Hanging with Jar Jar


Okay, I’ve done it. I’ve seen The Phantom Menace. Now I can check it off my list and move on.

Because our small town has only two theaters, it didn’t require much of an effort to see the movie. We arrived half an hour early and were about sixth in line. The wait would even have been pleasant if it hadn’t been for the couple in front of us, who used the time to make out.

Kiss, kiss. Smack, smack. "You taste like garlic."

"Onions. I had onions in my salad, remember?" Smooch, smack, slurp.

Eeeyouuuu. I felt like pounding on the theater door and yelling, "Let me in; it’s a medical emergency! These people are making me sick!"

Once inside, it was a little better, except for one 50-ish woman who was chatting on her cell phone: "We’re sitting here in the theater, waiting to see Star Wars. Okay, love you!" (Does anyone else think this is weird behavior?)

When the lights went down, and the familiar words, "Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away..." scrolled onto the screen, I got goosebumps. I loved the first three Star Wars movies and still remember what a thrill it was to see them for the first time. I was pregnant when The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi premiered but gladly braved the crowds (at the Coronet on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco and the then-new cinema in Corte Madera) for the chance to experience the Force.

I was really psyched up for another go-round, but The Phantom Menace let me down. There was too much hype and too little substance. Although the film had its bright moments -- Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor were awesome, the horse-faced Jar Jar Binks was an amusing addition, and it was fun seeing old friends like Yoda and the Jawas again -- there wasn’t a strong enough plot to keep my attention. In the first trilogy Luke’s mission was simple: save the Princess and defeat the forces of evil. But this latest plot is built around taxation. . . which would be fine if I’d wanted to see a sci fi thriller about CPAs.

Plus, the film rated very low on my fright-o-meter. The other Star Wars movies kept you on the edge of your seat, your mouth too dry to eat popcorn: Darth Vader with his black helmet and ominous breathing, the Nazi-like storm troopers, the huge trash compactor, the creature in the sand that chewed up people and digested them. In The Phantom Menace, however, I never really felt that the Queen was in any danger. "They’re going to force her to (shocked gasp) SIGN A TREATY ??? Oh, noooooooo!"

A much-hyped movie brings with it a high level of expectation. The young actor who played Anakin Skywalker, unfortunately, wasn’t up to the challenge. He was a cute little boy who had all his lines memorized, but his delivery shouted, Look at me! I’m acting! Neeson and McGregor were pros: they made you believe they were Jedi knights, but then they were forced to do scenes with a rookie who said things like, "You mean that I get to go with YOU in your STARSHIP?" Gimme a break, kid; we’re not plugging breakfast cereal here.

The ethnic accents also bothered me. As an ethnic-type person who nevertheless speaks standard English, I’m sensitive to such nuances. The noseless Viceroy and his cronies could have done voiceovers for Charlie Chan, and don’t even get me started on the winged shopkeeper with the big nose and the Middle Eastern accent! In previous episodes, Lucasfilm managed to create imaginary languages without stooping to parody or insult.

Then there’s the small matter of closure. At the end of Star Wars, you watched Princess Leia, minus the prune-Danish hairdo, bestow medals on the heroes of the Federation. The trumpets played a fanfare, and the courtiers applauded as Han Solo flashed his crooked, endearing grin. The galaxy was safe at last, all the loose ends were tied up, and you left the theater feeling good.

By contrast, watching The Phantom Menace left me with only an overwhelming urge to a) whup the kid upside the head and b) finish applying Natalie Portman’s lipstick. (Kelly’s suggestion: "Connect the dots.") There were too many unanswered questions. Why didn’t the Gungan leader look like the other Gungans? If Jedi knights could hold their breath long enough to survive a poison gas attack, why did they need breathing gadgets to swim to the underwater city? How could Luke Skywalker have been raised by his uncle in Star Wars when his father, Anakin, was the "only begotten" child of a virgin? Why didn’t they make better use of Samuel L. Jackson’s talents? Was the Queen’s decoy a human or a droid? What the heck was the shiny thing in the crystal ball, and why was everyone so happy about it? Why was Darth Maul supposed to be such a big deal, when his menacing look is all due to makeup (whoa, babe-- next time use a mirror) and he just goes to pieces in the end?

These are questions that have the combined potential to make you wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. -- undoubtedly The Phantom Menace at its scariest.

Laverne Mau Dicker

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