Sunday, May 26, 2019

Guest Post: Rocketman (2019)


By Jonas Schwartz

On the heels of last year's hit Queen bio, Bohemian Rhapsody, Sir Elton John gets the movie treatment with Rocketman. Though, unlike Freddy Mercury, John still lives and has had major interaction with the filming, including forming a bond with the talented actor who plays him, Taron Egerton. Featuring dazzling musical numbers and an exquisite, emotionally naked performance by Egerton, there is much to enjoy in the 121 minute film. Sadly, despite the sexual subject matter, the script could have been written in the 1930s and '40s, when bios of famous people were all the rage. Writer Lee Hall pulls out every creaky cliché so that the audience has no concept of another soul other than John.

A bespectacled and bedazzled phoenix-dressed Elton John sashays into an addiction treatment center after walking out on a concert.  He slowly strips away his costume and his walls of anguish, as he reveals how his love-less childhood and overwhelming adulthood have led him to alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction and shop-oholism. As a shy child named Reginald Dwight, he lost pride in self because his glum father (Steven Mackintosh) avoided affection, while his egoistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) dragged him through childhood like a burdensome pet. Only his gran (Gemma Jones) fostered Reggie's gifts. Gravitating towards the piano, Reggie found joy, and later recognition, playing in bands. A meeting with a music manager led to his longest standing relationship, with his close friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Ridding himself of Reggie forever, the singer adopts a new name, Elton Hercules John, and flamboyantly turns the stage into a fantastical land of Oz. His outrageous costumes and theatrical stunts -- like using his feet to play piano cords -- quickly transform Elton into a wealthy superstar, but that's always when the vipers start slithering around.

Possibly influenced by the recent hit LA LA Land, Rocketman returns to the old concepts of musical film, where characters sing in situations they normally would not, breaking out in tunes and joining in with strangers who all know the same lyrics and dance moves. That's a brave conceit and one that works well in the fantasia of Elton John's mind.  The score is also a jukebox musical, where all of John's songs are put in the mouths of characters to reflect their emotions and hidden desires. There's a reason why the Jukebox musical is the more reviled amongst critics. Writers shoehorn already established songs into a plot attempting to make it mirror situations and thoughts. For example, some of the lyrics of "Tiny Dancer" may appear to fit the situation as John watches his friend and partner Taubin dance with a sexy partygoer, however, the song does not reflect the isolation John feels at a party right after his successful night at The Troubadour, where even his best friend has left him to fail at his own devices. Other songs seem too on the nose that they feel inorganic.

Where the movie really launches is in replicating the intoxication of fame through the musical sequences, particularly John and the audience lifting into the air like helium-filled balloons in the "Crocodile Rock" sequence, or representing the frustration and joy of creative juices flowing like in the "Your Song" sequence.

The only complex relationship in the film script is between John and Taupin.  Writer Hall gives none of the other characters enough depth so that they seem real, and not just barriers for John to conquer. The worst culprit is the John Reid character, John's shifty manager and lover (Richard Madden). Reid, who also managed Queen and was played by Aiden Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody, is a vampire, sucking his partner's riches away, while abusing him physically and mentally. His metamorphosis from sexy, uninhibited lover to power-hungry creep will give audiences whiplash. Despite Madden giving his all in the role, the writing feels more like spite towards a person who publicly damaged Elton John, than a fully-realized character.  It's the same poor characterization that Mercury's Mephistophelean lover Paul Prenter suffered from in Bohemian Rhapsody. Villains we can understand are more powerful than those who just commit evil because the plot requires it.

The film rests heavily on Egerton and he does NOT disappoint. A fabulous interpreter of John's songs and a candid portrayer of a complication man, Egerton never mimics Sir Elton John, he inhabits him. Egerton's love for the man he plays is palpable, and he gives Sir Elton the respect but also the jagged edges the behemoth deserves. If Sir Elton John had not existed before this movie, Taren Egerton would have created the myth with this performance. Bell is endearing as the rock in John's life and in a small role, Tate Donovan is hilarious as an out-there Doug Weston, owner of The Troubadour. The rest of the cast is good, just weighed down with thin roles.

On the merits of Egerton's performance and several musical numbers, Rocketman is an enjoyable time capsule of Sir Elton John's early life and career. It's just a shame that more ingenuity didn't go into the writing and direction. The musical numbers soar with an otherworldly nature, but the book scenes crash down to Earth.

Check out Jonas's other reviews at 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

40 Years Ago Today: Alien (1979)

It is quite difficult to believe, but in 2019, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) turns 40 years old. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Alien to consider on this occasion is that the Scott film does not seem to grow old in terms of its impact, even with the passage of time, even with the acute knowledge that some of its scares have become familiar ones in the pop culture firmament.  For Alien has been oft-imitated, and never equaled.

Consider that Alienindicts big business,” (Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, page 920)) and that viewpoint has never been more popular than it is today.

Also, the 1979 film explodes our understanding of sex roles in the intelligent and unconventional presentation of its iconic survivor, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). 

Most importantly, perhaps, the film also creates a metaphor for the uncertainty America faced during the “crisis of confidence” 1970s. 

Here, the crew of the Nostromo is always battling the previous enemy, and never the next, dreadful iteration of the shape-shifting beast.

Whether one gazes at Alien as a simple “haunted house in space” movie, a social critique of Big Business’s callous disregard for workers, or as a trend-setter in terms of female roles, however, the film remains a masterpiece in both the horror and science fiction movie constellation.  The world it forges continues to feel real, vital and relevant, and its scares never cease to thrill and unsettle.

In deep space, the commercial starship Nostromo is diverted from its homeward route when the ship’s computer, Mother, detects a distress call in a nearby solar system.  Mother awakes the crew from suspended animation, and the non-military men and women must investigate the signal on planet LV-426 or forfeit their percentage of the mission’s profit. 

The Nostromo lands on the inhospitable world and an expedition consisting of Captain Dallas (Skerritt), Kane (Hurt) and Lambert (Cartwright) finds a strange alien derelict there. 

Inside the macabre wreckage, a cargo bay is filled with leathery egg-like organisms, and something alive bursts forward from one, and seems to strangle Kane.  Kane survives, but as the crew soon learns on their return journey to Earth, the being has laid some kind of embryo down his throat, in his gut. 

The embryo grows and bursts out of Kane’s stomach, eventually becoming a seven-foot tall alien whose physical strength is matched only by its hostility.  One-by-one, the crew-members are killed or secreted away by the alien, which is hiding in the ship’s vent system. 

Desperate, one of the last survivors, Ripley (Weaver) plots a strategy to self-destruct the ship and return to Earth in a shuttle.

The story of astronauts accidentally picking up a monster in space is an old one, yet just as Star Wars gave the old swashbuckling Flash Gordon template new life in 1977, so does Ridley Scott’s Alien breath much new life into the monster-on-a-spaceship story of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Planet of the Vampires (1965) or The Green Slime (1968).

The director largely does so by pinpointing and focusing on the very quality that those films determinedly lack: a grounded sense of reality in terms of how human characters might behave while traveling on a spaceship in “the future.”  

So if George Lucas imagined a “lived in” universe for Star Wars, one that implied history, use, and even entropy, Ridley Scott carries that ball a yard or two further down the field.  He imagines and presents a blue-collar future, one where work-stations are trashed, where computer consoles make good coffee mug holders, where characters don sneakers and ball caps instead of snappy uniforms, where pornography is pinned-up on the personal cubbies of the personnel, and everyone sleeps in pods they call “freezers” rather than traveling at faster-than-light speed.

This daring visual aesthetic, termed “space truckers” felt new and unique in 1979, though Dark Star (1975), also written by Dan O’Bannon had put “slackers” in space and helped to begin the de-glamorization of life in outer space that Alien assiduously continues.  The effort to de-romanticize space makes life seem more immediate and real, and that’s the important thing here.

In Alien, space travel is not a glorious calling or great mission to explore brave new worlds.  On the contrary, it is a monotonous and dull occupation.  Consider that in this future, corporations like Weyland-Yutani are still in charge, and the average astronaut is not a hero or a pioneer, but rather a guy (or gal) still trying to make a living wage and get his fair piece of the pie.  He makes it through the day on copious amounts of coffee, and swears like a sailor when shit starts falling apart.

In the film, Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto) make this dynamic especially clear.  They are not “miracle workers” like Star Trek’s Mr. Scott, but overworked repairmen, putting out one fire after another and not immune to the idea of a work slow-down if they feel they are being taken for granted or abused.  In fact, Alien features a kind of upstairs/downstairs dynamic regarding the Nostromo’s crew. The bridge crew-members are, at least barely, responsible and dutiful truckers, doing their jobs with a modicum of professionalism.  But Brett and Parker sweat it out in the boiler room, making mischief and slacking off wherever they can.
The terror in Alien emerges partially but not only from the revolutionary design and appearance of the monster (as envisioned by Giger), but in the conjunction of that frightening unknown with the very-well known world of these ruckers.  If the audience had to imagine “futuristic mankind” and his advanced, perfect technology, the very threat of the alien would surely be mitigated.  Instead, Scott depicts a world of ships, wardrobe, people and environs that we all immediately recognize and identify with.  Because Brett and Parker, Dallas, Kane and Ripley are all immediately believable, that factor makes the crew’s encounter with something truly unknown, something truly alien, all the more scintillating.

The contrast between us “now” (but in space) and the alien itself also forges a nice contrast.  One species is single-minded and brutally efficient.  The other is…not.

The other aspect of the film that viewers today may take for granted is the fact that in Alien, the monster is never seen in the same form twice until the last few scenes. 

After three alien sequels, two AVP movies, and a prequel, people the world around can recite the Alien life-cycle from rote memory: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult or drone.  But in 1979, audiences had no way of knowing any of that, and so were unsettled because they could never be certain what the alien was going to “be” the next time they saw it. 

If the crew in Alien is recognizable as truckers in space or blue collar workers, the alien is utterly unrecognizable, even incomprehensible on first reckoning. 

So much tension arises in the film from the conflict between these two poles, of total recognition, and total lack of recognition. The alien’s constant shifting, its universal state of flux, seems to reflect the anxieties of a decade that witnessed three presidents in ten years, and upheavals in Vietnam, Iran, and on the home-front.  An overwhelming fear in the 1970s was that we didn’t know what, or from where, something else was going to hit the country as it was trying to get on its feet again. 

Would it be another oil crisis? Stagflation? Another political upheaval? A nuclear reactor meltdown? The indeterminate nature of the alien seems to point out, again and again, that the protagonists are falling behind, unable to catch-up with a problem that has spiraled out of control.

Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters at the movies that we’re inured to the concept and it no longer frightens us as it did in 1979, but Alien got it right, in revolutionary fashion.

The fear wasn’t that the alien would be familiar the next time we saw it, the fear was that it would be unfamiliar, that all our learning, all our experience with it would ultimately prove useless.

I have written about Alien’s subtext before, notably in my book Horror Films FAQ (2013), and sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable. 

But on a very basic thematic level, Alien also concerns sex, and a “perfect” being  that can use human sexuality and reproductive drives against prey for its own breeding and survival purposes. 

There are moments in Scott's original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, and sexual stereotypes or roles. Again, this seems fitting considering the historical context. The end of the 1970's brought the disco era, and a new level of hedonism to the American public.  Americans had become more promiscuous, and the 1970's has become notorious, even, for its sense of sexual experimentation.  This idea has most often conveyed in films that focus on the decade’s “key” parties (The Ice Storm [1997[), wherein which married couples would swap partners for a night by randomly selecting car keys from a dish during a suburban party.  At the end of the 1970's, sex clubs such as Plato’s Retreat in New York had also become part of the new tapestry of the culture.

Given such a cultural background, it’s not entirely surprising that the monster in Alien should be a creature consumed with reproduction, and thus sex. To wit, John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. British, whisper-thin and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted at one point in the film donning a white undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to his appearance.

In addition, Kane lives the most dangerous -- or is it promiscuous? -- lifestyle of anyone in the Nostromo crew. He awakes from the freezer first, he initiates the mission to the derelict, and he is the first to enter the derelict’s egg chamber. Kane is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically speaking...) one might expect of a sexually-active homosexual man circa 1979. Again, we’re talking stereotypes here, not reality as we understand it in 2019.

But Kane‘s daring is rewarded with alien impregnation. He is made unwillingly receptive to an oral penetration: the insertion of the face-hugger's "tube" down his throat...where it lays the chest-buster. What emerges from this encounter is "Kane's son" in Ash’s terminology.

But essentially, the alien forces poor Kane -- possibly a coded homosexual male symbol -- to act in the role he may already be familiar with; that of being receptive to penetration.

Consider also Ash (Ian Holm) and his sexual underpinnings. Ash is actually a robot, a creature presumably incapable of having sex. The film's subtext suggests that this inability, this repression of the sexual urge, has made him a monster too.

When Ash attacks Ripley late in the film, he rolls up a pornographic magazine and attempts to jam it down the woman’s throat. It's his penis surrogate. The implication of this particular act is that he can't do the same thing with his physical member, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead.

And when Ash speaks of the alien life-form, he admits envy for it. One must wonder if this “envy” arises because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage.

It is also significant that when Ash is unable to satisfy his repressed sexual desire for Ripley, the pressure literally causes him to explode.  The android blood is a milky white, semen-like fluid in Alien. And it spurts. When confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...Ash can't hold his wad.

The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is undoubtedly Parker (Yaphet Kotto), an African-American man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster revelation.

Parker boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, one in which an interest in sex is clearly the undercurrent. Furthermore, the character is often-seen carrying an over-sized weapon (a flame thrower), another possible phallic symbol.

In another type of film, Parker might be the hero, the guy who saves the day.  But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo he exhibits. In particular, Parker won't turn the flame thrower on the alien while a woman (Lambert) is in the line of fire. The alien dispatches Parker quickly (mano e mano), perhaps realizing he will never co-opt an alpha male like Parker to be his "bitch;" at least not the way Kane was used.

As for Lambert, the most-traditionally (and -- bear with me again -- stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien, presumably by the xenomorph's phallic tail.

Once more, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.   

The monster is able to understand and kill each creature, essentially, according to their assigned, pre-programmed sex role.  Kane’s daring and promiscuous life-style is what exposes him. Ash protects and envies the alien because he can’t perform sexually at all. Parker dies in an act of (in vain) machismo. And Lambert is the traditional screaming victim, unable to do anything but get raped.

And then, at long last, we get to Alien’s sense of brilliant non-convention, the character that explodes all the pre-existing stereotypes I have diagrammed. Meet Ripley: a character written in the screenplay for a man but played by a woman (Sigourney Weaver). She is the only survivor (along with Jones the Cat), of the alien's rampage on the Nostromo and there's a case that can be made that the alien cannot so easily "tag" Ripley as either male or female, and that's why she survives.

She is perfect, like the alien itself, an apparent blend of all “human” qualities. 

Ripley makes irrelevant traditional sex roles or sex stereotypes, and please recall that I have discussed all the crew in terms of the culture’s stereotypes.  That’s because they are prey, and the alien hunts them by those qualities.  It can’t get a handle on Ripley because she exists outside familiar sexual dynamics. 

All the other crew members are somehow limited by their sexuality, whereas Ripley is the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence. She is both strong and weak, in the appropriate measure, both daring and prudent.  Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley for its own nefarious purposes.  This, perhaps, is one advantage of our species: it can outgrow biology, and not act as mere slave to it.

In the final moments of the film, the alien does make a decision vis-à-vis Ripley. It recognizes and catalogs her as the best of humanity whether male or female.  She is kindred; a survivor. So the alien rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the Nostromo.

The alien could likely kill Ripley any time during that escape flight, but does not choose to do so. It knows it is in safe hands with her, at least for the time being. It uses her "competence," her skill (qualities of itself it recognizes in her?) to escape destruction...again establishing its perfection.
When viewed through the lens of human sexuality then, Alien is a film about the way that the reproductive or sex drive can subvert humanity. 

The film is a masterpiece in terms of visualization, in terms of how it approaches space travel and alien life, but more than it, it is a work of genius in describing what perfection might mean to an alien life-form.  It means not being easily tagged or cataloged as one thing or another.   The depiction of the alien itself recognizes the fact that it can be all things to all people.  The doorway to the alien derelict, for instance, is vaginal in appearance, and the alien skull itself resembles “the head of a penis,” (William Paul, Laughing Screaming, 1994).

So as the doors of sexual experimentation were swinging wide in the 1970's, Alien gave the world a monster to walk through that open portal…

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

UFO: "The Cat with Ten Lives"

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," three UFOs approach the moon, but retreat once interceptors approach. Three more UFOs appear in short order, and the first three are pinpointed as decoys. Moonbase survives an attack with only ground tanks as defense.

Meanwhile, an interceptor pilot, James Regan (Alexis Kanner) returns to Earth and visits with his wife, Jean (Geraldine Moffatt). After an evening playing at a seance with friends, the couple returns home, and on the way, encounter a cat in the road. After rescuing it, the Regans are abducted by aliens.  Jean is taken, but James and the cat are returned, apparently unharmed.

At SHADO, Dr. Jackson (Vladek Sheybal) has developed a new theory about the aliens. An autopsy of a recovered alien pilot reveals that it has a fully human brain. In other words, the aliens don't merely harvest human parts, they seem to be incorporeal, possessing humans and other life forms.

This means that the cat is controlling Regan. He returns to the moon, unaware that he is being controlled, and set-up to to launch a kamikaze style attack on the base.  At the last minute, however, the controlling cat is stopped, and Regan comes to his senses. He crashes his interceptor (and is killed), but moonbase survives...

"The Cat with Ten Lives" is a terrific episode of UFO for two reasons, primarily. In the first case, the episode finally provides some additional information about the aliens, and their mysterious nature.  And in the second case, the episode is one of the most stylishly presented, in terms of mise-en-scene. The episode is gloriously filmed.

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," SHADO learns that the mysterious alien invaders are "not humanoid at all," and that they "just use our bodies," and our altered brains, by removing emotion and creativity from the human equation.  Dr. Jackson likens the aliens to "living computers" and the idea is that beings on Earth -- humans, felines, or otherwise -- can be lobotomized, essentially, to serve as receptacles or containers for alien life forms.  The question the episode does not answer is, simply, why do non-corporeal aliens desire to be corporeal, to take our bodies? It would have been fascinating to learn that the answer to that question. This is another reason I wish the series had gone on for several more seasons. There was still so much about the aliens to explore.

Beyond the idea of non-corporeal aliens taking our form and walking among us, "The Cat with Ten Lives" is beautifully filmed. And by that, I don't just mean it is pretty. Rather, the choice of camera angle augments and reflects the content of the story-line.

For instance, during the Ouija seance/game at the Thompsons' house, the camera adopts an overhead shot that reveals the group's vulnerability, as well as the lay-out of the board. As the danger increases, the camera begins to rotate and spin, until Regan is upside down in the frame, a  visual suggestion that his jeopardy is the greatest. He is vulnerable to alien control, and this shot establishes that fact in a way we visually understand.

The episode's alien abduction scene is also incredibly effective. There are P.O.V. shots here of the alien boots, as we watch -- from Regan's, perspective -- as he is dragged from his car, lifted by the aliens, and carried across the threshold of their landed ship. We have heard so many tales of alien abduction since this series aired in 1970, but one has to wonder if this evocative scene -- involving an abductee at night, alone on a forest road, taken by aliens -- informed some beliefs/stories on the subject over the decades. It's a textbook "alien abduction" scene, and one of the first in television history. 

There are questions to be raised, of course, about this episode's narrative. 

First, it takes an awfully long time for anyone to suspect that the cat is dangerous. Yet we have never before seen a cat in SHADO HQ. Its appearance there should have raised some alarms for Straker and the others, sooner.  

Secondly, Straker makes an unequivocally bad call in this episode. He puts a man who has just lost his wife to alien abduction in the driver's seat of an Interceptor (escorting the all-important Venus Probe). Why on Earth would he do that? The pilot, Regan, is traumatized, and clearly not fit for duty.  Sadly, Straker has no good reason for this bad call, save for contrivances of the plot. Usually, the writing isn't this obvious.

Finally, though the special effects are gorgeously vetted, the episode's climactic sequence, with Regan dying to save SHADO, seems reminiscent of earlier episodes, such as "Flight Path." Basically, a compromised SHADO officer/astronaut, proves loyal in the end, and pays for his past betrayal with his life. And everything ends with an explosion on the moon.

Next week: "Destruction."

Sunday, May 19, 2019

20 Years Ago Today: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Phantom Menace (1999) is the Star Wars film that many fans -- and certainly those writing on the Internet -- love to hate. (At least that is, before The Last Jedi came out in 2017).

The reasons for that hate are right there on the film’s surface. Many of these critics and fans don’t like the humor or wacky hijinks of Jar Jar Binks, for instance.

They might also complain about the mundane nature of the film’s overarching conflict (a “dispute” about taxing trade routes), and many also dislike the performance of sunny-faced Jake Lloyd as a pre-pubescent Anakin Skywalker.

Then again, there’s another complaint written about and spoken of frequently. Many fans and critics simply dislike what they feel is the over-green-screened, CGI look of this first in the prequel trilogy.

I can sympathize and fully get behind some of those arguments. Some aspects of the movie don’t come off as successfully as I would have preferred.

And yet, across the years I have grown to appreciate The Phantom Menace more than I once did. To quote a Skywalker, I believe there is still good in it. 

Why have I moved to this stance so fully over the last fifteen years, when my initial gut response was, admittedly, grievous disappointment?

Perhaps because the hostility towards the film (and indeed, its creator) has been so harsh, I have been motivated to go back and really examine the film, and my feelings about it.

My work as a critic, here on the blog or in books, is not to mirror conventional wisdom. It is not to glom on to popular opinion.  It is not to make snarky comments that seek to mock an artist’s attempt to share his or her vision with the world. It is, only, to study a film and determine if an intellectual case for its artistry can be forged. 

A decade-and-a-half after its release, I believe I can make a case for the artistic coherence (and indeed, beauty, in spots) of The Phantom Menace.

First, the entire film -- rather unlike the other Star Wars entries -- features a remarkable, under-the-surface leitmotif that pulls all of the disparate aspects of the narrative together. 

What is that leitmotif?

Symbiont circles. 

Virtually every key relationship is defined in the film by the concept of symbiont circles. For the purposes of the saga, the idea of a symbiont circle is that people -- and their fates -- are connected. Those connections aren’t always seen. Sometimes they are merely hinted at. Sometimes they are detected, but unclear. But they are present nonetheless.

The film’s discussion of symbiont circles allows George Lucas to go beyond the “Light Side” and “Dark Side” dichotomy of the original trilogy, and tread into more nuanced, gray material. For instance, the symbiont circle leitmotif reveals that the Jedi are not paragons of virtue, but arrogant, and occasionally haughty individuals.

This is an appropriate development for an artist returning to his work a generation later; looking to deepen and broaden it in ways that are commensurate with his experience.

Beyond that leitmotif of symbiont circles, The Phantom Menace succeeds on a visual basis. The film’s art direction and production design convey the underlying elements of the narrative, which clearly concerns the rise of fascism and fall of a free, enlightened society. 

Every film critic has as his or her shtick I suppose you could conclude; a benchmark by which to rate a movie a success or failure. As regular readers here are aware, I approach films by looking for the ways that visuals do or do not reflect/augment the thematic content.  If a film can match visualization with theme, I count it artistically sound. If a movie can better make its point with its pictures than its words, it has succeeded in using the art form to its fullest.

On that basis, I find The Phantom Menace flawed, and yet, finally, artistically sound.

“There’s always a bigger fish.”

I have never quite understood why so many fans harp on the fact that -- on the surface -- The Phantom Menace is about a minor dispute over taxation.

That mundane “challenge” for the Republic is, of course, a stalking horse, for the film’s titular “Phantom Menace,” a puppet master called Darth Sidious who is utilizes the appearance of “business as usual” -- the routine, the bureaucratic, the corrupt -- to achieve something truly radical. That’s actually what a “Phantom Menace” is: something that isn’t obvious; but rather amorphous…at least at first.  Obi Wan begins to sense this truth when he opens himself up to the Force. He senses something “elusive.” 

And that “elusive” threat brings me to the film’s central notion of symbiont circles. If there’s always a “bigger fish,” as Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) informs us early in the film, then the tax dispute is definitively and intentionally “the small fish,” the concrete menace, the challenge that appears before the Jedi’s eyes, but doesn’t reveal the whole truth. Obi Wan, in his comment on something “elusive” almost detects that “bigger fish,” it seems.

Here, a mystery figure is manipulating seemingly mundane disputes between Republic members to achieve a radical or revolutionary end. This Dark Lord of the Sith realizes precisely how the pieces of the Republic interact with one another. He is cognizant of that symbiotic circle, you might conclude. He realizes how he can make one piece of it act in a certain way (an illegal blockade by the Trade Federation), and how another member will respond to that action (Naboo’s resistance).  

His end goal, as is abundantly clear by film’s end, is to create a desire in the Republic for a regime change; to unseat Chancellor Valorum. So Palpatine/Sidious manipulates the symbiotic nature of Republic trade and economic relationships, for lack of a better term, to create war between members, weaken leadership, and see himself installed as chancellor.

There is actually very little talk of taxes or trade routes in the film, though you wouldn’t know that from the Internet criticism leveled at it. What we see mostly is an illegal orbital blockade of Naboo, and attempts to penetrate or end that blockade. That situation, rather than being staid, provides for plenty of action.

The same idea of symbiont circles plays out on Naboo’s surface. Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) warns Boss Nass, leader of the Gungans, that what occurs  to the humanoids of the planet -- invasion, namely -- will also happen to the Gungans.  

Why?  They share the same planet; the same reality.  They are linked.

Amidala recognizes this symbiont circle herself, in the film’s conclusion. Her successful battle tactic is predicated on the idea of the Gungans and humanoids joining forces to stop the invasion.They work together, in symbiosis, rather than failing to recognize their connection to one another.

And Padme is quite a leader too. She recognizes she doesn’t “rule” her people. She is one with them, part of another symbiont circle. “I will sign no treaty,” she declares. “My fate will be the same as my people’s.”

Just as the Gungans will share the same fate as her people.

It’s all connected.

The small fish/big fish comparison fits in quietly elegantly with the idea of the symbiont circle. We all live in inter-connected environments, wherein our actions impact others. 

Take for example Anakin, a slave on Tatooine. The Republic has explicitly outlawed slavery and yet, again, facts are facts: Anakin is a slave on Tatooine.  Qui Gon reports, almost as an aside that he hasn’t come to Tatooine to free the slaves. The Republic/Jedi are therefore -- quite unlike Padme or even Jar Jar -- unable to detect the symbiont circle of which they are a part. 

And the cost of their failure to honor the dignity and basic human rights of Anakin and his mother is their own eventual destruction. Anakin ultimately destroys them and what they stand for. Significantly, even slaves like Anakin and Shmi, who live by the edict that the biggest problem in the universe is that “people don’t help each other,” see how it is right to help others.  For some reason -- either corruption, bureaucracy, avarice, or arrogance -- the Jedi nor the Republic Council can see this truth. They love in opulent, literal ivory towers.

Instead of actually helping those who need them, the Jedi don’t show anything but contempt and arrogance towards some of those with whom they share the universe.  “Why do I get the feeling that we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?” Obi Wan asks at one point. That is precisely the wrong perspective for someone who lectures others on the idea of being aware of and valuing inter-connection.

The question: what does this idea of symbiont circles buy George Lucas and Star Wars?

Quite simply, it reveals that the Republic and its defenders have fallen from their high moral ideals, and are vulnerable to the Sith because of it.  The Jedi are arrogant, and can’t see “the bigger” fish operating behind the scenes because of their inadequate sight. The Republic, likewise, is so bureaucratic and caught up in red tape that its leaders cannot free slaves, help an imperiled senate member (Naboo) or even get out of congressional gridlock.

We know from the Original Trilogy that the Republic must fall and give rise to the Empire.  The Phantom Menace makes a kind of double or mirror case regarding that fall. Darth Sidious is aware of symbiont circles and manipulates them to his ends, destroying the Republic. His mirror reflection -- the Jedi and the Republic -- are not tending to their symbiont circles and have therefore failed not just institutionally, but morally.

So Lucas has shown us, with his concept of symbiont circles, how and why a free society falls…when it loses touch with its own plainly stated and voiced values. Obi Wan and Qui Gon are both quick to talk about inter-connection with the Gungans, but the Gungans (raising their “grand army,”), Padme, and Anakin who actually tend to those relationships. While the Jedi Council holds back because the Jedi can’t fight a war for Naboo, Padme, Anakin and Jar-Jar actually fight that war.

This is where Lucas has broadened and deepened his myth since the 1970s and 1980s. Listening to Obi Wan Kenobi talk to Luke in Star Wars, one might conclude that the “good” Jedi were defeated by the “evil” Emperor and his sidekick Darth Vader. What The Phantom Menace reveals is that the story is not that simple. 

The Jedi and the Republic played roles in their own downfall. The Dark Side was there, ready to exploit those faults but, but those faults existed. The Golden Age was not so golden after all.

 “Your focus determines your future.”

The Phantom Menace is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it is actually a film about life here on Earth in the early twentieth century, particularly the so-called “Inter-Bellum” or “Inter-War” period between 1918 and 1939.

This was a gilded age of Art-Deco-styled architecture and design, and apparent peace and prosperity in America. Yet if you remember from history what came next, economic ruin was on the horizon, racism still thrived, and the “phantom menace” of Fascism and tyranny lurked in the shadows.  

Through carefully-crafted, beautifully-rendered imagery, The Phantom Menace recreates this very Inter-Bellum age, but on other planets, and in another time.  

We’re all familiar with the lived-in look of Star Wars (1977) where the universe is kind of…junked.  But by important contrast, The Phantom Menace is set at the apex or zenith of the Galactic Republic, an epoch of riches and wonders, a span when even the finned, chrome spaceships reflect the glory of an advanced civilization at its pinnacle.  

And yet, of course, as the discussion of symbiont circles reveals, it is not a perfect Republic, is it?  Slavery still thrives in far corners of the galaxy, and even the noble Jedi Knights turn a blind eye towards this corrupt institution. And on the rise is wily Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a man who will deceive the unsuspected advanced society to achieve a completely despotic, totalitarian state.

In short, The Phantom Menace’s story is a perfect metaphor for the lead-up to World War II and the global fight against fascism in Europe. Accordingly, the rich imagery in the film explicitly recalls this battle of civilizations. Consider just for a moment the scenes set on the planet Naboo, a kind of quasi-European state in another solar system.

At least twice in the film, we spy a building in the capital city of Naboo that resembles the Arc De Triomphe (or Arc of Triumph) in France. 

In 1940, Nazi troops invaded Paris, and marched the pavement of the Champs-Elysees as a sign of strength and domination. In 1944, the Allies liberated the nation from Hitler’s troops, and on this occasion there was a parade of victory and freedom at the Arc de Triomphe.

The Phantom Menace features two similar moments at an Arc-like structure, once at the commencement of the Droid Army/Trade Federation occupation and then again after their expulsion, during a celebration or parade. If you gaze closely at the imagery, it’s impossible to deny the significance of these visual allusions or comparisons.

If Naboo represents a foreign nation endangered by the outer space equivalent of an Axis power, then Coruscant clearly represents New York City of the same age...a popping hub of culture, diversity, and freedom.  
 As you may recall, Coruscant is a planet-wide metropolis, a city beyond all others. This urban city-scape stretches to the horizon, and nearly right to the cusp of space itself.  In appearance and style, Coruscant conforms perfectly to the Italian architectural style of “Futurism” popular during the 1930s. 

In fact, the Futuristic aesthetic -- an always-growing city upon a city upon a city – was in some corners considered a coded critique of Fascism, and that’s an idea visually reflected by the depiction of the Republic’s capital.

And yet, by the same token, Futurism is seen as stylistically compatible with Art Deco, a school of design often considered “purely decorative." It therefore represents the art of a people very satisfied with the social status quo.  The form is important for itself (for aesthetics), not for the social message behind it. This description not only describes Coruscant aptly, but her satisfied people. They don’t perceive the “phantom menace” in their midst, nor the threat to their very liberty. They're too busy enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.

So this is Lucas’s selected thematic terrain: a metaphor in a galaxy far, far away comparing the last epoch of the Republic to the Inter-Bellum period on Earth. In Star Wars, in 1977, Lucas used visual movie allusions (war films and Kurasawa’s canon, with some Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure) to create a pastiche. Twenty-two years later, Lucas is still using allusions, but historical ones, and ones from schools of art.  His approach, again, is more developed, more nuanced.

But then Lucas stretches his comparisons even a step further in The Phantom Menace and connects that period in Earth history and in the Star Wars universe to the period in which the film was actually made, the 1990s

The Phantom Menace was released at the end of the Roaring Nineties, a period of genuine peace and prosperity in the U.S., and a time – we now know – before the gathering storm of the War on Terror. 

Lucas was downright prophetic in describing how American politics would soon change to face a grave and gathering threat. In Lucas's vision, Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) -- a name which features the same number of letters as Clinton -- would see his leadership and plans for governance stamped out by pervasive accusations of “scandal” from his political enemies and the enemies of progress.

Accordingly, Valorum is impeached by the bureaucratic Senate when a vote of no-confidence is held. That's what happened to Clinton too. We were all focused intently on his scandals, and the very public investigation of those scandals while overseas, terror grew in secret...

And, of course -- as I’ve written before -- one important though subordinate villain's name in this film is Nute Gunray.  Nute = Newt (Gingrich), the leader of the Republican opposition during Clinton’s Presidency.  And Gunray = Ray Gun = Reagan.  So a villain here is Newt Reagan, essentially. 

You needn't agree with Lucas’s viewpoint or political slant to acknowledge that such an undercurrent is present in The Phantom Menace.  And I'm not arguing that Lucas is either right or wrong in his statement, either.

 I'm merely noting the existence of the pointed social critique.  

As further evidence in support of this sub-text, I would note that the social commentary in Phantom Menace as I've spelled it out in this essay is consistent with Anakin’s 2005 Bush-esque declaration in Revenge of the Sith that “Either you’re with me, or you’re my enemy.” 

These data points suggest that Lucas understands the sweep of history.That empires age, become corrupt, and are challenged. That periods of peace and prosperity do not go on eternally, unchallenged.

Regarding the film's other lush visuals, The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates.  But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. 

Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment (a call-back to his Star Wars approach). And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature, and involve slavery, or more aptly, a former slave who rises to a place of remarkable power.

As I noted in my introduction, an important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with pictures. And yet surprisingly few films these days effectively manage this (necessary) feat; to truly deploy visuals in a manner that makes pictures convey thematic meaning. 

The Phantom Menace succeeds admirably in this particular aspect of its tapestry. The images convey important thematic information about the film’s narrative, and how we should interpret that narrative. In other words, the visuals reinforce the comparison the director wants to make, the point he wishes to transmit.

At the very least, I believe that George Lucas embarked on a complex and ambitious visual aesthetic in this first prequel.  He makes the images of his fictional world connect to a time of apparent peace and prosperity (but phantom danger) in our past, and then makes modern audiences understand that we were at a similar juncture in the 1990s.  Were our eyes open to the "Phantom Menace" back then, or were we turned inward, mired in accusations of scandal and corruption?  

If you consider the decade 2001 - 2010, I think you'll have your answer.

Here’s another apparent ding against the film. Many character designs, voices, and characteristics in The Phantom Menace appear, in fact, based on racist stereotypes that existed and flourished in the Inter-War period. 

Watto the money-grubbing Toydarian with his hook-nose appears to be an amalgamation of the offensive “money mad” Jewish stereotype of the Inter-Bellum period.

The Trade Federation representatives like the Viceroy speak pigeon English and have – literally – slants in their eyes.  They thus serve as the embodiment of negative stereotypes about the Japanese. 

And finally, the much hated Jar-Jar Binks with his Stepin Fetchit, “Feet-Don’t-Fail-Me-Now” routine is alarmingly representative of the prevailing caricatures of black men in the media of the same, between-wars age. 

While it’s true that these characters hark back explicitly to that specific period on Earth and thus sub-textually remind viewers of that time, that historical allusion may not validate their inclusion in the film.

What could?

Well, I would very much prefer to believe that Lucas’s depiction of such “ethnic” characters in The Phantom Menace points out, again, that The Galactic Republic is not really the Utopian paradise of equality that many believe it is. 

Not only is slavery present in some corners, but certain “pathetic” life forms (to quote Obi-Wan directly) are looked down upon, explicitly…even by the Jedi. 

So we’re right back to the symbiont circle, aren’t we?  Gazing at the Trade Federation as literal “slant eyes” or writing off Jar-Jar because of his apparent dopey-ness.  Trying to run a Jedi-Mind trick on the money-grubbing Watto. The message here may very well be that prejudice is inside all of us, and it blinds us to the inter-connection of our environment, to the symbiont circle.  Jar-Jar, at least in terms of the action, pretty much saves the day, doesn’t he?  And so does a slave.  Those beings who appear to be silly stereotypes, both to us and the Jedi, turn out to have unrecognized value.

Perhaps the Republic falls because there’s that level of hypocrisy and arrogance there, a looking down its collective nose at species like Gungans or Toydarians.  All the Republic and Jedi see, essentially, is the equivalent of “skin color,” not the true value of these individuals and their people. Pathetic life-forms?  What kind of hero would use such words to describe another being?

So is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the film I hoped it would be, on the eve of its release?  

Not exactly. 

The film is poorly paced, and Jar-Jar's biggest problem is not that he's an annoying boob, but rather that the CGI artists who created him feel, for some reason, that they must show off, making him catapult and dive like a cartoon superhero when he should move a lot more...subtly.  

Were he bound more directly to forces such as gravity, he might have seemed more acceptable.  I should note, in fairness, that my reservations about Jar-Jar are generational.  They are shared by the OT’ers.  I conducted an informal poll in my carpool last week, before writing this review, about Jar-Jar.  With nine years old, he came in as the third best Star Wars character ever. Number one was R2-D2, number 2 was Yoda, number 3 was Jar-Jar, number 4 was Chewbacca, and number 5 was General Grievous. Han Solo didn’t place with the nine year old set, even in the top ten.

Who are 46 year olds -- who found Star Wars at age 7 or so -- to argue with a nine year old that his impression of Star Wars is the wrong one?  Isn't one joy of Star Wars supposed to be that it sparks the imagination of children. It looks like with Jar-Jar, George Lucas accomplished that for the second generation, even if the first generation holds its nose.  

On the other hand, as my review of Return of the Jedi pointed out, the franchise's overt appeal to childhood set legitimately started there, with all the burping aliens and Ewoks. That's a bit of a shift from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but not one you can blame The Phantom Menace for instigating.  At this point, it's a fait accompli. Selling toys and bringing in the kids is a marketing strategy.

On the plus side, I'd argue that the final light saber duel against Darth Maul is the greatest and most impressive such battle in the franchise, and that Liam Neeson projects enormous dignity and grace throughout the film as Qui-Gon Jinn. Overall, I'd say he's the most likable Jedi Knight in the saga (so far).

But that is all just icing on the cake.  In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas made a film about a galaxy far, far away, but that galaxy was succumbing to the same hatreds and fears that we saw early in the 20th century (and which rear their ugly heads again, even now, in political discourse). The film’s visuals tell us that fact, and even the nature of the aliens remind us of why it is valuable not to speak in Nativist, arrogant, racist terms. To do so is not honoring the connections we share in our symbiotic circle. To do so is to betray the force.

Obviously, I can change no hater’s mind.

At this juncture, I don’t care to try, and I don’t feel I need to. So I will close with this thought: “your focus determines your future.”

If you focus on the 1919-1939 Inter-Bellum type visuals of The Phantom Menace, and keep your eye on the leitmotif about symbiont circles, the future reputation of this film need not be consumed by hate. 

Because we know hate leads to the Dark Side, right?

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