‘Episode I’ still underwhelming

Article Published: Feb. 16, 2012 | Modified: Feb. 23, 2012
‘Episode I’ still underwhelming

Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson star in ‘Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.’

The Force is weak with this one.

It was in 1999, and it still is in 2012’s 3-D trappings.

“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” may be the weakest link in George Lucas’ iconic space saga, and its re-release in underwhelming post-production 3-D conversion only emphasizes the fact.

Despite all the technical wizardry intended to make these characters and images leap out of the screen, they’re still two-dimensional at best, negotiating the slipshod turns of a meandering, uninspired plot.

But for all intents and purposes, this is “Star Wars” – not the 1977 original, but an entry in the series that younger audiences understandably see as the first. To them, Yoda was never a tangible puppet, but rather a computer-generated whirling dervish battling a fittingly caped Christopher Lee.

Lucas has gone to extraordinary lengths to backpedal and incessantly tweak his original trilogy to conform with the new mythology and special effects introduced in his prequels, claiming his original vision was limited by the technology at the time.

Fans of the originals hate it, and reasonably so, but those who grew up on the prequels don’t seem to mind.

In 1999, I was excited – stoked, mind you, as the saying went in those days – to see “Episode I.” I wanted to like it. I tried to convince myself to like it, even though I found myself wincing at its many unintentionally awkward moments. It was “Star Wars,” after all, and there wouldn’t be another for several years. After some rewatching, and then the subsequent prequels, I found myself paraphrasing Yoda, as mount my disappointment did.

Seeing it in theaters again only confirmed it. Despite its visual flair, “Episode I” is a sloppy movie, with no discernable plot to speak of. It’s the most childish movie of the bunch, but its story bafflingly deals with trade embargos and taxation. As it goes, the greedy Trade Federation has blockaded the peaceful planet of Naboo, and two Jedi Knights – Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, “Taken”) and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, “Trainspotting”) – are dispatched by the Galactic Republic to negotiate a treaty.

But something insidious is at play, and when attempts are made on the Jedis’ lives, they escape to the planet’s surface to rescue the captive Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”), encountering the most loathed “Star Wars” character of all time in the process – Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best, “Open Window”).

After rescuing the queen and barely escaping Naboo, Qui-Gon and his entourage stop off at the backwoods, desert planet of Tatooine, where they encounter a young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, “Jingle All the Way”), who, as most fans know, eventually grows up to become one of the most iconic villains of all time, Darth Vader.

Sensing Anakin’s unusual strength in the Force, Qui-Gon is determined that the boy is “the chosen one” from Jedi prophecy, destined to bring balance to the Force. But his peers are fearful of Anakin’s potential, wary that he could easily be swayed to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, dark forces are at play, led by the appropriately named Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), who dispatches his apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park, “X-Men”), to aid in the Federation’s conquest of Naboo. Of course, only our two stalwart Jedi Knights stand in his way.

And that’s putting it simply. To call the plot convoluted would make it sound like there was actually a plot, while it really seems like director and writer Lucas hashed a screenplay out of every far-fetched idea that came to mind during a 72-hour Adderall binge.

It’s mainly a disjointed series of computer-generated set pieces that meanders from one point to another with no destination in mind, strung together with obviously animated creatures and characters that lack the tangibility of those in the original trilogy.

A capable cast – particularly Neeson and McGregor – tries its darndest to work with what it’s got, which just isn’t very much. That even goes for young Lloyd, who probably could have turned out a much more convincing performance with a little coaching and direction.

“Episode I” has its redeeming moments, but they’re as fleeting as its so-called “Phantom Menace.” The climactic lightsaber battle brings new life to Jedi combat, while a superb John Williams score is more lively than most of the action on screen. Make no mistake, Lucas had a grandiose vision, and the time and money invested in crafting this digital galaxy far, far away is astounding, but for all his efforts, the results fall flat.

The same can be said for the 3-D presentation, with its most effective moments being the opening title crawl and Yoda’s ears (Lucas even tweaked “Episode I” to replace the puppet Yoda with a less-convincing computer-generated sprite). Even the film’s celebrated pod race scene doesn’t benefit from the conversion, and the post-production efforts, per usual, seem muddy and flat.

Lucas plans to re-release each subsequent film one year at a time in 3-D, leading up to “Return of the Jedi” in 2017, so perhaps the technology will have improved by then. More importantly, it would mark the first time Billy Dee Williams’ mustache has hovered over an audience, while bringing a sheen unseen to Princess Leia’s metallic bikini. May the Force be with us.

“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 12-B or visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

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