My nine year old nephew Eben is a great kid. He is the type of kid who gives you his box of Milk Duds because he remembers earlier you told him how much you liked Milk Duds. He's sweet, thoughtful and sensitive. Unfortunately none of those traits tend to go unpunished in this world and he has already faced his share of abuse from classmates. I promised him for his birthday last January that I would take him to a movie of his choice. What better present than getting the honor of spending an afternoon with me? It seemed like an "uncly" thing to do. Well, being the great uncle that I am it only took me six months to deliver on my promise. Last week we went and saw Star Wars- The Phantom Menace together.
Now I'll have to admit when Eben told me what movie he wanted to see, I did everything I could to talk him into another choice. I had zero interest in seeing the latest Star Wars movie mainly because the last one was so horrible. It was a damn Muppet movie for pete's sake. But Eben's heart was set on his selection and we chose a day and time to go. To get ready for the event I began referring to myself as Dave Maul, and to my feline roommate as Jar Jar Max. I had to do something to get in the spirit of things. I refused to lower myself into further dweebdom by watching the first three installments of the series in preparation as I heard several people say they were going to do, including the most thoughtful person I know. I did however prepare myself in other ways. When I was driving around I often closed my eyes and tried to use the force to help me navigate the vehicle and avoid any obstacles (i.e. other cars and people) that were in my way.
My reluctance and lack of interest to see the latest in the Star Wars series also had to do with the over enthusiasm some showed in counting down the days until the opening and camping out in front of theaters to be among the first to see the movie. There is something a tad disturbing about people's devotion to the pseudo-fable/mythology of the Star Wars philosophy. The near religious like need to accept another myth seems silly when there are plenty of other myths and beliefs on this planet that are in need of debunking. The Star Wars culture is now over twenty years old and has attained a scary status beyond mere entertainment.
So it was with more than a bit of trepidation that I found myself in that movie theater merely hoping I could endure and not get too fidgety during the two hours. First off I must say that the movie is loud. With all the laser shots, light saber battles, and flying saucer sound effects, it almost became necessary to cover my ears so as to save myself for the next rock concert I go to. There aren't a lot of quiet moments in the film. Still, the little pod race sequence is among the most exciting moments of the series and I must say I quite liked the queen, played by Natalie Portman. (Ms. Portman provided one of my favorite interviews on David Letterman a few years ago. When Dave asked what her father did for a living, she replied, "He's a fertility specialist." To which Dave said, "That's great because there certainly aren't enough people in this world...") Throughout the movie Portman displays a cool authoritative detachment that reminded me not so much of what I find so endearing in my favorite mother of two, but more the ever present smile in her eyes. On the other hand the young Anikan Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd, is just what this series doesn't need, another cute little Muppet. Lloyd is a way too smug and self aware and it is easy to see why the little twerp eventually turns to the dark side.
The film also lacks the presence of a strong villain character. Darth Maul with his cheap devilish looking make-up looks like he just stepped out of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (the film could use a heavy dose of that series' witty writing). Without a strong villain the movie doesn't exactly live up to its title. We do get the pleasure(?) of seeing C3PO naked and also Yoda with hair.
Phantom Menace does make it easy to get lost in the world it creates. The underwater planet is sublime, and the movie is skillful in making you believe that this other place does in fact exist. As I looked over at Eben who was taking it all in with the wonderment of a ten year old, I too dropped my cynicism for a moment and truthfully must say I enjoyed the movie a heck of a lot more than I thought I would. By the time the movie reached its climatic centerpiece, the land battle with the army of skinny little robot soldiers I was almost completely won over. The battle scene is terrific, remindful of the frightening skeleton attack scene in Jason and the Argonauts. Though not quite as intense as that particular scene (still perhaps the scariest thing I've ever seen in a movie) the seamless technology used to create the battle is quite impressive. The best movies have the ability to take you to another place or another time. Phantom Menace took me all the way back to looking at things through the eyes of a ten year old. That is a galaxy far far away.