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Film Review: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D

Feb 15, 2012 10:45AM ● By Justin Buettner

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace follows two Jedi Knights as they try to arrange a peace treaty and fend off a trade blockade for a small planet. The talks fail which sends the Jedi Knights into hiding guarding the queen on a small deserted planet. On this planet the Jedi come across a small boy named Anakin Skywalker who they believe might be the long prophesied chosen one who will bring power to the force.  

The Phantom Menace is a terrible movie for several different reasons. The movie (along with the entire set of prequels) illustrates that George Lucas never really had a firm grasp of what made his original Star War films so special -- primarily character and magic. The prequels are devoid of both. In fact the prequels go through great lengths to destroy the characters and the magic that made the original two films (I am not a fan of The Return of the Jedi) so special. Before I get into the nuts and bolts of why it doesn’t work, I’ll address the people who are curious to know if the 3D is worth seeing this film again; if for some reason you liked this awful movie then yes, the 3D is top of the line.

Surprisingly where the Star War films went awry did not start with the disaster known as The Phantom Menace, but you have to go all the way back to the early 1980s and the departure of producer Gary Kurtz from the franchise. Kurtz graduated from USC with George Lucas and the pair teamed up on all of their early work when there seemed to be a magic surrounding all of the movies they touched from American Graffiti to Star Wars. After The Empire Strikes Back Kurtz and Lucas had a falling out over the direction of the Star Wars franchise. Lucas saw the toy and merchandising profits rolling in and thought the direction of the franchise should support that. Kurtz was committed to the story and the characters and felt that the movie should not be an advertisement to sell toys. Kurtz’s version of Return of the Jedi never featured Ewoks (Lucas’s answer how to sell Star War toys to girls) and actually saw Han Solo’s death midway through the movie. The breaking point was the second Death Star and the happy celebration ending that resulted in Kurtz leaving the franchise and severing his connection with Lucas. Star Wars sequels ceased for 15 years until the release of The Phantom Menace. You can read Kutz’s full interview at the LA Times Web site.

Without Kurtz’s involvement the Star Wars franchise has been used as a cash cow selling toys, video games, t-shirts and just about any item you can think of to kids. As a film designed to sell more merchandise, it is hard to argue with the success of The Phantom Menace. Lucas is the master of merchandising, especially to 10 year-old boys (or men who still live in their mother’s basements). Based on sheer sales numbers, no one comes close to Lucas’s enterprise with the exception of Disney -- especially the way he continually releases the same movies and gets the fans to shell out more money for films they already have five different copies of. Lucas has created an empire with the Star Wars  franchise that is unparalleled.

But the question I ask is what happened to the film maker? At one time Lucas was a visionary. Was Kurtz that big of a part of Lucas’s success? After seeing the prequels and even the Indiana Jones sequels the conclusion I also come to is yes. Without Kurtz, Lucas’s work as a storyteller is gone, almost completely.

Major problem number one: The Phantom Menace is without character. To prove my point, play a game with me. Tell a friend about a character without using physical descriptions or naming their occupation. The easier it is to describe the person, the stronger the character is in a film. Start with Han Solo; renegade, lady’s man, rogue, brave, charismatic, and the list can go on and on. Try this with all the main characters from the original trilogy: Chewbacca, 3CP0, even R2-D2. All have very strong personalities. All are easy to relate to and to root for. Now try the same game with the cast of characters from the new trilogy. Princess Amidalla? Are you drawing a blank? Me too Try Qui-Gon Jinn? I am at a loss as well. Even take characters from the original Star War series like Obi-Wan and Yoda. In the original trilogy these characters are vibrant, but in the prequels the characters are drab, uninteresting and boring. The only character with any spark of life is Anakin Skywalker and he doesn’t even appear until halfway through the movie. Once Anakin appears he seems to have very little choice or control over what happens to him in the context of the story. Even when he saves the day it happens by chance and accident.

Which leads to major problem number two: The Phantom Menace goes through great strides to kill any magic associated with the franchise. Magic works best without explanation.  It creates wonder and imagination. It is one of the hardest things to create. Lucas somehow captured our imaginations with “The Force.” Everyone understood what it was, what it meant, without having to see it or know where it came from. It was magic! So to have Qui-Gon Jinn explain away the magic as a virus in someone’s about a mood killer. Not only does that little nugget of information take the wonderment out of The Phantom Menace it hurts the franchise as a whole. Much like what he did with the existing characters that are featured in the prequels. Can I watch Obi-Won and Yoda in the same light after seeing these characters being portrayed so badly in this series? Lucas already knocked Darth Vader’s character down a notch with the horrifically awful ending to Return of the Jedi, and nothing presented in the prequels does anything to help restore the greatness of evil that Darth Vader represented in the first two Star War films.

To make matters worse, instead of building the movies on the simplistic tones of good versus evil like the original series, The Phantom Menace  is at its core a political plot as exciting as watching C-Span. The entire movie is about a trade blockade and political in-fighting about issues that are not clear in the slightest. If any brain power is used to try to untangle the web of politics what is revealed are hundreds of plot holes that are beyond head scratching (and I won’t bore you with the countless ugly details of those).  The order of the Jedi Knights not only in The Phantom Menace  but in the entire set of prequels are shown to be nothing, not so bright philosophers whose inaction and absurd decisions are the cause of the dark side rising. All the nobility, wonder, and yes “magic” that the Jedi once held are now gone. Thanks George.

The prequels are movies that should never been made. If they were just bad movies that would be one thing, but they actually work to undermine the great movies that were made before. The worst of the prequels is indeed The Phantom Menace, although Attack of the Clones tries hard to be even worse. I work hard at trying to forget that the prequels even exist in an attempt to regain my admiration for the first two Star Wars movies, but how can I do that if we are treated to re-release after re-release on home video and in theaters every year or two? If a new Star Wars movie ever deserved to be made it is Kurtz’s version of the Return of the Jedi, not this disaster (and I do mean disaster) called The Phantom Menace. If your child has not seen a Star Wars movie I beg you to be a responsible parent and not show them the prequels, show them the originals. The Phantom Menace  is the equivalent of someone telling you that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy don’t exist all at the same time, all while an annoying character called Jar Jar Binks steps in poop as a joke to try and distract you from the pain. What a bummer.

Films like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: Star Wars : Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Justin Buettner is Style's resident movie dude! How did he get this role? Well, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a Bachelor of Arts in film Production and a duel minor in Animation and Business with an emphasis in the entertainment field. He later went on to work on several independent films in various key roles including writer and later worked in the special effects field as a motion capture artist. He has since relocated to the Sacramento area with his family and continues writing for small independent films in addition to his movie reviews for Style Magazine.

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