What if it had been good?
What if it had been a movie?
“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” is the product placement of all time, the runestone, the grail, the altar upon which billions of dollars of cash will be placed in the next few weeks, and its surge of activity in the economy, coursing from fan-hand to Hasbro or Galoob bank, from T-shirt sweatshop to Lucasfilm coffers, may be more instrumental in lubricating the economy than any amount of e-commerce day-trading in Internet stock ever could. The Force is money. The movie is crap. That is, unless you’re about five, and still enjoy lines like, “Aw, Jar Jar Binks, you in deep doo-doo now!”
The bigs have weighed in—Rolling Stone, USA Today, the New York Daily News, Time, Newsweek, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter—mostly conceding that “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” is a platinum-hearted, product-pandering childsploitation of a low and monotonous order. (One hopes the small voices will pipe up against the dark side of the Force, as well.) One could criticize “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” for the obvious that’s there for all with eyes to see—that it’s a feature-length animated cartoon with humans dropped in (for a modest amount of adult identification), poorly acted, lurchingly paced, and with dialogue on a level only a notch or two above the Teletubbies. But that misses the point. The movie doesn’t matter. The jam-packed style of the film serves only to motor a merchandising blowout that has already out-grossed many small countries and most religions.
But who needs to start a religion when you’ve got a billion-and-a-half dollars in merchandising revenue banked before a single ticket was sold? If we cannot find faith, we can at least download directions to the mall, and find Star Wars products to fill the emptiness in our lives and basements. In a new biography of the late French film director François Truffaut, his once-friend and fellow director Jean-Luc Godard snipes at him with a putdown along the lines of, “Ah, François. Businessman in the morning, poet in the afternoon.” On the evidence of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the one-time director of “THX-1138” and “American Graffiti” no longer has poetry on his mind, only the merch.
Another cavil toward the notion that Lucas, the man, is a storytelling “genius.” In finding products to peddle, Lucas signs works the origins of which are more convoluted than the usual film production or the workshops of antiquity where painters would sign the work of their students. With immense resources at his disposal, Lucas can dragoon vast numbers of the young and gifted to conceive of creatures, vistas and machinery that can then be absorbed into the Lucas corporate—sorry, story—structure as surely as Microsoft shovels up “intellectual property.” As with the appropriation of religious iconography, including the confounding suggestion that Anakin Skywalker is a parallel creature to Jesus Christ, this opportunistic mulching of style results in no style, only a very remunerative corporate compost that is little more than mush-mouthed New Age wishy-washiness.
Instead of a sense of wonder, we’re offered a sense of bewilderment. What about the video game structure? Not only the obvious, the long, dodge-the-obstacles pod race across the desert, but the condescending, puzzle-piece pseudo-educational story structure that mimics LucasArts video games with titles like “Monkey Island.” A Jedi Knight’s spaceship fails, so a piece must be found. The junk dealer won’t take Federation money, so a barter must be made. The barter introduces the Knight to Anakin, and another barter and a bet set up the pod race. Worse than the diagramming of a sentence, this structure follows the format of game “interactivity” to a dulling degree.
The film’s casual racism is shocking as well. Samuel L. Jackson is shown as the only visible human in a Council meeting amid rubber puppets and computer-generated creatures. What’s more exotic in the universe than a powerful black man? Or what about Watto, the junk dealer, a hook-nosed and vaguely Middle Eastern Shylock who owns the young Anakin? Or the fish-headed bad-guy ambassadors who speak in Charlie Chan cadences; or the film’s central character, Jar Jar Binks, who speaks in motor-mouthed Jamaican-patois Stepin Fetchit “me no there go” voice. There’s a line where a creature calls Anakin “a credit to [his] race”; with a glimmer of wit, the nasty line of yore would have been revised to “a credit to your species.”
Then there’s another racial element to “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”: As our eyes scan the Big Daddy Roth-style rat finks that litter the crowd scenes, we have to wonder about the first Force-ful intergalactic ethnic cleansing: Where are the Ewoks, those gentle, fun-loving little characters. Banished to the back of the merchandising shelf?
What if it had been good? No chance. That happened somewhere else, in some galaxy, far, far away.
[Originally published in a slightly different form, May 17, 1999.]
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.