WHAT'S WRONG WITH 'EPISODE ONE'?

 

Copyright 1999, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)

 

When I was a kid, I adored the film "Godzilla." It had a fabulous, hulking dinosaur that towered over everything, stomped on a big city, made fabulous, scary noises, and glowed in the dark. This was stuff a kid could get behind! When a local TV station broadcast the movie twice daily for a week, I hunkered down with some candy bars, flicked on the set, and gorged myself on cheap, loud entertainment. I must have seen that film twenty times.

My other favorite was "The Wizard of Oz." I viewed it loyally, sometimes on a friend's color set, sometimes in black and white - I didn't much care, as long as I could terrify myself with the tornado - and would have watched it a zillion times had the network seen fit to show it more than once a year. As it is, I've probably seen it more than a dozen times.

In my teens I formed a huge, painful crush on Katherine Ross, so I watched "The Graduate" seven or eight times.

Then along came "Star Wars." Months before it premiered, I knew something was up. I've completely forgotten the film I saw that evening, but the preview for "Star Wars" filled me with giddy anticipation. The day after "Star Wars" opened - before the real buzz hit, mind you - I and a couple of friends bought tickets and found seats in the crowded theatre, and of course we were stunned, overwhelmed, laughing, applauding and stomping our feet, along with everyone around us. If you'd taken a photo it would have shown our hair blowing straight back from the blast of sheer excitement roaring off the screen.

"Star Wars" reinvented the action-adventure genre, with hyperkinetic, non-stop thrills and jokey, corny characters who bickered their way across a "used future" crammed with surprising and delightful creatures, spaceships and planets. What thrilled me most, though, was how the film took all the sci-fi books I'd read in childhood and splashed their most wondrous, romantic memories onto the screen. Here was the spaceship I'd imagined while reading Heinlein! Here was the magic, alien planet I'd dreamed of in a book by Bradbury! Here was a galactic battle royale between good and evil I'd envisioned while flipping feverishly through an epic by Asimov.

I saw "Star Wars" five times in the first week, and over the years I've probably seen it twenty times. (I would bring friends, and as the opening fanfare began I'd turn to them and say, "Fasten your seatbelt!") The sequels, though not quite as electric, were similar marvels. So completely entranced was the little boy in me that the magic would rekindle with each new film. I viewed the sequels a half-dozen times apiece.



Now writer-director George Lucas has released a "prequel," "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." I've seen it, and for the first time my enthusiasm faltered. Try as I might, I just couldn't fall in love with "Episode I." The effects were dazzling, the worlds were breathtaking, the bad guys were properly evil, the action scenes were exciting, and the story was engaging. What happened? Have I grown too old for the magic?

No. This film is missing a vital element from the previous films. It's an element that any movie - or any story - must have, else the sparks of wonder, awe and love will not ignite. Unlike the first "Star Wars" films, the characters don't really engage each other. And so they don't truly come alive.

There's nothing wrong per se with Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn. He's heroic and masterful. There's nothing really amiss with his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi. He's dutiful and talented. (Ewan McGregor even captures Alec Guinness' lilting speech pattern, cleverly connecting the two actors' versions of Obi-Wan.) Queen Amidala is beautiful, idealistic, dignified and compassionate, though a bit wooden. Darth Maul is delightfully bad, a sort of biker-Jedi who - near the film's finale - swings his light saber back and forth, scraping the floor with it, sparks flying, in a victory dance. Cool.

So what's wrong? There's little rapport between the characters. The Jedis talk stiffly among themselves, as if speechifying. The heroes work hard together, but there's not much warmth between them. And there's a distinct lack of the humor that pumped up the first films. In the originals, Han Solo was funny, Princess Leia was funny, Chewbakka was funny, C-3PO was funny, R2-D2 was funny. In "Episode I," the only humorous character is a bumbler named Jar-Jar Binks, who appeals mainly to small children. Where's the laughter for the rest of us? Where are all those off-the-wall, corny lines of old like:

--"Will somebody get this walking CARPET out of my way?!"

--"Do ya think a princess and a guy like me could...?"

--"What a wonderful SMELL you've discovered!"

--"Chewy, get us out of here!"

--"I love you!" . . . "I know."

In "Episode I," all we get are: "Meesa called Ja-Ja Binks!" or: "Ooh, da Force is maxi big!"

Zzzzzzzzzz.

I was troubled by my disappointment with "Episode I," so I went back a couple of weeks later and viewed it again. (Okay, stop laughing.) This time my expectations were lower, and this time I enjoyed the film more. Not enough to fall in love, mind you, but things got better.

Now I could see the depth of Lucas' vision. The various worlds had richness and magic, hallmarks of his creative eye. Once again I could see how good he is at telling stories through action. The pod-racer sequence is the best passage in the film, with its over-the-top, screaming vehicles like space-age roadsters caught up in Ben Hur's chariot race. (If there's any justice in the world, "Episode I" owns the sound-effects Oscar for the howling, grinding, thumping engines as they hurtle through the echoey canyons of Tatooine.) The climactic light-saber battle between Jedis and Sith - they thrust and parry inside a cathedral-like power station while composer John Williams' choral music soars overhead - is as glorious and exciting as anything Lucas has done.

Beyond the action, there is the mythical wonder of Naboo, a lush and Italianate Eden sullied by politics. The queen, resplendant in her vestments, glaring dourly at her enemies, evokes the romance of an heroic cause.

I won't see "Episode I" twenty times. It simply didn't capture me the way the first film did. But - like Anakin struggling to reignite his pod-racer's engines - I worked hard to cross-connect my memories of the old films with my experience of "Episode I," and I did manage to enjoy it after all. Despite my complaints, it was very much an adventure in the "Star Wars" mold. I wish Lucas well with the next installment.

No doubt I'll see "Episode II" the moment it comes out... the Force willing.



 

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