Mike Stoklasa is more interested in the failed Lucas. YouTube videomakers have long been obsessed with the “Star Wars” director and his prequels, and a fair share of their output has been skeptical or critical; see the above-linked “Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary Trailer” and Boone’s “THX 1138” essay, which indirectly attacks Lucas’ recent work by showing what he was able to do with real locations and little money. But Stoklasa — who warmed up to “The Phantom Menace” review with similarly thorough takedowns of “Star Trek: Insurrection” and “Star Trek: Nemesis” — takes anti-Lucas sentiment to a surreal new level. His “Phantom Menace” review is a deep-dish analysis packaged like a gonzo stand-up comedy routine — a seven-part, 70-minute dismantling of one film that doubles as an attack on visual excess in the digital age, and the replacement of storytelling with spectacle.
The opus begins by stating that narrative films need a protagonist to make viewers care about what happens, and “The Phantom Menace” not only doesn’t have one, it doesn’t have characters. To prove his point, the narrator asks several friends to describe major characters in the franchise to a hypothetical viewer that has never seen a “Star Wars” movie. They have no trouble describing characters in the original trilogy, but fall back on physical details when describing characters in the prequels: Han Solo is a cocksure rogue who has a problem with authority; Qui-Gon Jinn has a beard and a ponytail. (See the clip below, at the 6:50 mark.)
Part seven of the series explores “The Ending Multiplication Effect” — Lucas’ tendency to add more parallel narratives to the climax of each successive “Star Wars” film (one line of action in “A New Hope,” two in “The Empire Strikes Back,” three in “The Return of the Jedi,” four in “The Phantom Menace”), diluting storytelling momentum and audience enthusiasm. Clever split-screen effects illustrate his gripes; the end of “A New Hope” fills up the viewing window, while the four lines of action that climax of “The Phantom Menace” are contained in shrunken rectangles butted together like bathroom floor tiles.
If “The Phantom Menace Review” were just film criticism plus armchair psychoanalysis, it would be plenty fascinating. What makes it brilliant is the voiceover narration, which creates an alter ego for Stoklasa more compelling than any character in the film being criticized: a cranky, depressed shut-in who offers to send pizza rolls to viewers; confuses the Cuban Missile Crisis with World War I; brags that he’s never read a book and isn’t about to start, and might be somewhere around 110 years old (if we’re to take a side comment about Lucas basing “Star Wars” on Saturday morning serials, “the kind I used to watch when I was in my 40s,” at face value).
Judging from the human remains and terrified hostages glimpsed in the narrator’s basement, he may also be a serial killer. Between the character’s ignorance (he pronounces “protagonist” as “prota-GOAN-us”) and hints of murderous alienation, it’s as if Stoklasa is saying that only an illiterate psychotic would spend so much time thinking about “Star Wars.” Or as Grant puts it, it’s both “a compelling, well put together and useful audiovisual review of ‘The Phantom Menace’ and an incredibly thorough parody of a review — it musters a very clever attack on a certain kind of dumbass fanboy style of film reviewing.”
But the Milwaukee-based filmmaker says he’s not making fun of the “Star Wars” audience — just looking for a way to make an exhaustive analysis watchable.
“Before I started this thing, I had 24 pages of material written on ‘The Phantom Menace,’ single spaced,” he says. “If the presentation is too straight, nobody’s going to watch something like that.”
He is worried, however, that increasingly sophisticated technology and ballooning budgets have dumbed down cinema, and made viewers at once less sophisticated and more jaded.
“‘Avatar’ is amazing visually, but when it was over, the guy behind me shouted ‘That was corny crap! That sucked!'” Stoklasa says. “$400 million dollars worth of special effects, and the guy dismisses it like that. It tells you how desensitized to special effects we are at that point, where even the best special effects don’t seem that special anymore. That’s what George Lucas has brought us. I mean, people tell me, ‘You’re really good at critiquing movies,’ when here I am pointing out that a movie needs to have a protagonist. I kind of fear for the future.”