November 9, 2013

Queer Review: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Andy Secombe, Ray Park, Brian Blessed, Hugh Quarshie

Every generation has a legend... Every journey has a first step... Every saga has a beginning... that can easily be ruined by a poorly conceived CGI comic relief Gungan. Well, not completely ruined. While The Phantom Menace has unfortunately gained a reputation that has caused it to become something of a punchline, it is still a solidly grand space opera.

The ebil trade federation has invaded the peaceful Naboo planet. In an attempt to convince the Galactic Senate of the peril of their plight, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) escapes from the planet, with two Jedi -- Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) -- in tow. Unfortunately, their ship is damaged and they must take refugee on Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Loyd) who may be the choosen one who can bring balance to The Force.

The Queering
A long time ago, in on a planet not so far away, a certain movie was released with bad acting, godawful dialog, but did have some rather nifty special effects. No one expected it to do very well, but the summer of 1977, it caused quite a stir and thus Star Wars mania began. Two more films were released, creating a trilogy. The second film darkened the tone a bit and the third had... ewoks.

More than 20 years later, George Lucas decided to return to the Galaxy far, far away, and thus we got The Phantom Menace, a film released to the kind of hype that no film could have lived up to. Websites were created solely to display countdown clocks to the moment of the films release. People camped outside movie theaters, just to be the first in line. I would know, I was in line to see it on opening day. I didn't camp out myself, but I do recall downloading the trailers while cursing out having a 56.6K Modem.

I was in 9th grade at the time The Phantom Menace was released. At the time, I recall enjoying it. Jar Jar Binks did not bother me, in fact I think I found him funny. Of course, as I got older, I did find him annoying. However, re-watching it once again as I approach the big Three-Oh, he didn't annoy me. Maybe I'm just getting mellow in my old age. Recently, while browsing through a local department store, I found myself mildly surprised at my total lack of irritation at the pre-Halloween Christmas decorations on display.

However, I cannot argue that the film is "great" in the classical sense of the word. Elements of the film are undeniably stilted. The camerawork and staging is fairly straightforward, a great deal of the acting is stiff, and the dialog undeniably clunky. There are other problematic elements, starting with the racist subtexts (Watto totally resembles a greedy Jewish stereotype, Jar Jar is an unfortunate Rastafarian caricature, the Trade Federation are Asian, etc.) but those have been hashed out well enough elsewhere, that I do not particularly feel the need to discuss them in depth myself.

However, there are a few queer subtexts, so let's get down to business. There are not a lot, nor do they stick out like sore lightsabers, but there is one that I think is worth talking about. The Jedi Knights in many ways are clearly inspired by the Spartan Agoge, where male Spartans were taken and trained away from their family at a young age. This resembles the ways in which the Jedi Order take young candidates at an early age to be trained.

There are other ways in which the Jedis resemble Spartan military culture. In the Agoge, older males are expected to take on a younger male in a pederastic relationship, which of course closely resembles the relationship between the padawans and their Jedi Mentor. Naturally, this lends something of a queer subtext to the relationship between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, which is brought out during Qui-Gons' death scene.

At the end of the day, The Phantom Menace does an effective job of setting up the original trilogy even if it's a bit workman like at times. However, there are also moments that I do feel capture the Gung-Ho-B-Movie-With-An-A-List-Budget spirit of the originals and that means it can more than hold a lightsaber to them.

Worth menacing down any Phantom Sith Lord that gets in your way in order to see this movie.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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