When news of a new Star Wars trilogy surfaced in the mid-90's, a collective cheer came from Star Wars fans everywhere. With George Lucas deciding to focus the new trilogy on the Fall of the Old Republic and the Rise of the evil Darth Vader, everyone who had any interest in Star Wars must have been salivating. It would be unfair to expect this film to live up to those lofty expectations, but unfortunately, due to a few unfortunate creative decisions made by Master Lucas, we have a film that is under even reasonable expectations for a film of this stature. That isn't to say this film is a failure; it succeeds in many ways and does have a story to tell, but it does make a few missteps which have helped to contribute to these new films as being seen as a disappointment when compared to the original trilogy.
Let's start with what worked: the special effects. Endless scenes of CGI are old hat now, but in 1999, this film was nothing short of breathtaking. Lucas didn't settle for a small jump over films such as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, he went for the jugular and pulled out one of the most amazing visual feasts your eyes will ever behold in a film. It's visually overwhelming and on this level alone is worth watching. It doesn't always work and you can tell that particularly in the creature department that CGI has problems with creating 100% realistic life forms, but some of the vistas and environments are incredible. Forget the story, you'll have trouble keeping up with everything that happens within each shot!
The acting is not all that special, but the actors selected in this film, with the exception of Jake Lloyd, have a strong screen presence and carry the film well. Liam Neeson in particular is perfect as Jedi Master Qai Gon; he graces the screen with wisdom and grace. Ewan McGregor is likewise very good as Qai Gon's apprentice, Obi Wan Kenobi who will of course feature importantly in the latter films. Natalie Portman is okay but she has to perform through massive amounts of costume and make-up. And Ian McDiarmid makes an effective, but brief performance as Darth Sidious.
The music is once again supplied by John Williams and he doesn't disappoint. In addition to the usual fanfares, he supplies the “Duel of the Fates", a superb piece of music that when combined with the sequences of the Jedi Knights fighting Darth Maul produces an effect of awe.
The story is reasonable. The planet of Naboo is blockaded and eventually invaded by the Trade Federation who are being unwittingly manipulated by Darth Sidious, a dark lord of the Sith. The Queen of Naboo has to escape her planet, plead with the Galactic Senate to resolve the crisis, and then has to return to her planet and engage the fight back herself. Simultaneously, two Jedi Knights are sent to help resolve the dispute, and are drawn in to the conflict. When they escape Naboo with the Queen, they arrive on Tattooine, a backwater planet which happens to be home to young Anakin Skywalker, a boy with a special connection to the Force. The Jedi Knights bring Anakin to the Jedi Council with the hope to train him as a Jedi, and despite some initial rejections, Master Yoda finally capitulates and allows it, sending Anakin on his journey to realise his destiny.
Everything in the story provides a perfect prologue and setup for the story to follow. However, there are two massive missteps in the storytelling. The first mistake is making Anakin a nine-year old boy. Big mistake. Not only is the role too demanding for a kid, it also doesn't make much sense from the story-telling point of view. Anakin's story is meant to mirror Luke's from the original trilogy so it would have been better to make him a teenager, especially when we know he gets it on with the Queen of Naboo in later sequels. The second big mistake is the character of Jar Jar Binks, a clumsy alien providing comic relief. A lot of fans hated him; I didn't. However, I felt he took away valuable screen time from a more compelling character in the evil Darth Maul. Jar Jar appears very clearly as a toy-selling commercial, and this is where Lucas deserves a big slap on the wrist. The Darth Maul character would have made for stronger, more dramatic story telling and as a result of being relegated to nothing more than an extended cameo, his big confrontation with the Jedi, although spectacular, is void of drama and all too brief. These issues really do damage to the film and it's a shame because we all want Star Wars to be great, but it just goes to show that even the greatest filmmakers can make mistakes, despite their experience.
'The Phantom Menace’ is a visually breathtaking film that will entertain but you're likely to be disappointed if you hold it up next to the original Star Wars films.
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Alex DeMattia is the lead DVD reviewer at the film/DVD review web site