Picture this: You've just seen what you consider the worst movie of the year so far, and very possibly the worst movie of the rest of the year, too. It has some slick special effects, but you feel insulted by the story, the dialogue, the acting, and the attention-deficit-disorder editing. In short, you think the movie is a mess. But then you start hearing from friends and email pen pals who really enjoyed the movie. These are otherwise intelligent people, so you can't write their praise off as the raving of morons. What do you do?
All but the truly dense will have figured out which movie I'm referencing. And at first, my kneejerk impulse was to say to these people, "PHANTOM MENACE sucks, and you suck for liking it. Snap out of it." But I don't wanna do that. If you liked it, you liked it. Whatever.
This is a reactive piece in which I try to wrestle with some of the general praise I'm hearing that I honestly don't understand. Like I said, picture yourself baffled by praise of a movie you consider dumb and boring - doesn't have to be PHANTOM MENACE, it can be any movie you hated - and you'll (I hope) appreciate where I'm coming from.
Here, then, are the top ten bullshit excuses I've heard in defense of PHANTOM MENACE....
Just because it's pitched to younger audiences doesn't mean its sensibility has to be so juvenile. Did we really need the fart humor and the two-headed announcer and all the assorted goofiness? I'll tell you exactly when the movie, for me, crossed the line from bad to terrible: the pod race. Jabba looks as fake as ever; the reason he worked (barely) in JEDI was because he wasn't a CGI effect and they kept him in mysterious shadow, not waddling around in broad daylight as in STAR WARS: SPECIAL EDITION and now PHANTOM MENACE. I thought Warwick Davis' cameo was lame. And that fucking announcer! "I don't care what universe you're from - that's gotta hurt!" That's when the last door in my heart officially slammed shut against the movie. The later shot of the announcer going "Oooh, aahh, oooh, ahhh" was even worse. Juvenile! How can people sit through that shit and tell me this is a good movie??
It's a $110 million sermon to the converted, then? What a waste. And here I thought it was supposed to hook younger viewers who've never seen a STAR WARS film. Either it's for kids or it's for fans; you can't have it both ways. STAR WARS fans are like Trekkies or goths or any other misfits who band together against the outside world: They can be just as snobbish as the popular kids who rejected them. If you aren't 100% with the Lucas program (or the Roddenberry program, or the Chris Carter program, or whatever), you are an unbeliever! an infidel! Well, excuse me all to hell, but it's only a movie. Sorry to pop your bubble, but it's sound and image on celluloid. No more, no less.
I'm tired of the fan mentality anyway; these people should try some fuckin' decaf. Many sci-fi fans are slightly less evangelical and righteous than Jerry Falwell. I mean, Christ, I love Cronenberg's films, and CRASH got reamed eight ways to Sunday and you didn't see me writing whiny letters to reviewers about it. I just wrote my own positive review, said "These critics are missing something, this is what I get out of the film," and left it at that. Same with FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Some of these fans should try liking movies that not many other people like (unlike STAR WARS, which has had a massive following since day one); it thickens your skin and allows you to let it roll off your back when critics bash a film you cherish.
Also, I resent the implication that my opinion of the movie is somehow less valid because I'm not a STAR WARS fan. I saw some dipshit on MTV, being interviewed while standing in line, grumbling about the critics who bashed it; he said, "They don't know what they're talking about, they're not true fans." In which case, what good is it as a movie, if the True Believers are the only ones who get anything out of it? If the movie were really all that great, it would've converted me, won me over, made me a born-again fan, don't you think? It did not. It sat there on the screen and sucked. And it reminded me why I'm not a fan.
ACTING WAS GOOD"
Here I really have to get mean for a moment and say: WHAT ARE YOU, FUCKING STONED???? What acting?? Everyone in it is wooden except for the CGI characters, and most of those are annoying. Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, and Natalie Portman have been fine elsewhere, but here they're completely stiff. As for Jake Lloyd, I hope his parents encourage him to go into landscaping or something, because his future sure isn't in acting. After five minutes I got sick of looking at his moon face and his bad hair and hearing his utterly bland delivery.
SPECIAL EFFECTS ROCKED"
That doesn't impress me. Give me $110 million and an army of animators and designers and I can do the same thing, plus write an idiotic script to go along with it. People fetishize special effects way too much. And in this case they didn't convince me. I was always conscious that I was looking at CGI. Often, everything in the frame is computer-generated, sometimes for entire scenes at a time. Which is okay in an all-animation movie, but here it just feels creepy after a while. I felt as if I were trapped in a video game. Which this movie basically is. I don't remember the action sequences in the previous STAR WARS movies being such blatant video-game fodder. They should've called it STAR WARS LEVEL I - THE PLAYSTATION MENACE.
JAR ISN'T THAT ANNOYING"
First of all, that's pretty faint praise. Second, yes he is. Fuckin' rabbit-salamander-looking motherfucker. I want him dead. I want his family dead....
A STAR WARS MOVIE"
By which I suppose they mean it fits well with the previously released movies. Well, so what? By the way, there are enough continuity glitches (didn't Yoda train Obi-Wan?) to keep anal-retentive trivia-beancounters busy all summer. So I'm not sure how smooth the retrofitting is. All this state-of-the-art hardware, and the new trilogy turns out not to be backward-compatible. If they mean it looks and feels like a STAR WARS movie, well, yes it does, I admit it: It has bad dialogue, rubbery aliens, and those corny diagonal wipes, just like before. Plus Lucas has taken to tracking in slowly during some of the dialogue scenes, which I don't remember him doing before. It looks bad.
FUN SUMMER ESCAPISM"
This is usually what they fall back on when they realize they sound loopy when they talk about PHANTOM MENACE as some sort of cosmic event. It's in line with Lucas' own disingenuous defense of late: "It's just a movie." Question is, how can I escape this escapism? It's everywhere, on every TV, in every magazine....To me, "escapism" right now would be something totally non-STAR WARS, like a fuckin' Russian art movie. Anything. In fact, this Sunday I can't wait to see LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, a foreign film playing at a theatre that isn't showing PHANTOM MENACE, so I won't have to worry about getting stuck in line behind a bunch of STAR WARS geeks when all I want is a ticket for another movie. The best part? I know absolutely nothing about this movie. No hype. No toys. No LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE fruit roll-ups. No LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE novelizations with four different covers. Just a movie. Now that's what I call fun escapism. That's what it's come to, folks: foreign art films have become escapism.
GET BETTER/DARKER IN THE NEXT TWO SEQUELS"
Possibly, but for that to happen, Lucas had better find a director and screenwriter other than himself. My suggestion would be directors who are not known for special-effects spectacles, like Irvin Kershner wasn't known for that before he directed EMPIRE - the result was the most human installment in the trilogy. And leave out the kiddie humor - Christ, at times during PHANTOM MENACE, I was expecting Leslie Nielsen to show up.
IS JUST SET-UP FOR THE NEXT TWO"
Obviously. But if you're not supposed to judge it in and of itself, why release it by itself? Are we supposed to wait until 2005 to assess the entire trilogy? And by the way, nobody defended the original STAR WARS this way, because at first, nobody knew there were going to be any future installments. (It wasn't until after EMPIRE that "EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE" was tacked onto the opening crawl of STAR WARS; those who've only seen it on video or in its 1997 remix, or don't remember the pre-1980 theatrical version, may not know this.) I'm not a fan of the original at all, but at least it stands alone pretty well. PHANTOM MENACE doesn't. And if this movie is the beginning, why does it feel as if there's even more backstory behind it? It still feels as if we're getting thrown into the middle of a story in progress. Will we get yet another prequel trilogy dealing with the early days of Qui-Gon or the childhood of Obi-Wan? (No, that'll probably happen in the endless paperback/comic-book spin-offs yet to come.) And has any "storyteller" introduced new characters as ineptly as Lucas does here? Such characters as Qui-Gon, Amidala, and the young Anakin aren't properly set up for us; they're just sort of presented to us, and they immediately start talking. And whenever anyone in this film starts talking, we're in deep bantha poo-doo.
REALLY ENJOYED IT"
Like I said, there's not much to say to this. De gustibus non est disputandum. Chacun a son gout. To each his own. Whatever blows your hair back. People enjoyed ARMAGEDDON, too, and I'd rank PHANTOM MENACE on the same level of aesthetic underachievement. How anyone can honestly enjoy such a rhythmless, hectic, impersonal, amateurishly written, erratically directed piece of drivel is beyond me, and is fairly depressing to contemplate. One wants to think that those who claim they enjoyed it are either lying to cover their bitter disappointment, or so enraptured by the very idea of a new STAR WARS movie that they overlook how bad it actually is. I don't honestly understand those who genuinely come out of PHANTOM MENACE convinced they've seen something special; it's like trying to communicate with an alien consciousness or something. Actually, they have seen something special: the latest nail in the coffin of intelligent American film. PHANTOM MENACE has a lot of shiny stuff in it, and it doesn't put too much stress on your brain. It is, in short, the very model of a modern major blockbuster: fast and meaningless, and soulless right down to the midi-chlorians in its cells.