Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Star Wars: The Clone Wars prequel prologue - The Phantom Menace

Monday, April 16, 2018

Star Wars: The Clone Wars prequel prologue - The Phantom Menace


This is an entry in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, covering both versions of the animated show alongside the prequel films.

As I prepare my Clone Wars viewing diary, it occurred to me that I should probably include entries on the Star Wars prequels. After all, they are essentially part of the same story, and I did review the Evangelion films as part of my series on that show. I happened to be rewatching these films anyway - for the first time in a half a decade - so why not take a little time to write about my reactions in the context of the series? Of course there are a couple problems with this. One is that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones take place before the events of the show, and therefore should properly be written about before I see the series. Perhaps more importantly, the films were made without any knowledge of either version of the show (Revenge of the Sith did come out after the first, short-lived Clone Wars series began, but before the later, longer show was born). So to a certain extent I'll be flying blind here, in terms of comparing the film to the series, as were the filmmakers themselves.

Before delving into the aspects of the film which I expect to tie into The Clone Wars, I have some thoughts on the movie as its own thing. I think The Phantom Menace is probably the most despised of the prequels. Because there was no backlash anticipated, Lucas plunged headfirst into all the elements of the trilogy that old-school fans would detest: the plodding politics (taxation of trade routes!), the overexplanatory science (the dreaded midichlorians), and above all the juvenile, grating humor epitomized best (no pun intended) or worst by Jar Jar Binks. When I revisited the prequels in 2010, after their initially mixed-to-positive impression had dissolved into retrospective disappointment, I warmed up a bit to Attack of the Clones (at least the first half) and Revenge of the Sith. But I remained deeply unimpressed by The Phantom Menace, calling it "my least favorite Star Wars film." Even a decade after it was released (during which I don't think I'd ever watched it on video) this reaction may have been partly due to burnout. You see - and I cringe to admit this...when I was fifteen I saw The Phantom Menace eleven times in the theater. Eleven times.

I saw it several times the first weekend alone (I didn't get tickets to the midnight screening but made it to a sold-out evening show on opening day), convinced any friends who hadn't seen it to accompany me for return visits, and made a point of checking it out at all the different theaters where it was playing locally. I remember one afternoon in late summer, when the film was still lingering at the cinema, I randomly decided to get on my bike (I was too young for a driver's license) and ride six miles to the theater for my God-knows-what-th matinee screening. By autumn, it had easily surpassed the previous record-holders, a tie between Jurassic Park and Independence Day with five viewings each. Several factors were in play. I did genuinely enjoy the film as a rousing adventure, thrilling to its spectacle and old-fashioned swashbuckling grandeur. I had also been a die-hard Star Wars fan several years earlier, subscribing to the Star Wars Insider and voraciously reading the various spin-off novels and while that phase of fandom had passed its residue was still pretty fresh. I also fell hard for Natalie Portman, two years my senior, during the press buildup to the film (or maybe even earlier when I cottoned to another maligned sci-fi film, Mars Attacks!).

Above all, I may have been trying to prove something to myself, something that eventualy wore me out and made me disinclined to revisit the film on video. I wanted to establish that this really was a Star Wars movie after all, that it fit in like a missing puzzle piece with the existing films despite the obvious difference in technology (both on and offscreen) and the rather different direction and screenwriting. By the second and third prequels I couldn't maintain this illusion anymore. If something felt slightly "off" about The Phantom Menace - if it didn't quite seem to capture the daydream magic of the original trilogy due to cartoonish CGI and an obsession with intergalactic civics - it was nonetheless photographed on rich, warm celluloid, maintained the presence of actual sets and locations, and conveyed an optimistic, gung-ho attitude that reflected the classic films (well, Return of the Jedi and especially Star Wars, at least). The digital, heavily composited, and increasingly dark prequels, on the other hand, seemed to emerge from a different sensibility altogether and by the time I saw Revenge of the Sith I had given up on any attempts to convince myself that prequels and originals were all part of one big saga.

In a way, though, that's why I'm here now. As I take on The Clone Wars I will be more interested in what the second generation of Star Wars has to say for itself on its own terms (even as it too passes into history with the ascension of the Disney franchise). As such, I enjoyed The Phantom Menace more this time than I did five years ago. It still feels too long, with the extended climax mostly a tedious attempt to outdo the previous films' cross-cutting despite having too little at stake. The kid-friendly comedy is corny as hell, but it is what it is; unlike the two later films, The Phantom Menace does not have any grand ambition - it confidently tells exactly the story it wants to tell (however much fans didn't want to hear it). We all seem to have collective amnesia about the prequels, recalling an instant backlash when instead the collective sense of disappointment took much longer to build: at least several months, maybe even several years. Jar Jar was pretty unpopular from the start, but for the most part the film was accepted as grand, crowdpleasing entertainment, with the bulk of praise devoted to Lucas' unveiling of new worlds, creatures, and spacecraft (not a big priority of fans or creators with the sequel trilogy). And indeed much of this world-building holds up, almost always in concept and frequently in execution (though Lucas' passion for digital effects seems to have gotten ahead of their actual ability in many instances).

Here's where we can finally get back to the TV show(s). Going in, I know a few a things. Darth Maul will (somehow) return to life in The Clone Wars. The primary focus will be on the Jedi, with Obi-Wan and Anakin as leads and Padme/Amidala mostly or completely offscreen (the main character will be Anakin's pupil Ahsoka, who seems to be a huge fan favorite). Given how directly the events of the show lead from Attack of the Clones, I'm not yet sure what role The Phantom Menace will play in its mythology. Even among the prequels, Episode I is something of an anachronism: its political stakes are deceptively small-scale, paving the way for the huge events of later films by focusing on a rather petty trade dispute. In a way this might actually set the template for the series since the film is essentially a minor episodic chapter in a much larger saga. This is the closest any Star Wars film comes to feeling like "an adventure set within the Star Wars universe" rather than an absolutely crucial juncture in the larger narrative of the Fall of the Republic and the Tragedy and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker. I assume, to a certain extent, The Clone Wars will also have this sense of "here's an absorbing mission to carry us through this episode" (or arc - I hear that the episodes tend to group together) without feeling it has to deliver some momentous event.

My favorite thing about The Phantom Menace - and the thing I most eagerly anticipate about the animated series - is its ability to establish a teeming, bustling universe with something going on in every corner. Naboo, Coruscant, even good old Tatooine are at once self-contained and connected to a greater whole and Lucas' excitement with this boundless exploration is palpable. However, I do also miss the first trilogy's down-to-earth perspective. By focusing on the marginal outskirts of the Empire, lovingly documenting the most mundane earthy details, the original Star Wars films actually made the galaxy seem much more vast, beyond our grasp. The prequels achieve an eclectic, omniscient view even as they lose that initial intimacy. I look forward to seeing what The Clone Wars does with the possibilities opened up by The Phantom Menace and discovering if perhaps if it can capture both poles of Star Wars.

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