for another time. As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it. I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.
I grew up on Star Wars. Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable. The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me). These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga. With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely. I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point. When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions. When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions. I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.
For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999. I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night. I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres. However, with time comes perspective and maturity. I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts. It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me. So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film. I’m just here to offer my point of view. All eight pages worth.
Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute. The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious. Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army. After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet. With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul. On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities. Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi. However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him. Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate. Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.
What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character. With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away. It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure. I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace. No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended. They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before. The film has no prominent focus on any one character. Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc. The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone. Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself. Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films. He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character. Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained. That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels. It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.
Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character. Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors. Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film. He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential. I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth. Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy. Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.
This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn. I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson. He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years. With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him. He’s stoic and little else. There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful. Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character. Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him. Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.
Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman. Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day. She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time. She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with. Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth. There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture. It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic. As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency. I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario. As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.
George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing. I think he’s a great producer. He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors. An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance. Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character. George’s writing also leaves something to be desired. Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page. You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written. It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.
However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid. While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing. While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine. He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals. McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention. You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint. Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling. As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.
Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry. That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed. This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace. It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best. The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue. Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area. So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm. It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag. Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth. Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game. I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will. On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations. While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement. If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.
Production design here is quite impressive. Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology. The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy. Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars. There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic. However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans. Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience. It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented. There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.
Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical. I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect. The actions that different characters take have no sense to them. Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end. Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate. Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo. My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings. Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue. If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly. He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success. He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor. Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade. Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame. And this is the entire plot of the movie!
Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward. A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service. I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck. Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid. I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership. You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week. Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.
Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere. Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true. I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them. He’s clearly not moral or ethical. So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman? Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered. Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded. These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene. I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash. However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages. It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.
I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous. It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it. A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else. Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise. And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid. A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy. They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do. If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores. A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.
Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film. You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations. It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity. So, it fit the personalities of the characters. Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny. It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy. Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics. Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all. Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga. Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family. I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas. It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here. He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.
Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul. I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool. He has no character. He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic. He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story. Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him. Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters. He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it. This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.
The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent. All the lightsaber battles are amazing! The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish. They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times. I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography. While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment. They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’ The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom. It lacks emotion and danger. It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue. Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation. They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.
Meanwhile, the space battles are okay. There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered. The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one. That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul. Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here. The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going. It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening. A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development. The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development. Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.
The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army. It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny. I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing. Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race. It’s gratuitous in my eyes. Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story. This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial. Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted. I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race. Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film. Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.
On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score. “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty. It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.” The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure. The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement. Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen. So, I give it high marks all around.
The only other thing to address are the midichlorians. You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master. It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully. Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical. It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become. Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream. This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that. No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body. That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas. Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations. Now, it’s cold science. Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force. Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know. And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me. There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything. It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene. I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to. While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels. This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.
That’s really the perils of making prequels. How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established? It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.” There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.
As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is. Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all. There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them. The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it. A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters. Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts. Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level. I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years. It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place. I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value. My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist. In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness. In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.