Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)

Why this old piece? This is how I see it--if Lucas sees fit to recycle his works, I should be able to recycle my old article about this piece of garbage.  

So without further ado--

The world according to Lucas
The Phantom Menace has performed its relentless marketing blitz on the world, and lo and behold, it has reaped the whirlwind. Time Magazine called it "The Phantom Movie;" Newsweek was equally unenthusiastic. Salon Magazine (possibly the biggest of the web magazines), says Star Wars fans deserve better; Film Threat's Chris Gore and Ron Wells both give it only one or two stars; David Ehrenstein writes: "How does it suck? Let me count the ways…." Magisterial film critic Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic had this to say: "I still haven't seen an SF film as good as the best science fiction that I've read."

It would be tempting to go against the critics; they have too much stuffed up their alimentary canals, and I think it needs clearing. Kauffmann, for one, cites Isaac Asimov, C.M. Kornbluth, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Frederick Pohl as some of that "science fiction that I've read." Pohl and Kornbluth are fine choices, sure; Bradbury, perhaps, (though nowadays he reads like an adolescent boy pumped full of estrogen), Clarke is stretching it, but Asimov? Kauffmann is caught in a time warp; for him it's still the sixties, science fiction means John Campbell of "Astounding" stories, and Michelangelo Antonioni is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. 

It would be tempting to go against the critics--but I've seen the film and am forced to concur: The Phantom Menace is a mess. The film when not showcasing some chase scene or the other meanders here and there; the characters--even the human ones--feel computer-generated. Nothing involves you in this picture, not even the special effects: when you see the computer-generated backgrounds of great forests and underwater cities and floating buildings, it doesn't give you the tingle of awe you get from, say, the first shot of Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It lacks the charge of a visionary filmmaker.

What could you expect from Lucas, who famously hasn't directed a film for over twenty years? He may have taken his time like Terence Malick, but Malick has since come up with The Thin Red Line--a film that looks like nothing ever made, and probably ever will (for a few years, anyway). The way Phantom Menace looks--in a word, expensive--by the end of next year at least five other films with equally large budgets will occupy the public's memory. 

That Lucas is an overrated director shouldn't have to be stated out loud--it's embarrassingly obvious. THX1138 has good visuals, but a banal story; American Graffiti may be his most heartwarming, but is basically his autobiography (cinematographer Haskell Wexler gives the film its welcoming, neon-warm colors). Star Wars was the product of Marcia Lucas' (the former Mrs.) brilliant editing and John Williams swooningly romantic score. And yes, it did have a well-shaped story by Lucas--lifted from Akira Kurosawa. Empire Strikes Back is probably the single best work he's ever done, but that was written by Leigh Brackett, a veteran scriptwriter, and directed by Irving Kershner, a master filmmaker. Don't get me started about Return of the Jedi--no one I know likes those ridiculous Ewoks. 

The story--about trade embargos and wars waged by robots ('Droids, they call them)--is complicated, but not impossible to follow: Empire Strikes Back had an even more misshapen story structure, and a dangling, second-act finish to boot; it's how the story is developed. Lucas totally misjudges his characters: Jar-Jar Binks is incomprehensible and irritating (judging from public reaction, he's about as popular as the Ewoks). Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) poses and preens as queen, when she's not acting the token female sidekick handmaiden (translation: totally useless). She does come up with some useful strategies towards the end, giving them the viceroy and the game--which only begs another question: what's the purpose of Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, hotdogging around in a fighter and destroying the Droid ship then? More bang for the bucks, of course.

The film might have worked, given a good actor playing the soon-to-be Star Wars villain. But Jake Lloyd as Anakin (he's called "Ani," which makes you wonder if that particular trauma was what triggered him to go over to the Dark Side) is your standard Hollywood cute kid. There's nothing dark to this tow-headed tyke, no texture to him, no anger; you can't see him growing up to become a member of Melrose Place," much less a future Sith Lord. He's called a "slave" but slavery for this kid consists of tinkering with robots and rocket engines--which is what he wants in the first place (maybe if his slavemaster--a bulbous-nosed alien cockroach--looked at him with covetous eyes…but I forget, in the Star Wars universe, human sexuality doesn't exist). He risks his life in "pod racing"--a lift from William Wyler's chariot race in Ben Hur"--and his mother lets him, just like that. 

It's as if Lucas has a story all right--he just keeps forgetting about those damned inconvenient humans. The cast and crew of Star Wars complained about Lucas' ineptness with actors; Lucas himself has admitted he wants to digitize everything, from the backgrounds to the special effects, to specific creatures--and by implication, though he's careful not to say it out loud, to the human actors as well. The man's in a world of his own, playing with chess pieces of his own imagining, and he wants it to remain that way.

True, millions of people want to follow him into that world; it's a tribute, I think, to the simple power of Star Wars, the evocative mythmaking of Empire, and the millions (maybe billions) of dollars spent on marketing money and merchandise tie-ins. Never mind that almost half the ideas in that world were filched elsewhere--from Joseph Campbell to Flash Gordon to, again, Kurosawa (Queen Amidala posing as handmaiden to "learn about the world" was basically purloined from The Hidden Fortress). Lucas plays his pipes, and all the lemmings--I mean, children--must follow him into the drink.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story called "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." It's about an imaginary world called Tlon, found in the pages of an encyclopedia. Soon, references to it pop up everywhere, where none existed before; objects from its culture are found, and ruins from its civilization are dug up. An entire set of its encyclopedia is uncovered, detailing its society, arts, fiction, philosophies. 

Everyone starts dropping his own pursuit, and entering into the study of this created universe; obsession with all things Tlon becomes rampant. The all-too-short story ends with the chilling words: "The world will be Tlon." On reflection that might have been a preferable fate: I would have liked to have lived in a world created by hundreds of artists, scientists, philosophers (and behind them all, the overarching genius of Borges). Lucas, with his simple (and square)-minded vision and  marketing millions, is all set to do the same thing to this world--and do it sooner than you think.

First published in Businessworld, approximately June 1999 


Anonymous said...

You have no knowledge of the work of Stanley Kauffmann, since you cannot even spell his name correctly. Kauffmann, asked long ago, why he did not care for the mindless, empty-headed movies now being released and praised by critics with uncultured minds, He replied that he had simply grown up. But that there always had been and always would be a coterie of boys who never grow up and watch junk and then try pitifully to come up with an aesthetic for it. Have you considered watching a movie made for grown ups instead of young boys.

Noel Vera said...

I try when I can; can't always; it's called a job.

Have you tried not being a casual douchebag?

Thanks for the spelling correction!