Published May 1, 1999
Well, here goes. The following, I know, is an invitation to hate-mail, but I have to say that Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas, demonstrates a remarkable paucity of imagination. The thought first came to me in the scene where Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) explains to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) the state of political life on the home city-planet of Couresan: “No civility,” he says; “only politics.” Inwardly I groaned. Here the most brainless journalistic cliché of our times, as specific to 1990s America as Bill Clinton or O.J. Simpson, is lovingly transported to a galaxy far away as if it were a universal category of humanoid behavior, like love or treachery or heroism, and not a mere linguistic tic, based on the patently false assumption that civility and politics are disjunctive terms. The anachronistic effect is akin to that of watching the Jedi knights break into the macarena.
Nor is that all. The Senate is said to be paralysed by an investigation into groundless charges of corruption against a good leader, Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp). Could this, by chance, be our Bill? At any rate, the film has by implication adopted the Clintonite formula about the absolute importance of “moving on” by positing this same legislative inactivity as the reason why sinister “bureaucrats” have been allowed to take over the government. Their suzerainty, in turn, allows a mysterious bad guy—who appears only as a hologram and remains unidentified at the end of the film—and his evil henchman, Darth Maul (Ray Park), to seize control of Trade Federation troops for an invasion of Queen Amidala’s planet, Naboo. Are we meant to suppose that Slobodan Milosevic was likewise emboldened by Clinton’s embroilment in Senate impeachment proceedings to undertake his campaign in Kosovo?
If so, the roles of the antagonists are here reversed. It is the Slobo-like bad guy (who also resembles his prototype in launching an ethnic cleansing campaign against the underwater cities of the harmless and comic Gunga) who controls thousands of useless war-machines. These are robots with dust-buster headpieces and collapsible bodies who are fiction’s most incompetent enemy since Fenimore Cooper’s Indians. Not only are they astonishingly poor marksmen with their integral ray-guns, their metal parts seem to fit together like Lego blocks. As they obligingly walk upright and very slowly, they fall before the light-sabres of the good guys, the seemingly outgunned ground troops Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), like ripe wheat before the reaper’s scythe. Only the Sith lord, Darth Maul, who has learned the Jedi ways and has a double-edged light sabre, proves a worthy opponent.
Boring! We don’t even have any sense of the latter’s brand of villainy, which is advertised by his painted face and dark cowl but which otherwise remains completely inarticulate. He says nothing and dumbly follows orders from the hologram. Meanwhile, the heroes’ comic sidekick, a cross between a floppy-eared dog and a dinosaur who is called not Dino but Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), can never shut up. Moreover, he talks a kind of baby talk—“Dis am berry bad!”—that gets on the nerves. At one point during the climactic battle with the Hoover-headed robots (“Ouch time,” says Jar Jar cutely) he is briefly imperilled: “Jar Jar! Use your boobah!” cries out a companion.
“No have-a da boobah!” says Jar Jar, whereupon the companion tosses him a little blue ball that, as almost anything larger than a golf-ball would be, is instantly fatal to his pursuers.
In short, it’s the Teletubbies in space, an impression further reinforced by the fact that the youngest hero, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd)—who, we are given to understand, will grow up to be Darth Vader—is about six years old. But, although he is only two or three years out of diapers, this prodigy is said to be able to “fix anything.” Do we sense another cliché here? Ah yes, it is the by-now famous tyke who must program the VCR for his technically incompetent parents. Long after VCRs have presumably joined mangles and steam engines in the technological graveyard, here he still is, tinkering away with the fabulously sophisticated machines of the future. Though a slave, he has not only managed to build a championship “pod” racer out of spare parts in his back yard, he is also allowed to race it at considerable risk to his life against the champion pod racer of Tattooine, the villainous-looking and blatantly cheating Sebulba.
Anakin’s mother (Pernilla August) appears to be under heavy sedation throughout her brief appearance in the picture. She easily consents to Anakin’s racing his pod and then to his going off with the two Jedi, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, to learn how to be a Jedi himself. “Will I ever see you again?” the little fellow asks her.
“What do you think?” she replies.
“I. . .hope so,” he hesitates.
And when Qui-Gon half-heartedly suggests that she might like to come with them, she replies with unusual firmness: “My place is here; my future is here.” Huh? She prefers to remain a slave? Oh well, perhaps she has a boyfriend. Yet she also solemnly assures the Jedi that Anakin has no father, and the suggestion of a virgin birth, together with the unprecedented number of the genetic Jedi-markers called midicloriants (or something) in his bloodstream, lends weight to Qui-Gon’s conviction that he is “the chosen one,” come into the universe to “balance the force”—a suspiciously Manichaean-sounding enterprise. I expect we shall find out more about this if we can bear to drag ourselves to the two promised sequels, which are also “prequels” to the original Star Wars saga of 22 years ago.
But what surprised and delighted us with its wit and cinematic originality back in 1977 has not worn well. The exotic creatures from other galaxies have now become all-too-familiar creatures from other movies, even when they have been repackaged and cosmetically redesigned, and the timeless story of heroism comes to seem merely silly and exploitative when the hero is a six-year-old playing computer games. This is a Star Wars that seems to exist for the sake of the spin-offs—the hats, the T-shirts, the action figures, the computer games and so forth that made it profitable before it was even released. Like the pod race and the battles in the movie itself, the movie’s triumph in the marketplace seems rigged. Star Wars Inc., a division of LucasFilms, is beginning to look less like the fun planet Naboo, with its quaint medieval trappings, and more like the Evil Empire.