Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running time: 133 min.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Frank Oz (voice), Ray Park, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best (voice), Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Terence Stamp, Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley, Warwick Davis (cameo)
Director: George Lucas
Screenplay: George Lucas
Review published May 26, 1999. Revised March 7, 2007
The Phantom Menace marks the first new Star Wars theatrical feature in over 15 years, and it seems the fans that watched the earlier films as children have now grown up to adulthood. As a consequence, not only are expectations higher, but now the same minds that were wowed as children are now adults -- adults that require much more to be entertained and blown away. This is especially true as the original Star Wars ushered in a new wave of blockbuster cinema, where special effects and prolonged action scenes are the main components of any major summer theatrical release with an eye on a box office bonanza. It's not enough to just be as good as the original series, it also has to best everything that has come since.
Creator-writer-director-producer George Lucas knows it is the kids that make him the most money. Although the films have been hugely profitable, it has been the rabid purchasing of the action figures and other merchandise tied in to the film that has made him a wealthy man. The challenge for Lucas is a difficult one. How does he provide entertainment that will appeal to both the adults and the children? The rationale as evidenced by the film seems to have been to have political intrigue for the adults and a whole lot of Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best) for the children. This approach seems to have backfired with many viewers. The kids are completely bored by the politics, while many adults are incessantly annoyed by Jar Jar to the point that some scenes of The Phantom Menace are difficult to embrace.
The Phantom Menace is, of course, the first chapter of three prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy we know and love. This arc begins with the childhood of young Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd, Jingle All the Way) and young adulthood of Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor, Velvet Goldmine). In these times, the Trade Federation attempts to usurp the planet Naboo, and in response, the Republic send Master Jedi warrior Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson, Schindler's List) and his apprentice Obi-Wan to negotiate. The Trade Federation, a pawn of a scheming Dark Side presence, Darth Sidious (McDiarmid, Sleepy Hollow), want no part of these negotiations and soon the Jedis along with the Naboo queen Amidala (Portman, Everyone Says I Love You) must travel for help to save the threatened planet by escaping for help elsewhere. They detour to the world of Tattooine where they meet a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd) who Jinn feels destined to be a great Jedi himself.
Without a doubt, from a sights and sounds perspective, The Phantom Menace is a breathtaking experience alone for the marvelous special effects perhaps the best I've ever seen in any movie prior. As such, they are the main attraction to this highly successful prequel in the Star Wars series. The storyline, although not chock full of surprises, is fine too, even if the main plot involving the political upheaval is a bit confusing in the midst of so many characters and action sequences. Although the main conspiracy plot might seem a bit dry to many viewers looking for action and the whiz-bang nature of the original series, The Phantom Menace contains several simpler side-stories involving young Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi that still keep the personal nature of the conflict at the forefront.
However, the special effects prove to be a double-edged sword, providing the main drawback to the film, and unfortunately, for some viewers, it's enough to ruin their enjoyment of the film as a whole. The characters who are computer generated, especially that of Jar Jar Binks, are a persistent distraction, and so difficult to understand at times, one might wish for subtitles regardless of the fact that they are speaking English (you'll come to be more tolerant of ROTJ's Ewoks after seeing these cutesy creatures). The accents are overdone (not to mention, perceivably racist), and the mix of computer animation with the live action characters isn't really convincing, even with the leaps and bounds in special effects over the years. Some of the effects are a step back -- Yoda looks like a drunk and stoned Jack Nicholson, while Lucas clutters up the background with needless shots of the various creatures and vehicles. There's just too much going on at times, making it difficult to focus on the story at hand.
Lastly, the casting of Jake Lloyd as Anakin is a major liability. He's a cute kid, but he's always noticeably acting, which proves to be yet another element that takes us out of the action. Most of this is the fault of Lucas, who should have known better than to give the kid so many lines, and then to cast a very young child actor, who was probably thoroughly confused as to what to do and how to behave, especially when he spends a great deal of his time acting to green screens and CGI characters to be added later. It comes off quite stiff much of the time.
Nevertheless, there are also moments of great cinematic grandeur, as is a requirement in any chapter of the Star Wars saga. Breathtakingly rich designs for the new worlds, gorgeous costumes, stunningly rendered space battle sequences all contribute to making The Phantom Menace one of the choicest bits of eye candy ever created. A sequence involving Anakin Skywalker in a pod race might go on far longer than the story function necessitates, but Lucas has such fun with his new toys, it becomes one of the film's highlights. The real show-stopper is the fantastic battle sequence between Darth Sidious' pupil, Darth Maul (Park, X-Men) and the duo of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan -- the two against one with double-bladed lightsaber to boot.
In short, this first episode of the new trilogy feels like a kids movie that has some late adult developments shoehorned in for the purpose of future entries. How much you can forgive will largely depend on your expectations coming into it. Those expecting a rekindling of the feelings after watching the original Star Wars for the first time will come away unfathomably disappointed. Others just looking for escapist fare will be delighted in seeing something that shoots for an all-ages experience. My take: If you are able to overlook some of the film's major weaknesses, The Phantom Menace is strong enough in many other categories that it still provides the grand escapist entertainment with thrills to spare most viewers are looking for.
-- Followed by Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Preceded (in chronology) by the "sequels", Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi.
©1999, 2007 Vince Leo