Books, culture, fishing, and other games

May 03, 2004

The Phantom Menace

Watching The Phantom Menace again, after playing Star Wars Galaxies for some months, changes the experience. Suddenly it's like watching a movie about the Amazon, where I criticize the popular myths, wince at the standard biases, and generally squirm in my seat at the silliness inherent in an outsider's view of a world I considered my own. They just don't know the truth!

Well, maybe that's overstating my reaction. Actually, it was fun seeing the fauna of Tatooine and Naboo in the film after running around shooting at and being bitten by them. Fambaa looked smaller in the movie, as did kaadu. This may have something do do with perspective in the game, however. I often play tiny characters, female humans of very smalls stature, Bothans, Rodians, and such. When I play a big human male I realize just how small those others are, and realize how they can skew perspective.

But I don't much like The Phantom Menace in any case. I find it the weakest of the Star Wars series I've seen. The acting is generally poorer, the plot is as limp as that of a B-flick, and the treatment of the two droids left me feeling apathetic. After watching Hidden Fortress and listening to Lucas talk about the influence of those two clown-peasants on the create of R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars I, I expected more. The droids were present, but barely. For all that R2D2 saved the Queen's escape cruiser (some cruiser!) and was recognised for its action, it didn't create any feeling of importance or portent. The thing would have been utterly meaningless except for the forward story that we already know. And their roles as clowns, a la Shakespeare, were missing. The slightest gesture in that direction was the scene where they were introduced, and that was edited so that C3PO's grumbling was overridden by the action of the human characters.

Anakin and the Queen, while sympathetic, were painful to watch. Their dialog was stilted. Anakin may be an exceptional child and as such outside the norms of behavior, but even making allowances it just didn't come across as real. Ditto for the Queen.

In fact, I found no performance by the actors moving or even interesting. Their movements reminded me of troopers in that heavy armor that makes them run a bit funny. The droidekas were far more smooth and natural-seeming in their mechanical movements, oddly. It's almost like the producers go so involved in the artificial portions that they transfered that artificiality onto the performances of the "real" actors.

What I disliked intensely about the performance of the Gunagans in my first viewing years ago, I now found myself the most comfortable with. Perhaps it's because I knew to take them less than seriously this time, so I was not annoyed when they were all clowns. It appears they have stolen the place that the droids occupy in the earlier (later in the sequence) films, that of "fool."

That brings me to the battle between the Trade Federation and the Gungans. Having just watched Kurasawa, the influence was starkly plain. The long shots of uncountable riders and footsoldiers, the banners on the back of kaadu in place of on the back of horses, the lush though open vegetation (Naboo is the most beautiful of planets!), even the stacking of munitions by the Gungans. Then the careful and orderly formations meet and chaos ensues. The long shots are replaced with mid-distance and close-up shots, with the action moving past the camera in the latter. The violence is explicit yet oddly sanitary. There is no emphasis on blood, but devastation does result.

Also included, of course, are the choreographed fencing bouts. Out of this flows the idea that a select superior (morally and physically) few are those on which the turning points of all battles rest. The sheep flock about the outside, the soldiers are a bit more disciplined, but as uncontrolling of their own fates, only the sensei and his disciples, the chosen seven samurai, can defeat the outnumbering and overwhelming evil enemy through a blazing example that inspires the others to make the needed sacrifices. Sometimes they die, sometimes they live, but always they lead from the front.

Another aspect that annoyed me at a gut level (which my be due to my upbringing, or may be due to inept mythologizing, in this case) was the reference to Anakin's origins. I didn't go back and isolate the section and watch it over and over to see exactly what was said, but it seemed to me that his mother said he had no father. This might be taken as a remark that there had been no father figure in his life until then, but it seemed more a reference to a virgin birth. Without more explanation as to how this came to be in a fantasy/scifi millieu, it rang wrong. It became a failed gesture towards the birth of Christ. That Anakin was working at making things (droids, pod racers) already, at a very young age, also fit with Jesus's upbringing as a carpenter. (Are we to take the Queen's arrival along with two Jedi knights as analog to The Three Kings?) Then Anakin is tested for the force-sensitive thingies that permeate all life and found to have the highest concentration even seen in a human by orders of magnitude. So, we now have established a Christ-figure. Okay, maybe this is worked out better in the next two films, but it doesn't feel right considering what comes in 4-6. So I kept hearing a distant gong sounding over and over "wrong, wrong, wrong..."

But if I don't much like The Phantom Menace, it's undoubtedly due in large part to shattered expectations. I liked the first three a lot. I expected something closer to those in quality. I haven't seen the other, yet, I will rectify that lapse very shortly thanks to Netflix. I hope my reaction to that one is better.

And, don't get me wrong, I did have fun watching it.

Posted by dan at May 3, 2004 02:12 PM