R012 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

(2001, SciFi, color)


Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

Um, Yoda? Load of crap, biggest ever heard, have I, this is.

Rating: **1/2

In a nutshell:

A little boy and a clown princess become embroiled in staid interplanetary politics.


Place this image upon the altar of dashed hopes.A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an undefined trade dispute resulted in the only marginally legal blockade of a small planet with an infantile name...etc., etc., etc...a pair of Jedi have been sent by the Galactic Republic to force a settlement...blah, blah, blah...vacuum cleaner robots with blaster rifles are lightsabered in half during their unexplained escape from a gas-filled foyer...rapeta, rapeta...

Look, do I really have to spell this out for you? Because the movie doesn’t. Oh sure, they stop the action and talk about it for interminable periods of time, but not much is actually explained. If you don’t already know about Jedi, lightsabers, the Force, the Republic, etc...well, then you’re probably from Central Africa, Rural China, Eastern Europe, or someplace else where you have bigger things to worry about than the juvenile fantasies of a wealthy Northern Californian. And this is just as well, because if you do happen to see it (and figure out what’s going on) you’ll be appalled by the way this film stereotypes and/or demonizes your ethnicity.

If you are a member of the movie’s target demographic (i.e., anyone who ever saw and loved the original trilogy, or, most of the population of the Western World) you will be appalled by the things they do explain.

Wanna know how Emperor Palpatine came to power? No, he doesn’t overcome the Republic’s pitiful defenses with the power of the Dark Side. He forms a Senate Sub-Committee and courts powerful lobbyists while occasionally donning a hoodie to lisp at the villainous “Chinese Monkey-Lizards” (Mike’s description) as they engage in the aforementioned trade dispute with the ridiculously overdressed Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).

The best scene in the movie...which went on too long and started sucking.Wanna know how Anakin Skywalker (an embarrassingly bad Jake Lloyd) became Darth Vader? No, he’s not “seduced by the Dark Side” (as Sir Alec Guinness puts it in an earlier and vastly superior film). Instead there’s some gibberish about a prophecy and a virgin birth, as well as some undefined built-in violations of the nonsensical Jedi Code. The upshot of this is that everyone acts as if they’ve explained Anakin’s later journey to the Dark Side, when, in fact, nothing has been explained at all. Of course, future prequels will reveal that he’s always been a whiny, petulant little creep with homicidal tendencies, completely devoid of redeeming features, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Wanna know exactly how the Force works? “Wise” Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) explains it in detail. When he’s finished, you’ll wish that he hadn’t. Indeed, if you are a die-hard fan you will probably wish you knew someone capable of an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type operation to remove the information from your brain. In fact, while they’re in there, you should probably have them remove any indication that you ever saw this movie at all. Of course the prequel we desperately wanted would have been better, but that’s true of anything this highly anticipated. The sad thing is, in my darkest nightmares, my imaginary worst case scenario was not this bad.


Darth Evil, from Planet Bad Guy.I was reading Roger Ebert today (as I often do—not just because I want know about movies, but because I like the way he puts words together), and he had this to say:

“Just because CGI makes such endless sequences possible doesn't make them necessary. They should be choreographed to reflect a strategy and not simply reflect shapeless, random violence.”

He was writing about the most recent Transformers movie, but as pixels continue to get cheaper and more realistic, and as audiences become more inured to them, this mistake has become increasingly common. I haven’t seen Transformers, and it’s possible that I never will (update: I have now), but in my mind, nothing epitomizes the above more than the Star Wars prequels. I didn’t write anything about the action in the summary because none of it seemed all that important, and I’m not going to summarize it now because I just quoted Mr. Ebert, and I can’t think of a better description than “shapeless, random violence.”

The good news is that Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson rip into this film with gleeful abandon. Rifftrax has always been mean—it’s in their mission statement, I think—but there’s always been a “just kidding” element and an occasional grudging acknowledgement for the things the filmmakers got right. Not for this film. This commentary is a vicious attack on the movie, its auteur, and whatever it is they stand for. (And deservedly so. Everything about this movie screams “Cynical Merchandise Grab.” If George Lucas cares at all about the fans that made him rich, it certainly doesn’t show.) When Amidala uses her “royal monotone” to say that she will plead her case before the senate, Mike adds, “Flatly, lifelessly, killing scene after stupefying scene.” After the first few embarrassing minutes of Jake Lloyd, Mike muses, “Maybe the kid is being run by Frank Oz.” After some really odd alien hollering marks the end of the Pod Race, Kevin says, “George Lucas is a four-year-old, right? That’s the only possible explanation for everything we’ve just seen.” Their pain is hilariously cathartic, lifting the viewing experience well above the source material. My only complaint: with every scene in the source material far, far longer than it needs to be, the movie will wear you down at least forty-five minutes before the end. If you watch it in one or half-hour chunks, though, it’s wonderful.