Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ★★★★★

beautiful movie. sometimes i think it’s my favorite one. a perfect echo of star wars, consistently calling back to and rhyming with that film as it pushes what this saga can do and be into the stratosphere. even here, where he’s still very restrained by the tech, the visual mastery and formal innovation on display from moment one is stunning. lucas seems to double down on his classicism - all clean, controlled, static compositions - but his style finds new life in the possibilities presented by digital technology. the kind of intricate, layered tableau the original trilogy only manages to hint at, mostly in the special edition space sequences, becomes the basis for the entire picture; what was once rigid and staid has become painterly, elegant, and subtly expressive. the 1999-era effects are ofc still primitive, and i’m not going to say they’re always seamless, but my god is it easy to get lost in these images, to the point that their creakiness starts to fade away entirely. qui-gon and obi-wan swimming down to the underwater gungan city, the wide high angles of naboo’s decadent palatial estates, the unending urban sprawl of coruscant backlit by a blood orange sunset — these shots are truly gorgeous and make for some of the most indelible imagery in the series, for me at least. every new location is expansive and wondrous and teeming with life; the world feels limitless and infinite in a way it never has before. even planets we’ve already seen are made exciting and new again: tatooine is arguably where the movie is at its best and freshest. i was struck by how tightly structured and paced this film is. as in star wars, lucas drops you right into the action with zero exposition (outside of the opening crawl ofc; what a wonderful device that is!), and basically doesn’t take his foot off the gas until the jedi land on the desert planet with a disguised padme in tow. so much of the film is made up of set pieces - it’s basically an uninterrupted stream of them presented as narrative - but he’s acutely aware of when he needs to slow down and sit in something for a bit, as he does on tatooine to paint a portrait of young anakin’s miserable existence. it really was a wild choice to center this trilogy around vader in his adolescence, and even wilder is how quickly you’re won over by him! this is essentially baby hitler we’re dealing with here and you’re instantly on his side. not only that, baby hitler is presented as a divine, explicitly christ-like figure! insane! qui-gon telling them they aren’t here to free slaves is a blow because you want this kid to get out of here and fulfill his destiny, even as you know what darkness and destruction that destiny entails. also bold of lucas to make the jedi such callous, rigid pricks. when you’re a kid, they just read as badass magical swordsman, but watching it now, these aren’t very likable characters. qui-gon is supposedly this free-spirited renegade who isn’t afraid to act out against the council if he feels it necessary, and he’s still kind of an aloof, pompous asshole — his constant chiding of obi-wan for displaying any emotion really stood out on this viewing, as did the blatant self-interest in his freeing of anakin. it’s still pretty subtle here, but you can see lucas establishing that the forthcoming destruction of the jedi was as much their own doing as it was the result of some malevolent external force. so many of these choices are not at all obvious, and actually quite radical, for what was, at the time, the most hyped piece of mass entertainment ever made. jake lloyd took an inordinate amount of shit for this movie, but he’s actually very effective here imo, especially in the pod race; his reaction shots are all so real and endearing. as far as i can tell, this is the one sequence everyone, even the haters, generally agrees is pretty rad. and for good reason: it is some of the most thrilling and kinetic filmmaking you’ll find in the entirety of american cinema. this is where you really see how digital technology has unleashed lucas as a filmmaker. speed, momentum, machines moving through space — these are career long fascinations for lucas, going back to his earliest student films, and this is by far his most successful and entertaining formal expression/study of those fascinations in his entire body of work. it’s far from a purely digital set piece tho, the shots of anakin fiddling with the knobs and switches in the pod’s cockpit are essential to the suspense and tension of the scene, as well as establishing anakin as this preternaturally talented little kid, and they’re entirely physical. plenty of shots in this movie are either entirely or primarily physical, actually; it almost feels like lucas easing the audience into the digital experimentation to come in the next two movies. even the most cgi-laden shots are imbued with filmic texture by the 35mm photography, in a way that is sometimes dissonant but not unpleasant imo. ben burtt’s sound design is worth noting here too, ofc — the roar of engines made alien and exotic. his work is so essential to any of these movies working at all, and this sequence might just be his finest hour yet. there is a sort of danger in placing such a show stopping set piece right in the middle of a movie like this; how does one go about topping one of the most bravura action sequences ever filmed? you run the risk of deflating the audience or perhaps setting their expectations higher than they ought to be — and yet the movie doesn’t miss a beat! right after anakin’s tearful goodbye with his mother (a genuinely emotional and touching scene; i’m always somewhat surprised when the prequels are criticized for their lack of humanity), he gives us our first glimpse of darth maul in action. in terms of design instantly communicating everything you need to know about a character, maul is lucas’ most successful creation since vader himself; he might even surpass that incredibly high bar. once again, lucas is one of the best ever at world and character building through images alone. ray park’s savage physicality does the design’s menace justice, and makes for the most exciting, and legit scary, lightsaber battles in the series so far. simultaneously brutal and balletic. there are a couple great lightsaber fights in the original trilogy, but they’re more interesting on a narrative level than anything, whereas these find their appeal in intricate, expressive, dancelike choreography, and framing that serves the choreography by keeping the movement of these bodies in full view for the audience. qui-gon and maul’s duel on tatooine is mere taste of what’s to come and it’s still an unforgettable sequence. people like to make fun of this movie for being a children’s film about trade policy or whatever, and tbh i get where those criticisms are coming from, but when you’re a kid, the specifics of what they’re talking about in the politicking scenes just kind of roll off of you. you get the broad strokes of what’s happening, lucas’ narrative instincts are so primal that the beats come across even if you’re too young/stupid to fully grasp the particulars, but those scenes can also work in a purely imagistic capacity, if you need them to. the exotic spaces, and the equally exotic creatures occupying those spaces, are enough to hold a child’s interest even if they’re completely checked out on what’s being said. they were for me, anyway. the senate and jedi council stuff on coruscant was never boring to me as a kid, and they still aren’t. and again, this is a perfectly paced movie so nothing hangs around longer than it needs to. the three pronged finale he launches into shortly after that was, at the time (and maybe still), a new high watermark for lucas as a purveyor of spectacle. a much more successful version of return of the jedi’s climax. the obi-wan/qui-gon/maul fight is ofc the highlight (pretty much the best shit ever tbh) but anakin’s destruction of the trade federation was more interesting to me this time around than on previous viewings for how it mirrors luke’s destruction of the death star without simply rehashing that legendary sequence. and the ground war on naboo has plenty going for it as well (the gungans are funny and good!). the way it splits itself off into these three distinct set pieces, and then cross-cuts between them as tho they were one cohesive piece of propulsive action, is seamless and masterful. it’s baffling to me that the reaction to this film was so violently negative given what a high it leaves you on at the close. the things people seem to have been caught up on - jar jar, midi-chlorians, the aforementioned emphasis on politicking, etc. - aren’t anywhere near as detrimental as they were made out to be at the time, or now. these complaints just seem stupid and pedantic to me. (i don’t feel qualified to comment on this movie’s supposed racism, but i’ll assume those accusations are valid.) if i have a problem with the film it’s that some of the performances are a little incongruous. i actually don’t mind portman’s flat, affectless delivery - she may as well be a bressonian model for how little she’s emoting - but it doesn’t quite work with the performance styles of anyone else in the cast. that doesn’t do much if anything to hamper my enjoyment of the movie on the whole, tho. i mean, if you want to sit there and pick this apart you can definitely do that, it’s far from perfect and there’s plenty to laugh at if you’re so inclined...but thats true of every single star wars movie! they’re all stupid and clunky in their own ways, and this one isn’t any more so than the previous three. that’s part of their magic! lotta joyless people who hate art and good cinema out there, ig...i’ve talked myself into it: this is a five bagger, a straight up masterpiece, one of the best blockbusters of my lifetime. few movies mean more to me than this one does

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