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Alien DVD News and The Fandom Menace

Today's column is a two-in-one. First, a message...

From Mike Matessino:

    May 25th was the 20th anniversary of ALIEN, and appropriately, we chose that day to release some inside news about the creation of our supplemental material for Fox's upcoming DVD and VHS gift sets. Check out our homepage at The ALIEN DVD will feature isolated tracks presenting the complete music score by Jerry Goldsmith. It hits stores June 1st, but to get our 68-minute documentary, "The ALIEN Legacy," which I did with my long-time partner David C. Fein, you have to buy the set of all four ALIEN films on DVD (and send away for it) or VHS (included). I know this is a drag, but if you're an ALIEN fan, I promise you won't be sorry. We can really use your support, and besides, you DO want that 2-CD SUPERMAN set, don't you?

The Fandom Menace

By Jason Comerford

It's about impossible for anyone to say anything remotely negative about the latest Star Wars opus, The Phantom Menace. It's like trying to have a seminar on literature in the middle of a tornado; sure, there are some intelligent things said here and there, but for the most part they're all lost in a rush of hot air.

What's sad about The Phantom Menace is how it could have been fixed with some very, very simple things. But moreover, it's sad that so much effort went into this thing and the result was so dismally dull. For me, it all starts with the writing, the characters, the interaction. If you have good, solid characters that you care about, then the movie is much more fun-- and will likely have all the bigger impact on audiences. What was fun about the original Star Wars was its sense of gee-whiz exuberance in a time of great cynicism. It was junky, sloppy, and sometimes headache inducing, but it was fun because we cared. We cared about Luke Skywalker's wide-eyed boyishness, about Han Solo's scowling anti-hero, about the benevolent Obi-Wan Kenobi. They were characters that we could identify with and be empathetic towards, clunky dialogue or not. Star Wars was a pastiche of everything from The Searchers to Kurosawa to Joseph Campbell, but done with a truly genuine sense of rakish, golly-gee innocence.

None of this enthusiasm is on display in The Phantom Menace. Yes, visually this movie is a mindblower, but it's all for naught if you don't give a damn about the characters that are interacting with this exhaustively detailed environment. There is acting in movie that is as bad as I've ever seen; it's as if Lucas didn't care a single bit about having his actors act. Liam Neeson and Ewan MacGregor are just going through the paces; not only do you not get a sense of a relationship between them (what with MacGregor following Neeson around like a puppy), but you don't get a sense of them being solid, individual people.

Nor do we care much for Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, reduced to muttering her lines in a dull monotone when in makeup and just following Neeson around when not); she's supposed to be a pacifist queen ruling a benevolent people. But more often than not she just looks irritated; I couldn't help but to wonder if Portman was being strangled by her Amidala garb. Jake Lloyd, as young Anakin Skywalker, is slight; he's more grating than innocently appealing, reduced to whooping and yelling like an eight-year-old playing a big-time video game.

In essence, that's what The Phantom Menace is: a big, loud, splashy, and empty video-game-movie, no better or worse than the glut of big, loud, splashy, and empty films that the original Star Wars inspired (from Battlestar Galactica right up to things like Armageddon). Scenes come and go with no sense of emotional ebb or flow; it's a machine chugging away until the next big battle sequence. There's little humor to relieve the dullness of the drama at hand. There are, however, a few clever touches here and there: the Tusken Raiders taking potshots at speeding podracers was my favorite moment in the entire film. It's the kind of out-of-nowhere gag that Star Wars was full of, and The Phantom Menace needs much more of them. And the much-discussed CGI character, Jar Jar Binks, wasn't as annoying as I thought he'd be, but he wasn't precisely an asset either.

John Williams' score faces a mighty challenge amidst all this nonsense. When you take a listen to the Star Wars score today, it's amazing at how tightly constructed a piece of work it is, in terms of color, thematics, and orchestration. It was the perfect pop-junk accompaniment to a pop-junk movie: a big, splashy, grandiose Orchestral Score that completely sold the experience of the film in every way, shape, and form. And what made it so indelible was how well it was keyed in to the feel of the film, how it let us know how characters were feeling and what they were thinking.

In The Phantom Menace, Williams simply has piecemeal to go on. He's been reduced to needle-in-a- haystack composing, proving Big Music for moments that simply have no emotional thrust behind them. A friend of mine described the sound of the new score as "more mature"; I'm not really sure if that's accurate. I might describe it as more detached than the previous scores, like Williams knew he was fighting a losing battle and decided to concentrate on the musicality of the work rather than the dramatic aspects. The Phantom Menace is full of Williams' leitmotivic and orchestrational trademarks, but it's no groundbreaker in those areas; far from it. The score starts off big and loud and just keeps going, starting with a battle sequence on a spaceship that throws us into the action so fast we barely know who the characters are, then moving on to sequence after sequence with all the smoothness and subtlety of a sledgehammer.

We know that the Jedi are good, so Williams tosses them heroic brass measures for their fancy lightsaber work. There's so little variation in the approach to the Jedi (Neeson's Qui-Gon Jin and MacGregor's young Obi-Wan) that by the time the fourth or fifth heroic act on their part rolls around, we're beyond caring about them. Williams is scoring their actions so straightforwardly that he's scuttling himself; he's a master at variation, which gets one to wondering why his action cues for the Jedi get some tiresomely repetitive. Therefore it's a relief when the "Duel of the Fates" cue rolls around for the final confrontation between Darth Maul and the two Jedi. It's the type of multilayered music that Williams excels at, providing motifs for both the Good and the Bad in quick succession, all driven by an exciting low-end, string-driven tempo.

Unfortunately, the music editors had a little too much fun with Williams' music; the climax features three, then four separate converging plotlines, and instead of letting the music carry over each transition, the film just goes from one cue to another, then back to the same cue. This is certainly not Williams' fault, but it's indicative of the kind of score-the-moment tendency that has poisoned popular filmmakers over the years. We know that the Sith are bad, so Williams tosses them a dark choral phrase, quoting the Emperor motif from Return of the Jedi and offering up a hushed, chantlike choral signature for Darth Maul (at best an underdeveloped dramatic foil). If the Sith get really lucky, they get some quiet percussive elements and some snarling brass figures ("The Sith Spacecraft" on the CD). How many ways can one score a bad guy, anyway? Williams found interesting ways to do it in the previous films, giving them dynamic shadings of pathos and regret, but here the villians and situations are so cardboard that he has no choice but to reach into his bag of musical cliches and give them the best spin that he can. The Sith, essentially, are what drive this entire storyline; Star Wars is all about the rise and fall and rise again of Darth Vader. It's his presence, and the presence of the Dark Side, that provides the foil for the heroes. Williams' earlier scores featured some brilliantly deft moments of thematic ambiguity, offering the idea that evil had feelings too. For The Phantom Menace he's reduced to scoring stock Bad Guys that have about as much levity and punch as a hangnail.

In the end, there's not much more one can say about The Phantom Menace; it's the type of love-it-or-hate-it experience that will divide moviegoer opinions forever. Perhaps this little tirade of mine will take some of the heat off of my esteemed, sleep-deprived editor, and perhaps not. But I thought it was worth a try to see if anyone else ended up caring about seeing a movie that would entertain for two hours, or a movie that would both entertain and last, time and time again.

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