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The "Phantom" Fallout

Reactions From the Aisle Seat

By Andy Dursin

Last week we saw something that probably hadn't been quite as scrutinized before, even in today's media -- not just a movie's single day box-office gross, but a literal 24-hour analysis of a picture's financial performance from one show to another.

You probably heard how THE PHANTOM MENACE broke the single day record last Wednesday (no easy feat given that it happened on a Wednesday, with most kids still in school and folks supposedly at work), but following that the chicken littles of the showbiz world began to predict doomsday for the movie, as it fell off on Thursday (again, when most schoolchildren are still in class and everyone is working). Its overall gross wasn't spectacular -- falling a tad shy of THE LOST WORLD's three-day gross (which came on a holiday weekend) -- but still broke the overall five-day attendance record nevertheless with over $100 million.

For those industry pundits who seem to rank a picture's actual moneymaking performance with the quality of the movie itself, I can only offer this -- they have, in most instances, virtually nothing to do with one another. After all, BABE-PIG IN THE CITY grossed less than $20 million. ARMAGEDDON raked in over $200 million. The former received critical kudos but was banished into the "flop" category since Universal unwisely decided to release the film opposite a Disney release; the other, despite being one of the worst junk-food hits of its kind to appear this decade, somehow made money in spite of mixed word-of- mouth.

Of course I'm interested to see how THE PHANTOM MENACE does financially -- I think it will be a steady performer all summer long -- but it's not going to change my opinion of the movie. On the other hand, I witnessed at least one television critic in Boston change their tune on this movie once the early reviews for this film came out -- the ones from Time magazine and NPR and Newsweek and every other person predisposed not to like a film from this genre in the first place. Whenever a critic can't stand up for their opinion (no matter how misinformed or badly judged), it begs the question--what exactly are you there for in the first place?

If you were around last Thursday you probably caught my reaction to the film, which lead many of you to write back with your own comments. Here's a sampling of them for your edification, although I will say that I was surprised that most of you who wrote in seemed to love the movie... it really hasn't been receiving an anticipated negative backlash from audiences after all.

As always, if you just caught the movie thinking you'd avoid the lines that way (you didn't really, since all the media frenzy did was scare people AWAY last week if nothing else), feel free to pass your comments along to dursina@att.net and we'll discuss them herein. Now, on with our first email...

From Scott Hanson (srh@shore.net)

    I've never written before, but have read just about every one of your installments for FSM's site. While I have found myself disagreeing with you heavily on some subjects (and rooting for your words of wisdom at others), I have held back any comments I've had in the past. Your THE PHANTOM MENACE review has to become the exception.

    Once I finally saw the film for myself, I allowed a few of the mixed and sorted reviews pass my eyes (The Boston Globe, Jay Carr [who sucks in my opinion]; and the TIME magazine review that ran a week ago). I really don't know what some film critics have stuck in their backside. I really feel like a sports fan who gets peeved at an umpire or referee and exclaims how the dirty bastard is blind. It seems to me that some critics have gotten themselves to such a critical point in viewing films, that they can no longer enjoy the story and its presentation, but instead have been reduced to doing nothing but picking out its bad points and what it fails to do, often times comparing it with films that have gone done in film history as being classics.

    You, my friend, are the exception to the rule. You, as a critic, have not let your head get too big, and have instead been able to enjoy this film and appreciate it for what it is, which is in fact what most people I think are going to be able to do. In doing so, your review is the perfect summation for what this film has turned out to be.

    What bothers me with many of the stinker reviews is that these snobs who write them are totally missing Lucas' setup points. There are so many tie-ins from THE PHANTOM MENACE that connect it directly to the original trilogy, it's crazy. Anakin's turn-out, his future love with the Queen, the fate of his mother, the friendship between he and Obi-Wan, his origins that will undoubtedly be further explored. While the Anakin character has been brilliantly set up, my favorite character (as I predicted as being so before I even saw the film) is the young queen. As stern as Queen Elizabeth when needed, as noble a fighter as Joan of Arc, and a heart of gold unmatched by any other. The love story between her and Anakin in the second film will make Episode II my favorite installment. I've already decided.

    What many have to remember, is that THE PHANTOM MENACE is **one chapter** of a larger story. Thanks for not letting the film critic pomposity ruin your own career and the enjoyment of the film for movie-goers and those of us who just enjoy a good story.

    PS: Did you enjoy seeing Spielberg's alien friends in the council scene? As nice a homage by Lucas as Williams' was to Rozsa's chariot race ;)

Scott, thanks for the email (and naturally it'd be nice if every note I receive is like this one!). Of course, you raise a number of valid points in your note, one of the principal ones being not just how certain critics reacted to this film, but more importantly, the TONE in which they wrote their reviews. As you mentioned, it seemed very clear to me that -- whether or not TPM fell below expectations or not -- many reviewers appeared predisposed NOT to like this film right from the get-go. Recall how Time hated TITANIC and you get the general idea -- TPM is going to make a lot of money regardless of critics, who in turn, feel envious of Mr.Lucas and simply want to throw rocks at it. I can tell you that even if I didn't like the film, I probably wouldn't have written a review in the same way that several folks did. It's a movie, folks. Take it for what it is, not what it isn't. And as Scott mentioned, why are people so shocked that this movie is a "set up" film? Of course it is, it was always supposed to be! It sets the table for the entire series, lays down the groundwork... did people think we'd see Darth Vader IN this movie?

From Adam (Buckyball1@aol.com):

    Thank you very much for what is probably the best and most sensible review I've read of The Phantom Menace so far. I think I agreed with you on every point you made about the film. I loved the film too, and thought that it is a wonderful introduction to the whole series, and it left me wanting more. I can't wait until Episode II and III ! The first 15 minutes was indeed mediocre, but it all built up to a wonderful ending! I don't know what those critics were smoking when they saw it. I think it bares a very similar resemblance to the original in terms of action in the film. The first movie started off with an action sequence, then slowed down a bit, then picked back up again with a thrilling conclusion. The Phantom Menace does sort of the same. And the pod race, well, all I can say is, WOW! That was sweet! I felt like I was at Universal Studios, on some ride. Lucas is an outstanding filmmaker, and it's too bad some people can just sit down and enjoy the movie and not analyze every little bit of it, and that's what the critics did. That's where they went wrong, sadly. The Phantom Menace is a sci-fi film, not some tear-jerking drama, which seems to be the only movies these days critics do enjoy. TPM is by far one of the best sci-fi movies ever made. Thanks for your time.

From Laird M. Malamed (lairdo@cltc.com):

    I just came back from seeing Episode 1 (along with a packed house) in Westwood.

    I had skipped your column this morning to avoid any more of the bias I was already facing, but upon reading it tonight, I think you really nailed the strengths and weaknesses.

    One point where I disagree with you is Liam Neeson's performance. I actually thought it to be fairly flat and below his usual high caliber of work. This I attribute to two things. One is directing. The other is a make up choice to make him seem older and wiser than his actual age or face indicate. Liam is fairly young looking for his mid-40's. Yes, he needs to be a master to have an apprentice, but I think Lucas should have played up more of his youthful rebellious nature rather than play against who he really is. It's not so much that this takes the film down (there's enough other stuff like Anakin's mother), it's that it's the one area where I didn't expect to be disappointed.

    Another interesting point is the lack of wow the computer effects elicited in me. They really achieved a level of excellence that makes them just another part of the movie. It's like good film music - you shouldn't really be focusing on it while you watch the film. This a victory for ILM.

    My last point is that the pacing seemed off at many times until the end. That's too bad because it really helped Star Wars and Empire, and I think some more editing actually would have paid off here.

    My overall: It's a good movie. It just was hyped to be an excellent one, so it's a little hard to not be disappointed. Plus, we have so much to pay off in Episode II. Ultimately, I think this movie will end up a bit like Jedi. On its own, it's good. When viewed in context as a continuation of the other films, it's very good.

Laird, I don't know if it was George Lucas being rusty, but it's true -- the pacing in the movie never hits its stride until the last half-hour. The first 30 minutes, in fact, are so jumbled it felt as if someone had gone through and sliced up the movie in the editing room. When the movie veered from what looked like an opening sequence of character development into a clumsy action scene, all I could think of was last year's hideous LOST IN SPACE remake! Fortunately it corrected itself and improved steadily as it went along. As far as Liam goes, his character was most definitely meant to be older... I thought he was perfectly acceptable even if he essentially gave the same kind of performance that he has in many recent films. It did lack intensity, but that's Neeson -- he's more of a brooding actor who gives you a slow burn.

From Mike Shapiro <mike@zoesis.com>

    I am continually awestruck by the quality of your reviews, both on a universal level (insight and eloquence) and on a narccicistic one (your ability to articulate every nuance of my own opinion, including details I hadn't fully identified yet). Your Phantom Menace review epitomized both these traits, and I enjoyed it immensely. If there was ever a journalistic award for Not Only Best Review In Recent Memory But Review Most Suited From A Poetic Justice Standpoint To Be Rolled Up and Used To Cudgel Peter Travers To Death, it would be sitting on your stoop right now. Bravo!

Thanks Mike! And with that in mind, we come to the next camp of reaction on this picture...

From Bridget artafacts@earthlink.net:

    You are so out to lunch on this one the question just begs to be asked again: what drugs are you on? I'd just as soon advise people to skip this appetizer and move directly to the main course because, for all intents and purposes, this is the sorriest piece of MSG loaded tripe i have set my eyes on since Armageddon. The only audience member from my vantage point with any apparent enthusiasm for the film was a solitary 13 year old boy who couldn't sit still in his seat. If it were polite to enquire, I probably would have asked him if he'd taken his Ridolin that morning. In fact, I found myself looking over to him every now and again with utter fascination. He was obviously experiencing a much different film than the one I was. What I bore witness to was a poorly edited, overscored, over designed, incoherant pot-boiler of no inherant consequence; without charm, without wit, without compassion and certainly without suspense! Quite simply, nothing mattered. Nothing mattered to the characters who paraded nilly-willy from one anticlimax to another with all the enthusiasm of an algorithm or, to myself, who felt like a Encyclopedia Brittanica salesman at a Nintendo convention. In other words, I felt nothing.

From Kubrick70@aol.com:

    I think myself THE PHANTOM MENACE will get three nominations thus far ....

    - Visual Effects

    - Sound

    - Sound Effects Editing

    Possibles... Makeup... . not sure everything was so digital Cinematography... . Nope don't think it was not that special Costumes ... again not so spectacular ... Natalie Portman looked great but I wouldn't give it that much either

    Last but not least ... as much as I love John Williams scores... this does not desreve a nomination at all. I was pleased but it doesn't touch the originals at all.

    So far I am waiting on The Talented Mr. Ripley myself I anticipate that it may be this years Oscar leader.

Naturally, we did get other emails (including several from people who saw and hated the movie, then changed their minds -- as they have every right to do!), but that's it for the first sampling of reaction to EPISODE I since we're outta time (and room!).

NEXT WEEK... More comments and reaction, plus my look at the TARZAN soundtrack (and don't get too cranked up, it only runs 42 minutes with 17 minutes of middling Mark Mancina underscore). Until then, send in your emails -- positive, negative, whatever -- to me at dursina@att.net Excelsior!


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