Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

If this movie was not related to Star Wars I would never probably had even watched it. And that probably goes for everyone else too. The fourth installment in the Star Wars saga (but the first one on the actual timeline of the series), was met with cheers and applause from die-hard fans of the series on release. It took until much later for the rose-colored glasses to come off and see it as the film it actually is. The bland performances, the odd juxtaposition of Jar-Jar Binks with the main cast for comic relief, and Jake Lloyd. That didn’t matter though, it was the sixteen year return of possibly the most famous and most profitable franchise of all time. In other words, there was little to no way that it would not be loved by hard-core fans on release.

This Complete Saga marathon that I started two years ago, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) has made me realize that with every re-watch, Phantom Menace gets worse. I get more and more bored with the world that George Lucas creates and the story he tells in this picture. You can only take so much of the podracing scene before it becomes just ugly computer-generated effects and tonally more similar to the go-kart race in Little Rascals (1994) rather than anything resembling Star Wars. Or, the way that everyone in this movie acts so lifeless and monotone which isn’t necessarily their fault more of the workings of Lucas’ directing. In fact, the only character who even shows any sign of life in them is Jake Lloyd’s tiresome portrayal of young Anakin Skywalker. Lloyd’s performance was so notoriously disliked in fact, that he claimed that his role “ruined his childhood”.  Nonetheless, his performance is quite grating. Although, Lloyd’s delivery of lines such as “Now this is podracing!” and “My name is Anakin and I’m a person!” can only be so much his fault rather than Lucas’ poor dialogue. It just makes it a little hard to believe that the same person delivering all those lines is also the same individual that will slaughter innocent children. Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) was included into the story to provide that comedic edge to the stories, the way that C-3PO was in the Original Trilogy. Except, 3PO was a sidekick to R2-D2 which is what made him work for comedic purposes. The bickering between the two characters helped keep the comedy from being too in-your-face. Both characters were also isolated in the background many times which helped separate the two tones of those films (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.) . Binks on the other hand, is not a sidekick, but just a lone bumbling idiot who shouts catchphrases and my have been planned to be a sith lord in subsequent films him doing all this while the on many times the main cast does not acknowledge him many times. Nonetheless, Lucas understood his mistake it seems and dialed back his character in Attack of the Clones (2002) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

For all of The Phantom Menace’s shortcomings, one of the things that at least makes watching this movie not entirely a dull experience is John William’s score. “Duel of the Fates” may just be my favorite song from any Star Wars movie. The lightsaber battles are also much better than the prequels thanks to the new special effects that are utilized. In the final battle, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) battle Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and it is a spectacular sequence that almost makes you forget about how long it took to lead up to that scene. Some of the character design in this movie (and all the prequels in fact) is pretty awesome. As a child, Darth Maul was my favorite character because of his imposing design and his double-bladed lightsaber. Before the prequels, there were no other Jedi introduced in the films other than, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Yoda (Frank Oz), and Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). One of the positives of these movies were the introduction of new and interesting Jedi such as Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). There were many interesting set pieces and characters set up to be later explored in the subsequent movies, books, and video games.

When I was in elementary school, I loved Star Wars above anything else. Funny enough, The Phantom Menace was my favorite movie out of the five that I had seen (my parents didn’t allow me to watch Revenge of the Sith due to its PG-13 rating). I think it was because of that I wanted to become a Jedi like Anakin. Me being a child, felt like I could relate to his character. I was also fine with Jar Jar Binks and he never seemed to annoy me, but I never remember laughing at anything he did unironically. I also thought the overuse of CGI was pretty awesome and always kept me interested because it resembled video games so closely. All of these points leads me to believe that The Phantom Menace was made with mainly children in mind. The merchandising for this movie was insane and helped add to the grandiose marketing campaign that this movie had. For all it’s shortcomings, The Phantom Menace will always be remembered in cinematic history for the massive cultural event that it was, and the massive disappointment that followed it.

Note: This short 15 minute documentary explains the whole Phantom Menace phenomenon better than even my words can describe

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

★★½

Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has good intentions. A fun sci-fi adventure based off of the French comic strip, Valerian and Laureline (one of George Lucas’ inspirations for Star Wars). But sadly, it becomes nothing but a mediocre movie with some cool looking effects and terrible acting from its two leads.

Valerian actually opens quite promising. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” plays as the International Space Station has more and more different people become a part of it, including aliens. Then we are introduced to our two main characters, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). And both sound mostly like they are reading their lines for the first time. It also looked as if Delevingne had dubbed over many of her lines in post-production. Other than the wooden performances, the actual dialogue is hammy and forced. These characters interact with each in nearly deadpan fashion and their “romantic” dialogue is nearly the same level of Terrance Malik’s in Song to Song (2017). By then end of this movie I didn’t care about these characters because I felt like I didn’t have a good enough chance to know them.

As far as the other characters in the movie, it is surprising how many people have minor roles in this film. Ethan Hawke is a shady strip club owner that offers a bizarre performance which definitely is not up to par with his acting in The Before Trilogy, not that it was expected it was. John Goodman shows up for a couple minutes voicing an alien, Rutger Hauer is shown on a hologram, and Herbie Hancock is Valerian and Laureline’s boss.

The only redeeming factor from Valerian, is the amazing visual landscapes. The City of a Thousand Planets as mentioned in the title is really awesome to look at. The Mül planet is an incredible tropical and peaceful landscape. You can also see what things in the comic Star Wars was inspired by such as Valerian and Laureline’s ship resembling the Millennium Falcon as well as Valerian being a similar character archetype as Han Solo.

Valerian is a disappointment. It is too bad that something with this kind of potential was ruined with a lame story and a terrible lead cast.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

★★★★

Logan (2017) set the standard for superhero movies, at least for ones this year. But, does every movie have to be emotionally as powerful as that film was? Of course not! Marvel Studios is here more, to merely create fun entertainment in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Watching the Guardians travel from sci-fi set piece to set piece was quite impressive. The detail to the areas showed the care put into them. Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and crew were pretty much all did good jobs with the script given. With the exception of Drax (Dave Bautista) which we will look into later.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the villain is always considered to be the weakest link. With the exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) every other villain seems disposable. In Guardians 2, Ego (Kurt Russell) felt much more memorable as the antagonist makes it stick out compared to other marvel movies. The disconnect from the rest of the Marvel Universe makes the movie stand out as well. Not everything has to be filled with cameos and references to other superheros, and Gunn understands that.

The soundtrack was very well selected, just like the first’s. A lot of surprising picks show up on the set list. It’s best to not look into the soundtrack before watching because it makes the movie all the better. An awesome title sequence begins the choreographed music-video battles in this new selection of hit 70s songs.

Marvel really needs to slow down when it comes to the jokes. Comedy should be present, but it does not need to be as frequent as it shows up? Drax is the embodiment of what I dislike about Marvel Studios movies. His purpose in the movie was to tell an unfunny joke then laugh obnoxiously the same way Seth Rogen does as a que for the audience to do the same. Most of the movie going public seems to feel differently about the inclusion of so much comedy in these films but, it does really seem to affect the more sad or intense scenes. (Guardians 2 did handle an emotional scene well however, unlike past Marvel movies so bravo James Gunn). From the classic “language” quote from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) to “that’s the wi-fi password” from last year’s Doctor Strange (2016) people seem to have a favorite bad joke to make fun of in these films. This picture is no different, offering one of the worst yet with “Tazer Face”. The joke is unfunny at first but it continued getting referenced again and again and it just continued to make it less and less unfunny.

With the exception of the failed attempts at comedy. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty great. James Gunn was also the sole writer for this film and it made the film feel much more even tonally, compared to other MCU films. This is a rare exception where the sequel is possibly even better than the original film. Thank you James Gunn, this was a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.