The Best 45 Minute Movies Ever Made: Star Wars Episode 1 : The Phantom Menace

Whatever Lucas was drinking, I’m sure it wasn’t just Metachlorianated Water.

By Andy Vetromile
Like any dutiful geek, I’ve got my favorites, and when it comes to comic books it’s The Invincible Iron Man that will always hold the warmest spot in my heart. There was something about Shell-head that just struck the right chords for me. Perhaps it was the fact that, underneath that metallic skin, he could be anybody. He wasn’t bitten by irradiated animals or dunked in goo or the fulfillment of a prophecy, just a dude smart enough to build hisself some sweet gear. He had repulsor beams at his fingertips (literally, depending on the model – how cool is a model for every occasion?). All heroes thrust their chests out, but when IM did it, his unibeam cut through bank vaults. He could fly. He had the time and date on the inside of his mask. He could electrocute you…

…ah. Here’s a point. I’ll hop on.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, those of you gearing up for the movie version when it comes out in two thousand and >cough-cough<, but Tony Stark, the genius who built and wears the armor, did it because a piece of shrapnel was slowly working its way toward his heart. The chestplate was a sort of portable iron lung, which meant he had to keep it powered up to stay alive. I’m not so blind that I cannot see and accept the cruel (you’ll pardon the expression) irony of the situation. Like Ultra-Man (“Should the light in his chest go out, he will never rise again”) and comparable cool personages in the business, this plot device was played for tension. Run out of power, and you run out of superpowers…and heart beats.

What kind of engineering is that? Sure, it’s selfless of him to fight the good fight, but for heaven’s sake he bench-presses train cars; flies through space and plunges through oceans; bends I-beams. Yet at least once every issue, Stark’s pathetic form came home from fighting the Mandarin or the Crimson Dynamo, flew erratically into his private offices, and crawled like a drunken hobo across the plush carpeting to reach a damn electrical socket. Not some sort of superscience transformer, mind you, with Tesla coils and bells and whistles. No, the same kind of thing you plug your Mr. Coffee into. Obviously privacy benefits one’s secret identity, but in a pinch you could just stop off in an abandoned junk yard (maybe Stark didn’t want to get nailed for theft of services…ah, the price of conscience).

All this crap fit into the suit because it was transistorized (any technological advancement is a good excuse for a new hero, right? So where’s Intestinal Camera Man?). But even after tossing around power enough to send Marty McFly through time, Iron Man’s survival came down to house current. Count yourself lucky, my friend; I can’t run my razor and a hair dryer at the same time without blowing a fuse. Why not build a slightly larger capacitor, guy? You seem pretty “vincible” to me. But I respect your willingness to put others ahead of yourself.

Imagine my relief when Iron Man passed the 100-issues mark, and the character changed. Stark, first the victim of shrapnel and then an artificial heart, found his body accepting the new organ – and he started truly unloading on the bad guys. He was once again the Invincible Iron Man, and he found ever more creative ways to use his equipment to stomp villains. In a fight, he wasn’t being slapped silly by an Asian man with peculiar taste in jewelry as the needle dropped toward “empty,” he was bringin’ it.

And so we come to Jedi.

We waited, what, 16 years for the newest Star Wars flick? Apparently it took that long for technology to catch up to George, to bring his vision to life as he wanted (and indeed, he’s still not 100% okay with it). That’s fine, mind you, he can do wonders with his CGI toys, and being true to his vision – I wouldn’t stand in the way of that for all the merchandising rights. I have a vision, too. Admittedly mine is limited to pesto-parmesan ham sandwiches and widespread acceptance of my fashion sense, but they’re my ambitions, right or wrong.

Alas, creating practically everything in the movie with special effects turned out to be annoying and distracting. It would be nice to listen to the conversations between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn, but I’m too busy staring at the glorious landscapes Lucas allows to dominate every scene. The ships floating past in the background could crash into our heroes and it could not divert my attention more. Characters, story (there was one, yes?), dialogue…everything here takes a backseat to George’s digitally rendered wonderland. What does Naboo export that’s so all-fired important the Trade Federation blockades them? Pretty, scenic pictures for the galaxy’s burgeoning jigsaw puzzle concession? Just E-mail them as attachments…oh, wait. They jammed communications…it all becomes clear now. Maybe they mentioned it and I missed it because a B-wing or L-wing or tomato-wing was gliding in for a landing.

But this blockade does rate hot Jedi action (wokka-chicka-wok-chowww). The council sends Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, whose name is really fun to say when you roll the Rs with an angry Scottish brogue) and Qui-Gon Jinn (the always underutilized Liam Neeson, and how impressed was I to find out I got his character’s name right?) to “talk” to the feds. One cannot help but think sending Jedi for this task is a lot like putting Harry Callahan on traffic patrol in Compton: Yes, it’s his job, but really it’s a tacit admission that you think things are about to go south on you in a big way and someone’s fixing to lose a lot of ass. You can send Arnie the Terminator to “guard” John Connor, but he still sees blowing up a city block as part of the job description.

What, honestly, are the requirements for becoming a Jedi? They warn Luke not to leave to save his friends from Vader in Episode V because he’s “not ready,” but when he returns in Episode VI, they tell him his training is complete if all he does is go face Vader. Th’ hell? Instead of waving his hand in front of Yoda’s face (“You will make up your damn mind”), Luke goes back for another beating, and I just know his insurance can’t cover an endless supply of artificial hands. They waffle three or four times about that Lloyd kid in Episode I (would that Lucas did the same), and finally give him the green light when Obi-Wan is able to sneak the brat in under some sort of grandfathered Jedi mentor clause.

But oh, when the Jedi fight…well, they aren’t CGI. Okay, I admit, I don’t know that that’s strictly true. I’m sure some of it is fancy effects, but watching Ray Park do flips and spins in midair, you know there’s a reason the man is in the film. We got 20 years of Jedi Lite, but now they’ve come into their own and the invincible is back. We’re seeing the knights in their heyday. When the job’s really tough they send two guys. They close the blast doors and the lightsaber keeps melting the door. Oh, mama.

Perhaps Lucas is too close to the action to realize what poetry he has in his own movie, but with Park moving like a ballerina as he beats the stew out of Neeson and McGregor, it’s high time someone told him the personal message of the Star Wars saga has always outweighed the flash and sizzle. We want to see what happens to the characters. Their pain is our pain, their joy is our joy, your script is our crap. I can’t identify with a probe or a hovering cargo craft. Just like Iron Man, I identify with the man inside – and when he’s up, I’m up, and I remember where the invincible comes from.

Say, you don’t think they’re going to use CGI in the Iron Man flick, do you?

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