Escape to the Past
Yes, it’s still about trade levies. Yoda only knows what George Lucas was thinking crafting a swashbuckling science fiction adventure movie around interstellar tariffs. I figure that if Lucas could have managed it, he’d have not only made Greedo shoot first, he’d have had Han Solo doing Greedo’s taxes at the time, to show what an awesome guy Han was (and not a scoundrel at all).
With the opportunity to rework the film — which Lucas has shown he has no compunction at all about doing — he left the taxation of trade routes in there. *sigh*
We still don’t know what the phantom menace is. Is it Senator Palpatine? Is Darth Maul? Is it Qui-Gon Jinn, perhaps the worst Jedi Knight ever, who could foresee that Anakin “Yippee” Skywalker would win a pod race but not that he would become the greatest evil the galaxy has ever known? I prefer to think the phantom menace is the midi-chlorians, who bring balance to the Force at a time when the Light Side is ascendant by conceiving a galactic Hitler to bring some much needed Dark Side to the universe… though this, too, comes back to Qui-Gon’s remarkable lack of judgment. One would imagine that the wisdom required to see that the Force was out of balance and needed some opposite would also see that the out-of-balance was in favor of goodness, and you might not want to mess with that.
Oh, and yeah: Lucas left the midi-chlorians in.
Oh, and yeah: this is still a story about what a (supposedly) adorable ragamuffin the galactic Hitler was when he was a munchkin.
Oh, and yeah: Jar Jar Binks. Still here.
Of all the many things George Lucas could have messed with in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, he left all these many outrages alone, and merely clopped on some entirely unnecessary 3D.
It’s still a not very good movie.
It’s still Star Wars.
I don’t even mean that in a “this is the Grand Story of my childhood” way, and so it can never be bad even when it’s bad. (And wasn’t it sorta terrifying to see people — adult people — at the press screening for this flick and be hit with the fact that this flick, Episode I, and not 1977’s Star Wars, was the Grand Story of their childhood? Why, yes. Yes, it was.) I mean it this way:
No one is making movies like this anymore. Hardly anyone ever did. There’s sweep here like nobody’s business. We see big sometimes in today’s movies, but it’s a bigness of noise and bluster and destruction. Michael Bay purports, sometimes, to make science fiction movies — see: the Transformers series — but there are no ideas there, nothing to capture the imagination. Science fiction in the movies of late limits itself: to Earth, to dystopias, to cynicism. Who would want to live in the world of Transformers or The Matrix or Minority Report or I, Robot? No one worldbuilds in movies the way that Lucas did… yes, even in the less-than-satisfying second trilogy. The bigness of Lucas’ vision is positively expansive, of a civilization sprawling enough so that even the biggest of the big baddies — Darth Vader, the Empire — are nothing but a distant rumor to many. There’s room to breathe in Lucas’s universe, room to explore… room to escape.
Only Peter Jackson comes close to the same feeling Star Wars leaves us with, in his Lord of the Rings movies, and he’s limited to just one continent on just one planet.
I wish Phantom Menace was a better film. The bones of a great film are there. But there’s no beating the sense of hope and adventure and honest-to-goodness wonder that shines through. Heck, could be I’m wrong about Qui-Gon: maybe he did foresee Anakin’s dark potential and thought he could avert it… and maybe he would have. Maybe the seeds of Anakin’s redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi are here in the innocence of a rambunctious little boy. The fact that I can say these things is partly a matter of how poorly written the film is on a scene-by-scene basis, but it’s also a function of how magnificently — perhaps even madly — ambitious the Star Wars story is in the grand scale. So many unexplored possibilities linger in ways that we cannot say about most — maybe not any — of the science fiction action adventure films 1977 spawned. Because there’s so much there there. Maybe it’s only in the background. Maybe it should have been in the foreground. But it’s still there. Could be it only accidentally serves to make Lucas’s stories better than they deserve to be. But there we are.
I don’t remember feeling this way back in 1999, when Phantom Menace was new, but watching this movie again, for the first time in many years, suddenly makes it feel like the past decade-plus at the movies has been a harsh desert for truly escapist adventure fantasy (with only the oasis of Lord of the Rings to sustain us). Good god, there really is nothing like a lightsaber duel, is there?