“The Phantom Menace,” Tenth Anniversary

Review Eric 'Renderking' Fisk - Monday, May 25, 2009

There are those moments when you realize that something you believe in is total guff. For me it was May of 1987 and I'm watching CNN do a news story about a "science fiction convention" where a room full of Star Wars fans were singing "Happy Birthday" to a movie.

No, I'm not kidding. The Happy Birthday song. For a movie.

I remember that moment as if it happened yesterday because it burned something very painful into my mind. It was when I realized that not all "Star Wars" fans are cool, and to believe so is total guff. For me, George Lucas' movies awakened something up inside. Because of them I became interested in other cultures here on planet Earth, astronomy and classical music. "Star Wars" enhanced my life and opened my mind to new thoughts and ideas. I thought all science fiction fans were like me, too.

To others, "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" is the end-all and be-all, simultaneously it's the ends that justify the means and the means that justify the ends. These movies took over the lives of other people. Don't bother telling them to get a life, because they'll say "I have a life, and it's called 'Star Wars," and then will sarcastically ask: "Ever hear of it?" These people are not cool. I vowed to NEVER allow that to happen to me or allow myself to be seen as one of those people.

 

As a quick aside, I can't write an article about The Phantom Menace with out throwing down on something that still grates on me, even after all these years...

Another "everything you know is wrong" moment came when I realized that people will be as patronizing and hype stuff they know is crap if it'll bring in ratings. I remember watching Joyce Kulhawik giving a scathing review of "The Phantom Menace" and then Jack Williams says [to the effect of] "Stay tuned to WBZ for continuing coverage of 'Phantom Menace - The Force Returns To Boston.'"

Your top notch critic just lambasted the movie, and you're going to continue to hype it and cover Boston-area fans like it's the best thing since the last time the Red Sox won a pennant? Slow news week? Are you REALLY that hard up for something to report, anything?

I've never been so embarrassed for a film critic as I was that moment for Ms. Kulhawik.

That was just another moment when I had to just grow-up a little more. [Getting married the following week might have had something more to do with it, too.] It was growing proof that "Sturgeon's Law" that “Ninety percent of everything is crap”. People know it's crap, but they pander and patronize everyone else to either make a buck or con people out of time or attention.

 

Ren's RantsSince writing “The Devil, Roger Ebert, Made Me do It” I've been thinking a lot about the spring and summer of 1999 and the hope and optimism the future. Computer graphics and animation were making amazing breakthroughs and anyone who wanted to be involved in making movies could be if you just learned the right software package. Audiences were all on the brink of seeing and hearing something incredible in the theaters, starting with "The Matrix," then obviously "The Phantom Menace" and then the two follow-up sequels. We were on the cusp of a new art renaissance...or so we were told. It was a great time to be a movie lover...

For me, as someone who devoured science fiction stories and anthologies, vintage pulps and astronomy magazines since I was 11, May 1999 should have been one of the happiest months of my life. It was, but the movie was just something to enjoy for a few hours one night and then it was time to move on. There's this thing called "life" ahead of me. [I was married a week before this movie was released to theaters...]

But, was "The Phantom Menace" really any good? Honestly?

For anyone who enjoys blockbuster films, I have to ask if there really is anything better then hearing a new John Williams score, especially for a Star Wars installment? Even though Mr. Williams used some of the same motifs from other non-Star Wars compositions (The themes used for the planet Naboo were almost identical to his themes used in another movie he scored; "Seven Years In Tibet.") fans of Williams work were screwed with the one-disk abbreviated sound-track, and the two disk version that was released later was insult to injury.

The special effects were truly something we've never experienced before. What George Lucas' team did with models, digital effects and computer compositing was to take us to other worlds that only he could imagine but were impossible to film using the the technology that had been used before... well, not exactly. Take the Republic's capitol city-planet, Coruscant, for an example. I can imagine that it would be pretty hard to duplicate that city with models, stop motion and go-motion animation, and bring them all together with analog (meaning, non-digital) compositing. But it had been done before, using Fritz Lang's 1929 "Metropolis" and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" as the two best examples. Industrial Light And Magic took what had been done already and just made "more."

The costumes, the set design, the props... so much of it felt like it was "Star Wars" rebooted for a new decade (and soon to be a new Millennium with "Attack Of The Clones" and "Revenge of The Sith") but there was just something missing. "The Phantom Menace" was so close, and yet so far, far away from where and what it should have been.

 

I was very excited about the possibilities of there being an "Episode One" of the Star Wars saga. The fact that I was deeply in love with a beautiful woman who shared some of the same interests as me and that we could relive a childhood memory of seeing one of these movies together for the first time has tainted this whole experience and the movie for the better.

If this had just been a movie that took place in George Lucas' "Galaxy Far, Far away..." then it would have been sufficient entertainment for two-plus hours. If this was just another space fantasy movie, (Much like John Bluth's "Titan AE" that was released a year later,) it would have come and gone in theaters. People would have talked about it for a while and would have been done. But I'm not sure it would be enough to ignite a new cultural phenomenon.

But as a prequel to the most popular trilogy of all time? Maybe George Lucas shouldn't have made "The Phantom Menace" and leaving this story up to our imaginations  should have been enough. An incomplete saga could have been an artistic statement in and of itself.

There was no way that George Lucas could have made a movie that lived up to the mass-expectations that have built up since the last "Star Wars" movie was released in 1983. With all the countless hours that people like me spent on day-dreaming while doing menial tasks like mowing lawns and washing dishes we expected just so much more from George Lucas's attempt at remaking "Ben Hur" and "The Greatest Story Every Told" in his own Universe. There's just some areas I wish he tried harder. What ever they did when making "The Empire Strikes Back," they should have applied to "The Phantom Menace." There's some darkness and serious edge that the other movies had had that "Phantom" lacked. Even "A New Hope" had a edge to it that "Phantom" needed, "Phantom" tried too hard to be a "Grimm's Fairy Tale," but was a little short on the "Grimm."

The harsh, cold reality is that this is by far NOT the best Star Wars movie ever made. This lies somewhere between being just another Star Wars movie, or the worst of the six. How it's actually ranked is up to you.

 

 

The "guff" behind The Phantom Menace and the uncool factor lies in how people claim "The Phantom Menace" raped their childhood. Your memories of your youth and the daydreams you had are still there, this movie didn't take anything away from you, except for the few hours spent watching it or obsessing about how bad it was.

There's also the unbelievable marketing that went behind this movie's release that tried to make a buck for people other then those who made it. [My son's still use the towels that were given to us as a gift so many years ago...] What pissed me off most about "The Phantom Menace" wasn't the actual movie or the crap fans wrote about it, but how it was built up by the media and was used to sell everything from fast-food Kids' Meals and the toys that came with them, to children's apparel and work-out clothes for adults. "The Phantom Menace" logo was placed on everything from Junk Food to Air Fresheners. And when the movie didn't live up to it's built-in audience's expectations, it was dumped and panned by the same media outlets who hyped it, saying "see, we told you it wasn't any good and the fans were crazy." Uh, no... you didn't.

Then again, that was my biggest gripe with "Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull", too.

Just as bad as a room full of fans at a science fiction convention singing "Happy Birthday" to the original "Star Wars" is the constant drone for the past 10 years about how awful "The Phantom Menace" was. With the time and effort a lot of these Star Wussy Bloggers and forum posters have spent on trashing this film, I would like to see some of them come up with a better idea and do something better. (Fan films don't count.)

 

 
 

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