Wednesday, 9 December 2015
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars, thanks to some canny salesmanship by George Lucas, quickly became the poster boy for a deluge of blockbuster movies patterned after Joseph Campbell's studies into the monomyth. Although the Luke Skywalker we see in Star Wars isn't a particularly interesting character, he does, per Campbell's instruction, depart from the safety of home and experience profound change in his life. This personal and spiritual growth is something that he himself chooses. We watch Luke face challenges big and small, building a repertoire of skills that could conceivably take him to the point where he is able to deadeye a pinhole vent on the Death Star.
In 1977 George Lucas understood how to build a relationship between a character and his audience. Luke is a dreamer who transforms his aspirations into action. He also displays a certain nobility of character, one that allows him to hold steadfast while the world around him becomes insane. We watch him become a man basically. One of the many reasons why Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace doesn't work is that it doesn't have a character we can completely track this kind of growth with. Anakin Skywalker, although crowbarred into this role, cannot fill it. We find him as a complete person, despite his lack of years.
Once discovered by the Jedi order, Anakin is subjected to tests that instantly confirm him as special. This point is hammered home by an exchange between Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin's mother Shmi that explicitly organises the child as an intergalactic anointed one. We don't watch Anakin becoming something more, he's already an expert blessed with supernatural Soap Box Derby skills. David Lynch's adaptation of Dune took a similar approach with another Man-God rising out of boring political turmoil, but that film at least had the sense to lose its messiah in escalating, identity-shredding violence.
Dramatically, The Phantom Menace is a series of dead ends. Anakin's brush with war is about as damaging as a roller-coaster ride and, despite Pernilla August's nervous, beleaguered performance as Shmi, neither is there any great mystery lying at the heart of her son's conception. Given the hesitant chemistry between Liam Neeson and August it's a shame that Qui-Gon Jinn isn't some sinner Jedi seeking amends by rescuing his enslaved, illegitimate child. Unfortunately, Anakin Skywalker really was just willed into being by The Force. It's a purely mechanical development that robs everyone around it of any possible agency. That's The Phantom Menace in a nutshell. A strange, passionless film that reads more like an information dump than an organically told tale.