Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Rating -

  Sci-Fi (US); 1999; Rated PG; 132 Minutes

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
Ahmed Best: Jar Jar Binks

Produced, directed and screenwritten by George Lucas

Review Uploaded

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Star Wars." The words alone attract millions.

For 22 years, this film has evolved into a cinematic marvel, shaping the way moviegoers think about the film experience, and broadening the limits of every filmmaker's horizons. By some twist of fate, George Lucas gave the motion picture industry something it had never seen before: He gave us a film that cut corners, cost little to make, contained relatively unknown actors (at the time), and still managed to become one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of the modern cinema. And even after two decades, big fans of the film have remained die-hard admirers all the way. If anything else, the movie has gained more admirers with each passing day.

Now here's the bad news: I'm not one of those millions of admirers. I am not a die-hard, 'may-the-force-be-with-you' fan of this legendary film, nor am I a fan of the two sequels which have followed it.

Never have been. Never will be.

The movies have never amused me. So you can imagine my surprise when I walked into the theater of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" expecting an over hyped mess, and emerged 2 hours and 12 minutes later, bemused by how much I had been entertained by it. How could this be? How was I so enthralled by something that I didn't even admire all those years ago?

The truth is, several aspects determine the success of "The Phantom Menace": visual magnificence, brilliant design, colorful characters, intriguing story--these factors alone create a movie that is more than just a prequel to the original "Star Wars" trilogy. It is a phenomenal success, both for non-fans of the series, and for George Lucas, who in the past has proven that he is not that capable of making a movie masterpiece. Here, he gives new meaning to the term 'experience comes with age.' The force is finally with him.

Like the other "Star Wars" films, "The Phantom Menace" begins with the same kind of introduction—text sliding from the bottom screen into the oblivion of space. The words tell of the planet Naboo, which has just become part of a bitter feud involving the rebellion of the notorious Trade Federation. They block access to the planet by stationing ships around the atmosphere. It isn't until two Jedis are sent as a last resort to bargain with the Federation, in hopes that this rebellion might end, and trade for the planet will resume. Until then, the residents of this small blue world will find no ways of living. Without the trade, they cannot possibly survive.

The two Jedis, who are sent onto one of the Federation's ships at the beginning of the movie, are Qui-Gon Jinn, and, of course, Obi-Wan Kenobi. As a Jedi and his apprentice, both Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor do a good job together, from the first scene up until the final confrontation with the hideous villain, Darth Maul. Here is a member of the Sith that looks as evil as he fights. Even though his screen time could have been greatly extended, it's hard to hate him, even though he is the bad guy.

Most "Star Wars" fans will recognize Anakin Skywalker, the young kid who will bring 'balance the force,' as the future Darth Vader, whose turn to the dark side is demonstrated in the last three episodes, and will be detailed extensively in the next installments of the series. Here is a young, vibrant lad who quickly captures the attention of Qui-Gon. When he is taken to the council, to see if he is worthy of being traineded a Jedi, the wise Yoda tells him that "fear is the path to the dark side," and that he senses "much fear" in the boy. Moments like these, of course, are signals to what will lie ahead in the story, and the most notable one comes towards the end, when Yoda says that "there are always two Sith. A master, and an apprentice." He then turns his head to the Senator Palpatine, who, as revealed in future movies, is actually Darth Sideous. That moment catches us off guard, as if there have not been any other "Star Wars" movies, and we do not realize what to expect later on.

How science fiction looks is always important to the substance, and "The Phantom Menace" has the best look in the genre yet. George Lucas announced recently that the movie had the most special effects shots of any movie in history, and that's evident. The queen of Naboo, Amidala, sustains costumes, hair styles, and makeup that not even cosmetics can support. I gather special effects had something to do with her style. On top of that, there's an animated character named Jar Jar Binks, a sleuth of sea anemones, a beautiful underwater city, a senate chamber filled with aliens and platforms to support them, and a vast metropolis for every planet visited, in which the skylines are occupied by structures that can only exist in the imagination. The movie's look is enough to sell it, even apart from the fascinating story.

Now how is all of this going to satisfy fans of the series? I dunno. Some people who have been in love with the story for all these years have already called the movie a "disappointment," either because it wasn't that 'well connected with the other three movies,' or, more appropriately, because they were part of this mass 'hype' that surrounded it. Even Lucas himself agrees that no movie can impress people when they get as hyped up as some did with "The Phantom Menace." I agree. No movie can own up to that hype. "Titanic" didn't even own up to that much hype, even though I call it the best movie of 1997.

In order for this movie to work best, people should approach it as a separate film, rather than just part of a planned saga. This is, after all, something that is expected to set up stories that continue later on in the series. It's what you call an 'introduction.' Only time will tell if this movie deserves to be connected to the last three episodes, or, for that matter, if the final three episodes deserve to be connected to this one.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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