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Episode One is Star Wars
It's neither better nor worse than the other 3 episodes; it's just part of them. And that is the nearly impossible feat that Lucas has accomplished with his first prequel, though not the only one. It's a world where you could look at a patch of sand or Jabba's empty box at the podrace, and know that you're watching a Star Wars movie. The way the camera pans through action at odd angles, and the way the cheesy visual wipes work so well that you hardly notice they're there is all part of this film convincing us on a visual level at least that it IS Star Wars, even though we've had set in our mind for 20 years what IS and ISN'T Star Wars. That is-- it does this if we're willing to be convinced.
Knowing every shot of a movie for 20 years and then getting a continuation of that movie is a difficult thing to process, and resistance is inevitable, but the more I watch The Phantom Menace, and the more I hear about Attack of the Clones, the harder it gets to imagine the original movies existing without them.
It has alternately been accused of having no plot and of being so dense that it's just boring. Where's the truth? Someplace in between. The truth is that it strikes just the right balance. The dialogue is deceptively simple, because the dialogue has never been the point. It serves it's purpose though, and is already quoted by fans nearly as much as lines from the film they've loved since the late 70's.
The broad story arches (Not the intricate political workings behind them) are almost defiantly simple. This is the definition of the Star Wars style. In the original trilogy, most motivations could be summed up with a word.. Han: Money. Chewie: Loyalty. Threepio: Fear. Luke: Wanting to make something out of himself. Lucas could have made Anakin dark and threatening, a sweet child with flashes of anger in which he nearly chokes someone to death, or something like that. He made the decision not to.. Why? The tool at work here is contrast. Archetypes are everything. Vader as we knew him was a powerful symbol of pure evil, and it's so much more powerful to see that evolve out of something that was purely good. Instead of just showing evil, the movies now say something about it. The Queen is a pacifist forced into war, Qui-Gon is a Jedi who has become a little too confident.. each a symbol of a segment of their society. A cog in the machinations of what is about to occur over a 5 episode story of grand proportions. These are great characters! They're just not flashy, nor should they be. With the powerful symbolism of these characters, and the number of elements that had to be juggled, I think that it should be taken as a compliment that people accuse the movie of having no plot. Lucas managed to juggle all that with so much grace that some people can see the whole movie without knowing that there's any juggling going on.
And yet people say that Lucas has sold out.. How can you say that Lucas has sold out? If Lucas had sold out, he would have made the fans happy. He would have made more money that way. There would have been no Jar Jar, more fighting, an older corrupt Anakin, and grim end-of-the-world dialogue completely out of character for the people saying it, contrasted with needless sarcasm and "high brow" laughs, even though they'd be contrary to the time period he's developing. The movie would have been critically acclaimed, fan-worshiped crap, completely out of spirit with the Star Wars movies and what needs to be done to unify it as a 6 chapter story.
Again, this is about contrast. You can't have a fall without a rise, and if The Phantom Menace seems more innocent and childish, that's because it is. It's the beginning. But that's only on the surface.. The real events of the film are Palpatine being given power and the Jedi Order cementing their own doom. What happy sell-out crap, right? Look closer.
The one thing that hasn't been changed for contrast is the acting. And yet people complain about it.. Come now.. Mark Hamill was never gonna win an Oscar. And yet Alec Guiness was brilliant.. Which is as it should be. They both did what was needed of them. Jake Lloyd doesn't really seem like he can act, and that's the point, isn't it? Who wants to watch an actor.. This is Anakin. He's just a kid. And he acts just like a normal kid. Ewan McGreggor doesn't do a whole lot.. Maybe because this story isn't about him yet? And Natalie Portman's acting is flat.. Maybe because her character speaks in a flat tone of voice? Fantastic, I know, but this is, after all, a galaxy far, far away.
I don't like comparing bits and pieces from each movie, but there are so many little things about Episode One that I love.. I love some of the quiet scenes like Anakin talking to Padme on their way to Coruscant.. I love the scene between Anakin and Qui-Gon behind Anakin's hovel, where Anakin looks up at the universe and we're as filled with as much awe as he is.. I love the way that the movie is so absolutely filled with dialogue causing people to say that it's just boring, and yet it also gets accused of only worrying about special effects at the expense of characters.. I love Natalie Portman's performance; the equally controlled and simple coldness and warmth.. I love the little movements of the pods in the senate scenes, and the way that the camera droids float around them, turning yet more simple dialogue into one of the most visually arresting things I've seen in years.. I love Jar Jar's line "This sun doin' murder to mesa skin," a great joke in it's own way and a perfect device to illustrate his symbolic relationship to Anakin, who later complains of being too cold.. I love the promise of things to come from Mace Windu.. I love the pan to Palpatine's face after the Jedi question whether they destroyed the master or the apprentice.. And I love the celebration music at the end parade; a variation on Palpatine's theme, fitting with the Gungan culture, a bookend to the melancholy Ewok music, and the most joyful piece yet in a Star Wars movie all at once.
Is the movie perfect? In that it serves every function needed of it, and in that I wouldn't change a frame because I'd no longer have someone else's vision, but rather my own, I'd say that it is.
TheForce.Net Guest Editorial
October 2nd, 2001