Thursday, November 6, 2014

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

In May 1983, The Return of Jedi came out in theaters, just 3 years after my favorite movie, The Empire Strikes Back.  It was the weakest of all 6 Star Wars movies, but still a satisfying finish to the original trilogy.  After years of not knowing if a reluctant George Lucas was going to make any more Star Wars movies, it was announced that a prequel trilogy would be made.  Sixteen years after the previous film, the movie going public went crazy in anticipation, forming lines going around the block twice just to buy tickets.

Watching the film for the first time, I expected the audience to go nuts when the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far way ..." appeared on the screen, and they did, but then they quickly settled down to take in what was happening on the screen.  What I initially saw didn't reassure me that this was going to be a great movie.  The film starts out talking about taxes on trade, trade blockades, and negotiations.  This wasn't exactly what I expected from a Star Wars movie, but every Star Wars film has been a little different from the others.  The first space ship on screen looked a little goofy to me, as did the first aliens, which made me uneasy because I  wasn't sure what direction the movie was going.  The next thing to bother me was that the two Jedi Knights get into an intense battle right away, whereas previous films would have much build up before we got into the action.  If this is suppose to be "Episode I" of a six film series, shouldn't we have some explanation before we see the Jedi Knights display their awesome and magical powers?

This movie received mixed reviews by audiences and critics alike.  There are many reasons, including that the movie didn't quite match people's expectations, but the main one seems to be an almost universal dislike for the comic foil of the movie, a Gungan named Jar Jar Binx.  Personally I like this character and I like the fact that there is a comical character in the movie.  But the reason why people are uncomfortable with this character has as much to do with language as anything else.  There are 4 different languages spoken in this movie, English, Huttese, Gungan, and Droidspeak.  When the Gungans try to speak English, especially when Jar Jar tries to speak English, it sounds a bit like gibberish and it takes some effort to understand what is being said.  Now I understood almost everything Jar Jar said, but many people didn't and this frustrated them.  It helps to watch the movie on disk with captioning turned on, but even that can be confusing with the subtitles displaying text like the following ...

"Ex-squeeze me, but de mostest safest place would be Gunga City."
"...terrible tings to me if me goen back dare."
"Wesa goen underwater, okeyday?"
"Gungans no liken outsiders, so don't spect a warm welcome." 
"Yousa cannot bees hair."
"Dis army of Mackineeds up dare is new weesong."
"Bad bombin."

I am still trying to figure out what "bombin" means.  In one context it seems to mean something bad, and in another it seems to mean "bomb."

If I understand most of what the Gungans say, that is good enough for me.  I am not too concerned if an occasional word goes by me because I understand the context and general meaning of what is being said.  Science fiction in general is full of odd speech, as some books show future societies speaking a slightly different English than what we use today.  Having slightly different speech gives the movie more texture, challenges the brain and makes it more interesting.

I am more than willing to forgive any minor problems that the film has, especially after multiple viewings because I know what to expect.  Do I like the movie?  Obviously.  The film rivals the best of the Star Wars movies.  It has a deep rich story with plenty of action and lots of strong emotional moments.  As much as I like Attack of the Clones, The Phantom Menace has a slightly better story, more intelligent dialog and more emotional moments.  

George Lucas knew how to make the best of special effects and computer technology of the time.  The film was made when most desktop computers were using just a 486 processor.  15 years later the special effects are still as good as the best special effects today.

Rating:  * * * *

With Disney having bought Lucas Film, a new trilogy is in the works, with more movies possible later.  Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens comes out on December 18, 2015.

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