Summary: The ultimate in disastrous movies
I had had kind of some heightened expectations concerning this movie, especially after having heard its soundtrack - which counts among the very best I've ever heard. John Williams has surpassed himself, having created a great piece of classical music, a very romantic score - he has done a very splendid job; George Lucas, however, hasn't. While I have to admit I didn't really like the original 'Star Wars' movies that much either, at least they somehow deserved a bit of a hype - but that also depends on the time they were made in: They fit somehow into the late seventies and early eighties, and that's where they belong to. If you keep that in mind, they're still good movies of which I liked the second part best, still don't know why. 'The Phantom Menace' now is made in the nineties, the year before Y2K, and still Lucas tries to make a movie for the seventies. Even worse, this is a movie of the seventies, it is the old trilogy in a short version, stripped of all that was amiable (except the score), and equipped with every nasty and bad elements they could find. It is a piece of garbage which even I, not being a fan of the original movies, would not consider a worthy successor. If you liked this movie, fine. I didn't. So be warned, I will be very direct and nasty here about this film. But where shall I start...
I was bored immediately after the movie started, and I really had to fight quite some conflict of interest within myself and eventually continued watching. I got interested in it only at one time, at the only scene worth considering - the Ben Hur-inspired pod race. Then everything fell back into predictability and into mental oblivion. But to be honest, I wasn't just bored, at the end I also got annoyed - you haven't yet met a truly annoying character on the screen if you haven't seen Jar Jar. But Jar Jar isn't to blame, Lucas is. This character means an insult for the audience, and so does the plot. There is nothing original about it, nothing that would matter. I have found some comments trying to compare elements of this movie with Twin Peaks ("fear is the path to the dark side"), but that's not only ridiculous, it is almost blasphemic - there is nothing of substance in this movie, there is no depth, not the slightest true indication of a philosophy behind. It is a fairy-tale, and a very bad one. I would not even dare showing it to kids, I would fear for insulting their intelligence.
The visual and special effects, yeah, the infamous effects. Nonsense. Effects have to be the supplement to the story, or they have to create a certain atmosphere (like in horror movies) - none of this can be said about what we see in 'The Phantom Menace'. The battle droids look neat, but they are too fragile to be fit for battle - seems they should rather do kitchen work. The concept of using robots or androids for battle could lead to much more deliberations and insight than is presented - but who said 'Star Wars' was philosophic in nature? But there is even more philosophy in Celebrity Deathmatch and Married With Children than in this movie. The underwater scenes - great, that's what I always wanted to see: giant fish, looking like toys by the way, hunting a submarine. A shot just for the effects. The planet where the Senate gathered was said to be one large city - well, that's a hell of an ecological message at the turn of the millennium. It's a dumb statement also - and it makes me think why the home planet of the Republic is structured so very differently than the colony which is being attacked. The portrayals of bureaucracy at work are another aspect of the movie which adds to the positive side, but again: Too superficial.
The aliens - oh my. That has always been a problem of mine with 'Star Wars', and it seems to be getting worse. Cheesy is by far a mild formulation - and don't call that inventive. I wouldn't call Star Trek's design of alien races inventive either, with a few exceptions like the Borg and the Changelings, but within Star Trek, the different species or races have a different function (see Star Trek Races). But what 'Star Wars' is doing is annoying to say the least - and it is childish, if you dare to say so. Children are brighter than you might think. The bad guys look bad or ugly, the good or harmless guys look either funny or cheap or nice. And Jar-Jar is plainly the worst piece of costume ever on screen. Yeah, let me stick with Jar-Jar now. War is not nice. The cinema industry just seemed to finally have got this with movies like 'Saving Private Ryan', or even 'Small Soldiers'. But the way in which war is made fun of by Jar-Jar's clumsiness is beyond any kind of taste, it is disgusting. And this is exactly the point where my indifference switched to anger - after I had nearly accepted the movie. Even further, Anakin's one-kid assault on this proto-Death Star, while more experienced and trained pilots didn't succeed, that's bullshit. And don't tell me he succeeds because of the Force - there is no thing like that made clear, like it happened in 'A New Hope'. At least that episode tried to make sense of it. But here, every single bit of potential is not just lost, it is consequently being destroyed.
This could have been a great movie. With actors like Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson and also Natalie Portman in it, it could have developed real chemistry, the kind of chemistry which makes otherwise average movies turn out much better (like 'Entrapment'). But instead, where is Samuel L. Jackson? The best actor in the movie, the only one in it besides Neeson who could have improved this movie isn't given enough screentime, nor dialogue, to fill even one or two minutes. Neeson is like an inventory, and when his character died (oops, spoiler, but I expected that to happen anyway, of course Obi Wan couldn't have been killed off. Prequel!!) I wasn't moved, I sort of shrugged. The kid, Anakin (Jake Lloyd), starts as an amiable character but that changes by the way the story enfolds. And I do not mean his being Darth Vader later, I just do not get it how he is being used as comic relief in battle scenes. His acting deserved a better character. The queen, however, was perhaps the only round character in this movie, if there was one. All was quite stereotypical, but she at least showed passion. But I wasn't surprised at her revealing her decoy.
As I said, this could have been a great movie if it had been given to somebody capable to write and direct. I am sorry indeed to have to say that, but Lucas ruined this movie - destroying every single potential this film might have had, recycling the plots from wherever possible (and, with Tatooine, also some sets), and giving us a mindless piece of junk, constructed as being a part of the 'Star Wars' saga, but it isn't worthy to being called by that name. When there is something like inferiority complex, then there also seems to be some kind of superiority complex. But while not even the original 'Star Wars' was that great at all, this one should better be forgotten as one of the worst movies ever made. If there weren't the specific elements I noted above, and if there weren't the soundtrack, there would be nothing but wasted celluloid. Camera angles, lighting, beauty shots, long takes, change of speed, building a climax, raising an anti-climax, inserting appropriate comic relief as well as tragedy, choreographing the soundtrack with the action taking place, creating an atmosphere, having character interaction - all these elements are not just ad libitum. Instead of making a movie, Lucas tried to tell a boring and predictable story in the silliest and worst manner possible. He spent a lot of money and will gain a lot of money, but money ain't an indicator for quality. Never was, never will be. Plot does matter, not mere size. Usually I would preach benevolence, but I am tired of this crap, it is not worth another single word.
Summary: A move into the right direction
Honestly, I don't know what to make of this film. I'm not actually a fan of the Star Wars series as such, though I can appreciate the original films for their creative potential and their influence in redefining movies, and aiding the return of the fantastic and the allegorical to the film culture of the late seventies and eighties of the previous century.
Thus when you sit down in a movie theater awaiting another entry into the film saga at hand, you sort of expect something. Or not, depending on how you evaluate 'The Phantom Menace'. After that ultimately disastrous flick, anything else should be better. And indeed, 'Episode II' does constitute a better film than of 'Episode I'.
When you sit in the dark theater and the film starts, you feel like being at a seventies revival party. Trashy is the word coming to mind when you see the 'Star Wars' logo, the theme music, and the exposition text running across the screen. Trashy especially with regard to the abhorring title, 'Attack of the Clones'.
The opening sequence seems to be taken directly from a Bond movie, especially 'T.W.I.N.E.' or 'Octopussy'; all the elements are there; and strangely, that doesn't seem too contrived, and even a good idea. The interpretation is different, and the quote becomes an homage. The wild chase is quite a cinematic event, especially as the Jedi can finally illustrate their special powers; the dialog though is terrible, and will remain terrible throughout the film. The text spoken in a 'Star Wars' movie is always pure trash, well, at least it's consistent. --- But if we stay with the very opening scene, we discover a general feeling of unease and uncertainty, of fear and paranoia even, something which will be present throughout the entire thing. There's something which isn't right, something lurking in the background and threatening the overall sanity of the main characters. Clouded everything is by the dark side, and unknown the danger is, "Our true enemy has not yet shown his face".
That unease translates itself throughout the entire film by the means of imagery, music, and plot. The look is strangely off sometimes, in some moments it doesn't even feel like Star Wars: There are some longer shots, and some strange silences you could even call artistic moments, brief ones still, yet they're there. The strangest thing is the visit at the Cloners' planet, the very look of those aliens is eerie beyond belief. We have other such moments when Anakin goes after the Tuscans on Tatooine, when they enter the colosseum, and throughout the final montage.
Musically, the film is a revelation; Star Wars always is, which makes me tend towards seeing it as opera rather than film. As in opera also, the plot is mostly irrelevant, so is the dialog, but the music and the general mis-en-scène is the key to the entire thing. The love theme composed by Williams, "Across the Stars", is haunting beyond belief, and utterly powerful, especially in the already mentioned final montage, when the three themes, the Star Wars fanfare, the Imperial March, and Across the Stars mix and convey a sense of doom and tragic. What was lacking in the previous installment, making the music then rather stand alone, is here accompanied by a quite powerful film, although the overall substance may not necessarily be greater.
For if we turn to some singular threads, it becomes really complicated to find a balanced judgement on this. Following Lucas' trend towards redefining and remaking his movies over and over again, we suddenly find ourselves in a republic which is talked of as a democracy rather than a monarchy. The term "democracy" enters the dialog so often and so blatantly obvious that it becomes clear that this has something to do with real-life politics. The force, which has been "explained" "scientifically" in the previous movie, returns to a more mystical identity again, allowing very open allegories to magic rather than anything else. Both Anakin and Dookoo, when they fly away on their gliders, look like witch masters riding their broomsticks. The little things like the ultimate bad guy being called Darth Sidious, the second being a Count Dookoo played by Christopher Lee - is it just me, or is that just a play on Count Dracula? - those things vary between nice but simplistic word games and something more disturbing. Why does the Tatooine slaver need to look like the ugliest possible Jewish stereotype, why do Jar Jar and the informant in the diner carry Coon attributes, why do the bad guys all look bad, why do the human-looking aliens seem to get better exposure, depth, and company than the bad muppets constituting the aliens? Unlike with most of Star Trek, the aliens and the alien worlds rather form an exotic element than being really part of the story and the mythology; they serve as background to an overblown power fantasy.
That brings me back to the Bond allegory. Why does the female assassin need to look like a Japanese warrior, reinforcing bad Asian stereotypes all over again, like the entire setting of the city does. The Exotic as a dangerous and unknown and dark and crowded place is immediately recognizable as something "Oriental", and not in a good way. The Tuscan raiders on Tatooine with their Kaftans, and described as being nothing more than animals, terrorizing the good and honest people with their neat Nordic/American names? What's that all about, do we really need to communicate that to little children? Lucas doesn't battle or question stereotypes, he reinforces them, revels in them and puts them to use and knights them with every single scene. The Colosseum scenes showing a mob of ugly beasts shouting for primitive entertainment is both a quote from Episode VI as well an allusion to gladiator films, yet there is no great depth, no greater meaning.
The entire film appears like an overdose of the Disneyland formula. Rarely does the picture rest, rarely does one setting suffice, everything has to move constantly from one overly dramatic place to another. Not even the countryside unfolding of the "love story" can be set in one constant frame, we need three different and quickly alternating aspects, the Italian lake, the meadow, the waterfall; it is as if the viewer must not be given a chance to rest their eyes, the momentum has to be reinforced over and over again, and if there is none, there has to be the allusion of momentum anyway. Cheap thrills and instant satisfaction and the instant exhaustion and discarding of each and every visual theme and motif lead to a baroque overdose of images with no sense of constancy. Maybe the tidal waves of more and even more images are supposed to obscure the lacking depth and dimension so typical for the newer installments of Star Wars. This is the middle part of the prequel trilogy, so it needs to establish certain story elements. Things need to be done and told, and they have to be told quickly, be it the destruction of the Republic or the love story between Anakin and Padmé, it doesn't matter: We need to arrive at a certain ending, we need to do it all, and as simply as possible. No need for depthy dialog, no need for giving the pace a break.
Yet still, things are not as bad as they might seem. This is miles away from the terrible Episode I, and despite the fluffy style and some disturbing use of ugly stereotypes, it partially succeeds in areas untypical for a Star Wars film. The asteroid field fight is such an example: The short silence between the blasts is odd and somehow disturbing, the Cloners' set and their appearances are magnificent, the overall story does actually make sense in the greater shape of things, and it is somehow sadistically pleasing to see that it is Jar Jar Binks who does the Chamberlain, he needn't even say "peace in our time". The choice of actors is great, and they work as an ensemble. The music, as both the topping and the essence of the entire saga, creates a unified whole and becomes a player in itself in how the musical motifs and themes are put to use.
So in the end, there remains a pretty solid effort and a movie that's strangely pleasing and - though not brilliant and in no way perfect - still pretty good.
Summary: Solid adventure with some fun
Often being called the best movie of all time, the original 'Star Wars' actually would count as the best of its series. The best movie ever, well, nowhere near. It has its appealing aspects and bears much more a striking contrast to other movies of its time. In this respect it can be called rather unique, and modern film has to thank 'Star Wars' a lot for inspiration and pushing the limits. I would call that secondary qualities.
Among the good, even extraordinarily good aspects of the film counts first of all its music. John Williams has written a score which were to change the musical landscape of movies very drastically - bringing back a romantic, pathos-filled style, a music which could easily stand on its own. The broad and powerful symphonic sound was soon to re-enter into most filmic genres, especially science fiction, which - thinking of the music for Planet of the Apes or Flash Gordon - had been moving into a rather cryptic or pop-art style. Even Jerry Goldsmith seemed to have adapted to this style, shifting from a modernist-simplistic to a more neo-romantic one. Although in the long run I would prefer Goldsmith over Williams, with his music to the 'Star Wars' series the latter has achieved an immense jump in quality and style, able to count among the greatest composers of the Twentieth Century. With 'Star Wars', film music has become more than just a mere sound-track. On the contrary, it helped tell the story, it helped making the story able to be told. It is no wonder the 'Star Wars'-fanfare had been identified with the movie ever since - being such a powerful and all-encompassing theme.
Apart from music, the film succeeded in a very unusual aspect: scope. Somewhere I've read that Lucas initially intended to make a 'Flash Gordon' movie, being denied the rights, he developed 'Star Wars'. If that should be the case, he'd clearly have made a terrific jump from slapstick-sf to serious entertainment: Even if story elements from 'Flash Gordon' were apparent (explaining some weird elements in the SW universe), Lucas' version - in all its sometimes very childish moments - surely is much more grown-up. Not only does he dare telling a story spawning generations and solar systems, he also tries to make it look somewhat believable. His use of special and visual effects comes near a re-invention of those elements. What for today's audience might already look a bit less-advanced actually constituted a revolution in cinema at its time. Lucas' ILM has succeeded in helping to push the limits further with the subsequent years.
Another aspect of 'Star Wars' is equally astonishing: Not only is it (claiming to be) a science fiction movie, a sort of unusual and disliked genre at its time while today there seems to be science fiction everywhere. With science fiction and fantasy, however, comes a growing awareness of the unexplained, adding another dimension to a rationalist, materialistic world-view. Actually, what Lucas has done is to have made a deeply religious fantasy movie with mysticistic elements. The Jedi are not a people but a religious cult - guardians against evil, crusaders. The force is a deeply religious concept here, there's nothing like the bullshit explanation given in 'The Phantom Menace'. In this tale about the forces of Good and Evil, the cause is clearly a cause of morality. There mightn't be the philosophic depth I would attribute to Star Trek, but that's something better done in a tv series than a movie altogether. Any comparison between the two "competitors" I consider pointless anyway, as well as the competion which has been constructed for quite some time is just against everything both phenomena would preach. I still cannot understand why some people seem to think that you cannot like both of them - I am not married to either of them, so why being monogamous here? The same childish scheme was reiterated again with B5 versus ST. But that's another story...
And now it's time for some criticism. Firstly, SW isn't science fiction but fantasy. Apart from the most necessary, there are no serious attempts made at explaining technology or science used in the film. There is no general tendency of precipitating future technology. The aliens are just some strange-looking puppets - all of this fitting rather with fantasy. I don't have a problem with that as soon as it isn't called science fiction. Secondly, I have a problem with heroificating monarchy here - this is fitting rather into a fairy tale. Thirdly, apart from Sir Alec Guinness and the ever-brilliant Harrison Ford, the acting is rather horrible. But this seems to fit into a more trashy atmosphere. Fourthly, why make a second version of the film? I've never understood that. Instead of concentrating on over-perfection concerning the first three movies, Lucas should have concentrated more on 'Episode One'.
With all that said, I guess I have sort of changed my attitude towards this film into a more positive one, even if some of my criticism still has shown up in this review. A nice, entertaining film with a little depth and a great deal of action, humor and irony.
Summary: Space adventure with an edge
There's something about sequels that most of them are believed to be worse than their original. From what I perceive, this is false in perhaps most occasions - as also in this one. Mostly such a judgement results rather from the misconception of expecting a recreation of the original. If the sequel then travels other roads than the predecessor, this needn't be a wrong decision. On the contrary: It can deepen the experience, explore the material further, even lead to a new interpretation of the original.
'The Empire Strikes Back' needs to be different than its predecessor, it has a different story to tell. It is at first the logical anticlimax to Episode IV, in that it cannot hope to top the action of the Death Star sequence. Thus it needs to do something different - it needs a new conflict. After the Empire being defeated, for such conflict to hold ground it needs a resurgence (ergo a striking back) of imperial forces. But to not to repeat just the previously told story, the aspect shifts to the more philosophical-religious side: The conflict within. The battle of Good versus Evil isn't won on the battlefield - it is won inside. It is at first a spiritual journey, and it is just this which is the road taken by this part.
Yet another aspect of the original is more deeply explored in this one: The perspective of being an inter-galactic road-movie. Various places need to be traveled to, various steps need to be taken. All of this is - again - being underlined with the beautiful music of John Williams, only that he is now even better than before. The "Imperial March" is the key piece, a brilliant cue which is the antagonist of the Star Wars theme from part one, the antagonist still missing there. Equally inspired is "The Asteroid Field", but best of all tracks of the score seems to be "The Battle in the Snow". The difference in mood and location is mirrored by the music, as it should be the case in every good film. The score for Episode V is more complex now, adding further layers to the story.
The Yoda sequences and Luke battling his mind are already foreshadowing the solution of the conflict - here lies the center of the story, without this part being told, there would be no story. Equally interesting is the still unclear relationship between Luke, Leia and Han Solo - a competition between Han and Luke seemingly apparent. The most crucial news, however, is the revelation of Darth Vader being Luke's father - with this, everything gets really personal. Also, Vader seems to have a will of his own - contrary to the emperor's. All of this is already the groundwork for Episode VI.
The cliffhanger which is created by the end, by frosting Han, revealing Vader=Skywalker and by seemingly everything supporting the Rebels breaking apart, clearly makes this film the middle child, a something in-between, in need of explanation at both ends. This always makes it difficult for a part of a series, also in this case. However, this entry into the series up to now seems to be the best one.
Summary: Unimaginative, draws from Ep. IV
Every story has to come to an end - after the immense buildup of Episode V, something needed to be done, some loose ends to be tied up, a war to be won, Han Solo to be freed, father and son united or fighting, an evil empire to be brought down. Luke had to mature as a Jedi Knight, and the Leia-Luke-Han-triangle had to be solved. Everything needed to be done, everything was. Just that.
There needs to be no more praise for music, that has already been done before, for the special effects neither. The story was solid, some strange creatures like Jabba returned, there were some lightsaber fights and another Death Star. The quasi-repetition of the destruction of another Death Star I wouldn't see as a negative point, in fact, it makes perfect sense - the trilogy concludes where it started. The Death Star was the technological super-weapon then, it had to be it now.
The Ewoks are nice little guys providing for a nice anti-climax. And it is almost cute to see these teddy bears defeat the evil army. Just not believable, and a bit too cute. But that's Lucas' universe, I guess I don't have to understand this. The forest battle reminds me of the ice battle, this is an unnecessary variation. The Death Star is OK, and it makes sense. But this is just a demonstration of fighting machines. We want a space fight, not forest warfare (another flaw of Episode One where there is nothing like a space fight worth mentioning). The Ewoks make this more childish than the previous parts, although they are nowhere as annoying as Jar Jar. Perhaps they were intended to spawn the Ewoks movies (which I haven't seen yet, so I cannot comment on them).
There could have been so much more in this movie - although it comes pretty close to greatness. It just doesn't match the previous ones. The music is a bit brighter, the whole atmosphere is in fact more cheering, that's fitting into the story very well. But it just isn't enough. This is not the climax of a trilogy, it is rather the necessary conclusion. A happy ending - but with no great surprises. Everything important had already been said in the previous part. So it's a rather disappointing one to watch, I guess expectations were raised too much by its predecessor.
Anyway, 'Jedi' is still a great movie - nothing in it could have prepared me for the absolute disaster which Episode One turned out to be. This is solid work, and that's the problem: too solid, too predictable. A little twist now and then could have been better. With his Young Indiana Jones Chronicles Lucas proved he could do something much greater - the more mysterious it seems that he could do some things in such an ordinary and uninspired way. I just hope the next pre- and sequels to be less disappointing ...