Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace
Screenplay : George Lucas
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Ray Park (Darth Maul)
Is it possible? Could any movie do it? Could any movie live up to the pathological expectations and excessive hype that have swirled around "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace" ever since it was a rumor on the Internet several years ago? The excitement that has engulfed this motion picture--the sheer exuberance of awaiting it, the most "anticipated movie in history"--has clouded everything about it, making it difficult to stand back and critically assess it as a movie.
Hype or no hype, "The Phantom Menace" is an exhilaratingly visual experience that sometimes lacks in character development and plot clarity, but never at the expense of pure enjoyment. For those who have never experienced the first three "Stars Wars" movies (I have a hard time believing there are many of you out there), it will not be hard to sink into Episode I.
For those who are intimately familiar with the adventures of Luke Skywalker, et. al, "The Phantom Menace" will prove doubly enjoyable because it deepens the meaningfulness of Episodes IV through VI by explaining background information and character origins. It shows that George Lucas' vision is a true saga, a complete whole, and not just a series of related movies. Although Episode I is not in league with dark effectiveness of "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) or even the giddy sensationalism of the original "Star Wars" (1977), it is still an entertaining tale well-told, and a successful cornerstone on which Episodes II and III can be constructed..
"The Phantom Menace" does clunk a bit at times, mostly because writer/director Lucas hasn't directed a film since the original "Star Wars" over 22 years ago, and he was never a particularly good dialogue writer or director of actors to begin with. Still, he has fashioned a thoroughly entertaining new opus, one that never has a dull moment. Some may try to write "The Phantom Menace" off as a failure, but they are looking at it from the wrong angle. This film (like the others in the Trilogy) is meant to entertain, and in that aspect it always succeeds.
"The Phantom Menace" takes place a generation before the action in the original "Star Wars." Young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who will grow up to become the insidious Darth Vader, is a slave boy working on Tatooine when he is discovered by two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Anakin is just a tike here, but he has a future: already he is a brilliant pilot and a master at building machinery (a hint toward his future of being more machine than man, perhaps?). If the movie has a serious flaw, it's that it misses a great opportunity by allowing Lloyd's golly-gee performance to give little suggestion of the dark future before him.
Obi-Wan will be familiar to those who have seen his older incarnation played by Alec Guiness in the first Trilogy, but Qui-Gon is a new character who has never been mentioned. He is also one of the more interesting characters in "The Phantom Menace," mostly because of the gravity and intensity given to the role by Liam Neeson, who brings the same kind of roughish nobility that inspired his titular roles in "Rob Roy" (1995) and "Michael Collins" (1996).
McGregor, dynamic actor that he is, is not given as much to do as the young Obi-Wan, who is Qui-Gon's Jedi apprentice. However, in "The Phantom Menace" this is something of a necessity because Lucas is consciously setting up plotlines for Episodes II and III. While some complain about this, it can been seen as greater evidence that these films must be taken as a whole; one does not exist in its fullness without the others.
"The Phantom Menace" also introduces us to a host of other fantastical characters, including the clumsy and comical Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), an amphibious side kick with floppy ears and a sly grin. Jar Jar is already under attack from cultural purists who see him as too reflective of outdated black stereotypes like Stepin Fetchit. Granted, there are times when Jar Jar can become a bit bothersome, but not because of his ethnic references, whatever those may be (he does speak in a kind of warped Jamaican dialect that is, unfortunately, often incomprehensible). Instead, Jar Jar sometimes wears out his welcome simply because he is too much; for instance, there is a large battle scene at the end of the film, and its impact is almost entirely diminished by Jar Jar's clumsy and improbable antics in the heat of battle.
Another of the central characters is Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the elected ruler of the planet Naboo. Naboo is under attack by the greedy Trade Federation, and she travels to the bureaucrat-infested Imperial Senate to beg for help ("Phantom Menace" has an unexpected and somewhat confusing economic/political dimension).
Amidala is a strong presence in the film, especially if you know that she will eventually marry Anakin and give birth to the twins, Luke and Leia. In this film, she splits her time between acting as a calm, intense ruler and a fighting, gun-slinging rebel. Lucas made great sacrifices in his shooting schedule to ensure that Portman would take the role after he saw her in "The Professional" (1994), and you can see why. She holds the screen well, acting both strong and willful, but also showing a nurturing, motherly instinct in the way she cares for Anakin after he leaves his mother (played by noted Swedish actress Pernilla August).
And, what would an epic be without a villain? "The Phantom Menace" presents us with Darth Maul (martial arts expert Ray Parker), a hooded Sith lord who is painted to look like a spawn of hell and is described by this week's "Newsweek" magazine as a "bad--s mofo." As the right-hand man to the evil Darth Sidious, Lord of the Sith, Darth Maul is a vile and memorable villain, even though he has few lines and appears in only a handful of scenes. However, his final battle against Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, in which he wields a wicked two-bladed light saber, is a rousingly intense climax punctuated to perfection by John Williams' haunting choral music.
In terms of special effects, "The Phantom Menace" is literally light years ahead of the other "Star Wars" films (it has been 16 years since the last installment, "Return of the Jedi"). As a matter of fact, Lucas put off working on Episode I until the technology caught up with his vivid imagination. It paid off, as some 95% of the shots in this film have some kind of digital manipulation. Dozens of creatures and entire digital worlds are created with striking three dimensional realism--these include Planet Naboo, which reflects Renaissance European architecture; an encapsulated underwater city where Jar Jar comes from; and the Senate's capital city, which is a "Metropolis"-like modern vista of endless futuristic skyscrapers (the city literally covers an entire planet).
The visual imagery comes off the screen in leaps and bounds, and it allows Lucas the freedom to construct intricately detailed action sequences that put the audience right in the action. Chief among these is a "pod race" on Tatooine that was obviously inspired by the chariot race in "Ben Hur" crossed with the speeder bike sequences from "Return of the Jedi." Young Anakin zips and careens at hundreds of miles an hour through rock formations and valleys, always threatening to fly out of control. This same sense of speed and abandon is repeated at the end of the film in a space battle that almost manages to top the final assault on the Death Star in "Jedi" in terms of complexity and sheer adrenaline.
And, just to make sure rabid "Star Wars" fans feel right at home, Lucas gives us some familiar faces, including the nefarious Jabba the Hutt, Yoda, and the unforgettable droid duo of C-3P0 (who is still under construction) and R2-D2. The scene that is most fascinating in its circularity with the other three "Star Wars" films shows C-3P0 and R2-D2 meeting for the first time. It's silly, but it's like being able to go back in time and see old friends find each other.
One of the great, underlying ironies of "The Phantom Menace" is that Lucas never wanted to return to making "Star Wars" films after he finished producing "Return of the Jedi." But, since then, with the exception of the "Indiana Jones" trilogy, every movie project he's been involved with--from "Howard the Duck" (1986) to "Willow" (1988) to "Radioland Murders" (1994)--has been an unqualified disaster, almost as if fate were pushing him back to that galaxy far, far away. This is where you belong, Lucas: this is your destiny. Good thing for us he's making the most of it.
©1999 James Kendrick